Audio bling

July 29, 2017
 by Paul McGowan

There are three primary means of judging audio equipment: reviews/recommendations, auditioning, and the quality of the casework and connector jewelry. Often, it’s all three.

Let’s imagine we read a positive review—or our dealer, friend or trusted colleague, recommends something to us. We’re excited. We get the new piece of kit, and what’s the first thing we do? Ogle over the build quality. How heavy is it? What’s the fit and finish? Quality connectors?

This is absolutely normal. I do it. You likely do as well. Aside from test reports and the product’s reputation, how else might we evaluate a piece of gear? If the designers put enough love and care into the unit’s guts, isn’t it likely to be echoed in the chassis build quality?

Not necessarily. If you’ve been in this industry for as many decades as I have, you’ve run into the extremes. Beautifully crafted chassis sculptures that sound…meh. And the opposite. Gorgeous sounding products in simple unadorned boxes.

Perfect products combine both beauty and sonic excellence within their budgetary constraints—one area isn’t sacrificed to feed the other.

The best products are rare, but we know them when we find them.

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23 comments on “Audio bling”

  1. I would add that in the days when audiophiles did place their stereo components in cupboards or deep book shelves the most important criterion was the usability and styling of the front plate/control panel. And second: for an existing book shelf or cupboard the hight of the unit was most crucial fitting into the free space and still allowed the heat to escape. The design of the rest of the components cabinet was not important at all.

  2. I can remember being 14 and spending hours looking at brochures. At that age, the more knobs, buttons, and switches, the better.
    Then reading Stereo Review and High Fidelity, the specs. At 15 I got my first stereo, came with a receiver, speakers, and a BSR Mini changer. Before I was 16, I had replaced the BSR with a Garrad SL 65, after spending many hours pouring over Olson catalog. I got my driver’s license at 16, and started going to the two stereo stores I was aware of, but were too far away to ride my bike. Before 17, I had a Kenwood Integrated amp and a pair of large Advents, my first real adult stereo.
    We never stuck our gear in cabinets, so the case mattered. At 18 I bought a crown IC150 preamp, with the optional wood cabinet, and a D150 amp, with optional faceplate. By the time I sold the preamp, the cabinet was more valuable than the preamp. Well it had quit working, but by then everyone knew they were horrible sounding, but great specs. Each Crown component came with it’s own measurements.
    I think now, for me the cabinet and faceplate are secondary to SQ, but looking sharp does give you a pride of ownership. I still love the look of my Magnum Dynalab Etude tuner with the three meters. And while my PSA Lambda was a good looking transport, the PWT, looks better. More streamlined, more modern, just looking at it says quality. My CT5 is a little flashy, but quite beautiful. So, yes appearance does matter.
    If you watch the TV show “Elementary” in some episodes you can spot the Mac gear. Probably the most recognisable of any manufacturer, and one of the most beautiful. I never saw the show but I remember reading that a Sota Sapphire was shown in the “Sopranos” and that sales went up because of it.

  3. I bought a Crown (Amcron) IC150 preamp and a D150 amp, both with the optional wood cabinet, when I was about 25 (about 100 years ago).
    The cabinets didn’t add anything to SQ of course, but they were very beautiful (IMO).
    Later I changed to Bryston and nowadays I am stuck with PS Audio and Levinson. No complaints from me.
    I’ve watched some episodes of “Elementary” and could see MacIntosh on a regular basis on the screen.
    And although I’m not a big fan of (vu-)meters, I’ll make an exception for Mac.
    After all, what is a Mac without their blue watt meters (a cafe without beer..?).
    So yes, appearance does matter to me, although SQ is more important of course.

  4. SQ means the most to me. I do have a looks preference, but is very broad. I like a simple, more old school look for equipment. I’m not into the digital looking front end with an adjustable brightness LED, stating the input mode (that I can custom name) and that my volume is -17 or whatever. One knob tells me input, the volume knob is about 10 to 12 o’clock. My favorite looking equipment is tube gear like Primaluna or Mystère.

  5. My first stereo was a SEARS all in one with speakers that separated from the turntable up to 10′. I was 14. I really did not get into hi-end until a friend of mine rewarded himself after graduating college bought a Yamaha stereo receiver, JBL 36 speakers and a Thorens turntable. I was stunned, amazed and admittedly a tad jealous. The system sounded awesome and we had that system cranked for the maximum volume which drove the neighborhood crazy.
    I really forget after all of these years just when I started reading magazines about speakers, receivers and turntables but I was always captivated by the style. Style is what attracted me first with audio, just like a woman . My first upgrade from a sounddesign receiver was a Yamaha.
    The Mrs and I just had our first child and money was a little…lot…tight. However I had magic in my pocket. I put $25.00 down and paid monthly with no fees if I paid it off in 6months. The wife was non to happy. At the time I was just thinking of myself and thought she was ridiculous b/c I knew I would have it paid for in the time frame allowed without any interest, but that was not the point with my wife who was more concerned about paying off others more important bills first.
    After realizing my BIG mistake which took a very long….shamefully I admit YEARS.
    I made a promise that I would never do that again and have kept that promise for 40 years.
    Over the years the Mrs relented knowing the hobby I LOVE and has enjoyed most of what I have accomplished.
    I must admit that without her help (ideas as well as $$) I would not have IMO a great system. As we know it never ends and my wife has conceded that fact.
    Getting back on topic…I went from silver over the years to ALL BLACK except for my Bob Latino mono blocks and my Grace Design m920…As for speakers they are Cherry wood.

