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Is Today’s Specialty AV Gear Too Inexpensive?

by Jerry Del Colliano February 15, 2021
Jerry Home Theater

Jerry Home Theater

Roll the tape back about seven years, and I was outfitting my newly renovated home with all of the toys needed for a pretty tricked-out Crestron-based smart home that didn’t ignore audiophile and videophile performance. While I was just starting to use invisible speakers back then, I still had a lust-worthy pair of Focal Sopra No. 2 floor-standing speakers, with a custom matching center in white, that I ended up selling to the new buyer when I flipped the house. At the center of the living room system was a whopping 85-inch Samsung 4K TV. While not set with HDR, it was $10,000 retail back in the day. I was able to buy it at a bit of a discount, because of my role as a publisher in the industry. In fact, I bought two of them: one for me and one for my AV installer who is a close personal friend. I think we paid $7,000 each for the giant flat TVs, and we were pleased as punch to do so.

The Vizio Effect on HDTVs

A year and a half ago, I moved into a larger, Mediterranean McMansion of sorts, which has a downstairs family room well-suited for audio and home theater. This time, although I still owned my old publication, it just wasn’t worth calling in any special favors to get TVs, as I was able to buy a Sony 85-inch LED set that was brand new, packing more inputs, and HDR. I paid $2,995 for it. I was dumbfounded at the price, considering the modern features set, the improved form factor, the brightness, the lack of need to have a $500 calibration to meet SMPTE video broadcast standards. I mean talk about the Vizio effect … wow.

samsung

A few weeks ago, I was casually watching The Superbowl and saw a local, regional AV chain advertising a very similar 85-inch set for $1,995. Are you kidding me? Back in the day of CRT projectors, somebody like me (or you) would have killed to have a 4:3 screen that was 85 inches across, and we’d have no expectations whatsoever of getting the kind of impressive light output that these $2,000 monster UHD TVs can deliver. What we might have spent $10,000 to $20,000 on back in the day is $2,000 today, and superior in every conceivable way.

For the consumer, this level of improvement in value and performance is nearly all upside. You get more TV for your television dollar, and can have an experience that blows away what most of even today’s projectors can do, for close to no money. Gone is the need to have the video guru over to calibrate your set, as most brands have multiple settings in the menu that get you inside the SMPTE standards with three or four pushes of a remote button. The issue is more for the dealer. The Vizio effect that I describe above has eroded the profit margins for dealers, so that it is hardly worth selling a big TV, other than for labor and the margin made selling the mount and/or HDMI cable. The days of selling a $15,000 42-inch (thick and noisy) plasma TV into every room of a house, and making big bucks are long, long gone. You say, “Who cares about the dealers,” and that’s fine, but those specialty AV dealers are the same businesses that support the enthusiast part of the hobby. They are the ones who display, install, and support the more high-end, tech-forward stuff, like object-based surround sound, separate electronic components, audiophile-grade speakers, acoustical and interior design, just to mention a few of the things that a good local dealer does that helps keep the AV business rocking. Without these dealers, we don’t get exposed to the new, super-cool AV stuff at places like Best Buy, Costco, or especially on Amazon. Those dealers simply aren’t in the experience business but as an enthusiast – you are.

A buddy of mine from the golf enthusiast world is, of all the things one could do for a living, the CEO of an NFL Football team. His uncle owns the team and, in pre-COVID-19 times, he’s been kind enough to extend invitations for me to sit in the owner’s box for their games, especially when my Eagles are in town. The experience is pretty fantastic, with amenities that are pretty close to over-the-top. Food, drink, comfortable seats, excellent access to the game, and enough TVs to never miss a second of game action or a replay. Oh, and super-clean, well-appointed bathrooms are waiting for your presence – just like at home. When my buddy and I talk, we always discuss the state of electronics, as the NFL knows that they make a truckload of cash dollars on their TV contracts. Not every city’s weather is as nice as it is for my friend’s team, thus not everybody wants to go to Lambeau Field for a few hours of tailgate in December. In many cities (it should be all, considering the past mismanagement of COVID-19 in this country), there were no fans going to NFL games, thus the increasing importance of the television experience. The commitment for a fan to the NFL isn’t too staggeringly pricey and, with eight home games (assuming no playoffs), it isn’t too rough on the schedule, compared to the 82 games in the NHL, or the 160-plus games in a traditional MLB season (half of which are at home). The value proposition in a non-COVID-19 world is, would you rather sit outside and watch a game in real time at the stadium, or be at home with all of your comforts (seating, snacks, drinks, perfect temperature, great sound, no commercials and yet a gorgeous HD picture)? For me, it is easy to select the home version of the game, because of these advantages.

