Can and should

May 14, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

I can stay with what I have and be happy though I think I should upgrade and get better.

Can and should, two of my favorite words: I should avoid the calories but I can sneak this one butter tart if I promise myself not to do it again.

Deciding between the two can be maddening.

In designing equipment to a price point the cans and the shoulds are sometimes heartbreaking. I can include this feature yet if I do I’ll break the budget so I shouldn’t.

Where does one draw the line?

For me, it comes down to two other interesting words, risk and reward. If I am faced with a can or should moment I weigh the risk against the reward. Recently I was faced with just such a dilemma. While building our new recording studio, Octave Records, we’re constantly faced with cans and shoulds decisions. I can spend thousands on highly rated DIs (Direct Injects which connect electric instruments into the recording console without a microphone) or go a little more conservative and put those scarce funds into microphone preamps instead.

Which of those choices will make the biggest difference? What are we risking? Is it better to have a slightly better sounding electric guitar or acoustically captured guitar? And, how will we judge?

In the end, we went for the microphone preamplifiers but it was a real toss-up.

Can we do better with what we have or should we take the leap and put the pedal to the metal?

What are you asking yourself these days?

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22 comments on “Can and should”

  1. I was asking myself mainly all of my high end history:
    Do I really need the bass control of hybrid tube designs or should I go full tubes. The only solid state alternative was fully active speakers or high biased Class A amps. I decided to go fully active with hybrid tube pre design. Before that I went fully hybrid tube passively amped (Lamm ML1.1 Monos) and before that Gryphon and Vitus Class A amps with same or Hovland tube pre, inbetween also Pass Aleph 0 monos…

    The question remained especially after going to the last shows…should I have better went full tubes with high efficieny speakers and pass on some bass slam? Probably yes…but it also needs a whole lot of money for not being a too big compromise.

    Silly 1st world problems.

  2. I, as a consumer, have to make that choice daily. For every purchase I make, I must decide what makes more sense, the upgrade, or the choice a step or two down. I’m always trying to determine what is the best value for me. I just received my Power Plant P12, although I ideally wanted the P15. But after carefully considering all the pros and cons, I decided the P12 was the best way FOR ME to go, saving $2500, (which allowed me to buy a good Stratocaster, which gets delivered today. And I still saved just over $600. A head amp??). Gosh, I wish I could always buy the item I really want, but sometimes dropping a step or two down will allow me to maximize my enjoyment of life. In my mind, a P12 and a Stratocaster was a better choice than a P15. And for every person, the choices and decisions will be different. Just consider all the pros and cons, and do what will be best for YOU!!

  3. It depends. With my amp and preamp, I have made several changes only to wind up coming back to the same one of years ago. With my speakers, I have made several changes and now the Magnepans are back and I’m digging them. When I added stereo subs, they improved quite a bit..

    1. You can spend a lot of money on the latest hype just to discover what you had sounded better. Happened to me more then once. Your ears should be the only determining factor when upgrading your equipment.

      If you have a great sounding system and you want it to sound better then sometimes all you need to do is add subwoofers or better interconnects and speaker wire to improve your sound. You don’t need to start all over again from scratch.

    2. It’s different for businesses and consumers. Many consumers, whether buying audio, shoes or any other luxury item, will only have a rough budget and often exceed it, within reason.
      In business, for example Paul’s speaker, you can make promises and if the budget is wrong or unrealistic, you end up with unhappy potential customers, competing against more expensive products or having to cut your profit margin. So these decisions should have been made at the planning stage, when there is more opportunity to make savings elsewhere.

  4. When it comes to the preamplifier all I need is a volume control and a selector switch comprised of high quality parts and short signal paths. Simpler is always better. With today’s high output sources you don’t even need an active preamplifier. Passive will do just fine for most systems.

    When it comes to power amplifiers and choosing power the entire line from say 30 watts to 300 should have the same character of sound. The only difference should be power, if the amplifiers are designed correctly. Find the sound you like from a manufacturer, then just choose how much power you can afford and how much power and current you need to drive your speakers. It should be that simple.

    Quality used equipment is also an option when upgrading. People who buy used equipment are contributing to the hi fi industry too. Those looking for the latest state of the art technology usually have to move what they have first before buying new equipment.

  5. As for recording guitars, good microphones are needed for acoustics and also to record electric so you get what the guitarist wants from his amps and settings. The number of times I’ve had to tell folk why this is good when they see mics draped over guitar amp speaker grills when the U.K. BBC are broadcasting high quality sound for concerts. As for using mic preamps I guess it depends on the characteristics of the preamps if used to record inputs like keyboards and other ‘electric instruments’ as Paul quoted above. Perhaps that’s a ‘question for Paul’ – what are the sound characteristics of mic preamps rather than using DIs? I guess I thought mixing desks now had line level inputs?

