- The HCE Video Series
If there is one positive about getting sick it has to be the “vacation” it grants you while it house sits in your body and sinus cavities for what feels like eternity. During which one is often left with copious amounts of time with which to take in gobs of horrible daytime television and long forgotten movies from your childhood. For me it took the form of a few impromptu Netflix streaming marathons of both X Files (man I miss that show) and early Ben Affleck films, the ones post Good Will Hunting but pre The Town. By the end of what I’m calling my forced vacation, I mustered the strength to even venture upstairs to my theater and take in a film or two on my big -okay, bigger -screen, which lead me to this realization; have things gotten too good?
Too good? That sounds like a problem one would want to have, not one that needs fixing and yet I pose it as a negative -if only for argument sake. My theater is not what I’d call expensive, though the sheer fact that I have one probably puts me in some one-percenter category, which isn’t a negative, it just makes me a minority among your average consumer in today’s marketplace. Without going into too much detail regarding my theater, that’s what my video series is for, it’s a place I like to retreat to for real movie watching because a) I built in myself, making me quite proud of it and b) the experience is always new and fresh thanks to the often revolving door of equipment that I have in for review. I wouldn’t dub it a high-end space per se, though I believe it performs at a very high level if that makes any sense. Currently, my theater plays host to two, soon to be three, discrete setups; one retailing for around $5,000 (minus video) and another for around $10,000 (minus video). The last system would retail for $10,000 at full retail but it’s a system that has been assembled partly from second hand purchases meaning I’ve personally spent, much, much less -arguably less than that $5,000 system described before it. The point I’m trying to make is this; if you were to sit and watch a movie in my sub $500 theater (construction and materials cost) and I failed to point out what setup or even what products you were listening to, it is my belief that you’d think you were listening to a setup costing multiples more. The reason I say this is simple; two days ago, I forgot which setup I was running and as a result watched an entire film believing I was listening to one rig when in fact I was listening to the other. Because my equipment sits in an adjacent room and my speakers are hidden from view it isn’t difficult to “forget” which is which. When I realized my mistake -if you can call it that -I was more impressed by just how far we’ve come in terms of technology that I began to wonder what so many of you and my readers over at Home Theater Review wonder everyday; Is there such a thing as high-end anymore?
High-end used to mean two things, a) you paid a high price but b) you also got the utmost performance for said price. Now, with companies like Vizio, Parasound, Emotiva and countless others, the term high-end has been replaced with high-value though the higher end performance aspect of the equation doesn’t seem to have been sacrificed in its wake. It would be easy to say the downturn in the economy was the root cause for this recent shift towards affordable excellence except for the simple fact that all of the before mentioned companies have all been manufacturing their wares for 10 or more years. Moreover, even high-end stalwarts like Bowers & Wilkins have offered more affordable product offerings for years -though they arguably are putting more “stock” in their affordable and lifestyle lines as of late as a result of the dwindling economy.
Speaking of Bowers & Wilkins for a moment, they, along with a few others like Paradigm and/or even Krell, have had the good fortune of being able to use “trickle down” methodologies, meaning their high-end developments have benefited their lower priced products. But has that trickle down tactic resulted in supposed entry level products that would put once high-end offerings to shame? I think so. For example; I once owned a pair of Bowers & Wilkins’ top of the line bookshelf speaker, the equivalent of today’s 805 Diamond loudspeaker, which retails for $5,000/pair. While that may sound like a lot of money (let’s not mince words it is) it’s relatively affordable considering other products in the Diamond Series retail for upwards of $20,000 or more. However, like any flagship product, the technology, methodology and materials used to bring us the wonderful 805 Diamond to life have found their way into virtually every facet of Bowers & Wilkins’ product line -maybe not to the same degree -but never the less the lineage is easily traced. While I haven’t owned the new 805 Diamond, my older pair were sent packing due to the arrival (at the time) of another Bowers & Wilkins speaker, the CT7.5, which may not have been as pretty but outperformed my earlier generation 805 in virtually every way. The CT7.5 retails for $600/each or $1,200/pair in case you were wondering. Would the CT7.5 best today’s 805 Diamond? Who knows, the point is, we’ve come so far, so fast that the notion that you must spend a lot to get a lot (or maybe even a little) is antiquated.
