If only…

February 10, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

Spending some time away from home over the past few days has given me a somewhat different perspective on the day-to-day needs of audiophiles.

One trend I had, in my isolation, neglected is the need for a bit of spice. “My system’s almost perfect. If only…”

Indeed, how many of us are completely satisfied with what we have achieved?

I suspect only a small percentage.

For many I believe we’re looking for that added touch of spice, that extra measure of transparency, just a little more space around the instruments, a bit more blat from that trumpet.

For me the “if only” phase comes and goes in small waves. For the most part, I am somewhat in awe of how my system sounds. More of a constant reminder of just how great everything sounds as opposed to a desire for more.

But once in a while a bit of “what if” creeps in. A healthy dose of non-complacency.

It’s the “what ifs” that lead us down the path of crafting better.

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46 comments on “If only…”

  1. The ‘what if’s’ for some can become a doubled edge sword. They can can lead to a downward spiral of constant change, upgrades and critical listening. At some point in the spiral the enjoyment of music listening wane’s, and becomes secondary.

    The ‘what if’s’ also can lead to great satisfaction and personal discovery. From isolation tweaks to cable changes, to room treatment, major equipment changes and so on. When a synergy is reached and things just sound good the music becomes the focus, relaxation sets in and enjoyment reigns supreme.

    The constant talk and banter of new, better, and the latest equipment or fad can easily lead to the spiral increasing speed and suck some back into a vortex where the music becomes secondary again.

    For some like Paul audio is both a passion and a life long work. Special rooms, special power, always the latest in PSA gear… A steady climb up the hill of audio nirvana.
    For others there are limitations as to how far the audio journey can go in their situation. It’s then the journey can just become a bunch of side steps or wheel spin… fun for some … hell for others.

    It all becomes personal choices….The drum beat of almost perfect but never quite there is always in the background. The trick for many is to accept the limitations of 2 channel audio and their personal system build.

    After saying all that What if I…

  2. If only audiophiles would take more time to listen to music instead of contemplating technical detail improvements. Focusing on a “tree”, neglecting the “forest”, or the synergy. Forgetting the fundamental set of facts;
    – recordings are mostly made and monitored on equipment “good enough” with zillion op-amps and processing. Even the analogue media (Vynil) is being recorded in PCM digital to a vast extent. DSD, praise to PS Audio, is a rare exception. Analogue tape is not used at any studio with any relevance.
    Having a broader understanding of the “context” makes audiophiles rant on exotic materials, tweaks, power cables (neglecting the cables in the walls) etc just contemplation of “differences”, not the degrees of “fidelity”.
    Sometimes a difference may sound “better”, sometimes not.
    The real focus should be on the time domain, dynamics, energy transfer, acoustic and electric resonances that tend to ad harmonics or cause smearing of transients etc, not so much on the absolute linearity and the THD numbers.

    1. Indeed. The inherent problem of imperfections already starts with the recording techniques (mic placement, mic-arrays, studio acoustics, placement of the artists, mic-amps, etc, etc) and the mixing tools being used. Thus in the end it’s all about a brand specific sound and my personal sound preferences. Not to mention all kinds of personal biases. I always got the “cleanest” sound from modest single driver crossoverless loudspeakers. The requirement for more bass power always demanded endless tweaking and adjustment to listening room acoustics. Listening to headphones during the procedure helped a lot to adjust things.

  3. It’s the “what if’s” that take the joy of listening to the music away while some obsess about their rig…& not to mention the ‘rabbit hole’.
    You’re not going to get perfection from a bunch of electronics & canned music, in fact one rarely achieves perfection in an imperfect world, but sometimes we can get pretty close if the planets align properly (synergy)
    When assessing a home-audio rig it is imperative to take into account how much money has (already) been spent to achieve the level of SQ that you have sitting in front, since everything is built to a price.

    Personally, for the money that I have spent since I sold off my last long-term rig three years ago, I’m very happy with what I’m hearing now, however, because I’ve worked in audio for over two decades & I understand the limitations of home-audio set-ups, I am probably more willing to compromise than some, rather than believe that 5 minutes before I die that I will finally achieve 100% perfection with my home-audio rig.

    Keeping your wits about you, thinking about it logically, recognising limitations & those days when your hearing is a bit off & your rig isn’t sounding as sh!t-hot as it usually does that makes you think about tweaking or changing components…taking all of that into consideration can help to calm your nerves & just kick-back & enjoy what you have.

