July 21, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

Labels are necessary for communication yet offered without thought of consequences they can be destructive.

There's no harm in labeling sodium chloride as table salt. In fact, labeling a shaker of white crystals as "salt" is extremely helpful at the dinner table.

But what happens when we label audio equipment with opinions? For example, labeling a particular phono cartridge as wooden or tight-assed can destroy a product's reputation. Imagine taking home an expensive moving coil cartridge and on your system, it doesn't sound right. You label it with your opinion and it is forever tainted—even if all that might have been wrong was your ability to set it up properly.

I remember the first time I heard about Cambridge Audio products. Asked what their shtick was I was told it earned the label: cheap gear. Good, but cheap. It wasn't until I spent the time to audition their products myself that I realized the label was not only unwarranted but unfair. Not because it wasn't inexpensive gear (it was) but because that label assigned it a low value in people's minds. I began to support the brand by telling people it was an exceptional bargain.

PS Audio products were for years labeled as "The poor man's Audio Research". I guess that's a compliment, though I probably could have picked a better label.

I guess my point is we should be careful about the labels we assign products and certainly people.

They have a habit of sticking.

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45 comments on “Labels”

  1. 50 years ago the big broadcast and recording studios (BBC, Abbey Road Studios, etc.) used the most expensive turntables, tape machines and loudspeakers - gear which a normal music lover never was able to afford nor to install in his tiny living room. Today audiophile high-enders have mega buck systems costing at least 1 million dollars while we find in comparison most inexpensive (digital) gear in the recording studios. How should it be possible that the mega buck system sounds better than the studio system the latter at least featuring a near-field loudspeaker fed from an equalizer and cheap amps in an acoustically optimized listening room?

    1. It’s a good question and the first thought is that it shouldn’t be possible but a couple of things spring to mind. Firstly the studio recording system may be capturing more than the monitoring system is able to reproduce so the expensive home system is then able to recover more of the previously recorded information for our musical enjoyment.

      Then of course we may have a situation where the mega buck system is, horror of horrors, adding something of itself to the overall sound and thereby sounding better. But ‘better’ as is often mentioned here is completely subjective. One man’s better is another man’s worse. We need to be careful what we pay for.

  2. Well, the boys from 'Schiit Audio' really took that one by the throat...
    the American version of "Good, but cheap"...hang on...what about
    'Emotiva'...oh, that's right, Emotiva is 'Good & cheap' 😉

    Now there's a plethora of 'good & cheap' DACs & amps that are
    flooding the world's home audio market, such as:
    FX Audio
    Little Dot
    Line Magnetic...'s seemingly endless, & all designed, or copied, & then manufactured in China.

    The 'sheep' on this planet will no doubt be influenced by labels.
    The lazy ones, customers who don't have enough interest to spend time listening to their prospective purchases (oh God there's a lot of them), they just want the Audio Consultant to make the choice for them, since said Audio Consultant is quite often considered to be 'the expert'; these are the customers who will be influenced by labels (& reviews)...these sheep make it very easy to move stock, but they are boring as bat-sh!t customers.
    The 'non sheep' will listen to the product(s) & ignore the labels & take the reviews with the proverbial grain of salt &, again, listen to the product(s) & then make up their own minds...they are generally the most fun & interesting customers.

    1. FR, so here's the deal. 7 August I have tickets for the Eng v India at Trent Bridge with my son and Nicola Benedetti playing Bach Partitas in a restaurant in London with my wife. They are 160 miles apart. What do I do?

      1. Gee Steven, that is a tough one!
        What event is more accessible &
        which family member is less forgiving?
        Otherwise, a coin toss perhaps.
        You can watch a cricket match anytime,
        they come up regularly, however,
        maybe Nicola's live Bach Partitas
        performance(s) is(are) a limited edition(s).
        Besides, I fear that the game may be
        more punishing.
        Good luck sir 😉

        1. Bumrah v Benedetti? It's a tough call. Also have 2 tickets for Lords the following week, but the kids are taking them. Erring towards Bumrah.

      2. Steven,

        Hope you don’t mind me giving my two cents worth, it’s certainly a difficult choice for you.
        Both events are repeatable but each will be unique. I think I would err toward the more local one. Your son could always take a trip to Trent Bridge with a friend.

