When is it good enough?

April 28, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

Most of us live with good enough for the bulk of our lives.

The problem for me is deciding when good enough isn’t good enough—when I suspect something’s better but don’t really know.

This can lead to an unsettled feeling filled with hand wringing and constant doubt or I can sometimes just take a deep breath and blow it off. But usually not for too long. And that’s when I know it’s time for a change. When that nagging urge keeps coming back to haunt me.

Once the decision’s made I can roll my sleeves up and start the research phase: reading the forums, talking with friends, searching the magazines. It’s kind of fun until I’ve narrowed the choices down. Then it’s time to evaluate.

If we’re talking cables it’s pretty easy and quick. Speakers, not so much.

We once were able to head down to one of several high-end audio dealers in the city and spend the day poking around to make our decision. Now that’s mostly changed. The few local dealers have narrowed their product offerings to practical levels and rarely get in the latest greatest to play with. The online fellows have a broader selection but aren’t always so agreeable to my lust for playing around.

And who can blame them?

There’s no perfect solution I am familiar with other than relying upon trust. If I trust a manufacturer then I am more likely to know what to expect. But trust requires familiarity and longterm connection, something not always practical in a fast-changing technological world.

I am guessing as the age of the neighborhood retailer morphs into the digital connection era, scratching the “I am interested in change” itch will get easier once we’re through the current stalemate.

I can’t wait.

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20 comments on “When is it good enough?”

  1. Concerning “trust” the marketing guys claiming improved sound quality from cd-players have totally ruined the credibility of this technology. The core idea behind the cd was reducing production cost thus maximizing profits. Initially all cd-players sounded the same and interestingly all audio magazines agreed here. There was a competition about features of the cd-players and not sound quality. Even new features were promised as “picture-cd” etc. Then they tried to discuss sound quality differences based on 14, 16, 18, 20 bit formats, oversampling and selectable filter settings. But the production cost reduction still continued based on DAC chip-technology. Then came the 1-bit technology claiming better sound. I never heard an improvement and many even couldn’t hear sound quality differences between mp3 and HDCD. Was the recording technology and the data reduction due to digitization the problem? Then external DACs and belt driven transports should solve the problem of sound quality. The only audible effect I could notice from all these trials came with the introduction of vacuum tube based output stages for some cd-players or DACs. Most strange. And here the original idea of reducing production cost was skipped. Now even external power supplies or battery driven analog circuits should improve the sound of a DAD or cd-player. Not to forget external master clocks. Or active digital cables. And the latest claim now is that sampling frequencies of 768 kHz or even better 1.539 MHz will result in a signal quality indistinguishable from the original analog signal. Will this be audible? For me in the end better speakers, better power supplies and improved analog circuits made the game by bringing audible improvements.

  2. I’m gonna break my code here …

    Posting hastily after Dick Dale passed, further research has revealed just how influential this cat was not only onto the American music landscape, but also the Pro Sound industry, most importantly the work with Leo Fender in product development and his influence on musicians.

    This legendary, often overlooked guitarist virtually invented surf-rock and influenced everyone from The Beach Boys to Jimi Hendrix, Eddie Van Halen, Ry Cooder and Stevie Ray Vaughan. In this crazy world today where DJs and Video Gamers playing arena’s are considered artists, i know talent when seen or heard, and this cat had talent.

    Born into a beach and surfer community in the late 50s, i eventually enjoyed the Beach Boys music, but Dick Dale wasn’t exactly on my parents radar or playlist, and like many of us who were turned on to him through the Pulp Fiction soundtrack, found his sound both snappy & catchy – in the same way – Reggae was in the 70s. And though Reggae was highly influential in the broad scope of popular music just like Surf Music, it didn’t seem to evolve too far beyond it’s original vibe. As of this writing i’m listening to the original Munster’s theme song playing in my head, go figure!

    Dale defined surf music as “that rumbling sound and all that stuff they associate with the heavy staccato, it sounded like the barrel of a goddamn wave.” His arrangements were complex and unruly, it was all staccato strumming reverb. “I make my guitar scream with pain or pleasure or sensuality, it makes people move their feet and shake their bodies. That’s what music does and it always grabbed everybody because music is not only an attitude, it’s sexual, it’s sensual, even people who are deaf can feel it.”

