The last ten percent

December 19, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

I find most of us are in two major camps. Those who are starting from scratch building their system in the hopes of getting the first 90% right, and the rest of us striving to get the last 10% nailed down.

Both are equally difficult challenges though they each require different disciplines.

For group one who are building from a clean slate, the choices are defined by a broad brush stroke: digital, analog, or both? What kind of speaker and why. What are the limitations and potentials to be dealt with in the room? How to apportion the budget.

The decisions for group two are cut from that of a much finer brush: how to maximize what works and minimize that which is holding us back. Perhaps it’s time for new speakers, a cable upgrade, a room tweak.

Regardless of which camp you find yourself in, the challenges are of equal measure.

As our chief engineer, Bob Stadtherr is fond of saying, “it doesn’t matter if you’re working on the first 90% or the last 90%, it’s all good.”

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50 comments on “The last ten percent”

  1. Paul, your last sentence needs an adjustment,”…or the last 90%, it’s all good” should probably read,’…or the last 10%, it’s all good’

    I got very lucky, twice in my life, with home audio.
    I heard the right loudspeakers for me when I was 16yo & finally bought a pair just before I turned 21…I sold those loudspeakers 3 years ago.
    Then just before I turned 33yo I fluked (totally lucked out) brilliant synergy with a pair of Harbeth’s, a pair of POA-4400 monoblocs & an Audio Alchemy DDE v1.0 DAC; stunning 3D holographic sound staging & imaging…the drummer was always behind the other L to R staged musicians.

    Three years ago I started virtually from scratch again; no lucky breaks this time around, just a challenge trying to get back to a sound that excites me.
    I did start off again, 3 years ago, with quite inexpensive gear.
    The plan was to see how little I could outlay to get back to where I was…I guess that ‘plan’ was never going to work 😉
    Also, it doesn’t help when you are a bit of an itinerant (move around a lot) without a proper home-base & therefore my listening room changed, to varying degrees, from place to place.

    For most of us ‘mortals’ it almost always boils down to finance vs enjoyment….a word that I am oft to use, ‘compromise’

    My recently acquired DeVore Fidelity – ‘Orangutan O/93’ loudspeakers have made the biggest difference in the enjoyment factor of my CD library, they have also been my biggest expense.
    The ratio of my expenditure is roughly:- CD/DAC 23%; amplification 26% & loudspeakers 51%…giving me a sound that I now look forward to listening to every time that I fire-up my rig.

    1. Martin,

      I believe Paul got Bob’s quote “….last 90%” correct.

      There is a similar saying in old car restoration. Often in classified ads for incomplete restoration projects, one would read “Restoration is 90% complete”. Upon personal inspection of the car however, one would discover “90% of the work and cost remains to be completed”.

      The estimate of completion of any project is often highly relative to the individuals perspective and experience.

      1. Aero,
        Oh! ok…my bad then.
        It’s just that Paul was talking about the last 10% further up in his post & so I assumed that he might have had a ‘senior moment’; which has happened before.

  2. I didn’t care about stereo image (stage depth, height and width, holographic imaging) and selected my gear with the priorities of brand reputation (pro audio standards) and usability/ease of use. Same for my car stereo where a center speaker and an active subwoofer were a must. I rarely had the time for intense listening a the home stereo system was only used for background music. And most listening of music happened when driving my car including a selection of favorite tracks from my vinyls recorded on compact cassettes. Music first! The initially poor quality of CD-player then started a frustrating journey for getting a sound quality which could meet the pleasure I got from vinyls. And a real progress concerning holographic sound imaging was made by introducing crosstalk cancellation and listening to a single driver crossoverless loudspeaker offering similar transparency in sound as good headphones. Resolution of fine details heard from my headphones is my benchmark for loudspeakers.

    1. How close to your goal do you think you will get attaining the same amount of inner detail that you hear through your headphones realized from your system where your speaker output is not only dealing with room acoustic issues but surrounding ambient noise as well? Will you able to eliminate all ambient noise from your listening room after purchasing the lowest noise floor components available? That was once my ultimate goal but at present it will never come to pass.

      In my younger years I got somewhat closer to this ‘high bar’ living in a private home with my own private listening room in a very quiet neighborhood. Now that I live in a condominium apartment building, this goal is beyond my control. I’m certainly not going to be listening to music through headphones every time that I find the time to enjoy my music so I’d like to know your game plan since I respect your posts on a daily basis. They seem to emanate from a logical mind.

