Card decks

May 30, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

When we enter this life we’re each dealt a hand of cards. Each hand has a different distribution of good ones and bad ones and it is up to us to make the most out of the hands we are dealt.

The same can be said for our HiFi systems and rooms. None are perfect. All are compromised.

How we handle our setups: emphasizing its strengths, shoring up its weaknesses, determines the outcome.

I have always been most impressed with the humblest of systems.

When those shine you know there’s a master card player behind them.

It is not a measure of how much great stuff you have, it’s how effectively you have utilized what you do have.

Subscribe to Paul's Posts

34 comments on “Card decks”

  1. My experience of live music venues is that many built without much if any consideration to acoustics sound great (and are often used as recording venues), whereas some that are designed acoustically are dull and lifeless. There is no such thing as perfect, there is just different and some venues are livelier than others.

    We’re doing up a relatively small room for which we have new speakers and the main consideration was to get units with just enough but not too much bass. At the end of the day I will measure the room and if there is an issue I can use the DSP software in my all-in-one player (one of their great advantages).

    I don’t think predestination is at play, more choosing an appropriate space and making a few sensible decisions. Critical here is using a dealer who will visit my home and set up the speakers. Otherwise, nothing wrong with headphones.

  2. Hear! Hear! (Here! Here!)
    Paul, I could not have put it any more succinctly than you have.
    I’ve got three Aces…now I’m just waiting for the fourth to drop.
    😉 🙂

    1. My office system is not as cheap as yours (about $4,000), but produces a fabulous sound. Used speakers – Raidho X1 and a REL S/2 – and a factory refurbished Cambridge Audio CXA81. Books and files lining two walls, elsewhere large photo frames with the glass removed and a rug. 75% of the cost is in the speakers, probably the route to any good humble system.

      1. Steven,
        Yes but I’m cheating because I can buy wholesale from the distributor.
        My ‘office’ (bedroom) set-up is a Marantz CD6005, DNM interconnect,
        Onkyo A9030, 1.5mm dia. solid core wire into a pair of System Audio
        (ScanSpeak drivers) SAXO 5 standmouters for a total of AU$1,200 & it
        sounds incredible for so little (80% synergy…whatever that means) 😉

  3. Wisdom for sure.

    Since beginning of COVID-19, my system is a pair of KEF LS50W (my Focal, PS Audio and Parasound gear is boxed up in another place).

    Over last 18 months, longing for that system has dissipated quite a lot so I don’t know where that leaves me. With these active systems,

    1. kerosene,
      It surprises me that the longing for your other system has dissipated. I would have thought that when you eventually get back to it you will discover its joys all over again, it sounding all fresh and new. It can be easy to forget what we once had, our brains mentally compensating for the missing information, as was mentioned recently. I hope your system sounds great again, provided of course it sounded great in the first place.

  4. Card Decks. There must have been a huge raft of disappointment from the vinyl enthusiasts when they realised today’s post wasn’t about a new type of lightweight portable turntable 😉

    I enjoy reading‘Paul’s Posts’ (and the comments) not only because they get me thinking about hi-fi but they also venture into the philosophical. However on reading today’s first line my initial thought was nonsense. I am a believer in fate, to a degree, but not that everything is preordained. We have a brain, we make decisions that determine the outcome. Btw, I’m not trying to rip into Paul’s analogy here, just typing my immediate response, maybe not always a good idea? 🙂

    We enter this life with nothing and we leave with nothing, it’s what we do while we’re here that matters. Which in many ways is just a different way of saying what Paul said. I’m just not playing cards.

    1. I don’t think you’ll get an argument out of me on that. But I think you misunderstood the post. When I say you start life with a certain hand of cards it’s meant not that anything g is preordained (it is not IMHO). No, what I meant is your set of circumstances: genes, parents, skin color, intelligence, economic standing, schooling, physical traits.

      If you’re born handsome your life will be very different than if you look like the Hunchback of Notre Dame. The hand we are dealt is what we get. What we do with it is up to us.

