All That Glistens

March 28, 2017
3 mins read

Has your Disney dust turned out to be a sizzle without a sausage? DR RICHARD VAREY examines the hi-fi world’s propensity for glitz and beauty.

Does a glossy slab of metal or wood that wouldn’t look out of place in an art exhibition necessarily provide high performance and exceptional value for money? Do you always get what you pay for? Is your latest component acquisition a beautiful statement of a grand promise fulfilled, or a costly disappointing chunk of milled and polished mediocrity?

Such questions are prompted by the proliferation of ‘astounding’ hi-fi products – usually amplifiers and speakers – despite certain retailers asserting that there’s no market for anything other than integrated and compact, preferably wireless, components.

I also read this in a recent review elsewhere: “If a product has the look and feel of quality and solidity it stimulates a feeling of confidence. Furthermore, it is logical to assume that if a lot of thought and investment was put into the external attributes of the product that the same level of effort and quality will be present inside the box. High-end audio components are expensive and the owner should be able to expect problem-free performance for a long time.”

This isn’t always true. Although some product packaging is highly functional for heatsinking and rigidity, for instance, in most cases (pun alert!), the case is mostly decoration – it’s what’s under the hood that matters most – and the enclosure might be an expensive disguise.

You pay your money and you take your choice, so it goes. I’m pointing out that you either buy an engineered audio reproduction tool or an arty artefact, or both in some combination. So care is needed that the money gets spent on the most important part of the assemblage.

There are loudspeakers on offer that cost many tens of thousands, yet have components that cost tens or a few hundred dollars. It is claimed that the value is in the superb finish or some novel internal feature or design innovation. At the other extreme you can shed any pretence of fashionable form and get pure function with little superfluous finesse and no extravagant largesse. In my own system, for example, I have selected amplifiers that are so fast and clean that detail and dynamics are revealed in everything I play. The Sachem Pure and V2 monoblocks (from Viganoni & Viganoni) have no frills cases, connectors, and knobs from a local hobbyist supplier. Boy, do they make great sound! Recently, I had the pleasure of reviewing a REDGUM Audio amplifier which features a very functional massive ‘waveform’ heatsink which is novel and a bit playful, and makes the product all the better for it. I’ve also become a fan of the minimalist presentation of the various RaspberryPi-based music player/DAC products. Don’t be fooled by the ultra-basic box when the sound quality and versatility is truly outstanding, and the low price reflects the clever low-cost design and manufacture.

Don’t be beguiled by the glitz, either. Technology and art come from very different values, and in fact the bauble may not be anything more than ornamental glitz. There’s a very, very old saying that “all that glistens isn’t gold”, and I wonder how many cases (there’s that pun again) of flamboyant packaging overtly promise high performance from what’s inside, yet don’t deliver on sound quality and reliability.

What I’m suggesting is that we audiophiles (literally) take the lid off the box ‘con’. I write reviews for an editor who usually wants a photo of what’s in the box, as well as its external largely cosmetic appearance. He wants to see whether or not there is any real substance to the swaggering display made by the packaging. What to look for? Does the case or cabinet add (to) valuable functionality, or divert cost, and maybe cover up weakness in performance, or sloppy design and assembly, or poor quality components?

In a crowded marketplace with a dwindling number of buyers willing to pay mega prices, producers try ever more to stand out for attention. If the peacock presentation is merely suggestive display and not confirmatory of outstanding performance, then we are little more than legal prey for the ‘Disney dust’ that turns out to be a sizzle without a sausage. Some people know quality when they see it, while others know the price of everything and the value of nothing. Now there’s a thought. What would Mr Oscar Wilde make of the so-called high-end hi-fi advertising?

If only we always got what we paid for, and paid only for what we really value! Be careful what you pay for, so another saying (almost) wisely goes.


* Dr Richard Varey writes about the electro-mechanics and the social psychology of this technology-facilitated art we call high-fidelity music reproduction.

For five decades, Richard has assembled music systems that enrich his music listening experience. He writes about the electro-mechanics and social psychology of this technology-facilitated art we call high-fidelity music reproduction, and about his experiences with interesting hi-fi ideas, equipment, and the people who make it.

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