The price of scarcity
When something desirable is scarce its value increases.
It’s the old supply and demand theory we learned about in school. If more people want something than there is an available supply, the price adjusts upward.
Think of a vinyl album where only so many copies were pressed. Or, consider that only 58 pairs of IRSV speakers were ever made.
Scarcity can even apply to simpler things. Terri and I were skinning a bushel of our homegrown tomatoes last night. We turned those beauties into a delicious tomato sauce we’re going to freeze and sparingly consume over the winter months. No one else on the planet has the same tomato sauce as do we.
Thankfully, much of what we as audiophiles value with respect to new equipment isn’t scarce. You can grab a copy of a production DAC, integrated amplifier, or preamplifier without much worry about bickering over price. That’s not quite as true with vintage equipment.
What we can say about scarcity is that for most of us, the collection of hand-picked equipment, cables, room treatment, and careful placement is unique in all the world. Your stereo system in your room sounds different than mine because of the environment and the choices made to create that system.
What kind of price would you assign to your hand-built creation?
The author of the Sherlock Holmes Mysteries, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous line was, “Once you eliminate the impossible, whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must be the truth.”
And so it goes about the truth. We’re taught as children to always be truthful but it doesn’t take too long to figure out the truth can sometimes hurt—like a smack on the butt or a good scolding for whatever crime the truth-teller has just owned up to.
But being truthful is at the core of trust and it is trust most of us work our whole lives to earn.
That said, I think it’s important to titrate the truth to fit the situation at hand. Never lie, but sometimes it pays to soften your words. You’d hardly want to crush the spirit of a young child asking for your opinion on her latest crayon creation, and then there’s always the potential minefield for unsuspecting blockhead males not thinking through the answer to “how does this dress make me look?”
When it comes to high end audio there is as well a fine line to walk. How could I tell the whole truth of how awful something sounds when the presenter has worked their heart out crafting the masterpiece?
I make a point of doing my best to never falsifying anything. I mix this credo with a dash of softness and a sprinkle of surely there has to be something positive to say.
And then there’s the opposite situation where words aren’t adequate to express the truth and beauty of someone’s stereo system.
The truth cuts in many ways.
Never lose sight of it, but like strong medicine, be careful with its application.
Hmmmm, but they have a business to support and sound quality should be better, as their other stuff offers great value, but the BHK stuff can definitely sound better, compared to the higher end of great stereo sound. Competitive at their prices, but there’s room upmarket for PS Audio and I think this is where they are headed and I don’t blame them one bit. I owned the BHK Preamp and DAC and what I’m using now is light years better sounding, although a lot more expensive. Time marches on and so do they!
In yesterday’s post about the fluidity of my stereo system, I mentioned upgrading from the amazing BHK300 monoblock amplifiers to the newer BHK600s.
More than a few people emailed me asking why. Why would I upgrade what is already an overkill amplifier to one with even more wattage?
It’s a good question. Let’s look at some of the specifics.
The Infinity IRSV in Music Room 2 is about 90dB efficient. Meaning that for 1 watt of input power we can expect to get 90dB of sound at its output.
90dB is loud.
1 watt is nothing.
300 watts is overkill.
600 watts is absurd.
And yet I am still over-the-top excited. Not because I have more power than I could possibly want but because this new amp will bring an entirely new level of performance to an already amazing system. And because the extra wattage I now have places even less of a demand upon the amp.
What we do in high-end audio isn’t always logical.
It won’t take but one listen to not care about the logic.
It’s all about the sound.
Too wide of a gap
Between a high-performance audiophiles stereo system and the casual plop-it-down-and-listen setup, there seems to be a pretty wide gap.
Which makes me wonder why there isn’t something in the middle.
Imagine a single wireless all-in-one floor-standing speaker. You unbox it, set it up along a living room wall, connect to your WiFi, and voila! A great, full-range musical performance fills your room.
Instead, we seem saddled by Home Pods and glorified boom boxes that pretend to reproduce music as it was intended to be played.
