From The Editor: The Law of Accelerating Returns

Solid-state power amplifiers,
Tubed power amplifiers,
Solid-state preamplifiers,
Tubed preamplifiers,
Integrated amplifiers,
Digital-to-analog converters,
From The Editor: The Law of Accelerating Returns

Many audiophiles think of an audio system from the perspective of The Law of Diminishing Returns. That’s the idea that each successive dollar you add to your hi-fi budget realizes progressively less sonic improvement. To use an extreme example, there’s undoubtedly a greater sonic difference between a $1000 loudspeaker and a $2000 loudspeaker than there is between a $100,000 loudspeaker and a $101,000 loudspeaker. The additional thousand dollars buy you much less at the top end of the scale.

The Law of Diminishing Returns also suggests that sonic improvements are much more difficult to achieve once you have a great system. The mountaintop is a more challenging climb than the foothills. Moreover, according to this thinking, the sonic differences become less and less musically significant once you’ve achieved some threshold of performance. The small improvements to an already superlative system are not only very expensive, but of increasingly little consequence.

My experience with state-of-the-art audio suggests that The Law of Diminishing Returns is a fallacy. In fact, I think that an audio system follows The Law of Accelerating Returns.

First, by improving one link in the reproduction chain you better reveal the qualities and characteristics of every other component in the chain. For example, replacing a preamplifier that is slightly opaque, shaves off a layer of very fine detail, and compresses dynamic contrasts with one that is much more transparent, resolving, and dynamic allows you to hear, for the first time, just how transparent, detailed, and dynamic your sources, cables, and loudspeakers really are. The upgrade isn’t just to the preamplifier; you’re unlocking the potential of every other component in the signal path—potential for which you paid good money that was otherwise wasted.

This observation applies only if the other system components are of high quality themselves. A more transparent preamplifier can also reveal previously unheard flaws in your sources. Consequently, upgrading a hi-fi system is a fine art that requires that you not only target the weakest link but that you also select each new component very carefully; your next upgrade will unmask every other component’s intrinsic sonic personality. It’s also essential that the upgraded component is a demonstrable step forward in transparency and resolution, not merely one that offers a different set of virtues and flaws that tilts your system in a different but lateral direction. Such is the path to years of “upgrades” that result in no real increase in musical realism.

Over the past two years my audio system has taken one performance leap after another. With each upgrade, I gain a new apreciation for every other component in the system. I recently called my friend and colleague Jonathan Valin and began the conversation by saying “I just heard the [Magico] Q7s for the first time.” He was perplexed until I explained that the improvement I had made to the system revealed capabilities and qualities that had lain dormant in the loudspeaker. It was as though upgrading one component liberated every other component in the system.

The second reason why The Law of Accelerating Returns applies to an audio system is something Meridian Audio co-founder Bob Stuart calls The Increasing Importance of the Smaller Difference. He posits that humans are naturally inclined to make very fine discriminations, such as differences between two champion dogs of the same breed. Dog aficionados aren’t interested in the differences between dogs and cats, or between different breeds of dogs, or even between mediocre and stellar examples of the same breed, but they are fascinated by the very finest differences among the breed’s elite dogs, some of which are invisible to the untrained eye. The smaller the difference, the greater that difference’s importance to those who care about such things.

Music reproduction takes this concept to the extreme because musical ecstasy is such a profound and rewarding experience—we long to experience it more deeply and more frequently. Because we care so much about music, there’s not a linear relationship between a sonic improvement’s magnitude and its musical significance. There’s a step function in which a “small” increase in, for example, resolution of micro-detail, vaults the sense of musical realism into a totally new plane because we find musical meaning in that detail. No matter how modest or ambitious your system, listening to your favorite music after realizing such a leap is nothing short of thrilling. And that’s a return worth pursuing.