      1. Neil, I will probably have to face the same situation someday ( and probably sooner than I would like ). My current system only works in a single family dwelling with a large room. Not something you find in retirement communities. For now I am grateful for the enjoyment I can have.

        1. I saw the photo of your beautiful set-up that you have in your home, looks Beautiful and must sound spectacular I’m sure. Why not make plans to keep your home and have a ‘live-in’ tending to everything that needs to be done because it seems like it would be less costly than assisted-living. I don’t live in assisted-living. My health at this point in time is unbelievably good. Tomorrow, who knows? My suggestion is to try to stay independent at all costs if you can afford it. Even if it means downsizing your home and staying in the area or moving to a more temperate climate. Just my suggestion.

      2. The first time I heard about the idea of holographic imaging was in the context of dummy head recording (binaural recording). The basic problem: the dummy head has an ear canal and a pinna (resulting in an individual HRTF) which is not identical with my ears canals and pinnae. Thus no way to come close to perfection. And there are the problems of in-head-localization and front imaging.This also means: it’s the recording technique which matters first. A most pragmatic approach is recording the sound field as it build up near my pinnae when sitting on the best seat in the concert hall and to reproduce this field via drivers hanging freely near my pinnae. That’s why I like my vintage AKG K1000 headphones. The inherent problem with loudspeakers is: crosstalk. And the room acoustics of my listening room being superpositioned to the recorded room acoustics of the concert hall. In order to minimize these effects I prefer near field listening with loudspeakers and crosstalk cancellation. Both settings let me hear the details I know from my headphones listening. However it requires loudspeakers designed for near field listening. And the next most important requirement concerning loudspeakers: the amp must match the loudspeakers. Who knows which amps the designer of the loudspeakers used for voicing? Is there a simple crossover solution? Finally I come to the conclusion: better go for active speakers with a DSP-based crossover. But I have no problem with audiophiles selecting the type of amp (vacuum tube, SS or hybrid) depending on the genre of music they actually listen. But finally it is no about the last (!) five percents but first (!) about getting the basics right.

        1. Paulsquirrel,

          You are so highly focused on exactly how to go about accomplishing your goal… I had no idea that you have delved this deeply into what your end result should sound like and how you’re figuring out the options to get to that point. I tip my hat to you sir.

          Nearfield listening is a great answer to getting closer to hearing inner detail that is not audible from a few feet further back from where you. In the end, NFL may be the best solution for all of us. Needless to say, all of our rantings about the quality of the source material has and will always go uncorrected except for specialty labels. We are not in the majority and do not understand the recording process that these engineers are using by considering listening through Ear Pods or in your vehicle as it seems that’s how the engineers work at present. We are in the minority of listeners which is very unfortunate.

          1. PS & Neil,

            I’ve not doubt that my QNFL (quasi near-field listening) arrangement (monitors 5ft apart-toed out-listening @ 7ft away-in a 90sf space-room decor treatments) contributes to the fined-tuned holographic presentation I hear! By chance, this spare bedroom has seemed to work out very well for dedicated 2.1 channel audio playback realism!

  3. I have a different approach to system building. I am not someone who is constantly switching gear in and out. I tend to build a new system about once every 12 to 16 years. The goal is to make each noticeably better than the one before. I have done it four times. First, my original started system. Receiver, TT, and 2 way speakers. Second, receiver, TT, cassette deck and 3 way floor standing speakers. I made a tweak to it when I added a CD player. Third, my first separate amplification system, all tubes, TT ( first MC cartridge ), tuner, SACD player, much better 3 way floor standing speakers, really good cables, power regeneration. Tweaked it by adding subwoofers later. Fourth, what will probably be my last system given my age. All in, it is now or never. Boarder line reference quality gear. Tube preamps, SS power amp, direct drive TT with TOTL MC cartridges, transport/DAC, really big full range 3 way speakers.

  4. Bob’s saying is great.

    I think the first group just exits to a tiny degree. People who start from scratch into high end with noticeable money available to get 90% right.

    Most of us probably started so long ago with their first stereo, that the rest was a continuous improvement.

    The most interesting question would be, what those with very long experience, who arrived at a magic point, would recommend from todays point of view for an earlier stage than they are in now.

