When is too much enough?

September 14, 2018
 by Paul McGowan

I am often asked if a certain this or a certain that is overkill.

“I have a small room, would a subwoofer be overkill?”

I am tempted to turn the question around and ask what size room benefits from a rolled off speaker? Seems to me I always want to get everything on the disc.

Or, “is this DAC too good for my system?”

I get the sentiment of not wanting to “waste” expensive high quality. When I first got into the drinking of good wine I’d share an expensive red with my mother Sue who would proceed to plop a few cubes of ice into it to get the temperature right.

But I think asking the question of how good something needs to be before its goodness is wasted is misguided. Why wouldn’t it make more sense to always do the best you can: the widest frequency response speakers, the highest DAC resolution possible, an unrestricted dynamic range phono cartridge.

I think it should be turned into: What’s the best I can do?

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27 comments on “When is too much enough?”

  1. If Paul made bicycles would he sell a $10,000 10-speed fibreglass racer with bespoke everything to an 80 year old granny with a bad hip, even if she was a billionaire? Hopefully not. The $500 upright with a wicker basket on front would be more appropriate.
    It’s horses for courses, pedals for pensioners, whatever idiom takes your fancy. My father, who’s not yet hit Skid Row, still gets great pleasure from his $200 Aiwa system circa 1995. He spends more on an opera ticket.
    So “Why wouldn’t it make more sense to always do the best you can?” – well, waste of money, waste space, waste of electricity, for starters.
    The reality is that many people who love listening to music and speech broadcasts are neither interested nor care about sound quality above a basic level, and will not be persuaded otherwise. That includes virtually the entire female population of the planet. They remain happy as a sandman (or sandlady, or Larry). I am happy listening to music on my $100 “Pure” DAB radio, it doesn’t have to be on the expensive stereo all the time.

    1. I think in this context, “the best you can” does not have to involve spending beyond your means or outside of what you think is reasonable for your particular pursuit of audio happiness/perfection. It also, I think, assumes you care about music reproduction more than your dad (or mine did). Please note I wrote “reproduction”, thanks.

      If you’re happy with your $100 radio, why did you spend all that money on your pizza box? It does what you want how you want it done, or so one assumes from your posts. Small, efficient, all-in-one-ish, etc.

      1. Steven is good a making interesting points but I fear he has totally missed mine.

        Building an all out bike for an old lady is, of course, silly. But, building a bike with easy to use gears for an older person when they could get by without them isn’t overkill in the same way adding a subwoofer to make a full range speaker isn’t overkill, it’s getting the job done right.

        1. The other thing I found interesting in a number of the replies early this morning was the seeming emphasis on frugality, when you could certainly argue you’re a first stop for the Frugal Audiophile.

          By most folks’ frame of reference, PS gear is “stupid money”, yet the most costly pieces offered are a factor of 10 or 20 below what’s available. And yet “punch” far above its price point. If you’re posting here, I would assume you appreciate that.

            1. I was thinking about this thread this morning and how much I enjoy reading all the comments, interesting, sensible and knowledgeable. For sure in the framework referenced PS Audio products are at the lower end of the price spectrum but that framework contains products for which the pricing seems frankly insane. I’d love to know how many of these top priced products are sold but that’s no doubt commercially sensitive, and as for profit margins! Then I’ll probably hear the phrase ‘market forces’. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not having a go at Paul, far from it. His open approach and this forum is a breath of fresh air. It is high end pricing in general that just seems to have got way out of hand. I don’t know figures but get the impression the audiophile is a declining breed and suggest that ever increasing prices will only exacerbate this.

        2. The bike thing is silly, but illustrates the point as I understood it.

          I added a subwoofer to fill in from 25-40Hz as it is important in some music, particularly jazz. It’s not for scaring the neighbours. The other option, getting Harbeth M40.2 that go that low, would have been overkill and totally impractical as they are huge and expensive.

          I have my main audio system downstairs, my home office a pair of P3ESR and a small Audiolab all-in-one (could have been LS50 and Chromecast) and the DAB radio in the office office. That may be a fairly typical arrangement. The main audio is maxed out as far as I’m concerned. The other two could be bigger and better, but we all apply some balance where appropriate.

  2. I understand the uncertainty of people, also because most play at their limits and therefore usually can’t go for simply the best.

    I guess what I would ask them is, how much they think they are going to spend for further upgrades within the next 5 years. If it’s nameable in relation to the currently questioned gear, I’d tend to recommend the option which would be overkill now, otherwise not.

