Buying Audio Gear: Zen and The Reach

I’d like submit that there two ways to look at buying anything expensive. The first, which is by far the most reasonable is the “modest” approach. The other, well, isn’t. For lack of a better phrase, I call it “The Reach”.

If we’re faced with a major purchase, like, say, a car, I think most of us start the conversation (at least with ourselves) with some idea of a budget. Into that budget, we try to shoe-horn the actual object of desire, say, a BMW. Failing that, we find another that actually does fall within the scope of possibility, say, a Honda. Now that we’re properly focused, and the transaction is at hand, we have some options. Actually, we have lots of options. Lots of very expensive options. Do I really need cruise control? A sunroof? A remote entry key fob that starts the car and warms it up before I leave my house? How about Bluetooth, navigation and Pandora Radio? Yeah, it adds up. And it can add up fast. Which raises another question — has my budget been blown before I even start?

Many of us scramble at this point. Can I find the dough to actually get all the widgets that I want on this car? And if so, have I just found enough cash to buy the car I really wanted, you know, the one I wanted in the first place? That is, is this tricked out Honda the same price as a bare-bones BMW — or close enough that it doesn’t matter?

That’s “The Reach”.

Obviously, both “options” are suspect. But assuming, for a second, that you can afford either, which do you go for? The product at the level that your budget is actually set to, or do you stretch up-market and grasp that rung that has unexpectedly swung into reach?

I have a friend that justified the purchase of a Porsche that way. He could afford it, so why not. But I remember the conversations with him — he could easily have purchased something a bit “down market” from the Porsche, and tricked it the hell out. At the time, I even remember suggesting that this was the better, more interesting, saner approach. He was undeterred. There is something compelling about The Reach that defies the logic of The Reasonable. And … there’s something viscerally satisfying about making that jump. I’m not saying it’s a good idea. I’m not saying it’s a responsible idea. But I get it. Assuming you can make the leap, it’s exhilarating.

I think about this often, especially when talking with folks about audio’s high-end. “Do I ‘just get’ this or should I beg, borrow and steal my way into getting the better one?”

All things being equal, my answer these days is almost always “get the better one”.

There are a couple of assumptions there. First, if you’ve already convinced yourself that you’re compromising then you’re going to be unhappy. The product may well satisfy you inordinately. It may well be a class leader. It could even be friggin’ perfect, but you’ve already decided a priori that it isn’t. Not to put too fine a point on it, but this is why AudiogoN is still a going concern. Audiophiles are nothing if not lost in the sea of buyer’s remorse, attempting to chart their course by the twin lights of Doubt and Envy.

Second, note that I didn’t say that the “better one” is actually better. It doesn’t matter. In fact, it doesn’t even matter what we’re talking about — it could be shoes — and the theory would apply with equal force. If you’ve already decided that your “just get this” choice is subpar, you’re screwed. You’d be better off buying nothing and waiting — it’ll cost you less, and not just in the long run. Why? Well, you’re going to get your compromise choice — and sell it. Usually at a loss.

(Yes, you could buy it used and that’ll save you some cash, but not always and not really. Buying something used has lots of hidden challenges and costs — and unless you’re buying that thing from a reputable dealer who’s offering some kind of guarantee, I’m not recommending this approach. Yes, it might work out for you on this particular instance, or 10, but I’m not recommending it. Too risky! And when we’re talking about gear that costs thousands of dollars, I’m not interested in risk — I just want the reward. Anyway, moving on.)

Third, with Reachers, you get a side benefit to your successful swing up into the higher-end — cognitive dissonance. Even if that product you reached for isn’t as awesome as it ought to be, you won’t care. That exhilaration from the swing up will carry you for quite some time. Okay, I’m being silly and not a little mean, but it’s true — if the goal is satisfaction and happiness, working with your psychoses brain’s hidden processes is always preferable to working against them.

The alternative to all this, of course, is to be happy with the Honda.

This is harder than it sounds and, quite frankly, it’s something I’m terrifically bad at. “Being content” is something you’ll see kicked around a some kind of feel-good pablum, and it’s as boring as it is un-capitalist. But there’s a couple of points to make here. One, the chances of Component X offering a radical improvement to the overall performance of your system is low. [Heresy! Burn him! He’s a witch!] No, really, it’s true. Your system is whatever it is — but whatever it is, it’s a system. Adding footers, or a fancy rack, or any number of widgety thingamabobs, may well incrementally improve … well, something … but my bet is that they are not going to revolutionize the playback of the system as a whole. Similarly, upgrading your CD player is also fine thing, but that money would have been better spent, in my humble opinion, by adding something new. Like adding a turntable to your digital-audio-only system. Going analog would be different, new — and exciting.

It’s a matter of priorities. So, before you can answer the question “what do I do”, you have to know whether the point of this system is perfection or enjoyment. I think many audiophiles get wrapped around the axle of the former, but there’s no right answer here. However you do choose to answer the question, then invest accordingly.

But assume for the moment that “enjoyment” is your goal. Wouldn’t music be a better investment then? For an annoying example, how much would that CD player cost? Whatever it is, I bet you can buy a crap-load of music for the same bucket o’ duckets. That’d sure keep you busy, no?

If all this feels very Zen, well, it is. I think many audiophiles feel the pull of the exotic and the esoteric and forget the why of it that brought them there in the first place. It happens. But when you’re talking about justifying The Reach, it’s worth level-setting to make sure you’re not about to go off the deep end, chasing after a tangent that, on its face, is beside the point. Save the cash. Spend wisely. Invest in that thing (you’re convinced) that will take you to the next level. Then do it.

I’ve left a lot of issues on the table here. Things like:

  • When do I upgrade?
  • What should I upgrade first?
  • What should I be looking for in an upgrade?
  • Which of my children do I sell to finance the upgrade and how do I get the best price?

All very important questions. But I’d love to hear from you. You ever feel the pull of The Reach? Did you resist? Did you give in? How’d it work out for you, either way?