Last month, in "Establishing Benchmarks, Part One: Systems," I introduced my current project which is: to aquaint you with several high-end audio systems, each of which, in my opinion, sets a benchmark for performance at its price. I’ll roll out the first system in the next couple of months, but before then I need to tackle a few issues. And if you’re going to find value in my advice, I'll make some assumptions that you’d probably like to share.
The price points are first. The easy way out was to assemble systems at low, middle, and high prices, the cost of each step up perhaps twice that of the one below. I liked that idea, but I’m not convinced it’s the best way to proceed. If I choose a $3000 system as the entry-level setup, for instance, would $6000 and $12,000 be the best prices for the mid- and high-priced systems? No, because there’s not enough room between those prices to accurately represent the vast array of components audiophiles have to choose from.
After giving this some serious thought, here’s what I’ve come up with, and why:
Over the next few of months I’ll be conducting an audio experiment far removed from The World’s Best Audio System 2009. That event, widely publicized and read about, was audiophile fantasy taken to the extreme -- and for an audio nut like me, there is nothing more fun. But it wasn’t all that relevant to the real world. No one I know could afford the system I wrote about. I couldn’t afford it. Dang it.
Pondering this recently, I got to thinking about what I could do that would keep audio reviewing exciting for me while also being useful and interesting to the majority of our readership. I concluded that no single review or series of reviews could paint the big picture that audiophiles sometimes ask reviewers to come up with.
Then it hit me. What a reviewer needs in order to have a comprehensive command of the audio landscape is a solid set of system benchmarks. The word benchmark is defined by Dictionary.com as “a standard of excellence, achievement, etc., against which similar things must be measured or judged.” Wouldn’t it be helpful to spell out just what, specifically, audiophiles should expect to get for their money at different price points? Wouldn’t that be a useful guide in buying and auditioning components? “Well, reviewers do have references, right?” I hear you ask. Yes, but those references are typically limited to the narrow confines of a certain price point. What I have in mind is something more comprehensive and more widely applicable.
"You have to listen to it."
No truer words were ever spoken by or to an audiophile. The listening experience is the heart of our pastime -- music is the soul.
But we don’t all start our searches for great audio products with a listening experience. It would be great if we could, but for obvious reasons, most audiophiles don’t have easy access to all the products they’d like to audition on their quest for the perfect listening experience. Entities like the SoundStage! Network of publications exist to help you on that quest. But manufacturers, too, have websites, and, like most of you, I enjoy perusing the information they present -- in my case, looking for my next review subject.
I was engaged in just such an exercise when I found what I think is an eye-opening comparison, on paper: two loudspeakers -- the B&W 803 Diamond and the Tidal Contriva Diacera SE -- each of which looks extremely promising, judging from the specifications and descriptions provided by their manufacturers.
The similarities between these speakers are striking. Both are ported, three-way, floorstanding designs with dynamic drive-units (the Tidal has four drivers, the B&W five). Both come standard in a glossy piano-black finish, with optional real-wood veneers. Both cabinets are built primarily of medium-density fiberboard (MDF), though Tidal says theirs is a high-pressure variant of this ubiquitous wood-based material. The B&W weighs 90 pounds and is internally braced with the company’s trademarked Matrix system. The Tidal weighs more than twice as much -- about 200 pounds -- a difference no doubt due in large part to its more substantial cabinet with thicker side walls and front baffle and its slightly greater size: 51"H x 11"W x 19"D vs. the B&W’s 45.8"H x 12"W x 18"D.
How many times have you heard a reviewer state something to this effect: "It should sound better, given the price"? I know I’ve said it, and I know that, at one time or another, I’ve seen something like it from most of our reviewers. And I’ve read it in other magazines, not just those covering audio equipment.
In a perfect world, the more expensive component always would sound better. But here in the real world, we know that too many variables are in play for us to be able to assume that higher price automatically means better sound.
The first of these variables are economies of scale: Large manufacturers have more buying and manufacturing power than smaller companies, a fact that was made abundantly clear to me when I walked through the Paradigm factory. The company makes a gazillion pairs of Atom loudspeakers a month, which means that an Atom’s constituent parts can be produced by Paradigm in huge numbers. This is not a situation in which one skilled worker is being paid a premium to build one box at a time. It’s one huge machine producing box after box for hours, days, weeks on end. Such efficiencies translate into a lower unit price. If a smaller company had to build an Atom of equal quality, it might cost them twice as much to do it, and they’d have to pass on that cost to the customer -- which challenges the assumption that a higher price buys a better component.
Some variables are less obvious.
Measurements don’t tell us everything. My ears are more accurate. They don’t measure the right things. They don’t equate with how I hear music. I just don’t care.
Some audiophiles don’t like measurements. I think that many are afraid of them. I’m going to tell you why.
One reason is that most audiophiles, and many reviewers, don’t understand measurements. They haven’t bothered to learn how to interpret them, or what makes them important, or which ones most reliably indicate perceived sound quality. It takes a commitment of time to seek out explanations, ask questions, and learn how to correlate the measurements with what you hear when listening to your favorite music in your room. Gaining that basic understanding can sometimes mean hard work. For the math-averse, it can even be painful.
This past week, SoundStage! Network writer Randall Smith moved into a new house with his fiancée, Amy. This was a special event in his life, almost as much because he was finally going to have a dedicated listening room as because he was setting up housekeeping with his bride-to-be. Randall had been pining for a new room for some time, and now, finally, his dream was becoming a reality.
But moving into a new room poses a multitude of problems for a reviewer. First, we had to clear Randall’s reviewing schedule. With the room being the single greatest determinant of an audio system’s sound quality, setting that variable is critical to the accuracy of Randall’s future reviews. Neither he nor I wanted a review product entering this new acoustic environment midstream. What we did want was for Randall’s system to be back up and running as quickly as possible, and with the full measure of its sound-quality properties firmly entrenched in our minds. We began with some very basic steps.
Our first order of business was to set up Randall’s system in the new room. This involved positioning the gear so as to maximize the efficiency of routing cables and ease the swapping-out of components. It was a straightforward task; Randall’s system is anchored by a single-chassis Simaudio Moon Evolution 600i integrated amplifier. His Bel Canto DAC3 D/A converter is extremely compact, and his home-theater functionality is handled by an Integra DTR-80.1 A/V receiver instead of separates. A Sony PlayStation3 is his primary HT source, while an Apple MacBook Pro laptop computer stores and plays his audio files. Randall’s system is tethered together with Analysis Plus cables, and his Pioneer Kuro television was mounted on a bracket almost flat against the front wall.
There’s no shortage of opinions in the world -- opinions about everything. And with the Internet literally everywhere, there’s no shortage of platforms through which to disseminate them. Lately, I’ve read online debates on a number of subjects related to high-end audio publishing, and I’d like to put in my own two cents, based on my experience in the biz.
Confirmed: Long-term loans affect reviewer recommendations. How can they not? If a reviewer has a component on long-term loan, then he or she obviously likes the component. You could argue that the fact that the reviewer likes it enough to use it is itself a kind of endorsement. But does the reviewer like it enough to buy it outright, with her or his own money? Is accepting the free use of a product proof that the reviewer would choose that same product if it had to be paid for? Not to me, but we’ll never know. That oft-used argument against living together before marriage applies here: Why buy the cow when you can get the milk for free? I’ve said in the past that long-term loans are advertisements for the manufacturer, not necessarily endorsements by the reviewer.
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