Why Pay More?

A very popular myth among the audio unwashed—and one still perpetuated by the pop hi-fi writers—is that nothing is to be gained by paying more than $1000 for a stereo system (footnote 1). Members of the general public, including masses of people who enjoy live, unamplified music, have the impression that more money simply buys one wider and wider frequency range, and defend their $500 "compact" systems with the lame excuse that their ears aren't all that good, and who needs to hear what bats hear anyway? This is no doubt a soothing emollient for one's disinclination to invest more money in audio gear, but it is a supreme self-deception.

It is true that, up to a certain point, the money you pay does buy you wider frequency range. The high end of an under-$500 stereo system is limited enough to cover up a multitude of high-frequency sins (mistracking, electronic distortion, etc.) and the low end doesn't go deep enough to reveal turntable rumble or acoustic feedback proclivities. But as the total system price exceeds the $500 mark, the speakers used in it will exhibit an increasing ability to pass high-end crud and low-end bothers. And there is a point somewhere between $500 and $1000 where the extension of those frequency ranges make previous inaudible problems acutely audible.

The transition point from one phase to the other may be impossible to define, but the effect is that "suddenly," the listener finds that he is noticing mistracking hash, surface ticks and pops, evidence of strain during loud passages, and peculiar low-frequency disturbances that somehow don't seem related to the music.

These things may all be there to some extent in lesser systems, but not to a sufficient degree to call attention to themselves. Often they are perceived subliminally, so that the listener, while unaware that anything is amiss, finds his listening enjoyment impaired to a greater or lesser degree without knowing why. But at some point, those subliminal annoyances in reproduced sound finally penetrate to the level of consciousness, at which time the listener becomes aware that his stereo is making certain, specific, identifiable (albeit inexplicable) sounds that do not belong there.

This sudden awareness can occur spontaneously while he is listening to a system that he has lived with for some time, but more often it happens after said listener, feeling he should "upgrade" his old system, has replaced it with a "better" one whose loudspeakers expose more of those lower and upper frequency ranges. And that "better" system is almost invariaby priced between $500 and $1000.

This is the crucial point that separates the audiophile from the ordinary person. The latter's reaction is to shrug his shoulders and aver that the experts are right. He will not buy a better system, because he now has the feeling that the present one is "too good for his ears" or his records. (This conclusion is enthusiastically supported by his wife, who, having always been less tolerant of distortion and acutely aware of it long before hubby was, assures him that the money for the new system would have been better spent on refurbishing the family room.)

The audiophile's reaction will be to try for something a bit better, and costlier, in hopes of achieving what his previous purchase failed to achieve: Listening Satisfaction. He is hooked, because once that $1000 barrier is surmounted, the sky's the limit. He can get progressively better, and more-musical sound by paying progressively more for his components. Better cartridges produce less tracking distortion, better turntables produce less rumble and feedback, and better electronics are cleaner and more listenable at the high end and the low end. But by the same token, the better loudspeakers are ever-more-revealing of all those characteristics of the preceding components. Nonetheless, for $10,000 and the right choices of components (which is another story), the audiophile can have a super-fi stereo system that is very nearly as easy and enjoyable to listen to as was his $500 compact!

To express this another way: The pursuit of audio perfection is not a continuum where purchase cost and listening pleasure are directly inter-related in a neat, linear manner. To begin with, increments in system cost produce progressively diminishing increments in listening pleasure. This might be plotted as an input/output curve (fig.1), which also nicely illustrates how the Law of Diminishing Returns works in high fidelity. This is the simple relationship seen by those experts who set an arbitrary $1000 ceiling on a system purchase. But in reality, that curve has a large glitch in it (fig.2), at the point where the endmost components in the system start to reveal the nasties in all the components ahead of them. And that glitch appears at around the $1000 total system cost.





In other words, there are two phases of advancement from no-fi to ultimate-fi. Up to a certain point, your money buys you more of everything: more frequency range, more power, more control flexibility. Above that point—the point where you realize that you're hearing more but liking it less—your additional monetary outlay buys you less of what annoys you: Less edginess, less boominess, less acoustic feedback, less veiling —less irritation of all kinds.

Those experts who advise the $1000 limit on a system purchase would be appalled at a minister of the Church who preached a gospel of "adequate" Godliness. But that is exactly what those experts have been doing. Of course, they'll never acknowledge the similarity.—J. Gordon Holt

Footnote 1: As this essay was written in the fall of 1979, it is appropriate to point out that $1000 in 1979 dollars is approximately equivalent to $3000 in 2010 dollars. Similarly, a $500 system in 1979 would cost $1500 in 2010.—Ed.

Bobbobato's picture

This article shows why audiophilia is, apparently, so disliked by "the masses". How can you possibly expect people to believe that their audio system is not simply "ok" but actually "bad" when a better audio system is unaffordable? What is there for "the masses" to gain? An inferiority complex?