From the archives: There’s a major disconnect between the audiophile magazines and their readers – says Howard Popeck

 

Well, hello again – and thank you to the thousands of you who each month follow my daily column here. Now then …

Overview

There is in my view a major disconnect between the audiophile magazines and their readers. It’s an understandable one but in my view an important one – and it's the focus of this post.

Although I’m a UK-based high-end retailer I am, curiously despite nearly 40 years on and off, still interested in music first and foremost – and then the equipment that reproduces it somewhere after that. With my end-user hat on I have to say that in a lot of my vintage gear is certainly, performance-wise, up to the standard of a lot of modern equipment. It’s not all plain sailing of course and there is the tricky issue of value versus price. Let me explain.

Take the Audio Research SP-8 for example

Venerable, rightly revered and a bargain on the used market. Yes of course my ARC SP-10 and ARC SP-11 preamps were more musically credible and probably still are for their fortunate new owners. But in too many instances this clear and immediate superiority is the exception rather than the rule. I’ve recently purchased a Musical Fidelity P270 heavy-grunt power amp for £370. It’s 25 years old I guess. The question in my mind is this.

Is the latest MF power amp of a similar specification noticeably AND significantly superior to this slightly scuffed but fully functioning 'antique'?

Somehow, I doubt it

Different, certainly. But more musically credible? Hmm, somehow I doubt that too. But I could be wrong. Very wrong in fact. So other than through a reckless and substantial investment whereby I buy a comparative brand new MF unit (I’m not an MF retailer but I very much admire the quality and value of their equipment) I would have to confront the probability of selling one of the two units at some financial loss. Without this investment, which surely must be a similarly unfortunate conundrum for most audiophiles with less than infinite financial resources, how am I (or they) to know?

Now where do the magazines come into all this you might ask?

Well let’s assume (naïve though it might be) that their primary reason for existence is to serve to needs of the reader. If so, then surely a side-by-side comparison of the two Musical Fidelity power amps (used purely for illustrative purposes in this post) is as valid as the mooted ARC SP8 versus SP10 comparison for example?

Clearly no advertiser of new equipment in an audiophile magazine would countenance this if they knew that the much touted new model really – at best – only sounded different to its vintage same-brand rival rather than better. Well, okay – that goes with territory.

The mags need to make a profit and to pay the staff at least a reasonable wage. But the point remains that given (a) the over-supply of new high-end gear in a diminishing market and (b) the buyers' market for high-value vintage gear that may indeed – or possibly not – sonically rival the performance of new gear and (c) the justified end-user cynicism regarding the hype and hyperbole of marketing phrases re new gear, then end-users are at a significant disadvantage when seeking value rather than lowest pricing.

The paradox is that the very people most suited to addressing this are constrained by economic reality

So, what’s to be done?

Well, I’m thinking of doing a few comparative subjective reviews myself here.

Possibly for my own amusement and possibly to the altruistic benefit of others. My question though is – is there a demand? Perhaps those of you with an interest (rather than an axe to grind) might want to contact me via Audiogon, or perhaps continue that thread? You can read an edited version of this article and the 34 responses so far by clicking HERE

Meanwhile, my Musical Fidelity P270 sounds terrific into my Vandersteen 2c Signatures. As a start, I’m might compare the P270 to something much newer of a similar spec and, as best I can judge, of a comparative price – once the years of inflation are factored in.

In one of my vintage systems I’m using a Carver 400t preamp, various SAE preamps, a Meridian 101b, a recent Arcam pre and North Star 2-box CD player. This leads me conveniently to the conclusion that modern DACs truly are an improvement (generally speaking) over vintage ones. I say this having owned the $20k USD STAX X1-t. This isn’t the case with speakers though.

Vintage speakers

Re vintage speakers that to me easily equal or indeed surpass the performance of rivals from modern competitors I’d put the Magneplanar 20.R right up there with the finest. Similarly with the Infinity IRS and the Spendor BC3s. These BC3s although not quite as immediately compelling (in the mid and treble at least) as the Harbeth 40.1s can be had for a tiny fraction of the latter’s price. Dahlquist DQ10s being another case in point. And so it goes. Servicing issues must of course always be taken into account.

Rowland

Are the magnificent vintage Rowland power amps truly altogether lesser beasts than their new units? Incidentally am I the only one over here that feels (no, not feels … actually knows) that Rowland really is one of this industry's forgotten brands? And no, I’m not a retailer for them either!

Epilogue

Finally, as I write this I’m listening to true vintage. Pink Floyd “Echoes” off the very rare “Rhapsody In Pink” live set through a single mono speaker – which is all I can fit into my office right now

If like me you saw the Floyd performing this live, then the absence of Pace, Rhythm & Timing through this both lossy and lousy system is an utter irrelevance. The musical trigger to the memory is sufficient, for me at least.

Thank you for your attention

If you have any comments re this post then I'll be happy to take a look and I'll respond if I can.