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Intro Part Two: True Factoring
I have spent a lot of time trying to help people build audio systems—both professionally and personally. Granted my motives may have been different at different times, but ultimately my goal was the same; to make people as happy as possible within their budget, even if it meant building a system completely different from what they assumed they wanted. I found that a few simple concepts could help determine what their priorities should be, and then a few simple criteria could help make the selections.
True Factoring is a system-building framework distilled from my experiences in and out of the audio industry. It is basically a set of principles that, when taken together, extract the maximum level of performance for a given budget. It's all about how to get the most bang for the buck. There are always tradeoffs with audio equipment. Components each have certain strengths and weaknesses, and it is a matter of matching each piece of equipment's unique strengths and weaknesses with your personal preferences and priorities.
It all boils down to probability and statistics; the majority of people I met ended up satisfied, almost regardless of their listening sophistication, if they followed the framework. Certainly, you can deviate, but sticking to the system brings most people the most satisfaction most of the time. Some of the principles are so simple that they seem obvious. Yet few people consciously give them any thought when purchasing equipment.
There are a few audio writers who, over the years, stand out for the entertainment value of their writing, or from the value I found in their recommendations. Stereophile's Corey Greenberg and Sam Tellig come to mind, as does our own Greg Weaver. However my most valued source of audio wisdom comes from a writer who was perhaps 400 years ahead of his time; William Shakespeare. Shakespeare wrote, "To thine own self be true," which means in modern English "don't lie to yourself." The "True" in "True Factoring" refers to being honest with yourself. This could be very simple for people with an open mind, or it could be nearly impossible for people who have built up a wall of preconceived notions about what they should want.
This honesty begins with what it is that you like to listen to. If it is only movies, this makes it easier since attributes like soundstaging and inner detail become less relevant compared to dynamic capability. If you are into rap, R&B, or electronica, you need equipment with dynamics and bass capability. If vocals or chamber music is your style, bass is less of an issue, and agility is more important than extension. Knowing the kind of music you want to listen to will save you from chasing equipment with a "blanket" good recommendation, but that may otherwise not the best choice for your musical style.
You probably already know your own taste in music, so this shouldn't take much self reflection. But other aspects of True do. Perhaps the biggest one is the role that status should play. Good old-fashioned peer pressure. This is where you REALLY have to do some self-reflection. Do you really care what your "audio buddies" will think about your choice? What about what your neighbor who knows nothing about audio? What is the likelihood someone will ever really come to your listening room and "judge" you about your purchase? In how many instances will this ever happen? Unless you run in some really petty circles, I don't think very many. How much are you willing to pay for pride? As long as you are willing to be honest with yourself, spend away. Just like other areas of life, some folks don't care, while other folks are a slave to the mythical Jones and what they might say.
Using a car analogy, how many car enthusiasts want a Subaru WRX? The WRX is less than half the price of a Porsche Boxster, yet it actually outperforms the Boxster in likely every respect. However, not in status or fit ‘n finish. A true purist would go for the WRX, but the vast majority of people would go for the Boxster—even in the face of the irrefutable fact that the WRX offers higher performance. Could you be happy with a Subaru, or do you really want that Porsche? There is nothing wrong with wanting the Porsche—but your honesty in identifying what it really is that drives your decision will allow you to be more satisfied in the decision you make.
Closely tied to status is fit ‘n finish, as well as convenience features, aesthetics, style, and industrial design. Some of the first questions I used to ask in retail were whether speakers should have real wood veneer, and if they needed to be wall mounted. Both questions gave me a strong indication of the influence that a spouse potentially had over the purchase, and they allowed me to immediately sub-set possible choices down to a select few. If domestic politics plays a role in your decision, there is nothing wrong with that—but know that there is a price to be paid for aesthetics. At one point in my personal pursuit, I honestly felt that a speaker could look like a used shoebox as long as I got maximum sonic performance out of it. I have been married for more than 15 years, and today I am much more realistic. In fact, my professional experience is that aesthetics play a MUCH bigger role in equipment selection than people are willing to admit. Of course the savviest (and most successful—coincidence?) audio companies give you the performance you desire, but also give you just enough aesthetics to wow your neighbors (wow—electrostatic—it must be good!) and impress your friends.
Does that amplifier REALLY need a half-inch thick faceplate? Beyond just the notion of whether its solidity brings legitimate sonic improvement, why is it that you really want that amp that has the half-inch thick faceplate? You may not really want it, but are otherwise peer-pressured into thinking you do. Or what about remote control? Purists maintain that it degrades sound and uses resources that could otherwise have been allocated towards higher performance. At this point in my life, it is a necessity to be able to adjust my volume on the fly according to whether kids are screaming or sleeping. And thick faceplates are just heavy.