Don’t get me wrong. I love a great two-channel audio system as much as the next. It just seems to me there’s a huge chasm between what we can plunk down and play versus setting up a many-box rig with wires and speakers.
Nature abhors a vacuum.
Maybe someday someone will fill that gap.
Work in progress
How many of us can say we’ve reached the highest pinnacle we’re ever likely to achieve? That where we are and what we’re doing is it. Fini, finito, finilizado!
I suspect not many of us. Not if we’re being honest.
My stereo system is finished and perfect only in the sense of right now. It comes with the understanding it’s a work in progress and that as soon as the next best thing comes along, it’ll change. Hopefully for the better.
It won’t be too long, for example, that I am able to upgrade my BHK300 monoblock amplifiers with a pair of our new BHK600s. I can’t wait.
My system and I are a work in progress.
Always have been.
Always will be.
I am aware it makes some of us a bit uncomfortable to admit we use our stereo system’s status as our calling card, but I’d like to suggest it’s fine.
There’s nothing wrong with rating yourself by the status of your audio equipment.
“I am an audiophile,” said the first, proudly.
“Yeah? What’s your system?” asked the second.
As the list of prized components gets rattled off, a judgment forms as to the seriousness and the caliber of the first. This is perfectly normal behavior and one I encourage.
Your equipment is, after all, a reflection of you.
And we should never feel bad or inadequate for being who we are.
We are the best we know how to be.
How easily we adapt to our environments. If it’s too cold we put on a sweater, too hot and we find shade, listen to music through bandwidth-limited earbuds, and before long it sounds just right.
While being wonderfully adaptive is a blessing, it can also be a curse. We get so used to the sound of a stereo system—even a bad one—that it becomes difficult to know when something is better.
It’s immediately apparent that it’s different. But, better?
And to make matters worse, if we don’t form a fairly quick opinion between the two we begin to adapt yet again.
I think this conundrum is one of the many reasons why it’s so valuable to attend as many live concerts as possible.
Once you adapt to the sound of live music, the easier it gets to know when reproductions are right.
I am constantly on the hunt for a more revealing audio experience.
When designing a new product or listening to a new Octave release, the closer I can get to revealing the truth of what’s captured in the recording the happier I get.
Can something be too revealing? Can a stereo system dig so deep into the recording’s inner details that the sound becomes less inviting?
Too much of the naked truth?
I think that perhaps there’s a perfect balance of unmasked details and inviting coverings that do not conflict or overpower the gestalt of what we’re hoping for.
As in all things in life, it is the careful balance of elements that brings forward the beauty from within.
Choosing your tradeoffs
In high-end audio as in engineering, it’s all a matter of managing tradeoffs. There are no perfect solutions.
I think when evaluating acceptable tradeoffs one must make a shortlist of inviolate parameters. For example, I am unwilling to sacrifice: dynamics, transparency, bass, soundstage, and listenability.
Which, by default, suggests I am willing to sacrifice: tonal balance, PRaT, noise, extended highs, and colorations.
Your list of must-haves and acceptable sacrifices is unlikely to be the same as mine.
I think what’s important is twofold: an understanding that compromise is inevitable, and crafting a list of requirements.
The cost of your stereo system will be directly reflected by the balance between the two lists.
The longer your requirement list the more you’ll need to spend to build the system you want.
Accepting the inevitability of tradeoffs and maintaining your list may be one of the most valuable tools you have available to you.
We ultimately judge the performance of our stereo system but how closely it brings us to music. Real music.
So, if in 1981 we had systems that brought us close to the music, where a violin sounded like a violin, a Fender Stratocaster like a Fender Stratocaster, how much progress could we legitimately claim over the ensuing 40 years?
Probably lots and here’s why. Using the identification of one instrument from another is somewhat of a strawman argument. Fact is, I can distinguish the sound of a violin as well as a Stratocaster from inside my car from an MP3 source.
So it isn’t so much the proper identification of instruments, but rather how close we can get to creating a realistic space where we believe the musicians are playing in our room.
IMHO that’s a truer mark of the classic goals of high end audio.
We’ve come a long way in the ensuing 40 years, but we still have a long way to go.