February 1, 2009
How Close Can I Get for Half
the Price or Less?
Audiophiles who are committed to spending a set amount of
money on a stereo component -- for this article, Ill use loudspeakers -- would be
wise to ask themselves this: How close can I get for half the price or less? Might
the answer make a potentially expensive purchase seem foolhardy?
I often see audiophiles decide how much theyre going
to spend on a stereo component before theyve even considered what they need
to spend to meet their goals. The problem with this predetermined approach is one of a
lack of context: The shopper simply cant determine relative value without a more
informed knowledge of whats available.
For instance, there seem to be a surprising number of
loudspeakers offered in the price range of $15,000 to $25,000/pair. Many of the more
popular high-end speaker brands set the sweet spots in their lines squarely within that
market segment. Its not uncommon for someone to shortlist five or so models within
that range, audition them at a few local dealers, and ultimately make a purchase based
solely on those auditions and a few positive reviews. Thats a legitimate approach --
some great loudspeakers can be had for that kind of money -- if the audiophile also
has a good handle on the best speakers available for $8000 to $15,000/pair. And, perhaps,
even what a wisely spent $50,000 might buy.
Bottom line: Each speaker on the shortlist had better be demonstrably
better than the less-expensive speakers to even warrant consideration. As well, its
performance needs to be considered in the context of that of the more expensive speakers.
Audiophiles will sometimes spend what they feel they must
spend because they assume that, in high-end audio, the ratio of price to performance is a
linear one. (Some of these audiophiles also assume that their favorite speakers are truly
linear, but thats another "Opinion" for another time.) But if your breadth
of experience is broad enough, youll surely have learned that spending more
doesnt always buy more performance. Sonically, you can sometimes do as well, or even
better, by spending less. The fact of the matter is that some ultra-expensive speakers
arent as good as some of the cheaper models marketed by brands considered "mass
market." For some, that pill can be a hard one to swallow.
Some more pointed questions: Just what type of loudspeaker
performance can you get for, say, $10,000/pair? For that amount, how close can you come to
the state of the art? Can you buy the state of the art for $10k? Are there reasons
to spend more? If so, what are they?
In my many years of reviewing audio products in many price
ranges, Ive pondered these questions long and hard, and have mostly answered them in
my mind. But because so much about the technology and manufacturing of loudspeakers has
changed in recent years -- good materials such as beryllium are now available to many
companies, and Chinese-based manufacturing has made considerable inroads into the high end
-- I decided to take a fresh look at those old questions.
Heres the exercise: Choose a loudspeaker system that,
for $10,000, comes as close to the state of the art as possible. (Of course, we also have
to define "state of the art.") Minimize the tradeoffs, maximize the amount of
value your dollar buys, and dont be afraid to slay some sacred cows.
The speakers I chose for this exercise are now set up in my
Music Vault, and Im currently dialing in their performance. The next installment of
"The Worlds Best Audio System," coming in one months time, will
answer the question How close can I get for half the price or less? Then,
well at least have a current baseline from which to further discuss the ratio of
price to performance.
. . . Jeff Fritz