    A billionaire would tell you if he wants the best or what’s necessary, that would be easy to consult.

    1. Re: the last line, I did custom install stuff for a while, and it’s harder than one would think, possibly more difficult and complicated than consulting for an average Joe. They have the money – that’s not the issue, though certainly some have the philsophy that they didn’t get where they are by wasting it.

      The thing that shocked me was how many just wanted something unobtrusive/hidden and easy to control. Sound quality was a distant third, if that. Of course I did not discriminate and say, “I’m only going to do installs for audiophiles”. Though when I did, that had its own set of issues ; )

      1. Fully agree! Usually the most important demand independent of money available: “it shouldn’t be seen, convenient and ok sounding”. Few with our hobby “music AND good sound” and most who have the hobby are rather too short on money for what they would like to afford 😉

  3. Steven has really made the point for me. The question of overkill is a valid one. If you lived on a small island with only a few miles of road what would be the point of buying a high performance super car? Better to spend the money on a hifi system don’t you think Paul? I like the best (doesn’t everyone) but affordability is a major factor in the reasoning for many people’s purchasing decisions. I tend towards the 90% of the performance for 10% of the price approach. In striving for perfection many audiophiles might not agree, but in buying the best (of anything) it’s all to easy to end up overpaying.

  4. “What’s the best I can do?”
    The manufacturer is hoping everyone asks himself this question.
    And put the money where the mouth is. Good for the business.
    But not reality.
    For most people, let’s say 95%, it’s more like : “What am I satisfied with ?”. That is, IF they ask themselves this question at all.
    And that results in spending 300-700 dollar for……a smartphone. Or even more, given the insane prices of these toys nowadays, with Apple as a leader in this respect.
    Oh, and Katie Perry sounds wonderful on my ($19.95) earbuds, what more do you want.
    Then about 3 % is willing to spend some money on an “audio system”, let’s say $400. A little streamer, preferably with a built in speaker.
    The remaining 2% is buying “the real thing”, (preferably PSA of course). Although, when I do the math for my country, 2% is probably estimated too optimistic.
    That’s the inconvenient (audio-) truth in 2018. I see it all the time in my neighborhood, family, friends.
    On the rare occasions I tell people that my hobby is “audio”, most of the time THEY DON’T HAVE A CLUE what I’m talking about…
    Nice fact : Next week, with som audio buddies, I’m visiting the biggest audio show in my country (once a year).
    It’s for 2 days (aka weekend) and after the show the organisation is very happy if there were 7,500 visitors.
    Well, 2% of the population of my country is 350,000. So where are the other 342,500 ?
    And did I mention that 7,500 includes a lot of Belgians…

  5. If you’re a millionaire then the question is easy. If you’re lower middle class then it becomes a little more difficult.
    If you’re like me or most of the world and especially most of America and the West, then you have children, rent (because you will never be able to afford a house), whatever savings you can afford which is usually next to nothing, clothes, food….. And then you get to spend whatever little precious money you have on the thing you love most besides your family, music and audio.
    So, when someone asks that question maybe it’s best to be sensitive to the vast majority of your readers who are definitely not the kinds of people who can afford the best they can do, especially with everything and maybe not even good, with everything maybe would take him 10 years to save up money for 2nd hand speakers, second-hand integrated amplifier maybe a low level record player for whatever music they might have inherited from their family. And with dacs being so technologically driven and ever-changing, it’d be the most difficult question to answer.

    My sympathies Paul. Good luck!

  6. … “I think it should be turned into: What’s the best I can do?”

    I think this phrase better defines the intention or the idea of ​​this post.

    As well as a wine connoisseur, he might feel uncomfortable with the idea of ​​adding water to a fine wine, however, one is in the perfect right to do so.

    This idea can be extrapolated to the audio, and particularly to a speaker system.

    We have those who are convinced that a modern speaker should be designed to cover the entire range, through 4 ways.

    For this fourth way, we use one or several drivers (of sufficient Sd) in such a way that it reproduces the lower octaves of certain instruments such as the counter-bassoon, cello, etc. leaving the last octave of the spectrum to be reproduced by another or other drivers specially designed for that purpose.

    This system contemplates the use of digital active Xovers only, based on a DSP that also includes the pre-amp and correction of the room in real time.

    We respect, as it could not be otherwise, those who continue to use passive X overs (wine with water) but we do not share this obsolete technique.

