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. 😉