This year I break with my annual take on the SoundStage! Products of the Year awards -- Doug Schneider gives you the complete list over on SoundStage! Hi-Fi -- to tackle another subject that’s been on my mind lately: the safety -- or, in some cases, the false sense of security -- that comes with shopping by brand.
Last month I established an upper limit ($10,000 USD) on what I’d spend on a DAC with a built-in volume control. For my present system I can’t justify an analog preamplifier, with its banks of analog inputs of which I’d use precisely one -- though I do miss, on some sentimental level, the very last analog preamp I owned: an Ayre Acoustics KX-R Twenty. But unless you have multiple analog sources (I don’t), there’s no need for the extra box and interconnects an analog preamp would require. But I do have multiple digital sources, so I need digital switching and, of course, the ability to adjust volume.
Last month I established an upper limit to the retail cost of the loudspeakers I’ll eventually select: $39,900/pair. This month I look at amplification. But first, I want to discuss system configuration.
I don’t have all of this figured out yet, but I know where I’m not going, and that establishes some upper price limits for the components that will eventually comprise my new stereo system. To review where I’ve come from:
The Dynaudio Contour 60 loudspeakers had just landed in the Music Vault and the Soulution 711 stereo amplifier was on its way out the door. A second set of speakers, the TAD ME-1 compact standmounts, were inbound. I had an amplifier lined up for review that would have given me a smooth transition from the Soulution, but, as often happens with these things, that shipment was delayed. Now my concerns were that there’d be a gap between power amps, and that I was running the risk of changing so much in my system in so short a period of time that I would muddy the waters of which outswapping of gear had caused which change in the sound.
Some of you guys might remember Randall Smith, who wrote for the SoundStage! sites from 2006 to 2013. He reviewed a lot of home-theater gear, but also integrated amplifiers from the likes of Simaudio and Boulder, speakers from companies as varied as KEF and Rockport Technologies, subwoofers from JL Audio, and a source component from Esoteric. He accompanied me to Maine to pick up the Rockport Arrakis speakers that formed the heart of The World’s Best Audio System 2009, and has been to Canada to tour the R&D facilities of Paradigm and Axiom Audio. He’s helped schlep countless speakers and amps into my Music Vault listening room, a space he helped construct in 2006. (Randall lives only minutes away from me.) In short, Randall has not only been around the high-end industry, he’s been my friend and accomplice in my own audio adventures.
In my 20 years of reviewing audio equipment, I’ve bought and sold a lot of gear. From the beginning, I took the tried-and-true audiophile path: each upgrade promised better performance than what had preceded it, and usually cost more. Through the years, the total retail value of my system has inched up in price, culminating in my current rig of Magico Q7 Mk.II speakers, Soulution 711 and 560 electronics, Nordost cables, and Torus power conditioner: about $400,000. That doesn’t include my custom listening room, the Music Vault, or all the money and sweat equity I’ve spent moving gear into and out of it.
Theodore Roosevelt said that comparison is the thief of joy. It’s a lesson that most of us, at some point in life, learn the hard way. Keeping up with the Joneses is expensive, and not just in terms of money. Comparing your kids, your spouse, your income . . . these comparisons, often constant, lead to a life in which gratitude is in short supply and contentment is always just out of reach. Comparison in audio reviews is a different story. Once you buy something, the comparisons can stop. Maybe they should stop. But while you’re shopping, comparisons are critical to making wise buying decisions.
I’m at a point in this audiophile thing where my nonsense meter goes off regularly. That wasn’t always the case. I used to buy into the nonsense: I can remember times when a manufacturer would contact me and tell me about the latest, greatest product they were about to release. They’d send me promotional materials and specs and photos, and I’d get all excited about the thing. And there’s no doubt that, more than once, I’ve been the victim of my own expectation bias.
Readers have a love/hate relationship with the word best. So do reviewers. On the one hand, rarely does a day go by that I don’t receive an e-mail from a reader asking which is better for his or her situation: component A, B, or C? Typically, the reader is someone who is about to make a buying decision but is at an impasse, and wants me to break the tie.
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