Quibbles and Bits

Value For Money?

Upgrading your Hi-Fi equipment can be both deeply satisfying, and deeply unsatisfactory, and both at the same time. Satisfying, because you have invested in something that you have either wanted for a long time, or have spent a long time researching and preparing for. Unsatisfying, because, so many times, after the thrill of the chase is over, and the new car smell has worn off, you often find that your new installation is somehow not much more musically satisfying than the previous system. Go on – admit it. We’ve all been there.

There are many reasons and causes for this, but I am going to focus on two of them that I see happening more frequently than any other – the loudspeaker fixation, and cable allergy. And, more so than with anything I have written so far for Copper, many of you are going to want to disagree fundamentally with me. But stick with me, and hear me out.

It is perhaps natural to focus on the loudspeaker as the ‘most important’ item in your playback chain. Very clearly, different loudspeakers have an immediately obvious different sound signature. Most people, whether card-carrying audiophile or civilian, would agree that they can hear differences in sound when you change from one loudspeaker to another. It is relatively easy for a retailer to hook a bunch of loudspeakers up to a switching box and have the customer switch back and forth between them in real time, with the differences between each model standing in stark contrast. It is not so easy to set this up for a bunch of amplifiers, even less so for a bunch of speaker cables. [I have actually heard it done with amplifiers – and the sonic differences were quite dramatic. It wasn’t all that different from switching between loudspeakers.]

However, differences in sound, and differences in musicality, are different things. It is an inconvenient truth that while anybody can readily appreciate the former, for most people it appears that the latter has to be learned. This is a bit of an uncomfortable assertion, in that it speaks to all sorts of connotations such as ‘golden ears’, ‘trained musician’, and other faintly elitist notions. But it is nonetheless generally the case, and is perhaps a subject for a column all of its own one of these days. It used to be that this learning process was something a good dealer would be able to train you to do. [This was something Ivor Tiefenbrun, the larger-than-life founder of Linn, drilled mercilessly into all of his dealers back in the day.] Too few dealerships these days seem to have mastered that art. In my case, I was shown the light by an infinitely patient salesman in a high-end London audio store during the course of a quiet Tuesday afternoon. What I learned that afternoon shaped the rest of my life.

Most people who are not audiophiles – and many who are – would tend, maybe at least in part subconsciously, to categorize audio equipment into two groups. Those that sound different, and those that don’t. For example, most will happily put loudspeakers into the ‘those that do’ category, and cables into ‘those that don’t’. Amplifiers are usually described by audiophiles as being among ‘those that do’, although real-world behavior tends to suggest that these same people actually treat them more as ‘those that don’t’. The easiest way to quantify this behavior is to consider the way people apportion their budgets in building an audio system. It makes sense that individuals would apportion the money they spend in the way that best reflects their own perception of where the most bang can be had for the buck. Most people – audiophile or otherwise – seem comfortable with the notion that a full 50% of the budget for an audio system should be set aside for the loudspeakers, a ‘those that do’ staple. It is my view that this is seldom the most satisfactory proportion, but there are others who notably disagree.

So, given that loudspeakers indisputably sound more immediately different than do amplifiers, how does an audiophile set about choosing the right pair? The best way to think about different loudspeaker systems is to recognize that each different model has a ‘character’ of sound that is immediately evident, and a ‘quality’ of sound that is not. The elements of ‘character’ are often expressed in terms of a loudspeaker being more or less suitable for one genre of music or another. And it’s true. Some speakers definitely make a better job of pop/rock than classical, and vice versa, and yet others come into their own with intimate jazz. Choosing a ‘character’ that suits you is for many people the major consideration when choosing loudspeakers … and who is to say that’s wrong. But it shouldn’t be to the exclusion of considerations of ‘quality’, the assessment of which is an acquired skill. Don’t go buying expensive audio equipment until you’ve acquired at least a rudimentary understanding of qualitative assessment. If I may make a suggestion, take some time out to go listen to a pair of Wilson’s entry-level (but still car-priced) Sabrinas. These loudspeakers are widely available, and are all about sound quality. The ‘character’ might or might not be to your taste (it’s not to mine, for example), but the ‘quality‘ is indisputable, and is there in spades for you to contemplate. And Wilson dealerships are usually very friendly places.

So the process of buying a system usually starts with choosing a loudspeaker that works well with the sort of program material you like to listen to. And that’s not a bad place to start … but don’t make it both the start and the end. By choosing your loudspeakers you have not broken the back of the task. The key to musical fulfillment lies in what comes next. You should plan to spend equal amounts of time first on loudspeakers, then on source components, then amplifiers, and finally cabling (preferably in that sequence), working with only one category at a time, and in each case following the same procedures and evaluation criteria. There is a solid argument for apportioning costs in the same way as well. Many people have a real problem spending as much on a suite of cables as they do on a pair of loudspeakers or amplifiers – and I can sympathize enormously with that – but if you are serious about buying your system based entirely on what you hear, then that is something to which you should be prepared to give equally serious consideration. I would at least start out with that as your initial objective, and only adjust according to where your auditioning takes you if one aspect or another is proving to be a roadblock.