        As for next week, something might crop up for one of them. You could engineer it. 🙂

    2. Good morning FR!
      For what it's worth, I'm one of the people that likes to hear the equipment for myself.
      Sure a review will tell you a lot of things.
      But there is one thing that no review can tell you.
      And that thing is, what is it gonna sound like to your own ears?
      This is something you'll have to judge for yourself.
      Don't you agree?

    3. After your new found love for the m6i…I’m willing to sheep one or a 5…it also looks like i can afford one of Paul’s amps too. Not today. But soon.

        1. Yeah, dogs can get pretty expensive in the long run. Food, exercise, vet bills.
          Plus, they need to be maintained when you go on vacation or away on business.
          On the other hand, they can be your best friend, and rarely ask you to turn the music down.
          Tough call.

  3. Talking of labels my word of the day is ‘pettifogging’. Thanks to Marks and Spencer Chairman Archie Norman for that one. Us audiophiles have turned it into a hobby. 🙂

  4. I think it’s interesting under which conditions negative labeling happens and not.

    I’d say, it doesn’t happen when claim and approach meet perceived reality by the customer. Then a label is preset and finally accepted/verified (intentional negative activity ignored here) and on the other hand negative labeling is challenged or happens when not.

    I’d also count “the poor man’s Audio Research” as a positive basic statement with the wink of an eye. It should mean, you get similar sound quality at maybe a few other compromises for less money.

  5. I think Paul is raising the issue of brand identity, down my street as the commercial side of audio interests me far more than the technical side.

    Salt is salt. It's been an essential preservative for thousands of years. It's only because Paul thinks technically that he considers it a brand name for sodium chloride. My family has walked up and down Zoutelaan (Salt Street in Flemish) hundreds of times, thank heavens it's not called Natriumchloridelaan.

    Cambridge Audio is a brilliant example. It's been around since the 1960s and has had 3 main lives. It was highly innovative, making the first toroidal transformer based amplifier and a while later the first 2-box CD player to separate the transport and DAC. All that is long forgotten. They then expanded under new management. In 1994 they were bought by Julian Richer, who before his recent retirement was the largest and by far the best audio/AV retailer in the UK. (When he retired he gave most of the shares to his staff based on time served.) He established a world class design team to make high quality budget hifi to sell through Richer Sounds, and globally. I own the CXA81 which is simply astonishingly good and costs $1,300. Paired with the CXN v2 streamer it costs £1,650, compared to £3,000 for the PS Audio Stellar Strata. It's not even a fair fight, as CA have decades of experience in high quality low cost manufacturing and distribution. So, although CA is a budget brand, no one would seriously question the design and build quality.

    Another massive success story is IAG, leveraging high quality engineering into long established brand names. Curiously, two iconic products, the Cambridge Audio DacMagic and the Audiolab M-DAC (an IAG brand) were both designed by John Westlake. I had a PS Audio PWD Mk2 DAC that cost £2,500. I upgraded it with an Audiolab M-DAC+, that cost £800.

    The common feature is world class engineers tasked with producing better products that offer better value, from ultra-budget to the relatively high-end CA Edge range. It's one thing designing better, more expensive products, it's an other designing better, cheaper products, and growing brand value that way.

    So if PS Audio were to take this approach with the very highly regarded PS Audio Stellar Phono that costs £2,500 in the UK, it would not be to develop a super-duper phono for £5,000, but to develop a Jnr product for £1,000 or £1,500 that is almost as good. The question is whether PSA wants to be in that market at all.

    Getting prices down is as much to do with component costs, production and distribution, and it's very difficult to do that outside of Asia. I love these products and buy them, not because they are cheap, but because they provide exceptionally high value.

    1. Spot on. I have a huge appreciation for modern super high value audio equipment, like the Topping products. And how they plan what they make associated with extraordinary testing exhibited at ASR. I've purchased Cambridge Audio in the past, too that was satisfactory equipment until the next new generation of technology was better. Which there has been a lot of that in recent years that's taken "high value" much farther toward endgame quality equipment. It's getting to a point where it seems like the audio crazy train is worthy of staying stopped at a station for a much longer period of time.

      “The poor man’s Audio Research” makes no sense to me because PS Audio is not a poor man's hardware.