    But the fact that this means some effort on both sides and is hard to practice, is the reason, why the Hi-Fi market does well. Innumerable, repetitive new insights and changes instead of initially having heard what’s possible related to the financial effort and having an accompanying good consultant 😉

  5. The arrival of all-in-one components that are better than a bunch of components and far more cost effective does not fit in with Bob’s rule. It’s changing most of the middle. Changing speakers should be a fundamental shift, not done lightly, which is why my wife made the decision based on the colour – bless her. As for the last 10%, I’m not a tweaker, the cables were recently put in due to building works and are buried in walls and floors. The only tweak that I think exists are rubber anti-vibration feet on sliders installed under my hifi cabinet for about $50. For me the biggest drivers for change have been technology – CD almost 40 years ago, streaming 12 years ago and an all-in-one 6 years ago.

  6. The ‘start’ for many here happened in their youth. It has been an evolving process ever since. The real difference is the rate of change each of us moves at.
    It might be suggested that the journey is never done….. but that really what happens is the individual quest finally ends.
    Does the quest’s end happen because of full contentment, because of age, or other reasons? Maybe the end of the quest occurs because the last 10% (or less) in home audio is just some mythical pinnacle always hidden in the clouds and ever growing….

      1. It’s like the question that was posed to me in engineering school and I’m sure all of you have heard it.

        If you try to get from one side of a room to the other and each subsequent step that you take is reduced by 50%, will you ever reach the other side?

  7. I think this is on topic. I have a pair of subs, one in each corner. Because there are full length curtains behind them I only noticed this week that the right hand one was about one inch closer to the front wall than the other. In the interests of symmetry this needed to be corrected. I initially moved it out by half an inch and was really surprised by the increase in the bass, no longer muffled by the curtain? To be fair a casual listener may not have noticed but to me, knowing the system, it made a big difference. I’ve considered adjusting level and roll of but haven’t as yet, letting myself get used to it. Yesterday I moved it the other half inch and noticed further improvement in the bass.

    Another change which I am still in the process of determining: On some discs the central image was a little to the left. I just thought it was the way it’s recorded but since moving the sub that also seems to have improved. Either that or I’ve got a vivid imagination. I wanted to share as it clearly illustrates to me the virtues of small movements in speaker position making a big impact, and, bonus, all for free. A lot more listening to be done, finding ten percent is all part of the fun.

    1. Richtea,

      While making a major setup arrangement change this past Summer (sub/components from between monitors to left side wall), spent a couple of hours sliding sub around the room, then listening in sweet spot for best response. Corner placement was Bad, but pulling them away from the front wall exactly 12″ yielded superior tightness, punch, depth, articulation, speed and tonality! Any further out or closer in dropped the performance substantially!

    2. Rich,
      I placed my DeVore’s on the same 31″ pedestals that I had the KRIX’s on, to get the tweeters up to ear-level, but then I was told by the bloke who sold them to me that the O/93’s were specifically designed by John DeVore to be placed on the floor, to get the correct amount of mid-bass out of them.
      So, dutifully, I removed the pedestals & placed them on the floor (sitting on their four little half-inch wooden feet), same distances from everything & same toe-in, & the bass (not the mid-bass; but THE bass) was to much, way too overpowering in the room, bordering on ‘booming’…to my ears, & so I had to reinstate said pedestals.
      I’ll be contacting the chap who sold them to me in a couple of days to tell him of my findings.

      1. John Devore designed the 0/93s with tube amps in mind. Are you using a SS amp that may emphasize the bottom end or room size a bit small for the Orangutans? FR your neighbors don’t like booming bass shakin things up? Joys of apt. living!

        1. Yep & I’m running them with a Musical Fidelity -‘M6si500’…an SS beast with 500w/ch/8ohms & I am loving the tight & deep bass 🙂
          Room is 18′ x 13′ x 10’ with additional areas (air volume) running from both sides (extra length for bass notes)

          My neighbours are all out at work (9-5) when I bring the gain up to the region of 96-106dBs.
          Also I live next to the railway corridor so it’s ideal for turning the volume up to ‘9’ because we’re all dealing with the suburban & industrial trains for 20 hrs a day anyway.
          Chose you abode intelligently 😉
          Rock ‘n Roll brother !!

          1. A lotta good vibrations for 500 into 0/93s rated at 93 dbs &10 ohms and at a “9” wow. You drive those beauties like a Indy car. Classic Rock from the 60s and 70s is the best! If you got the time – not Rockin & Rollin but a damn good performance – by Yulianna Avdeeva classical player = Wagner by Liszt: Tannhauser Overture https://youtu.be/W46BKM0mg-g
            Sounds like you’ve reached and zoomed past your 90%!

