Audio/Video Gear: When to Upgrade...or Not

I recently bought a new car. It wasn't planned, though perhaps long overdue. Old Betsy...um Mazda...took it on herself to make a frontal run on a low curb at a high enough speed to rip into the oil pan and take out one of the engine mounts. No injuries to this or any other humans, nor any perceptible damage to the curb, but my insurance company decided that it was time to send my 15-year-old filly to pasture.

But, you ask, how does this apply to A/V gear. For starters, the latter tends to last a long time unless the winds blow, the ground shakes, a fire intrudes, or the crick rises. And since many of us move often, A/V equipment travels reasonably well—as long as you keep those old shipping boxes along with their padding, and transport any TVs (particularly plasmas) upright. Never lay them flat, even in their boxes. When I moved out of California I rented two of those self-pack shipping PODs, insuring that everything was secure and the contents of the pods remained unseen by other eyes until I opened them at my destination. (Given the current stampede to move out of states such as New York and California, a future blog on how to pack your gear in such containers might just make it onto my to-do list.)

In olden days most people kept their TVs for a very long time. Ten to fifteen years (or until they irreparably broke) was common before the transition to HD. I wouldn't be surprised if this were still true among the general population. Just yesterday I drove past what must have been a 15-year-old rear projection set sitting along the side of the road. It looked like one of those Sony rear-projection SXRDs from the early 2000s. At the time they were the hot new ticket. While still bulky, they were far more manageable than that era's rear-projection CRTs.

These days, manufacturers are doing their best to encourage shorter turnovers, assisted by the march of technology. First came color, then HD, then flat screen sets, then HDR, then 4K, and now 8K. Big-screen rear- projection TV were king as little as 15 years ago, but soon went the way of the dodo to be followed by flat screen sets: first plasmas, then LCDs, then OLEDs, then LCDs with LED backlighting, then quantum dots, and now mini LEDs and (though likely not soon) affordable microLEDs.

Cars have added a flurry of electronic features in recent years, some for improved safety and others for convenience (there are seven pages in my new owner's manual on the use of the key fob!). They're better built today (with sticker prices to match), but unless you include the debatable trend toward all electric cars (and even hybrids), they haven't fundamentally changed in how they go about their primary business. But video changes have brought with them genuine performance improvements. You can argue about some of them (8K, anyone?), and others are more about convenience than quality (streaming vs. Blu-rays and Ultra HD Blu-rays). But no one will argue that video in the home is vastly better today than it was in 2000. And none too soon. Considering how the current pandemic has affected movie theaters, can you imagine a 480i standard definition, CRT-only (34-inch maximum and 250 lbs.!) "home theater" being seen as a viable replacement for the commercial theater among serious film fans?

Audio is different. It hasn't changed nearly as dramatically as video. The 2-channel audio world is still enmeshed (embroiled?) in discussions about wires, analog vs. digital, and tubes vs. solid state. Audio streaming is definitely a change from what we had in 2000, but many still prefer their vinyl or (yes, even) CD collections. Two-channel audio gear prices have risen to silly levels in some quarters, but very good equipment can still be affordable, since even legacy audio vendors now leverage the low labor costs in China and elsewhere in Asia for their budget (and sometimes even their not so budget) lines. That's also true of TVs. I know of no video displays now being manufactured in the U.S., though some are assembled in Mexico using subcomponents from Asia (the latter is an assumption, but a fair one).

Once you get past the infant mortality barrier with electronics, (they're most prone to failure in the first weeks of use) the biggest threat to amps, preamps, A/V receivers and surround processors is heat. That's the main reason that separates became popular in the early days of audio. Back then, everything was tubes. Tubes get hot, so the amplification was split into preamps and power amps to keep things at least a little cooler. The idea stuck, and continues to this day in high-end audio where separates remain extremely popular, even with solid-state gear.

The situation is very different in home theater, where one-piece AVRs dominate. But with an increasing number of amp channels and other features shoehorned into a single chassis, heat again becomes an issue. The solution to extending the life of A/V electronics is ventilation, perhaps supplemented by a (hopefully quiet) internal or even external fan.

Equipment with mechanical components—turntables and disc players—are perhaps the most prone to failure. Oddly, turntable production shows no sign of giving up the ghost, and if they do, replacement motors will likely be available well into the Analog Armageddon. The same might not be true of disc players, where motor (and laser) replacement is trickier. If you have a large and treasured collection of CDs and/or video discs, I highly recommend acquiring one or more backup players sufficient to see you out.

Loudspeakers tend to be the longest lived of audio components. Absent abuse, or deterioration of foam surrounds on the woofers (rare today, but common at one time) a lifetime of 20-30 years should last well after you get the itch for new ones, which may or may not be better. Unlike disc players, which risk obsolescence in today's mania for convenience over quality (i.e., streaming) there are no signs of any revolutionary developments on the speaker front. If you have speakers you love and see no likelihood of ever wanting to replace them (famous last words!) you might want to think about acquiring a set of replacement drivers for them while they're still in production. But that won't be cheap. as many a car owner has discovered when facing a replacement of the stock head- or taillights, for example (news flash: you can't just replace a lamp on most modern cars, but must replace the whole, expensive light fixture, as I once discovered on that 15-year-old Mazda).

But when to replace a fully functioning audio or video component is another issue entirely. The main trigger, of course, is simply the desire for something newer and shinier. Manufacturers know this, and know how to feed the kitty. You can't blame them; it keeps the wolves from their doors. They'll make a buck or a yen from it, of course, but I don't know of any Microsoft- or Amazon-like billionaires in the A/V world. Most founders of audio companies (and to a lesser extent video) did so because they wanted to make a decent living doing something they loved. But whether or not you'll love what they offer enough to put the old stuff out to pasture is a personal decision, and possibly a subject for another blog.

COMMENTS
jeffhenning's picture

My first stereo system had a Marantz 2230 at its heart. I couldn't afford the 4300 pictured when I was 16.

While I love the visual design of the old stuff, it doesn't sound nearly as good as the less pretty stuff I have now. I can live with the trade-off, but certainly would love it if today's equipment was as beautiful.

3ddavey13's picture

It may not look pretty, but I place a fan with 150 degree sweep in front of my equipment rack, especially when watching movies. It may look cheesy but it's quiet enough not to be heard and my BDs aren't even warm when I take them out, let alone my equipment.

Chris LeChien's picture

I still use my (Originally my father's) Marantz 4300 nearly every day. Got it recapped about 8 years ago and it works like a dream. I have a DSP hooked in through the pre outs/ins for room correction.

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