Can $15,000 Sound As Good As $75,000?

The answer is no, but it's real close.

I was reading a recent TAS issue where different writers were putting together entire systems. J. Valin comes up with a $75,000 setup centered around Peiga speakers, Krell electronics and Purist Audio/Nordost cables. While I've not heard the Krells or the Purist components, I have heard a demo of the Peiga. They were very impressive. For the sake of argument, let's rate JV's recommended system as outstanding sounding. Ten pages later, a different writer recommends a $15,000 system centered around the new, big Quads, Innersound power amp, Meridian CD, Placette preamp and Kimber cables. From my experiences with the Quads, Innersound and Meridian, I believe this system is also capable of outstanding music reproduction. I'm not saying that the systems will sound the same, nor am I denying that skilled listners will not have a strong preference for one system over the other. The key point of my observation is that for one fifth the cost, comparable sound quality is attainable. This is a very dramatic example of the role of diminishing returns.

MY QUESTION IS, for those who have invested large dollars in your systems, using perfect hindsight, would you truly have had to settle for lesser sound if you had spent substantially less?

BTW, at a personal level, I have roughly $40k in my main system. I don't imagine it sounds much better, if at all, than the $15k recommended system. I strongly prefer my system (deeper bass, higher volume capabilities), but it is a sobering comparison.
Interesting question. I think, objectively, I could be just about as happy with a much less expensive system. The difference in sound may well be less than 5% on an objective scale, in my view, and much of that comes with an effort to get the best quality deep bass that I can in my room. I ascribe my overspending for that last 5% improvement to being obsessive compulsive (my wife heartily agrees), my love for organ and large scale orchestral works and to my desire to have a system where I can be lost in the music. I think, though, that I could achieve that last objective for a lot less money. Particularly if I had a smaller listening room or preferred smaller scale works.
as someone who's climbed the ladder for a long while, i have no plans to search for a system with an msrp equal to 1/4 of my present one. sure, i've heard great systems that retail for $15k and lousy ones for $100k. i am presently upgrading from a pre/dac that retails for roughly $18.5k (w/ options) to one that goes for $15k, cuz the latter is a better "value" in the context of my system as a whole. but this is the first time i can recall going backwards on the price scale. this is just my own experience, tho, and not an endorsement of any system-building strategy. -kelly
$15K sounds better to me. There is still $60K in the bank!
Great Question and what I suspect that to justify spending 75K on a system which would also have exceptional bass that couldn't be had in the 15K system, a large room is required. That to me is the justification in spending more as Reprince notes, he likes Organ music and the like and to approach real life dynamics, especially in the nether region, more must be spent.

From a musical involvement point of view, I doubt that one needs to spend the big money unless they are looking for the above, big sound in a big room in an attempt to replicate live music dynamics. A daunting challenge to get right.

Although I personally haven't nor ever would spent that amount, (current system about 27K retail) I have heard enough large megabuck systems over the years to feel qualified to offer my opinion. The best of them was an audiophile acquaintence who had multiple mono amps driving a large Infinity Beta System in a HUGE room with a 25' ceiling. Total value including analog and digital exceeded well over 100K retail. He passed away in 1994.

So far as music reproduction it was excellent but bigger than it needed to be for musical enjoyment IMHO. What it did do is impress, especially on HT where to this day remains the most awesome HT set-up I ever heard, it could almost shake you out of you shoes.
Very interesting post. I agree that cost is not the absolute factor in determining how good a system is. It would be easy to pick high priced components that lack synergy and get your audio doors blown off by a less costly system. However, all things being equal in terms of knowledge and synergy, I have found a correlation between cost and the capabilities of my system. I believe that at some point, there are diminishing returns, but returns nonetheless. Sometimes these improvements have made an immediate but no so lasting impression -- meaning the "golly gee", "oh wow", "hot damn" effect doesn't jump out at me down the road in the same way it did on day one.

