Price/performance curve

Hey you guys who've heard 'em all, could you help me understand the price/performance curve of audio equipment? I keep seeing people write about truly high-end gear and I'm wondering what the price points look like in terms of sonic improvement. So let's say that our scale is 0 to 100. 0 is basically white noise, 100 is you are sitting in the ideal spot at your favorite symphonic hall/jazz club/blues or rock forum and nobody in the audience is even breathing too loudly within audible range. For the sake of some reference point, let's say a decent boombox is about a 15, a decent set of components (say Sony/Pioneer/JVC electronics, Boston Acoustic speakers) chosen from your local mainstream audio outlet is a 30 and a decent set of entry-level components made by more musically inclined manufacturers (NAD, Paradigm, etc.) in the $1,500-2,000 range is a 50. What do the price points look like as you go to 60, 70, 80. 90 and 95+? I ask because I see people spending vastly different levels of money on this stuff and, while I don't expect to ever spend in the high five figures that some of us have doled out, I'd like to see where this road leads.Suggest alternatives on the scale if you like. I'll bet you all have some very interesting answers.
You've posed a very interesting question, and I'm not sure that I can answer it within the hypotethical framework you proposed. To some extent, the answer one gives depends a bit on how much you have to spend on high-end audio equipment. I suspect I am in the mid-range of audiophiles when it comes to systems. I have, however, been a fairly serious audiophile for 30+ years, and have also sold high-end gear on several occasions. In response to your question, I think the "knee of the curve" for the major components in a system (pre-amp, power amp, and speakers) falls in the $2500-3500 range, per component (MSRP). Within this range, you can buy some good-to-excellent products from a number of manufacturers, and assemble a system that is of very high quality. To get AUDIBLY SUPERIOR sound quality will require spending at least 3 times as much money. It also assumes that you have an excellent listening room, because at these price ranges, the listening environment becomes a very important element in the reproduced sound. With regard to other items in the system, I would posit the following price ranges at the "knee" in the cost/performance relationship: 1. Turntables: $2000 -2500. 2. Tonearms: $1500 - 2000. 3. Cartridges: $500. 4. CD players: $1000-1500. 5. Speaker cables (assuming an 8-ft pair): $500. 6. Interconnects: $200 - 250 per 1-meter pair. In assembling my own system, I was very conscious of value. In short, I want a lot of performance for medium cost (I bought a lot of my equipment used from listing on Audiogon). Here is what I have in my system: VPI HW-19 Mk 4 turntable with Rega RB900 arm and Shure V15VxMR cartridge; Lehmann Audio Black Cube phono preamp; Rega Jupiter CD transport; Adcom GTP-750 pre/pro; Sony D550 DVD player; JVC S-VHS videotape deck; Vandersteen 3A Signature main speakers; Vandersteen center channel speaker; B&W rear surround speakers; Kimber 8TC in bi-wire configuration for main speakers, and Kimber 4TC to center and surround speakers; Kimber Silver Streak interconnects; and various other minor tweaks and room treatments. I think my system sounds pretty darned, and so do other people who listen to my system. The biggest limitation I face is the size of my listening room, which is also the living room. To the extent I can answer your question within your model, I'd say my system rates around an 80 on the price/performance curve. To do better, I'd first need a different listening room, and then would have to roughly triple what I've spent to realize a substantial gain in audio quality.
Follow-up to my post: I realized after I made the post that I forgot a very important item: the amplifiers. I am currently using a Bryston 4B-ST amp for the front speakers, and an Adcom 5503 for the center and rear surrounds. I am VERY impressed with the Bryston 4B-ST. At it's price, it offers a terrific value and fine performance, particularly with its 20-year unconditional and transferrable warranty. I did not want to spend top-dollar for the surround amp, since I only use my main speakers for critical listening. I am quite satisfied with the Adcom for surround amplification.
Interesting question. Assuming MRSP, the 85 to 90 percent level can be acheived for $6k to $8k. The value of moving up from this level is extremely subjective. Even if money is no object, most people do not go beyond this level. If you do decide to spend the big bucks, you can obtain definite improvements in sound quality. However, the room and equipment compatibility issues become much more critical as the price of a system goes up. The most obvious benefit of spending the big bucks will be deeper bass and higher volume levels. Your heart of your question is "How do people value their money?" To use an analogy, for $40,000 you can get an excellent car, but that doesn't stop people from spending two or three times as much for what they see as money well spent. Are they stupid? I don't think so, but not being stupid doesn't mean someone is smart.
