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Editor's Corner: February 2001

Tales Of Myth And Magic

[Buyer Beware]

Author: Dejan Veselinovic

Let me start out on the right foot by saying it out aloud - I don't believe, much less trust, the so-called "High End". I think it is, by and large, a gigantic swindle.

Please note the phrase "by and large"; there are, there always were and there always will be some very decent companies out there, with sky high prices, but trying to make the best possible nevertheless. Sadly, they are in my experience the almost insignificant minority.

To help you understand why I am so critical of the high end, I need to relate several rather sad experiences. I will not name names, on the off chance that such things do not happen any more.

Case No. 1. A famous manufacturer, who all but invented the tuned components derived from standard production unit. A friend had one of their integrated amps, which gave up the ghost with a little smoke, so he asked me to fix it. Having had some experience with the same product, but in standard form, I agreed. Upon opening it up, I could not escape the feeling that it was exactly the same as the production unit. This nagged me so that I found a friend of a friend who had the standard issue product, which was then borrowed. I compared the two long and hard and for the life of me, could not come up with one single bit of difference.

Anyway, I repaired the broken down unit very easily, it was a small mishap, which I for one would not hold against the manufacturer - the part in question was a good one, well selected, from a reputable source, so its breaking down is simply bad luck, no big deal. It was changed, as were its associated components on the off chance that they were not what they used to be any more, and it happily switched on and worked.

I then ascertained that it was up to the manufacturer's specifications as shown in the service manual, and rechecked the borrowed unit, just in case. A little adjusting set things straight. Next, some measurements were done and I came up with essentially the same results for both units - including their power output. For two whole days, I could not come up with anything that would justify either the designation that one was somehow better than the other, much less the price difference.

It seemed like a very crooked deal to me, and I might have forgotten all about it had I not come across an issue of Germany's "Stereo" magazine some months later, and lo and behold, they came up with EXACTLY the same conclusion! The usually very polite Germans were not polite about it at all, and I wholeheartedly agree with them. However, to be fair, that same manufacturer today still offers streamlined products based on standard issue, but today there are differences and they can be documented.

Case No.2. A very famous name from the US, one of the world's top two or three, came in for service with a friend. He called me up and said I might like to come over, because if he told me what he saw inside I would not believe it. And he was right - I wouldn't have.

I went over and there it was about 35 kg of power amplification, cost in five figure numbers (eight figures in Italy). Of course, I was impressed two meters away, and could hardly wait to look inside. Well, I did. It is built totally symmetrically, so it was easy to compare channels. My friend said he had repaired it, and that the slow turn on circuit went out, indicating that he never had the need to touch the actual audio electronics.

To cut a long story short, one board had plenty of free space. Several rows of transistors, off hand, I'd say about 30 or so were missing. Not there! Yet, when you turn the amp on, it works with no problems. I inspected the places where the transistors were supposed to be but weren't and determined that nothing had ever been soldered on those places - they left the factory as blanks.

This implies that they were in fact not needed, that they were there to fill up the board and justify the stratospheric price. This trick I saw last in 1968, when I purchased an 8 transistor portable radio by a totally unknown manufacturer only to find that three transistors were soldered alongside the board, doing absolutely nothing else but justifying the "8 Transistor" tag. That was an unknown Hong Kong manufacturer, but this was a whole new ball game, here we were talking about some really heavy money and a very, very famous name.

There was only one way to make sure, and that was to unsolder the same transistors on the opposing board. We did and nothing happened - the amp worked as usual, offering the same performance as before.

Conclusion - some guy went on a lunch break and forgot to solder in the do- nothing-but-impress-the-sucker transistors. Since they do nothing, the board passed all quality control tests, and the amp was in fact in perfect working order. In that sense, the customer was not hoodwinked - he paid for a working amp and he got a working amp. But it does make me wonder why would such a well respected company do something like that, use some expensive real estate inside the amp to mount dummy transistors (they probably all worked, but had absolutely no function), if not to additionally, for a meager sum (30 small signal transistors cost less than $1 regular retail, just imagine what they paid for them, with volume buying) try to impress the potential buyer and justify their hefty price tag? Sad practice.

Case No.3. A very famous US name tube amp muted itself, so I was asked to look it over. I said I would, even if tube electronics are not my cup of tea. It turned out a rather hidden from sight fuse blew, so there was no repair as such, unless you count installing a new fuse as repair. But I had a wonderful opportunity to look over the product. It was a simply made unit, no frills, beautiful workmanship, but rather empty inside. I made a list of the parts, and looked over their retail prices when I got back home. Assuming high quality Audio Note transformers and van den Hul cabling, approximately same quality stuff as used inside the amp (though just how their transformers are made I don't know, so I could be wrong there), it worked out that the entire sum of parts could be purchased at regular retail prices for about $350, including a custom made case better and more robust than the one used. So where did the remaining $4,650 go?