The HDMI Impact on High-End Audio

Let’s talk about today’s electronics in terms of price and value. Years ago, in the pre-HDMI era, high-end audio companies (think: Theta, Krell, Meridian, Sunfire, B&K, and many others) could make AV preamps that were audiophile-grade components, as well as suitable video switchers, plus 5.1 surround sound-capable. HDMI had a disruptive effect on the world of high-end AV preamps. Hollywood studios demanded that their content be on lockdown in the digital world after seeing what peer-to-peer sharing (Napster, LimeWire, etc.) did to the music business. This made the barrier to entry to the AV preamp world a whole hell of a lot more complicated. Licensing technologies quickly got really pricey. In-house engineering became trickier and more labor-intensive. If you wanted to keep up with the ever-changing surround sound formats, God help you if you were a high-end audio company with under $20,000,000 in yearly sales. The costs alone of paying the DTSs and Dolbys of the world could be hundreds of thousands of dollars per unit of product category. Ouch.

2-Krell-Evo-707-AVPreamp

3-DenonReceiverHigh-end products either stopped being made (think the Krell Evo AV preamp at around $30,000), or companies tried their level best to use an upgradable card-based system to stay relevant (think Meridian 861 or Theta Casablanca). Many other companies (think Sunfire, B&K, Krell) just stopped making AV preamps completely. If you don’t buy chips by the tens of thousands, it is hard to compete with the likes of Harman (Mark Levinson, Lexicon, JBL Synthesis, ARCAM) or Sound United (Denon and Marantz) in terms of price and performance. When you look at the features set of a $500 Denon receiver, it is hard not to be truly impressed. Perhaps the internal amps aren’t like a rack full of Crowns, but for the money, that $500 receiver could be a very powerful AV preamp. I am using a Marantz SR 8012 (their former top of the line unit that was favorably reviewed here) as my AV preamp, paired with a seven-channel Halcro amp. Some of my effect and height channels in my new theater are powered by the $3,000 receiver, which, when you really get down to it, is one hell of a value in today’s AV world, compared to what I have paid in the past for amps, and Meridian, Mark Levinson, and Classe AV preamps.

4-focal-chora-8265-SVS-SB2000-Sub

The Best Value in Home Theater is NOW

$500 speakersDare we delve into the world of today’s affordable, performance-oriented speakers? What $2,000 buys you today in a floor-standing speaker is so much better than it was, say 10 years ago. It might be the most improved category! Add to that the improved finishes and aesthetic, and you’ve got speakers that can dress up nicely in your room, as well as rock it. Oh, let’s not leave the subwoofer out of the conversation. Under-$1,000 subwoofers have the ability to room correct, have ultra-high output and basically take the low-end load off of your front speakers. This brings the cost of your high-performance system down, while getting better and better results in your media room. The icing on the cake here is room correction. Today’s AV receivers have drastically improved room correction, which can easily and effectively fix the issues with your system and, more importantly, your system in your room. Yes, physical room treatments are where you want to start, but if your $1,200 receiver can fix nine meaningful maladies in your system, you can feel safe selling that old Sunfire AV preamp on eBay for $200. It can’t keep up. And it isn’t even close.

For consumers, what you get for your money today is better than ever before. Don’t be fooled into thinking that you have to pay for the nth degree of performance, unless that is the goal that you are chasing. That level of excellence will always be elusive but like breaking the world speed record – it is a hell of a lot of fun, too. In the meantime, enjoy the fact that you can spend less today than ever before on an AV system that can rock in ways money couldn’t buy mere years ago – and that is a damn good thing.

 

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Recent Forum Posts:

panteragstk posts on March 04, 2021 12:26
I'm very much a “get what you pay for” kind of guy.

I've bought expensive things that are terrible, and I've purchased cheap stuff that's fantastic. For me, it's all about whether or not it performs well. If it does, and I'm good with the price I paid, then I feel that's a good product. If I don't feel I got what I paid for, then I don't think it's a good product for the price. It could be a great product, but the price isn't correct for the performance.

I think things like A/V are prone to this more so than a lot of other things simply because they can increase price for more features. Features we may not specifically want, but have to go up in price range to get some other feature that “should” come in the cheaper version.

My example: I bought an Onkyo 809 for my theater in 2012 or so. Still works great, but I had to send it in to get the HDMI board replaced since they had major issues with that generation. This is a receiver with an $1100 MSRP I paid $460 so I'm happy with the price. I'd have been PISSED had I paid retail for it.

