Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

Reviews of Attainable Hi-Fi & Home-Theater Equipment

It seems that I’ve been misunderstood. That’s always a danger when you’re monologuing, but thankfully the SoundStage! Network is more of a slow, ongoing dialog between an incredibly motley crew. To wit: the most recent volley in my ongoing parley with SoundStage! Ultra editor Jason Thorpe is a piece titled “I’m Not an Oligarch!”—which is a response to my January editorial, “The Needs of the Many versus the Needs of the Reviewer.”

From the giddyap, Jason describes the two of us as oil and water, although I’d say we’re more like chocolate and peanut butter, in that one of us is nutty and sweet while the other is shockingly bitter. But there’s no denying that we’re two great tastes that taste better together. As with all domains of life, I think the SoundStage! crew is stronger as a result of our diversity.

The thing is, Jason and I are very different people by necessity, or we wouldn’t have found ourselves covering our respective beats. He’s more drawn to luxury, high-end gear, and he does a damned fine job of covering it. My working-class roots and anti-capitalist leanings, on the other hand, shine through in my appreciation of a good bargain.

But I wonder sometimes if Jason and I really grok each other at all. I say that because in the aforementioned editorial, he ascribed my longing for the minimalist perfection and self-contained splendor of a KEF LS60 Wireless speaker system to Stoicism on my part. I may be a lot of things, but a Stoic is not one of them. The only Enchiridion that interests me is the one Finn and Jake beat out of the Dark Magician in the first season of Adventure Time.

In short, I’m not some flagellant committed to a philosophy of frugality for frugality’s sake, and while Jason is correct that I live in Alabama and keep my (very spendy, automated) thermostat set to the 60s during the day in wintertime, during summer it sets itself to 72° at night as long as it senses that the house is occupied.

Here’s the thing about me: I believe in spending more money in circumstances where I see real value in spending more money. I’m prepping now to run a Dungeons & Dragons campaign based on Icewind Dale: Rime of the Frostmaiden over the coming months and years. I didn’t buy the standard-edition sourcebook for $50, though, or the limited-edition printed for gaming stores. No, I went HAM a few years back and purchased the $500 Platinum Edition from Beadle & Grimm’s Pandemonium Warehouse, which came with all manner of modular maps and dungeon maps and world maps, along with handouts, letters, jewelry, and other artifacts, not to mention 20 pre-painted miniatures and a reorganization of the book’s contents into individual pamphlets. That last point is appealing because it obviates the need for me to restructure the campaign and modularize the text myself in the inevitable event that my players zig when all rational thought would lead them to zag.

I’d prefer to have painted the minis with my own brush, mind you, because that’s where I find my Zen, but so be it. The rest of it was totally worth it for me, and when we roll our final d20 in Icewind Dale, I’ll probably end up having spent a buck and a quarter per hour, at most, for hundreds of hours’ worth of bonding with my friends and some of the most compelling entertainment in the world. Whereas I could have just as easily spent $50 on the standard book, drawn my own maps, purchased my own unpainted minis, and still had a rip-roaring good time. I’ve done it before.

Rime of the Frostmaiden

But the extras from Beadle & Grimm’s struck me as a good value, all things considered. Because they give me and the players at my table something I couldn’t have gotten anywhere else and couldn’t have made by myself in anything approaching the same quality.

On the other hand, sometime back I ditched cartridge razors in favor of an ancient safety razor I inherited from my momma after she died. I used to spend $120 or more per year on razor cartridges. Now I spend maybe $8 on a box of Astra Superior Platinum blades once every two years, if that.

And here’s the crazy thing: I get a much better shave. What’s more, after a few days of practice and experimentation to find the proper degree of blade exposure for my skin and hair type, I was done with nicks and cuts pretty much forever.

If that weren’t the case—if the Big Razor propaganda and marketing spin were legit, and cartridge razors did indeed scrape my neck and jowls cleaner with less irritation—I’d put Momma’s old safety razor from the ’60s (when most things were built better—let’s be honest) in a prominent spot in my bathroom just for vibes and set up auto-delivery on those ludicrously expensive multi-blade monstrosities that used to suck my wallet dry. I wouldn’t hesitate for a second to do so.

In short, the razor is what my dear friend, mentor, and podcast cohost Brent Butterworth calls “a solved problem.” But an entire industry sustains itself by conditioning billions of people to believe that the only solution to the occasional bit of skin irritation is not to adjust to a slightly less-aggressive level of blade exposure, buy a blade sampler pack for $10 to find the right blade for one’s hair type, and use good shave butter or shaving soap, but rather to spend gobs of money on disposable plastic crap that does a half-assed job at best.