    Dick Dale was born Richard Monsour in Boston (1937) to a Lebanese father and Polish mother. As a child, he was exposed to folk music from both cultures, which had an impact on his sense of melody and the ways string instruments could be picked. After hearing Hank Williams he taught himself to play country songs on the ukulele and soon graduated to the guitar. He also heard lots of big band swing and found his first musical hero in drummer Gene Krupa influencing his percussive approach to the guitar so intense that Dale regularly broke the heaviest-gauge strings available and ground his picks down to nothing several times in the same song. His father encouraged him, offered career guidance, and in 1954, the family moved to Southern California.

    During the late 50s, Dale became an avid surfer and set about finding ways to mimic the surging sounds and feelings of the sport and ocean on his guitar. Dick Dale wasn’t nicknamed “King of the Surf Guitar” for nothing, he pretty much invented the style single-handedly and no matter who copied or expanded upon his blueprint, he remained the fieriest, most technically gifted musician the genre ever produced. Dale’s pioneering use of Middle Eastern and Eastern European melodies (learned organically through his familial heritage) was among the first in any genre of American popular music, and predated the teaching of such “exotic” scales in guitar-shredder academies by two decades.

    Self-taught on guitar, the left-handed Dale couldn’t afford a custom-made model, so early on he played a standard right-hand guitar upside down and backward, but without re-stringing it (as Hendrix later did). That ended after a meeting with legendary guitar builder Leo Fender, who offered to make Dale his own left-handed model if he’d test a line of guitars and amplifiers Fender was developing, eventually becoming Leo’s personal experimental case subject.
    Anything that came out of the Fender company, he played.

    “I went to meet Leo Fender with my dad and said, Hi, I’m Dick Dale. I’m a surfer, i got no money and need a guitar. I’m gonna be playing a big place called the Rendezvous Ballroom, can you help me out? He said, here, i’ve just created this guitar, and he handed me a Stratocaster. Tell me what you feel and think. We’re still working out the bugs. Can you help us out?”

    Working closely with Fender, Dale continually pushed the limits of electric amplification technology, helping to develop new equipment that was capable of producing the thick, clearly defined tones he heard in his head at the previously undreamed-of volumes he demanded.

    Leo Fender and Freddie Tavares saw Dale play at the Rendezvous Ballroom in Balboa, California and after blowing up several Fender amplifiers they identified the problem simply as attempting to create a sound louder than the screaming audience.

    “Nobody played loud, because there was no reason for them to play loud, so Leo gave me one of his amps and told me, you go beat it to death and tell me what you think of it.” And i started blowing them up, they would catch on fire, the speakers would freeze. He would say, “Why do you have to play so loud?” but when i put it on stage, the people’s bodies would soak up the sound because i wanted my guitar to sound like Gene Krupa’s drums.”

    Leo stated “When it can withstand the barrage of punishment from Dick Dale, then it is fit for human consumption.” He played so loudly that he blew up one amplifier after another. The pair visited the James B. Lansing loudspeaker company to ask for a custom 15-inch loudspeaker which became the JBL D130F model and was incorporated into the original Fender single Showman Amp. Dale’s combination of a Fender Stratocaster and Showman Amp allowed him to attain significantly louder volume levels unobtainable by then-conventional equipment.

    Fender kept trying options, but Dale still wasn’t satisfied. “We kept on making all these adjustments with output transformers and with speakers, and that’s how i blew up over 50 speakers and amplifiers. So Leo went back to the drawing board and came up with and designed a 100 watt amplifier with two 15″ inch JBL speakers and lowered the impedance from 8 to 4 ohms.” In 1963, Fender introduced the “Dual Showman” amplifier that would soon become popular among aspiring Los Angeles guitarists.

    “Why do over-sized power transformers improve the sound of amplifiers? All that matters is they did improve the sound by lowering impedance. That was the end result, along with the creations that we did on the Stratocaster guitar”.