    This is the best we can do, (paraphrasing the moderator)

  7. The best you can when building a system. Being a tech person I now go for straightforward great sounding circuitry. A point of contention to me was for example the venerable ARC SP11 preamplifier that had FET & transistor identifiers purposely removed. Don’t make it too easy for the repair technician will you? (Mind you it was reliable). After that I went for Manley that have accurate schematics with all components fully identified. Gives peace of mind and saves a lot of unnecessary bother later on. The best you can (without going daft).

  8. Years ago I decided that the equipment I needed to have was never going to be “the best”, but it didn’t need to be, it just needed to be “good enough”. I have adopted that philosophy to the file types I store my music in, my car, bike and other components. I don’t even have the newest iPhone, no need the slightly older model is good enough. This philosophy helps me chill out and is much better on the pocketbook!

    I just saw AllanG’s comments and would certainly agree. Do the best the company can do, which is far above the efforts of most companies in my opinion, but certainly don’t drive yourself daft striving for that last one-tenth of one-percent that won’t mean anything to most folks anyway!

  9. There is only one serious answer to al these questions, Paul: trust your own ears! And why recommend a subwoofer setup to a guy who has no idea about room- and psycho-acoustics nor knows how to tame room modes and to match the subwoofers to the satellites getting a smooth step response?

  10. I recently purchased a Stellar GCD and S300 Amp as well as a pair of Kef LS50 speakers. This was a major purchase for my wife and I. We both love music going to shows, some of our favorites have been Nick Cave in Boston, Charles Lloyd in the Temple of Dendur at the Met in New York as well spending time in the Village Vanguard and Mezzrow Jazz clubs in New York. We decided we live in a time of unparalleled access to all kinds of music with Tidal, digital downloads etc, so why not take advanage of this as much as we can. I remember being young living in Boulder and my friends would go to a HiFi store called Listen UP. At that time all I could afford was my Boom Box. I still loved listening to it just as much as do listing to the PSAudio system now. I’m not a HiFi expert but have been learning from blogs etc and I think for a resonable amount of money our small condo PSAudio/Keff System is wonderful for us. I remember a quote “Music washes away from the soul the dust of everyday life” It really does, its my reset button after a long day commuting working commmuting again etc. Paul’s youtube videos have been like having a big brother for me that knows all kinds of things that I don’t know. I’m so happy he’s willing to be open and share what he’s learned.

  11. Paul should consider himself exempt from this comment. His diligence is on behalf of his customers which is a rare and special thing in this day and age. He could just as easily sell mediocre stuff and still get the same prices… but he doesn’t.

    I’ve been around audio most of my life. Beginning with Heathkit then moving into my own design experiments on amps and speakers and finally (once I could afford it) into a high end system that was the best for its time. (Crown + Klipsch) In the end I sold the whole thing off and swore off the hobby for almost 10 years, only to rejoin about 6 years ago, in a whole new way. I started round two with a used Marantz receiver and a pair of Boston Acoustics speakers and loved them for about 2 years until the urge to experiment resurfaced.

    So, in order to actually keep some of my limited income, my new question is “How good does it need to be?”

    Do I really need 1100 watts per channel, DC to 50khz, +-1db at .01% distortion? Or would perhaps 50 watts per channel 20 to 20khz, with less than 1% distortion be adequate? How much difference does all that added expense really make?

    There is a lot of audiophile “snake oil” out there. In fact I think most of it is. Beyond a certain point you rather quickly get into the law of diminishing returns where you are spending 100% more cash to get a 1% improvement and the closer you get to “perfection” the worse it gets. That last 0.1% could cost you 10,000% more… and to what end?

    My hobby isn’t the equipment. In fact, so long as I enjoy my listening sessions I really don’t much care about the equipment at all. The end goal is to simply have a satisfying experience with my music and movies.

    I’ve learned from hearing tests that I don’t hear a darned thing under 30hz or over 13khz and I barely notice 2db changes in loudness. Playing around with deliberate clipping at modest power levels I’ve discovered that I don’t notice distortion at less than about 2%. I’m told by an audiologist this is about average hearing for a modern teenager (I’m 67).

    So just about anything other than the worst electronics on the market already exceeds my ear’s specifications.