That Onkyo replaced a Pioneer 512K that I feel is actually a better product. It did 7.1 channel processing on a ~$150 receiver. The Onkyo did the same, but also had video processing (don't want that) and a load of other things I don't care about. The pioneer didn't have any of that at all so it switched sources 10x faster and locked onto the audio signal that much faster too.

Now, the room correction difference is huge. Audyssey on my Onkyo did in fact make my room “sound better” just with a receiver swap and quick configuration. The amp section is also much more robust than the pioneer, but the pioneer is still an EXCELLENT product because of all the features I required at it's price point. Nobody else came close at the time.
Sadie42 posts on March 04, 2021 09:41
This stuff is all relative and subjective.

Things I like are “expensive”.

I just bought some ATC SCM20psl mkii, and it took me three months to save for them. I think $3500 is a lot of money. I think they're worth it, someone else will likely think I'm an idiot for spending that much on them.

The first time I bought a “quality” HT receiver, I sold it a month later and went back to 2-channel. I come from an era where good amps weighed 50 lbs. and the lights in the house would flicker when you turned it to 11. I realized fairly quickly that I was never going to be able to do HT in a way that would satisfy me.

Equivalent quality to what I used to use is pretty expensive these days.

I will agree that a lot of expensive stuff is just supported by marketing BS, but the legitimately good stuff is still out there, and if you want it, it's going to cost you.
cerwinmad posts on March 03, 2021 03:33
Hetfield, post: 1461224, member: 80792
Oh you have a TCL TV too? I have the 75R635 myself. I was hesitant about TCL till my father in law got a 5 series a few years ago and it looked really good and considering the price it looked excellent.
The 635 is just beautiful. I'm quite surprised at what it can do for the money. Mini-Led is very impressive.

Sent from my Pixel 4 XL using Tapatalk
Tcl actually rates very highly on https://www.rtings.com/tv they are excellent value and definitely quality. None of the comparable brands I researched at the price I got my tcl P715 came close to the picture quality. Tv prices are lower and lower for features that were flagship a few years ago. In regards to audio, I believe it is the same, even out here in NewZealand, where we pay a decent premium for av gear. An SVS PB16 ultra is $5100 usd here ($6999 nzd) for example. Although in saying that our minimum wage for an adult will be $20 p/h as of April 1st.
Kevi9590 posts on March 02, 2021 16:33
I dont think that audio equipment is too expensive, just that realistically affordable midrange options are often viewed simply as subpar versions of the high end products rather than the realistic home option, if that makes sense.

Lets face it, the high end equipment is for enthusiasts deep down the rabbit hole with deep pockets. So when a newcomer looks up information on more afforable equipment, and theyre bombarded with the notion that AVRs under 1000 are junk and weak, that separates rule, well its just a different value proposition. The first time I heard about separates a few months ago, I was hella excited. Then I looked up an emotiva and when i saw the price i almost pooped my pants. I closed that tab with the quickness and became apathetic to the topic for a while.

But the issue isnt that separates are too expensive, its that we dont push the value of an aventage 1080 or denon 2700 to the general community. A newbie will see 20 videos on why a less powerful AVR sucks before they see one video giving it praise. And when we do give it praise, its always in videos about “budget category” which has a connotation and immediately puts people off. We call 1000 dollar AVRs budget and low end. New people are put off by the idea that theyre gonna invest 1000 bucks on something considered “budget”. Its not very welcoming to new folk.

I also hesitantly think that the audio community should embrace soundbars a little more. Not as a substitute for quality, but rather a gateway to better sound. New soundbar owners feel like theyve unlocked good audio when they set it up, and when they come online and get shit on, well who wants to stick around or take anything after that in good faith.

i will say subwoofers are in my experience significant outliers to this habit. I see TONS of recommendations for SVS PB1000/PB2000. No one buys a pair of those and feels like they “settled” for a subpar budget line.
panteragstk posts on March 01, 2021 17:28
ryanosaur, post: 1460509, member: 86393
Cost an Complexity are the double edged blade that hurts this hobby. IMO, the simple solutions (fitting into the first category I mentioned above) are [email protected] solutions like HTIBs with Kleenex box-sized Mains and poorly designed Subs, or non-linear Speakers that look really cool with Copper Cones, and sound exciting but don't necessarily stand up to scrutiny. Hell, somebody just started a thread asking about that brand and whether he needed to get the XO Modification marketed by a certain Texas Speaker Designer to make those speakers work right… and this guy is in Peru!

Ooh. Which thread?
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