I have not come close to that point of diminishing returns yet (less than $30,000 new street cost in my system -- most bought used). Like Kelly, I don't envision myself moving down the ladder in terms of cost. However, I think at some point I might be inclined to *simplify*. My system takes up quite a bit of space, has lots of IC's and PC's and more glowing tubes and leds than I'd care to count. Maybe it's a product of age (mine not the system's -- it seems to be aging more gracefully than I am), but those garden hose cables and large speakers have a little less visual appeal to me on some days than they did in years past. This disappears as soon as I fire things up, though.

This is somewhat off-topic, but I often wonder what sound I could achieve if I down-scaled a little -- not in terms of cost, but in size and number of components. Food for thought.

Again, a thought provoking post Onhwy61. Like I'm not already thinking about this hobby too much as it is.
Sorry for the redundancy in the first 2 para. of the post. Did I mention real dynamics, more money and justification enough to get across the point do you think?
What a dilemma...are we to be submerged into a soundtrack or music? Or are we to mearly watch and listen? And, It's the journey my friends, not the destination (at least for me). I have found that pursuing complete audio video nirvana seems to always come down to a price point and yes, diminishing returns on the investment. But each of us have (I believe) a different level or threshold where the line is drawn on price for performance. Spending $25K on a stereo system for a 1975 Ford pinto sounds ridiculous to me but so does spending $75K on a system going into a living room or family room!

When one is going for the "Nth degree" the difference between a $15K set up and a $75K set up can be significant but if the room acoustics are not optimal, then there is probably not as much difference. If one only watches DVD movies then save the money. If one enjoys being totaly caught up into some great recorded music, then I strongly believe you have to throw a little more money into the pot. Which brings me to AUDIOGON...I was able to purchase a complete Meridian Digital theater system with 7 X DSP 5,000's and 2 x M2500 subs running through a 561 processor and a new Sony 9000ES DVD / SACD player for under $20K. This gear is set up in an acousticly optimum room 16 x 20. I will now argue that I would not be able to achieve any better sound with out spending ALOT more money (over $75K) Thus, for me, this is the line.

However! A little experiment is pending...I am getting ready to install new carpet, thus the gear will be removed...but befor the new carpet goes in, I am going to hook up a new Denon 3801 and a 5 pairs of B&W CDM NT's and really see how much difference there is...hell, I may even hook up 5 B&W inwalls I have sitting in boxes which is going to really push the bottom line! I'll look forward to reporting back on my findings...

My hunch though will be 1.) because of the rooms good acoustics...all three systems will sound good to most everyone. 2.) I believe that the B&W CDM NT's along with the Denon receiver will be more than adequate for alomst all but a few with respect to movie playback. 3.) I have a complete love affair with my Meridian gear and will surely be suffering from such withdrawl symptoms that any review from me would be obviously biased.

Hi Hwy61; I've wondered the same thing myself, and have come to the conclusion that I could be very happy with a system in the $15K range. Like you, I have about $40K in my main system. And as I look back on the decisions I've made, I feel quite sure I could put together a similar sounding system using less expensive products from the same manufactures.

For example rather than choosing the ML 37 and 360S digital front end ($11K MSRP), I could have gone with the ML 39 CD player for about half that cost-- and (I think) have very close to the same music quality I've got. Another area I could cut cost is amplification. I just had two McCormack DNA-2DXs upraded to Rev. A by SMc, and MSRP of these two amps is $15K. Well in retrospect, one DNA-2DX Rev. A is enough, as I have a hard time telling the difference between one amp and two. However, the Rev. A upgrade was definitely worth it.

In fact, I could even go to a single DNA.5 Rev. Gold for about $3500. and still have comparable sound quality-- I believe (my Vand. 3A sigs are not hard to drive). And yes, the SMc Rev. A is that good IMO. BTW, these amps were factory matched.

Just examples above, but that's not the whole story with high end audio IMO, and I don't think cost is often even the main consideration when you get into the exotic high cost stuff. I have one of only 4-5 pairs of McCormack DNA-2 Rev. A in the entire world, and that's unique. I love these amps, and consider the experience of owning them worth a lot-- one of the highlights of my audio craziness. Had I not done this, I would never have known what these sounded like. It was a dream that became a quest that I fulfilled-- that's worth a lot to me. At my age (58), how many more chances am I going to have to "go for the gold"?