    Then there are the hidden infidelities … most microphones introduce about 2 to 3% distortion,tape mastering adds another 1 or 2% and pressing analog copies adds still another percent or so. So it’s likely, by the time we get that precious new vinyl pressing home it’s going to have anywhere up to 5 or 6% distortion built right in. Digital mediums aren’t much better, running 1 or 2% on average.

    Then comes the bugaboo.. even the best speakers can easily add another 5% of various distortions during playback.

    In plain terms, any audiophile who spends big wads of cash chasing that last .1% is engaging in a snipe hunt… and one can only hope that it’s not fed by the depths of self-deception and technical misunderstanding one can easily find online.

    I’ve helped set up $10,000 home theatres, $5,000 listening rooms, $5,000 living room systems… all of which were well beyond the “good enough” line.

    My criterion for my personal system is simply this: “Do I enjoy listening to it or do I always end up finding fault with it?” if it’s the former then it’s good enough. If it’s the latter, the search continues.

    LOL … Just sign me “The practical audiophile”.

  12. This question actually has an answer….BUT….like most things in life it’s not as simple as it first seems and asks more questions than it answers.

    The seemingly easy answer is given by the mathematical concept of an asymptote. In this concept you have a straight line and you have a curved line. Both go out to infinity. The further out you go the closer the curved line gets to the straight line but they never meet…. except at infinity which is a purely mathematical abstraction in this example. So where is the point where further improvement won’t matter? You draw another straight line parallel to the first one. This is the maximum sensitivity of your senses in a given respect. Once the curved line meets this line further improvement won’t be perceptible, it’s wasted. For audiophiles for example the worst case of audible frequencies is 20 khz (except for a certain person who claims to hear above 20 khz through his eyeballs). Bandwidth above 20 khz is wasted. You can’t hear it. Of course audiophiles reject this notion believing they can hear out to ??? which is why manufacturers are only too happy to accommodate them such as HK who built an amplifier whose performance actually exceeded its specification of flat to 1 Mhz. Then there are the people who claim CD’s don’t have enough “resolution.” Resolution is the ability to discriminate between one loudness level and another. 16 bit RBCD offers over 64,000 loudness over its 96 db dynamic range across the entire audio bandwidth. But again for audiophiles we have 24 and 32 bit resolution, dynamic range that far exceeds the threshold of pain (a very dangerous thing to do if you ever want to be able to hear again) and FR out to 46 khz, 92 khz, WXYZ khz. But these principles of asymptotes are generally accepted by scientists and engineers.

    So where is the problem? There are at least 2 I know of. About 10 years ago a professor of electrical engineering at UCLA or USC wrote a book in which his experiments on visual acuity showed that as noise was reduced in an image acuity recognized the improvement up to a very low point, however, as noise further decreased acuity actually went down. That is a certain amount of noise at a very low level actually improved the ability to see clearly. It is counterintuitive and I don’t know whether or not his experiment was ever repeated and corroborated or refuted.

    The other one has to do with cosmology and the speed of light. As speed increases according to Einstein so does mass relative to the rest of the universe. The more mass you have the more energy it takes to accelerate any further. To reach the speed of light you’d need infinite energy which is why mass can never reach the speed of light. As you approach the speed of light the curve is an asymptote. There is an equation that explains this called the Lorentz Fitzgerald Contraction. However our space telescopes like Hubbell and Spitzer show that not only galaxies that are farther away are traveling away from us faster and faster the further away they are but that the furthest galaxies we can see are traveling away from us faster than the speed of light. There are 3 ways to measure their speed and while they all give different results they agree that these objects are traveling away from us faster than light. Of course this makes no logical sense. If we are traveling away from something faster than the light it emits, that light would never catch up to us. How do cosmologists reconcile this? Well like all primitives they invent a story to explain it. In this story space itself is expanding and the force doing it is called dark energy. How can this be and what is dark energy? Nobody knows. It’s really not all that different from the god Ra carrying the sun across the sky on a chariot every day the way the ancient Egyptians believed. Their stories were equally preposterous but more entertaining and easier to understand. This is why I challenge EVERYTHING people tell me.

  13. Sometimes the “best I can do” isn’t good enough. Usually it concerns aesthetics over functionality.

    I’m realistic enough to accept the fact that I have limitations and have to rely on someone with more expertise.

    One thing that I remember from my youth when purchasing something was being told that if you always get what you perceive to be the best for your price point you’ll never be disappointed.

