May 2010

A Cheapskate and a Cynic? Or a Critic?

I think that many people misunderstand me because of my reputation for championing so many value-priced, affordable audio components, and for consistently questioning the worth of so much of the ultra-expensive stuff. Some think I’m a cheapskate with a chip on his shoulder about things he can’t afford, and a cynic about high prices. I know because they’ve told me so. But do these same people notice when I review and recommend products with price tags that many do think are sky-high?

This issue came up again recently when a company rep called to offer to send me one of his products to review -- something priced in the tens of thousands of dollars. He said, "It will be interesting to see if you like it because . . . well, we all know your reputation for hating stuff that costs this much."

Hate seems too strong a word. And does all mean everyone? As I explained to him my position, the idea for this editorial was born.

"I don’t mind expensive stuff when it’s worth it," I began. I then told him what worth means to me. A pricey product shouldn’t only look good and be better built, it must also actually sound better than something less expensive. The entire point of making and owning high-fidelity equipment is, obviously, to attain the highest level of reproduction of sound by being as faithful as possible to the original musical signal. I think most audiophiles prioritize sound first, with appearance and other things coming next. If we pay a lot more, we should get more of everything: better appearance, better build quality, better sound.

That sounds simple enough, but it’s not always the case. Far too often, I’m let down. It’s not uncommon these days to find loudspeakers priced in the many thousands of dollars, but with performance that can be bettered by something that costs much less. For instance, one day I had on hand nine two-way loudspeakers that ranged in price from $300 to over $10,000/pair. The most expensive speaker had the best build quality and the nicest appearance -- it was finished in flashy automotive paint -- but to my ears, every one of the eight less-expensive speakers sounded better.

About eight years ago, I and two other members of our team evaluated four speakers under blind conditions in the listening room of Canada’s National Research Council (NRC). Three of the speakers were priced between $300 and $500/pair, and one cost $2000/pair. The three of us agreed: In every listening test, the most expensive speaker placed last.

How can these things happen? Do manufacturers of such speakers ever test their products against those of their competitors, to hear how their own products stack up on the bases of performance and price? Maybe yes, but maybe not. Are some manufacturers more skilled at designing and making better-sounding products at lower cost? Yes, that’s likely. There are other reasons, too. The point is that a higher price does not guarantee better sound. In fact, sometimes the level of sound quality doesn’t rise at all with the price -- or, as pointed out above, it actually falls.

This sort of thing doesn’t happen only with loudspeakers. Probably the best-known high-priced ripoff these days is Lexicon’s BD-30 universal Blu-ray player, which the folks at Audioholics exposed for what it really is: a $500 Oppo BDP-83 slipped into a sturdier chassis with a price tag of $3500. Audioholics found that the BD-30’s image and sound qualities were no better than those of the BDP-83. It’s not often that we commend our competitors, but good for Audioholics for calling Lexicon’s bluff. A thicker faceplate doesn’t justify a $3000 price increase, nor does a longer warranty -- you can buy seven BDP-83s for the price of one BD-30. Lexicon muttered something about changing the user interface, but how much could that be worth? I’ll say it again: As the price increases, I want to see the sound quality increase -- and, in this case, the video quality as well. From what I can tell, the BD-30 delivered neither.

But that doesn’t mean that all high-priced components are ripoffs. The best-sounding components I’ve heard and reviewed have also been some of the most expensive -- though they haven’t been the most expensive. When I find something that offers sound quality that’s a cut above the rest, I’m happy to praise it even if its price is high.

The best example is Revel’s Ultima Salon2 speaker, which I reviewed in December 2009, and which won our 2009 Edge of the Art Award. Revel is owned by Harman International, which also owns Lexicon -- but the Salon2 is no rebadged speaker originally designed by someone else and clothed in a fancier cabinet. It was designed in-house by Revel, and, in my opinion, is worth every penny of its list price of $21,998/pair. I’ve heard no other full-range loudspeaker near that price that can match its combination of extremely deep bass, supersweet and extended highs, and a midrange transparency that’s akin to that of an electrostatic design. All told, it’s the best speaker I’ve reviewed.

Ditto for Simaudio’s Moon Evolution SuperNova CD player, which cost $5900 when I reviewed it. That’s a lot of scratch for a CD player, and it’s not the slam-dunk that the Salon2 is. There are CD players that come strikingly close to the SuperNova’s performance for a lot less; the NAD C 565BEE, for example, is a killer for $799. But the SuperNova is not only extremely well built -- overbuilt might be a better word -- its sound quality is better than that of almost every other CD player I’ve heard. Which is why it’s still my reference player.

I’ve been called a cheapskate because I’ve praised so many lower-priced products, and I’ve been labeled cynical for being so skeptical of very high prices. To me, a better word would be critical -- a faculty needed to be able to review anything, including audio components, and especially at a time when the prices of audio gear have risen to a level that borders on the insane. I have no problem with a manufacturer charging more than the rest, provided that, in addition to looking better and lasting longer, the component also sounds better. Isn’t that what the pursuit of high fidelity is all about?

. . . Doug Schneider