There is a common misconception in our industry that all systems and products are created equally. One A/V receiver is pretty much like every other A/V receiver. One speaker is pretty much like every other speaker. One camera is pretty much like every other camera. And so on, and so on. I’m here to tell you that few things are further from the truth! There are numerous differences in both quality and performance in almost every product in every category of the technology product world. Furthermore, contrary to another common misconception, yes, you can hear and see the differences! Quite easily, actually - even if you’re mostly deaf and partially blind. So, I’m here to give you some guidelines on how to properly choose the appropriate equipment levels and grades for your system.
Grades and Levels
Like most other products that you buy these days, A/V and other technology equipment come in a variety of different levels and grades. However, in many cases, the basic specifications can look almost identical. This can make it very difficult for the average consumer to assess differences in quality and performance. For example, you may see a surveillance camera in your local big box buyer’s warehouse with a spec for 4K resolution. You can get a whole kit of 5 cameras for under $1,000. However, when you talk to your local custom integration company, he wants more like $4,000 for 5 cameras and an NVR with the same specifications. Furthermore, for a commercial application, this same integrator wants upwards of $5,000 for a 5-camera system. Is the integrator just trying to rob you blind? Why are his cameras so much more expensive?
The answer is that his residential cameras are of a much higher quality and grade than you can find in the big box stores. His commercial cameras are even a grade or two above that. The simple truth is that there are a lot of different levels of quality and performance, and the big box stores usually focus on the lowest-cost items for obvious reasons. Their customers aren’t looking for the highest performance; they’re looking for the lowest prices. While that may be acceptable for things like batteries and paper, it’s generally not a great idea to buy the lowest-price technology items.
I often use a car analogy to illustrate this point since most people are familiar with different makes and models of cars. There are under-$20,000 cars like the Chevy Spark, and there are over-$2M cars like the Bugatti Chiron. There are also, of course, many levels and grades in between. But the point is that both the Spark and the Chiron have the same basic specifications – 4 wheels, gas engine, 2-passenger, etc. However, nobody buying a Chevy Spark expects it to look, perform and last like a Bugatti Chiron, or even a Mercedes S-Class for that matter. Nobody would go into a Porsche dealership and expect to come home with a brand-new 911 for $20,000. Conversely, nobody would expect their 3-cylinder Chevy Spark to perform and look like a Porsche. A Bugatti customer, on the other hand, would be sadly disappointed if his new car didn’t handily outperform a Porsche! Again, there are many grades of performance, and, in general, the higher the grade, the higher the price.
So, “How exactly do I know what level or grade I need?” you might be asking. There are a few simple guidelines that can help with that. First, you have to understand the price vs. performance curve. The figure below illustrates a notional price vs. performance curve for a whole-house home audio system. The shape is typical for most products or systems.
Figure 1 – Price vs. Performance for a notional whole-home audio system
This curve shows the increasing price of equipment on the horizontal axis, compared with the corresponding increase in overall performance on the vertical axis. In this example, if you look at the left side of the curve, the entry-level into a home audio system would be something like a single smart speaker. For, say, $100 to $200, you can get something that makes somewhat decent sound. It certainly doesn’t fill the whole house well, but it’ll probably do a decent job in one small area. This would rate a Grade of “1” on the Performance scale out of a maximum of 10. Notice that the beginning of the curve is very steep. For a bit more – say $1,000 – you can double or triple your performance. $5,000 gets you into a performance rating of 4 out of 10, and $10,000 gets you into the 5 range. The 5 to 7 range is usually the “knee” in the curve. This range - $10,000 to $75,000 in the example above - represents the best bank for your buck. Above this range, small increases in performance will cost a lot more money. Below this range, and you’re not getting near the optimum performance possible.
If we look at it another way, as shown in Figure 2, there are 3 areas of the curve to consider: 1) The low performance / low-cost area, 2) the knee in the curve / best bang-for-your-buck area, and 3) the high cost / high-performance area. Which area you choose depends on several factors. In a whole-house system, you’ll probably choose products from all three areas. For example, in a whole-house system, you may only need background speakers for your bathroom or spare bedrooms because not many people will use those, and they certainly won’t use them for critical listening. For those areas, you might choose a grade 2, 3 or 4 product. For the patio and kitchen areas, however, where you’ll frequently be listening to music, a Grade 4, 5 or 6 product will make more sense. Finally, for the main theater or media room, where the most critical listening will be done, a Grade 7, 8, 9, or even 10 product should be chosen.
Figure 2 – The three zones on the price vs. performance curve
Again, the key takeaway is to, at the very least, be aware of the price range and price vs. performance curve for the products and systems that you are considering. Carefully consider the use case and budgets, and choose which products make the most sense. Do not mistake the products available at your local big-box or discount store as representing the full range of available products. Again, these are generally the lowest-cost products but are nowhere near the highest-performing products.
