The Improvement Disease

It has been said that the high-end audio industry has a weakness which perversely has also helped to maintain its growth. The evolutionary process whereby designs are improved, upgraded, and supplanted at regular intervals keeps everyone interested, and of course affords reviewers useful employment. On the other hand, once a purchase has been made there may be resentment on the part of owners who find that, by the time their choice has become established and awarded sufficient review recommendation, a product upgrade is already in the pipeline.

Announcements of such improvements are often premature, impelled by the manufacturer's desire to appear ahead of the competition. I feel that this practice has an ultimately damaging effect on the industry, alienating existing owners and stalling sales in progress by raising false hopes of an early availability of an upgrade. In fact, serious delays are often experienced with the products in question, due to truncated and/or rushed development. Offering upgrades to existing owners, frequently at significant extra cost, is no real answer, but simply an amelioration.

General experience suggests that a worthy hi-fi component has a minimum lifetime of two years. When launch announcements are made, say at the CES, development should be complete and the production resources already in place. However, too many show models are very early prototypes, or even dummies. Indeed, in one notable case, there was no product to see at all!

Time is required for the market reaction to a new product to develop, while the review process can take from six to nine months. If the general assessment of a product is positive, sales will consolidate, a market share will be established, confidence will grow, and steady sales will ensue. The product gains reputation and stature by word of mouth and by example sufficient to carry it for at least two years of sales activity (footnote 1).

However, many magazine writers have been tripped up by manufacturers during the review process. As the review goes to press, perhaps 10 months after the product's real introduction to the market, it is common to find some dispute about the findings since the manufacturers have already upgraded or replaced that particular model. Dealers, magazines, and customers cannot be expected to put up with this for much longer. Designers must show some restraint and adopt a more considered and conservative approach to upgrades if this industry's good reputation is to survive.

For the purchaser, the greatest problem is one of scale. Just how big are the trumpeted improvements of a given audio component in the context of his or her own established audio system? In my opinion, many commentators and reviewers make inadequate attempts to judge relative performance differences, the flavor-of-the-month approach being all too common. Worse still is the temporary love affair in which a reviewer appears to abandon all judgmental faculties and provides such purple prose that few know whether the product in question is any good at all.

For my reviews in Hi-Fi News & Record Review magazine, I have long used a numerical scoring system for sound quality based on an extensive library of past reviews. This is kept as accurate as possible by reference to an established inventory of key products in every category. Some of these go back more than a decade in order to help maintain a good perspective of the rate of advance. If there is any doubt about a current model, an aural refresher with a unit out of the stock room usually settles the matter. I encourage my colleagues to do the same.—Martin Colloms

Footnote: 1 In some cases, designs have lasted much longer than this, their reputations remaining untarnished. An obvious example is the Quad Electrostatic speaker. Another was the long-lived Audio Research D79, while in the UK the Spendor BC1 and BBC LS3/5a are worth mentioning.

jimtavegia's picture

I can tell you that I still listen to 90% of my music on my old AR-58's with foam surrounds on the 12" woofers done twice and my Large Advents with the real wood cabinets and original tweeters. I have heard better, obviously, but I have also heard worse and why I still use them. Most of my electronics is 10-20 years old and I still like the sound of my Pioneer Elite VSX 21 and all I had to do was replace the volume encoder once. My 3 Sony DVP-NS 755's all spin everything I give them including SACDs and my home made 24/96 DVD-Vs from my recordings and downloads and still sound great to me as does my Yamaha S-1800 DVD-SACD-DVD-A player. I know they are long in the tooth, but everyone who comes over thinks it all still sounds very good. It may be that my 70 year old ears deceive me, but that is fine. Chasing new gear is a costly thing.

I have added two Focusrite Scarlett 2i2's and a Steinberg UR-22 to play back all my computer's files up to 24/192 and they sound good to me for all of $150 each with full I/O and good headphone amps.

To me it is a great time to be an audiophile and no one can say that it is too costly to get into high resolution audio anymore. If you have a job you can, so ditch the MP3s and get rolling, folks. As always, listen, and if you like, then buy. You have bought the lastest "Tight Lines" Stereophile release, haven't you? It will help you decide if your system is resolving enough as it is a great recording and performance.

dalethorn's picture

The only real problem I see is if someone on a budget has too high an expectation of what they'll get for their money, and whether or not they can return or exchange a purchase, they are determined to fulfill that expectation even to the point of severe financial hardship. The previous comment by Jim lists some familiar gear, and it's comforting to see that he's been able to keep that gear running for a long time. As a fellow audiophile pushing years, I understand the gestalt of satisfaction with "good" that needs no immediate or near-future attention. But I also remember my cash-starved 20s and 30s.

Anon2's picture

I figured there would be 50 comments on this string by now. It must be the 4th of July weekend.

Anyway, like another poster here, I've learned to circumvent this whole process.

Except for speakers and headphones, I purchase used equipment. Speakers are a risky proposition for a used purchase. Look at the "hey, watch this" videos on YouTube and you will hear and see as much. Headphones, even superb ones, are such a steal, if purchased new, that there's no need to go used here.

Why worry about new playback and amplification gear? Buy used equipment. Then the hand-wringing agony outlined in this article is rendered academic.

Read multiple past reviews on existing equipment. Look at users' reviews on on-line sources. Then make your purchase.

If a 1.8 liter engine on a Honda or Mazda offers similar performance between 1997 and 2017, then I'd doubt that audio equipment, with smaller engineering and design staffs, would show a greater improvement.

Split the difference. Look for something 5 years old, or so, to attain a balance of technological advancement and low-mileage. Let the people who get to the front of the line at dealer demos and shows pay the equivalen--of the 1997 or 2017 cars that have not changed in price--for what "new gear" gets them.

