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Positive Feedback ISSUE 65
january/february 2013


Two Things You Can Rely On
by Roger Skoff


I recently had the opportunity to audition what was described to me as a "value-priced" two-channel high-end system. I'm not quite sure what "value-priced" means; that could be anything from "priced in accordance with what it's worth," to the implication that it's a bargain at its price-point, to some kind of a euphemism to avoid saying that it's "budget" (read "cheap") gear. Whatever it was, though, I found out that the total MSRP for all of the components was something over US $25,000, which, at least to my reckoning, made it hardly what I would consider to be a "budget" system.

There are all kinds of reasons why high-end audio has become so expensive and, as a former high-end manufacturer, I am very well acquainted with all of them. Even so, expensive is expensive, whatever your budget, and when the prices of things get "serious," most people want to look to others—to "experts", like professionals or magazine reviewers—for help in making sure they get the very best for what they are willing to pay.

Well, as the saying goes, I have good news and I have bad news. First, the bad news; I'll get to the good news later.

The bad news is that there are no experts. None. Not even me. The requirements are just too high. As an easy example, think about this: How many commercials have you seen or heard where somebody says something like "Eat at Joe's," or "Shop at ____," or "Visit Dr. _______," and goes on to say that (whatever or whoever the sponsor is) is "…the best in town"? Did you ever stop to think that, in order for someone to actually be QUALIFIED to say that, he would have to have eaten at, or shopped at, or visited EVERY SINGLE BUSINESS IN THAT CATEGORY MANY TIMES? Otherwise, how could he make a valid comparison and really KNOW that the one he's recommending is actually "the best in town"? To really be an "expert," he'd also have to have tried (and priced) everything on the menu or on the list of goods or services that's offered by more than just that one business, and, finally, he'd also have to give you a pretty good idea of what he means by "best." Obviously none of those things is ever going to happen.

For high-end audio, to really be an expert and to really be able to advise you on what to buy and "which to use with what" would be even harder: Your "expert" would have to have heard and be familiar with all of the equipment out there; would have to know how it interacts with all of the other equipment out there; and would have to have a thorough knowledge of your tastes and preferences in music and your ideas and understanding of what music is supposed to sound like. Finally, he would have to know exactly the acoustical characteristics of your listening room and how your speakers, furniture and equipment are or are going to be arranged in it.

Even if we leave out all of the personal preference and room issues, that simply can't be done. Here's why: Let's assume, just for this illustration, that a system is much simpler than it really is, and that it consists of only nine items: Turntable, tonearm, phono cartridge, phono cable, preamp, preamp-to-amplifier interconnects, amplifier, speaker cables, and speakers. Let's also assume that for each of those items, there are only ten brands or models made in the entire world. (To put this into perspective, the last time I checked, there were more than four hundred BRANDS [times however many models per brand] of just speakers!) Now, let us assume that; 1) in order to become experts we must listen to every item in every possible combination; 2) we will do so for only ten minutes per combination; and 3) we will spend no time at all changing combinations or getting things set up. At ten minutes per combination, that will take us (10 turntables x 10 tonearms x 10 cartridges x 10 phono cables x 10 preamps x 10 interconnects x 10 amplifiers x 10 speaker cables x speakers x 10 minutes =) 10 BILLION minutes, or about (10,000,000,000 minutes ÷ 365 days per year ÷ 24 hours per day ÷ 60 minutes per hour =) 19,025.88 YEARS. Quite obviously, nothing even remotely like that could ever happen. And even if it did, and even if we could live long enough to do it, everything we were listening to would be obsolete long before we had barely even started, and even if it weren't, we wouldn't be able to remember what all the combinations sounded like, anyway!

Now, just so that you'll have even more reason to understand why there can be no real audio experts to advise you, let me tell you the true story of why I have three pairs of Acoustat 1+1s.

