Easy isn’t always better

October 11, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

How many times have you gotten advice to take the easy path, the quickest road?

Why paddle upstream?

Unfortunately, the easiest path often nets us the lowest return: snacks vs. real food, receivers vs. separates, driving your car around the block when you could get some exercise.

In my experience, people often mistake simple for easy.

The simplest answer is often the best while the easiest is more often than not a shortcut with returns commensurate with the effort expended.

Like an investment, I think it’s safe to say the results of our efforts and hard work are often reflected in the final outcome. A carefully curated high-end audio system with hand-selected cables and components set up with meticulous care and understanding will nearly always outperform even the most highly touted plug-and-play solution.

It might be safe to suggest easy is rarely better.

Taking the time and energy to gain the knowledge of what you’re seeking to achieve and then making the effort to get it right is how the best audio systems in the world come to be recognized.

If you’re reading this post you’re already investing the time and energy to make things better.

Go get ’em!

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57 comments on “Easy isn’t always better”

  1. I probably agree if money is no object, probably well in excess of $100,000, but below that integrated units can produce amazing sound, have features like DSP that you cannot use in most separates systems, are much cheaper, much easier to use and take dramatically less space. They require exceptional software. This is not a market PS Audio has recently had much involvement in, but many others do and it is fiercely competitive with some great products.

    Besides priorities that Paul ignores, the real issue is how much it costs for that last 2% of sound quality. If it costs 10 or 20 times the cost of the lesser system, for the vast majority of people the argument is academic rather than of any practical relevance.

    I had PS Audio components but no longer have the space for a large component system so it’s not an issue, and I suspect I’m in the majority. I wait to see PS Audio make quality compact units, maybe, maybe not.

    1. To refer to today’s post: imo integrated system are easy, not simple
      Also no to 100k and 2%. They are a compromise much earlier. Fine for possibly 98% of Hi-Fi customers, but not first choice for that many audiophiles.

      1. I was thinking Mola Mola Kula (with DAC and phono options), Devialet 1000 or even AVM 8.3 or Hegel 590, plus a server and a pair of Wilson Sasha DAW. Getting to the $100,000 mark, well beyond most audiophiles.

        As someone who thinks high quality audio should be widely affordable, nothing gives me more pleasure than to see superbly performing affordable products within the budget of perhaps 98% of audio consumers. These products are easy choices because they are so sophisticated in their design.

        Having a multi-component system is today’s lifestyle system choice as most people would not choose or be allowed one in their house. The spatial system I have installed allows two people (my wife and I) to sit opposite each other and have the same excellent sonic experience (admittedly one of us with left and right reversed). No 2-channel system can do that.

        1. Marantz SA-12 SE CD player AU$6k
          Hegel H390 Amp/DAC/Streamer AU$10k
          Dynaudio ‘Heritage Special’ Standmounters AU$11k

          Total:(with interconnects/wires/power cables) AU$30k

          1. I agree with most of that except the Heritage Specials. I used the original Contour 1.1 for over 10 years, they cost £1,000 new and the Heritage Specials at £5,500 is taking the proverbial. Even Harbeth P3ESR are getting silly money these days, about £2,600. ProAc DB1 and a small REL sub?

            Frankly, I listened to my Raidho X1, REL S/2, CA CXA81 system all day in my office and at £4,000 (AU$8,000) it was fabulous. the advantage of high-end brands like Raidho is that their used values are very poor, or very good if you are a buyer.

            1. Since you blew a ridiculous amount of money on those Wilson’s, I’m going to completely ignore your comment
              about current ‘Heritage Special’ & P3ESR pricings 🙂

              For someone who is disdainful of really low bass, like
              you, a pair of Heritage Special’s would be perfect…
              have you heard them?
              Otherwise something in a Harbeth for around the
              same price, like the Super HL5+ XD (AU$10k down
              here) to replace the HS’s in my example above.

              1. I had the Contour 1.1 for years and I understand the Heritage Specials are based on them. It’s the price which seems over the top given it’s a competitive sector, but they are limited edition. You needed quite a beefy amp. M30 XD a good choice.

