Sunday noodling on Budget Systems and System 3

I get a lot of crap for writing out here on the ol’ Internets. A lot of you consider me to be, variously, and in no particular order, one (or some combo) of the following:

  • An ass
  • Know-it-all
  • Know-nothing
  • Sellout and/or corporate shill
  • Tool
  • Village idiot

I take all of those kind suggestions to indulge in biologically improbably activities with pieces of overpriced audio components in the intent they were offered, though I must confess that I really don’t have any plans to piss off and die any time terribly soon.

Ah, fans. Your outrage keeps me young.

But there is a thread that’s worth pulling out of the noise — audio gear is some expensive shit.

It’s true. Unfortunately, there’s not much to be done about it. I mean, this is a luxury segment. Nothing being sold in, or as, “high-end audio” is actually required for good health, long life, moral rectitude, or spiritual satisfaction. Arguably, pining for these products could be said to run counter to all of those noble goals. Envy is a mean-spirited little bitch.

Once upon a time, I explored some of the issues around pricing. My conclusion? If no one was actually planning on making a living manufacturing and/or bringing such gear to market, well, yes, prices would be lower. But Envy’s kissing cousin, Capitalism, tends to screw that up for most of us would-be audio birds as we actively attempt to feather our nests with reference-grade gear.

So, let’s take a second and talk about money, systems, and putting together something for a given budget.

A “budget system” really only means that someone of some specific level of means can afford it. Note the relativity there — it fully entails that there will be cases where one man’s budget system will be catastrophically expensive for the other 99%. Words are funny like that. So, when I talk about “System 2″ as a budget system, I’m not talking about your budget — I’m talking about my budget. This really ought to be obvious, but it’s worth remembering and repeating. The term ‘budget’ is a relative term.

For System 2, I set a rather arbitrary budget of $10k and I blew that budget completely. As of now, System 2 may include $7,000 speakers, $9,000 of components, an $8,000 source, and $6,000 worth of wire & power distribution. That’s … a bit … more than my original limit. Yeah. WTF happened there? Yikes.

This is hardly a budget system — for me. Mitt Romney will probably disagree.

However, it is a reference system — which is a bit different from what anyone would “need” to enjoy music. I will certainly use it to enjoy music, ohyesindeed, but that’s not really what it’s for. It’s a tool, which will allow me to do a job. Note that this is different from me actually being a tool, which I can appreciate, I’m really unable to debate.

Now, returning to the question of a budget system. Do you need to blow it out in order to assemble a great sounding system? Does anyone? I think you may be surprised (since I’m a tool) to see me say that the answer to that is emphatically “no”. You may be even more surprised when I call that kind of expectation a myth.

Another myth is that you’ll get more if you pay more. Better systems are more expensive, after all, all things being equal. Aren’t they? Sure they are! This is how $20,000 speaker cables happen.

Yes, there are a ton of clichés out there that give the lie to this. The phrase ‘giant killer’ is an indication that something isn’t quite right with the picture of ever-escalating costs tracking with audio quality. If something cheap can compare with something expensive, and even [gasp!] come out ahead, well, shitballs, that’s exciting! My personal belief is that there are always bargains to be had — ‘bargain’ being defined as something that conforms to The Julia Rule, not necessarily falling below some arbitrary cost threshold. ‘Bargain’ and ‘budget’ have similar problems with arbitrariness or relativity.

But it’s a fact that budgets vary. My budget isn’t yours. And budgets are notoriously squishy things, and System 2 is an excellent poster-boy for this pathetic state of affairs. So, with that said, I think I’m going to explore a System 3.

System 3 will aim to be the best sound quality I can get out of another arbitrarily set budget. I want to say it’s going to $5k for the entire thing, but I may go a bit lower — and this time, no slippage.

When I have time, system 4 will do the same thing — with a total budget of $1,000. And as for System 3, that budget must include speakers, amp/pre, source and cables. Everything you need to get tunes from some medium into your ears.

