Passing judgment

July 4, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

Leafing through the latest Stereophile Magazine I ran across an interesting ad. Its question to me was whether I would get more excited about paying a high price for a product that weighed very little or half the price for one that weighed significantly more.

Audio by the pound.

How many of us really have a handle on what to consider when it comes to choosing new gear?

How do we know what will synergistically fit into the complex puzzle we call our high-end audio system?

For some, I suspect it’s based on brand loyalty. This brand has always worked fine in my system.

For others, perhaps it’s the allure of new technology, the promise of uncharted waters.

And still others, the sheer emotional draw that gets us salivating.

Whatever motivates you to try something new doesn’t really matter.

At the end of the proverbial day, if it slots in and works then hallelujah!

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28 comments on “Passing judgment”

  1. D class has kinda thrown ‘audio by the pound’ right out the window,
    but for the die-hard’s I suspect that the greater the copper winding’s,
    & the bigger the tubes/caps (or the more numerous) then the greater
    the attractiveness.
    Ultimately, at the end of the day, if it slots in & it sounds better than
    what was there before, then hallelujah 🙂

    What motivated me to slot in a Musical Fidelity – ‘M6i’
    when I was satisfied with an Onkyo – ‘A9070’?
    Curiosity & within budget.

    Glad I did?

  2. Hi Paul,
    This is the correct way to see it. When it “snaps in” you’re in heaven. Loudspeakers disappear, the scene opens up to holographic dimensions surpassing ALL the walls. The music immersion becomes adamant. I love Venetian choir and religious music (Polychoral music in San Marco chapels, up to 8 choirs [ 2 voices and cornetto or saqueboutte “baroque trombone” per choir”. Music from Giovanni Gabrieli (in ecclesiis), Claudio Monteverdi (Maria vespers)…
    Greetings from Belgium, Mons “birthplace” of Orlando di Lasso (1532-1594)

  3. “The One-Question Method.”

    What are you missing with your system?

    vs: If I spray it with a new component I hope it will make it sound better.

    1. First of all, thanks for your post. I’m often left wondering… I really am a short signal path, phono stage, Tube Pre-Amp, Large Active Speakers, XLR Connects kind of guy… I mostly listen to Old Vinyl that sounds better than new when I’m done using TERGIKING on it! I’ll spend thousands on old records just to hear them after using it! It really is that good, I believe in it and everyone says that it does what they claim not just J-Sounds! Have I done something wrong by achieving glorious mids and highs and ASTOUNDINGLY CLEAR bass response? Have I done something wrong by creating this MAGNIFICENT AUDIOPHILE SOUND EXPERIENCE with such ease. Or was it my 30 years of listening and understanding of electronics there to guide me? Honestly, I do not know. Perhaps I have stumbled onto something. I’ve always been very good at putting together component systems and I’ve been at that for over 40 years unbelievably… BUT, where did I go wrong? Is it time to tear apart my perfect listening experience because there MUST be something wrong with it! My Power Cable isn’t EXPENSIVE enough! My TUBES need rolling RIGHT AWAY! There MUST be BETTER sounding tubes available! Oh NO! I KNEW something was WRONG! Yes, this is actually how I USED TO BE! Careful logic, SPECS, comparisons and knowledge cannot be replaced but when you get it RIGHT, will you know it? Something to be considered… For example. I KNOW that the sound my system puts out rivals some $50,000 systems yet I put it together for around $4,500! I did buy WHOLESALE, so please take that into consideration…

  4. Funny how things can be spun…. especially with elimination of key data.

    True they talked about weight with mediocre parts, and then weight with exotic parts. Then add in the fact that it’s a tube preamp. Then the whole story starts to deepen and come together.

    What I’d really like to see discussed is the two questions Paul asked. (With no hint of answer on his part)

    For me
    Question one…. No clue… pass.

    Question 2 … Again no clue… pass..

    Return grade F.

    Comment from a disgruntled student…. Was this ever covered?

  5. FR, interesting; I had an all Mark Levinson front end set-up, not quite at their reference level but one step below in all the “stuff”; not 33’s but 33H’s and the same all down the line. Vandersteens for the speakers.
    I was pretty pleased with the sound and the mechanics of the ML’s, the feel of the switches and rotary knobs; the way I could program the disc player to exclude a track & if I set it up right, it would remember to exclude that track every time I played that disc without further input. It was a bit of alright. – And then I trialed a disc player by PSA and I can’t really remember why I did. It didn’t do half the stuff the ML could do and the controls and chassis were no where near the quality of the ML. But the sound of everything I played was just that much better. I didn’t give a “fig” for the numbers, the spec was meaningless, because it sounded better. That’s all that counted. And now I’m two generations down the line and still love the sound esp. with SACD’s/DSD. I’m retired like you and I doubt I’ll ever have enough free money to change/improve the system now but I’m happy until the transport craps out. Enjoy your new amp.