    Then again, if you’ve got sh!tloads of money to burn…

  4. For me the „what if“ more or less ended with a certain hard to achieve high quality and high amount of air and 3D in each recording that provides at least a bit of potential.

    It ensures a high satisfaction with sound, given other little more basic demands are on satisfying level already. I speak of an air/3D quality usually only heard in the best setups, which need a few more unconventional measures and dedication to reach without spending fortunes in noteworthy 6 digit amounts.

    But the “what if” is then replaced by “preservation angst”. Every tiny change in a setup which is dialed in to the point, may it be placement changed by fractions of an inch, a different setting of the cartridge, a not memorized subwoofer setting, a warranty replaced and presumed identical part of the chain, can harm the balance or performance to an unreal degree.

    My experience is, one doesn’t get to a magical level for free and also not with lots of money alone.

    1. Oh I like that “preservation angst” but that’s given me one more thing to worry about 🙁
      Still, I know what you mean, I’ve had that concern myself, and now I’ve got a name for it 🙂

  5. I obsess and worry about this far far less than I used to. I proclaim most of the setup “good enough” and put out of my mind any thoughts of tinkering and upgrading. I gravitate to music that sounds the way I like it on the system and leave it at that. I re-visited the entire Mellencamp catalog on vinyl earlier in the week and found re-living those songs to be a real treat

  6. I have had four different audio systems in my life as an audiophile. The dates for each system were: 1972, 1986, 2002 and 2016-2019. The first three were pretty much a complete change of the equipment. The basic thing that determined what went into each system was money. By the time I started on the last system the one before it ( 2002 ) was good enough that I could upgrade one piece at a time instead of replacing the entire system. It is the only time I was able to do what ifs. As you can see I upgraded about every 15 years. I think ( but I do not know ) that is a long time for an audiophile to have the same gear. In the dollars of the day ( i.e. not adjusted for inflation ) I spend about five times more on each system.

    I am very conflicted about the cost of hi-end audio. I realize how fortunate I am to be able to afford some hi-end audio gear. Because I am a tech head and worked in R&D in the semiconductor industry I understand what it cost to develop the technology that goes into good audio gear. However, having said that, I find it very disturbing that to have a audio system that produces really good sound you have to spend as much as a pretty good automobile would cost and if you want the ultimate sounding system ( as defined by Wilson Audio’s and Magico’s flagship speakers ) you have to spend as much as a good house would cost!

      1. I am not a boating man, I get sea sick in a row boat. I knew someone who was seriously into sailing and would invite me to sail with him every summer ( I never took him up on it ). Occasionally he would talk about the boats he bought and sold. I was stunned at what some of them cost. And here’s the kicker: he thought I was crazy for what I spent on audio gear.

  7. One trend I had, in my isolation, neglected is the need for a bit of spice. “My system’s almost perfect. If only…”

    Isolation? – neglect? Hoping all is well now….

    When spending weeks at a time on the road for me, the return home almost always results in a small feeling of euphoria in being able to experience what I missed audio wise. (Absence make the ear grow fonder?)

    When at home for weeks on end (like lock down) the “what if” and “if only” get louder and louder. ( too much familiarity brings on contempt?)

  8. I tend to equate the biggest improvements with better resolution. If there’s more “there there,” I would like to hear it!

    On the other hand, I once owned an older McIntosh MC275 and while it didn’t have the resolution of, say, a VAC or Audio Research amp, it “made” everything sound good…warm and sweet. I could live with a system like that.

  9. My reasons for changing audio are not always related to sound quality. Around 2009 a table tennis table was removed from the den (music listening area) as the kids were getting larger and it needed to be outside, so I got a new stereo system. This coincided with the advent of streaming. Streaming devices improved for a few years, but for the last 6 years the only change has been a Roon server. In 2016 I got fed up with all the boxes so went all-in-one. Between 2009 and 2016 I tried some valve amplification, something I thought I had to do once in my life. In 2020 speakers were changed for purely aesthetic reasons. In 2021 my dealer loaned me a conditioner and I bought it.

    My “what if” is being done with MC phono preamps. I keep to relatively low budget on popular and easy-to-sell machines. I’ve had a Vertere Phono Mk2, and EAR Phonobox and have a Modwright PH9.0 turning up tomorrow, although the latter was driven by a cartridge change.

    My stereo system does not give me angst because I enjoy it immensely, and sooner or later there will always be another change for some reason or other, even if its the cleaning snapping a cantilever.

  10. Happy is that person who doesn’t have to say, “My system’s almost perfect. If only…” through careful planning and selection, and once arriving at that state, simply enjoys the fruits of that labor.

      1. Can you imagine Mozart complaining that the Steinway piano doesn’t sound correct? Not like the one he played…. Who came up with the modern piano and ruin his beautiful compositions?

          1. Exactly right! PROGRESS (which, by the way is no the opposite of “con”gress). Progress is what drives us forward, is what we learn and apply. It is why we can have a V10 engine in a car but an electric Tesla will get faster in 0-60. It is why F1 cars do not have stick shifts.

            And it is why we have to move on with technologies using what we learn.

            Interestingly, there was a recent “petit scandal” about the in room measurement of a Magico M9 speaker. This was because the low frequencies were not “good enough” for a $750k loudspeaker. Despite all the technology for design (Magico has and uses a Klippel), the owner of the speaker forgot to realize that acoustic sciences would have told him that in room performance would have “squiggles” in the low frequencies. This is the progress of DSP and self adjusting loudspeakers, they actually reduce significantly those low frequency squiggles. Mid and high can be handles, but room acoustics drives the low frequencies. Even a $750K speaker cannot ignore science.

            This is why I am frustrated when Paul talks about progress but still designs with very mature or obsolete technology. It is such a pity. But he does that because his customers prefer this, not because of better technology, sound or other matters.

            Mozart would have likely loved the sound of a modern piano.

            1. ‘CtA’
              Interestingly, in a very recent Steve Guttenberg – ‘Audiphilliac’ YouTube presentation, he mentions that he spoke to an engineer of DSP systems who admitted that as far as DSP goes the less you use the better the resulting sound from your home-audio rig.
              Personally, I don’t need DSP as I’m lucky enough to have a well behaved room with enough crap around the walls for near maximum diffusion & absorption.

              https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0WT1ynqIoHA

              Time stamp: From 5:18 to 6:34

              Specifically at 5:59 where Guttenberg states, “There’s one engineer I know who designs room-correction systems for a living, I had lunch with him a couple of years ago after he’d been doin’ it for fifteen years or something, & I said something to him like, ‘So what have you learned about room correction in all this time that you’ve been doing it?’ & his answer was perfect, he said, ‘What I’ve learned is less is more…don’t overdo the correction, do minimal correction & that’s probably the best solution, is not to think that I can fix everything in my room with room-correction or even room-treatment.”

              If I, or anyone on this PS Audio site, needs information about room-correction I’d rather get it from Steve Guttenberg, Paul McGowan, Chris Brunhaver or an engineer that’s been in the business of designing room-correction for fifteen years, than from someone like you who has no credentials & is only good at spewing forth theories & measurements…I’m sorry but it had to be said.

              1. As usual, you miss the point. But this happens when you get your “science” from Youtube videos.

                Toole himself says that most room treatment devices are of very limited value. You also see to be confusing room treatment with DSP, there are significant differences in what you can achieve. If you took the time to read carefully, I never said that room treatment or DSP will make sound perfect. I said it can fix somewhat anomalies in the low frequencies. Read Toole’s book, YouTube videos are lazy science.

                In addition, I am puzzled where you state that you did the work yourself without measuring the results. How would you know? Your marvelous bat ears told you so? Or you used REW with a UMIK microphone? If you actually measure, you will find surprising how poor are your ears in detecting anomalies in low frequencies. No matter how “awesome” you think you are.

                1. ‘CtA’,
                  No point has been missed by me, you are doing your usual deflecting.
                  I do not confuse room treatment with room correction.
                  Music elicits an emotional response in people & this emotional response can not be measured scientifically…THAT is the point that you keep missing with your incessant need to measure everything.
                  As, ‘Steven not to be confused with Steven’ explained, not all size 9 shoes will fit the same people as far as style & width are concerned.
                  You can measure a pair of loudspeakers in a given room using any currently available digital room-correction applications but it still won’t suit everybody because their hearing is different to everybody else.
                  Like the proverbial ‘brick wall’ you have a concrete skull that is impenetrable to common sense & reason.
                  I have no idea why you put the word awesome in quotation marks, as I have never referred to myself or my hearing as such…single quotation marks would be more correct if you feel the need to encapsulate the word ‘awesome’.
                  I don’t think that my hearing “bat ears” are awesome; nor do I think that I am awesome.
                  However, I do believe that your ears are deficient & that you are aurally challenged…but that’s ok, since not everyone is blessed with good or great hearing, but as Robin Williams character said to Matt Damon’s character, in the movie, ‘Good Will Hunting’, “It’s not your fault…it’s not your fault…it’s not your fault…it’s not your fault…it’s not your fault…it’s not your fault…”

                  Btw, I did like the progress/’con’gress quip made by you.
                  Evidently there are some flashes of intelligence, & ability to be funny, within said concrete skull of yours…well done.