The reason for my multi-system approach? Other than the fact that I’m an audiophile (Hi, how are you?) and I have a problem with hoarding? Yeah, other than that! Well, I think that different price points can yield different things, and as an exercise, it’s interesting to see what happens to the sound quality of the overall when the individuals are all price-appropriate with each other.

The other contributing element is more of a philosophy thing. As you can no doubt guess, I’ve been working on my approach to reviews and reviewing. Wanna hear the latest? Okay, here it goes: “it’s about synergy”.

Let me unpack that — a good review puts a product in different contexts. A reviewer with one excellent system can really only tell you one thing — they either achieved, or failed to achieve, synergy with their system. If there’s only one system, there’s no way to tease out whether or not a different context would have yielded a different result. Whateverdoyoumean, oh Village Idiot? Well, thanks for asking. It works like this.

Not all components work well together. To my ears, B&W’s iconic 802d speakers sounded great with Bryston amps but have sounded rather lackluster with every McIntosh front end I’ve ever heard. This is most definitely not slamming McIntosh — just saying that the synergy (for me at least, which is another issue, but something of a red herring here, so just go with it) wasn’t there. Speakers with Fostex drivers, like the spectacular Vaughn Pinot Monitors, simply do not love my solid-state Luxman L-505u, an amp that lit up a loaner pair Joseph Audio Pulsars, filling them with sunshine and rainbows. Tubes and Nordost cables. Lowther and SET. Wilson and VTL. Magnepan and 1000wpc amplifiers. Peas and carrots. Peanut butter and jelly. Sometimes, certain things just go better together.

So, when you get a reviewer condemning a product either outright, or with faint praise, you have to look and see what was used in the review. If your reviewer’s entire toolbox is made up of one high-priced amp and one high-priced source and one high-priced speaker, you may well have a great-sounding system that is so finely tuned that spitting three streets away could cause it to implode into a cloud of improbability. This is not a review system, however great it may sound on those 3rd-Thursdays with no solar flare activity. Swapping components in and out of a system like this is akin to attaching a lobster claw onto a child instead of an arm. Interesting things may result, but “humanity” isn’t one of them.

Anyway, it helps if a reviewer can not only price-match components, but also move a given component around to see what changes with more and less expensive bits and possibly even bits of different kinds (tubes v. solid state, for example) and report on the obvious failures of synergy. If the reviewer, with a suite of such tools at his disposal, cannot make the component find some level of synergy with any, then we have cause to bash a product. Otherwise, you have to ask yourself if the reviewer just didn’t really like the mental picture of his Ford Mustang with a giant whale-tail spoiler and therefore bashed the whale-tail for being stupid, pointless and garish. Which it is, but never mind that.

That’s my thinking currently. More gear = more flexibility.

Pretty sweet as far as rationalizations go, isn’t it? I thought so. ;-)

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29 Responses to Sunday noodling on Budget Systems and System 3

  1. I enjoy your posts. You do the research that I can’t afford to do. Keep up the good work.

  2. j.soundlabs says:

    This was an excellent post, I applaud your sensible and articulate reply to your critics. It would have been far easier to just say “f-off” or “you don’t get it,” but your calm and rational explanation works far better.

  3. j.soundlabs says:

    Reblogged this on tone n' timbre and commented:
    Excellent post about the term “budget” and how it is absolutely relative.

  4. Bill Domeika says:

    Personally, when it comes to budget for systems, don’t they always go up? I mean when do you ever go in with said budget and discover, “Hey I only need 40% of what I thought i would to get exactly what I need”. I’ll tell you….exactly never. I can say this with complete metaphysical certitude.

    I will tell you where I did fall out with you on your escalating budget. $7000 for speakers, i’m down with that! $9000K for components, check! $8000K for source…hmm, I guess if your locked into paying bust-out retail, but gotta believe you can do better than that. You seem to be married to the Lampizator DAC gadget, does that $8000K cover that as well as a spinning media source? If not, IMNSHO I think you’re over invested there for a near-field set up,

    Finally $6K for wire and power distribution? Really, dude? I guess if you have money to spare, why not. But my experience would suggest that you could it for well less and in a blind test never be able to tell the difference.

    As you know, I’m a big fan of your blog. You have the knowledge of an experience practitioner of the hobby…which we all rate way ahead of typical audio reviewers and their egos. One thing I’ve always resonated with is the “everyman” pragmatism in your reviews of shows and of course in your fascinating writing on the development of your own systems. I hope you don’t lose your your “everyman” sensibilities even as you push the envelop reviewing equipment. That’s what keeps your grounded and your readers committed.

    My two cents…

    Cheers,

    • Part-Time Audiophile says:

      Yeah, well. What can I say? I’m mentally deficient. ;-) But as for the wire. It’s all coming from Nordost — they’re sending me a “loom” of stuff to use and try out and write about. I sent the Nordost guys my prospective system, and this is what they thought would be the best match. It’ll be price-appropriate to the system, for whatever it’s worth, but of course, the value there assumes that you believe that “wire matters”. So, even though I’m not shelling out the duckets for their products (at least, not yet), I wanted to put a ballpark figure in there about what someone could reasonably expect to pay (retail) should they pursue the same approach.

      As for The Source … I can’t offer anything in my own defense. I really liked the DAC when I heard it and haven’t been able to shake the feeling that I erred in sending it back. So, back it comes — and this time, it’s got even more Bits of Awesomeness included. Whether or not it competes with $8k DACs, of course, is a matter for another post.

      Could I have done as well for less? Maybe. Arguably. But again, that’s something to explore — and something I very much plan to. The BDP-95 from Oppo is $1,000 and is outstanding. It’s definitely on my radar for “affordable sources”. Will the Lampi stamp it as flat as a CD? Remains to be seen. But wouldn’t it be cool if it could stand up to it? That’d be sweet. I keep meaning to call those guys ….

      Anyway, I appreciate your comments Bill, and if you ever feel that I’m getting a bit big for my britches, feel free to Bring the Rain. :-P

      • wdomeika says:

        Regarding the wire thing. Is Nordost sending you the new LS Blue Heaven stuff? Have always read good things about the discontinued Blue Heavens.

        Another question Ive wondered about but never got around to experiencing. Have you listen to a system using basically Silver vs Copper inters and speaker cable?

        I’ve heard everything from
        God awful harsh to gods gift to fidelity.

        Cheers

        Bill.

      • Part-Time Audiophile says:

        I’m getting Red Dawn LS interconnects and Blue Heaven LS power cords! I’ll have more on this soon.

      • Norman says:

        Waitaminnit!

        A level 4 Lampi only costs $5K retail. If you throw on a pile of options, its still less than $6K.
        $8k is the price for a Level 5.

      • Part-Time Audiophile says:

        Who said anything about a Lampizator? ;-)

        My understanding from Lukasz is that the full suite of options is rather pricey.

    • Brad says:

      Bill- I agree with your assessment regarding the DAC and cable budget. What your missing is that politics are likely involved in the selection process and not necessarily an unbiased search for the best component within a given budget. Manufacturer generosity is usually a major factor in system building. Unfortunately, this is the case with nearly all professional reviewers’, and in time, every “everyman” reviewer become victim to the politics. My comments aren’t necessarily aimed at the reviewer here.

      • Part-Time Audiophile says:

        I don’t really chat the other reviewers up about what kind of scratch they’re getting from distributors (it’s not usually manufacturers, unless they’re small), so I can’t really comment. But that’s not really politics, per se, in the sense that it’s all about favoritism, kickbacks, or some other Tammany Hall kind of thing. I’m guessing that it’s more a matter of expedience, availability, familiarity and affordability (to the reviewer) than any kind of oblique advertising. I mean, it could be, but if so, I’m not really getting that level of traction with the industry. Valin, on the other hand, might. Who knows? I don’t think he’s telling. But those guys are really rare. Like, there’s Valin and … Valin.

