State of the Audio Industry & Resources
There are a lot of factors currently contributing to the inability to locate quality products at relatively affordable prices such as manufacturers' profitability requirements, design philosophy, and marketing. This is not to say that it is impossible to find good products, but it is significantly more difficult.
After the economy tanked in the late 2000s, manufacturers had to make a decision. Some were already designing and producing equipment for the cheap and wealthy market segments, but since the middle class spending mostly evaporated so did many of the products that had decent quality at relatively affordable prices. Companies still wanting to manufacture these middle tier products went after lost profits by charging ever increasing amounts of money, and manufacturers providing gear for the wealthy followed suit as well. People on the Internet started describing these products as being made of unobtainium, a rare mythical material used to build products that are just too expensive to consider. In addition, there are some manufacturers looking to cut costs to insure profitability. For instance, speakers have gotten smaller in many cases. This has happened in part because of profitability, price to the consumer, and some of this has been due to the insistence of form over function (aesthetics have the priority). Personally, I would rather purchase a large and/or even perhaps an unusual looking speaker that sounds great versus a tiny thin one that sounds bad. I do have some aesthetic lines that I would rather not cross either, but at the end of the day the music has to sound good; otherwise, what was the point? Since speakers have gotten smaller it has been easier for amplifier manufacturers to reduce the size of their equipment to increase profitability in addition to using cheaper alternative designs. Not all of these products are bad, but you will see some manufacturers spin this into a benefit such as reduced power consumption. Some manufacturers utilize direct to the consumer, and this can increase their profitability along with being more competitive from a price perspective without having dealer/retailer markups. Some of these products are quite good, and some not so much. Nonetheless, some of these companies can be harder to find because they might have a small or almost non-existent marketing budget. Anyway, these are my theories about the current market forces at work.
It might also be shocking to some that manufacturers use unusual
methods at times to design audio products. Their design philosophy
can fall within three categories which are either objective, subjective, or a
combination of the two. For the objectively designed products, they
only go by how the product is measuring. Potentially, you end up
with a solid product, but it might sound flat, boring, have a small soundstage,
and etc. There are some aspects of an audio product that is
difficult to measure. Then, you have the subjectively designed
products, they only go by how the product sounds. It might sound ok
or even good, but they might have missed something that can even damage your
speakers or headphones due to not using good design practices.
Product designers should use a combination of these two methods. In
short, the product should measure well, and it should sound good
too. Some manufacturers complicate matters even more by having a
house sound which could translate into equipment with too much
treble/bass or utilize an unusual or ill-conceived target frequency response
Lastly, there is the marketing of these products which lands most everyone into a quagmire. Specification shopping for instance can be problematic because manufacturers can measure things a bit differently, and they publish statistics that favor their products. Sometimes this information is not even easily comparable between different manufacturers. Basically shopping based on specifications only can easily get most into trouble, and here is an unrelated example to drive the message home. If you are buying a new computer and looking for a high clock speed because you believe that will translate into a faster computer, think again. During the time when AMD's processors were based on the Bulldozer architecture they utilized higher clock speeds, but those CPUs usually accomplished a lot less work per clock cycle than their Intel counterparts at the time. You might walk away thinking you just got a heck of deal, but you didn't. You bought an inefficient computer that will be slower just because you were only seeking a high clock speed. AMD does make some good products, but you have to understand what you are looking at. This is the point. If you want improve your shopping experience, you need to understand what those specifications really mean or find a friend that can assist. If you rely solely on reviewers, this is another land mine. Reviewers can fall into the same categories that designers do in that some are objective, subjective, or a combination of the two. Just like designers, it is best if they embrace both. Most reviewers only subjectively review equipment, and some of the worst subjective reviewers will have the wildest or inconsistent claims. Some of the worst objective reviewers will claim there is absolutely no differences heard between various digital to analog converters (DACs), amplifiers, and etc. Regardless, how many reviewers have golden hearing anyway or the ability to process the slight nuances of what they heard? Much less articulate that in an intelligent way. It is harder than you think to do this right. Furthermore, most reviewers fall into the following traps. If they want to continue to receive free review samples from manufacturers, they write the reviews so nearly every product sounds good (hardly anything negative). In addition, many reviewers convince themselves that a product is great just because it costs a bunch so it must be better no matter what they are hearing. Reviewers are human too, so all kinds of biases can color their opinion of the equipment including utilizing flawed testing procedures or trying to please their sponsors or manufacturers. Also, manufactures do not assist with the review process either by sometimes providing preproduction, cherry picked, or even modified equipment to reviewers. In short, the product that everyone buys might be significantly different then the equipment used in the review. Although, sometimes this isn't intentional because some manufacturers tweak or adjust their products over time without actually changing the model name or number which just adds to the confusion.
