Over the years I’ve reviewed a lot of audio gear. Some of it has been stratospherically expensive, while other components have been quite inexpensive. But regardless of the item’s price, in each product category I try to use the same yardstick for measuring their sonic quality and user-friendliness. And while I’m not a big fan of generalizations when it comes to audio, those times when I was left with “What were they thinking?” more often been with expensive rather than budget-priced gear.
But during the past couple of weeks I’ve been thinking about whether I really do use the same yardsticks regardless of price and I’ve been forced to conclude that I don’t, and I seriously doubt than anyone else does either. For me it all depends on the type of product. With some kinds of gear there is simply no comparison between a $250 component and a $2,500 or $25,000 unit…
Turntables and loudspeakers are two types of components where different price categories do result in different levels of performance, ergonomics, and style. This is because turntables and loudspeakers rely on mechanical processes that can be improved using specialized materials and construction techniques that cost more to implement and often do not benefit from economies of scale or manufacturing techniques. There is simply no way an $300 USB turntable is sonically competitive with even an “entry level” high-performance $1500 turntable. And while there are some high-value loudspeakers from Elac, Pioneer, DALI, and others that deliver excellent sound, none are sonically competitive with cost-no-object designs from Magico, YG, or Wilson Audio.
And what kinds of gear do have a more level sonic and ergonomic playing field when compared across price-lines? That would be gear that is primarily electronic rather than mechanical. Except for a very few manufacturers who build their own ladder DACs from scratch, most DAC manufacturers use one of several currently-available DAC chip options. And while more expensive DACs often employ multiple DAC chips, more expensive power-supply schemes, and more refined analog output stages, they are still using most of the same basic and usually mass-produced parts. Again, I’m not inferring there aren’t sonic differences between a $99 USB DAC and a $30,000 DAC, but when compared to a mechanical device, such as a turntable, the differences are less obviously audible and certainly less drastic. I’ve heard and used DACs that cost less than $300 that I could happily live with – the same can’t be said for turntables.
I try to use the same sonic standards for all power amplifiers and preamplifiers – how transparent are they and how much noise do they add to the signal? I also try to apply these same metrics whether the component is $500 or $50,000. In general, higher-priced electronics tend to have lower amounts of noise which translates into better transparency and larger, more three-dimensional soundstages. But there are always exceptions. And once more I’ve reviewed and used entry-level high-performance electronics that easily qualified as reference-level.
Sonically, there will always be one sonic gold standard – how little does a component alter the sound that passes through it? But even this metric has wiggle-room. What about a component (or technology) that seems to improve the basic fidelity of the program material that passes through it? Obviously MQA and the PS Audio DSD DACs have forced contemplative audiophiles to rethink what constitutes ultimate fidelity and transparency to the original source.
But to loop back to the original question as to whether all gear should be judged by the same sonic yardsticks, my response would still be, “Yes, fidelity rather than price will always be the ultimate sonic yardstick. And we should try to apply that same yardstick to all audio devices, regardless of their price.”