    As for what am I asking myself, well I’ve had to retire a bit early from 40+ years ending up as a Chartered Engineer in Computing/IT as the product set I’ve worked on for 30+ years is heading for no succession plan for long term support and no more development. Plus my nice hard worked for Pension has been crippled from what it was set out to be by the originating companies before being ‘taken over’ by others… So I’ll have a lot of ‘Can and should’ decisions to make… the first being to get my £1K deposit back for a Tesla Model 3 that’s just launching in the U.K. Retaining my nice Audi A3 that’s diesel but a confirmed Clean Euro 6 with less than 99 CO2 so I pay no road tax, even if the mention of ‘diesel’ gets bad comments. Although smaller than a Model S the 3 is probably bigger than I need so I SHOULD wait and CAN make do with my nice Audi.

    Back to audio, I have a reasonably large CD/SACD collection that sounds great to me, some tinnitus allowing, and a few new high Res sound files so I’ll be fine. High Res streaming is not ‘yet’ affordable for me but I’ll keep an ear on this, plus as I have no subwoofer which I’m not sure I need but also curious enough with built in stereo subs in the PS-Audio AN (Should be a 3 but Can, hopefully, be a 2) unless double the cost when sold in the U.K. when maybe a 1 would be auditioned… maybe I can ship in from Germany as they seem to get USA goods cheaper than direct to the U.K.

  6. I CAN want what I perceive to be the best in Audio. I SHOULD be happy with where I’m at and use the “upgrade” pennies for other other hobbies and endeavors.

  7. Mic pre-amps or DI is small level stuff. I wish recording engineers concentrated on doing the big level stuff properly. I’m listening to my new Alison Krauss CD (Decca label) and the recording levels between different tracks are wildly different. One track is way too loud. Turn down the volume to compensate. Next track starts playing, way too quiet! The album is so frustrating, but otherwise sounds technically fantastic. I don’t give a toss whether they used a mic pre-amp or DI, I just want a consistent level between tracks so I’m not riding the volume control all the time!

    1. I’ve seen comments from the recording field that each track is mixed to get the most out of it in terms of dynamic range, noticeable noise floor and other characteristics. Surely this doesn’t make sense for an album of music. I have several that are like this, both modern and classical. One is a set of SACDs of Beethoven 1 to 9. I guess in order to save costs some SACDs contain more than one symphony, out of symphony order, and the volume difference means I’ve had to make notes not to play more than one symphony at a time when on the same SACD.

  8. Since I don’t like the sound of electric guitars that would be an easy one for me.

    One interesting thing i find about the common audiophile tendency is the continual shop and swap syndrome. Everybody is always looking for something better. And each time they think they’ve got the holy grail it isn’t long before they’re at it again. It never seems to end. I constantly ask what’s wrong? For example what is wrong with the sound of the IRS V that would want to make Arnie Nudell want to create an IRS killer? My instinct as an engineer would be to figure out what was wrong with it, where its shortcomings lie and modify the design to eliminate it. This isn’t an endorsement or criticism of it since I never heard it, just an observation.

    So which is the better bang for the buck, a device that makes some recordings better or one that makes all recordings better?

    BTW, I have nothing against acoustic guitars. While I don’t regard them as quite serious, say in the same level of gravitas as a flute, they can be very pleasant to listen to one of my favorite genres is Flamenco. If you’ve never been to Madrid life begins at 10PM. You go down into one of those flamenco bars, buy a pitcher or two of sangria and sit all night being entertained by singers, dancers, musicians and some very colorful costumes. (If you love animals don’t see a bullfight. Horrible to see a priest cheering the brutal slaughter of an animal for entertainment. They told me I didn’t understand. They’re right and I still don’t.)

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I3jWsoQ8W8g

    The most famous concerto in the world they say although not the best IMO but still a very good one is the Concierto de Aranjuez for guitar and orchestra by Rodrigo

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ye-FvKCZp3s

  9. The two words, “Can” and “Should” need to be balanced with “Satisfaction” and “Contentment”, for me.

    I am satisfied that when I power up my Schiit Valhalla 2 OTL Tube HP amp and pre-amp, and the sound from the Sprout100 gives me contentment.
    Then comes the “Can/Should” conundrum. “Can” I afford to buy any improvements?

    Well, if that is a $30 pair of tubes, the answer is ‘Yes!’.

    If it is a newer, bigger amplifier, or a better Tube amp, or new speakers…the answer is clearly ‘No!’ and the reason is lack of additional funds, and the level of Contentment, my current set-up provides.

    I got off the “desire and acquire” merry-go-round out of fiscal necessity, and that was a great relief. Not having any more money may have been the reason, or I cannot think of anything I desire to improve upon my Music Playback System.

    Paul, I am sure when the Sprout speakers, which are designed to mate with the Sprout 100, are announced, we may have to review this decision again…

  10. It indeed is a maddening choice. On the one hand even a small improvement is well worth it because many small improvements can add up to very big improvements and on the other hand price indeed can be a significant factor specially for makers of products. For the audio consumer it was much easier in the days of mortar and brick stores. They would in many cases loan a piece of equipment to try at home and one made one’s decision based on how it sounded in one’s system. With the internet those stores are gone and no equally good substitute exists. One of the many downsides of digital. One is forced to put up with the inferior options or worse still none at all like it or not. Well that is progress. Regards.

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