Value perception in hi-fi

  • Before I’m a reviewer, I’m a consumer. I always attempt to thread my customer-oriented thoughts through my hi-fi commentary. For me, it keeps things real. I never want to lose sight of the opportunity cost of spending $3k on a new DAC. That’s an overseas holiday that I’m foregoing.

    I don’t review anything that I can’t afford. I guess that’s why I like budget gear so much. That isn’t the entry-level’s only appeal though; the lower the price point, the more likely hi-fi equipment is to bring the man in the street in from the cold and into a warmer place where sound quality matters (more).

    Whether it’s $3k or $30k, I think it’s important not to be glib about money. I wouldn’t listen and then conclude with a “I believe this product represents great value for money” comment. Not without proper context.

    So – what’s proper context?

    If you’ve just test-driven a $30k car, I suspect you won’t say to yourself, “I think this car represents excellent value for money”, write the cheque and drive it away. No, you’ll more likely think, “What other cars will $30k buy me?”. You’ll test drive a few more and you’ll compare them. Only then will you make a final call (and write that cheque).


    Hi-fi consumers are no different. If they read a review of $30k loudspeakers, I doubt they’ll fall for the “I like’em, buy ‘em” line without direct comparisons to other $30k loudspeakers. Check out the comments section beneath any online review and you’ll see numerous readers asking how the product in question compares to another (similarly priced) product.

    I’ve spent considerable time with numerous standmount loudspeakers in the sub-$3k price bracket: ProAc, Spendor, PMC, 47 Labs, ATC, Rega, Epos etc. and my pick of the bunch would be Spendor’s SA1.  It might not be the most exciting-sounding loudspeaker out there but it’s one I could come home to time and time again.  I only arrived at this conclusion via comparative context.  The SA1 would most likely furnish me with the most enjoyment for my $.  I know this because I’ve spent months listening to a whole range of similarly-priced monitors.  Isn’t this what the most committedb

    When I come to review iFi’s iDAC you’ll probably want to know how it compares to Resonessence’s Concero (US$600) or the DAC inside the Wyred4Sound mINT. Or the Beresford Bushmaster.

    Comparisons of the iFi iDAC to the 10x more expensive AURALiC Vega might be helpful in establishing what the extra cash buys you, but once you’ve decided to pony up $3500, the whole ballpark-price comparison starts again: “What other DACs will $3500 buy me?” Then you’re into conversations about the likes of Metrum’s Hex, PS Audio’s PerfectWave MKII and Resonessence Labs’ Invicta.

    When I come to write a review of Wyred4Sound’s mINT in a few weeks, it won’t be enough for me to describe its sonic qualities and sign off. I’ll want to give its features and sound some appropriate context: the Peachtree Nova125 will provide the second data point. The Nova125 is almost identically priced to the mINT and both are all-in-one digital workhorses. In effect, I’ll be asking myself, “What else will $1500 buy me?” Just as consumers might. (Screenshot from Part-Time Audiophile).


    For many people (myself included) $1500 is a lot of money and I think it’s important not to trivialise that notion. Directly comparing Product X to Product Y is how I establish my own perception of the value for money quotient being served by each. I want to know which one will bring me the most enjoyment for the same amount of money. It’s by no means an exhaustive process. It isn’t logistically possible to compare everything that comes through my front door to everything else but I believe that a single comparison is more informative than no comparison at all.

    What do you think? How do you decide what represents value for money and what doesn’t? Have your say in the comments below.

    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram


    1. Hi John,

      I think the context you lend to the value proposition is helpful and pertinent to the process. I would think that most of us do it to some extent, regardless of where our comfort level lies in the sliding scale of value. What your reviews demonstrate, is that a great musical experience is not necessarily a question of monetary output, and that there are wonderful options regardless of your relationship to the dollar.



      • That’s bang on, Fred. No matter how much you’re spending, you’re still keen to know where the best bang-for-buck lies.

    2. My feeling is that it isn’t a specific monetary value. You are willing to “dig deeper” on those key items even you it might hurt a bit. And other times – for less critical items – the purchase is “good enough”.

      Ya’ gotta put your money where you get the biggest bang for your buck…even if it’s more that you’d prefer to spend.

      It’s also where the incremental improvement per $ starts to fall off that proverbial cliff.

    3. Hey John,

      I guess value for money with audio equipment boils down to what your money is buying. Are you paying for a philosophy, audio jewelry, prestige, craftsmanship, reputation, etc or is it just about sound.
      I recently picked up J Kenny’s new Ciunas DAC. To me 550 bucks is a reasonable price to pay for a good sounding DAC. When I showed it to friend the other day he thought that $550 is not cheap for something that sells direct over the internet, comes in a generic Hammond case with only an on/off button and a USB input. He’s into vintage gear and point to point wiring and “timeless” craftsmanship – Yamamoto, Shindo, etc.
      Another friend argues that you could pick up a 30 lb Cambridge integrated with onboard DAC, headphone amp, multiple inputs, nicely designed remote, glossy owner’s manual, 5 year warranty etc. Consider manufacturer, distributor and retailer’s cut and you say to yourself – wow that is a bargain.