            1. William,
              Yes, you’d think so, however my ears are used to the Celestion – ‘Ditton 66 Studio Monitors’ that I owned since I was twenty years old (38 years) & so the whole concept of where exactly my 90% is, is difficult to assess accurately, since I feel that that Ditton 66 ‘sound’ is truly embedded
              into my brain.
              It takes a lot of time to reprogram…if you know what I mean.

  8. (audio-)life changing decisions for me :

    1985 : first cd player. no more vinyl crap for me, what a relief (don’t get alarmed, YMMV).
    1990 : cd’s are there to stay, so TT and vinyl in the dumpster. Full-blown digital ever since.
    2010 : addition of streaming, at first ripped cd’s on a Mac mini, later Qobuz
    2021 : sale of my big speakers, replaced by compact speakers. First step in downsizing.
    recently purchase of a stand-alone network player (so much for downsizing).
    The last 10%..? Will always stay the last 10% !
    When you’re committed to audio you’ll never reach the end. The “job” is never done. And that’s good.

      1. I never give any thought to the last 10% theory because to me these are simply arbitrary numbers. Over the years, I’ve gotten most of the way to a wonderful listening experience and I still continue this quest (only on occasion) to try to better the sound. I made a substantial difference by finally caving in and installing all balanced XLR interconnects (with the exception of my turntable inputs) and just ordered a set of higher quality speaker cables, all of these at reasonable prices, whatever that means.

        Even though I keep saying to myself ‘no more’, I know that that will never happen. I am already giving thought to trying to locate a quality used Audio Research amplifier to replace my current Audio Research amplifier after reading the reviews of the Ref 110 amp comparing this amplifier to my VT 100 Mk III. I thought I would never replace this amplifier (and I may never be able to find what I’m looking for at a price that I can afford). Unfortunately, this thought keeps lingering in my mind.
        It’s a indication of what an Audio hypocrite I am. The perceived reproductive sound of music coming from a two channel stereo system is constantly improving and that’s why I don’t get the 10% statement. I realize now that I’m still on an ongoing quest for musical perfection.

        I thought I had gotten to the point of enjoying the music and letting it come to me which I have to some extent but that nagging feeling that I need to find the Holy Grail persists.

          1. Absolutely Barsley, I love helping people purchase a two channel audio system and I set them up at no charge. Haven’t done this in a while but I used to do it all the time.

            You may not have noticed in a few of my posts I spoke about building an Amp Camp Amplifier and Korg pre-amplifier from PASS DIY. The total cost of these two components was a bit over $600 and I sent them out to my son in San Diego who put them together with a decent pair of Klipsch floors standing speakers and he purchased a Chord Mojo to stream while he still had an NAD CD player. The total cost not including the CD player was approximately $1700.00. I think that this is a reasonable amount of money to pay for a system that sounds as good as any system in the $5000 range perhaps better.

            The Sprout 100 system combined with the Elac speakers that PS AUDIO is selling is a great system purchase. There are so many companies out there that can put together a system for less than $1500 that sounds just wonderful.

    1. I’ve reached the end most of the time. It’s only when someone invents something significant that moves the goalposts, i.e. the “end” changes, that I pay attention.

      Some audiophiles will change components for the latest version of pretty much the same thing, it’s the nature of the hobby, encouraged by marketing from the likes of Paul and others that the machine you thought was wonderful last week is effectively broken. To my eyes a lot of audio equipment is very similar and indistinguishable.

      What does amaze me is how much expensive equipment can be seen in rooms that must be sonically awful. How many audiophiles have actually had an acoustic engineer in their home, or used acoustic building materials? For me that was the first 10%.

  9. After 15 years of formal music study, performance and degree (1961-1976), my ear-opening “stereo epiphany” occurred in 1980 (Rogers LS3/5a’s)! For many years after that, been chasing the “last 90%”, trying to recreate that live, holographic reproduced presentation that I knew was possible but as always, life gets in the way (kids-budget-family, etc.)! In the past 10 years, considered I was getting close (75-90%), but till this year, just seemed I wasn’t destine to break through that final 10% barrier.