  6. It’s akin to someone who buys Chevy or Ford or Chrysler all the time irrespective on how reliable they are. Brand loyalty is overrated. Of course the example is a bit exaggerated, usually in this business it’s more reliable than cars. But not always. One has to trust his ears when listening to new gear. I’ve personally seen people entering a room to listen to a system and once they saw the gear their bias got the best of their judgement. If they had been blind the outcome would have been different. My own father didn’t want to buy a Chinese made CD player even though it played way better than his old one. All because of prejudice that everything coming out of that country is crap. Which is not exactly true.

  7. Prompted by Peter Allen’s comment at 3.35am.

    “What are you missing with your system?”

    I’m not sure this approach really works because, unless there is some obvious deficiency in the system, how do you know what you’re missing if you’ve never experienced it?

    Take a good old analogy, the Mini driver and the Rolls Royce owner. The Mini driver knows he is missing something, a bit of power, a feeling of luxury. It may be a sense of calm bestowed by the cosseting cabin, but if he’s never been in a Rolls he doesn’t know exactly what and can only imagine. The Mini driver consoles himself with the fact that his car gets him from A to B, just like the Rolls, but is more nimble and easier to park when he arrives. He can’t afford a Rolls so doesn’t have the choice, but is happy, or at least content.

    From my experience over the last two years or so. I was fundamentally quite content with my system but I couldn’t help thinking that as every component was about fifteen years old there surely must have been some improvements during those years. We’re always being told technology is growing rapidly. Doing a lot of reading on the internet, to a lesser extent magazines and from posts and comments here I kind of thought something could be missing but didn’t know exactly what. I suppose I was being greedy but I wanted at least, a little more of everything, all those hi-fi character traits so frequently mentioned here and elsewhere. The obsessive is always looking for something more 😉 Eventually, with a deep breath and a little luck, I took the plunge. I ended up, almost by chance, changing the speakers first. They had actually been last on my list, I know, breaking the so called rules, but we don’t have to follow convention. To be honest a large amount of my decision making was based around what I had read, past experience and preconceived ideas and bias. Actual listening was difficult due to Covid-19 and limited availability of components in a meaningful system and room. The rest of the system followed. DAC next, again by chance, a lucky break at a good price, followed by transport and then amp. The amp I thought the least important component but now I appreciate it has brought out the best of everything else and has been quite a revelation.

    I’m not saying I have the best system, there’s obviously better out there, but to what extent and at what cost? Unfortunately, for most of us, cost will be a major factor in our decision making but I’m delighted the changes made weren’t in vain and I’ve been able to inch my system a few more rungs up the ladder. I’m happy and content. I sit listening most evenings in thrall to the music and, if reading, with many more of those sit up and take notice moments.

    Apologies if I’ve rambled on too long, I’ve almost forgotten what the topic is, but when you’re passionate about a topic it can be difficult to stop.

    1. Hi Rich,
      I felt the same way about my Ditton 66’s.
      Nearly 38yrs old; sound good (a little soft now in the treble)
      but surely with the advancement of technology….
      I auditioned a pair of Klipsch’s & they sounded better than
      my old Celestion’s but within 3 months I noticed the dreaded
      ‘listener fatigue’ & so I had to start again because said
      Celestion’s had already been sold off.

      Then, a few months ago, ‘jb4’ said that he reinstated his
      old MAGNATs & has sold off his much newer THIELs.
      And look at Paul with his 36yo IRSV’s.
      Now I have to spend 600, or more, hours burning in my
      7 month old floorstanders, but, like you I’m happy with the sound.

      Btw, you didn’t ramble on too long 🙂

  8. I’m rarely “jazzed” about any new piece of expensive equipment these days. Every component has its strength & weaknesses. Additionally, I expect quite a bit from a new piece.

    While product weight seems ludicrous, performance per dollar is something that gives me great satisfaction. Last week I picked up a pair of Apple Airpod Max headphones, as Apple has finally gone lossless with its music library (at no additional cost to Apple Music subscribers, which applies in my case). Great sound with a simple phone and headphone… no wires.

    Additionally, spacial audio is added. it brings everything together in one package that utilizes Atmos if you have a home theater setup. Like multichannel of the past, how good that sounds depends on the recording and how it uses the extra channels. However, for the Airpod Max headphones, it seems to add dimension in a positive way.

    I can’t remember such a satisfying audio investment in the past couple decades.

  9. I know this ad! Not taking anything away from their product I’m sure it’s great! This reminds me a a story from a co-worker long before internet and smart phones! He bought a pair of what he was told were high end speakers from strangers in a van who pulled up and gave him the we just removed these speakers from a system that was just upgraded. We will sell you these speakers for a fraction of there value. Feel how heavy they are the build quality is incredible he was told. It took two guys to move the speakers once he paid cash for them not sure how much was exchanged probably a couple hundred bucks. When he got the speakers home he had to see inside the cabinet to see the quality and construction for himself. Once the woofer was removed he looked inside and found the speaker was filled with sand!

    I’m sure it wasn’t there from the manufacturer. So always take the quality equals weight assumption with a grain of salt or in this case a grain of sand! Great only in America story for the 4th of July!