      1. Okay, that’s cool Paul, a misunderstanding or misinterpretation.

        Due to unforeseen circumstances the Hunchback is now looking for a new home 🙁

  5. I’m not sure what constitutes ‘humble’ when it comes to an audio system. As far as cards go, in many cases when it comes to audio, each of has chosen what cards we want dealt. (By our ears, buy our budget, by how deeply involved we chose to be in this hobby)

    Once the choices of equipment have been made, then comes the rest…. Set-up, placement, isolation, coupling and etc….

    Getting the most out of any system is probably the goal of all the ‘humble responders’ here. There’s the set-up book and disc from PSA. There’s discussions where once in a while a small tip or hint help. There’s general knowledge that is (can be ) shared.

    It’s up to the individual and their satisfaction. If others are impressed then that part is just a bonus.

    1. I just changed my address several months ago and had to set up my system once again in a rectangular listening room (Thank God). I worked slow and steady for well over a day and after final minor speaker placement adjustments and placing several sets of “Isolate-It” Sorbothane anti vibration rings (Amazon $17.00) under my CD Player and DSD DAC/Streamer the entire system came together in a way that it never has before. Every piece of music that I play now is absolutely wonderfully musical (except the really poor recordings). Since then I have been one happy guy!

      1. Hey stimpy2,

        You have to admit it’s nice when things ‘come together’. I moved to a new residence 4 years ago from the desert to the Northeast.

        It’s taken me almost the full 4 years to get the room ‘more correct’. So to me 1 day is record time 😉

  6. Recently I have been reading stories about a genius race car builder and driver from the 50’s, who exemplifies the point “Making the best of the cards you’re dealt”.

    “Max Balchowsky built various Old Yeller race cars in the 1950s and early 1960s, pitting them against exotic Ferraris, Maseratis and other foreign sports-race cars that cost a fortune and often winning.

    Balchowsky had no elaborate tractor-trailer and drove Old Yeller cars to races. He was a mechanical genius who could take old parts and come up with a brilliantly engineered sports-race car. Balchowsky used Goodyear tires that had been recalled because they were too soft for highway use. Accused of being too cheap to buy the Dunlop or Pirelli race tires, he especially liked the fact they were whitewall tires, because you never saw whitewalls on race cars.

    With Balchowsky at the wheel, his cars beat Ferraris and other top European machinery during the late 1950s. He built nine Old Yeller race cars before rear engine sports cars began dominating the scene in the 1960s.

    One of the most famous was Old Yeller II, made in 1959. Visiting Southern California junkyards, the Balchowskys found such items for the car as steering from a Morris Minor, Jaguar gearbox, Buick brakes, Pontiac suspension, Studebaker rear end and 1951 Lincoln radiator.

    Old Yeller II cost one-tenth the price of a glamorous Ferrari Testa Rossa race car. But it racked up so many victories against exotic foreign sports-race cars it became a legend. Road & Track called Old Yeller II “a masterpiece of ingenuity.” Even the top drivers hired by the West Coast moguls ended up at the wheel of Old Yeller race cars and were impressed.

    In 1960 Old Yeller II was driven by by many legendary drivers such as Carroll Shelby (Road America & Santa Barbara), Dan Gurney (Riverside International Raceway & Laguna Seca), Bob Bondurant, Billy Krause, Bobby Drake, Paul O’Shea, and Max Balchowsky.”


  7. I didn’t want my system to be ‘humble’ its payback for all those times at sea, called at 3am in a force ten gale, radars got water in the waveguide or its lost its variable range marker then by 5am a ship in distress, on the transmitter can we assist?
    Yes, after twenty three years you’ve earned your system!

  8. Great Post, Paul.

    Humbly I still wait for my Royal Flush, but I don’t expect it. I’ve already been dealt a great hand and I’m still playing and learning the game.

  9. It’s sad that many are born with all bad cards. It is the responsibility of those with an abundance of good ones to share a portion with the unlucky ones, and help them convert some of their bad cards into good ones. Otherwise for them and us, game over.