    Dale’s performances at the Rendezvous Ballroom in the early to mid 1961 are credited with the creation of the surf music phenomenon. Dale successfully asked for permission to use the 3,000 person capacity ballroom for surfer dances after overcrowding at the local ice cream parlor. Dale’s events at the ballrooms, called “stomps,” quickly became legendary, and the events routinely sold out.

    Surf music became a national fad with groups like the Beach Boys and Jan & Dean offering a vocal variant to complement the wave of instrumental groups, all of which were indebted in some way to Dale. But in 1964, the British Invasion stole much of surf’s thunder and Dale was dropped by Capitol in 1965.

    Dale’s comeback didn’t get into full swing until 1994 when his song “Miserlou” was chosen as the opening theme to Quentin Tarantino’s blockbuster film Pulp Fiction. My guess is that Dick Dale devoted his life towards entertaining people and having fun. One of the greatest jobs you can ever have is bringing music to people. At the end of the day, that’s not such a bad thing to make your life’s work.

  3. I went to a retailer and bought some power products yesterday. I first bought from them in 1980 and they’ve been in business since 1965. They loaned me one of the products I bought and I demo’d the other yesterday. They stock the whole product line of that brand and sell loads of it. They told me that my sale was more than some dealers of the product sell in a year. The retailer has to be very discerning and the brands he stocks, they he can recommend and people will buy and enjoy.
    Yesterday another excellent retailer (my no. 2) had one of his open days, two or three systems set up, yesterday it was to showcase a new product line, Constellation amplifiers, with dCS sources (Vivaldi and Puccini). Wilson and PMC speakers were used. He likes to carry lots of brands, and yesterday was to introduce Constellation. But he is the biggest PMC seller in the UK, he sells many other speaker brands, but when he takes on a brand like Piega as he did a few years ago he cannot take the whole range, they are largely unknown in the UK and a hard sell, and he doesn’t stock the top MLS range (like PSA’s upcoming AN range) probably because they are too expensive and there is limited space. He might do if the brand were established by the cheaper models.
    So you can’t expect retailers to stock products from hundreds of manufacturers so you can go and poke around all day and not buy, because the reality is that most retailers do most of their business from a very limited number of brands.
    The retailer I bought from has a selected a portfolio of products, more of some types of products and less of others, in fact they have recently decided to stock only one brand of power products, a new brand to me, but I had a loan, a listen, a deal and I trust the retailer.

  4. Some systems have it and others don’t. When you know what you’re searching for you will know when you hear it. Musically satisfying systems don’t have to cost a fortune. If you sold your system that you enjoyed believing you are upgrading into something better it don’t always turn out the way you would like it. Never assume an upgrade is an upgrade. Make sure before you sell a system that you like that the upgrade has the it factor and is better then what you had or stand pat.

  5. I see the whole manufacturer/distributor/retailer system very critical since years and Paul was the first out of the business I heard of, who talks about this, acts and prepares the company for what comes since a long time.

    I still have no good idea how this ends, but I’m convinced what Paul prepares for, helps.

    When we take the most difficult examples, selecting a turntable setup or a large speaker, it’s obvious, one will never be able listen to various turntables combined with different arms and cartridges unless he limits his choice to that of a certain dealer (which will be extremely limited and few will be ready to switch/configure even among the components they carry). Listen to a better turntable setup at home before buy? No chance. And nothing is more depending on combination than turntable setups.

    Take an upcoming AN2 or 1 speaker…which dealer will bring 2 or 3 of such large speakers/brands to your home for trial? And isn’t it most important to listen to a speaker in the room it will be placed at the end? Trust yes, but all tell so much, how to differentiate?…so the way how a speaker can be matched to one’s room plays a big role…

    …but back to the distribution/retailer chain:

    Those who have a dealer near them, whom they trust and who are flexible enough to limit their options to what he offers…fine, but that’s not for me and many others.

    In this situation one could just as well buy out of an online catalog based on reviews and online opinions…the closer the purchase is at the manufacturers point in the process, the cheaper.

    Which online advices are independent, which are flavored? Only two are independent imo: inputs of critical and experienced posters in forums as well as personal advices of critical! reviewers and independent consulters (like Jim Smith and similar).