Now, we all know the brains behind the product need to be paid, the company has expenses, advertising costs money, etc, etc, so it's to be expected the price will need to be say 4-5 times the amount of parts (and remember, they buy parts wholesale, and get them at terrific discounts), but here, we are talking about the price of parts times 13.3! I don't know how about you, but I think that is a legalized daylight robbery, though you are under no obligation to buy it.

Case No.4. A very famous European manufacturer. Their amp carried a declaration of more than 120W, but after living with it for about two weeks, I was nagged by a feeling that somehow, the power was wrong. Without telling the importer, I took it down to the lab and put it through its paces. I got 111W at 20 Hz, 132 W at 50 Hz, 126W at 1 kHz and about 13W at 20 kHz. It was -9dB down at 20 kHz!

First of all, that thing costs about $ 3,500, no small sum, and this sort of thing doesn't happen on el cheapo stuff 1/10 its price. Second, given the materials inside and the manufacturer's reputation, which I now question openly, there are just two possibilities: 1) I got a faulty sample, and 2) this was done on purpose. I was now set on discovering which.

Still saying nothing to the importer, it took me a week to locate another unit, with about 7 months of service behind it in the hands of a considerate owner. It gave me almost identical results, and thus closed the case - this was being done on purpose. Now, the sales literature does not explicitly state how the power output declaration was obtained, so I can't complain there, at least not legally.

But, I feel most of us will agree that there can be no true audio, much less high end audio, without linearity. Fail there and you blew it, you're not selling audio, you're selling YOUR vision of audio, and you should have your ears checked if this is your idea of audio. However, this sort of behavior strongly suggest that somebody was out to emulate tube sound, which also has falloffs on extremes, subjectively pushing the midrange forward, highlighting the details, if you like. So in fact, the designers just went overboard a little, they overdid it, being a little too zealous in their attempts to make transistors sound like tubes.

Initially, I took that unit with the idea of testing it for TNT. After seeing what I saw, and worse, after hearing what I heard, I dumped it back into the importer's lap with one lame excuse or another, and it never made TNT. Nor will it, if I can help it. I am a TNT freak, I sincerely believe we should write only about things which deserve it, at least to some reasonable extent, and never mind if that particular sound is not my kind. I am no fan of tubes in power amps (though they can be great in preamps), and consequently don't know them enough, so if it's up to me, I'll be very happy if our own Geoff Husband gives it a whirl, since he's much more into tubes than I am, not to mention that I completely trust his judgement.

I have had similarly dismal experiences with some other high end manufacturers, all of which has got me thinking that to make it into the high end, one needs some good case machining and a heavy advertising budget - never mind the sound. The high end is much more about PERCEIVED value than really good sound; it costs a lot, carries a famous name, everybody knows it, so people expect it to sound well. Shiny ads in glossy magazines are 95% of today's high end, I'm afraid.

Of course, there are some really great products out there, in the high end. But I find they usually come from start-up companies, who cannot be just expensive, but must sound well on their way up. Once they do get up the hill, then they can cash in on today's labor.

Yet, for all that, we need the high end just like the auto industry needs Formula 1 races. It's where new ideas, always initially very expensive, surface, exist for some time and then begin to trickle down to us, mere mortals. In its day, dCS Elgar introduced the ring-type DAC to the world; today, UK's Arcam offers a variant of the same idea in its more down to earth priced products. No wonder - the Elgar sounds really good, so good I'd contemplate murder for it.

So my advice would be to steer clear of the high end unless you can shake free of the obligation to shudder in awe when shown its products. Trust no name tag, no badge, no price, no fancy dealer showroom - trust in your own ears only. Fail that, and you'll end up buying some envy of your fellow audiophiles, a reason to argue endlessly with those owning competing products and wasting a lot of money pointlessly.

And remember, trust no glossy magazine, especially not those who have a new reference standard every month; if they don't, then they get no advertisements, and no ads means no money in the kitty. Stop and think how much would a reviewer need to be paid to be able to afford everything most have - then show me any magazine that pays nearly that. And I should know, I've been a professional journalist for 18 years now.

Start by disbelieving this text. Stop long enough to distrust me regarding the above text and I will be happy - I will have achieved what I set out to do. Now all you have to do is close your eyes to badges, forget the price tags and open your ears to music. After that, it all comes naturally.

© Copyright 2001 Dejan Veselinovic - https://www.tnt-audio.com

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