Subjectivity As Pertains To Preamp Comparisons

This example i'm giving here can be easily checked out because it involves two separate reviews by the same magazine, but by two separate reviewers with different caliber systems, read the reviews and I'm sure you will be quite amused by what happened. This serves to make several points about the subjectivity of different comparisons due to different systems used, not the personal "opinion" of the individual. It serves to prove that the opinion of any given person has to be taken with an attention to what their criteria, reference system, and experience is.

Years ago as a dealer involved with an upgrade to a truly great hybrid tube preamp, the Belles 21-a, I had a chance to see how a hardcore product that compares way out of it's price point might be completely misrepresented because of the subjectivity of a different person using a different system. I was putting the original one up against preamps costing out to $10k in my demo reference systems that could be out at $60K and more and they could easily sound better in all respects than others costing way more. I had found that a pair of high end tubes could completely alter the character of this preamp, my favorite being a super matched set of cryo treated tubes I paid $400 for (basic tubes being $10).

After to talking to Dave about the differences that could be seen goingto better tubes, better capacitors, and a few other upgrades that he felt would improve the sound, Dave upgrades capacitors to Auricaps, finds a couple dozen of a great tube at a price that was a few times what the one he used in his base model, and the 21-A Auricap was born. As I recall the base was a bit over $2000 and the Auricap was $25 or $2800. I was blown away by this thing, I was comparing it to a wonderful $10,000 BAT tube preamp, the 51-se. In fact when I was selling it on the internet and made that comparison I had a guy who had a 51se who tried it and sold his BAT, it was that good.

So we arranged for one of the top echelon magazines to do a review, and some things got lost in the followup. Since it was a $2500 preamp it was given to a new reviewer on staff that had a reference system with his cherished $2000 entry level tube Audio Research. His speakers were the rather revealing entry level $2000 Magnepans. Keep in mind that I would have been comfortable with them putting this up against AR's best preamp. I didn't hear much or see anything until the review came out, and it was presented as a shootout between the two amps that were something like $2200 vs $2500.

When I read it I was way beyond annoyed, I was flipped out. I called Dave, he was pleased because the guy had basically said the the preamp was slightly better on all parameters, but concluded that he didn't know if it was enough better to be worth a couple of hundred more. This was a preamp that made the entry level AR sound like junk.

So I contacted the head reviewer and explained where I ranked this preamp and that I had wanted or expected him to review it up against his beloved $14,000 VTL 7.5. He wrote and published a new review. He described the 21-a as being better in terms of accuracy and detail, but concluded that the VTL offered a very slight edge in richness, but that the Belles was an incredible buy at the money.

So we are very happy with the new review, and there is a profoundly major takeaway message here that affects the kind of reviews we see on an audiophile forum. A $2100 component that performs head to head with a $10,000 one might as well be a $10,000 preamp. If one person's system is not capable of the resolution necessary to easily be able to hear the difference between two products that are this radically different, their system is not capable of revealing differences. It's not them or their subjective differences or preferences, it is a shortcoming of the system...and that is exactly what is happening when someone says they can't hear any differences in comparisons. It's not that there aren't any differences, their system is not capable of revealing the differences.

What do you think the advanced reviewer would hear in his $100k+ reference system if he tried the entry level AR against his $14k VTL? That thing would be offensive to him.

I don't know how many Auricap 21-A's were made, but if you see one on Audiogon buy it, you will not be disappointed. Also the differences in high end tubes are remarkable, you can tailor it to a sound character that works for you and your system. At less than $1500 it allows you to save $10k that can be put to other weak links.
There is another possible explanation. The original reviewer's perception of the Belles may very well have been "influenced" by it's price point, and heard it as performing only to that price. If he knew other, more experienced listeners perceived the Belles differently, he might have been "influenced" by that knowledge.
" If one person's system is not capable of the resolution necessary to easily be able to hear the difference between two products that are this radically different, their system is not capable of revealing differences." I have been hearing this nonsense all my life which is a long one. If you are well experienced in what to listen for you will hear differences in even a crappy system. In the studio we could mix to a pair of crap 3" auratone speakers and hear the slightest eq changes. In our audiophile club we do blind testing of various equipment and even when the reference system is a cheap one like $2000 most people can still hear differences in cables, power chords or electronics.
True that, the power of suggestion or influence by others can be rather overwhelming in this all too subjective hobby.
I don't doubt that your basic premise is true and that you are being sincere. However, do you not recognize how you, yourself, are biased in favor of this product; especially having had a role in its development. This is the reason that one of the "top echelon" mags would never allow a review by a reviewer who had any relationship with the manufacturer of the product being reviewed.

The Belles was compared to an AR which cost 25% less and the Belles was deemed superior by the reviewer. Where is the problem? THEN, you contact the reviewer and complain that it was not compared to the reviewer's preferred $14K preamp; which the reviewer then proceeds to do and writes a "better" review !?!?

Am I missing something or is my bs sensor not functioning quite right? I know nothing about Dave Belles, but my causal impression is that his products have a good reputation. If this was my product I would not be happy with your involvement this way.
The original post simply reconfirmed why I trust my ears and not these review publications. The fact that he called the head reviewer and got a second review published more to his liking pegged my BS meter. So, Froggy, I'd say your meter is working just fine.
A $2100 component that performs head to head with a $10,000 one might as well be a $10,000 preamp.

By that rationale I'd be sad to see Dave raise the price of the beloved 21-a from $2,100 to $10,000. A $2,100 preamp is a $2,100 preamp, end of story, and if a $10,000 preamp to a listener fails to beat it, that listener has potentially saved $7,900.

Let's not get "consumed" in monetary value and the tricks of marketing; Hollywood is always quick to point out why a certain film failed to "click" with its audience, only after the box office numbers are in, in effect trying to make the case that named film is essentially a bad film based on mere numbers. Fundamentally the same is at play with much of the hifi-industry, in the sense that most would assume the more expensive component to sound better, thus deducing a good sounding, cheap piece of hifi-equipment should cost more, and not vice versa, that the more expensive counterpart should be cheaper.