                Everyone’s a winner on this issue as there are those who love compact systems and others that get sexually aroused by a component that encourages them to buy another length of megabucks fairy dust cable.

                I wonder what Mrs McGowan would say if Paul dumped a complete BHK/powerplant/DAC/Octave/FR30 system in her living room?

        2. Not that I compared, but I’d expect, that the Stellar series of single components beats a 30k Diavalet expert Pro at less than half the cost. If sound quality is priority, I think I wouldn’t go integrated over 5-10k.

          1. If PS Audio made a streamer, which they don’t, or include programmable EQ, which they don’t, or speaker EQ, which they don’t, have developed a seriously good power supply, which they haven’t, or their own wifi protocol, which they haven’t, and make their streamer Roon Ready, which it won’t be, encase the whole thing in 4mm copper to isolate it, which they don’t, develop their own amplifier rather than use a $100 OEM unit, and can make it all run off one power cable, which it won’t, then I’m sure a comparison could be made. I paid £9k for mine, which was the same price of the DSD DAC at the time.

            1. Well, aside of that Paul would probably disagree with half of it (at least with a view on the upcoming streamer, but that’s not my task), I can’t contradict on the feature and integration topics, as that was not my point.

              If one focuses on integration and digital features, there’s no competition outside of this. Then probably something like Diavalet or Linn serves best and Bose/Sonos etc. a few levels below (I don’t aim to put Bose/Sonos and Diavalet on one quality level, just on an integration purpose and convenience feature level).

              1. Devialet and Linn may be simple and easy to the consumer, but they pack a lot of technology. Linn is probably the more radical with their Exakt technology. It is also their use of micro-electronics, which are high quality, very reliable and cheap, which goes completely against the grain of hardened audiophiles like Paul. As their machinery can install 6,000 components per hour, they can manufacture in France and Scotland respectively at low cost, high quality and make small, compact units.

                1. Steven, you are too easily impressed. You are talking about placing components onto a printed circuit board ( PCB ). 6000 compnents per hour is not remarkable. Any decent pick and place tool can do that. Using a high speed pick and place tool to assemble the PCB’s for a company the size of Linn is over kill. Those tools are usually only used by for hire assembly houses that handle mass produced consumer gear. Those kinds of tools are expensive and they only make sense if they are being used almost continuously for production runs that are measured in the 10,000+ units. There meant for PCB’s that go into dishwashers and $100 bluray players.

                  1. I read they operate them a bit slower. One purpose of the Devialet Phantom and Reactor are to keep these machines busy and enable them to purchase the components. It’s a lot quicker than some bloke with a soldering iron and a box of resistors, and a lot more reliable. They are very into quality at lowish cost. Linn are more expensive, but pride themselves on the fact that everything is made in-house, from PCBs to CNC machining and steel pressing of cases.

    2. I am in general agreement with this. The price and quality percentile is a little arbitrary, “but wha’ o’ tha’?” The almighty dollar (Merikun or Strayan)/pound/euro/. . . is a limiting factor for most people and frequently so is space, which is often/usually also a function of available funds. All reproduced music is a facsimile of the music where/how it was recoeded, regardless of the quality/price of the system and the cleverness of set up and tweaking skills. It’s always a compromise. One just needs to decide for oneself what the acceptable/realistic compromise is.

      So, wherever we are and whatever we have to reproduce music, it is an imperfect solution. That doesn’t mean that we can’t thoroughly enjoy ourselves: listening, singing along, dancing, upgrading, tweaking, . . . We have available to us enormous and unprecedented quantities of recorded music, and within certain imitations, we can listen to what pleases us when we like. Many of these recordings are what has been left to us by those whose voices and talents have been stilled in this mortal coil. That is the real treasure of audio and we are richly blessed.

      Have fun, happy listening.

  2. I’m conflicted, because I believe in the mantra, “Anything in life that is worthwhile takes effort”
    & yet the most stunning home audio system that I have ever owned just kind of ‘fell together’
    in my then living room, without virtually any effort at all.
    Sometimes good luck & a little knowledge will trump (unfortunate word) all of that effort that
    one should make to achieve something truly worthwhile…& then there’s also the Hi-Fi Gods,
    who bless & punish at will.

