Blame it on my age, perhaps. Or blame it on four-plus decades of failed economic policy and the pacifying Orwellian language designed to prop it up. Either way, the term “trickle-down” sticks in my craw. Of course, I can see its utility in the consumer electronics industry, where technologies designed for flagship products become cheaper to produce as R&D costs are recouped and begin to appear on mid-tier products until economies of scale allow their inclusion even in budget offerings. It’s neat that we can sum all that up in one hyphenated adjective, and it’s certainly an effective marketing tool. After all, without much effort, you’re clueing the budget-conscious audio enthusiast into the idea that they can now afford technologies they might not have been able to spring for before. Hell, I’ll be giddy the day some design elements of the new Monitor Audio Hyphn loudspeaker finally work their way down to the level of the Silver Series models.
You’ll notice, though, that the first (and really only) example that sprang to my mind was a transducer. There’s a reason for that. When it comes to most categories of electronics, there really isn’t much if any trickling down left to do. The real innovations are happening not necessarily at the very bottom end of the audio market, but certainly closer to the middle. What new technologies or implementations thereof does the ultra-high-end have to give us that aren’t already matched or beaten by similar technologies selling for thousands less?
I would argue that the flow (trickle?) of innovation has reversed for the most part, and higher-end manufacturers stand to benefit from technologies originally designed for much more affordable gear. In fact, it’s already happening quite regularly in the world of amplification.
Why do amps trickle up?
Think for a moment about what a power amplifier does and how it does it. The simplest explanation, of course, is that an amp increases the power of a signal to a sufficient level that it can drive a transducer. Along the way, the hope is that the signal is amplified with minimal noise, good frequency response, a high slew rate, and as little distortion as possible. And, of course, you want to make sure it’s a good match for your speakers.
Here’s the thing, though: once those measurable thresholds are met, and assuming the amp can deliver enough current to deal with the impedance swings of whatever speaker it’s attached to, you can’t tell the difference between two amps simply by listening to them. Nobody can.
And what are those thresholds? According to testing performed by David Clark in the early 1990s, the audible threshold for total harmonic distortion—generally the measurement that varies the most from amp to amp—was found to be “4% using big-band jazz music, 2% using flute music, and 0.4% using a sine wave.” (References for that and all manner of other fascinating research on amp A/B/X testing can be found in this 2014 Audio Xpress article.)
Needless to say, most amps available from brands you’ve actually heard of can exceed those thresholds by a few hundred percent, if not more. But as Douglas Self points out in the first chapter of the sixth edition of his brilliant book Audio Power Amplifier Design, when measuring the THD of two amps, “. . . the more distortive amplifier will almost certainly be the more expensive.”
So if, like me, you want an amp with as little distortion as reasonably possible—whether said distortion is actually audible or not—why wouldn’t you buy a lower-cost/higher-performance option?
Actually, I can think of any number of valid answers to that question. Maybe you just like nice things. Maybe audio jewelry is what makes you happy. Maybe you’re smitten with the industrial design of one or another high-end audio manufacturer. Maybe you’re looking for components that zhush up the interior design of your listening room. Every single one of these answers is 100 percent valid, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. But none of them really have anything to do with performance.
I can tell you this: if some uber high-end company hired me to design a $50,000 monoblock amp, I’d probably build it around a Hypex Ncore NC2K module (<$2500 USD), mate that with a good I/O board, overengineer the living hell out of the power supply, specify the sexiest five-way binding posts money can buy, and then blow the rest of my budget on a swanky extruded-aluminum chassis designed by someone like Evans Hankey.
Mind you, nobody in the real world has gone quite that far yet, but we are seeing Hypex amp modules show up in products you might not have expected them to just a few years ago, from mid-tier integrated amplifiers like the $2600 NAD C 399 BluOS-D all the way up to super-cool and super-funky (not to mention handcrafted) high-end speakers like the AU$25,000 Pitt & Giblin Superwax active loudspeakers reviewed by SoundStage! Australia’s Edgar Kramer a few months back.
Of course, while we’re on the subject of mid-priced, third-party class-D amp modules being integrated into pricier audiophile gear, I would be remiss not to mention Purifi’s nigh-legendary Eigentakt module, which is employed in such products as NAD’s flagship Masters Series M33 integrated amplifier and T+A Elektroakustik’s A 200 stereo power amp and M 200 monoblock amp.
What’s noteworthy about the A 200 and M 200 is that they’re only a swanky Apple-inspired case (and $40,000 or $45,000 retail) away from the dream scenario I spelled out above. T+A adds value to the Eigentakt module by mating it with the company’s own HV circuitry in the voltage-amplification stage, an overengineered-to-hell-and-back power supply, and an intelligent microcontroller—all of which allow the 1ET400A to perform impressively close to its theoretical specified limits. Granted, T+A could no doubt achieve similar specs with its own more expensive, way-less-efficient amp designs, but at this point, you have to ask: why bother?
Another cool thing about seeing luxury electronics manufacturers adopt technologies of this sort is that they don’t merely improve performance at the higher-end—they also improve efficiency. And anything that helps us use less energy without any loss of performance (just the opposite, in fact), is A-OK in my book.
There is a downside to “trickle-up” tech, though
While we can all probably think of numerous examples of technologies designed for higher-value products that ended up in higher-priced implementations, it’s worth noting that audiophile companies do assume some risk when doing so. I’m reminded of a friend of mine who worked for a high-performance audio manufacturer that sent the samples of a new amp to a reviewer at a prestigious hi-fi publication. At first, said reviewer raved about the performance, and my friend—and the company for whom he worked—thought they were in for some good press right out of the gate. Then the reviewer was informed that the amp in question was class D, and all of a sudden, he started picking nits with the performance.
That’s been a few years, mind you, but I still see that sort of bigotry expressed on social media all the time—old audiophiles clinging to outdated notions of technology they don’t understand to begin with. And like it or not, manufacturers of luxury audio solutions have to pander to that sort of customer way more than do makers of high-value gear.
That’s sad, really, because it cuts the high-end off from much of the real innovation going on in the hi-fi industry, what little of it there is. After all—as I alluded to above—aside from transducers, where are the meaningful advancements being made in audio reproduction at the luxury level? And I don’t mean implementation. Nor do I mean slight tweaks to the biasing of ancient class-AB designs or adoption of new materials here and there. I mean legitimately new technologies that have a measurable and audible impact on performance?
I just don’t see much of this coming from the very high-end, and I expect we’ll see even less of it as time goes by. So if these innovations don’t trickle up, where else are they going to come from?
. . . Dennis Burger