My tips for shopping for and auditioning Gear

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I’m no expert and don’t know everything, but just from my experience and what I have learned over the years, I’d like to share info about shopping for and auditioning audio gear.

First, I’d like to give my take on what I have seen happening through the years regarding what gear we generally hear about or perhaps what gear we DO NOT hear about much. I’m not talking about what one can find on the shelves of the big box stores. I’m talking about gear that provides an obvious improvement in sound quality which does indeed include “high-end’ or “audiophile” gear, but it is not “always” exclusively that.

Just as with cars and watches and lots of other things, we mostly hear or read about the ultimate uber-expensive stuff, you know Ferrari, Lamborghini, Mercedes Benz, Rolex, etc. Of course, in those things we also hear about the Hondas, Toyotas, etc often too. However, in the audio world we rarely hear or read about fine audio gear that is more affordable because it is rarely even mentioned. Most people don’t know about it, they only know about the $30k amps and $100k speakers, etc. because that is what is mostly reported and talked about.
I used to think there was no hope in improving the sound quality with good gear because it was all the same price as a sports car or even a house in some cases. Then I started looking hard and found that fairly recently some manufactures of the uber-expensive high-end gear have started offering equal quality gear at more obtainable prices, piece by piece as well.
I don’t think the industry or “hobby” if you will, can survive if all there is are walls blocking access to good quality gear to most folks. Those of the deep pocket persuasion are not enough in number to keep all the makes alive very long. Each year the hobby realizes more and more that we need new people coming in to carry it forward.

What makes me cringe every time I hear it or witness it is when folks of average or small means are told by some deep-pocketed audiophiles and even some reviewers, that they can’t get into the audio world or should not even try to improve their sound system because they can’t afford a $30k amp or $60k turntable, etc. Worse yet, these folks who already have a system that they most likely worked hard to get in the first place are told their system is not good because it doesn’t have a certain brand or model of pieces or that they plain did not spend enough in the opinion of whoever.

There is a big assumption in the audio hobby that you get a great deal better gear the more you spend no matter what. It’s the “no matter what” phrase that sends it off the rails economically speaking at least. Those folks with that assumption are the ones who are willing to spend $10k more for less than 1% or an amount of improvement that is only either perceived or measurable by precision measuring equipment in ideal conditions, but not able to be heard.
There is a concept called “Diminishing Returns” which one should keep in mind. Basically, it states that at a certain point (a demarcation line, if you will) your noticeable improvement tapers off rather quickly before it is not notable anymore compared to what the price is. Think of it as a bell curve. Product X at price point A is a fabulous value in that you are paying much less for something that performs well above it. As you go up in price you should be getting better quality parts and/or more abilities, etc. At a certain point you reach a plateau or maximum saturation where you literally get what you pay for and it’s a small window. From there the more one spends the less the piece improves or just stays the same with the only thing changing being cosmetics. More bling = higher price. Sometimes it’s only bragging rights! In other words it’s like a stock, you pay so much to buy it and it goes up for a while and then it starts to lose money until it is worth less than your initial price you paid, it’s what is known as return on investment (ROI). Ultimately, the idea is to keep things at either positive returns or at least even.

The point is that there is plenty of gear that is “affordable” that is still considered “high-end” or “fine audio” that performs just as nice or improves the sound quality as does it’s bigger cousin. There will always be those that can afford to buy the top of the top at any price and I don’t begrudge them that at all. They have the means, let them use it as they see fit. The only time it becomes a bad thing  is when it is used to bully or put down others whom do not have the same means, but would like to upgrade their system.

The bottom line to all this is the most important aspect: The final judge are your ears and budget and nobody else’s! If you like it and are happy, then that is it, end of story. One can build an extremely nice system that would be considered at least entry-level “high-end”or better for well south of $2500 if need be. If others find it inconceivable that you could be happy with say your $1500 system or $500 piece or what have you and that it is giving you the desire to play music and listen and enjoy, then it is they whom are not happy with their system at any cost.

Having said all that, I’ll now move to the second part of describing my take on the active aspects of shopping for and auditioning gear: