No going back

November 30, 2022
 by Paul McGowan

I don’t know about you but for me, once I’ve heard a great high-end audio system there’s no going back.

And it’s not just high-end audio systems that reset standards. New recordings and new music do it to me as well.

With each exposure to a performance upgrade, I get inspired to push forward toward better sound.

Looking over my shoulder at where I have been is instructive but not where I want to be.

Once I put it in drive there’s no going back.

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36 comments on “No going back”

  1. It depends on your personal circumstances. Many people downsize their homes as they get older and downsize their music systems, often moving to headphones. I built a music room 20 years ago, it became a playroom with a table tennis table in it, and only now after the kids have left and another rebuild I get a different room for music, smaller and significantly better.

    If I listen to music during the day it’s on my ceiling system, the main system evenings and weekends. Different quality, both enjoyable. I just think some people like changing audio equipment more than others, just for the sake of it, because it’s a hobby and most hobbies aren’t easy to rationalise. The hoped for improvement may just be an excuse. At the higher end of hifi, I think changes are more about “different” than “better”.

    1. I guess I should say that I am fortunate enough to be faced with the dilemma that you described, although at times, it does not seem that way. My system will not fit into typical apartment or condo. It is a system meant for a large room. I do not want to part with it. I must find the courage to face this dilemma.

  2. Perhaps it’s an artifact of spending significant time analysing sound, but once you reach a certain point, you can’t un-hear things. Just like hearing the difference between convertors, or DSD compared to PCM, or even a tube front end compared to solid state. Once your brain has distnguished the difference, it will be there, every time you listen.

    – Richard

  3. Then I feel very lucky that I can go back; but not too far back.
    ‘Flexibility’ & ‘compromise’ are two important & useful traits to have in this world.
    I’ve been to the top of the mountain, but I’m currently camped a little way down
    from the summit these days, & I’m OK with that ✌

    Also, what Steven says, “It depends on your personal circumstances” too.

    1. When you support England Cricket sometimes they are not always as good as they were out you expect them to be, but you still enjoy watching them (most of the time). This is something Australians probably don’t experience, thinking things are always great. Independent observers might think they’ve never got back to the levels of the Hayden, Langer, Ponting, Warne days. The thing about cricket, one day the batting is good, the next day it’s bad, but the bowling is good. You never know. A perfect analogy of audio. Shame those guys over in the USA don’t get to enjoy the pleasure of bitter disappointment.

  4. In 1968 I was 15 years old. My parents went to one of their friend’s house to have adult beverages and took me along. Their friend was quite wealthy. He said I could play with his son’s stereo in the remote back room since his son was off at college. It was an all McIntosh system. The newly released “Surrealistic Pillow” album by Jefferson Airplane was on the floor. I had been listening to “Somebody to Love” when it came over AM on my transistor radio’s 2-inch speaker. I put the album on the Thoren’s turntable and cranked it up. The blue meters came to life. There was no going back.

  5. Yep. This happened to me in the mid 1980’s, when my first CD rig snapped into producing convincing SQ – after a lengthy journey of identifying and working out solutions to the weaknesses I could hear in the sound. I fell off the proverbial chair when this occurred one morning, completely out of the blue … from then on, I couldn’t take the normal standard of recording reproduction seriously, ever again.

    Since then it’s been an ongoing exercise to work out how to gain control over this behaviour, consistently and reliably. And the journey continues …

  6. If I was in Paul’s position I wouldn’t accept going backwards either…. (Except for enjoyable music)

    I suppose it’s no where near as hard not to go back when your name is on the door of the company that’s building new and improved high end audio, and now new and improved recordings.

    I don’t think going backwards is something many of us do. We may reach a point where we stall or stop pursuing. We may reach a point point where we slide to the side because of down sizing or other circumstances.

    I will say that going backwards to a rebuilt Scott tube integrated amp and some Klipsch speakers is not hard or dissatisfying. It wasn’t hard to go back to KSA model amps either 🙂 , for a period of time.

    Going back to the music of my youth is not hard either. Even though it may not be recorded to audiophile standards.

    1. It’s another of big generalisation. Let’s say, for example, that DSD recordings are better than PCM recordings. Do you stop listening to PCM recordings? If you do, you are probably just using music as a test signal.

      My main dealer does demonstrations of magnificent systems that cost 10 or 20 times what mine cost. Do I aspire to that? No, because if I had that disposable income I’d rather give it to charity than an audio dealer. I walk away thinking that for what I have I get a fantastic sound for 5% or 10% of the cost.

      I’ve just done a deal today to replace a component I use with one that retails at 25% of the price, because it should do just as good a job and will finance something I really need to do. I don’t know if this is considered going backwards. To a manufacturer/dealer trying to sell you new products, they may think buying older, cheaper, used products is going backwards, even if you don’t.

      1. You’re right on the mark with this one Steven, thanks for the reply.

        If you have at your disposal the current best at no cost then why would you step back? If you were heavily invested in recording equipment, your own studio, and what you consider the best way to produce recordings you’re primarily going to listen them and not go back.

        For those who don’t have the above options things can be much more constrained and lots of considerations have to be taken into account. Buying used older stuff that sounds as good to you as anything in current production and fits a budget, or better yet allows dIscretionary funds to be utilized on other pursuits sounds pretty realistic and pragmatic. ✌️

        1. Buying ex-demo or used items is often the only way people can afford or justify the cost to got a better sounding system.
          I do wonder if manufacturers embraced the used market for their products more it may attract more customers. I bought a Cambridge Audio unit that was factory refurbished, repackaged and sold through their eBay store, delivered direct from their factory.

