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The Fuzzy Line Between Price and Cost

Paul Wilson looks at the connection between price and cost…

AR-Price 1.jpgResearch. Reading reviews. Talking with dealers. Demoing equipment. Writing a check. Does this sound familiar? This is but one likely path in selecting an audio system. Audiophiles put a lot of effort into making sure that all their components blend harmoniously together for optimal sonic results.

What happens if we become unhappy with some part of our system?

At some point in our audio journey we inevitably think about upgrading something. Maybe the old component is a little past it’s prime and it’s time for a new model. Or maybe you just want to make things sound better.

Making the upgrade decision is in many ways like starting over- only in this case with one component. And just as inevitably, we ask one simple question- if I spend “this” much more for the new component will the improvement in sound equal the cost? Sometimes, when cost and performance are considered as one, this is a really hard question to answer and the resultant expense difficult to justify.

One concept bandied about is the law of diminishing returns. This is the theory that at some point it is useless to spend more because the extra expense is not justified with proportional improvements. For most things I totally agree. With audiophile music reproduction I’m just not so sure. Personally, I have taken a different, albeit unusual approach. I decided some time ago to separate the cost aspect of components from the performance capability.

AR-Price 2.jpgIn my audio journey over the last three years I have been through quite a few upgrades. In just DAC’s alone I have had four- starting with the Peachtree Audio DacIt and finishing with the remarkable Esoteric D02. I’ve had similar progressions with other components as well.

I’ve asked myself that question many times. If I replace this component and spend “X” dollars more for the new version, will the sound improvement be worth it? Part of the reason I went through four DAC”s is that the answer to the question, unfortunately after the fact, kept coming up no.

My upgrade policy is now quite simple. I first decide if the new component is good enough sonically. I make absolutely sure my choice is the one I want and will be happy with for a long time. If I don’t like anything about the performance, regardless of the cost, I move on to something else. Once I decide on a component, I then, only then, consider price. If I have the funds available and won’t miss it, I pull the trigger. Once done, I enjoy the new and improved sound and forget about the cost.

In no way whatsoever am I advocating of spending huge sums of money. This is not about spending hundreds of thousands of dollars on a system or even part of a system. It is all about a percentage of disposable income.

AR-Price 4.jpgSuppose you had a set of interconnects whose cost was $50.00 and you wanted to upgrade them. After looking at several different brands you picked out one that was $250.00. One way to proceed is do the new ones justify the $250.00 against improved sound? Another is to ask yourself two questions- do I really like the performance of the new cable? And can I afford the $250.00?

I see the first option as one fraught with uncertainty. But it is so easy to use that as the way in which new things are selected. The law of diminishing returns comes in glaring focus. Is the new cable worth $250.00? The answer is invariably difficult.

If you separate the two and make the decision as two parts then I believe things become much easier. With the current one my music sounds like “this.” When I demo’d the new one, it sounds much better. Only one question requires an answer- is this the one I want? When that decision has been satisfied the decision is then about cost. Do I have and do I want to spend the money? Answering “no” to either question means the product is not the right one.

This applies to an upgrade of a $50.00 interconnect to a $250.00 one just as it does going from a $500.00 component to a $25,000.00 one. It really boils down to disposable income.

Regardless how we may decide on an upgrade it is, at the absolute least, a difficult decision to make. So many options are available and with greater flexibility come more questions and the decision invariably harder. One thing is for sure, whether sonic improvement is tied to cost or not, upgrading equipment is probably the most fun and equally exasperating part of high-end audio. And the one where the lines are most blurred.

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