    Maybe this is what it leads to…consulting services of certain valued people of that business who‘s main goal has to be the credibility to be really independent.

    Paul builds up a critical and more or less experienced community, which is one part of it…the independent consulters have to develop somewhere else. I think the demand is present…who of you didn’t call or Mail to various dealers, magazine editors and reviewers in advance of a larger selection phase and purchase for their comparative view and advice in your less experienced phase?

    1. Perhaps I am fortunate that I have enough dealers within an hour travel time cover all of the brands I might be interested in. Ironically the exception is PS Audio. The nearest is Guildford.

      Harbeth limits the number of its UK retailers as it does not want them to have to compete against each other, recognising that retailers will only carry a brand if the sales if generates are worthwhile.

  6. The phrase large companies use is “meets or exceeds customer expectations” when judging if your work product is good enough. Is that phrase for making judgments good enough or should it be better. What about my expectations for myself? Have I met my own standards? Ayn Rand sad “judge and prepare to be judged.” When is the best you can do not good enough? What are your expectations? My expectations when I went to school was to come out understanding what I was taught. But later on upon further reflection some of it made no sense at all. My inquisitive mind and the analytical tools I had acquired provoked me to ask why and could I do better no matter who had invented the accepted theories?

    What is your expectation of a high fidelity sound reproducing system? What was the industry’s promise when I first became interested in this area as opposed to just playing records, listening to the radio, and making and playing tapes? They promised that they were working to make recordings sound like live music that I’d hear at a concert. That was 60 years ago. Well based on my expectations they failed where people in other fields of technology that seem a lot more difficult have succeeded brilliantly. The technology of 60 years ago in most areas is stone age compared to today… except in this field where we are IMO still in the stone age when it comes to meeting expectations. Does it occur to anyone that when you keep hitting your head against a brick wall and it won’t budge there comes a time when you should stop, stand back even if it’s just to make the headache go away and think about finding a way around it, over it, or under it instead? They’re hitting the brick wall with ever larger sledge hammers and it still won’t budge. And what is that sledge hammer? Money. In 1960 the most expensive hi fi system cost about as much as a new luxury car. Today it costs about as much as a mansion yet it’s no closer. If your conclusion is different from mine you either have different expectations or you are just kidding yourself.

    Once I stepped back and did that, I came to understand the problem. And it was very different than what I’d been taught by “experts.” I also saw how to solve it. And I knew then and there I couldn’t ever solve it to perfection. In fact I didn’t think I could do anything with it at all. But that didn’t stop me from trying. My first efforts surprised me at how well I’d done. My second effort using powerful new DSP technology with algorithms stolen from my patent had inherent flaws that were unsatisfactory. It took about six years to figure out what they were and how to fix them. The fix wasn’t expensive but it was hard to arrive at. So how good is good enough? I’m not sure. In my idea the system has to be adjusted for each recording. Anything that sounds wrong bothers me. Yesterday I fixed a problem getting a recording of Liszt’s symphonic tone poems arranged by Tausig played on a Bosendorfer Imperial Grand to sound like it should. The problem was a 1/2 db peak at 5 khz. It’s a very common mistake I make. It makes a piano sound more like a harpsichord. Adjusting that made all the difference. Is it good enough now? Well for the moment. BTW, the Bosendorfer Imperial Grand is the Tyrannosaurus Rex of pianos. I think prices start at about a quarter of a million dollars. Personally I prefer the tone of a Steinway D which starts at a mere $150,000. If your sound system does not make a recording of this piano sound like the huge monster it is, it’s just not good enough for me.

    Do I only challenge audio engineers about their work? NOOOOOO! I’ll challenge anyone who says things that don’t make sense to me.

