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How Far Are You Willing to Chase "Better" Sound?

On July 13, 2016

First of all, a confession. My name is Ed and I am a hardware addict. I'm 35 years old and I've spent over 20 of them chasing better and better sound. I have on more than one occasion, put myself into deeply precarious financial situations in the pursuit of the next big thing and I prefer not to tally up the actual total I've spent over the years as it would only serve to remind me of how terminally irresponsible I've been at some points.

If there's a silver lining to this particular cloud, it does at least furnish me with some advice to anyone reading this who is either already in the same boat or could find themselves behaving this way. Equally, for those of you reading this with a faint look of incomprehension on your face, I hope there might be some useful information in terms of ensuring that any upgrades you do make are worthwhile. Upgrading is potentially an expensive business and it pays to get it right. To this end, as an only partially reformed box swapper, there are some worthwhile hints and tips.

The first is absolutely vital and doesn't cost you a penny. What is your "endgame" with your hi-fi system? Are you acutely aware of something it is doing wrong that you'd change in a heartbeat or are you on the lookout for a more general upgrade? If it is the latter, what do you want more of, less of or simply to do better than it currently is? If you can't convincingly answer these questions, the absolute last thing you should do is set out to spend more money on your audio equipment. If you're listening to your system and you're loving what you hear, the last thing you want to do is start to mess about with the constituent parts in the hope of making things better.

If you have a goal or at the very least, a basic plan of what you want to improve, you still need to be careful. There is a temptation to assume that simply because something is bigger or more expensive, it will improve your system in the way you want or in severe cases, not at all. Simply because you can make it work with your existing equipment does not mean that doing so will be a step forward.

The best way to avoid this is to listen to the piece of equipment you are thinking of buying before you hand over any money. I appreciate that this is not always possible and even when it is, it is rarely easy but nothing comes close to trying before you buy to eliminate products that don't fit the bill and simultaneously should reduce the 'churn' that compulsive box swappers can suffer from. By making the selection process, slower and more deliberate, you are unlikely to want to repeat it that often because the products you buy via these means actually met your requirements.

This is mainly to prevent the classic problem of staying up late, firing up the internet, seeing that someone is selling product X at a price you can just about afford in the local area (although I find my definition of 'local' extends to a rather larger radius at 1am than it does in the cold light of day). Until you saw it for sale, you had no idea you wanted it or how it might work with the rest of your equipment but you throw down the cash and try and accommodate it. Sometimes this beer guided shopping works. Just as often, you find yourself penning a Craigslist listing for the item in question a fortnight later, saying 'you just want what you paid for it.'

Equally important is to actually upgrade rather than 'sidegrade' (a term I didn't invent but feel is especially apt here). The law of diminishing returns is a supporting pillar of the audio industry. A $500 record player will be substantially better than a $150 one. A $1,000 player will be better than the $500 one but the qualitative jump will be smaller. This continues all the way up the pricing ladder to the point where the differences between two pieces of high end equipment that are several thousand dollars apart in price can come down to subjective preference. If you have a $500 turntable you like, it is highly unlikely than anything less than $1,200-1,500 will be a meaningful step forward.

You might reasonably say, "I've got student loans/mortgage/a crippling Game of Thrones figurine addiction to pay for, I'm never going to have that much money to spend." If this is the case, you should still consider that blowing a small but hard saved sums every now and again to limited benefit is not really any more beneficial. Have a look at our cost effective upgrades article, get the absolute most out of what you've got and spend your hard earned on records.

Focusing on the software is important because it isn't there forever. One of my turntable purchases in particular in 2008 wiped out my ability to buy many records for nearly a year. There are a clutch of albums from that period I don't own and thanks to the way that the prices of used ones are going, it is highly likely that in most cases I ever will. If your need to feed your hardware habit outweighs the ability to actually buy records to play on it, you need to consider the worth of the upgrade in the first place.

If you are a hardware addict, what can you do to help keep those voices in your head from demanding you swap some boxes? One of the most effective things I've found is to frequently visit hi-fi shows and events. At first this sounds completely insane- like asking a cocaine addict to go on a walking holiday of the Columbian foothills- but there is a method to the madness. In the same way that listening to equipment before you buy is helps to refine your choices, actually hearing equipment you've been lusting after can be a remarkably underwhelming experience. Very little pops the bubble quicker than realizing that it really isn't a step up, just another step sideways.

It can also help remind you of the virtues of your own equipment. The comparisons aren't entirely fair- more often than not, the exhibitor will be in an unfriendly space and will be exhibiting what they want to sell rather than a system of all stars but a theme I've consistently seen from many show goers is their pleasant surprise at how well their equipment stands up to comparisons with more expensive kit on display. Going back to the start of this piece, it also means that if you do hear something really good at the right sort of budget, you do at least have a clear plan of where your system should be going.

Above all, if your audio system is causing you stress, frustration and disappointment, it has failed in the job it was set out to do. There's always someone with better gear, a larger collection of records you hanker after and the ability to drop surprising amounts of cash at the drop of a hat. This has forever been and will ever be thus. Your own system is what it is and if you focus on extracting the maximum enjoyment from what you've got, you'll be happier than if you spend years chasing the next magic bullet for your gear. Trust me- I've been there.

Profile Picture of Ed Selley
Ed Selley

Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.

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