Okay, so what am I suppose to do? Find a technical friend to assist you in sorting out the specifications or ideally do some research to develop your technical knowledge to allow you to interpret them. In addition, locate and identify information sources that you can trust, and there are good sources of information out there. You just have to be careful in today's Internet where blogging and opinions dominate the web making it more difficult to find credible and authoritative data. In addition, no source of information is usually perfect, so you probably need to look at multiple sources and merge their information intelligently while balancing that data against your needs and requirements to hopefully arrive at a purchasing decision for equipment that might work for you. As a starting point, here are some of the sources of information that I use:
- InnerFidelity concentrates on headphones and associated gear. They provide reviews with measurements, and the most reliable ones are provided by their main reviewer, Tyll Hertsens. While Steve Guttenberg, who also writes for CNET, typically lacks any substantive information. In addition, their small subset of good technical articles are sometimes buried in Tyll's blog, and they review too much expensive gear.
- Home Theater Review concentrates largely on home theater, but they can be a good resource with subjective reviews for speakers, receivers, and amplifiers. I particularly like the reviews by Andrew Robinson.
- stereophile concentrates on two-channel (stereo) audio products. They provide reviews with measurements, and they are actually a sister web site to InnerFidelity. Regardless, I was a bit hesitant to recommend this web site because they do seem to suffer from more expensive is always better, and they cover a lot of unobtainium products. Nonetheless, there is some good information on there too.
For forums, I have a hard time making recommendations because most forums are a horrible waste of time with questionable information/data at best. Many forums are also bent on protecting their sponsors (manufacturers), and some take extreme measures to remove data that might be harmful to their sponsors in any way including banning members. Having said that, a couple of forums do standout as being better than the rest as long as you can deal with the issues that plaque most forums such as difficult people, recommendations of the same hardware by the same person in every thread, people pretending to know something when they really do not especially regarding technology, people clogging threads with posts that are not related to the topic, posting about products that they have no real world experience with (just regurgitating data from other sources in an authoritative manner), and people's unusual bias and fanaticism about specific products including being defensive if you have actually encountered problems or have issues with their beloved product. Having said that, here are the ones I have used although not regularly:
Super Best Audio Friends
concentrates on a balance of both measurements and subjective information about
gear. They do have some industry insiders, manufacturers, and
members associated with manufacturers participating; but these members are
quite clear about their associations, provide good information, and usually
conduct themselves in a manner to prevent the perception of a conflict of
interest. In addition, the forum does not seem to be beholden to
any sponsor or manufacturer due to funding. Most of the funding
seems to come from the leadership of the forum along with its
members. Also, this forum is attempting to foster a sense of
community including meets throughout the country and an unique equipment loaner
program that after you have reached
friendstatus you can participate in. The equipment that you can receive for a brief trial can be quite expensive and typically owned by the forum or individual members, so it is impressive that they offer this service.
- Home Theater Shack concentrates largely on home theater, but there is some information on speakers, receivers, amplifiers, and acoustics. In addition, probably their biggest draw was getting access to the Room EQ Wizard (REW) software which can provide a method for measuring your room acoustics inexpensively, but it is now available at www.roomeqwizard.com.
Another source of information is a good glossary on how to describe sound. Unfortunately, there is some disagreement about what each term should mean between audiophiles (audio enthusiasts), recording professionals, and journalists. Regardless, here are the ones I have used:
- Audio Undone's Sound-Quality Glossary describes them fairly well and provides frequency ranges that contribute to a specific sound.