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The Peter Principle and audio

The Peter Principle and audio

Do you remember The Peter Principle? It is the idea in management theory that people get promoted until they reach their position of incompetence, as coined by Laurence J Peter and Raymond Hull in the 1969 book of the same name. With not too much torture, it can be squeezed into the world of audio. But not in the way you might think

With the increased price strata of high-end audio, there’s a kind of Peter Principle taking place. It goes something like this: A system remains in dynamic balance until something expensive comes along and disrupts it. We naturally assume (sometimes erroneously) that the path to ever better sound lies with ever better products making that sound, and usually that means spending more money. There are however many, many exceptions, such as those brands that make an excellent middle priced system, but the ones below are stripped too bare, and the higher end models are merely the middle ones saddled with ‘more’.

Not trying to get too ‘forensic’ in terminology, but increased price is not a necessary condition of improved performance. It’s not even a sufficient condition. It’s more that price and performance follow along the same lines.

However, the situation can be clouded by the erroneous insertion of expensive devices. A device that unseats a system from its balance point is often going to be the subject of some animosity, and if that device is ‘spendy’, it’s easy to see it as a rip-off. Sometimes, that is because the product is a rip-off, but more commonly it’s as much to do with unbalancing a system. The great arbiter in this is the popular viewpoint; if you are the lone voice of dissent and everyone else thinks that new tonearm or DAC is wonderful, it is probably exposing weaknesses in your existing system. At its most extreme, you can end up with a system so well balanced and so differently balanced to most systems, that any changes to the list of components will ruin the performance. You either need to start again or preserve that system in aspic.


A subtle variation on that theme can best be summed up as ‘spending your way out of a crisis’. A system doesn’t sound right, for whatever reason, and the logical cure is to buy something in the hope that it improves matters. However, without first investigating the root cause of the problem, finding a range of possible solutions, and testing them, merely buying a more expensive product in the hope of correcting a system is apt to make things no better, and can often result in a worse performance. There are times when the best course of action is changing one product for a more expensive one (or at least a different one), and there are times when the best thing you can do is capitalise and maximise what you already own. Only an honest assessment of your system’s limitations and your expectations can determine the best options.

The idea behind all this noodling is two fold. First, I recently had an opportunity to spend some time with some Constellation Audio equipment. This outstanding range of electronics is arguably not the kind of system you can easily upgrade into. At this level, unless you have products at a commensurate level from similar brands, it might be sonically better to start from scratch. This isn’t that the Constellation Audio equipment is ‘fussy’ or that an existing system is ‘wrong’, just that the balancing act that needs to take place is such that in many cases the intermediary steps between what you have and what you want may not be steps in the right direction. From working in the field here, if you plan a step-by-step series of upgrades, look to the preamplifier as the first main change; preamplifiers have undergone perhaps the largest universal step forward, allowing better power amps to be designed recently. Using a top-class new preamp with an older pair of power amps will bring out the best in the power amps. On the other hand, using a pair of state-of-the-art power amps can highlight the limitations in older preamplifiers.

The other consideration is a personal one and nothing whatsoever to do with audio. I recently embraced the mirrorless revolution in photography; first with baby steps (a Fuji X100S) but more recently by trading in a lot of Nikon equipment for a Fuji X-T1. There are endless arguments and counter-arguments related to that which really aren’t worth reiterating here (if audiophiles have their cable debates, they are as nothing next to those over camera equipment and sensor size). Suffice it to say, whether there is or is not a marked improvement in performance is immaterial; sometimes it’s just a good idea to shake things up a notch, and a change is the best way to do just that.

Upgrades and improvements to any system can be a great way of re-igniting your interest in the hobby, and to some the reason for that hobby. Just as changing a camera can sometimes spark not only an interest in cameras and lenses, but rekindle an interest in picture taking, so a change in audio system can send people on new musical journeys.


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