Back in the early 1990s, Tony DiChiro (then President of Kinergetics Research and, even today, one of the industry's most brilliant designers) and I (at the time, a reviewer for Sounds Like… magazine and Editor of the industry publication, Sounds Like… News) were listening buddies and had similar systems and, in all but one respect, virtually identical listening rooms. Both of our rooms had essentially the same dimensions; both were living rooms with similar-sized connecting dining rooms at their far end; and both had open areas off to the left side of our respective listening positions. About the only difference was that my living room had a fireplace, with a four or five foot walk-through on either side of it, separating the living room from the dining room, and Tony's living room was separated from his dining room by a large central walkway flanked by two narrow (two or three foot wide) divider walls.

Tony and I both liked my original set of 1+1s, which were set up on either side of my fireplace, just ahead of the walk-throughs, and when Jim Strickland announced new, improved transformers to be installed on all of his new Acoustat speakers, Tony told me that he was going to buy a pair, and I asked him, when he placed the order, to order me a pair, too.

When the speakers came, I placed mine where my old ones had been and he placed his in the equivalent spot in his room, just in front of his narrow divider walls.

After a week or so of burning-in (Acoustats took a while before they sounded good) I was very pleased with mine, and I called Tony to find out what he thought of his, only to learn that he was very disappointed. As both sets of speakers were from the very same batch, ordered and shipped on the very same day, I told him that mine were great, and suggested that his probably just needed some more burn-in before they would be great, too.

Tony said he would do that, but when we next spoke, after another week or so, he said that they still weren't sounding right, and asked that I come over to his house to see if I could figure out why. When I got there, he was right; they really didn't sound good at all, so we loaded them up and hauled them over to my house for a direct comparison with mine. We were amazed to find that, in my room, they were terrific!

So that he wouldn't be stuck with speakers that didn't work in his room, I bought his 1+1s from him on the spot, and that's how (my original pair, plus my new pair, plus Tony's pair) I got my third pair of Acoustats. There's more to the story, though, and even a moral to it:

Sometime after I bought Tony's Acoustats, Bruce Thigpen came out with his Eminent Technology Model 4 planar speakers, which were similar to Magnepans, but with a push-pull, instead of single-sided magnet structure. Tony bought a pair, and when they arrived, he placed them just where he had previously put his Acoustats and they sounded so great that he called me to come out and hear them.

He was right: They were fabulous—so much so that I was seriously thinking of selling all of my Acoustats and buying a set of ET4s. Before I did anything, though, that very same night we loaded up the ETs, took them to my house and did a direct A/B comparison against my Acoustats (I was still listening to the pair that I had bought from Tony). At my place, the ETs sounded just as bad as the Acoustats had sounded at his, and it was then that we both learned—to our utter surprise—that even the same speakers, even on very similar systems, even in nearly identical rooms, can sound WILDLY different!

So much for the possibility of being an expert, or even of writing an equipment review that can have anything at all like universal applicability. When even minor room or system differences can result in MASSIVE differences in perceived performance, all anyone can ever hope to do is to describe how a product sounds to him, in his system, in his listening room, as compared to other products he has actually experienced and evaluated on the specific recordings he listens to, in accordance with his own, however idiosyncratic, tastes and preferences.

Now, finally, here comes the good news I promised you. There ARE two things that you can rely on absolutely to help you in making your equipment purchase decisions: Your ears! Using them, you are just exactly as much of an expert as anyone else. Even more of one, in fact, because you, more than anyone else, know exactly what you like; how you think music ought to sound; and how the product or system you are listening to compares to everything else that you have ever heard.

You can—especially if you get to know and understand the preferences and prejudices of the professional reviewers that you follow—use the ideas of some select few as input to help you decide what to audition, but, trust me, in the last many years I have known reviewers who like sound so bright that it will burn your ears off, or so dark that, listening to their "reference" system, you feel like the music is fighting its way to you through a morass of brown glue. I have known some who were more or less hearing-impaired, and others who simply have no taste or sense at all. Let one or two reviewers that you come to agree with be your equivalent of the King's "food taster": Let them decide which things might be poisonous, and which might be fit to eat, but always use ONLY your own ears, your own tastes, and your own ideas to make any final decision.