How Radical Is That?

Pro amps, a bottom of the line Japanese universal disc player, little known speakers, and an AV receiver—no tubes, no analog source, no vinyl, no standalone DAC, no boutique cables—not a single high-end component—that’s my sound system. What the hell am I smokin’?

I’ll tell you what I’m not smoking. I’m not smoking money.

The average audiophile has dumped between ten to twenty thousand US dollars in his/her system. That statistic comes from the surveys at Parallel Audio. And that only accounts for the amount sunk in their current primary system. There’s no telling how much they’ve spent over the years on shuffling gear in and out. For that kind of money and time there should be some amazing sound out there. But from what I’ve heard, it ranges from mediocre to good, sometimes very good, but never amazing.

One particularly dramatic example of the disconnect between money spent and sound quality achieved comes from a recent survey participant. He (assuming male) is a self identified audiophile. He prefers analog and tubes to digital and transistors. He aims for a personally tailored rather than objectively realistic sound. He makes changes to his system more than once a year. He relies on his ears more than specs, reviews, or independent testing. He has an average investment in his system, 10-20 thousand USD, and, hold on to your seat, he is “not even close” to his audio goals, and indicates, “it does not sound very live.” What’s he smokin’?

Many factors may explain the discrepancies. One is that we buy with our eyes. Pretty equipment is irresistible. High-end manufacturers know this well. They spare no expense on fit and finish. It’d be hard to justify the price without it. If you’re lucky, very, very lucky, there might actually be some good stuff inside the beautiful box, but don’t hold your breath. Remember, you’re paying for the fine furniture, exquisite face plate, and the prestige more than for the contents and performance.

Then there are the hot trends sucking us in and distracting us from what matters. A basic lack of knowledge and a dose of deliberate disregard for facts keep the disinformation circulating. Since most of us aren’t electrical, mechanical or recording engineers, nor physicists or acousticians, we can’t necessarily understand how everything works, or know what’s important and what’s not. Nevertheless, we can learn the basics. Without doing our own investigation, we’re subject to the whims of marketing departments and groundless fads.

Throwing the dice, trying out this, and experimenting with that, and hoping you stumble on something, and thinking you’ve got it only to find you’re not even close and it doesn’t sound very live, is the best way to burn money.

Why have his efforts given him little satisfaction? Trying to turn back the clock with tired old technology may be a warm and fuzzy pastime, but for excellent sound reproduction it won’t get you there. Facts tell the unclouded story of old technologies and why they’ve been displaced by more effective means of audio reproduction. Believing the old ways are better and searching for an unknown personal sound is unsound. He needs to dig down to the root of what it takes to reproduce sound.

Roots are not found in the past or in fads or by chance. They are found by diving into the fundamentals. Getting to the root of things is essential. (The word radical comes from the latin word for root, radix.) Radical is getting to the root, the source, the base, the foundation, the core. But being radical is rare. Few ever break traditions, push boundaries, blaze trails, or stir a revolution. Take a walk on the wild side, be radical.

Take the Parallel Audio [Surveys].

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