    Love most of your threads Paul….they make me think back to when times were more simple even with audio.

  6. Does anyone remember the Marantz receiver from back in the late 60’s with a built in oscilloscope? This had a real wood cabinet and one could run the analog tuning dial from stop to stop with one flick of the wrist. Back in those days, this was one of my ways of judging the quality of a tuner-receiver. The Marantz was pure bling, and it really didn’t matter how it sounded. It was beautiful!

    1. I remember quite clearly looking at equipment during the 70s and early 80s and dismissing Marantz immediately. It was that font they used for the name, and the colors of the cabinets. Superficial, it sure was but if it bothered me to look at it (and of course then we piled everything in plain site in racks and on tables) then it didn’t matter how good it was! Bryston falls into that category for me today, the font is strange to my eye and the logo way too large, so I bypass them in any auditioning I have done, even though I know the products are quite good. Maybe I am different in this regard!

      1. I believe you are unfortunate in limiting yourself in this manner.
        Marantz produced some pretty good equipment back in the day. It was reliable, sounded great, and many pieces are still functioning today.
        I don’t judge a book by its cover. You, my friend, apparently do.

        1. To some extent I would probably agree with your assessment, however it would depend on the subject. Marantz was not the only game in town for instance there were a dozen or more other manufacturers who made equipment that was as good or better so it was easy for me to move on to something else.

          If whatever I’m buying is buried out of sight I am not nearly as critical. Whether I put Carrier or a Rheem furnace in my home for example is of no consequence if I think it’s the best one out there for my use. At that point I really don’t care how it looks.

          Automobiles are another subject where styling and performance run hand-in-hand. I would think it’s all about giving a wide variety of consumers a wide variety of choices.

  7. The only part of my audio system I can see are my speakers and they are ugly. I would never have chosen them for looks. Chose them for sound.
    The rest is hidden away and now controlled by wifi. So the main issues are heat generation (as little as possible) and size (as small as possible).
    Looks? … meh

    My general view is that the need for multiple boxes to produce great sound is a major failing from the point of view of industrial design. The audio market has made great strides in this regard in recent years, moreso at the mid and lower end, more slowly at high end.

  8. Although I love to look at a nice piece of kit, the first thing I consider is the functionality of the chassis. Does it dissipate heat efficiently when needed. Does it have antiresonance properties incorporated into the design. And lastly, was EMI/RFI reduction considered when designing the chassis. Sometimes a nice looking and solid appearing chassis will help contribute to these factors, but not always. It’s this functionality engineered into the kit that I find most beautiful. I don’t know if the Macs do any of this, but those big blue meters are mesmerizing. 🙂

  9. A one box solution is great from a theoretical point of view, but if one component in that one box elegant solution fails, the whole thing goes in for repair or replacement. Right? You’re f-ed til your dealer or manufacturer sends a replacement or can work out an also elegant repair. It’s not a matter of whether it fails; it’s when.

  10. How very true. Very well put. After all in the end what really matters is the sound. Very good advice specially for those who are new to audio or are thinking of getting their feet wet. With the amount of experience under the belt this advice coming from you carries much greater weight. Another great advantage of not putting too much stress on looks is that a lot of money can be saved which then can be used for better sounding equipment.Regards.

  11. I think it’s only natural for manufacturers to want their products to have eye appeal. This applies in many consumer product industries. Most notably the automobile industry up until the time the government started imposing mileage standards. Before then, cars were made to convey a certain look. Luxurious large cars loaded with chrome and tail fins, bad ass sporty muscle cars. Today, you put a block of balsa or whatever they use in a wind tunnel, doesn’t matter if it’s in Detroit, Stuttgart, or Tokyo and the shape that comes out is the same. That’s why they all look pretty much alike. A few are stylized but not nearly to the degree they once were.

    The factors I use to make decisions about electronic equipment include performance, build quality, functionality, and the reputation of the manufacturer for quality and service. Price is also a major consideration. Once performance reaches the desired level, more expensive to buy more performance is for me a waste of money. I like the appearance of my Empire turntables but that isn’t why I bought them.

    In building the second prototype of my patented sound system, $69 10 band two channel graphic equalizers were as useful as $690 models. In altering the geometric dispersion patterns of loudspeakers at high frequencies, arrays of inexpensive small mylar tweeters performed functions a very expensive single tweeter couldn’t. In these concepts getting the best performing equipment of a type, the goals audiophiles strive for was not a consideration because according to this model, improved performance of the individual components beyond a reasonable point often referred to derogatorily as mid fi would not have made much difference if any at all in overall performance. Appearance was also not a consideration.

