Audiophile conundrum: Does more equal better?

Just because your speaker or amplifier is bigger or more expensive doesn't automatically make it better, does it?

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
Rows of speaker drivers may look cool, but do they sound any good? Steve Guttenberg

Maybe it's an American thing; we love big stuff. We equate size with quality, and think that exquisitely designed, silly, expensive products are always better than more affordable alternatives. Is the new iPod always better than last year's model? Then again, how do you define "better"?

A lot of audiophiles believe more watts, more power, higher digital sampling rates, higher resolution, heavier turntable platters, speakers with more drivers, bigger drivers, or more channels of sound will always produce better sound. It ain't necessarily so.

Don't get me wrong, I love high-end audio. But I can also tell you occasional glimpses of musical nirvana can come from fairly modest gear. Sometimes it's more about some sort of synchrony where my mood, the music, the gear, and a bunch of other variables line up, and the sound takes me to another place.

That happened on a regular basis when I was a teenager in the late 1960s. Pretty much every new Beatles, Stones, and Dylan LP did the trick. I'd play them on my Garrard Type A70 record changer, with an Empire phono cartridge, Harman Kardon receiver, and Goodman speakers and the music rearranged my perception of the world. The whole thing cost less than $200, money that I earned from my after-school job at the local supermarket.

How about you? Had any magical moments where the music on your hi-fi or iPod really shook you to the core?