Does Price Determine Quality in Home Theater Equipment?
People often think "you get what you pay" for is an absolute. However, I've found in life that dealing in absolutes is usually NOT a good idea. Only a Sith Lord deals in absolutes and we all know the fate of the Sith.
In consumer audio there is often more fluff than substance in terms of marketing claims simply because there are lots of manufacturers all trying to differentiate themselves to mostly uninformed consumers. The best way to better understand the performance-to-price equation is to break this topic into categories.
Before diving into this editorial, we recommend watching our YouTube video discussion on this very topic.
YouTube Video Discussion: Does More Money Buy Better Quality Audio Gear?
Cables are the one area where price does NOT matter beyond a very small amount of money invested. The basics of signal propagation are both easily understood and inexpensive to achieve in audio and video. However, this is where the majority of snake oil happens. Exotic cables offer huge profit margins to installers and retailers alike. They already hooked you into spending a small fortune on nice shiny new AV gear so why would you use those old ragged looking cables to connect everything up? Let's get you into these new <insert fancy name of a reptile, exotic place, or Greek mythological reference> cables that are all gussied up in a flashy covering and look stunning. The problem most people don't realize is these cables are usually going to be behind your gear; out of sight and out of mind. What makes matter worse is the cable vendors typically slap a semi-believable story based on half engineering truths with a lot of mythology in attempts to solve a problem that usually doesn't exist. To the uninitiated, this sounds plausible so what the heck, we don't want to do harm to our new gear right? Truth be told this is nonsense. Good cables are easy and cheap to produce. If you want fancy audio jewelry then I guess go for the exotics, but be leery if they don't publish measured specifications or claim measurements don't matter. We recommend shying away from the stupid products like the ones that slap a battery on the dielectric or must be cryogenically frozen to reduce distortion or reach peak performance.
For more information see: Top 10 Signs a Cable Vendor is Selling you Snake Oil and Cable Section
Denon AVR-X7200WA AV Receiver
AV Receivers & Preamp/Processors
AV Receivers and preamp/processors are a different animal. You're dealing with a low margin high tech product where every penny counts. Want lots of power? Power costs money. Want state of the art processing and audio decoding and a sophisticated room EQ solution? Again this takes money. The quality of the DSP chips, DACs, power supply, etc are all meaningful metrics in building a good vs great AV receiver. Don't expect a $500 Denon AV Receiver to have the same caliber of performance as their $1k model. They typically don't. It's only when you get to the uber expensive units that you start seeing the laws of diminishing returns kick in. While we don't always recommend spending a small fortune on an AV receiver, we do recommend getting the next model up if the upgrade cost is marginal. The $100 difference between a unit with multi-channel preamp outs and one without is marginal at best. But it’s detrimental at worst if you later decide to upgrade your power and have to also upgrade your receiver because you opted for the model without this critical feature.
For more information, see: When to Should I Upgrade My AV Receiver?
Loudspeakers & Subwoofers
Price does matter with loudspeakers and subs at the very low end of the scale. For budget products, every penny counts when deciding on using the limited budget on quality drivers, crossovers and cabinet rigidity. Recently, we've found budget designs from the likes of Andrew Jones via his Pioneer and Elac speaker models squeeze out as much performance/dollar as humanly possible. Their cosmetics may be ho-hum but they employ parts that are NOT typical at their respective price points.
Elac Debut Speaker & Subwoofer Series
Don't fall for the myth that Internet Direct is ALWAYS a better value than speakers traditionally sold through Brick & Mortar channels. This claim was birthed by the ID business model of cutting out the middle man but there is NO proof the ID manufacturer doesn't retain these profits for themselves. In fact, if you look at our ID vs B&M Speaker Comparison Guide you will see just how some of the ID brands don't stack up to the traditional B&M brands. This is especially true these days since many of the B&M brands are now also selling direct on their own websites and are going after that high value/dollar ratio.
Be leery of the brands that justify their high prices to pay for the research in developing their products especially if their particular products have been on the market for a long period of time (10+ years). Be equally leery if they go through annual rev changes to their products. Speaker tech is NOT like AV receivers. The technology just doesn't change that rapidly and NO new science has likely been discovered to warrant such frequent changes.
