The Pursuit of Excellence or Excess?

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about my adventures in the world of Hi-Fi. With the discovery of Roon, I’ve rekindled my quest to listen to music, rather than have it as background noise. It’s also had the side effect of making me take a look at my current Hi-Fi equipment and wondering whether I should upgrade or tweak it.

Ever since I started my journey into the lands of Hi-Fi, back in 1968, I’ve been aware that there were esoteric areas, complete with warring tribes, contained within. Now, revisiting the subject some fifty years later, it seems that Hi-Fi has got more complex, rather than completely mapped out.

There are many more companies involved in the field now. When I started there were a few well-known names, now there are seemingly thousands that I’ve never heard of. The choice is overwhelming. I’m finding it very difficult to sort the wheat from the chaff. Some decisions are easily made; for example, I don’t see myself plonking down £44,000 for an amplifier (the Dan D’Agostino Momentum Integrated Amplifier). Even if I had that sort of money lying around, I would be thinking twice or three times about it. And then there are the products which, to my mind, seem more associated with snake oil than science.

Connecting cables is the big area here. Some of the claims made for expensive cables seem, shall we say, somewhat over the top? But then, if you are going to pay $22,000 for a cable to connect one piece of equipment to another (the Skogrand Beethoven cable), you have to believe that it makes a difference. This reviewer (and his cat) clearly did, but me? I doubt it very much. I’d be asking for the guaranteed blind testing of all such claims, and even then I’d probably suck my teeth and say “thanks, but no thanks”.

As someone once said: ‘Although it is fully understood scientifically, the phenomenon of “gullibility” has been experienced by many audiophiles’.

With all this in mind, I looked at my current Quad 44 preamp + Quad 405 amp + Quad ESL 57 speakers, and wondered: upgrade or tweak?

My first port of call was Quad themselves. I see that they have introduced a new preamp/amp combo for the digital age: the Quad Artera. The product web page rather jarringly still gushes that it’s “coming soon for 2015” [since corrected, after I sent them an email to point it out]. That aside, it certainly looks good, and has very good specs. I took a look at the manual and noticed something missing: unlike the Quad 44 preamp, the Artera Play has no switched mains outlets. Those of us who use mains-powered loudspeakers (e.g. the Quad ESLs) like the convenience of being able to switch on the preamp, and everything else in the system gets powered up. Likewise for switching off. That convenience is gone with the Artera – it seems a step backwards to me, and something that seems to have been overlooked in the design. I wonder why?

I think at this stage, I’m leaning towards a tweak of my existing setup. Although I’ve now got the Quad system hooked into our HTPC so that I can play music from our music server through it, I think that I can improve the sound quality further. This coming week I hope to get a Pi-DAC+ from IQaudIO, and then I can re-use my spare Raspberry Pi 2 to build a Roon endpoint. I’ve run an ethernet cable into the cabinet housing the Quad system, and then I can connect the RPi2 + Pi-DAC+ (housed in a neat little box) up to the Quad 44. An upgrade that hasn’t cost an arm and a leg.

Addendum 1st March 2016: I emailed Quad to ask about the missing mains outlets, and got back the following from the Service Manager:

The Artera uses true standby function is this is why we did not place a mains outlet socket on either unit.  The mains outlet sockets on the 44 pre-amp were for other Quad units and not really designed for ESL’s switching on and off.

They may not have been really designed for that purpose, but I’d be prepared to bet that the majority of ESL owners used them that way…

About Geoff Coupe

I'm a British citizen, although I have lived and worked in the Netherlands since 1983. I came here on a three year assignment, but fell in love with the country, and one Dutchman in particular, and so have stayed here ever since. On the 13th December 2006 I also became a Dutch citizen.
This entry was posted in Computers and Internet, Consumer Electronics, Music. Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to The Pursuit of Excellence or Excess?

  1. Ludwig says:

    OMG, you would use a speaker with the amp built right in instead of using a pair of hyper-rare-earth superconducting cables with gold inlays?!! How could you!!! Think of what your cat is missing! 😉

  2. Matt Healy says:

    Back in the 1980s the esteemed magazine Audio (which, sadly, ceased publication about 15 years ago) made lots of enemies in the audiophile community by running blind A/B/X tests. A group of experts (who included musicians, engineers, and others) sat next to a curtain. On the other side of the curtain would be an assemblage of high-end audio gear, and a special A/B switch that enabled one component to be swapped out with another with the signal levels exactly matched. The listeners had just one task: determine whether “X” was device A or device B more accurately than chance alone. In this way, they demonstrated human ears could not reliably tell the difference between midrange consumer electronics and the best obtainable when it came to just about every component in the audio chain other than speakers. Certainly where it comes to cables this is true. I have even seen it claimed that special DIGITAL cables (such as USB or HDMI) somehow improve the sound or video, which is utterly preposterous: a cable carrying a digital signal just works or fails completely. Unlike analog, there’s no in-between with digital signals.

    I suspect its ruthless honesty in debunking snake oil was a major reason why the magazine went out of business: much of the advertising in many such publications comes from purveyors of snake oil.

    Anyway, I think it’s still sensible advice to put most of your audio Euros/Dollars/Yen/Pounds/Whatever into the speakers.

    • Geoff Coupe says:

      Yes – hooray for blind testing, boo for the fact that honesty doesn’t seem to pay these days. And you’re right – the speakers are the link in the chain where it makes sense to get the best that you can afford. They’re also where small differences can be perceived most easily. I’d really like to invest in a pair of Quad’s latest ESL, but (i) they are hugely expensive and (ii) they are huge, and there’s no way they would fit in our living room with Martin’s blessing.

      • Matt Healy says:

        Dunno the maker, but some friends have a terrific speaker system that might be an excellent compromise if you like ESL speakers. They have two panels each about 0.5 meter by 2 meters (they look like canvas on stretchers before a painter has got started) and a sub-woofer in a corner to handle the low end (thus getting around the need for huge dimensions when the panels must handle all the sound). The sub also means they don’t need a monster amp to overcome the low efficiency of electrostatic panels, since the sub is very efficient in the frequencies it covers.

        If you want to go really really really high end, you can get one of these…

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