Failure to scale. 2001/03

A common thread between low-fidelity, mid-fidelity, and high-fidelity components is the failure of many to sonically "scale up." It is this inability to scale up that prevents many system upgrades from achieving the goal of an overall improvement to the sound.

To illustrate this point let us take a look at an entry level receiver from any of the dozen or so companies that make receivers. For many people this is the beginning of their foray into music reproduction in the home and is a logical place to begin. Once the urge to 'upgrade' comes along, the natural progression is to consider the next model or several models up in the manufacturer's line. As the cost goes up you usually get more features, more power, and a bigger case to contain it all. Notice I did not say anything about getting better sound. This is the "failure to scale up" syndrome. By moving up the product line ladder in this fashion you end up with more receiver but no sonic improvement. In fact there is a reasonable chance for things to get sonically worse as the complexity of the product increases. To make improvements you need to get off one ladder and move to a different ladder, so to speak, reevaluate your needs. Let us say, for instance, that you have a $200 receiver and would like to upgrade. I can assure you that the $400 or $700 receiver from the same company is not going to provide any meaningful improvement in the overall sound you are getting. The best move would be to take a look at some of the lower priced components from manufacturers who are designing sonically better products at that beginning price point. For instance, take a look at a $300-$400 integrated amp. In other words look for a product that did not have the design compromises built in from the lowest price point and fails to remove that thinking as the equipment gets more expensive. In other words (all things being equal) the designer who set out to build the best integrated he could for the least amount of money may end up with an entry product that starts at $1000. That product likely will not suffer the design compromises that the designer who is trying to make a $300 integrated would have had to have made. However, the design mentality that the product starts at seems to permeate the line and both suppliers will suffer the same scaling problem (for one it will be further up the line than for another).

Speaker lines can also suffer from the same problem. There are very few manufacturers who can pull off a line of products that extends past 2 to 4 models where the failure to scale up does not impede forward sonic progress in the same line. There are dozens of speaker manufacturers who can pull off a pretty decent sounding 2-way bookshelf speaker in the sub $500 per pair price point. Many of these companies produce a speaker line that extends from $300/pair to $3000/pair. I have rarely found a company that can produce a good sounding entry level speaker that can justify the expense of their flagship product. They simply do not scale up. Basically, if you are interested in going from a $500 set of speakers, to a $2000 set of speakers it makes more sense to see who is designing speakers starting at that price point without the limitations to the product that a speaker that needs to cost 1/4 as much necessarily entails. The need to keep a line unified seems to create an atmosphere that causes this problem. Sometimes a designer will have a single speaker in an entire line that really stands out as being a great product for the money while the other models in the line just do not manage to achieve the same value. In fact most speaker lines seem to get worse as the prices go up.

This scaling problem is why built-in upgrade paths or special signature versions (same component with upgraded parts quality) are so often a poor deal. By the time you upgrade the basic product to something that is at a different price point you might have been better off looking for products that started in that price point to begin with. It matters little what aftermarket or factory mods you make to the product – at any price – when you are done you still have basically the same product. If you were going to spend that much money on a product, you would have been better off looking for one that did not come with those built-in design limitations to start with.

This is not to say that there are not exceptions but they are extremely rare. The exceptions typically come from designers who have figured out a particularly clever circuit or speaker design and have been able to scale down from above as opposed to scaling up from below. When dealing with equipment purchases (and especially upgrades), it really pays to stand back and look at the total picture of what you are trying to achieve. Failing to take in the big picture can leave you making micro decisions that take you down a long path, spending good money, and ending up with a system that falls far short of what the financial outlay could have achieved.

© Cadence Magazine 2001

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