I want to emphasize this point by focusing on cables during the second half of this column. No other audiophile topic is capable of arousing passions as inflamed as those aroused by cables. Try saying nice things on-line about a set of $20,000 cables and you will be flamed until Christmas. Nonetheless, the effects of cables – power cords, interconnects, USB cables, speaker cables, etc. – on an audio system never ceases to floor me. Like almost everybody else, I guess I have an inherent resistance to accepting the perceived value of (for example) a pair of speaker cables as being remotely comparable to the loudspeakers to which they are connected. But I must also disclose that my B&W 802 Diamond loudspeakers spent nearly a year in a system cabled with a suite of of Transparent Audio Reference cables which sell for more or less the same price as the speakers. And dammit, those Transparents really did make the Diamonds sing! For various reasons I never kept them, and I still wonder whether that was the right decision. The cables are the seasoning on a well-matched system. Get the cables right and the timing and imaging all snap into a clear focus and the sound cleans up quite dramatically. It’s been my experience that the higher up the quality ladder you go in the world of high-end audio, the more important it becomes to get the cables (and other tweaks like furniture and suspension systems) correct.

It is pretty clear that cables incite such strong reactions, is because they offend most people’s sense of value-for-money. Why is that? I think it’s because, since the dawn of the electronic age, anything electronic you bought which needed a cable to function would include a free cable in the box. Shipping a product without a power cord – like shipping a printer without a USB cable – really irks customers who expect these things to be included in the package. I remember the days when every amplifier was shipped with at least one cheap set of general purpose RCA interconnect cables (and a fixed power cord). Consumers therefore have been conditioned to ascribe negligible value to them. What value do you attach to the power cord that came free with your $5,000 amplifier? Not much, I imagine. So how can an after-market power cord be worth $300? Or $1,000? Or even $10,000 for that matter? It is just too easy to dismiss it all as snake oil.

Let’s look at a nice, new, shiny, $10,000 power amplifier. Say something nice about it in a high-end audio forum, and while a few people can be counted upon to be deeply offended by the mere existence of such a product at such a price point, it will mostly be accepted and discussed on its own terms. So I guess we have come to accept that the notion of value-for-money does indeed extend to the $10,000 amplifier. OK, so you go to your nice local dealer and cough up $10,000 for a nice shiny new amplifier.   It might surprise you to learn that manufacturer buys all the parts he needs to make that amplifier for less than $2,000. Of that $2,000 in parts, less than $1,000 would be accounted for by resistors, capacitors, transistors, ICs, circuit boards, and the like. The rest goes into the (surprisingly expensive) chassis, the power transformer, the back panel (also remarkably expensive), and the shipping container. Yes indeed, if you knew what you were doing you could build your own $10,000 amplifier in an ugly box for under $1,000.

Now let’s look at an interconnect cable. A cable comprises some wire with a connector at each end. Doesn’t sound like much, does it? If I wanted to make a better-sounding cable, I’d start off by designing a better-sounding wire. Let’s assume that is an easy thing to do (which it most assuredly is not). I’d need to get someone to manufacture my nice new wire, because, like designing my own transistor, it’s not something I can knock together in my basement. I’d need to go to a specialist cable-manufacturing company, of which there are a few out there. These companies do not exist to serve the audio industry. The specialty audio market is just too small to pique their interest. But they’d be happy to manufacture my wire, provided I wanted a couple of miles of it. So alternatively, instead of designing my own special wire, I could just grab their catalog and select an existing wire design whose specs are close enough to what I want.

This was the approach we took to make BitPerfect’s Balanced Interconnect design (now discontinued). The stock wire we specified was priced at about $10 a foot [an even better one was available at $20 a foot!], and I needed four runs of wire per pair of interconnects. A one-meter pair of interconnects would therefore consume about $150 worth of wire alone. Four modestly high quality Neutrik XLR connectors are another $10 each. When you add up everything else that goes into them, one set of one-meter cables costs me well over $200 in parts cost alone. These must sell direct for at least $500 if I am going to make enough profit on them to justify all the development effort. That price will more than double if I am to sell them in a High Street store. Companies who are serious about the cable business will devote considerably more sophisticated design intelligence to their product line than we did at BitPerfect, and their product costs must reflect that.

The people who make after-market cable accessories are not all snake-oil salesmen, even if one or two of them are. They are for the most part highly dedicated individuals and organizations. They make these products because, goddammit, they DO sound better. So much so that a $5,000 amplifier with a $1,000 power cord will almost always sound notably better than a $6,000 amplifier with a stock power cord (all else being equal). A power cord, interconnect cable, loudspeaker cable, or USB cable which is offered for sale at a four-figure – or even a five-figure – price point, may well represent just as good of a deal in value-for-money terms as an equivalent-priced amplifier or loudspeaker, depending on the system into which it is inserted.

If you can get your head around the perceived value-for-money blockage and audition cables the exact same way you auditioned your loudspeakers, source components, and amplifiers, and make the effort to learn how to listen for and recognize the specific contributions cables make to overall system performance, you will be well on your way to buying yourself a system that will deliver a fully satisfying listening experience for a considerable time to come.