It may be that Lev335 considers Levinson the best in high end audio, and owning that amp gives him a great deal of satisfaction. Although your thread asks specifically about music quality versus cost, I think there is much more to it than that with many of us when it comes to selecting audio components, eg I'd rather have an ML front end than a Mercedes sitting in the driveway. Pride of ownership is worth a lot to many-- me included.

Also a factor, "wringing" the last few percent improvement in music quality is what much of high end audio is all about, and to do that is expensive, eg getting excellent deep bass is notoriously expensive.

Then there is the "used" factor. While my front end retails for $11K new, I paid about $6K used. For me, i-net buying and selling has put an entirely different light on the cost of high end audio. Cheers. Craig
Simply stated, all things being equal, A 75k system is going to outperform a 15k system. But i bet that there are plenty of 15k systems that outperform 75k systems.
YES! I had a $40k system - B&W N802, Levinson 333 and 39, VPI HW19 Mk4, etc. ( - go to "People" and "Danish")

I sold everything and went to a "budget" HT system, Martin Logan SL3s, Logos, Classe pre/pro, Audio Refinement amp, using a JVC DVD player as a CDp also, yech! Anyway, I get everybit as much enjoyment out of the cheaper system as I did the expensive one. No they don't sound the same, the B&Ws have a liquidity that the SL3s just don't have. The Levinson stuff is also very resolving in detail and sweetness.

The Martin Logans on the other hand, do some things the B&Ws never did - they have a more accurate midrange and highs, exquisite imaging and soundstaging. I bought a SVS sub that really fills out the lower end (something the 802s definately had over the SL3s).

All in all, I am happy with my decision, plus I saved a bunch of money.
Spend the 15K on the system and the other 60K on the best music collection that you can assemble; nothing worse than hearing the same 20 CDs on that 75K gear. Software rules. The hardware's a cool car, but the software is the open road.
I think I am is slight disagreement/ My wife and I go to a lot, 3 plus times a month, of live orchestral classical music and opera. We got into this hobby years ago trying to reproduce the this live experience as close as possible. When your regular comparison is live Bruckner, Mahler, Bartok, Strauss Wagner, and Stravinsky (or even Beethoven and Brahms) the difference between a $15k system and a $75K system in a large properly treated room doesn't sound like diminishing returns. However, the reason that we have temporarily stopped our upgrades is that the weak link is now usually the recording.
I agree with Pls1, the recording media is frequently the weakest point in the music reproduction chain. However, in a recent post in another thread you gave a comparison of dCS vs. MSB Platinum converters. You said the dCS was the better unit. The point of my post is for you to consider what would happen if you scaled back from the dCS to the MSB, your Sigtech to a TACT, the Dunlavy Vs to IVs, etc. Would your system really sound that different? Of course it would, but how much different?