Another difficult area of True is the limitation of your hearing. Are you willing to pay for certain equipment if you really can't hear the difference between it and less expensive equipment? I think this boils down to people's lack of confidence in their own hearing—so they defer to what others say and assume it must be right. Or maybe folks are hoping that eventually they will be able to hear the difference. There is something to be said for growth within this hobby of ours. With experience, you could eventually hear things that you once missed. But at some point, only you know whether it is worth buying equipment if you honestly can't hear the difference.
One risk is that you will overpay for performance that you can't hear. Another is that you will overpay for equipment that costs more and should sound better. But increasing the price doesn't necessarily increase the performance. And when you can't hear the difference anyway, aren't you increasing the risk that you overpaid? An even bigger risk is that you are paying for an increase in performance that you can't hear, only to get a piece of equipment that sounds worse in attributes that you DO hear.
The essence of True is confidence. You have to be confident in what you can hear and what you can't hear. You have to be confident that your selection is the right one for you—not the right one to impress your buddy. That is unless you are willing to admit that impressing your buddy is a higher priority than subjective performance.
If you can honestly identify where your priorities lie, you now need to determine how to best allocate your money. Once again, the assumption is that we all have some sort of limit on our budget. So given this limit, how do we get the most value for our money?
The answer is to spend your money on elements of the playback chain with the most likelihood to influence the system's sound. Some follow the folks at Linn, and claim that the source is the most important part (i.e., record player, CD, etc.). I disagree. I think the answer is that speakers have the largest influence. With modern circuit design, component availability, manufacturing, and modeling/measuring techniques it is easier than ever to get a consistent level of performance from electronics. Sure, preamps, amps, and even digital sources sound different. But not AS different as speakers! There are clear subtle differences in the sound of electronics, but there are clear monumental differences in the sound of speakers, especially given budget limitations.
In my experience, all else being equal, the difference in $500 electronics vs. $1000 electronics is not as large as the difference between $500 speakers and $1000 speakers. And the difference in attributes could be even greater—even at the same price point. A bass-shy amp will not make a system as bass-shy as much as bass-shy speakers will. Once again, we are talking generalities here.
Books have been written about the reasons for the differences in the sound of speakers, so I will avoid that discussion here, other than to suggest fundamental differences in underlying technology, drivers, cabinets, crossovers, etc. However, more than any other factor, a speaker's room interaction will play a part in a speaker's sound—and this is important because the sound of the speaker at the factory or even showroom, may be completely different from what is heard in your listening room. Some designers account for this through tactics such as dispersion limiting, choices of voicing, etc. But ultimately these are choices for how to influence a variable, and such choices will still result in a sound that is different from another.
I've run across "formulas" that give guidance on the relative proportions for each type of component within the context of a total budget. I tend not to pay attention to such things. My goal is instead to spend the minimum money necessary to factor out an electronic component from the sound of the system as a whole. And by factor out, I mean eliminate the component as a performance bottleneck and eliminate the component from contributing an individual sonic signature. In other words, I am searching for neutral sound and overall evenness in performance level.
If a particular component is head and shoulders in performance above the rest of the system, that extra performance will likely be obscured by the performance of the rest of the system. That in itself isn't bad, but it is if you paid extra for that component when you could have spent extra on a component that would have resulted in a system improvement. And you can guess where that money is best spent; once electronics are factored out of the equation, you can focus on the element with the biggest potential impact—speakers.
I am not saying that you should minimize spending on amps, preamps, sources, cabling, etc., but that you recognize that spending your money on speakers will go a lot further towards getting you the sound you prefer. And it is certainly easier to hear the differences in speakers. Now as a practical matter, you will likely end up spending less on the electronics, and especially the cables. But that is not a hard or fast rule.
My rationale is simple; you can spend a lot of money and effort trying to create a certain sonic signature for your system, but you will get the best bang for the buck and the most consistent satisfaction if, while taking into account your sonic preferences, you aim for a neutral sonic signature. Make your equipment a non-factor so that your speakers can be the determining factor. Focus on the features that you need, while remembering to be honest in determining these needs. Certainly, you can plan ahead a bit, and take into account potential future upgrades. But you need to balance the cost of such features in terms of whether the money could be better spent on another component.
And you need to factor in the "opportunity cost" of missing out on an otherwise ideal component just because it is missing a particular feature. The best example I can offer is from a mistake I have made is insisting on balanced connections. If given a preference, I would take balanced over single-ended interconnects because I can hear a difference that coincides with my personal sonic preference (generally greater dynamics and a blacker background). However, there is typically a price difference of $500 between single-ended or balanced connections on the same model component—and that is when such a choice is even an option.
