Thoughts on Audiophile Grade Sound Equipment

When music is as big a part of your life as it is a part of mine, you spend a fair amount of money over the years on various sound/music equipment. I have a fair amount of sound gear, much of which I own and some of which I've borrowed and adapted to make my own, of varying qualities. I like to think though, that my setup provides me with an adequate sound reproduction for most applications and I'm sure I'll improve upon it even more over the years. Other people's sound setups might cost 30 times as much as mine, and they might sound 30 times better to them as well, but what I have works well currently for what I use it for and to me, a rig that expensive might not be worth the expense for the improvement it provides.

That is one of the issues with sound equipment: the quality of sound recording or reproduction can be just as subjective as the quality of a musical composition, varying greatly from person to person. Sure, we all want to have the best quality we can if we're passionate about our music as it's hard to really grasp a great song when it's colored severely by bad playback equipment. Audiophile grade equipment is extremely expensive though, and often times the nuances are so subtle between various makes and models that people like me (read: people who've probably blown out some of their hearing by going to too many rock concerts and playing guitar too loud) can barely even tell the differences.

The question is... Should you go out and buy nothing but the highest audiophile grade equipment and just deal with the extra cost to get the best quality?

Well for me personally, the answer is both yes and no... Yes audiophile gear is great, high quality equipment worth getting in some situations if you can, and No I wouldn't get the most expensive, highest grade I can find in most, if not all, cases.

Although I may have implied otherwise in the previous paragraph, I actually do hear some small differences between different qualities of sound equipment. It isn't always an obvious distinction though where the improvement is immediately noticeable. In fact, I find in most situations I hear it most when I go back and try the old equipment again after listening to audiophile gear for a while. And more money doesn't always mean an improvement as I have been in a few situations where the higher grade stuff actually sounded worse for a particular situation.

No one wants to waste money on expensive equipment when a cheaper model would have worked just as easily, or end up with bad sound quality because of lower grade products, and so choosing sound equipment can be a bit of a process.

Here's a good example as to why:

I'm looking for upgrade my guitar cables for something a little higher quality (the ones I have a getting pretty worn). While researching, I found 40+ different "high quality" cables with prices that range from $20 for 15ft to $300 for 15ft of true audiophile grade guitar cables. I should also mention that I've used cables that have cost under $15 for 15ft too so you can get a picture of the entire market. Now having tried them, I wouldn't recommend a $15, 15ft cable... not necessarily because of sound quality, but I literally wore the connections to the jacks down to bare wire in a matter of months... so I know I'm looking for something in the range of higher quality cables purely for durability reasons. All of the ones I've seen would probably last a while, while the more expensive might last even longer. Unless they're really abused though, even a $20 cable might last indefinitely and so it really comes down to the quality of the signal transmission through the cable and how they sound. Well the differences between a $20 one and a $300 dollar one might be obvious, but what about a $100 and the $300 or even a $50 and a $300? Would I be able to hear the improvement at all?

One of the big issues about buying something like high end sound equipment is that as the prices and production quality go up, often times the improvements model to model get smaller, meaning that that $50 cable might sound a bit worse than the $300, while the $100 might sound just a little worse, and the $150 might be just barely worse and a $200 cable might sound nearly identical. Or the improvements might not sound like improvements at all, but just subtle differences, even to trained ears. So why spend the extra money when they sound the same? Someone else might find that the $50 cable sounds fine so anything more would be wasted money, while another might hear the differences right up to the highest most expensive model and so for them the extra expense is necessary to get the best quality.

Of course this is a guitar related example, but it applies to all sound and music equipment and subjectivity is really what it's all about. The goal should be to find the place where with higher grade equipment, you don't hear the improvements anymore. Like I said, sound quality is subjective, so the equipment you think sounds best might be entirely different than someone else, but if you can find the place where when you listen to anything higher grade you don't hear the improvements, then you know you're getting the best quality for you and the best price... a good thing.

Of course, how do you find this point?

In a perfect situation, we could test different grades and see if we could hear the quality improvements and some people would while others would not, but retailers are not always keen on people test driving equipment at home without paying for it and usually there are so many different brands that you could compare for years and still not be able to decide. If you can test something, than certainly do so in a situation as close to the one you would be using it for as possible. If not, then research online, ask experts (people who can sit around and do things like compare speakers all day) and read multiple opinions before deciding. When I do research, I like to start somewhere just above the middle of the product range. Yes, this will be more expensive than other equipment, but I find that starting just slightly towards the higher end generally results in better sounding gear and better overall durability.

You might be asking, why not just go with the highest level quality then? Well, it's mainly a matter of money. I don't want to spend $300 on a guitar cable that doesn't sound any better than a $50 one as I see that as wasting money, (actually if I'm spending $300 on a guitar cable it better have part of a guitar attached to it as well because that's a little ridiculous).

Although I'm sure true audiophiles will disagree, for me, what it comes down to for high grade sound gear is that more often than not, the nuances are small. Really in terms of sound and music, you can't really go wrong with anything labeled audiophile grade, but you WILL pay more and might not hear any improvements.

If you hear them, then by all means go all out and get the best stuff you can, but if you don't, don't assume that you need the most expensive or highest quality equipment to get a good sound. In fact, don't assume you need anything but the necessities to have a pleasing sound quality, but better equipment might improve it more if you can afford it. Of course, if you can't afford some of the higher end stuff... then get the best you can and you can always upgrade it in the future. Also, don't assume that is all just sounds the same and cheap out, because you might be really compromising the sound quality. If you do have cheaper equipment though and it sounds good for you, then hey, go with it.

In the end, whatever equipment you're using to make, record or listen to music, as long as you enjoy it, then it's a setup that works for you. Still, hopefully this little rant about audiophile grade equipment might help you out a little bit the next time you're looking for some gear.

- The Soul of Rock 'n' Roll is a division of Fifth Column Media - www.fifthcolumnmedia.com -