  5. Bill Domeika says:

    And now for the non sequitur from left field. Some advice on tube amp power vs speaker sensitivity, if you’d indulge me.

    Do you think a 100 WPC tube amp (specifically an MC2102…KT88-driven) can handle an 88db SPL sensitivity monitor speaker (with a rock stable 4ohm load)? Currently running 250 wpc SS into them now but really want to make to an all tube drivetrain. Listening room is small, say 15 x 18 or max 20.

    It’s not that I listen to Heavy Metal at concert level volumes…but I do like to listen to jazz at levels that approximate live club environments.

    What do you think?

    Cheers,

    Bill

  6. Bill Domeika says:

    I’ve actually heard the OPPO BPD 95 with the Modwright tube upgrade (which i think adds the better part of $2K to the retail price). It was really impressive…in a holy s…t, slack-jawed kind of way. Dead black background, goosebumps on your forearm tube quality on vocals and jazz instruments…you know where you can hear the raspy sibilance of Diana Krall’s voice, the percussive impact of felt hammers on the keyboard and that luscious decay on cymbals. Of course, this is totally irrelevant as I couldn’t compare it to the stock BDP 95 so take with a grain of salt. Who knows if you don’t get 85% or more of the way there with the stock unit.

    I will say the MW mod is pretty silly looking with two 6SN7-ish sized tube sticking up in the middle of the unit from out of nowhere. Looks like a Cialis 18 hour erection problem translated to a cd player.

    Cheers,

    Bill

  7. John Freeman says:

    Well my budget system is as follows,
    1. A used PS audio pre-amp from the late 80′s $200.00 (used)
    2. A used Technics power amp from the early 80″s 50 watts per side. $120.00 (used)
    3. Music Hall 2.2 turntable $450.00 (new)
    4. Seagan HD tuner $190.00 (new)
    5. Logitech squeezebox receiver $150.00 (new)
    6. Audio Concepts Speakers $300.00 (new Kits)
    Total Price $1,410.00 Sounds great especially the vinyl. Now that is a budget system within a very small budget

    • Part-Time Audiophile says:

      Love it! I need to do something like that with all-new gear!

      • John Freeman says:

        That emotive amp for $220.00 new would be a great replacement for the Technics, most audio people says it sounds great. I do not know of any reasonably priced (under $500) pre-amp that could replace the PS IV audio pre-amp I found 4 years ago in at a second hand stereo shop in Santa Cruz. The phono stage is very good on it. Plus it has two tape loops, cool even if I do not use them.

  8. vhiner says:

    I appreciate your love of the hobby, so let the critics whine.

    I can’t resist suggesting Shunyata Venom 3 power cords for your budget 4 system. They could really bring it to another level, IMHO.

    V.

  9. John Freeman says:

    Also here is specs for the Technics amp,
    Stereo power amplifier of a simple stream composition of having constituted from two ICs and one transistor.
    The low distortion is realized using IC of an input stage as the differential amplifier of the Current-mirror load intensity from which the operating current of a low distortion can be chosen, and securing a high gain.
    Power IC of the output stage consists of pure complementary circuits of a two-step Darlington connection. Even if a speaker termination short-circuits, the relay type protection circuitry which protects output-stage IC is carried. The power circuit of the low-distortion 2 power transformer which made the coil the reverse direction and canceled flux is adopted.

    Rating of a mode
    Form Stereo power amplifier
    Output power (at the time of both channel drive) 45W+45W (8 ohms, 20Hz – 20kHz)
    50W+50W (8 ohms, 1kHz)
    THD 0.02% (at the time of 20Hz – 20kHz, and an Output power)
    Output bandwidth 5Hz – -50kHz three dB
    Frequency characteristic 5Hz-100kHz+0 -3 dB
    SN ratio 110dB
    Remains noise 500 microvolts
    Dumping factor 30 (8ohms)
    Input sensitivity/impedance 500mV / 47kohm
    Load impedance 6ohm-16ohm
    Power source AC100V, 50Hz/60Hz
    Power consumption 98W
    Dimensions Width 430x height 76x depth of 280mm
    Weight 6.5kg

    From http://audio-database.com/TechnicsPanasonic/amp/se-a808-e.html
    If you or any other reader was curious.