    2. Salt is salt? Hardly. Sodium nitrate is a salt, as are potassium chloride and silver nitrate. Any substance made from the reaction of acid mixed with a base is a salt. Some will kill you, some like sodium chloride are essential to life. But even in table salts, there are at least 37 different kinds including several smoked salts.

      Class dismissed!

      1. Many thanks, I recall at school various compounds were referred to collectively as "salts", but we didn't put them on our chips (fries).

        1. Colloquial English (either Queens or 'Meruhkun or . . .) versus scientific/technical language. I love the term "organic". To a foodie, it means produce grown without the use of chemical fertilizer or pesticides. To a chemist, it means any compound containing carbon, including the chemical pesticides. Note: carbon dioxide, carbonates, bicarbonates, cyanides, cyanates, and a few other are generally considered to be inorganic as they behave chemically like ionic compounds in aqueous solution. Outside of mathematics (which is more of an abstraction, but with very practical applications) very little is clear cut and unambiguous.

    3. Steven, I think you are missing a critical point in your criticism of PS Audio prices. First, you should look at this from the US perspective. I know having someone who lives in New York tell anyone that they are over taxed is the pot calling the kettle black, but in this case it is true. You are using British prices which are badly inflated by your horrible VAT.

      I do not look upon PS Audio as a bargain basement supplier. Instead I look upon PS Audio as a giant killer. You can get the PS Audio transport and DAC combo for under $10K with a trade-in. This combo will give you world class digital playback. In my estimation ( based on listening ) the PS Audio system is one of the five best in the world. Every other system in that five cost at least 2.5 times more. Delivery world class excellence in sound at a much lower price is what PS Audio is about. Although I have not studied it as closely as I have in the case of the transport and DAC ( which I use ) I believe much the same can be said for the BHK line of amps.

      1. I am comparing UK prices including VAT (sales tax). The CXA81 is £1,000 new, with the CXN v2 the pair are £1,650 and the PS Audio Stellar Strata is £3,000. Plus the CA units are significantly better, especially the streamer.

        On the other hand, the PS Audio DSD DAC is cheaper in the UK (£3,850 - about $4,800) than in the USA ($6,000). Without VAT, the UK price is equivalent to $4,000, and it is only sold through dealers, so dealers and the distributor are taking a cut. I assume the pricing is due to competitive pressure. When I looked at it in 2015 it was £6,000, about $9,000 at the time. Either PS Audio are making a loss selling it in the UK or making a large profit on domestic sales.

        1. Steven, The price drop probably has something to do with the new DAC that should be announced this year. The lack of reduction here in the US is probably due to the trade-in allowance that we get here in the US.

          1. It's been that price for ages, well over a year, if not two. Besides competition, I think standalone DACs are becoming less popular, certainly in the UK, and here the obvious choice is Chord.

  6. The way I see it...
    The audiophile wants his (home-) equipment to sound GOOD (highly subjective !).
    The sound engineer wants his (studio-) equipment sound ACCURATE.
    I think there's a big gap between these 2 "paradigms".
    Talking with some of these men I found out that most of them hardly listen to music in their own homes, after being busy with music for a living during the day.
    And although they probably deny it, a lot of audiophiles don't llike accurate, but instead want a "warm" sound. Designers/manufacturers (speakers !) know this of course, hence "voicing".
    Maybe this is a chicken and egg thing... that I come to think of it, all this has not a lot to do with today's topic...Sorry for that.
    I guess I was triggered by paulsquirrel's comment.

    1. Very well stated!
      Interestingly, I have had the same Cambridge Audio experience when I replaced an expensive streamer with a CXN V2 and I am seriously thinking of replacing my current pre and amp with the CXN81! Here price is irrelevant but functional and reliability prevails.

      My current preamp and amp have been repeat with design problems and failure to function, with zero resolve from the
      Manufacturer- and they are not made in China , but USA !

      Also CA has superb customer service!

      1. The CXA81 has Bluetooth AptX HD, which is as near to CD quality as makes any difference. It's 24/48 PCM compressed to a 576kbs, which is about the same as a typical 16/44 FLAC file. iPhones don't support AptX and only some Android support HD, but you can get a Google Pixel 3a for $150 to as an Aptx HD streamer.