    Happy 4th of July everyone!

  10. In my 35 years of audio experience, the heavier gear nearly always sounded better to my ears, maybe due to thicker metal shielding, beefier transformers, less vibration, whatever. Before the DS DAC, my Meridian 506.24 (rated A+ by Stereophile around year 2000) was an excellent sounding CD player with a very small footprint, but on a pound per cubic inch basis it was heavy, as though densely packed with high quality stuff. Weight typically is a characteristic of gear garnering the highest reviews.

  11. Fat Rat,
    I sold my Thiels a few weeks ago. And for now I am a happy listener to my 35 year old Magnats.
    I cannot believe it myself, it’s ridiculous, but these old “shoeboxes” (almost the same size as the NEW JBL L100 classic) sound very well (to my ears at least !).
    So now I have these (calculated) 1,100 Euro speakers (for the pair) in the Levinson/PS Audio chain.
    My Shunyata/Siltech cabling alone is way more expensive.
    It’s “audio-sacrilege”, I know. On the other hand, maybe I’m just lucky and they “synergistically fit”.
    Either way, it works for me. Probably also because of what I value in good sound.
    For me transparency and tonality (highs, mids, lows in balance) are most important.
    The (in)famous “soundstage” not so much. When you go to a live concert, be it classical, pop, jazz or rock, do you pay attention to soundstage ? I don’t, and from what I know hardly anyone does.
    IMO it’s overrated. I consider it a hifi “invention”, sound engineers play an important role here.
    Having said all that, it won’t keep me from listening to some other speakers in the nearby future.
    Maybe there are some speakers out there that “slot in” even better and then it’s hallelujah !
    One more thing : I do use 2 REL subs and they really enhance the overall (not just bass) soundquality.
    The synergy between these subs and the Magnats is better than with the Thiels. So, that is an important factor.

    1. jb4,
      There you go!
      I have experienced pinpoint soundstaging & imaging & my jaw metaphorically dropped to the floor when I heard it for the first time, however, for rock ‘n roll it’s not a priority for me.
      Synergy is the key to finding the ‘sound’ that does it for you from a home audio set-up (look who I’m telling) & usually it just happens serendipitously whilst you search for component compatibility.

  12. Today’s post made me think that it’s honorable you have the goal of price/performance high end, not profit orientated high end for special markets. We all benefit from that.

    I would be interested, even in more details than possible here, if you ever noticeably thought about the alternative business models or goals, as with Genesis you previously scrimmaged in partly more expensive areas of the business and could have built up something different, too (e.g. ultraFi).

  13. I am going to try to answer the questions that Paul asked and other people repeated. Namely, how do you go about improving your system. I will warn you in advance most will not be happy with my answer. I put together my first audio system in 1970. So I have 50 years of experience at doing this. One reason why you may not be happy with my answer is some of it is outdated and disappearing. Second, the most important thing I now have in putting together a good system is experience. You can’t buy 10 or 20 years of experience. So here is what I do:

    1. Research. Read magazines ( print or online ). Read reviews, customer comments, blogs. Participate in on forums, ask forum members for advice.

    2. Listen, listen, listen. Sadly this is becoming harder to do. B&M audio stores have dwindled. Who knows when audio shows will return? Most online stores offer 30 – 60 day home trials. It’s a PITA to return, but its better than nothing. If you want to know what your system is missing pay attention to the pairings that dealers and reviewers use. If your looking for new speakers pay attention to what amps are used to power those speakers. It will tell you if you are going to need a new amp as well.

    3. Audition gear. For big ticket items ( speakers and amps ) make a short list of contenders and audition them. I know this may not be possible depending on where you live. If you can do this it will probably be at different dealers. Tell them what you are auditioning. A great dealer will not bad mouth the competition, but sadly most will.

    Buying audio gear in today’s world is much harder than it used to be.

    1. Tony,
      You were honest & succinct in your assessment,
      what’s there to be ‘not happy’ about?
      I pretty-much agree with what you’ve posted;
      to me it’s common sense.
      Also, what ‘jb4’ says.

  14. Im not 100% sold on the synergy argument. Good gear should not have a problem fitting in any system. I do like the synergy that a quality integrated amplifier or receiver provides and perhaps keep your cables the same but if you are going with seperates go with the best components you can find and that can drive the speakers that you love. Happy Independence Day to everyone. Everyone in the world has a 4th of July. We are celebrating our Independence not the 4th of July.

  15. “I will warn you in advance most will not be happy with my answer”
    I have no idea, tonyplachy, why anyone would not be happy with your advice. It all sounds (no pun intended) and IS very healthy.
    Yes, you mention that audio stores dwindle. True, that is a problem.
    Bottom end, everyone should do as you describe. I act like this for decades already.
    Most important for me, as I stated in the past more than once : try before you buy, especially when it comes to speakers.
    But there are also people that are obsessed with a brand name, or with some manufacturer, or even obsessed with the author of these posts (dr. goodears was right about that yesterday).
    They will not follow these simple “guidelines” you wrote today.

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