      • Hi Mike,

        How’s that Ciunas working for you? Care to share some impressions?


        • I haven’t had a chance to hook it up directly to a PC yet. That’s where it will ultimately be used as soon as I get around to it.
          In the meantime I’m using it with a SB Touch + EDO plugin.

          It’s rather plain looking but I don’t mind that as I keep as many boxes as possible out of sight and prefer simplistic frugality to cost increasing bling.

          The DSD capability of the Amanero board is a plus and so far it’s handled 24-192 from the Touch without a hiccup.

          Soundwise I’m still evaluating it. Compared to my Eastern Electric I would say the bottom end is heavier possibly at the expense of some of that effervescent top end sparkle the EE is known for.
          It is in no way sluggish and has a fair amount more PRaT than the Rega DAC I recently borrowed. Compared to the other two it really is quiet. Press pause, turn volume all the way up = dead silence.

          It’s a bit apples vs oranges as I run the EE sans EDO and connected to the Touch via S/PDIF whereas the Ciunas is connected via USB with EDO.

    4. Hi John,

      Sensible indeed. There is one further element which might be useful for a reeder. And that is: how does that iFi iDac compare with the AURALIC Vega? In other words, what does an additional 3000$ offer in terms of better sound. Where lies the difference (smoother high frequencies, better fidelity to the true sound) and what is the magnitude of that difference?

      With that, the end-user would be better equipped to decide whether or not it is worth spending 10 times more on a DAC.

      Just to give you an example: I currently use a SqueezeBox Touch properly modified (EDO) to feed an Atoll DAC. I like what I hear, and the system is very, very convenient to use, with iPeng on an iPad.
      What advantages would bring moving, for example, to a NAIM ND5 XS?

      • With more expensive DACs ($3k vs $500) you more often than not get greater resolution, less rigidity, more graceful ease. Whether you see value in ponying up for those qualities will depend on your personal priorities set against the backdrop of your income.

    5. John, since few of us have unlimited budgets you have to decide what to spend and do your comparative homework accordingly. There is almost always another price level above, but that does not mean you would enjoy the product more or that it is necessarily better. Audio’s law of diminishing returns creates a steep ending price curve without always giving you proportionally more quality or value. Andrew Robinson’s review of the Tekton Pendragon speakers at USD $2500 comparing favorably to Wilson’s is a good example of how interesting this hobby can be.

      Thanks for your insights! keep them coming.



    6. I’m not sure how consumer concepts of value apply to an enthusiast sector like hifi.

      “I’m a Linn/Naim enthusiast, what do I care what else I could buy for my money?”

      “I’m an LP enthusiast, who cares how much better sound I could get if I spent the same on digital?”


      I think your post reduces hifi equipment to commodity status. I suppose some think of it that way, but maybe not the enthusiasts.

      • I dunno Arg – I think hifi equipment IS a commodity. But I suspect the buying process – doing an A vs B vs C – is the same no matter how much one spends.

    7. I think your comments are bang on. Another digital audio website’s reviewer steadfastly refuses to make comparative evaluations and while I read the site, I find the information wanting (not sure what hypothetical subset of ethics he subscribes to). Even, one step farther along the process you describe is what can I listen to in my area? Due to ever shrinking number of audio retailers, this makes the decision sometimes more limited. Which in turn makes your reviews ever more helpful – especially when comparing gear that I could never personally evaluate.

    8. Hi John,

      I agree that most of us can’t afford to buy high-end audio, seeking the best results. Is the Nova 125 build in DAC perform better or on par with iFi iDAC and the DAC inside the Wyred4Sound mINT? Since you giving us a healthy article here, mind to share what integrated amp you using (suited most) to pair with Spendor SA1 and speaker cables brand as well? Any good turntable (with cartridge,phono stage,RCA cables brand model) that synergy well with Spendor SA1? Hopefully you can do the review on the KEF LS50 and make comparison with the Spendor SA1.


    9. John, you are absolutely right.

      People who got more money than they know what to spend it on, may make impulse choices, based on looks or even sound of their audio, without the context of value-for-money. Everybody else has to do their homework before even auditioning a piece of audio equipment.

      There are some reviewers out there, who are praising enthusiastically just about any piece of equipment that makers are sending them. I stay clear of those guys. If you are to make the educated choice about what you will spend your hard earned money on, you absolutely need a comparative review. And that’s why I admire your approach and your efforts.


      • Whether you’re spending $50k or $5k comparative data points are important.

    10. Excellent post John, as usual.
      “I don’t review anything that I can’t afford.” That sentence, for me, is perfect – how many reviewers would have the nerve to write something like that?
      I love reading reviews and checking out pics, but I have to say, I get such a laugh from the $$$ of the super high end unobtainium, really hard to take some of the sticker prices at all seriously. I am reminded of your “Hifi ownership/ego” post – I think there’s a lot of big willie contesting that drives a lot of that pissing on other people’s gear….
      Anyway, as much as I like to drool over exotica, the real value for me is to keep reading a site like yours – much more helpful and meaningful to an actual “average” comsumer such as myself, so hats off in appreciation for your efforts!
      Cheers, Shel

      • I should make it clear that I have no issue with people spending ten of thousand on hifi gear. Everyone should buy the best they can afford.