        The most popular audio product must be wireless headphones and Bluetooth is core technology, even Audeze have joined in. Sooner rather than later we will be able to stream from mobiles at 96khz. The likes of CA, iFi and many Chinese manufacturers appreciate this.

        Audiophiles may turn their collective noses up at Bluetooth, but I can see it becoming the primary streaming technology.

        1. I am currently really enjoying the sound of my magnificent, pre-loved
          Musical Fidelity - 'M6i' integrated, with it's 4 line level inputs, a rotary
          gain control, one set of L+R loudspeaker taps & 200 w continuous
          per channel...basic & brilliant.

          1. MF are a quality brand, based in Wembley, 5 miles from here, and Anthony Michaelson lives about a mile away. I owned their famous A1 amplifier. The electronics were designed by Tim de Paravicini and the iconic casing was designed by Pentagram, a product design agency where my son got his first job a few years ago. The A1 sounded lovely with a pair of Jim Rogers JR149. I think MF maintained a good reputation of reliability and quality at a sensible price.

            1. I had no idea there was such a love affair here of MF amps. As I already mentioned last month I too use an MF M6i in my video system driving a pair of ATC SCM 19's. I also have an MF A3 ( currently in dry dock ) that I used to use ages ago with a pair of Snell Type K speakers.

          2. Hey FR!
            You said, "I am currently really enjoying the sound of my magnificent, pre-loved
            Musical Fidelity – ‘M6i’ integrated, with it’s 4 line level inputs, a rotary
            gain control, one set of L+R loudspeaker taps & 200 w continuous
            per channel…basic & brilliant."
            Does that integrated amp have a pare of line outs on it?
            I was wondering, if an audio recorder of some kind, can be connected to it?
            Just so that, you can not only listen to music threw it, but having the caiprobility of making your own recordings from it.
            Thanks in advance!

            1. John, Since I have the same amp I can tell you the answer is YES. The amp has two RCA outputs: one is Preamp Out and the other is Tape Out. There is a Tape Monitor button on the front panel. While the M6i sounds wonderful and I highly recommend it, controlling it is a somewhat odd mixture of what can be controlled by the remote and what is controlled only from the front panel.

              1. Good evening tonyplachy!
                That's good to know man!
                Thank you!
                When I pick up that amp, it will allow me to kill two birds with one sonic stone.
                What I mean by that, is this.
                #1. I can use that amp in conjunction with another amp to byamp a pare of speakers.
                #2. It will get me away from my vintage Fisher receivers which makes a little too much heat when they're on daring hot summer months.
                #3. I can use that amp with this computer to make recordings until the cows come home without braking a swet.
                Again, I say on to you, thank you for that information man!
                Just as soon as I find out how much one will cost me here in Florida US, I will either go to the stereo shop, or I will go online and order myself one!

        2. Good morning Steven not to be confused with Steven!
          You mite want to rethink that, and do some research on it too as well.
          The iOS devices we had in the last past 3 years mite not have supported the ADX Hd bluetooth coduct, but they do now.
          Did you ever hear how Apple improved their latest products?
          The iPhone12 and the iPhone12Pro can do that and sound grate while streaming via bluetooth.
          Most high end audio gear can't even do Apple Air Play.
          But some of it can.
          The few products that comes to mind, are products made by companies like Black Ice Audio, Mcintosh, and Marantz.
          Look in to those if you don't believe me!

          1. I'm glad to be corrected. I use apple computers but Android phones. I bought one of my kids an iPhone 12, he said it's much better than the old ones, the last one I had was an iPhone 6. I may have to get one as my new home automation being installed is iOS only.

            My issue with iPhones was battery life. Apparently that's now much improved. With the M1 processor I assume they will get even better.

            1. I think it all depends on how the display brightness is sat.
              Looking at my current iPad Pro 12.9inch, if the brightness is sat a little too high, it will reduce the life of the battery.
              But turning the brightness level down below 45%, will increase the life of the battery.
              But then again, some people like it bright.
              But as for me, most of the time, I have the screen curtain on.
              This way, I can listen to it while conserving the battery.
              But I'm a blind man.
              So, what do you expect?