    • Part-Time Audiophile says:

      Very cool, but I’m not sure I want to recommend used or vintage gear. Too much variability.

      • John Freeman says:

        Yes, Vintage gear can be tricky, i would advise to never buy a used turntable unless you have personal knowledge of its former home or its performance. Electronics are usually a little easier to check out. I purchased a dirt cheap ($40.00) older B&O turntable and it just never worked very well. I tied to modify it and upgrade and that ended up being a fools errand. B&O does not want anybody using different cartridges, cables or anything else in or on their equipment. Plus it was not as good as B&O would want you to think it is or was.

  10. Mike says:

    Yep, please keep the blog going. Even though I can’t afford 90% of what you review, I still find your reviewing style refreshing from many of the other audio sites out there. Like you said, your budget is not my budget and you shouldn’t be penalized for that. Keep up the great work.

  11. stew says:

    P-T,
    Another great post. This really is a crux in a lot of e’zines (and print ones too). What is affordable or budget to one is not necessarily the same for others. It is the context that is important.

    Regarding critics of your blogsite: Those that have criticized you have completely missed the point. Initially I was “put off” slightly, as your idea and my idea of “budget” are two distinctly different viewpoints, based on the price range of equipment I have seen on your blog. However when one reads your posts, the exact opposite comes across. You are definitely committed the hobby and are careful to remind folks of the context in which your reviews and viewpoints are to be taken into account (much the same way that I follow the “source first” hierarchy, but not based on price). I take much of what you state the way I take Arthur Salvitore’s suggestions on his page. One must define the context, and whether or not the sound of a piece of equipment urges you to listen to music or not. And that’s the whole issue isn’t it?

  12. DD says:

    PTA, I’m a bit surprised to hear you’ve been getting so much negative feedback. Personally, yours is one of my favorite audio websites.

    Why? Many reasons. First, you get all the basic stuff right — your writing style and excellent photos both attract and maintain interest. But more importantly, you’re doing something I have not seen done elsewhere (except perhaps, and to a much lesser degree, by Jeff Day). Instead of simply evaluating a piece of equipment as an isolated example of its genre, with perhaps a comparison or two with other similar devices, like all the usual reviewers do, you’re on a voyage of discovery, trying to BUILD A SYSTEM that meets a set of design criteria (which you’ve defined and, when necessary, modified based on what you’ve learned in the process — budget being a good example). And because you’re building a system, you’re looking at the SYNERGY of all of the components, which everyone who’s been in this hobby for even a little while comes to realize is extremely important. This is precisely what all of us would like to do when building a system of our own, but often can’t or won’t (e.g. I refuse to buy equipment just to try it out). I believe you’re doing many of us a huge favor by doing what we can’t, testing a variety of equipment, evaluating the synergy of the components, and writing about your experiences as you assemble a complete audio system.

    Does this mean that your results automatically equate to a “Buy this” decision that you’re delivering ready-made to me? Of course not. But it sounds like this is what some of your critics are expecting.

    I would simply encourage you to keep up what you’re doing and not be distracted by the noise. Furthermore, it’s great to hear that you’ll be working on a number of other complete systems too: this should attract an even wider audience and will give you ample material to keep going.

    THANK YOU for all of your work up to this point, and keep up the great work!

  13. plakey says:

    I enjoy reading your posts. In regards to System 3, I still think $5K is quite a lot for a 3rd system. And almost everyone I know would freak out at that cost. (I say this as someone who has spent some money real on a system, and who appreciates all aspects of this hobby.) Currently I am interested in getting other music lovers involved in really great sounding systems. I’m tinkering with a second system myself, and I am just wondering: A Decware Zen SE84C+ ($800) and a Tekton Mini Lore ($650) with Black Cat speaker cables plus an iPod loaded with great music… What’s not to like?

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