    1. Very similar here FR, I’ve always believed anything worthwhile is going to require effort…but I’ve also been lucky a cpl of times too.

      Thanks for the laugh, truly an unfortunate word! I needed a good laugh, I’ve spent the morning clicking “submit order”. That trickle I mentioned the other day should turn into a flood by the end of the week. My buying pattern for projects is similar to going swimming in cold water. Stick toe in, ask do I really want to do this then dive in head first. I’ll remember what I forgot to order about the middle of next week. lol.

  3. I have separates, but if for some reason I had to start all over again right now, I’d buy integrates.
    A cd-player instead of a transport/dac combination, an integrated amp instead of a pre/power combo.
    Nowadays there are several integrated amps that can outperform a lot of (not all) pre/power combos.
    Think Soulution, Nagra, Goldmund, Analog Domain, to name only a few.
    Saves a lof of money on expensive cables and no more “cable-spaghetti” behind the audio rack.
    From an audiophile point of view fewer cables is also better.
    Not easy for someone who already has an excellent pre/power combo to sell it and buy an integrated amp, but in the end much simpler.

    1. jb4,
      From what I’ve been reading & hearing about the Dynaudio – ‘Heritage Special’ standmounters they are absolutely stunning, especially the extremely fast & deep bass.
      Great choice sir!

      1. Thanks Fat Rat.
        Yes, I am very satisfied with the results indeed. Last week I received the ordered stands with a topplate specially
        made for the Heritage.
        This afternoon I’m gonna buy a 25kg (55 lbs) bag of play sand on my bike (good workout) to fill the stands.
        And if all goes well I get my Levinson amp back tomorrow. The problem turned out to be a blown fuse, hidden deep inside the damn machine.
        I have to say though, the amp on loan, a simple Cyrus One, did a good job the last 4 weeks.

    2. I totally agree Jb4, I would do the same thing Leak or Marantz will do the trick for me. Toss in a turntable just because I really like records. I’d keep my def tech speakers and my sub thou. 🙂

      Keep Listening 🙂

  4. Sweeping generalizations may cover a situation 75%, 85% or even 95% of time, however, there will usually be exceptions. Also the law of diminishing returns almost always applies to audio gear ( although buying used can greatly offset this, if one knows how to buy used ).

    While I do not buy into Steven’s $100K and 2% claims, I do think that at a noticeably lower price point an integrated solution can yield results that are almost as good as the full blown approach and cost less.

  5. One could make an argument that fully integrated is easy & simple.

    One could make an argument that full dsp is even easier and simpler.

    The simplest and easiest way is let some one put a system together and then set it up for you.

    Take a PSA internet order. Send an e-mail , tell them you have $200k+ to spend for their best system, but it’s too difficult to set up to be easy. Get the infrastructure requirements for power, and send a certificate of conformity that it is done correctly. Then send a video of the room. Send or transfer the cash in advance. You’ll get a personalized set up and maybe even get a signed sticker. 🙂 ✌️

    See? simple and easy if you live in the continental US.

      1. 200k for a full blown top shelf PSA system is pretty conservative when you add in all the top shelf interconnects, power cords, and speaker wires. (Interconnects, Which in my case aren’t long enough.)

        Now add in travel & perdiem charges, plus don’t forget the labor… and you get 200k + 🙂

        My Bose table top doesn’t sound so bad now….. ✌️:-D

        1. To each his own of course, but if I had 200k to spend then I ordered immediately the biggest (active) speakers from Goldmund (Samadhi) and a nice source component (streamer’/cdplayer).
          Add power cables…Done. No more complaints from me.

    1. If you live in the UK or the EU where there is usually a local dealer, you can do exactly that and they will usually visit your home first, discuss your tastes, requirements and budget, demo some systems and do the installation. The dealers I know who do that, and there are quite a few, are very successful. For the customer it is very simple and easy.

