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Smoke and Mirrors and Upgraditus

by June 07, 2011
Time to upgrade already?

Time to upgrade already?

Upgraditus. In the AV community, it is a real phenomenon. What is it? Well, simply defined, it is the feeling that something in your AV system needs to be changed or added. It might be a DVD player, a Blu-ray, or a speaker. Sometimes you get the feeling based on a new release. Mac people know all about it. Steve Jobs announces that he's released a new line of iToiletPaper and they start queuing outside the Apple store to be one of the first to experience wiping as they've never experienced it before.

For AV folks it is more likely to be some new technology. Blu-ray, 3D, or even something with new DSP (like a receiver with Dolby Neo:X - made to work with additional speakers you don't own and aren't likely to install), can trigger the feeling. You may have a sub that starts to sound thin, a speaker that doesn't sound as spacious, or you are just sick of using multiple remotes. You may be listening to the AV Rant Podcast "Soup to Nuts" series on how to pick and set up your system and getting the sorts of ideas that make your wallet lighter.

Unfortunately, manufacturers know all about upgraditus. In fact, they're counting on it. Some of them don't have a choice. If you are a manufacturer of receivers, and you aren't putting a new one out every nine to twelve months, you better already have a rabid fan-base or a alternative source of income. New features for receivers are released, if not monthly, then quarterly. Everything from new DSP modes with new height/width/depth channels, to multiple speaker terminals, to extra subwoofer outputs, to new room correction systems... Want iPod/iPhone/Android integration? You'll need a new receiver or a new dock accessory. Want Networked features? That's only become common (or at least practical and usable) in the last year or so.

But other manufacturers are trying to convince you to upgrade when you really don't need to. Case in point: speakers.

Let's remember, of course, that the name of this website is Audioholics. We love audio. We love speakers. Frankly, the most heated discussions we get into around here isn't about Star Wars vs. Star Trek, or what display manufacturer/type is best, it's about which is the most important speaker in your system (it's your sub, let the flame-wars begin). So, when we say you don't need to upgrade your speakers as often as they're telling you, we mean it.

It's Still Good... It Didn't Break

Be honest with yourself, speaker design hasn't changed much in the last 20 years. Sure, new materials have been introduced and we know a lot more about configuration and design, but, if you could liquefy that knowledge, it would fill a thimble compared to the bathtub full of things we've learned about AV receiver and display technology. Things just haven't changed that much.

So why, then, do you see the major manufacturers (not all of them mind you, but some) releasing a new line of speakers every year? It is one thing if they are creating a new line. If they are trying to capture the imagination (and dollars) of a group of consumers they have previously ignored. But when they are upgrading a specific line at the same price point with a similar speaker, what are they really trying to do?

We see this often in the speakers that are carried at the big box stores. These speakers will be changed every year or two to something that looks completely different but doesn't significantly modify the price. What are they doing? What have they changed?

Nothing. At least nothing that you should pay money for.

Speakers have flaws. All of them. Designers work within the limitations of budget and ability (their ability) to create the best sounding speaker they can. So when you see a speaker change dramatically in shape but not price, what is the manufacturer looking for?

Another sale. And something fresh to capture the imagination.

Consumers, especially the types that shop at a big box store, aren't researching speakers. They probably aren't thinking about them all that much. If anything, they came in for a new TV. And while they are waiting for someone to tell them why LCDs are better than Plasmas (they aren't, grab your fire extinguisher!), they might stroll through the loudspeaker section. They might see a speaker by the same manufacturer as the ones they have at home. And low and behold, those speakers might look completely different! The side of the box or marketing material states clearly that they are an HD model! HD must be better, right? Right?


If they have made any sonic changes to the speakers, they are just trading one problem for another. Which doesn't make them better, just different.

There are real reasons to upgrade. You change your room (especially if you are going to a room of a different internal volume/dimensions). You've spend enough time with your speakers to realize that what you thought was "detailed" is really just "bright" or "excruciating." Maybe you've done some critical listening with your speakers, with your friend's speakers (or maybe speakers at a store), and you've made an informed decision to change. Perfectly legitimate.

The unfortunate wisdom on the forum ("unfortunate" if my wife is reading this, "something I do all the time" if she isn't) is that it is sometimes better to ask forgiveness than permission. In such cases, buying online or taking your time isn't an option. It's about waiting until your spouse goes to the store, or out with their friends, and then hitting the nearest AV store and bringing something home. You set it up, sprinkle some dust on it, and feign ignorance when she asks if they are new. Your options may be limited in such a circumstance but don't be fooled by a new model. Just because it's new, doesn't make it better.

When upgraditus strikes, and it will, make an informed decision. Take your time. Don't be blinded by the hype, the marketing speak, or the shills on the forums. A new model number doesn't mean much more than, "Hey, we weren't selling enough of those other ones, try these. They're in Gloss Black!" Or just do what we do. Buy an amp. You can never go wrong with an amp.


About the author:
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As Associate Editor at Audioholics, Tom promises to the best of his ability to give each review the same amount of attention, consideration, and thoughtfulness as possible and keep his writings free from undue bias and preconceptions. Any indication, either internally or from another, that bias has entered into his review will be immediately investigated. Substantiation of mistakes or bias will be immediately corrected regardless of personal stake, feelings, or ego.

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