    2. Does the sound engineer really care about accuracy, or more making it sell better? As so much of music is listened to in noisier situations (in the car, on public transportation, etc.), music has been usually altered to compensate to make it sound better in those environments, thus losing accuracy. Some, like Paul and Gus work to make it sound as great as they can. I believe that Paul recently said something to the affect that 100% accurate music needed to have at least a tiny bit of processing to make it more lifelike. And how can you determine accuracy? At at what position? The sound engineer will work on the sound to best reach the goal he has established in his head, whether that goal is to maximize sales, or to maximize sound quality, or whatever.

  7. When the talk is about value there can be lots more to consider than just the initial price.
    There’s long term trouble free operation
    There’s long term service and the availability of parts
    There’s things like how long is the brand expected to be around / has been around
    What’s the philosophy of the brand? What’s the quality of parts versus price? Is it going to be a throw away product or become a future legacy that is always in demand?
    How often does one expect to change gear? That ties in with long term / short term value to the individual.
    Is the brand value intertwined with someone’s ego for bragging rights?

    Then there’s the value of the sound….

    When it comes to labels, quite often the labels that stick are based (at least lightly) on truisms or similar experiences by the ‘masses’.

    1. Anyone who has been involved in mass-production or in product liability disputes knows that quality control is even more important than in small volume bespoke products. I would expect Cambridge Audio to be built to a better quality than PS Audio, because CA can't afford to have any significant failures. The extreme are mobile phones, which have an almost 0% failure rate. Devialet uses mobile phone technology (the original designer came from Qualcom) and in 10 years I've never seen a report of a failure, the only one being a third party IEC socket that blew.

      Expensive components is another audiophile sacred cow, but Quad (now part of IAG) specifically designed their amplifiers from about the 405 onwards, over 30 years ago, to be high performing and cheap to maintain with low cost components. A full re-cap costs $100 and the product is good for another 10 years. Devialet Expert uses mobile phone components that are extremely good and very cheap, if you buy enough of them, and they install them at a rate of 5,000 per hour (below the maximum 6,000, which eliminates faults).

      From what I know, making high quality, low cost products is far more sophisticated than most people realise. I learned this in the fashion industry about 30 years ago, in fact my great-grandfather learned this 115 years ago when he and his friend travelled half way around the world to mass-produce denim workwear, the first people to do so in Europe. Denim is a classic example a cheap product that outperforms just about any more expensive product.

  8. I'm not bragging here, although, I have the right to brag on my ears baste on what I discovered 6 years ago.
    In September of 2015, I read a review on a pare of cheap Dayton Audio B652-AIR speakers.
    And so I decided to try them out.
    Long story short, the review that I read in Sound And Vision, did not do them any Justus.
    They sounded like speakers costing 100 times the amount of money that I paid for them.
    Paul, if you're reading this, I never concettered PS Audio to be the pore man's Audio Research.
    The company that I would put that label on, is no longer in business anymore.
    But when they were, I concettered the China baste company Eastern Electric to be the pore man's Audio Research.
    But there was one thing about their products, they didn't hold up too well for the long haul.
    Their tube amps were always hard on their tubes #1.
    And #2. There was always reliability issues with them.

  9. Let's face it. PSAudio is not a very sophisticated-sounding label. My first experience years ago with PSAudio was the purchase of that beefy copper interconnect with the shiny chrome connectors that did nothing to improve the sound of my system. Then I bought a few of those Noise Harvesters, enough on my circuit to make the blue lights stop blinking, but I really didn't hear any difference. I was beginning to think "BSAudio." It was not until I bought the DS DAC and the DS MP that I finally recognized PSAudio as a high end audio company. The BHK Pre further reinforced my esteem and loyalty for the brand. The value proposition cannot be beat. What the product line lacks in sophisticated aesthetics is more than made up for by the exceptional sound quality at affordable pricing, especially with the trade-in program.

  10. From my end of the socio-economic spectrum, don't think PS Audio gear can be considered poor man's anything. It is indeed expensive, but not bat-sierra (keep it family friendly in a public forum) crazy expensive. And for that Paul and the Family McGowen should be commended. I have not heard their 'entry level' (manufactured in China) Sprout, but from accounts that I have read or watched on YouTube it is a very good product. However, a lot of 'civilians' would consider even $699.00 bat-sierra crazy territory. Oh well.

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