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December 2014
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Spending More And More, Yet Getting Less And Less
The conundrum of diminishing returns.
Article By A. Colin

 

  For a few hundred, you add quality ear buds or maybe even a set of loudspeakers to your smart phone or computer. Wow! The huge improvement in sound quality is amazing. But then add the Enjoy the Music.com Blue Note 2014 award-winning Clarus Crimson bi-wire loudspeaker cables for a few thousand to your mega-buck "money is no object" dream system. The sound is definitely a "different difference" and certainly better, but only slightly better. More detailed than dramatic.

Welcome to the frustrating plateau of high-end audio. This is a high, dry and wide plain, near the mountaintops, where each ultra-expensive step up in quality equipment yields only tiny improvements in overall sound quality and enjoyment. In the rarified stratosphere of high-end audio, the air gets thinner, while the journey to assemble a truly superlative home audio reproduction system gets harder. The climb to reach audio nirvana is flatter; each step is more and more expensive, each improved gain is smaller. Here is a thoroughly researched example...

Audio giant Harmon/Kardon did psychoacoustic research into what we hear, what we like and why we like it. In blind tests, E. Toole, Ph.D., Vice President Acoustical Engineering for Harman, found that when "other physical and psychological factors known to be sources of bias were also well controlled... the results were very clear. When the data were compiled, it turned out that most people, most of the time, liked and disliked the same loudspeakers."

In Harmon’s wonderful white papers (PDF), Toole reports" ...the flatness and smoothness of high-resolution on-axis curves need to be given substantial weighting. The winners were easy to pick; flat and smooth are beautiful." He found that "all-round good on-axis behavior makes a loudspeaker very "room friendly," with a high probability of sounding good in a wide variety of rooms."

 

Now The Good News
Therefore, Toole concludes, "a well-made $700 conventional loudspeaker can have much better on-axis response than $11,000 panel one." This means that for this on-axis behavior measurement at least, the price of the speaker "is certainly an unreliable indicator of sonic excellence." The first thousand spent on a loudspeaker with "all-round good on-axis behavior" makes a huge sonic difference compared to the $11,000 invested.

Here is another example of when you spend more and get less. In "Stereos as Indoor Sport," I found that proper loudspeaker placement, adding a modest sub-woofer and my audiophile quality front-end electronics could make my step-daughter’s thin and cheap boom box loudspeakers sound pretty darn good. Not great, just pretty good. Finally, though, the last expensive step in improving her 3D sonic holograph image would have to be taken; investment in better, far more expensive loudspeakers are needed to make any significant sonic improvement.

In fact, the well-tuned and placed $4500 system can create most of the stereophonic illusion as the $45,000 home movie and music reproduction system. It may not have the nuanced refinements of an aged, 95-point, French Bordeaux, but it has all of the up-front value of a 91-point south Australian Shiraz wine.

It is like the fun, little Mazda MX-5 Miata versus the magnificent Lamborghini Aventador coupe. That is zippy 170-HP compared to Aventador’s massive 700 horsepower; a quarter of the performance of the incredible super-car for only 1/7th of its price. In audio, 10 times the price does not give you a 3D sonic illusion that is 10x more realistic. While your first investment yields enormous gains in realism, your last, more costly, investment is the sonic equivalent of a mere tweak.

 

The First Dollar Spent Has More Impact than the Last
We add bigger loudspeakers, expensive amplifiers or sub-woofers to our systems and get huge, exciting gains in loudness, frequency response, dynamics, imaging, soundstage, separation and details. We add EQ, acoustic panels, and better front-end electronics for slightly more improvement. At first, each new component makes a huge improvement in fixing, correcting and improving our systems. Therefore, we keep adding and adding better and better equipment and yet receive less and less improvement in our 3D sonic holographic image. The gains are less though the money is more. Finally, we must stop! The actual, measured gains are minor now compared to the additional investment cost. The audio returns curve has flattened out. No more major or minor improvements can tweak more than a minor smidgen of improvement from the system.