At the high end of the scale, speakers can get as esoteric as exotic cables. Be careful here as the differences between a $50k and $100k/pair of speakers may be marginal at best and mostly come down to aesthetics or brand appeal. The law of diminishing returns is in overdrive in this case.
When comparing legitimately engineered speakers, more money typically buys you more output and bass extension. A $500/pair bookshelf vs a $1k/pair tower from the same brand and series typically gets you the ability to play the $1k model with less strain in large listening spaces. However, an alternative solution would be to get the $500/pair smaller speaker and mate it with one or two subs to achieve a similar result but perhaps with more control of bass and less usage of floor space in the process.
Emotiva XPR-1 Monobloc Amplifier
Amplifiers are a lot like loudspeakers in that at lower price points, every penny counts. Heatsinks, power supplies, and high current output devices cost money. Inexpensive amplifiers can only be as good as the sum of their parts. As Scotty says "you cannot change the laws of physics". Recent developments in Class D amplifiers have allowed very respectable performance and output power in small and relatively inexpensive platforms but classic linear AB designs haven't changed much in modern times.
On the flip side, high dollar esoteric amplifiers can fall under the audio jewelry category. This is especially true if the company goes off on the deep end with their claims like "we don't use feedback in our designs." If you hear this, RUN, don't walk away from that amp. The designer obviously lacks the basic knowledge in amplifier design 101 or the company is flat out lying to sell a story they think an audiophile would want to hear because somehow feedback is labeled as a bad thing in their mind. Feedback is an essential part of an amplifier design that increases stability and ensures the amp will perform similarly under different loudspeaker loading conditions.
Outlaw Audio and Emotiva have really helped redefine the price/performance ratio but there are many B&M brands that are edging into this game these days now that they too are selling online. Power is cheap these days so buy as much as you can afford. You can never have too much power.
Fore more information, see: When to Add Power Amp to an AV Receiver
Oppo BDP-103 Universal Blu-ray Player
Blu-ray and other Source Components
Before deciding on how much to plop down on a new Blu-ray player you need to ask yourself a very basic question. Are you using the player's analog outputs for critical high resolution audio playback or not? If the answer is NO, then don't waste your money on the audiophile players since you will be sending a digital signal through HDMI to your AV receiver or processor which will be doing all of the audio decoding. The D/A conversion stage is the single most important influence in how good a source component will perform. The audiophile players typically put in higher caliber DAC's and analog parts to yield better analog audio performance. In my personal theater system I use an Oppo BDP-105 instead of the BDP-103 ONLY because I have it connected to a separate two-channel rig where I utilize the analog audio outputs. Had I just been using my home theater system for two-channel playback, I'd have opted for a BDP-103 since my Denon AVP-A1HDCI has one of the best DAC's ever put into an AV Processor. Both Blu-ray players are similarly good for video and digital audio playback, but the BDP-105 is a higher caliber analog audio player which justifies its more than double price tag.
Even if you're only using HDMI of your Blu-ray player, I still do recommend spending a little more on a player that has good benchmarks for the video output and also has a speedy user interface, especially if you're planning on doing music or video streaming from Pandora, Netflix, etc.
When building your home theater system, it's important to consider what your goals are to properly budget your money in the areas that matter most. As per our previous article, the three most influential areas of sound reproduction in the home are: room acoustics, loudspeakers and the quality of the recording. No amount of money you can shell out on esoteric cables can improve the fidelity of your system like these three can.
Use common sense when selecting equipment and don't fall for marketing nonsense to justify the higher prices of some esoteric gear. Price can matter with state-of-the-art loudspeakers and electronics but it's sometimes difficult to sift through what you’re really getting with some of the esoteric brands. Dr. Floyd Toole once said you can get more useful information off the sidewall of a tire than you could on most loudspeaker manufacturer websites. This is why it's imperative that you do your research, read our reviews, discuss with fellow members on our forums and most importantly, arrange for a demo whenever possible to see if the equipment meets your expectations.
Please give us your thoughts if price determines quality in our dedicated forum thread below.