Crash course on downgrading - theory and applications - Part III

How to make your HiFi system worse and live happy

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


In the previous chapters (1 and 2) of this course I have introduced some of the reasons why one should consider a downgrade path for their system, and some ways to transform this theory into results.

In this third and last part I'll try to propose another way to turn theory into application. Instead of purchasing vintage classics, as in Part II, I suggest you might consider inserting brand new components into your system. In particular, extremely inexpensive new components.

If you've been a TNT-Audio reader for some time, you should be aware of the fact that we've always tried to suggest alternative choices to audiophiles, namely unknown products, with stellar quality/price ratio, that could represent a revolution in the way one perceives high fidelity (and the costs involved).

Indeed, it happens that, quite surprisingly, some of these entry-level products put more expensive gear to shame. It all started with the legendary T-Amp we reviewed a surprising 15 years ago. A small, inoffensive Class-D amplifier that shook the HiFi community like never before. A kind of NAD 3020, just sold at a symbolic price (20€ or something). Beginning with the T-Amp, a whole new generation of HiFi components has flooded the market. And every now and then, these have raised the ante. Higher and higher.

Now, the main question might be: “I own a very good HiFi system, why should I waste my time (and money) purchasing cheap toys that I don't really need?”. Well, there are at least a couple of reasons for this.

First of all, do not forget audiophiles have a strong, almost unstoppable need to experiment. Even the most satisfied audiophile (do they really exist? Or are they urban myths?) is anxious to test new components. And, while testing expensive gear might be complicated, especially at home, these extremely inexpensive components become attractive, because they cost almost nothing and sound surprisingly well. And are easy to get and test at home. After 20+ years of professional reviewing I still have to learn to control the jaw-dropping effect some of these components cause me. Listening to these components can not only be entertaining, but also educational: it helps putting things into the right perspective. It helps understanding how much value one should assign to certain level of performance. Or step of upgrade.

Moreover, these components can easily become what I call a tweaker's gym: you can apply several tweaks, perform weird experiments, learn how a certain tweak works (or not) and then transfer this first hand experience to more “serious” components. In the meantime, the whole process risks becoming extremely entertaining.

On the other hand, listening experiments with these low-cost components can prove to be quite dangerous, because they can shake the foundations of your personal HiFi Jesus (cf. Depeche Mode). There are so many common stereotypes (pun intended) in HiFi! Let me cite just a few of these: a) a certain level of performance can be attained with extremely expensive components only; b) HiFi components have to be heavy; c) amplifiers should have at least 100 watts per channel; d) woofers diameters should be 10" at least, and so on. You can just browse any forum and audiophile groups on Facebook to see how many audiophiles base their knowledge NOT on direct experience and listening, but on stereotypes. These low cost components I'm suggesting are extremely powerful (and hence dangerous) myth-debunkers.

Just to make a recent example, during my last shootout test for sub-50€ loudspeakers I was sure the largest speakers with the largest woofer (6.5") had to deliver the best bass range. Instead, quite surprisingly, the smallest speaker of the lot, with a diminutive 4" woofer, delivered the best bass range. A reader contacted me saying that he wouldn't even consider a loudspeaker that weighs in less than 5 kgs (10 lbs). That's another stupid stereotype, of course! The relationship between heavy weight and good sound has been vastly exploited by manufacturers. This has led to amplifiers and loudspeakers that are almost impossible to move (alone). Is this excess of “material” really necessary? Certainly not! But it is useful: a) to audiophiles, who can boldly display their oversized components to friends, b) to manufacturers, who can add weight (that's easy!) and not technical “substance”, but they can justify the insanely high price tag.

Hence, a comparison test with small, lightweight, unobtrusive and affordable components might help to put things into the right perspective. When you see a diminutive amplifier that sounds better and louder than a monster 10 times bigger, certain stereotypes begin to tremble.

Need examples? Plenty of them. Let me start with the pletora of those diminutive Class-D amplifiers like Dayton DTA100/120, Trends Audio TA10.x, Nobsound or similar ones with the TPA3116 chipset, but also traditional amplifiers like the Auna AV2-508CD can put some heavyweight amp into serious trouble.

Moreover, these small amps can prove you don't really need 100, 200 or 500 watts of power, as long as you use 10 watts most of the time. Yes, you'll discover that, quite frequently, you use just a fraction of the power output of your amplifier, even during peaks. Any SPL meter (even an SPL-meter app for your smartphone) will definitely prove this. Consider that a 87 dB/w/m loudspeaker generates 97 dB of sound pressure at 1 meter with just 10 watts. And 97 dB is more than your friendly neighbors can normally tolerate.

As for loudspeakers, the recently reviewed Lonpoo LP42, winner of our shootout test, could be a nice surprise and an incredibly powerful myth-debunker, as well as the incredible Elac Debut speakers series by Jim Smith. In a different price class, even the Duevel Planets, can represent a nice surprise: small cabinet, small woofers, affordable price...and such a big sound!

More or less the same can be said for analog or digital sources. Nowadays, entry-level CD players offer a level of performance that was unbelievable just, say, 15 years ago. Even the 50€ portable player we reviewed, the Dodocool DA106, is a toy that can play high resolution digital files without fear.

Turntables might be a different story, though, since these are high precision mechanical tools and it is hard to preserve quality when the price goes down. Nevertheless, the entry-level models in the Pro-Ject or Rega catalogue can sound extremely good for the price and can be embarassing for a much more expensive turntable, if equipped with the same cartridge.

Summarizing, all you need is the will to start with experiments, with no prejudices. The worst case scenario? You purchase inexpensive components that can be recycled in a secondary system or that can be used once one of your sophisticated components breaks (and it happens!). These components will allow you to enjoy your favourite music with no hassles, since you don't expect anything, everything you get will be a welcomed gift, having paid almost nothing.

Finally, there's another reason why one should try the downgrade path: all the money saved in components can be better spent on acoustic treatment of your listening room, as this is the “component” of your system that influences the performance most. Thick carpets on the floor or on the rear wall (behind the loudspeakers), heavy curtains and pillows can contribute to transform the sound of a system more than a 50 kg beefy power amp could do. And if your system is rather expensive, plan to invest the money of a professionally-tailored acoustic treatment or on a digital correction of the sound of your room (via hardware or software).

N.B. This article has been written and published in March, 2020. Hence, certain cited products might change or become more expensive in the future.


© Copyright 2020 TNT-Audio Lucio Cadeddu - -