Crash course on downgrading - theory and applications - Part II

How to make your HiFi system worse and live happy

Author: Lucio Cadeddu - TNT Italy
Published: March, 2020


In the first part of this crash course I've explained the differences between upgrade, sidegrade and downgrade. The first two practices are often useless or even dangerous, while the third one might prove to be surprisingly useful. The aim is to purchase a worse component and improve the way we enjoy the music!

First things first: what do I mean by “worse”? In this context, “worse” means less expensive than the component we already own or a less expensive component just because it is older. The hope is to discover (or recover?) another way to listen to our system, something closer to the real essence of music, i.e. emotion. We'll see WHEN this can be done and HOW.

Generally, when an audiophile plans his next purchase the target is a more recent and expensive component. This is not always a smart choice, at least for two reasons:

  1. HiFi Companies have the necessity to update their catalogues quite often, so to stimulate your desire for purchasing something new and better. Designing new products isn't an easy task and sometimes it takes years to come up with something really better. As a result, the probability of purchasing a really “improved” component is as low as that of finding an audiophile with a reasonable social life. 0.000001%. Most of the times, the technical improvements are subtle and do not yield significative improvements in sound quality.
  2. Even when the technical improvement is significant, it is not always for the better. There's a tendency to design HiFi components that are more and more transparent, precise, hyper-detailed, and this often cancels any trace of emotion from the reproduced musical program. Everything becomes so damn perfect that is soulless. Hyperrealism easily translates into listening fatigue.
After such a purchase, the audiophile, clearly unsatisfied, thinks the reason of his dissatisfaction depends on the lower quality of the rest of the components of his system, suddenly identified as devilish “bottle necks”. What's next? A new purchase, yet another unsatisfactory upgrade.

Now, this is the precise moment when the downgrade path should take place! Trust me when I say!!! :-)

How to proceed, then? First of all, you could try to insert an old component, which lies neglected on some dusty shelf in your attic. I'm sure you own something like this. Audiophilia nervosa sufferers and compulsive hoarding sufferers have many things in common.
Hook up the old, forgotten treasure into your expensive HiFi system and wait for a couple of days to see what happens. Most likely, the difference between the old and the new component is less striking than you thought. During listening, you might discover that some aspects of the sound have improved. Not everything, just something here and there. The sound might be less perfect, but somehow you can't deny you're hooked on it!

In the case you don't own any old component stored somewhere - ok, admit you're a bit weird, then - you can browse the second hand market for some insane deal on vintage components. This is the first route. Otherwise, you can follow a completely different route, chasing extremely inexpensive new components. The third part of this crash course will be devoted to this practice.

Now, there are many components that have paved the road of HiFi history. And if they belong to the history of this hobby there should be a reason for that, right? The reason is that they sounded incredibly good for their time _AND_ they had something peculiar, a characteristic that made them unique, remarkable, unforgettable. How many modern HiFi components will be part of the HiFi history? Not many, indeed. Soooooo many components out there, soooo little personality.

Let me try to be more specific: speaking of amplifiers, for example, you might try one of the following: NAD 3020 (better if 3120), Rotel 820B, Naim Nait 1 or 2, Cyrus Two, an old Sugden, etc. If your system is rather expensive, you can try to downgrade it with one of these power amps (and related preamps): Mark Levinson 29, Naim NAP250 chrome bumper series (1st series), Classé DR3, Audio Research Classic 30, Albarry monoblocks. Do you fancy older gear? Try Quad II, Leak amps, Dynaco ST70...just avoid those which are becoming quite expensive nowadays (Marantz tube amps, for example). The cited ones can be found at still reasonable prices.
All these amps will let you live a different musical experience. Perhaps they are not perfect but certainly they will leave a “trace”, for one reason or another. Now, please, do not contact me because I've forgotten other brilliant examples of “old timers” or “young timers” as the purpose was different, i.e. just try to give some useful hint, not to compile an exhaustive list of interesting classics.

As for front-end components things are easy, if we're talking of analogue gear, a bit harder if we refer to digital. In the first case, any classic turntable from the likes of Thorens, Linn, Rega, Ariston, Michell, Dunlop (and many others) could represent a pretty clever way to downgrade your expensive turntable set-up. As for digital, where progress has changed things rapidly, you might be surprised to discover how small is the difference between a top level DAC of 20-30 years ago and a good modern DAC. Examples? Listen to a Linn Numerik, for example, or to some Wadia or Theta from the Nineties. You'll be surprised.

As for loudspeakers, the possible choices for a downgrade are so many that it's really hard to compile a list. Among “big sytems” any audiophile should listen - at least once in his lifetime - to an old Klipschorn, AR 10Pi, Linn Isobarik, some Tannoy Dual Concentric, Altec “Voice of the theater” Quad classical electrostatics (63, better than the 57), fabulous British monitors like the B&W DM6...
Among small compact speakers, you can't forget Linn Kan or Rogers/Spendor LS3/5A, 1st series ProAC Tablette, 1st series Sonus Faber Minima and many others. Among mid-sized bookshelf you should listen to three Italian masterpieces such as Aliante One Zeta, Diapason Adamantes and Sonus Faber Electa.

Such old components will produce a shock in your modern system, that's for sure. At a first “glance” you might not like the effect. Let it play the old component for a couple of weeks or, better, months. Then go back to the modern component and concentrate on perceived “emotion” instead of wider frequency response, transparency, larger 3D soundstage etc. Forget any audiophile parameter and concentrate on listening pleasure. Is the sound more perfect but less involving? If so, you've found the correct path to downgrade. If not, you have spent a couple of months in testing, comparing, evaluating. That's always a fun thing to do, for us.

Moreover, you might have learned, in the meanwhile, something about HiFi history, about the way HiFi sounded like 20, 30 or 50 years ago. It is a lesson to be learned. If you do not know the past you can't understand the present neither predict the future. If you have driven, at least once, a classical sports car you might understand what I'm trying to say: those cars were far from being perfect, as they were slow, unsafe and noisy, when compared to modern ones...but they put a smile in your face. Nowadays even at 200 km/h you might find yourself yawning, right?

Don't get me wrong, this is not an attempt to promote vintage gear! My opinion is that nowadays vintage gear is overpriced and overestimated. Just few classics deserve a second listen! And it might be a fatiguing hunt, even a filthy job, but do not forget it could be could be raining! :-)

Go to [Part III]

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