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March 2024

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The Most Expensive Component
It's not what you think it is but what you think it is.
Article By Roger Skoff


The Most Expensive Component It's not what you think it is but what you think it is. Article By Roger Skoff


  What would you say if I told you that the most expensive thing about your system might not be what you think it is? No, I'm not thinking of your listening room, although, from a physical standpoint, that might certainly be true, and it might even be the subject of some future article. It's not your collection of records, CDs, and master tapes, either, even though that, too, might at one time have been the case.

Instead, for altogether too many people (not you and I, of course) the most expensive thing about their system is one or more of the mistaken assumptions they might have made in putting it together.


Many years ago I had the opportunity to visit the home of a wealthy audiophile who had a great love of music and an essentially unlimited budget for a system to play it on. His entire home was designed around his sound room, which was HUGE – probably 25 or so feet wide by 40 or 50 feet long, with a flat ceiling that must have been at least ten or twelve feet high. Not only was the space colossal, but, in an attempt to make its acoustics as good as possible, he had had every surface other than the floor – all four walls and the ceiling– completely covered in what was or at least looked like RPG wooden acoustic diffuser panels.

Just the cost for those panels, if they were real, must have been well into the six-figure range and, when you consider that everything else – the speakers, the turntable, all of the electronic components, and every one of the cables – was rated as the very best Classification on someone's Components list, it was obvious that no expense had been spared.



There was only one problem: Although it was one of the most expensive overall systems I had ever heard, it was also among the worst sounding. It didn't image; it didn't soundstage; the timbres were off; and despite all that money and obvious effort, it just didn't sound "real".

So what was the mistaken assumption? Actually, there were at least three of them and a possible fourth.

That audiophile's first and perhaps most critical error was in assuming that spending more money must automatically give better results. He had obviously spent a ton of money and, at least in terms of the musical realism he had hoped to achieve, he had gotten just about nothing for it. So, what was the problem? Simple. Price and performance are not always directly related. There are things out there that are great bargains for little money and there are others that cost a lot but give what most people would regard as little value.

Complicating this is the fact that different people have different ideas of what constitutes value: 

A good example of this is to be found in two classic tape recorders, the Ampex 350, a pure professional machine that was the absolute recording studio standard for its day, and the Tandberg home tape recorder of the same time.

Listening and comparing specifications (frequency response, distortion, speed accuracy, etc.) many people thought the Tandberg was the better-sounding machine, but the economics of professional recording – the fact that a tape recorder failure could cost a never-to-be-repeated live musical performance or waste thousands of dollars in artist or studio time – meant that the much more expensive Ampex machine, with its reputation for absolute reliability, was, even at its much higher price, the better value for most professional recordists.



The second mistaken assumption was that (to borrow a handy old saying) "What's good for the goose is good for the gander." Just because a component or an acoustical treatment works well in one system or one room doesn't automatically mean that it will work well in all others. An example of this is corner horn loudspeakers. Those are set hard in the corners of the listening room and used the room's walls, floor, and even ceiling to effectively extend the length and mouth of the speakers' horn enclosures, and thereby enhance the speakers' bass performance. The problem is that having to be in its corners, the size of the room becomes the sole determinant of speaker placement, and other parts of the musical presentation – the possibilities of imaging and soundscaping, for example, can suffer.

The third mistake was in assuming that just because a reviewer – even a well-respected and popular reviewer – likes a product, everyone else must like it, too. That's simply not the case, and it can't be: For one thing, different reviewers review the equipment they write about on their own system, in their rooms, listening to their own choice of recordings. That, right there, is reason to wonder about their conclusions. What if a reviewer's system has tube electronics and yours is solid-state? Or what if the opposite is true? The two can sound noticeably different. Or what if his listening room is materially different – larger, smaller, differently shaped, furnished, and/or acoustically treated than your own?



The Differences We All Have To Contend With
Because of system and room differences, whatever reviewers play will sound, to at least some degree, different to them than it would to you, even if it's always the same sections of the same piece of music that's being played. And what if the reviewer's musical tastes and preferences or even just his idea of what something ought to sound like are different than yours? What if two reviewers write about the same thing and come to different conclusions? What should you believe? Who should you believe?

And that leads to a possible fourth mistaken assumption: that measuring equipment's performance is better – or even as good as – actually listening to it in your own home as part of your own system. Certainly, testing is more precise in its expression than subjective evaluation ("It's 0.03% different" obviously nails it down more than saying "It's a little more ‘musical'"), but that doesn't necessarily make it any more valuable to a potential buyer of the tested product.

Knowing that a speaker system has a frequency response "flat" within 3dB from 28 Hz to 23 kHz in an anechoic chamber tells you nothing at all about what it will actually sound like in your listening room. If your room is too small to propagate 28 Hz frequencies, all the room will allow is all you'll get. And imaging, soundscaping, and even perceived frequency response all change in response to your room and where the speakers are placed in it.



It Is More Than Just Speakers
And it's not just speakers where test results can be misleading; there are and have been plenty of other audio products whose sound and measurements didn't match. One whole set of examples that comes to mind is the transistor electronics of a few decades back that, by using massive negative global feedback to cancel distortion, were able to show THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) specs of as little as 0.001% but still didn't sound good. There have also been opposite examples of tube electronics that, because of the kind (even order) of distortion that tubes tend to generate, showed absolutely awful distortion specs (in the range 2% or more) and still produced a lovely "musical" sound that audiophiles and music lovers find delightful, even to this day.

The potentially most expensive part of any system is the mistaken assumption that causes you to buy the wrong thing. Remember what happened to that other audiophile with the fancy room and the "All Highly Recommended" components and listen to things before you buy them!

That way, when you go to your listening room, turn on your system, put on some tunes, close your eyes, and sit back and listen, you'll be far more likely to...


Enjoy the music!


Roger Skoff
















































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