Is there still a need for ultra high-end products then? Yes, yes there is, if for no other reason than to push the proverbial envelope for the betterment of lower cost products down the road. But the idea that you need to acquire said high-end products in order to achieve high-end results is simply not accurate. So should consumers just pinch pennies and buy the cheapest items they can find? No, because cheap is still cheap, and even when trying to ball on a budget you still want to make sure you’re buying quality. You can easily buy an AV receiver for under $500 but upping your budget to say $1,200 for a dedicated AV preamp and multi-channel amplifier is going to benefit you greatly in terms of overall performance. Both options skew more affordable though one is clearly more than the other, and so it goes. Another thing you might find as the culprit for paying more has to do with features. For example; I recently reviewed two great budget preamplifiers in the Outlaw Model 975 and Emotiva UMC-200. Both are great pieces and arguably all any budget conscious consumer would ever need, however, even with my proclivities towards affordable excellence, neither replaced my current reference preamplifier because of features I just wasn’t willing to part with. These same features are partially responsible for my current preamplifier’s price, which is four times that of the Outlaw or Emotiva and also the reason that I’m contemplating purchasing an even costlier preamp in the not too distant future. Does my current preamp sound better than either the Outlaw or Emotiva? That’s a subjective call, I think they’re more or less on par with each other, but it does showcase how you can spend more even when the ultimate performance -at least sonically -could be considered largely the same. To each his own, but even among the affordable sect, there are gradations of performance, features and excellence.
There is also another facet with which to consider and that is longevity. I’ve owned over a dozen AV receivers in my day and a good portion of them have failed at one point or another, yet my Parasound Halo A23 that I purchased new for $800 in the summer of 2001 performed as well as the day I bought it for over 10 years. I know $800 is still a lot of money for some (it is for me) but if you amortize it over the life of a product it’s a steal -provided the product lasts you a long as my Parasound did. (It should be noted that my Halo amp didn’t fail, I simply sold it to a budding young audiophile in order to “upgrade”.) But it isn’t difficult to find out if a product(s) has a track record for long term reliability as most can be researched and read about from firsthand experience(s) stemming from real world customers who won’t hestitate to share their horror stories if such exists. Trust me when I say, positive word of mouth travels by mouth where as negative word of mouth travels via the Internet.
Obviously, any purchase is going to be largely dictated by one’s needs and budget, and a lot of the time the budget is simply the budget and there is no shame in that. It is possible to have a home entertainment system that is fulfilling and high performing at virtually every level, you just may have to do without certain features and/or modern technologies, but that isn’t to suggest you’ll be forced to suffer poor quality. For me I tend to spend money on things that are quantifiable, meaning items I can “prove” are better, for example video. Video has a standard, one that can be measured, and as a result your display can either be calibrated to meet said standard or not. This, in my opinion, is something worth paying for, though it doesn’t mean those that come up short are somehow crap. Since I rely on my SIM2 projector for mastering as well as entertainment I can justify the expense as it is among the more “perfect” video components I’ve ever come across and/or measured, but my Vizio downstairs isn’t -though I love my Vizio and would hardly classify it as being crap. In truth it’s quite remarkable despite its inability to be fully calibrated, but it (my Vizio) cost less than $2,000 where as my SIM2 projector retails for closer to $20,000. Justifying $2,000 is obviously easier than 20 however both are a personal judgement call. As for sound, it’s more of a preference thing as one’s room plays as big a role in a speaker’s overall performance as the speaker itself, which is why I’ve heard $500 speakers sound as good as $5,000 speakers and vice versa. With regards to components, I spend money on amps because they tend to last longer thus I can justify their higher price tag in some instances or within reason. However, I don’t believe in spending too much on preamps and/or source components because the technology is always changing. But no matter what, you have to go with your gut and trust your eyes and ears because at the end of the day you’re the one that has to like it and be impressed, not your friends or friends you have on the Internet. I don’t care when friends or even readers hear of or criticize me for liking a Sony receiver or a $20 speaker mount for they’re not me, nor have they probably experienced it for themselves -they’re just blasting it based on what they believe to be true. Well, believed truth and real truth are vastly different things, especially when it come to audio and video.
As always I thank you so very much for reading. Until next time, take care and stay tuned…
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