ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

May 1, 2008

Answering the Questions No One's Asking: Part 1

Some years ago, when I’d been an audio reviewer for little more than a year, I spoke with an engineer who worked for a small company that made high-end audio gear. He was polite, obviously well versed in electronics design, and passionate about the theories he espoused. In terms of what was important in power-amplifier design, he was firmly set on a path that he had determined was the right one. He instructed me in the correctness of this path, and enlightened me about how his competitors had gotten it mostly wrong. I was nearly convinced.

Then I listened to a product that he had designed. It was good, but it wasn’t especially good, and certainly not revolutionary in terms of sound quality.

That experience made me examine manufacturers’ technical claims with a far more skeptical eye. I don’t think that engineer was inept, or didn’t have his basic facts straight. His amplifier worked fine and sounded good, and he’d obviously known enough to make it accomplish its most basic function: it could capably drive loudspeakers. Where I think his error lay was in the specific demons he’d set out to slay. Perhaps those demons weren’t really demons at all, and he was busy answering questions that no one was asking. And it seems to me that no one was asking because the questions weren’t all that burning in the first place.

It’s easy to understand how this happens. Many high-end companies are founded by the engineers who design the products, who then often hire a business manager and a marketing guru. The business manager looks at the numbers and little else. The marketing director usually swallows the engineer’s spiel hook, line, and sinker -- much as I did before I actually heard the product. Pretty soon, some customers have also subscribed to the theory, and after a while a small machine is chugging away, promoting and selling audio components. There’s no real dishonesty taking place; the people who believe in the engineer -- and, for that matter, the engineer himself -- really do believe.

Only in comparative analysis is the truth revealed. Only when I’d installed the above-referenced amplifier in my home system and compared it with other similar and highly regarded products could I conclude that there wasn’t anything special going on in terms of its sonic performance. Having a large pool of products to make comparisons with, and years of listening experience to draw on, make such conclusions far easier to arrive at with some sense of clarity.

But that’s the advantage of being a reviewer. Today, with the shrinking number of good retail dealers and the growing trend of mail-order, it’s much harder for those shopping for high-end gear. Nor do reviewers always get it right. Only those reviewers with a generous breadth of experience with the product genre in question can hope to arrive at insightful, authoritative opinions. I have years of experience with solid-state amplifiers and dynamic loudspeakers, but you won’t find me making loud proclamations about the greatest tube amp ever, even if I had it in my system. I’d have no way knowing it was the best unless I’d done the work of listening to and comparing all the other serious tube-amp contenders -- a job that would take years.

This leaves the high-end shopper with two things to remember that, however essential, won’t make the job of assembling a truly special high-end audio system any easier:

1) Some of the technical claims made by manufacturers are flat-out false.
2) Some of those claims might be technically true but sonically irrelevant.

As a consumer of high-end audio, you have to ask the right questions. You can spend years and lots of money chasing down demons and slaying them, only to find out at the end of the day that the real enemy is something else altogether. What are the right questions? You’ll find out in future installments of this column, right here on Ultra Audio.

...Jeff Fritz

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