Onhwy61- Your response is unclear. Are you stating that MRSP of 6-8K TOTAL SYSTEM is going to give you 85 to 90 percent of the best system available? I disagree with that assessment if that is your intent. Sdcampbell is closer to the mark and both the above comments concerning room accoustics are absolutely right on. This area along with many simple tweeks (example....turntable isolation for minimum vibration, overlooked by many but critical) can contribute a great deal to the improvement of the sound of a system MUCH GREATER than spending mucho more on a better component. I personally would hope that the improvement noted by spending 3X more would be greater resolution and accuracy, not bass and SPL's. Most rooms won't support bass accurately below 30hz. Accurate deep bass is very much room as well as speaker dependent.
I agree, room has a lot to do with it. If I had a less than adequate, large (also key), room for a Hi-Fi set up, you shouldn't spend more than $5000 for the entire system. Any money spent beyond that and the price/benefit, or "diminshing returns" level is acheived. In a great listing room the price/performance ratio becomes much higher, $75K or more. I have heard some great set-ups and some great equipment. Believe me, the best SET-UPS always beat the the best EQUIPMENT. With that in mind I will say the JOURNEY to audio nirvana is half the FUN!!! The other half is the MUSIC - enjoy! Tony
Tony, what were rooms like where you heard great sound? Floor size, ceiling height, etc. I would guess that a well asssembled $10-20,000 system will give you 90% sound of cost at no object system. Just look at the wide range of equipment prices in Stereophile class A equipment. Personally unless I made $100,000+ salary I wouldn't spend much more than $10,000 on a system, too many other things in life besides stereo equipment and this gets you very good system......I think many people are obsessed with stereo gear to the point of mental illness, be careful not to cross the line!......he he he, Sam
Tubegroover, sorry if I was unclear. My intent is that for a total outlay of $6 to $8 thousand, up to 90% of what is in the music can be uncovered. I'm something of a hypocrite here in that my main system is five times this price range. And, yes you do get more resolution, transparency, greater soundstage information etc. as you spend more money. But I contend that the uncovering of musical information increases at a slower rate than that of audiophile esoterica. Take a look at a "good" manufacturer's line of speakers. What does the $2,000 model not do that the $20,000 model does? For $2k+ you can get a hell of alot of midrange resolution and soundstage accuracy without significant tonal colorations. The more expensive model unsually goes louder and expands the frequency range of high resolution into the low bass and the high treble. Now the effect of extending the high resolution into the frequency extremes does have a very positive effect on midrange resolution. In my system my main speakers go down to a usable mid 30Hz. When I added stereo subwoofers, not only did I extend the absolute bass response, but I increased the midrange resolution. I not exactly sure why, but my observation is similar to others. Adding high quality bass is expensive. Is it worthwile? I say so, but there are other valid opinions.
Onhwy61 Well I am getting a little off track here but I want to make a point about 20K speakers with deep bass and rooms. I don't know if you remember Lewis Lipwich a writer for Stereophile and Bass Basoonist with the National Symphony Orchestra. Back in the late 80's or early 90's he reviewed a pair of B&W 800 Speakers in a small room 15X13 or something ridiculous like that. He went on to describe the virtues of the system especially the bass response of the speakers. I was laughing my butt off reading it because it didn't make any sense. How can a speaker larger than a coffin in a room that size support the bass a speaker like that is capable of. Big speakers with great bass resolution require a BIG room otherwise you are throwing your money away based on my observations over the years. I have heard it set-up correctly only a few times. The best full range bass set-up I have ever heard was Vandersteen 4's in a VERY large room with a cathedral ceiling. It was real and accurate, breathtaking even, very quick with natural decay, like the real thing. I have never heard bass like that before or since, including audio shows and individual systems. Getting low accurate bass is not easily accomplished. Your other points are well made and I would agree, providing your room is large enough to support the subs, otherwise I would have to hear it to believe it has the resolution in the low frequencies without Mr Boom rearing his ugly head. I am VERY sensitive on this subject, bass that brings attention to itself or sounds exaggerated is fine in a home theatre application but has no place in a high end audio system, it doesn't sound natural or real to my ears. That is not to say that you don't have the room. Out of curiosity what are your room dimensions, and how are the speakers set-up in the room? Cheers Will
Michael You have asked a really interesting question the more I think about it. I will say this, that price point doesn't necessarily quantify a specific level of performance. Case in point Vandersteen 2ce Signatures. These speakers when matched to the best in electronics and a good source (I love them with ARC gear) offer on my subjective scale at least an 80, (I'm starting to sound like Martin Collums, for g sake). Every speaker in their price range that I am familiar with (one I even owned) don't fair as well. I still think they compete with many speakers in the 2-3K range WITH the right components. I don't necessarily equate higher price with better. It is a general misnomer that your system will automatically improve it you upgrade. Synergy is much more important. I have added more than my 2 cents worth on this subject, how about some other opinions.
