KIH #31- Spanking good?

  • Specs + wanking = spanking. Pull our yer whip and latex suit. It’s time to get kinky. Today’s rumination was prompted by a recent visit to my friend Dan summed up in a piece for my site called Arrival Time: Now. To keep this KIH instalment batty—that’ll be brief and tidy–I’ll presume you just followed the link and read my earlier article. The takeaway should be that from source to amp, modern hifi technology in many cases quite exceeds what really matters. Until we have better recordings, sound-optimized rooms and loudspeakers whose distortion is as low as what precedes them, much of the tech advances of super gear don’t matter.

    If you’re a digital engineer where the most measurement-impressive forward steps are being made, you needn’t be a listener at all. Nobody can listen to digital. It’s only post conversion to analog that one can. Digital design thus occurs exclusively in the virtual domain of measurements to be a haven for geeks.  Here one may pursue 145dB S/N ratios which downstream could meet a valve amp barely capable of hitting 85dB. But that’s not yet the full extent of dumbing things down. The room itself will exhibit its lowest noise floor at night to be ~30dB. If you consider 85dB music peaks loud (you should!), how much effective SN/R does that make? If most your music exhibits dynamic range of less than 20dB—easily tracked with PureMusic for example—why fret over insane values in the DAC domain?


    When analog designers do digital, they often limit their digital implementation to the application notes provided by the supplier of their chip of choice, be that Analog Devices, Asahi Kasei, ESS Labs, Wolfson or Co. Their core expertise is analog. Mirroring real estate’s triple location mantra where location trumps all else, they routinely beef up their power supplies to levels well beyond what the pure voltage requirements for their device would be. It’s one possible reason why less spec-polished digital gear can sound considerably better than the record-breaking stuff with its amazing digital specs if the latter was designed by a lab rat on a scope, not by an advanced sophisticated listener.

    When shopping for digital, it’s easy to get carried away by shiny specs. I’d simply caution what conclusions to draw from those. Just as SET lovers have found who prefer their sound to amps which measure wildly better, figures on paper don’t always mean what we think. Perhaps they might do so more if the rest of our stuff were on the same level. But as long as our rooms are as noisy as living rooms tend to be; as long as our rooms are as sonically detrimental as untreated living rooms are; as long as most of our recordings aren’t remotely up to snuff; as long as loudspeakers are grossly more powerful distortion generators than anything ahead of them… that’s as long as our obsession over ideal specs could mean little more than an unhealthy fascination with spanking. Just sayin’…


    DAR 580 x 290

    Srajan Ebaen

    Written by Srajan Ebaen

    Srajan is the owner and publisher of 6moons. He used to play clarinet at the conservatory. Later he worked in audio retail, then marketing for three different hifi manufacturers. Writing about hifi and music came next, then launching his own mag. Today he lives with his wife Ivette and Nori and Chai the Bengal cats in a very small village on Ireland’s west coast, between the holy mountain Croagh Patrick and the Atlantic ocean of Clew Bay in County Mayo’s Westport area. Srajan derives his income from the ad revenues of 6moons but contributes to Darko.Audio pro bono.


    1. Wow, that’s very refreshing and powerful advice coming from an audio reviewer. Much appreciated and validating to a “simpler is better” audiophile such as myself. Even still, I’m often fighting the urge to make some tweak, or change a piece of gear, and I suspect for many that’s part of the fun of the hobby. I must admit, though, that when I get into those moods it does detract from enjoying the music, which is supposed to be priority 1. I find myself evaluating instead of listening. Thank you for the post.

    2. Couldn’t agree more.

      I would add that certain metrics are actually quite misleading and misrepresenting. E.g., the most quoted metric, signal-to-noise ratio, is nothing more than the amount of noise an amp makes with no input whatsoever (shunted input).

    3. actually it was leak who began using specs as marketing tools with their point one (0,1% thd) amps.
      o mill what hast thou wrought
      from rome

    4. In a similar vein, I just uploaded a new industryfeature on my site called commonsense.edi – “the new URL for the burnt-out audiophile?” You might enjoy that as well.

      I firmly believe that one of the main mechanisms of audiophilia is the haphazard avenue of approach most of us end up taking. Say you start simple: integrated amp + bookshelf speakers. Then you get exposed to separates with dual-mono amps which happen to wipe the floor with your integrated. So that’s what you buy. But you buy more. You buy into the belief that separates are *necessary*, perhaps even that dual mono is the key to the kingdom. This is perfectly normal. “My results prove the point” is the answer should anyone question such a conclusion.

      If, on the other hand, you had encountered a Gryphon Diablo 300 integrated after you got dissatisfied with the early Marantz; or a Vinnie Rossi Lio; or a Devialet… you might have stuck with the integrated path. If after that you’d encountered some killer active speakers like bigger Genelec or the Kii Three, you might have jumped off the hamster wheel for good. In real life, I think such a short audiophile career is rare.

