October 1, 2008
If youre an editor of a high-end-audio publication such as Ultra Audio, one of the things you find yourself doing a lot of is asking questions about products: "Is Model A available?" "Can we get one for review?" "Would this work in this system?" As mundane as such questions seem, they sometimes elicit unexpected answers from the manufacturers of this fascinating equipment. That happened to me recently, and it was a pleasant surprise.
During an exchange of e-mails with the head honcho of a well-established audio company about their flagship power amplifier, he amazed me by coming right and saying that, for all intents and purposes, the second from the top of his companys line sounded better than their flagship. If you were shopping for a power amp from this company (Ill reveal the company and the products at a later date; a review is in the works), you could buy a better-sounding product by buying a model costing $10,000 less than their top design. I found his answer refreshing; so many companies seem to hew to the party line that their most expensive product must be, by far, the best -- even when the hubbub in the audiophile community says differently.
This same fellow followed up his proclamation about his power amps with another whopper: the digital input section of his firms new surround-sound processor is so good that it eclipses their newest audiophile preamplifier and CD player -- a combination that would cost far more. This guy had just recommended a system comprising two of his companys components -- an amp and a surround processor -- instead of three, at a great savings to the buyer. Now were getting somewhere.
Are such counterintuitive ratios of price to performance as rare as it seems they should be? Somehow, I dont think so. I dont doubt that some lower-priced models out there outperform more expensive products, even within a single companys line -- perhaps not most, but you can bet that it happens regularly. The fact is that, sometimes, an expensive product is designed to fill a price niche -- that high price is what someone wants to pay, even if theres no real benefit in performance. As the audiophile press, its our job to not accept as natural and right the given price hierarchy, and, when we discover such disparities, to reveal them.
I recently found that a sub-$6000 combination of Apple MacBook laptop and Weiss Minerva FireWire DAC sounded better than any of the +$7000 CD players Ive heard in my system. Last year I had the revelation that the combo of Paradigm Signature S6 loudspeaker and JL Audio Fathom f113 subwoofer eclipsed the performance of many of the recent speakers Id heard, some of which cost thousands more. Many good reviewers out there are making similar price/performance discoveries, and that helps the industry to move forward, and the consumer to get the most for his or her audio buck.
Some online message boards are also good sources of such information. If youre in the market for a system upgrade, scan the boards at www.audioasylum.com, www.audiogon.com, and www.avsforum.com -- you might happen on some good information (but read and tread carefully; theres also a lot of misinformation on these boards). If you dig deep enough, you might get the performance you want for less money than you expect or want to spend.
My last piece of advice is to call the company whose products youre interested in and put them on the spot. Sometimes, the most expensive product might indeed be the best, but sometimes it might not be. And sometimes the guy on the other end of the line might surprise you by saying, "Save some money and buy this. It sounds better, and its way less expensive."
I love this hobby.
. . . Jeff Fritz
Ultra Audio is part of the SoundStage! Network.