      2. I agree. Most used stuff over a few years old is somewhere around 50% – 60% of retail, and only goes down over time. There is no way there is a proportionate sonic improvement in that same timeframe. One could argue that DACs need to change to accommodate stuff like DSD, but it takes more than 5 years for any appreciable catalog of material. By then, it’s obsolete because there is now 2X or 4X DSD that makes the DAC obsolete. You can make the change, but then cycle starts again. It’s like a herd of horses chasing carrots on the end of a stick.

        Like cars, you can chose to get new every year, buy used, or buy new and keep it until it wears out. There is nothing wrong with any of them. Depends on priority and what drives you.

  7. I’m in full agreement with Paul’s sentiment here. Once you hear an improvement, providing you can afford it, it’s very difficult not to take advantage, but you have to be careful not to jump in too quickly. When I got my new DAC I was ‘loaned’ a cable to try. This was much better than my old cable, which I did try with the new DAC, and I felt I just couldn’t go back. I wouldn’t enjoy the music so much knowing there was better out there and it was an easy fix. However this isn’t the cable I’m currently using and my expensive interconnect now sits languishing in a drawer. So be careful what you listen to.

    However looking back isn’t always such a bad thing. It can help you appreciate what you had, it wasn’t so bad after all, possibly better than you remembered. There may even be aspects to the sound that you miss or the new does differently. It must be quite difficult when you’ve spent big on some new equipment not to think it’s better.

    1. During my years of home-audio retail selling I would often say to prospective
      purchasers, “Don’t test drive a Ferrari if you can only afford a VW” as an analogy.

  8. Sometimes changes in personal financial circumstances dictate going back slightly. In my case, I sold a $3,800 integrated amplifier and kept a $1,000 integrated amplifier because the $1,000 amp sounded 95% as good to me as the $3,800 one. As Mick Jagger said: “You can’t always get what you want but if you try sometimes, you might find you get what you need”.

  9. Yes, there’s no turning back from a perception point of view – once you hear realistic sounding instruments separated out into their own spaces and dynamics which grab your attention and don’t let go, it’s hard to listen to lesser equipment without comparing it to what you’ve experienced. The songs may touch you in the same way, but there’s more of a notice of what’s missing than the enjoyment of the song itself, and sometimes it ends up being a game of trying to hear what you’re missing. When downsizing you don’t have to lose that quality sound – you’re not likely to get rid of your entire system and buy a used Electrophonic component system; more like equipment that fits your new situation.

  10. When I made the decision to have a home theater, with a projector, I put myself into a compromising situation. For years I tried to make it optimal for both 2 channel and music. It just doesn’t work.

    The primary reason being speaker position, which needs to be more to the sides near the wall to be out of the way for side chair viewing of the screen, with larger amount of toe in. The projector is crucial to the theater experience. I tried moving the speakers every time I listen to music, but stopped as it’s not practical.

    The second is equipment and environment. I have an 11.4.7 setup, so it takes a processor, 11 channels of amplification, and 11 speakers (optimally positioned), 4 subwoofers that need to be integrated, a 4K HDR disc player, streaming device and a different acoustic paneling/diffuser solution. I tried to integrate preamps with HT bypass, but it always resulted in poorer sound. I recently decided to go the high end processor route, as it allows me to run different room correction profiles (1 for HT, 1 for stereo). It beautifully integrates the subs and levels out the room. It’s not optimal for 2 channel, but it is pretty decent.

    My family and neighbors enjoy watching movies, so there is a lot of enjoyment had in the room. It’s more than worth the sacrifice in quality, and I listen more now that there are no adjustments needed for 2 channel. Over time, it now just sounds good not feeling like a compromise in any way.

  11. I started my long journey into high fidelity audio when I was 15 years old and now I’m 76 in the process of reuniting with the former love of my life, a beautiful woman that I had a four year relationship with when I was 27 and she was 21.

    I own a very credible music system and live on limited income as I plan to live at least another 20 years. My priority now is reuniting with my former love.

    In my particular case, my music system sounds more than satisfactory to my ears, so instead of lusting for new and exciting audio equipment, I’m feeling just plain ole lust for life. What would any of you choose in a similar situation?

  12. I’ve had to go back. And more than once. ;^)

    With years of attending audio shows, visiting hi-end dealers, and having friends with better setups than I could afford or house, I’ve experienced many systems “better” than my own. Still, I managed to assemble and set up very musically satisfying systems which have given me great enjoyment over the years. So I’m not complaining.

  13. I think it was Aristotle that said, “An expanded mind cannot shrink to it’s former dimensions.”

    I say, “Life’s too SHORT to drink cheap WINE or dance with UGLY women!”

  14. [Paul: I don’t know about you but for me, once I’ve heard a great high-end audio system there’s no going back.]

    Agree, Paul! Reason for me to not step foot in any of PSA’s MRs (that, and the 1K miles of logistic separation)! 😉

  15. Back in the late 80s, I worked for a guy who who ran a Radio Shack/Alpine/Luxman/B&W… audio store. He was just a few years older than me, a huge concert goer, music lover, Stones fan, rocker, so naturally we got along famously. There were shop beers after work EVERY night. I will never forget one night’s barley induced wisdom from him:

    “You know, we are just the right age that we will get to see all the great legends play. We are also the right age that we will probably get to watch them all die… (Except of course -Keith Richards!)”

    He was too right.

    Christine McVie 1943 – 2022. 🙁

  16. Oh my god there is no going back! How the hell do you do that ? Lol.

    I’m in this hobby for the long haul with all you gents. 🙂

    Keep spinning guys. Sonically I couldn’t be happier.
    Like many of you here I’ve achieved a lot and met some goals and the equipment speaks for itself along with having the correct mentality for enjoying that equipment properly.

    No short cuts. 🙂

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