Tuesday, October 20, 2015

Inexpensive but decent systems are important

I remember reading an article in a British audio equipment review magazine about fifteen years ago that has stuck in my mind ever since. It discussed low cost audio systems. It was aimed at college students (although most of the article would apply to anyone whose budget was limited). They had systems assembled at different price points, starting at a level where one would normally expect the only option to be mass market crap equipment. Each system appeared to be assembled with care. For example, one system started with a particular speaker/amp combination that - together - apparently really sung. They had some upgrade hints. And my Inner Vinyl Die-hard was happy to note that the best system was based around a turntable.

After reading this article, my immediate thought: this would never run in the US. High end US magazines didn't seem too likely to want to review inexpensive systems. The cheapest system in this article probably cost less than a single pair of some US high end reviewers' interconnects!

Of course, there were US magazines that would have happily reviewed inexpensive systems. But they might have refused to touch stereo, except maybe - and I say maybe - on the lowest level system. (About that time, I saw one suggestion for college students that basically said: "Buy a surround receiver, and add more speakers later!") And the last time one of these magazines would have suggested a turntable? Ronald Reagan was still in office, and that turntable would have been in the cheapest system for those who couldn't afford "the perfect sound forever." And, of course, those mass market magazines were often unable to hear any differences between equipment, anyway.

In the days after reading that article, I did a little probing, and found that even assembling those systems in the US would have been impossible in most cases. Many suggested products weren't available here. Japanese makes, for example, had stereo in the UK, but had all but abandoned the idea here in the US. In some cases, I'd speculate that some equipment didn't make it to this side of the pond because it was "too cheap" for many specialist stores, and not enough power/bass/flashing lights to make it in chain stores. Or...

In the end, I think only one of the systems could have been assembled in the US, buying through standard retail channels. Even that one system was problematic - I recall the amp was recently discontinued here, and the turntable's standard cartridge was different than in Britain. But...with a little extra work, that system could happen.

What probably disturbed me then - and certainly bothers me now - is that many buyers were out of luck in most of the US market. If you are interested in a good, inexpensive stereo music system, your equipment options can be seriously limited. And if you are a younger buyer, you might be less than welcome in some stores. ("Huh. College kid. Not much chance of getting enough to make my next Mercedes payment!")

I have always felt that people should be able to have decent audio even if their budget is limited.

Yes, that rock bottom system profiled in this review magazine article is not something many long term, seasoned audiophiles would dream of owning. But there is no doubt in my mind that such a system would probably prove to be considerably better, and more satisfying than some craptastic mass market bookshelf system.

Also, looking at the bigger picture, I think basic, inexpensive systems help the audio world. I'd guess that few people get a start by dropping five grand on a "starter system" at Snobby Audio Emporium. It's more likely that someone will start with a much less expensive basic system, and grow from there.

Even those who never see any reason to upgrade from rock bottom have importance. They may influence others to likewise buy into quality audio. They also might help exert pressure on the recording industry to encourage quality. If 99% of the market is using lousy audio equipment, what incentive is there for a recording company to make anything better than the sound quality of 8-track?

Yes, inexpensive but decent systems are important. I think the writers of that article 15-some years ago understood this. I just wish more in the US audio industry of today would understand this.

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