I'd like to clarify, while I recognize that the effect of dimishing returns is very real, I don't see it as a barrier to further system upgrades. Not just making it good, but making something perfect seems to be an innate human characteristic.
Plsl hit an important point with the room treatment comment. The best sound i've heard was from a $20k-$25k dunlavy, wadia, ARC system in a well treated showroom at Audio Vidio Logic. Back to the question at hand. A local retailer had a Mark Levinson system (33 monoblocks, 39 cdp and a reference pre-amp)with all Transparent xl cables to show off Revel Salons. The list price was said to be about $90k. There is no way i would trade my Dunlavy, VTL, ARC, system ($25k retail and about $15K purchase) for that system. The ML system may have had a bit more detail but it lost out in the musicality and involvement catagories. I can't knock really that system it just didn't have the sound i like and it wasn't worth another $65k (plus tax). With the exception of upgrading my phono section and tuner from something so lowly i won't mention I'm done upgrading for a long time and my focus will be on my room to get the most out of the gear i've got.
I mean this response in good will and I'm ging to limit my comments to classical because it is the easiest example. I have a basic problem with the concept of perfection, or absolute sound. I just don't think it exists in anything let alone the recording and reproduction of classical music. There are physically intractable problems in trying to reproduce the Mahler 8th in your living room. We have chosen our system for the most realistic reproduction of late romantic music and it does an excellent job given the recordings we have as a source. It does have moderate minuses on the reproduction of superbly recorded string quartets for which we would go back to Quad electrostats. Moving back to a Tact from a Sigtech would be a very big step for our taste in music because of the differences in implementation of correction curves. This is based on direct experience. The MSB to dCS is less of a gap because what very few shortcomings the MSB has tend to be euphonic on many classical CD's but certainly not all. I guess my major point is this: the gap between 15K and 75K for the best Mahler or Bruckner recordings is very significant compared to a live performance. If you listen to chamber music the cost of a system would be a lot lower. Over 75K I believe you are into trade-offs and preferences given the current quality of the source material.
Pls1, I hope my earlier comments came across as intended. No negativity was meant. I truly am interested in what people (particularly at the moment, you) see as the sonic differences between various high quality components. Your response was most informative. Good luck much pleasure on your journey.
For most people, a well setup $15K system will sound great and you still have $60K in the bank. Based on my many years of audio upgrades, etc., it is my opinion that one does not need to spend $75K for an excellent sounding system. A $15K System with high quality components that work well together should be okay. enjoy.............
Phew! Having only revisited audiophilia in the last year after a long hiatus, I'm carefully building my ref system at
the LOWER amount!
Verity Audio Parsifals ($8k demo); Aleph P ($2k used; Aleph 2 monos ($3k used), Red Dawn IC and cables ($1500), and now a new EMC-1 w/ 24/192 ($2200 open box); plus a vestigial NAD tuner. So that's around $17k.
Being a baroque organist as a teen I toured northern RI french canadian churches playing huge Casavant Freres multi-rank organs. 32' Bourdons nearly shook my left foot off those 16-32Hz bottom octave pedals! What primal acoustic imprinting!
Yet now as I approach the half-century I've become a romantic and jazz-loving pianist, with my Steinway B taking rear-centerstage in my listening/living room. Do I need Pipedreams, Soundlabs or even Eidolons to relive my youth? No.
Do I want a credible standup bass and realistic piano? Yup!
I get the latter in spades with my WAF-acceptable Parsifal Encores. (Hiding the Aleph 2s under the floor joists helped with Ellen, too!).
Being a digital newbie, I can't comment much on that upgrade path, nor software/resolution issues, as my experience is more in amateur speakerbuilding, Hammond B fun
as a kid, and now piano-voicing subtleties.
I enjoyed the posts above, especially Pls1 provocative comment re the pull-up that live listening required for him.
I enjoy classic and baroque live performances at Jordan and Symphony Halls in Boston about 25 times per year, as well as assorted live jazz and theater scenes. For me home system nirvana-chasing has simply occurred at a lower scale, as I could have been nearly as happy with a $5500-6k system if budget had dictated: Revel F30 ($3k), ARC Integrated ($1K),
leaving $1500-2k for CDP, cabling, and a decent tuner for those live WGBH feeds and great jazz programming.
A good friend and master acoustician predicts that I'll soon want multi-channel DVD-A; but I don't need a soundstage any more defined than my nearfield triangle in a medium-sized room provides. And can you imagine the WAF issues with 5.1,
6.2, or Homlinson's latest 10.2 chazerai!?
I'm also content to buy Redbook CDs, as I expect that tinnitus or old-age will coincide with maturation of SACD/DVD-A software!(and what's that new algorithm Wes Phillips is yakkin' about?)
Sorry to bend the thread, and Happy Fourth.
Yes. When you have Lexus SC430 equipped with ML sound system to go for the remaining dough. Or a Zanzibar Red Porsche Boxter S to go.
No Really, with lot of luck, well researched, well combined system can perform as good as 75 K system.