While still in high school, I completed four years of college economics. I attended the Economics Institute at St. Olaf College, Northfield, Minnesota. The next year, Economics was one of my minor concentrations at Hamline University, St. Paul, Minnesota. These courses taught about such obtuse concepts as the Law of Diminishing Returns. It is a favorite conundrum of mine in the audio world. In economics, the Law states that as input increases, output gets less and less. In audio, this means more and more dollars, electronics or devices chases after less and less audio realism.

That is because the curve of dollars to audio return is not flat. At the left end of the chart, small changes bring big rewards. A small improvement even in a cheap system makes a big difference. Get those loudspeakers away from the walls, add "Pedestrian Ways to Support Your Loudspeakers", add a powered sub-woofer, use tube amplifiers – they all make significant improvements with inferior home theater music and movie reproduction systems.

At first, the return curve is steep. Small improvements do yield great benefits. A few bucks here, a little tweak there – Ok, that is better, now what? Coupled to three of the world’s most powerful, massively redundant, 20 billion calculations per second brains, our ears excel at pattern recognition. We learn and hear more and more. Therefore, you add more improvements to your system. Add another amplifier, EQ and acoustic room treatments.

Then the return curve becomes flatter, more horizontal and shallow. Upgrades no longer cost a few sawbucks. Zeroes are attached. Commas come with the dollar signs. We get closer and closer to the mountaintop. Yet, high in the mountains of tweaking audiophile quality audio, the plateau of diminishing returns can be a long dessert road with no end in sight. The last $1000 yields very little change. What do you spend it on? A slightly better cartridge? A vibration isolation platform? One more tweak? These are all very small improvements in sound quality compared to the first thousand spent on good ear buds or a set of loudspeakers.

Worse, the return curve can suddenly get flatten out. Your system reaches a plateau. The last few big improvements now have to cost quite a bit more. Improvements in substantially better amplifiers now cost several thousand, so do big improvements in sub-woofers, super–tweeters, cords and cables. Yet mega-buck "money-is-no-object" dream systems may evoke only as much thrill as the initial system did. Sure, they are slightly better at everything, but only slightly. As high-end systems remove the artifacts and defects diminishing their sound, they begin to sound better and better, of course, but also more alike in overall favorable qualities. The absence of anomalies and the presence of sheer quality makes overt differences in high-quality systems not more different, but less so.

Flat within 2dB from 100 Hz to 13 kHz is the same regardless of $2000 or $200,000 price. In fast cars, for example, zero to 60 in under four seconds is the same regardless of if it is a Corvette or Aventador. When solid-state amplifiers are not clipping, they measure and sound very close to each other. Sure there are lots of other measurements and parameters that further define the unique sound and feel of personal-use equipment. Yet as high-end audio measures more and more the same, their sound resembles each other more and more. Zero to 60 in under three seconds costs a lot more than a zippy little Miata (0 to 60 in a peppy seven seconds). For more on this subject, see Deprecating The Gifts Of The G-ds.

Therein lays the conundrum. We spend more and more to get less and less. The measured frequency response gets wider, flatter, smoother and with better output, particularly in the energy-hungry low bass notes. We work to reduce room modes and reflections. We end up re-shaping the listening environment around the stereo. I know tweaking audiophiles who start their dream systems with a newly constructed audio listening room.

 

Foolish Men Have Gone Before Us
Fortunately, we are not alone in this quest. The quest for audio nirvana in the home exists since the first musical recording evoked a visceral response. When the recording touched something in our gut, we wanted it and we wanted to improve the realism. Like kings in our castles, we want the illusion of the beautiful singer and the exciting band in our throne rooms. Like the Six-Million Dollar Man, we said, "we can make it better." Therefore, we do ever more in the quest for better. Like Martingale’s Law, known as The Gamblers’ Fallacy, small wins in the beginning encourage more investing, betting and/or trading but increasing the investments, bets or trades inevitably leads to larger and more damaging losses. In the case of audio, the initial small investments make great improvements at first (winnings) but give way to less and less audio gains (losses). No wonder some tweaking audiophiles need a 12-step program!

The mountaintop of audio nirvana is a plateau of increasing investment with ever-smaller gains in significant audio quality. To get there is a journey of newer, better, bigger and more expensive quality equipment. The climb is both very rewarding but steep at first, becoming tricky near the top, nuanced in exotic minutia as tweaking audiophiles get closer to a believable 3D sonic illusion.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

     
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