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- Written by Doug Schneider Doug Schneider
- Category: Monthly Column Monthly Column
- Created: 01 September 2017 01 September 2017
In July we unveiled a SoundStage! InSight video about Amphion Loudspeakers, filmed in June in Finland. Near the end, Amphion’s owner, Anssi Hyvönen, says: “In this country, we have a concept that a poor man can only afford the best.” He explains that the idea behind it is that you buy something of high quality, then keep it for a long time.
I hadn’t heard the saying before. I looked it up on the Internet and found it attributed to Roy Greene, of whom I’d also never heard. (According to BoardofWisdom.com, Greene actually said, “A poor man can only afford to buy the best.”) Hyvönen’s point is a good one, and the reason I was so taken with it at first had nothing to do with audio.
A plastic garden shed I’d bought from Costco three years before had fallen apart. The shed had cost me $1000, and at the time I’d thought it was a deal -- it was $2000 less than a local outfit wanted for their shed, made of traditional house-building materials: two-by-fours, plywood, shingles, and siding.
Right off the bat, I wasn’t happy with my plastic shed. Assembled, it permitted no circulation of air -- the walls, floor, and roof were all airtight plastic. As a result, all the tools I stored in it were immediately subjected to high humidity and no circulation, and within days they’d rusted. All told, about $800 worth of stuff was damaged. At that point, I should have returned the shed to Costco -- it was still under warranty -- but I figured, “What else could go wrong?”
Three years later, after a heavy snowfall, the shed’s roof caved in from the weight of accumulated snow -- a common occurrence in Canada, where I live. By then, of course, the warranty of my Lifetime shed -- Lifetime is the brand name, not a guarantee of longevity -- had long expired. So I removed my rusted tools and, just before leaving for Finland, paid a guy $250 to finish the job the snow had started, tear the shed down, and take it to the dump. Then I got one of the wooden sheds I should have bought in the first place.
The new shed
I can’t guarantee that my new shed won’t cave in with the next heavy snow, but looking at how much better its walls, floor, and roof are made, I’m confident it stands a better chance of lasting far longer. The new shed was much more expensive, but I think of it as a wiser purchase. The three years I got from the Lifetime shed provided some value, but I consider it a $2000 mistake (shed, teardown, tools) -- and proof that Roy Greene’s aphorism has meaning.
Although when Anssi Hyvönen uttered his version of the phrase I still had sheds on my mind, afterward, I knew he was right: It applies to audio as well. Buy a product of poor build and/or sound quality and you’ll likely end up paying more for it in the long run than if you’d made a wiser purchase in the first place. You’ll probably end up replacing it sooner, just as I did with my shed. Anyone who’s sold something on the used market knows that you get only a small fraction of what you paid for it new -- and if the product wasn’t much good in the first place, you’ll get next to nothing.
To avoid that, I offer three simple tips:
1) Always listen to a hi-fi product before buying it -- after all, you plan to buy it to listen to it, so you’d better like the way it sounds. Granted, with fewer bricks-and-mortar audio dealers all the time, this is harder and harder to do, but I can’t stress enough how important it is, and that you must find a way to do it. If you don’t listen before you buy, you might end up like me back in the early 1990s, when I traded in my Forte Model 3 power amp, whose sound I loved, for a Forte Model 6, which I bought sound unheard. When I got it home and heard it, I hated its sound. Then, to add insult to injury, I had a hell of a time selling it, because almost everyone who wanted to buy it wanted to do the right thing: hear it first. It was pretty much unanimous -- everyone hated the Model 6 as much as I did. I chronicled that adventure in March 2015, and never made that mistake again. Neither should you.
2) To ensure that the product will last for many years, research it and its manufacturer. Product reviews from publications such as ours can help, but they’re only the tip of the iceberg. These days, you have Google, many audio forums, and an almost endless supply of online information -- it’s easier than ever to learn about a company and its products, and to connect with buyers all over the world to find out about their experiences with the product you’re considering and the company that makes it. In my opinion, with the way information spreads online today, it’s almost impossible for a company to hide its shady business practices, or to keep inferior products under wraps.
3) Keep your buying budget flexible. If you get lucky, after listening and research, you might find the perfect product for you at a price lower than you expected to pay. There are genuine giant-killers out there -- products that favorably compare with products costing far more. But 35 years’ worth of hi-fi buying experience has taught me that, often, what you really want will cost a bit more than what you were hoping to pay.
In 1980, when I was 17, I went shopping for my first stereo with a budget of about $1000. I did months’ worth of research before settling on the components I wanted to buy, then found a store that carried them all, and listened to them there. I’d planned to buy them there too, of course, but when I added it all up, I was looking at a total cost closer to $2000. That was too rich for my high-school blood, but I knew I wouldn’t be happy with what I’d get for a grand or less. So I continued to research and listen and shop around, and ended up putting together a system I was really happy with for $1500. Granted, I had to wait a couple more months to save up the extra cash, but after I’d got it all home and set it up, I didn’t think about changing anything in it for the next six years.
When I was finally ready to upgrade, I began with the speakers -- and a similar thing happened. I began with a budget of $800 for a new pair of speakers, but after my research and listening, I found that the speakers I really wanted cost closer to $1500/pair. I knew what I had to do: wait a bit longer, save a little more money, and buy them. Which I did. And eventually, when I sold those first components on the used market, they went fairly quickly.
Anssi Hyvönen being interviewed for SoundStage! InSight
No one I know, rich or poor, likes to pay more than he or she has to. One way to avoid that with hi-fi is to buy a product with the build quality and sound quality you really want. Sometimes that means paying more up front. But whether it’s hi-fi gear or garden sheds, it can wind up saving you money and frustration over the long term. The Finns -- and Roy Greene -- have it right.
. . . Doug Schneider