Boutique audio can be a minefield for your wallet. Almost none of this stuff can be seen at your local electronics/stereo store. Even in a showroom, things are geared to work under the circumstances they dictate. You might see gear at an audio show, but when they pair your $1k DAC, with a $50k set of speakers, what does that tell you about your setup? These alone aren’t very good opportunities for evaluation anyway. It takes some time listening to a piece of gear, to understand it’s characteristics and to adjust the rest of your system to work well with it.
A decade ago, I’d see previews for upcoming movies and when I saw something that looked really interesting, I’d go see it. Invariably, I had to endure a certain percentage of dogs, because the preview was much better than the movie. Then, as a graduate student, I found the Austin Chronicle. It was as if their film reviewers were in tune with my taste in movies; they not only steered me away from films I would find to be a waste of time, they often pushed me into new areas I wouldn’t have otherwise considered. So it is with audio (which can be more costly than a movie ticket).
With the Internet, my local audio store is anywhere in the world a postal truck can travel and my guide has been the online audio review magazines. I’m partial to 6 Moons and my favorite writer is the magazine’s Editor and Founder, Srajan Ebean (pronounced sir-han). I first stumbled upon 6 moons in 2006, when I was considering buying a pair of Cain & Cain speakers. At the time I wasn’t aware of the many sources of information out there (see our post called Online Audio Resources, for a running list). I was very intrigued by what people were saying about these speakers, but I was never going to be able to hear them before buying. Srajan’s review really clicked for me. There was a lot I didn’t understand at the time, but at its core, he was speaking in terms that resonated with me. I bought the speakers and they were brilliant.
Now I had found a writer with an attraction to similar characteristics of sound that I fancy, who appreciated the same type of products as I, whose ears were better trained than mine and whose knowledge of engineering, acoustics and music was far beyond mine. It’s like having an audio mentor. You don’t have to blindly follow his suggestions…if you do, you’re not learning anything, but you will have his insight as a reference point, as it relates to yours’. I read just about every review I can find, before making a large purchase, even if it’s from an ordinary guy like me on a forum. I know the extent to which I concur with many of the writers and with 2-3 rigorous evaluations of a product, I can usually tell whether it’s going to work for me and if I’ll like it.
Be advised, you’ll have to make your way through a lot of naysayers, who will tell you, your guy is biased, that guy’s writing is too hard to understand, this other guy is better than everyone else, etc. Just find someone with a point of view that works for you and go with it. Finally, remember, after you buy a product and spend some time with it, go back and read the reviews again. Once you become familiar with a piece of equipment and how it reacts in your system, you’ll pick up numerous details and tips that didn’t stand out to you upon first read.