    As for audio systems, Paul is a formidable poker player, holding the winning hand. But he is quite generous in sharing his secrets with others so they can make the best with what they have, and have a seat at the table. It’s a win-win for all 🙂

  10. I am going to pass on discussing how life is like a deck of cards.

    I will say what I think people should focus on if good audio and music are something they want in their life. I think you should ask yourself if your system brings you pleasure or does it leave you dissatisfied. If when you play music on your system you notice that there isn’t enough bass, the sound stage is not realistic, or the tonal balance is off, etc. then you need to do something about it so that enjoyment returns. What you do about will depend on your experience, your skill, your finances and the resources available to you.

    Sometimes the solution to better audio is a simple as repositioning your speakers or as drastic as build a new room, or buying a different house or building a new house. And, everything from room treatments or a dedicated circuit line to buying better gear new or used is on the table. Remember, this is a hobby, it’s supposed to be fun.

    1. Ha, yes Allan, I thought about posting that too. I recall when I first heard it and I’d be less than ten years old it made quite an impression on me, but that was then.

      Still, a simple tune with spoken lyrics, anyone using it as a test track?

  11. speaking of humbled, I can’t believe my ears how much the inclusion of the Stellar phono preamp has added to my system. For years I played my system less and less as cds became the dominate source. now I have to remember to go to sleep when the clock strikes midnight and quit flipping Lps . Listening to Elio Villafranca’s “Dynamic Resolution” impressively rendered on a Fazioli Pianoforte F228 Grand Piano with Grammy awarded bassist Charles Flores. Villafranca connected with his friend bassist Charles Flores, the two have come up with a dreamy, atmospheric set that at times swings carefree with lift-off Latin energy and at other times digs deeply into introspection and reverie. The result is a four extended composition album packed with musical and mood twists, turns and surprises that move from high drama, to the existential to the celebrator – 2010 16 Eyes Records # LP 001 half speed master, cut on a Neumann VMS70 lathe by Peter Ledermann

  12. Talk about dealt cards….my Pug aka Bud, decided a few evenings ago, that he had to escape the safety of his domain for a night…first time in his 10 years. I didnt sleep at all….searching the neighborhood many times during the night. Finally about 8;00am we got a call from the owners of the home he slumbered at (via the local PD). Whew…home safe!….Hugs, Happiness! …I asked him to never do that again. Okay, yesterday Buddy decided he had to Pee on one of my Heresy’s……and the Sunfire Sub. I cleaned it up the best I could……I asked him to never do that again. end of story

  13. Very good post.
    At the beginning most important to find the right speakers for the room. Home trial helps.

    If someone like e.g. Duncan is at hand for recommendations who has experience, knows and has heard a lot in different rooms, one probably saves dozens of thousands $ in his life and years of frustration or optimization.

  14. Really good quality systems in the hands of experts can make music of such good quality that the humble systems in the hands of experts can only dream of. What is really impressive is not how expensive or otherwise a system is, it is the sound that matters. Really good equipment is also more expensive. That is why an expensive system in the hands of experts will always sound far far better than a humble system in the hands of same experts. Regards.

    1. Oliver,
      Of course there are always exceptions.
      eg. the ‘Pioneer A-400’ of 30 years ago & the ‘Onkyo A-9010’ integrated
      amplifiers & the ‘Marantz CD6007’ CD player, just to name three.

  15. “…I have always been most impressed with the humblest of systems…It is not a measure of how much great stuff you have, it’s how effectively you have utilized what you do have…”


    Heartily Agree! Much depends on the particular room (every one is unique), but once Synergy is achieved between sources, electronics, connections, the speaker system and the room, Magic Happens (No Matter the Cost)!!! 🙂


  16. I know how to play my cards in both life and building and setting up my system. And I’m grateful I wasn’t born the hunchback of Notre Dame.

Leave a Reply

Stop by for a tour:
Mon-Fri, 8:30am-5pm MST

4865 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301

Join the hi-fi family

Stop by for a tour:
4865 Sterling Dr.
Boulder, CO 80301

Join the hi-fi family

linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram