It’s one of the most common questions I get asked: should I buy amplifier A, or amplifier B? Substitute ‘amplifier’ for just about any type of audio product, and you have an idea of the 10 or 12 emails a week that land in my inbox. Usually, I can help provide some kind of perspective, but a lot of the time, the writer is considering a product or products that I simply haven’t heard. That means my response is some variation of: “No idea, but good luck!” with that in mind, I think there are some good basic principles. So if you’re considering buying a piece of audio gear, and you want to make sure before you pull the trigger, this piece will break down the best ways of making sure you are buying the right one for you.

Table of Contents

There Is No Wrong Answer

I really can’t stress this enough. So often, especially with audio equipment that costs hundreds or even thousands of dollars, there’s a real sense of finality to it. When you’re preparing to spend hard earned cash, it can become pretty stressful. This is especially true when you consider just how hard it is to listen to a piece of audio equipment before you buy. True, maybe your local hi-fi store has it in stock, and if you’re really lucky, they have both options in stock and will let you come in to do a listening test. But even if that’s the case, going into your local store in the age of Covid may not be the best idea (although if they offer a private session that you can book in advance, and you mask up, then go for it).

RME-ADI-2-DAC | The Master Switch

So chances are, you aren’t going to be able to listen to your choices before you buy, which means there’s going to be a risk that you buy something you aren’t happy with. But here’s the thing: this is just not worth stressing about. These days, production standards in the audio world are so high that it’s actually quite rare to come across a ‘bad’ piece of gear. Even with all the gear I’ve personally reviewed over the years, it’s rare that I find a product I out and out hated (here’s one, for funsies). Chances are, no matter which product you end up buying, you’re going to get something you’re happy with. If, after all the research you’ve done— and as you’ll see below, research is a good idea— you still aren’t sure, then the chances are good that either of the options will work well for you. You can literally flip a coin.

For example, let’s say you wish to buy a DAC, and you’ve narrowed your choice down to the Schiit Modi, and the Topping D10S, both $99. Now, there are some key differences between these two products. The Topping has an S/PDIF converter and a front display, which the Schiit does not, but I also think the Schiit sounds a little better. But the thing is: both of them are great. No matter which you choose, you’re still going to get a first-class performance.

On our list of the best DACs of this year, I have the Schiit currently ranked higher than the Topping. Does that mean that the Topping is a poor choice? Heck no! Both are solid options. What it comes down to is this: quit worrying, and take the plunge. You won’t regret it.


Read the Reviews

It sounds obvious, but one of the best ways to get an idea of how product performs is to read professional reviews— like ours. But— and it’s a big but— you shouldn’t just rely on one review to get an idea of how good or bad a product is. No matter how much you trust a particular site, or a particular reviewer, it’s worth reading three or four different reviews.

The reason for this is quite simple. What you’re looking for commonalities. Do all the reviews you read mention the same issues? Are reviewers commenting on things independently? If you have three reviews, and two of them mention some issues in the bass, for example, then there’s a good chance that this is accurate. While I would always like to be the last word in audio reviews, and I always encourage you to read my breakdowns, that’s simply not realistic. The reason for this is that I’m human, I have my own listening tastes and peccadilloes, and the way my brain processes sound will be different to everyone else. I’m not here because I have an amazing pair of golden ears that will give an objective last word on a piece of gear. I’m here because I understand how equipment works and how different pieces relate to each other in a complete system, and I can explain it without boring the pants off you. At least, that’s what I hope, anyway.

To return to the point, here’s an example. Take the Cambridge Audio CXA61 (full review here), which is probably one of my favorite stereo amps ever. Go read my review, and compare it to the review put out by the folks at Home Theater Hi-Fi. Note how we both talk about how useful it is to have aptX Bluetooth included in the amp, and how revelatory the upside-down labels on the rear were. We also had similar impressions of the sound, noting the weighty and effective bass. See? Commonalities. If you are unable to test a piece of gear yourself, looking for these little data points can be hugely helpful in making your decision.

AQ-Dragonfly-Cobalt and Chord Mojo | The Master Switch

Figure Out What You Don’t Want

If you are undecided between two pieces of gear, I strongly recommend doing a deep dive into the specs. Compare them, if possible. The main reason for doing this is to avoid paying for features you don’t want or need. For example, if you don’t typically listen over Bluetooth, but one of the amplifiers you are interested in buying has it, then it may not be the best option for you. If there’s another amplifier that has a similar cost, but doesn’t have Bluetooth, then there’s probably a good chance that most of the production money has gone into developing the parts of the package that may be important to you, like the signal path and the amplification tech.

By the way, if you’re buying something for a hi-fi system, like a set of speakers or an amplifier, then it’s worth looking at specs like RMS power and impedance (which are explained in full here). You want to get a piece of equipment that has the most synergy with your existing system, and these specs are among the easiest way to do it. Narrowing down the product most likely to give you the best fit will help you choose between them.

SVS-SB-3000 | The Master Switch

Check the Returns Policy

If you’re prepared to engage a little bit of admin, then there is a way to mitigate the risk that you don’t like your new purchase. Several companies now offer generous returns policies or advanced home trials. SVS, for example, who make terrific speakers and subwoofers, offer a 45 day home trial with easy returns. That should be more than enough time to install and evaluate a piece of audio gear, and if you’re not happy, returning it is simple.

You are more likely to be able to take advantage of these policies if you buy direct, although of course, that may increase shipping costs. Nevertheless, it’s always good to see manufacturers offering easy trials, so definitely use them if they are available. And hey: these days, even Amazon allows for stress free returns, although as far as I know, it’s only within seven days of product arrival.

Naim-Uniti-Atom | The Master Switch

Buyer’s Remorse is the Devil

Do you know what happened, literally while I was writing this section? Someone emailed saying “Hey, what is your opinion of Product X? I just bought it and want to know what you think.”

I could not headdesk hard enough. This is the worst kind of second-guessing, where you have already bought something, after (presumably) a fair amount of research, and you immediately start looking to validate your choice. On one hand, I get it: buyer’s remorse can be evil, especially when you’re spending a lot of money. But to seek out someone to give you a pat on the head and tell you you’ve made the right call after you’ve actually bought the audio gear is ridiculous.

Accept the buyer’s remorse. Let it flow around you, and through you. Let it leave nothing behind. Then wait patiently for the courier to arrive, unpack and install your fancy-schmancy new piece of gear, and spend hours and days listening. Then, and only then, can you start wondering if maybe you bought the wrong thing. But having put down all that money, you at the very least owe it to your bank account and your ears to give the speakers, DAC, or amp a chance.

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