More often than not, a component will NOT have a balanced option. So the net result is that you may have paid $500 for a feature that could have bought you the next model up in a speaker—and that is not taking into account that you may have had to spend for all new interconnects as well. Or you may have missed out on an otherwise excellent preamp that only comes single-ended. Or worse yet, you could have paid for the feature, yet not had matching balanced inputs or outputs on the rest of your equipment, so the feature goes unused. Yes, I've done that.
Other example "features" could be an amp's low impedance capability, or wattage. It is impressive that a particular amplifier can drive 2 Ohm-continuous speakers, and given a choice, I would want my amp to be able to do this. But if it is unlikely that you will ever OWN such speakers, could your money have been better spent elsewhere? I think a lot of people overspend because they buy something compatible for what they dream they may one day have, as opposed to what they currently have, or likely will ever have. Or worse, they spend solely for bragging rights. My hypothetical ability to brag to a friend about my amp's ability to drive difficult speakers is not a priority for me.
As for wattage, folks that I highly respect say that it's the first few watts that count, and that it's better to buy quality vs. quantity in this department. And by my rationale, should you spend for a 200-watt version of an amp, when the 100-watt version is perfectly fine for your system, especially if the difference in price could have bought you better speakers? Really how likely is it that you will need that 200-watt version because you may someday move into a bigger house and will need the additional wattage to drive your speakers in your new larger listening room? Please don't use that rationale, even if only subconsciously.
However, for my listening preferences, I DO appreciate the extra wattage. For me, the extra bass, headroom, control, and effortlessness that I hear with a 400-watt amp outweigh the sonic purity I might get from a 30-watt amp. But that brings us back to my point—you have to decide according to your own preferences, not someone else's, otherwise you are destined to be dissatisfied. It all starts with an honest assessment of your own preferences, and then a dogged focus on staying true to your preferences.
Once you have identified your preferences, and committed to factoring out components so that you can focus on the ones that cater to your preferences, you now need to apply some criteria to make your selections. As discussed above, it is not worth paying for performance that you don't hear--especially if that money could otherwise have been spent on performance you could hear. For this, you need to apply the "Direct Comparison" test.
Writers often comment that "I couldn't tell the difference unless directly compared against another piece of equipment". I take this as a compliment for the component being reviewed, but I also take it as a bit backhanded—i.e., that it is just not as good. In my mind, if you can't tell the difference unless you have the luxury of directly comparing it to a superior component, then they are functionally equivalent. In contrast, if there is a certain attribute (or anomaly) that glaringly stands out when you listen via your equipment, you may decide that it is unacceptable (this is a subject for the next section).
This may be true for critics who are trying to discern the nth degree of difference between equipment, but this is just not that realistic for civilians out in the real world. Sure, you could hold a system constant, and perhaps change a component while at a stereo shop. Or you could even do so at home with some borrowed equipment. But unlike reviewers, most people don't have access to similar component to use for comparison. Instead, the point where you realize that you can only tell a difference by direct comparison should be your stopping point. In other words, if you are at the point where the only way you can perceive a component's limitations is when you can switch it out for a superior component, you should be pretty satisfied with that component.
In fact, you should be so lucky that the selected component is that good. In reality, it is more likely that you are the bottleneck because you have exceeded your ears' ability to perceive the difference. No offense and all, because I am included in that statement as well. There is a neuroticism that exists in our hobby—an undue concern about inferiority. But the differences between equipment are often almost semantic in nature, and certainly do not necessarily take into account that we perceive, value, and WEIGH differences differently. Something that a reviewer notices "only upon direct comparison" may be functionally, absolutely indistinguishable to 99% of the audiophile market. The sooner you realize that is not an insult, but just an honest assessment, the sooner you will be satisfied with your selection. The goal should be whether with your ears, your music, and your listening room, you would be able to tell the difference between a chosen component and a specific higher priced alternative.
An important next step after "Direct Comparison" is to introduce the concept of Diminishing Returns. This is based on the concept that the relationship between performance and cost is not linear. Sometimes you get relatively more for your money than what you are paying for. But at some point, with every component (and every product, for that matter), the amount of performance you get begins to taper off, relative to the increase in cost. I make it a goal as I go through life to search for the point of diminishing returns on any product. I like to find the point where I am getting the maximum amount of satisfaction from a product, without having to spend substantially more money—even if it means spending a bit more money than I had hoped.