    When you put equipment on a bench, remove the knobs, panels, cabinet, and look at the inside without the bling. build quality becomes fairly obvious. It also can be evident where the manufacturer cut corners. Strangely, one of the most common design flaws in much electronic equipment is an undersized power switch or relay. I have a 19″ Sony CRT TV, a GE microwave wall oven that failed because of undersized power relays (the one in the GE oven wasn’t even necessary and was not present in the replacement board) and bunches of stereo receivers I’ve seen. Inrush current can be many times the steady state current of a transformer and the arcing eventually burns these switches out. Working on repairing these units can be a real pain in the derriere. I only do it when I have no choice. Often I just replace them since they are not the most expensive hardware available. Matching equipment is another area where audiophiles have problems in part owing to the fact that practically all controls have been eliminated. By contrast, HT receivers have so many controls, most of them software driven that they can drive you crazy just finding and adjusting the ones you want. Everything seems to be that way right now, cars, TV sets, lots of things. You could spend the rest of your life reading instruction manuals for stuff these days.

  12. Yes, Couldn’t agree more. Doesn’t need to be audio jewelry, But let’s face it ,what’s more frustrating then
    A piece that sounds great but doesn’t have Quality parts or a chassis that falls apart or screws that strip when you take the top on and off a few times to check it out. Balance is key,

  13. An audiophile friend asked me one day to define “audiophile”. I said “it’s someone who appreciates accuracy and beauty in music reproduction.” He countered, “I think it’s someone who’s in love with the equipment.” I’ve since reflected many times on his insight.

    1. Indeed I have met extremely few audiophiles who imo have what I would call either a broad, concrete or good musical taste or selection (with taste I don’t mean my taste, could be a totally different but concrete and broad one).
      Really many in my experience would name music as their favorites that one could read about in every 2nd HiFi magazine and which would provoke just a pitiful smile from most who come from a broad musical interest or experience. I think only part of this comes from little time or real interest for music, it also comes from selecting music that sounds good on most high end equipment. And high end equipment unfortunately in many cases can be much more selective music wise than lowfi gear.
      But most important certainly is everyone has fun with what he listetenes to!

      1. I have had a totally opposite experience with the audiophiles I have met, and talked music.
        You might not like my eclectic taste in music, but you would find it broad, with a lot of obscure music. As a Jazznut, you would say my collection of jazz does contain some of the obvious LPs, but I know enough to have favorites. I’m always surprised when I mention Ben Webster, Art Pepper, or Mudell Lowe and no clue. I’m not talking about audiophiles, but jazz listeners. April Barrows is one of my favorite living jazz vocalists, or even Hoagy Carmichael. He wrote enough standards. I have never known any one else who had owned, or even heard “Hoagy Sings Carmichael”. Where I shine is punk, ’70s rock, and alt country.
        I may not like the music other audiophiles follow, but I have only met one that knew nothing about music. Didn’t have any favorites, had to go to their music collection to get names. I am one of those people who can recite lyrics, of songs that have had an impact on me.
        I think the audiophile who only has a dozen or so albums, all on audiophile labels is mostly a myth. I have never personally met someone that bought an expensive system to impress others. The people I know have all gone through the progressions, that are driven by music.
        Well, now you can say you know one more who does have a broad, devoted taste, that started 47 years ago. I still play music, that I bought that first year of owning a stereo. I would have to count the ticket stubs, but I have easily been to over 200 concerts. There is a sampler album called ” Sharp Cuts”. I think it was 10 or 11, too lazy to get up. I saw every band on that sampler. At 16, I saw Ten Years After, for the second time, with Howlin’ Wolf as the second act.

        1. Great that you have different experience!
          I didn’t want to offend anyone, for sure there are many like you and me, too.
          Musical orientation does not matter here for me, what the one knows about jazz, the other knows about punk etc. Each individual has his limitations.

          And yes, my statement is also a common prejudice that maybe shouldn’t be pronounced more than necessary 😉

          My experience just is, that conversations about music run totally different related to if talking with many audiophiles or non audiophiles.

  14. I’ve felt that two companies were most responsible for the creation of ultra costly gear. One was Audio Research for their complex tube gear and the other was Mark Levinson. And while the original Levinson gear was very good sonically I believe it was the construction and style that mattered the most and affected the industry the most. The JC1 preamp was actually quite simply styled but it was the details that made it a visual jewel, the etched(not painted lettering, the heavy cabinet, the stainless steel screws, etc. all were precursors of some of mega costly gear today.

    By the way my vote for THE most beautiful piece of audio gear is the classic Marantz 7C(but not the 7T where I think the inputs on the front make it look too busy. The 3 sets of 4 controls on the plain front panel are almost Doric in their elegance. But the small difference in the sizes of the knobs on the right versus those on the left adds a subtle visual dynamism by its subtle denial of the symmetry of the preamp face that we feel sometimes nad don’t feel other times.

  15. I love design, life’s boring without. There are a many good designs and while I wouldn’t prefer a cost ratio that leans more than necessary on the design side, I think it makes much sense to spend some time and effort in developing a great design that’s as easy to manufacture as possible.

    I would be very much interested in a comparison of the cost effort i.e. between more or less complex acrylic and metal designs. I made a few of both myself and have a rough clue, but I’d like to know more.

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