Gentlemen: a final point from me concerning bass reproduction. To accurately reproduce deep bass, you need a room about 32 feet in length, since that is the length of a 20hz soundwave. Not may rooms are that long. Beyond length, the width of the room and the height of the ceiling will contribute to the overall acoustic properties. If you have ever heard a large pipe organ in a cathedral (we are fortunate in the Seattle area to have a number of fine pipe organs), you also know that decay is an important factor, particularly in bass reproduction. So, at best, most people will never hear accurate, full-bodied bass in their homes. At best, it's an imitation of the real thing. What does this have to do with the question in this thread? A lot, since obtaining the theoretical 100 points is ultimately gone to depend more on your listening room than spending $50K or more on your system. Back to my original post: I still think that the $10-12K range will get you about 80-85 points, and to do much better will necessitate spending a lot more, on both equipment and acoustic environment.
Here is a diferent view.A crappy room hasen't dimmed my desire for more/better.That .05 better, is what I live and spend for.You're free to call it like you see it.As am I.
I went over to a buddies house the other day and checked out his system (around 5k) It was great, musical, tight bass and smooth top end. We listened for hours and had a great time. I have a system that is a lot more expensive. When I got home I put some of the same music on that we were listening to. I would say that my system was not just 10-15% better, it is a completely diffrent experience, magnitudes better. I'm not saying my friends system isn't great, it is. I just don't agree that there is only a 10-15% diffrence between 10k and 100k systems.
Sam, the best sounding systems I've heard have all been in large rooms with high ceilings. My room is 23'X 17' with vaulted ceilings that are about 16' at their apex. I just bought this house and have already noticed my system sounds better. It was the most expensive "tweak" I've ever purchased - hehe.
BTW: If we couldn't assemble systems that didn't sound good for under $10K, this hobby would only consist of wealthy people. I have had the opportunity to recently listen to a $100K sound system, in a great room. While I enjoy my system, which retails for around $10K, it sounds like great "reproduced" music. The great high $$$ systems sound "live" - kind of like the difference between a great TV and an HDTV. The realism of the playback is such that if you close your eyes you are "there", listening to the performance wherever it was recorded. You don't have to be wealthy to get a great sounding system but you do have to be patient - unless you win the lottery. That's what I mean about the "journey" - and since I've got two small children - it may take a while! I just hope I get there before I get old and deaf!
Tubegroover, my room is 33 feet long by 14 feet wide with mostly 8 foot ceilings (a third of the room is 8.5 feet). The main speakers are placed about 15 feet down the length of the room and the subs are located behind the listening position in corners. The listening chair is 6 feet from the wall and 9 feet from the plane of the speakers. With this setup the speakers are 18 feet from the wall behind them. If I didn't use subwoofers, the free space placement of the speakers would start to roll off bass at around 60Hz. The system would sound clean, but light weight. The subwoofers eliminate this problem. The overall bass response extends relatively smoothly down to 20Hz (there are small measured humps at 31.5 and 63 Hz, plus a deeper narrow band dip at 50Hz).