Diminishing returns can be objective in nature. You can often triangulate what a manufacturer's cost of goods for a product is, by how they incentivize consumers with upgrades. A shrewdly marketed product will have an entry-level version that is relatively stripped down in features compared to higher priced products. The next level up for that product will have just enough features to get you to purchase it, but if done correctly by the manufacturer that next level product will bring higher margins in addition to higher prices. This will occur successively until the manufacturer has matched each potential market segment (pool of target consumers) with a corresponding product. Typically, higher-end market segments are willing to spend more money to purchase higher-end products. And eventually only the most fervent of consumers will spend the money to purchase the product. For example, are those products 3 times better than the entry-level product if priced three times higher? Usually not. If you are into a particular product enough, you will pay for it. But that is NOT the place I intend to be. Not any more.
The good news is that the point of diminishing returns is often subjective—so even if there is a point where performance is no longer linear in relationship with price for MOST of the market segment, that point may have kicked in much higher or much lower for specific individuals. Manufacturers can only get so granular in their ability to create specific models for all market segments (some can do more than others, see, e.g., GM's multiple product lines over multiple divisions). To do this, they work off of probability and statistics. But we are humans, not numbers, and we have preferences that may not conform to marketing generalities. So we may often fall into the gray area where we may be getting more or less for our money, depending on the product, and depending on the company. To get the most out of your audio system, you will need to find the gray areas that best conform to your set of tastes and preferences.
Finding your personal point of diminishing returns depends on doing enough product research to know objectively what features you get, for what price, for a given class of components. But you need to do some True Factoring to find your subjective point of diminishing returns. You need to honestly know what features are important or not important to you, so that you can figure out how much those features are worth paying for. If you can find your ideal feature set in a component, with sonic attributes to match your sonic preferences, and you would have to spend substantially more on a higher level component to hear an improvement only in direct comparison, you have found your point of diminishing returns. If you have done this with all your electronics, so that you would have to spend substantially more to get a marginal increase in performance, and you have balanced your electronics to be neutral in voice so that the "speakers do the talking," then you are really starting to get this True Factoring thing. But if you now have a bit more money left over than you thought, so that you can set your point of diminishing returns higher for your speakers, you will have mastered True Factoring, you will have gotten the most performance for your money, and you will be more likely to be satisfied with your system.
True Factoring Going Forward
True Factoring is not for everyone. I am in this hobby to get the most enjoyment out of listening to music (and to a lesser degree, watching movies). But some folks are in fact in it for the chase; i.e., the excitement of cycling through equipment purchases in pursuit of the best, or perhaps the next best thing. Some enjoy system balancing; i.e., using cables and components to sway back and forth to find that elusive, expensive balance between warmth and transparency, etc. And some have the financial ability to do all of that—and make no mistake, playing those games will take money. If you are into the pursuit of audio perfection, believe that you are capable of fine-tuning your system's balance, and have the money to do all of it, my framework will likely be of little use to you. No offense taken. I was there for a time, and I enjoyed the ride. But now I have other priorities, and strangely I am happier for it.
I need to stress once again that many of these "lessons" that I have learned and have now shared should in fact be common sense because they each are so simple. Admittedly, they just don't seem very ground breaking. But you would be surprised how rarely each comes into play when it is time to make a purchase, and how even rarer it is when ALL come into play when making a purchase. And in some ways this framework is heresy in an industry that promotes bigger, better, faster, more expensive, more often, etc. My goal is not to inhibit purchasing, but simply to make you happier with what you buy. Ok, I guess my bias is to spend more money on speakers. But like I said, the goal here is to make you all happier.
Opinions—like points of diminishing returns—are subjective. You may completely disagree with my opinions and conclusions here. But I have been on all sides of this struggle, inside and outside of this industry. And I am not telling you anything that I don't myself follow. However, these are not hard and fast rules that can't be broken. Like all frameworks, True Factoring exists to help you not hinder you. If it is not applicable in a particular situation, don't use it, but know that the further you stray from it, the less likely you will be satisfied with your system over the long haul—in this person's opinion.
So going forward, I will do my part to make the audiophile world a happier place by reviewing equipment within the context of the True Factoring framework. I will use my reviews as real-world examples of the framework in action: I will try to find components that will "get out of the way" in an audio system so that the speakers can speak for themselves; I will try to find components that may not be the best, but come closer than they should—even under direct comparison; and in doing so, I will try to find products that exist at the point of diminishing returns, where a lot more money would need to be spent to get any meaningful improvement in performance.
I hope you find the reviews useful assessments of the reviewed components, but I also hope that they are useful as a means to get you to think more about the components you buy, and then to be more satisfied with you bought.