      To say a separates system is better is a bit like saying a Ferrari is better, which it isn’t if you want something to do the weekly shopping and have a garage only big enough for a hatchback.

      PS Audio makes big budget separates systems. There is almost no integration, and only sell direct in the USA. So Paul won’t recommend integrated or going to a dealer. Manufacturers who make integrated units and sell through dealers will say the exact opposite. It’s just natural.

      1. Steven, I understand what you are saying, however, you undermined it when you say “PS Audio makes big budget separates systems.” PS Audio makes moderately priced, very good value separates. Here is a list of companies that make truly expensive separates: VAC, D’Agostino, Boulder, Constellation ( in particular their Reference line ), CH Precision and Solution. Please go to their websites so you can see what big budget really is. I am sure there are twice as many companies as I listed that make really expensive separates, however, these are the ones I could think of right now.

        1. I can’t say I agree. The Stellar Strata is mostly a bunch of OEM parts and software and costs three times the price of the magnificent CXA81 under my desk. The Stellar amps seem massively overpriced. I almost bought the Stellar Phono, I was on the phone with the dealer for a loan, but again it’s overpriced.

          I’ve heard my share of the large separates and if I was exceedingly wealthy with a dedicated music room I would probably have a bunch of them, but I’m not. It’s a bit like deciding between Sunseeker or Blohm+Voss.

          Paul said in his recent book: “If someone is trying to sell you one of these Swiss Army Knives of stereos, I suggest you run away as fast as you can. A piece of equipment that does everything generally does nothing well.”

          He obviously doesn’t like integrated units, lots of people do, so if he feels like this I wonder why he made the Strata.

      2. You missed the point and PSA is missing an opportunity (in the US) You have to stop thinking like an UK individual when dealing with US individuals. Bigger better badder (in a good sense) is the Mantra. I’m unsure why you have any wires – should easily be a way to get to the speakers wirelessly and to hide that hideous turntable. 😉

        1. You are correct in that there was a divergence over here in the 1970s to super-integrated’s. That said, there are plenty of USA brands popular in the UK, like McKintosh.

          I think the bigger issue is that there are loads of great manufacturers in the UK and Europe and tough competition. I briefly had a thumping great Canadian Bryson amplifier, very popular, distributed in Europe by PMC who offer full service and support from their factory just north of London.

          I have flat wires, they mostly go under a rug. Shock, horror!

          Can you believe the wife likes the turntable? I’d happily get a Rega RP10, but I can’t bear to think what the current rig cost and I’d almost have to give it away.

          1. I don’t question any of your points Steven.
            This audio stuff… quality of sound, equipment size, wires, room integration and yada yada yada is all as personal as a persons choice in underwear. And one size does not fit all 😉

            Plus nothing is worse than getting your underwear in a bunch….

            1. Two differences. People tend not to discuss their underwear and they usually let their wife buy it. There are always a few weirdos and Scots in kilts who go native.

                1. I did once, at a party in Gordonstoun in 1981. It’s a long and slightly weird story, featuring a bunch of young American heiresses, a pipe band and a lot of whisky. I was a fake stand-in Scotsman, I’m not sure the Americans realised or cared. One of the other stand-ins (there were three of us) was German. Yes, a German in a kilt, feeling the breeze.

  6. Good morning FR and Tony!
    For the most part, I agree with both of you!
    If I really had to start over from scratch, I would pick up a Sprout.
    But if I wanted more power then the Sprout can deliver to whatever pare of speakers I end up buying, then I would be looking to pick up the largest integrated amp that Musical Fidelity has to offer.
    And pare that to a Marantz SACD player.
    But not a DAC and SACD transport.
    For the audiophile that is living on a shoestring budget, a expensive SACD transport and DAC, would be out of the question for him or her.
    I said him or her because, if you look closely, there are some women out there, that are audiophiles too.

      1. Good morning JB4!
        Lucky Bastard?
        I’m not one of those.
        LOL!
        My childhood sweet hart which is whom I’m married to, is in deed an Audiophile.
        For the most part, I’m the one that made her that way!