Finally, don’t forget about reliability. In the example above, the Performance rating also takes longevity and reliability into consideration. A low-cost outdoor speaker system may sound just fine, for example, but if it dries out and fails within a couple of years, it’s definitely not a Grade 4 or higher speaker system! Higher grades not only mean higher technical performance, but they also mean better reliability, longevity, and stability.
Where to Spend the Money
As mentioned above, unless you have an unlimited budget and simply want the best of everything, you’re probably going to want to choose a variety of equipment grades for your system. Our example above illustrated a situation where three different grades of products were chosen for a system based on the use in each area or room. The more the equipment in the room gets used, the higher grade the equipment should be. For key rooms, such as theaters or media rooms, the grade should be the absolute highest that can be tolerated by the system budget. In my 40 years in this industry, I’ve never, ever heard someone say, “Man, I spent too much money and got too high-quality equipment for my system”. It just doesn’t happen – the performance differences are always appreciable, and they’re always worth the extra money.
That said, however, investment in certain types of equipment makes more sense than others. For example, the current future of television displays is what is known as “micro-LED” or “direct-view LED”. These TVs look quite spectacular, but they are currently running at about $150,000 and up! They are almost certainly going to become significantly cheaper in the next few years as demand and production quantities increase. So, investing in a micro-LED TV now means you will no doubt see the value of your $150K TV drop dramatically in the next few years. That’s perfectly fine, however, if you’ve got the money and just want to have the latest and greatest now. Many of our clients invested in $25K 85-inch TVs about 10 years ago, which are now inferior to the $2,500 85-inch TVs that we sell. But those clients enjoyed their 85-inch TVs for many years before any of us did. It’s hard to put a value on that…
Some equipment, however, almost never gets less expensive and rarely needs upgrading. Speakers are one such example. In the last 50 years, there have been very few major changes or improvements to speaker technology. If you bought a really good pair of speakers 30 years ago, chances are that it’s still a really good pair of speakers today. Few other things in our industry are that stable! So, in my humble opinion, you should always buy the highest-grade speaker systems that you can afford for any project. They won’t become obsolete, and you’ll definitely get a lot more enjoyment out of better speakers than lesser speakers! Don’t skimp on speakers.
Other things in this category include power amplifiers, light fixtures, motorized shades, and speaker cables. A good power amplifier will last 20 or more years and will always be superior to the amplifiers built into a receiver, which can become obsolete sooner. However, even modern receivers and preamplifiers are fairly stable these days. Sure, new receivers have things like 8K switching and improved room correction algorithms, but they are definitely longer lasting (before they become obsolete) than TVs and other display systems.
Finally, just to reiterate another point made above, one critical consideration to be made when deciding what grade of equipment to choose is quality, reliability, and longevity. The old saying “you get what you pay for” certainly holds true here. While there is no guarantee that a $3,000 receiver will last longer than a $500 receiver, in my experience, the odds are definitely in favor of the $3,000 unit. The simple truth is that, in order to make that a $500 receiver, the manufacturer had to cut costs wherever possible. If you don’t think reliability was sacrificed in that process, you are kidding yourself! Ever wonder why the buyers’ club TVs are cheaper than the seemingly same model that the custom integrator is selling? (Note that the model numbers are slightly different – and this is on purpose) The obvious answer is that sacrifices in internal component quality, reliability, or performance were made in order to make that a lower-cost product.
As an engineer, one thing I really notice in low-cost products is the lack of heat regulation. It seems that the cheaper a product, the hotter it runs, and the quicker it “cooks” itself. The simple truth is that it’s difficult and expensive to manage heat in electronics. For a really low-cost product, that means the engineers simply didn’t do any thermal management. So, the consumer can expect those products to burn out much faster than higher-cost products where more thought was put into thermal management. My old rule-of-thumb for receivers, for example, was never buy a receiver under $1,000, or it would cook itself within a couple of years. With the recent inflation and supply chain shortages, that number is more like $1,500 today. But you get the point. Again, you get what you pay for.
Awareness is the main takeaway from this long-winded essay. Most of all, be aware of the whole range of grades of the product you are considering. The worst thing you can do as a consumer is to assume that what you see on the shelves of big-box stores represents the entire range of quality and performance possible for that class of product.
To gain more knowledge, read magazines and online reviews, and consult specialty stores to better assess what is in the art of the possible. Then, once you know the range, also understand the price vs. performance curve. Know where the knee in the curve is, and try to purchase products as close to that knee as possible (or slightly below/above, depending on the use case). Then, consider the longevity and reliability factors, as well as the use case for the product. If you do all of this, you will have made a much more intelligent, informed decision on the grades and quality levels of products for your system, as opposed to simply choosing the lowest-priced product that you can find!