    IME, these past 9 months of simple step change synergy has presented me with 98%+ of what I seek in My home stereo playback:
    1. Stand Monitor replacement. Monitors are 2-way custom designed/built RAAL/Seas transducers in solid Bamboo cabinets!
    2. Re-arrangement of setup. Sub (with components on top) was located between monitors. Now sub resides left of the left monitor and components reside on a 3-shelf rack along the left wall. There is Nothing between the stand monitors anymore (except a framed/hanging 75-year-old oil painting)!
    3. Speaker Cable replacement. Due to system setup changes (step 2), 35-year-old 12g OFC pro reference cables were too short. Ended with new speaker cables (“Solid core, Small gauge, Individually insulated”) that allows me to walk through the venues entry way and into the open recorded space with all the hall ambiance, musician placements, depth and air of the live performance. Soundstage is HUGE and now my dedicated music room’s presentation is very 3D and Alive!

    FWIW, so far this year have returned $8K worth of components (SACD player, regenerator, interconnects) due to inability to improve the realistic music presentation that I currently have obtained. Being keenly aware of what live, unamplified music sounds like, I feel at 68 my long journey has come full circle…Time to Relax and Enjoy!!! 😉

    Ted

    1. I hope that you can relax and enjoy. If you take a look at my post above, I have been listening by just sitting back and not trying to be critical but just letting the music into my being. It’s been working fine but I keep getting dragged back into the vicious circle of being an Audiophile instead of a music lover. I probably would have been able to do a better job at enjoying if I had the ability to go listen to live music but that’s not happening and may never happen in my lifetime again.

      “No matter where you go, there you are“.

      1. Thanks Neil,

        Seems I am enjoying music playback more than ever before! Not only less critical of my system (components and room), but also less critical of poor to fair recordings. With assistance from a well balanced stereo synergy, I’m simply really enjoying what the musicians have to offer through their talents and this creative/expressive art form!! 🙂

        1. I love to hear these comments of people finding contentment in their listening environment. That’s what it should have been all about in the first place. Some of the engineers that I used to work with years ago that loved music from a table radio. They were smarter than me because they were getting their enjoyment while I was hitting myself on the head with a hammer trying to improve the quality of my audio system. That’s why it’s so important to respect others opinions unless they are ‘certifiable’.

          It’s unfortunate that we cannot visit each other and the rest of the community that communicates between ourselves to experience what we put in writing here.

  10. “You have to be in the top 1% to afford the last 10%.” Maybe if you are in the top 2% you can afford 5% of the last 10%. If you are average Joe, just be happy with 90%.

  11. You don’t have to break the bank to obtain a very enjoyable rig. There are tried and true steps and equipment choices over the decades to select from. Enjoy the hobby and the listening experience.

      1. Thanks for the post. In an earlier post to Stimpy, I posted a link to Ken Fritz’s system, and the greatest tragedy of it all, is that Ken was diagnosed with ALS (Lou Gehrig’s disease) and just a couple of months after that video was created, his decline has increased greatly, and it will not be long before his passing will occur. The sadness of this is what prompted me to say enjoy whatever you may have while it is still today, for we have no guarantee of tomorrow. My heart goes out to Ken, his family and friends.

        1. Thanks for the reply Barsley. Sorry to hear about Ken’s condition. I can only hope there will be a celebration of his life and an appreciation of what he set out to accomplish.
          I agree with “the enjoy what you have now philosophy”.
          I would also suggest that there’s a lot of satisfaction and fun that can be had by going in as deep as one feels comfortable doing. So that fact shouldn’t be overlooked either.

  12. Lets face it, fellas.

    That last 5 to 10% is a bit of a tedium. I’ve been dreading the upgraded AC Power cable swapping, however I’m finally on the road to doing that.
    Found some solid, well built USA/ Canada build power cords that insulate well and this is all I want. Not spending a g note on each cable. Nothing crazy. Just better built cable construction and design that surely beats the hell out of my stock IEC 15A plugs.

    It has to be done and it is a nice little Christmas present to myself.

    1. To be honest I don’t think there is a last 5-10% until the individual “pulls the plug” so to speak
      I’ve done the power cord thing, the new interconnect thing, and the new speaker wire thing.
      The all made a difference for the better.
      “The only way you know you reached maximum is to go by it….” The trick is coming back to it…

        1. I saw the last paragraph Theo. Finding what sounds best / acceptable to you is the key. Both in equipment and music choices. Some people enjoy the chase as much if not more than the catch at the end.

          I agree with your road traveled comment. Knowing what doesn’t work for you is as important as knowing what does.

      1. Another thing as well is to spend a lot of time with a system. Get to know your synergy very well then start tweaking. You’ll avoid the placebo effect I feel if you do this. I know many on here have already. 🙂

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