    1. Hi JP,
      The most powerful MF integrated is the ‘M8xi’ 550w/ch
      And the most expensive is the ‘Nu-Vista 800’ 330w/ch
      Toss a coin.

      If your budget is limited I’d go for the Marantz – ‘SA-12 SE’ SACD player
      with it’s all metal constructed (solid as a Sherman Tank) M3 drive & laser pick-up.

    2. John, You are right. One of the problems we have here is we have no standards by which to label things. I think a preamp that is priced at $7000 is moderately priced and one that is priced at $95,000 is extremely expensive. Yet, I know from participation in another audio forum that 40% of participants who answered a survey said they had spent $1000 to $5000 on their audio system and over half ( 52% ) had spent $5000 or less on their system. Is a shoestring budget less than $1000 or less than $5000? Is a moderate system one that cost $10K to $20K or $5K to $10K? Is high-end a system one that is over $100K or $250K. We all use these terms, but do they mean the same thing to each of us?

  7. Consumers today have a much taller punch list than when folks like Paul and I first got into the industry in the 70’s. But to analogize receivers to separates as junk food to real food is a misnomer.

    When our material in today’s format encompass both video and multi-channel audio, then the goalpost moves. If you want to only enjoy 2 channel audio content, that’s certainly your business, but many consumers today have a much higher expectation for their choice of immersion. And the industry as a whole is slow to respond or even accept these market trends. But consumers haven’t. This leaves some with few choices to meet that goal.

    I will be the first to admit that you can certainly invest obscene amounts of capital to a hobby like audio and change the character of your system, but in the real world most consumers aren’t going to have unlimited capital.

    Point being, a carefully curated audio system with even modest components, set up with meticulous care and understanding, can outperform even much more expensive solutions.

  8. I probably have 4.5 to 5k in my main system…a mix of new and used. And I can tell you it sounds DAMN good. What some consider “budget”, others would never consider (like a 7k preamp).

  9. I was wondering if anyone from the UK went to the HIFI show over the weekend, I would like to hear what you thought of the show.
    There are some videos on YouTube to watch but first hand information would be good to hear.

  10. I’ve always considered my audio system “Simple”, not easy! With 46 years of time and study invested in balanced/synergistic components and listening room, the long journey has Well paid off! Although a meager and humbled output of $6K over the past 12 years (not including CD source music library), I’ve heard systems at over 10 times the cost that do not come close to the holographic 3D realistic live sound I’ve achieved in my dedicated music room! With the right acoustical music genre (I’ve got plenty), the soundstage presentation, resolution and realism is often mind blowing, spine tingling, catch-your-breath Wow!

    FWIW, this past week I was in the Denver area and very disappointed that PSA was closed to the public (understandably, still having to adhere to the *&%#?! “Covid” protocols)! It would have been wonderful to visit their operations, meet the staff behind the scenes, hear the IRSV in music room 2 and Possibly get a listen to the new FR30’s!?!

    Ted

    1. I spent 36+ hours at the DIA Westin this weekend thanks to the airlines. It would have been nice to see and hear as you state.
      But none of that is in the cards at the moment as far as I know.

  11. There is always something to quibble with. I agree with the Post title “Easy Isn’t Always Better” but I disagree with the suggestion “…easy is rarely better.” It may be true for audio system design, manufacture and setup, but for life in general the main benefit of modern technology has been to make tasks simpler and easier, yielding a better result. With the right tools and correct application, “easy” is more often than not “better.”

  12. I’ve been saying since I joined here in the PS Audio family. There are no shortcuts in Audio.
    I’m sorry. If you want to do it right it is expensive and in my experience there is no getting around the mighty $

      1. Hey Mike! 🙂
        Guys like us and the rest of PS community are in a 1% class I’d say for how we treat our audio.
        Being an audiophile is definitely a niche market to be a part of and I’d say most niche markets are expensive based on their rarity alone. 🙂
        Exposure is getting better though and I feel it is mainly do to the massive development and process in the portable audio business.

        The kisses are getting bigger and wetter though. Lol.

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