Winding up or having wound up my lists of what I consider affordable high-end audio gear, I will be focusing more on writing about music, album reviews from my own library, news, tips, maintenance and such (although I may have already covered the maintenance and tips in detail ad nauseam). It got me to thinking though……
Are the advances in audio gear that far ahead?
This article was inspired by a recent article I read about CD players that essentially covered what I wrote here, but with a slightly different take. I expanded on it giving real life examples. It was also inspired by the recent shift in audio gear manufacturing again, leaving making more affordable high-end gear behind and repeating the old same problem of trying to survive catering only to the 1% who can afford six figure gear and systems. (This will only lead to seeing more makes close up shop as it always does. Those manufactures that understand how to run their businesses, provide people with good quality product across the whole budget spectrum, made “in-house” and good customer service will do just fine and we know who they are).
If I had a dime for every time some “audiophile” told me that the audio equipment today, high-end or otherwise, is vastly better in performance and reliability than the gear of old, I would be able to buy the most expensive system known by now (though that is not my desire).
The truth is that we would likely live happily ever after with a system from 50 or 60 years ago. I have such a system: Pioneer PL530A TT, DCM Timeframe TF-600 speakers driven by a Marantz 2238b receiver (currently) and a Logitech Squeezebox Touch and Schiit Audio Magni headphone amp thrown in for measure. I also have a Yamaha CR2020 and a Sansui 8080db receiver that I swap in and out on occasion. (Why do I do that? They each have a different native sound signature). I did have an early 80s CD player (NEC) in that system, but it died two months ago.
I also have a modern “reference system” in progress. It has taken about 5 years to build so far, but I may be getting close to completion. I estimate I may be less than a year away.
I am not saying there have not been improvements in audio gear, but the main improvements made have not necessarily been in the area of musical enjoyment and not even in reliability, but rather in function.
There have been improvements in noiselessness and timbral neutrality without doubt. In fact, if you swing a cat, it will land on an amplifier or source that is both those things. (No cats were harmed in that expression). However, in the area of musicality, not a whole lot has changed. This is because, “musicality” is not just based on brand, build and cost alone. It is based on proper matching of gear (especially speakers to amp) and setup, not to mention one’s own ears. One can spend all day matching up the most expensive audio gear and still have it sound awful without proper setup. Too many times have I heard the claims of high-end gear manufactures stating that their gear is the magic bullet. There is no such thing.
I’ll tell you a true story here: I was at a big audio show where they showcase high-end gear last year (2016). I was in casual conversation with one of the exhibitors showing $10k to $14k amplifiers. (I forget the brand). We were just shooting the breeze and got on the subject of the old days of audio. I casually mentioned that I have a Sansui 8080db and it turned out that this guy was very familiar with it and said to me, “to get that same great sound today, you would need to spend a minimum of $10k on an amp.” He then asked me if my Sansui still worked (it does obviously) and then said, “Well, then you won’t need to look at any of my amps.” What he was saying as he continued, was that I should hold on to that Sansui of mine and spend the money to get it serviced should the need arise. He also mentioned that they don’t build reliable audio gear like they used to. This was a modern manufacture of high-end amps (offering a 5 year warranty if I recall) telling me this!
The point was that in today’s manufacturing of audio gear, be it mid-range or high-end, there lies a question of serviceability. The point of view being that products whose makers can’t or won’t repair the units more than 5 to 10 years after date of manufacture are junk. It is not necessarily in how they are built, but the fact that many manufactures do not buy the parts or components most subject to obsolescence in sufficient quantities to keep those units playing for many years to come. The problem is even larger with mid-range products and sadly results in many manufactures of note also leaving customer support on the same scrap heap.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that all the modern high-end gear out there is junk at all. There are downsides to older gear as well. It is noisier than today’s gear, not too many people work on the stuff, so it is hard to find repair people for it and now days the gear itself is very hard to come by and at a premium if you do. However, I will say that today’s gear is equally as hard to get repaired after 6 to 10 years from manufacture date. Yesterday’s gear was built on basic electronics and built by hand in many cases. Today’s gear consists of IC chips, computer circuits, complex topography, etc. making it more difficult to work on.
The point to all this chatter is a two-edge sword. Sadly, that the more reliable gear of today cost too much in many cases. For example, there is the Bryston BCD-3 CD player as mentioned in the article. Bryston is one of those manufactures that purchase sufficient quantities of parts and components to keep their units going for many years and they even have their own US-based service facility as opposed to farming out repair work. Luxman for another such example, manufactures their own transports for their CD players. The problem for most of us though is that a CD player from any such makers will cost you over $3000! Personally, even with 1000 CDs in my library, I cannot find any justification to spend that amount of money on a source that is essentially a one-trick pony and no different in functionality and not much different in performance and build at a certain point from lower-priced players (not including the cheapest ones found at Walmart or what have you). There is and should be an appreciation for cost of manufacturing and decent wages for those who do the work and an allowance for profit, but let’s not get crazy.
If you already have a “vintage” amp or what have you and enjoy it and can find a place or someone qualified to work on it, then I advise you to keep it. What do you do if you do not have such things or are looking to replace a piece or something? Vote with your dollars. Before you buy any audio gear (especially if it is expensive to you), factor in things such as warranty, customer service reputation, your own needs, etc. Then call the manufacture, yes, I said “call the manufacture” and ask them what measures they take to guarantee future supplies of replacements for parts that are subject to mechanical wear, thermal stress or obsolescence (this means pretty much everything, transports in the case of CD players, motors, output transistors, modules, integrated circuits, etc.). I did this move backwards with my beloved Paradigm Studio 100 v5 speakers that reside in my main in progress reference system. While they are one of the best speakers I have ever heard in my opinion and purchased new, I did not know that they would be discontinued 2 years later. (They were discontinued for purely marketing based reasons, stupid move as usual). Paradigm speakers are made in-house in Canada as are all the parts as well, including the cabinets (a good thing indeed). When I heard they were being discontinued, I ran to the phone and called Paradigm very worried! In talking with one of the engineers there, I was informed that they make all the parts for their speakers and they have also made enough parts stock to service or provide to those consumers who have the older or discontinued models for years to come. He also admitted to me that many who work there think the Studio line is/was their best speaker overall and many have a pair at home that they will never give up. Had I called before purchase (after much research and auditioning), I could have saved that feeling of dreadful worry. Lesson learned inexpensively thank goodness.
My advice would be that I would approach with caution or not approach at all, any manufactures who have abandoned their expensive gear, but are still in profitable business and still make good sounding gear. Think about it, if they screwed their high-roller customers once, you can bet they will do it again as many times as they can get away with.