  14. To me the most important place to start is by establishing an objective for your design. Using Paul’s example of a subwoofer in a small room, is the objective to achieve full range performance from the system? If so, then his solution, i.e. doing the best I can do is correct. But what if the objective is not that? What if the music source is not typically full range, for example, listening to vinyl as a primary source? Consider all elements of the puzzle first, develop a realistic objective and then formulate a strategy to achieve your target.

    1. Yup – and I would say that a lot of folks with smaller rooms, and no option for a larger one at the moment, find the “bass bump” from having the speakers X distance (maybe “too close”) from the wall works pretty well for them, independent of their knowledge of the acoustics involved. We all used to be less knowledgeable and often generally happier in our ignorance. Knowledge is a dangerous thing. ; )

    2. The Sub-Woofer example is a good one … I don’t even want to guess how often I’ve seen one of two things … a Sub that does nothing because their sources don’t go that low or the Sub with the crossover cranked up to about 250hz driving so much bass as to be outright painful.

      Planning and some study is definitely a prerequisite in any successful task.

  15. People who ask such questions are obviously more interested in the quality of sound than a casual listener. By casual listener I mean some one who is satisfied with something that is pleasant sounding enough. For the former your advice is on the button. Since the front end is where it all starts that should be the best that one can afford. But it does not stop there. It is just the beginning. Since the weakest link in the audio chain is the limiting point performance wise it is imperative that everything that follows must not compromise the quality of the preceding component. The last in the chain are the speakers but they are not the least. They should be as good as everything else in fact an overkill here is the safer way to go. Every thing equally good and the best one can afford. Now wallow in ecstasy. Regards.

  16. Simply “What purchase will bring me the greatest joy”. This emcompasses not only audio equipment, but all purchases. It also covers buyer regret of spending more than you can afford, or not spending enough to get what you really wanted.

  17. If budget were not a major concern, I would always get the best of anything I was into. Luckily I assembled a system over the years that I could not afford to do now. I am sure some would recommend that I sell it and buy a cheaper one, so I could buy things that I need. Wouldn’t do it.
    Everything in life is about priorities. Music has been important to me most of my life, and when at 14 I learned about quality audio equipment it became something I wanted. If I am consulted by a friend, I recommend the best within their budget.
    Today I learned that Steven doesn’t know anything about bicycles. I wanted a Schwinn Varsity 10- speed when I was 12 to replace my 24″ tire 3 speed. I had to work and save to get one. Mowing lawns, money already saved from shoveling snow, and a small allowance. It cost me, I think it was $67.
    I sold it shortly after getting my drivers license, at 16. At 21 I decided I wanted a bike for exercise, I bought a French 10-speed, not the best available, but perfect for my needs. I was lucky I had, as my used car was in the shop for 3 months waiting for a warrantied short block. Although I quit riding, between full time work, cars, and a couple of motorcycles, the bike just sat. In 2001 I went on a diet, lost 40lbs in 6 months. In 2002 I got the bike back out, I rode about 700 miles that first year, constantly spending money on minor upgrades. 10 became 12 speeds, and lots of accessories. I had some problems the following summer with a new headset that kept coming loose. The dealer had two 2002 bikes that in 2003 were highly discounted. At the time aluminum frames were quite popular, but this was a quality steel with midline components, it was a 27 speed. 3 in front, 9 in the back. That winter, I replaced everything but the frame and fork. I had a set of wheels built by a guy out in Boulder, and other than having a different dealer install the Chris King headset, did all the work myself. From 2003 through 2013 I put over 13,000 miles on that bike. If I could have afforded it I would have bought a $5000 Cervelo that had a carbon fiber frame. Now the best bikes have 10 or 11 gears in back with either 2 or 3 chain rings in front. For about $3000 more, the carbon fiber bike would have been between 6-8 lbs lighter, other than that for someone who didn’t race, maybe a little more speed. The pride in owning my bike was that I had done all the work. Although if I had bought the Cervelo, I would have just bought the frame, built it myself.

    Danny, if you can a get mortgage, buy a house. I wish someone would have given me that advice. I rented for 20 years and basically bought the duplex for the landlord. I finally got some first time homeowner grants and bought a house in 2007. I wish someone would have explained equity, mortgages. In my area, a mortgage, including property taxes, and homeowners insurance is less than the rent on a similar value property.
    I believe it is all about priorities, buy the best you can afford on things you enjoy, or care about. But whatever you buy, get the best deal and decent quality, buying cheap crap often ends up costing more in the long term.

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