And just like any house of cards designed to make the rich even richer and the poor even poorer, the industry has to maintain the charade by occasionally adding more rows of blades, tacking on silly moisturizing strips and micro-fins, all to convince you that this year’s waste of money is an upgrade over last year’s waste of money. In other words, they want you to think that razors aren’t a solved problem.

A close shave

Is any of this sounding familiar? If you’ve been in the hi-fi hobby for long, it should. Sometimes it seems like the primary role of some high-end audio magazines is convincing people that solved problems haven’t really been solved yet, and you just need this ridiculous cable or that monstrous power cord or this other idiotic network switch, and finally you’ll be able to enjoy your music for a month or two before discontentment sets in and you need your next upgrade fix.

Case in point: DACs are, as I’ve said before, a solved problem. You can’t convince me that anyone is going to develop a digital-to-analog converter tomorrow or next year or ten years from now that reconstructs a waveform more accurately than today’s competent and affordable DACs. Use the same type of reconstruction filter on a $300 DAC and a $30,000 DAC, and nobody is going to hear the difference between them in a blind ABX test, assuming levels are matched.

Now, you might want a DAC housed in a fancier chassis. That’s valid. You might want one whose form factor matches the rest of your gear. Awesome. That’s a sane reason to buy a thing. You might just like nice stuff. Buy your luxury DAC in that case, and don’t let anyone tell you not to. But stop pretending it performs better. It almost certainly doesn’t. DACs are a solved problem.

Class-AB amps are, in my estimation, another solved problem. As are class-A and, I would argue, class-G power amps. You know what, though? I don’t think class-D amps are. And I say that because companies like Hypex and Purifi and ICEpower continue to develop more efficient class-D modules every few years, not to mention better and more efficient power supplies. And they don’t cost much at all. Plus, new class-D designs that rely on GaN FETs instead of MOSFETs are increasing efficiency even more, without impacting sound quality at all, best I can tell. They wouldn’t be nearly as interesting to me if their performance wasn’t indistinguishable from the priciest amps in the world (as long as they’re all operating within their design limits, of course). But by and large, in my experience, they sound every bit as good.

As I’ve said before, transducers are also far from a solved problem. And they may never be solved completely. Skeptical as I am of any new speaker design that claims to be a radical reinvention of audio reproduction, I genuinely believe we’ll one day see a revolution in transducer development and engineering—hopefully in my lifetime.

Until then, though, if you want a substantially bigger and/or better speaker (or headphone, or phono cartridge), there’s a reasonable assumption that you’re going to have to spend more for it, at least up to a point.

Hell, I don’t even think volume controls are an entirely solved problem, at least not when it comes to what I’m looking for from a volume control. And I say that because every time Simaudio comes out with a new piece of kit, I give the volume knob a twist and think, “Now, that’s the finest such knob I’ve ever laid my Wookiee paws on—precise, fluid, accurate, and delightfully chonky, with better inertia and better consistency than anything I’ve ever felt or heard before.” And I suspect I’ll think the same about whatever seemingly magical volume control they conjure up eight or ten years from now.


But the point of this screed isn’t to laboriously delineate between solved and unsolved problems, or to tell you that you should only spend more money on product categories where spending a crap-ton more money legitimately does equal better performance. The real point here is to defend my turf and clarify that appreciating simplicity, economical design, and that most-derided of all qualities in hi-fi—convenience—doesn’t mean I’m cheap or that I’m incapable of appreciating nice things.

Yes, I love a good deal. But not at the expense of a job well done. If forced to choose between thrift and quality, I’ll choose quality every day of the week and twice on Dudeist holidays. But in many cases, I don’t think you necessarily have to make that choice as long as you’re willing to do a bit of research.

And now that I think about it, the safety-razor analogy fits the world of hi-fi perfectly, in my opinion, in that less-exorbitant gear is often legitimately better-performing, better-built gear. I can’t remember the last time I saw a $25,000 or $50,000 preamp/amp combo that was anywhere near as beautifully designed and constructed as the $2500 Marantz Model 40n I reviewed a while back.

Then again, sometimes pricier gear is pricier because it’s handcrafted in small quantities or over-engineered or beautifully designed, and there’s oodles of value in that, too.

Sometimes spending less gets you more. Sometimes simple legitimately is better. And sometimes you actually get more when you pay more. All I want is for all of us to be more honest about that. And thinking that way doesn’t make me a Stoic or an ascetic or any sort of ic—other than perhaps a heretic.

. . . Dennis Burger