I have an integrated amp. I bought it used. A newer model came out; this publication reviewed the newer model; they gave it high reviews. Then, I thought, "wouldn't be interesting if a trawled (not trolled) the web to look for lab measurements on my predecessor model.”

Thanks to Dr. Google, test bench results on my predecessor-integrated amp were readily found. Graphs, similar to JA's, were proffered on this site. JA might correct me, but I found, to my surprise, that on some "measurements" my predecessor integrated demonstrated superior performance to the newer one. I could have used Dr. Google to do a full translation of the foreign-language resource on which I found this competitive data on a manufacturer's older product. There was no need to do this: the graphs (regardless of tongue) did the talking.

Now, if you are worried about speakers, and hesitate to buy a "used-and-abused" used pair, again, fear not. I have figured out this one too; surely many other like-minded audio fans have also figured out as much. Lower end speakers, purchased new, get the hand-me-down technology from higher end models from yesteryear. Lighter-duty enclosures, and non-premium crossover components, make the difference here. Having referred to resources from experienced speaker builders, I have often read the following (and I quote roughly here): "I never use the most expensive drivers and crossover components. They don't make much of a difference."

If you think that most speakers are improving in leaps and bounds, then I’ll refer you to this past article from this venerable publication. I doubt that much has changed over the past 9 years (except veneers and storylines):

So buy new gear only if you are agonizing over what this-or-that audio-worthy will confer as a rhetorically amplified appraisal for modest improvement (not on this publication, thankfully), then don't worry. Be satisfied that quality changes in audio are incremental. Cost increases, for excellent lower-end gear, are equally incremental.

Leave the other side of the velvet rope for those "early adopters" with open budgets and risk-taking postures. Their first-in-line backslapping with the audio powers-that-be will as fleeting as a DC or Hollywood news cycle. Then, buy used for amplification and playback. Go lower end and new for speakers. Buy fantastic, and new, headphones “for a song.”

Put your money into better digital sources, and better recordings. Then "keep calm and keep listening."

georgehifi's picture

To me it can mean a couple of things, one they didn't get it right in the first place maybe because of mediocre reviews, and are trying to get sales back up.
Or it was right to start with and initial sales have slowed, and to get some more cash flowing, asking owners to get their "non improved" models upgraded "at a cost" to the new improved model.

Cheers George

Anton's picture

All this progress has rendered vintage equipment valueless.

Walking through audiophile neighborhoods is dangerous what with all the obsolete gear being thrown from buildings.

It's only this week that audio playback finally got good enough to reproduce 60 year old recordings.

tonykaz's picture

Wrong summary.

I think that we were promised improvement that didn't equate with the price increases we were seeing. Floor Standing Loudspeakers went from $2,000 to $50,000, Cable went from $2.50 per foot to outa-sight.

Then came the important Power Conditioners for $10,000+, ouch!

I closed my Esoteric Audio Salon in 1985 and returned to General Motors Heavy Manufacturing. I didn't begin thinking of return to Audio until 2011 when I met Tyll & Steve G. at RMAF. Sennheiser headphone Audio for me became that "Promised" improvement delivered at everyday Consumer accessible pricing.

1985 thru 2011 seemed like Audio's Dark Ages, if there was excitement, it was "forced" excitement by Promoters and Press. Halcro Amps for $20,000 c.2004, phew.

Today, we can easily enjoy the finest transducers for under $5,000 ( well under ). Superb Electronics for cheap, Pro-level active loudspeakers for well under $5,000, outstanding DACs for $2,000 and access to the Worlds High Rez music via our Phone.

The "Promise" is finally realized, at entry level price points, even cheaper via eBay used.

That excitement we old timers enjoyed back in the 1960s & 1970s is still there at Headphone Meets and at some Big Audio Shows. Probably the only excitement at any Big Audio Show will be at the Headphone part.

Today, a person can be sitting in the Fort Meyers,Florida Airport waiting for a flight to England or sitting on a park bench in Central Park NY,NY while listening to Thomas Allen performing Rossini. This itself is one of the greatest of all things that we Audiophiles have today that was impossible thru-out Martin Collom's writing career.

Tony in Michigan

dalethorn's picture

"Today, a person can be sitting in the Fort Meyers,Florida Airport waiting for a flight to England or sitting on a park bench in Central Park NY,NY while listening to Thomas Allen performing Rossini. This itself is one of the greatest of all things that we Audiophiles have today that was impossible thru-out Martin Collom's writing career."

I dunno about that Tony. I had an excellent Advent cassette machine that produced high quality tapes, and though they may not have been as perfect as digital for home use, they were plenty good enough for playing at the airport etc. on my Sony WM-D6C, with the better portable headphones then (Koss, Sony, others...)

tonykaz's picture

We also had portable albums with 50+ CDs.

I'm now warmed-up to a nice Shirt Pocket HiFi that can match quality with the big home rig.

Pretty soon it'll be waterproof for use on the Kayak, might even survive a drop.

I was at one of the Big Shows where I saw John Atkinson doing a high-end demo using an Astel & Kern player as the source.

Tony in Michigan

David Harper's picture

after spending twenty years buying more and more expensive gear in the endless pursuit of sound quality in the end I decided it was, for me,strangely unrewarding not to mention a colossal waste of money. So after another twenty years of no involvement at all I recently did some research for a while and decided on a good AVR (Denon) and a pair of Polk floorstanding speakers(RTia5)and a Marantz universal disc player. Then decided I was going to forget about listening to equipment and listen to music instead. I love this system. Someone once said "audiophiles don't listen to music with their systems,they listen to their systems with music".