    Here’s a theory that has nothing to do with audio I’m revealing for the first time about something else I have been interested in long before I was interested in hi fi. Astrophysicists tell us the planets in the solar system condensed from clouds of dust to which I say BULLSHIT. As I see it, the planets were all born in the center of the sun when it was much younger and hotter. They were ejected out into orbit by what is known as the Coriolis effect which starts them rotating and spins them out ultimately ejecting them and hurling them out. The planets are an indicator of the history of the internal conditions in the sun. The asteroid belt was created when the sun was undergoing a transition from making large gas giants to small rocky planets. The asteroids were a planet that was part gas giant and part rocky and therefore unstable. When it reached orbit it was so unstable it exploded. Venus is much hotter than expected and much hotter than the earth because it is much younger and hasn’t cooled down as much. That’s my theory that makes a lot more sense to me than smoke and dust condensing into planets. I have many other theories I can’t divulge but I don’t think the same way normal people do. I accept nothing as close to truth until I understand it and it is plausible to me. IMO physicists are the biggest bullshitters in the world. They’ve replaced religious clerics. A lot of what they say contradicts other things they say and a lot of glib theories are completely devoid of explanations. They’re my real target. This audio thing is just a game for me. Squirrel hunting compared to elephant hunting. One day I’m going to take them down. Now that’s what I call an ambitious safari.

    1. Now that’s intriguing. I suspect that you have explained this elsewhere. I will be acquiring a DSP fairly soon, not just because of your (presumably) previous comment, but also due to a friend telling me that his acquisition of a DSP made the single biggest improvement to his system after his preamp. Is there a simple way to store the metadata for each recording?
      As for the planets in the solar system condensing from clouds of dust, this is a zomby theory, a resurrection of Kant and Laplace surely. I wouldn’t be surprised if something of Hoyle + Alfven were nearer the mark but I’ve never been tempted to test that. I prefer listening to music 🙂

      1. Is there a simple way to store the metadata for each recording? – Yes there is;
        Buy an 16 or 32 track DAW, an old ProTools for example, and you have all the filters, echos and delays you need. You play your recordings from HDDs and save the settings individually for each CD. As an extra you could also do a DSPed crossover for your speakers with the parametric filters of such a DAW.

  7. At Good Vibes Sound started in about 1975, we carried many speakers;

    Some I’ve missed. But when even the bigger speakers were sized so they could be tried at home we always had happy customers. Today, you about have to go to AXPONA and hope (not likely) that the differences you hear are the speaker and not the room. Take the best you hear and try them again the next year, and then maybe in a dealers showroom. So you get three attempts to hear the speaker and maybe less the room. If it still sounds good it might mostly stay that way at home.

    Knowing if something is done is sure easier with a consistent background for change. This is hard to do as it means nothing is done unless the customer has your “done” room. The manufacturer can feel far more done than the customer ever will.

  8. This post sure resonated with me. I have been much happier since adopting the “good enough” philosophy. For the most part once I get something I try to not think of what else there might be. I don’t go with the cheapest but generally one or two notches up a manufacturer’s product line is more than satisfactory. Belkin Gold USB cables are good enough, AudioQuest wire at $2.00 a foot more than enough, file storage format same way. My all-in-one pizza box works as expected so I leave it alone too! Speakers might be the exception, not sure I am done there yet 🙂

  9. How to cope with today’s post premise becomes a dilemma for me. The farther away you live from a metropolitan center and a network of audio dealers then the harder it is to audition. Not so much with the electronics side of the system, but with speakers.

    With most of the electronics if someone has narrowed down brands and features then the in home trial works. Provided you’re willing to have a bundle of cash to float around until you find something that satisfies. You also have the added benefit of getting to know your local shipping carrier’s representative.

    IMO speakers are the most important part, then the source component(s) and finally matching electronics (amps & preamps). Then comes the improvements of line conditioning and the dance of all the cables and interconnects.

    Buying speakers just on reviews and manufacturer trust won’t cut it for me. Even if I have a favorite manufacturer. Without the ability of being able to audition and compare multiple brands and models I’d be stuck between a rock and a hard spot. The choices then are going to be limited by what my closest dealer that I trust has available. That’s hardly ideal.

    The only way to learn and know what you prefer is to listen. Horns? Electrostats? Planar Ribbons? Dipole? Point Source? Line Source? Full Range? Subwoofer additions? Hybrids? Direct Reflecting? etc…. etc… etc…

    The majority of people in this forum have made their choices and have their preferences. How would they make choices today if dealer availability was severely limited or if they were just starting out?