    1. Kevin Gray builds up a small studio with golden era grade equipment (tape or direct cuts, tubes from mics to amps). Unfortunately just for a more or less non commercial pleasure.

  11. I like to keep it simple. I had forgot to press the button on the screen on my newly bought and used Powerplant 5. So I went over and pressed the button called CleanWave.
    I thought “what if” I just tried this, and then it all happened. What the f….
    But in addition I had just tried out NewRecordDay’s speaker adjustment-system; LOTS.
    “If “you haven’t tried this please do. Extremely effective. And “what if” all the subscribers tried this? Then most of the upgrading will not be necessary. But that’s just “if you want to try out something new.”. A tweak that works?
    Do you?. And don’t forget to press the button for the Cleanwave-function before you load a new CD…
    ( PS Powerplant5, PS Transport, PS streamer/dac, Arendal 1723 towers. McIntosh MA7000.)

  12. If only I hadn’t sold all my equipment 20 years ago. What if I had just been able to listen to the music instead of listening to the equipment? It was the “if only’s” and “what if’s” that drove me away from high end audio.

    1. You bring up an interesting point which was much behind the mindset when I made my earlier post of the happy person… and that is, in this age of consumerism, where nothing is ever enough and we are bombarded daily in media, and the subtle marketing ploy of the carrot and the stick, that there is always something better just over the horizon, “if only” we listen to the hype that we are somehow missing out… If one takes a look, this type of mindset of consumerism, it doesn’t bode well for those in it’s grip. Yet we persistently make attempts to feed it, and listen to those who prompt it.

    2. As tonyplachy already mentioned above, the problem is, that really satisfactory sound for a demanding listener unfortunately needs too much money and effort, which most can’t afford or invest. As long as this really satisfactory sound didn’t happen, many listen to equipment and its problems with good or bad recordings while trying to get around tonality differences one can’t address.

      A proof for this late satisfactory sound is the fact, that most non audiophile folks start to be impressed by the meaning of all the effort and the hobby in general, extremely late in an audiophiles life of changing equipment. The sound experience for them is very rarely impressive in a different way than hearing loud and bass potent speakers at a club.

      When an audiophile is close to the end of his personal sound quality development, after decades of search, trial and error, tons of money spent and space occupied, he might be lucky to have reached a quality which really leaves non audiophiles impressed in a way of having interest in getting such stuff for free 😉 .

      1. jazznut, I want to be clear that I am extremely satisfied with my system. The problem is that many people who can afford such a system only reach that point late in life. In my case I would never had been able to afford it, even though both my wife and I were professionals, if we had children. It is sad to say that the cost of my audio system is about what it cost to send one or maybe 1.5 children to a decent university for four years

        Which leads me to an even more important problem than how to afford a good audio system. The cost of a high quality college education has gone from barley affordable to astronomically unaffordable in the last 50 years. When I was a freshman at Washington University in St Louis in 1966 tuition was $1600 per year and my blue collar parents could only afford half and I got a half ride scholarship for the other $800 and lived at home. In 2020 the tuition was $52K per year!

  13. This is a great post, Paul and it offers so much to consider and bring up variable wise as to why one really wants to venture down a path of expense and expanse. 🙂

    I know many on here have said some terrific things, especially about consumerism but I’m more inclined to focus on the psychology.
    Venturing down a rabbit hole once one discovers something really great, but finds out that there is something even better leads to so much OCD.
    I think most of us care about having pretty top notch sound, but of course there are too many reasons to cover as to why that is.

    For me personally. I try to go down the upgraded path in a reasonable way and at this point, especially with my headphone system there is no better for me at this point, only different or difference is left to have or own.
    I currently run orthodynamic and planar magnetic headphones, but would I like an electrostatic headphone in my arsenal of difference? You bet. However I know very well it is quite expensive to do properly.

    Anyhow. I think most on here can kind of get where I am coming from.
    Lastly. Incremental improvements. This exists very very subtly once one is already in elite territory of gear purchasing.
    For instance, if I have a $2,500 DAC and I want to buy say a Nagra $30,000 DAC is that gonna beat the shit out of the 2500 DAC in every way imaginable? In my experience from going to many Head Fi shows, my answer is No.
    people need to know there are trade offs, but those trade offs are something you have to accept.

    Be happy for what you have cause so many people have nothing!!! 😉

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