      That’s because the same goes for pretty much any other major hifi decision that turns into a belief. It’s all a function of timing and what we happened to be exposed to just then. With audition ops dwindling to do a lot of due diligence upfront in one’s local market; and with show demos being notoriously unreliable to tell anything with certainty… the approach to building a hifi system is, for most, a matter of pure chance. Now chance rules our belief systems which then determines what we’ll even consider and what we exclude, a priori, by design.

      Here’s another fact. Reviewers aren’t necessarily better listeners than the average shoppers. They might be but the opposite could be just as true. What experienced reviewers nearly invariably *are* is exposed to a lot more stuff. They get to listen to a lot more components and combinations. In my experience (and that of many career ‘philes who have already played the “get bigger, costlier and more complex” game to exhaustion), beyond a certain level of expense and tech, things don’t really get better (or at best, very marginally so). They just get bigger, more expensive and often blingier and built to standards which are entirely unnecessary for the job at hand.

      Someone whose own audiophile career has finally arrived at that realization (which takes time and lots of money) is then ready to downscale, simplify and *realsize* as I call it. That is, if they haven’t burnt out before then to kiss the entire hobby off. Obviously, it’d be nice if some audiophiles could be spared that long detour in the wilderness to skip straight to a seasoned ‘phile’s final system – one that is far simpler and cheaper, informed by knowing what the bling stuff sounds like and hence as good or possibly better.

      That hope (to spare people the long dark night of wallet suck and buy’n’sell) is what’s behind many of these KIH features. It’s also squarely behind my latest EDI feature on “easy does it” -:)

      • “The approach to building a hifi system is…put chance.” Do you have a camera in my house? When I read that I thought you were speaking directly to me. In the last two plus years I’m on my third integrated and third set of speakers. Mostly because of the lack of a physical location where I can go and listen to gear, but also because you never know how equipment is going to sound in your own home. Luckily I purchased from an on line vendor that let me return the items I wasn’t satisfied with. I’ve now combined a Peachtree nova 125se with wharfedale Diamond 220’s and I’m very happy with the sound, but it was a long time getting there.

    5. Love the selfless spirit and overall direction. The following is *not* a knock on your recommended approach but rather a non-confrontational sidebar.

      One advantage of separates is that they allow for more experimentation and flexibility. I just bought a First Watt F7 based on your review for my desktop system which happens to currently be my main system. Down the road, if space permits, I can buy a pair of Spatial M4’s and connect the F7 for a full-scale perspective.

      Another example, is when my old Plinius integrated amp died (it previously drove my desktop system), I was able to swap in my living room integrated amp and be moderately content.

      Last example, my Chord Hugo is not as much of an all-arounder as Vinnie Rossi’s LIO, but my Hugo will be used somewhere that I spend time for as long as it plays music. I can always place it in the chain of a second or third system and be rewarded.

    6. Proposing the integrated route wasn’t meant to suggest it’s the only viable scenario, Mark. And no worries, I didn’t take it as though you suggested I said that -:)

      As long as you end up with true value performers and love the results, it’s all good. What I mean by true value performers is buying exactly what you need, no more (on features, power, build quality etc); and getting an honest return on hardware and performance (i.e. not half-empty boxes with bling face plates and steel bottoms to artificially inflate their weight). It’s simply that often we don’t know or think over how much we actually need. Many of us buy more speaker and amp power for example than we use or is appropriate for our space. And so forth.

      But regardless of how one arrives, the point is to *arrive* – hopefully sooner than later, hopefully with less wallet bleed than more. Arriving means to stop shopping and to start using the appliances for their true purpose: as shameless pleasure machines…

      Angelo: no hidden camera, just common sense. It’s how it goes with so many things, isn’t it? Chance plays a role all over. It’s an endless improvising session, to deal with the cards we’re dealt; and to make choices based on what presents itself while we mosey along…

    7. Srajan,
      Couldn’t agree more particularly your EDI piece. This may be blasphemy to some but I suppose taking the integrated route further is the AV receiver. I love music and movies. Due to space constraints (all kit has to be tucked away in a cabinet – a good thing really, as it stops the box count) I can only have 1 amp. I’m not sure it exists but an AV receiver that does music well would be excellent. Perhaps I haven’t been looking hard enough but I have yet to find a website writing about AV receivers from an audiophile perspective. Why is that?

    8. You’re 100% correct. A full-on AV receiver would be the ultimate integrator. Stereophile’s Kalman Rubinson covers them in his Music in the Round column; and I’ve seen coverage of the breed in Doug Schneider’s SoundStage Network. The reason I don’t review them is that it relies on a multi-channel installation and my wife and I are renters with a certain degree of wanderlust. If you rent, setting up on-wall rears and height channels with the necessary wiring to them becomes an unsightly undertaking since you need to be able to remove it all afterwards without leaving any traces. I’m personally not into surround sound either so I never had any motivation or proper circumstance to look at AV receivers -:)

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