    11. John, Please ask Mark O’Brien at Rogue if you can review his Sphinx integrated, at $1300 it would fill out your comparisons of the Nova125 and mINT.

    12. John, I find your reviews very handy in the ongoing process of putting my audition shortlist together. The time next year, I will be a resident of Thailand – can you imagine walking into a dealer like Piyanas Electric and saying ‘Er, I want to audition everything with everything else until I find the combination I like !’ … knowledge is power.

      That’s the tip of the iceberg – for all the forum bitching about import duties, I actually prefer Bangkok to Singapore for audio shopping, particularly when it comes to anything that is manufactured in China. Those who cant deal with retail pricing should be investing in a soldering iron 😉

    13. John, Just email- [email protected] and direct it to Mark, or call 570-992-9901. The Sphinx is a hybrid integrated with tubes in the front end, and Hypex(bucking the ICE trend) modules as outputs. Some of the topology from their hybrid power amps is included, as well as a phono stage.

      • I like the look of that Sphinx, and coming from Rogue Audio, I think it would be worth having a listen to. Great that newer integrateds are putting back the phono stages too.

    14. JD-
      Great article and perspective, yet another example of why so many people read and respect your writing. Another area that I appreciate you exploring is how different components work well (or not) with one another. Something I’ve done in the past is put together a number of components that were very well reviewed but as a system were something less than the sum… The real magic is when you find that combination (REDGUM + MMG) that creates a 1+1 = much more than 2. That’s where I find the magic and fun in our hobby…
      Keep up the good work,

      • Thanks John – yes, the magic combinations are well worth the hunt.

    15. I think ID companies have made comparison a bit harder because of the higher value for money they can offer over products that go through more sets of hands.

      For instance the Zu Omen and Telton Lore speakers are $500 apart in the US but buy the time I get them delivered to my place there is over $1k difference. So all of a sudden I can look further up the chain of the ID range for the same money.

      IMO that’s value for money that’s hard to resist.

    16. The proliferation of smaller internet based businesses which cut out the distributor as the middle man has made John’s approach more pertinent than ever. In the past there was a dearth of affordable audiophile equipment; companies seemed too focused on pumping out prohibitively expensive “statement” products like the Audionote Ongaku or Wilson Alexandria. Today the competition is more fierce than ever and everyone out there wants to be the next “giant killer”. While some of the old guard’s products have solidified their reputation and worth as timeless classics, there are many others who will get touched eventually. The hunt for the best you can get in your budget is enthralling, and when successful feels like cheating. I have been in the process of modding out a Technics 1200 and while it would be much easier to just go buy a Rega RP3, rescuing a dirty tramp from a pawn shop and turning it into a trophy wife has its own unique reward.

      Jelly of that Zu 103 btw.

      • You’re not wrong there Alex – I’m a big fan of direct-selling businesses.

    17. Hi John – I agree that value is the issue when comparing audio gear. What I sometimes miss in conversations is that due to exponential growth of computing power, the costs for processing digitized audio signals has dropped dramatically. I am conviced that a puristic and simple design of a Direct Digital Feedback Amplifier ( NAD and the new Blue Sound devices) which encorporates an I2S connnection to a Solid State Drive or SD card will sound incredibly realistic. Interesting to see that a company like LessLoss will introduce soon a ‘trophee gear’designed laminar streamer system, which is supposed to be the best and most analogue sounding digital transport system on earth.. Price tag is still unknown, but probably somewhere in the region of your test-drive car.. The I2S chipset is the shortest signal route, now USB conversion etc and no jitter… This indusrial standard and is overlooked by most of the designers of audio gear, but smart DIY electronic hobbyist have been tweaking and adapting many low priced audio systems ( Sonos and others) with great succes. I am a very satsified owner of the NAD C390DD and this integrated DAC/amplifier is providing an enourmous value in my system. The ‘missing link’in the 390DD is however a direct I2S – I2S signalpath form either SSD or SD card towards the DAC/amplifier. I have been asking many Months to NAD Electronics for such an upgrade, but there is no interest to make it so…. Next step would be DSD streaming to PCM via I2S .. If this dream ever will come through, I suppose áudionirvana’ will become accessible for the masses.. But it will most probably not be appreciated by the audio industry I am afraid. So let’s see. Did you check teh specification of the DDFA chipset Blue Sound products yet ? The Powernode is a 2 x 50 watt DDFA amplifier with streaming HD content functionality and the price tag is incredibly attractive.. I am wondering how the powernode will sound when plying with MAG mini’s for example… So lots of exciting developments out there, but huge differences in marketing & price strategies.. Many audiophiles are suffering placebo diseases… : if it is not expensive, then it does not sound good… Well, best marketing sentence in the industry is from B&W… ‘Listen and you’ll See’

    18. Fabulous post John, value perception always an essential step for a hi-fi system and for all which you want to purchase. It is always be critical to select a good hi-fi system at low prices. If you want a good system you need to pay high price otherwise you have to compromise with quality at low cost. Beyond all that, you require market and product knowledge to get your choice easily.

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