i find it interesting that the *room* has come up in this thread so much, & i think that's a good thing, cuz, imho, the room is the single-most-important component of an excellent system. my listening room is ~25'x38', w/8.5' ceiling, & it is by *far* the main reason i get good sounds from reproduced music. it allows *real* bass from a good subwoofer set-up, among other things. and, ironically enough, i find this more important on simply-miked acoustical music than, say, reggae, for instance. also, a lot easier to get a good soundstage in a large room - less speaker interaction w/walls/furniture, etc. re: how much $$$ will get you how close to "100" an a scale of 0-100, i can't really say, but, for example, if $10k will get you to 80, then i think it would take $20k to get to 85. that being said, i would rather listen to a $10k system in a room my size, then a $20k system in a room, say, 12'x18'... so, improvement of sound vs dollars spent is largely room-dependant. doug
Here's what I've learned so far 1) performance is as much room-dependent as it is system-dependent, once you reach a certain part of the performance curve 2) the "percentage improvement" scale is valid only up to a certain level, which may be somewhere between $5K and $10K 3) the scale itself does not reflect the qualitative differences between a very good system and an outstanding system, which shifts the overall effect into a whole different realm of experience. So adding it all up, I'm concluding my question probably is applicable only in systems below a price point of some debatable level. Is that a fair summary?
Overall I think you sumed it up well from my perspective but would add the fact that a good room is the wild card in the equation. It can transform a very good system into an outstanding one. Outstanding components and a mediocre room will not equate to an outstanding system.
Two critical points, one already mention, one not. It definitely matters what the upper end of the scale (100) represents and how valuable that is. My daughter avidly plays cello and is quite happy listening to classical music on a boom box. I'm not a musician, but get totally into getting a drum thwack to sound right on my system. The original post targeted 100 as indistinguishable from live, which implies valuing greatly that last little bit of "realness", which I think moves the price/performance point up quite a bit. Somebody new to building a system asking the same question, I'd put it quite a bit lower since you can get pretty phenomenal performance at pretty reasonable cost (certainly less than $10K). The other thing that seriously affects the knee of the curve is the type of music you want to listen to. Getting down into the 20's in terms of frequency response is very expensive, but also essential if you like organ music. If you're going to be listening to Metallica and Dream Theater, you probably don't get anywhere near the benefit.
Kthomas, I think I followed, but I'm not sure. Where would you put the various dots of the curve?
I listen to mostly rock/pop, with occassional jazz and vocalists thrown in. I don't listen to orchestral works, chamber music or organ music. That said, the point where price / performance begins to level off in terms of dividends are: Transport - anything reasonably reliable - a good DVD player is a good start, but even a good CD changer used just as a transport. Speakers - $3500-5000. Beyond that, you're looking for deeper bass, quite possibly below anything that comes into play in the music I listen to, and better "resolution" (instrument separation, etc.), which again is not super relevant in studio-recorded rock / pop / metal cd's. It's still nice to hear depth and separation, and you get progressively more up to this point, but the value of going the last nth degree seems dubious to me. There are so many excellent choices in this range too. Amps - only have experience with solid state - $2500-3000 for a two-channel amp, somewhat more if your speakers require real muscle. CD player - $1000-2000, probably weighted more to the bottom of the range, but there are a lot of $2K cd players I've never heard so I won't try to be absolute. DAC - $500-1500 depending on your upgrade strategy - chips just keep getting cheaper, and things seem to be changing fast. I won't even attempt to suggest a price for speaker cables / interconnects, but will say that I'm very satisfied with well-built, moderately priced cables of all types. These are the points I would put on the individual pieces of a two-channel system where you begin to have to pay significantly more money for significantly smaller improvements in a system that is for playing the type of music I describe in a moderately sized, dedicated listening room. My experience has been that on the way up to these price levels, the difference of say 50-100% in cost (say $1500 speakers vs. $3000 speakers) is large enough that you immediately hear differences, and that they're recognizable enough that anyone will hear them if they're not adamant that they won't (or mad at you for spending the money and not wanting to admit you got something for it). I've often wondered if some of the differences of opinion over what is "an amazing difference" and what is "a difference I think I heard" when two different people are discussing the same equipment is highly tied to the type of music they listen to, and I am completely open to the notion that somebody who listens to primarily classical music would value the difference a, say, $3K CD player affords. Their points are quite likely all higher than mine.
Thanks for the response, Kthomas.I've noticed that as my system has improved, I've appreciated classical more. For one thing, classical, particularly orchestral, is much more dynamic than rock, and a system that will reproduce those dynamics is really delightful sonically. Also, the unnaturalness of electronics and electronically hyped recording can be exaggerated with a good system. The fact that classical is almost exclusively created with acoustic instruments seems to mean you're less likely to get those awful glaring highs that you sometimes get with rock. Still, I'm not listening to anything near at $3K CD player.