    Trusting and having faith in a manufacturer is a good starting point, but is limited to what they offer.

  10. The main problem facing local brick and mortar retailers is that they offer a venue to listen, only to have that person go online and get the products at the cheapest price, or find it on the used market. This existed in the past, but the current online retail environment makes it so easy. I really wouldn’t want to go backwards because of the advantages, but I would like to audition first.

    When John Atkinson visited PS Audio to listen to the Infinity speakers, he used some new technology with his phone. It recorded what he was hearing (at least close to what he was hearing). It was actually a nice experience. I think it would be cool for online retailers to do this with varying system setups, creating an “online audition” experience. It would have to be more “professionally” done. It’s not perfect, but if given proper attention, it could be an effective tool.

  11. “When is it good enough”?

    Such a personal question with answers that are probably as diverse as are individuals. Really doesn’t matter if you have invested $1K, $5k or $100k, as it is all still an illusion. Depending on Your definition, perception, and achievement of “Suspended Disbelief” (IMHO-Very plausible in a synergistic balanced Stereo and Listening room), good enough for me was when I reached playback capabilities that consistently rival what “I’ve heard” and “have in my head” from realistic acoustical music activities. This is based on my music degree training\teaching experiences and exposures attending Live Performances over the past 55 years!

    When those illusional 4-6 hour listening sessions (several times a week) create extreme enjoyment, with dare I state, holographic soundstages and venue spaces that portray as close to “live” as I’ve ever heard (always with eyes wide open), then for me it is good enough…for now! Certainly, someone else could debate or even argue that They don’t agree or hear what I describe…so be it.

    The listening instruments on the sides of my computer Tell Me when it is Good Enough…that’s what Really Counts!!

    1. “There’s no perfect solution I am familiar with other than relying upon trust. If I trust a manufacturer then I am more likely to know what to expect.”

      In all the years I’ve built sound reproduction eq (amps & pre-amp kits, horn loaded sp. systems and other audio components), ran a professional sound reinforcement co. and with those whom I purchased from sight\sound unseen, there’s only One group that IMO does their audio business model right. I TRUST them to deliver Exactly the stated performances, customer service and value in their line up of speaker products (thank’s Ascend Acoustics). Although I don’t yet own any of PSA’s products, Paul’s business model and audio philosophy is very similar and One more audio provider whom I’ve developed TRUST in. When I have the need for a product that fits my situation, PSA will be my 1st choice!!

  12. Paul, my perspective on “good enough” has changed a couple of times.

    Initially I became interested in “high fidelity” because of my love for several different types of music. I learned I could enjoy the music more as my playback system improved. That continued on for many years.

    But more recently I find I’m satisfied with what I have and no longer look for the next step up quality wise — I just want to listen and enjoy the music. Aging will do that to ya! ;^)

  13. Things have changed but definitely not for the better. This is what happens when change is automatically taken for improvement when in fact it is regression. ” As thou shall sow thus thou shall reap” could not be truer. All those who are constantly trying to improve their audio systems are at a big disadvantage. For those who believe that the latest is always the best it really does not matter since even mediocrity is superior. After all it is the latest therefore the best.. Lamentable but a fact nevertheless. Regards.

  14. Just increased the RT by 200 milliseconds and the reverberant level by one increment. It’s more betterer than it was. It wasn’t quite good enough before, just a tad off. Now it is….. for the time being.

  15. If you’re going to spend thousands of dollars on a pair of speakers that you are going to spend hundreds, if not thousands of hours listening through, why would you not spend hundreds of dollars and two or three days perusing the offerings of say a hundred different manufacturers at a high-end audio show? NASCAR fans spend that kind of money and commit to that amount of time just to see a single race–with no intention of ever buying a race car or the likelihood that their favorite driver/car will win the race.

    As for Paul’s particular dilemma, perhaps some temporary hair dye and dark sunglasses would allow you to browse around at Munich unrecognized. Or a cowboy hat and a long fake beard–think, ZZ Top! 😎 Spend a few $ and buy an ordinary pass to the show.

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