A Matter Of Subjectivity

Contributor: Stephen Lee - Audio Trends Founder

Performance on any system is not only subjective, but has a lot to do with the right combination of products within the system. For example, you could take three amplifiers in the same category hook them up to the same CD Player and Speakers and you will probably have a preference. Does this then mean that this is the best Amplifier for you out of the group? Possibly. But change just one of the items, say the Speakers, and you will more than likely get a completely different result! What does this mean?

One factor is the combination or should I say the right combination of components that makes the difference. To illustrate, modern passenger aeroplanes have a similarity in design because engineers have a given set of parameters or natural laws into which to work. We call it the law of physics. Science and Mathematics have come to some common conclusions based on known factors.

So you might argue that Science and Mathematics can apply equally in audio and you would be right if the listening environment - your home - was like gravity, a constant factor. However, the accurate electronic reproduction of music - not sound - has proven to be one of the most complex technical challenges. Yes, we also have the law of physics, yet every year we see new Amplifiers, new Speakers, new CD Players etc.

Apart from a few industry iconic products like the McIntosh MC275 Amplifier which first appeared in 1961, most consumers today wouldn't consider buying an audio product that was designed 50+ years ago! Yet, the original Boeing 747 "Jumbo" design from the late 60's is still flying with relatively minor changes - well from the travelling publics perception.

Yet, in the same period, Hi-Fi products have continued to develop and be refined. My first Amplifier was a second-hand Sansui AU-555 integrated Stereo amplifier. It was the 'big' amp of 1969 at I think 25 Watts RMS per channel. I sold dozens and dozens of them, but on $33 gross per week wages in 1970 couldn't afford one. I managed to buy mine in 1976 for $150 which was about $50 less than when new. By 1980, it had lost favour and I moved on to the new toy of the day - a NAD 3020. 

But around 1995 I had a customer trade a Sansui. I was pretty excited, raving to all the staff how 'hot' this amp was. Well, "used to be" would have been the right phrase! What in my mind was a punchy, dynamic sound was now perceived as dull and muted, almost muffled! Everyone in the store thought I had lost it, but plenty of "mature-age" audiophiles from that era will testify to the 555's market dominance in the late 60's to early 70's. Was the amp suffering from old-age or had my 'standards' been gradually raised over the years? I honestly don't know.


The original NAD 3020 Amplifier. "I don't know how many we sold new! But it was in the hundreds."

The above is all leading back to my introductory paragraph that discussed the issue of subjectivity. The only constant we have is change. Listen to one Amplifier/Speaker combination verses another and they will most likely sound different. To illustrate: We have customers tell us that they didn't like x Amplifier or y Speakers that they have heard elsewhere. Their advice to us is show me something else! After some discussion on their specific needs, they will always be "shocked" if we then suggest keeping either the Amplifier or Speakers in our system recommendation and then be even more "shocked" when it actually sounds fantastic. (Of course we do take time to make sure any system we demonstrate is properly set-up).

So this is where one has to exercise caution with individual product Reviews, like seen on the Internet and in respected Magazines. Personally, I find many are 'shallow' at best with often just a few adjectives or a one sentence summary. Even the better ones which deliver pages and pages of techno stuff will either gloss over what they have used as reference points. Or they may say that they are using their favourite Speakers if reviewing an Amplifier or vice-versa. That is at least more credible and these Reviewers are to be commended, but it is still not the complete and truly satisfactory answer and very rarely gives an accurate picture of what a product is like in the real-world or with other available and complimentary products. And I admit, even this opinion is subjective!

No, the above is not just to promote the Audio Trends section devoted to Complete Systems, but rather to highlight that it is the careful selection (combination) of products that is the key and not just one persons or even several persons opinions of a particular product. Not all of the products we sell have 5 Star ratings if they have been reviewed. Yes, some do, but it still doesn't guarantee 100% that it is right for you. We believe that there are a lot more reasons to recommend a brand than just Reviews. Questions like "has the brand got a reputation for good sound quality; reliability; fast after-sales-service; good value" are all considered by the Audio Trends team when evaluations are concerned.

Likewise today, with just a few exceptions, manufacturers specialise in either making Speakers or Components. This is an issue for everyone and won't go away in the near future. Best results mostly (if not always) come from mixing and matching products from at least two brands. Our Complete Systems are made up of products that we believe offer the best combination within a fixed set of guidelines which includes room size; music tastes and of course budget. They are combinations that we like to listen to and would purchase!

After all this you may be even more puzzled, but don't be. The lesson here is exactly as stated in the first sentence. "Performance on any system is not only subjective, but has a lot to do with the right combination of products within the system." What you need to do is either take the time and listen to a few system combinations or talk to us about your needs and then trust us. With a few questions, it is easy for us to drill-down to what is important to you and then make it happen.


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