Tony looks at life as a race. Only one thing matters. Winning. Of course winning on the race track is unambiguous. One guy makes it across the finish line first. It's plain, it's simple, it's beyond wishful thinking or there is no winner. But in life, who determines what constitutes winning? Who are the competitors, where is the finish line? Who is the infernal internal judge that knows where you should be rather than where you are? What will you use to determine whether you win or lose in the game called life?

Audiophiles ask similar questions. Countless are the online posts where someone has a certain budget and wants advice. What to buy to insure he gets the best he can afford? Who or what determines what's best? So a far more relevant question is, "what best serves my needs?" Time to put the cards on the table and do a reading. You don't live in a mansion. You can't listen to your stereo 6 hours a day. When you can listen, it's never at high levels. Then there's the budget and features and cosmetics. All the usual stuff.

Once you have realistically assessed your needs/desires versus ability, one essential answer remains elusive. What kind of sonic presentation will best satisfy you? As a gourmet diner, you can patronize all your local restaurants and determine which one you like best. Of course, if a particular cuisine isn't represented, you may never learn your true favorite until you move or travel.

Local salons, systems at friends or perhaps even a trade show or two become your sampler tour for audiophile flavors. Seeing that the list is endless, you eventually settle on something. In the back of your mind, you're always wondering about that fancy 5-star restaurant in the big city you keep hearing about but can never get to. Let's get real then. During work week and for lunch or dinner, you likely frequent restaurants that serve the kind of simpler fare that doesn't require endless waits, is easy to digest and doesn't wipe out your intestinal system for the rest of the day. It isn't about fancy, memorable and special as in "rare and occasionally because it's our anniversary", it's about nutrition. Whatever keeps you energized and fit to accomplish your daily tasks tends to be what makes up your routine diet.

Once we move away from the fascination with exotic hardware (those Michelin-rated 5-star joints), we can analyze what provides to us the most consistent feel-good aural nutrition. It's no longer about 10-course meals and subsequent secret visits to the masseur. It's no longer about whiz-bang effects to impress the neighbors or even ourselves. It's about something that satisfies on a daily basis. For drinks, they say nothing
beats water. In audio, what's the equivalent? Whatever it is, it need not be complex and costly. Countless audiophiles have discovered this sometimes through detours into the faraway lands of the expensive and exotic. Here's some early case evidence from the field to this realsizing effect.

Comments David P.: "A subject dear to my heart. The value of my rather extensive current system, figured on the basis of what I paid for things, has dropped at least 60% over the last 8 years. And being very conservative, the sound is at least 60% better. What set this odyssey in motion for me was discovering around 1999 that my $3800 CD transport/DAC was soundwise pretty well demolished by a stock Pioneer DV-414 DVD/CD player costing, at that time, $495. Then I found that my $1800 phonostage was left in the dust by a $275 NYAL Moscode Superit. Modding the Pioneer and the Superit improved them further.

I did pop for a Sony XA777ES SACD player at $2K when I thought SACD had a real future. But when I listen to Redbook discs, it's mostly via a Toshiba 3950 ($50) used as a transport into an Ack dAck 2.0 with the Teflon cap option ($750). With regards to power amps, a comparison between my $7500 tube monoblocks and a pair of 845-based SETs designed and built by a friend at roughly half the price led to another a major upgrade in sound.

With speakers, I went from ProAc Response 3s ($6500/pr) to Gallo Nucleus Ultimates ($5900/pr) to Gallo Reference 3s ($2600 + $750 for a Hsu sub amp). You know how good the Ref 3s are. In cables, the cost comparisons are ludicrous. I used to spend hundreds for
interconnects - AudioQuest Diamonds/Lapis, Kimber KCAG, Omega Mikro passives and actives. I'm now using interconnects formerly labeled "Music Boy" and now "Petra". They cost $5.95 for 6-foot pairs. Replacing their RCAs with Bullet Plugs makes them competitive with anything I tried and removing the RCAs altogether and running them straight into the components' RCA jacks (more on that below) takes them to another level yet. Same with speaker cables. They were formerly Kimber 8TC (biwired), Mapleshade and Omega Mikro passive, now they are Home Depot 14-gauge outdoor extension cord (called HD-14G by Paul Seydor when he reviewed them in The Absolute Sound). I'm using the same stuff to replace $200 power cords, too.

In analog, I still enjoy my VPI TNT/JMW 10.5 setup but I prefer a 1978 idler-drive Lenco turntable, replinthed by Jean Nantais, author of the 2000-post Lenco thread on AudiogoN. I run my Lenco with both an SME III and a tweaked Rega RB-300 arm. Yes, idler drive sounds better than belt drive in my opinion.

I'm not in any sense downsizing or retrenching. I certainly didn't set out to save money. I've just discovered that it's more fun to improve the musicality and involvement of my system by judicious upgrades that cost less. I have never replaced component A with component B without a firm belief that the replacement sounds at least as good (usually, much better). Incidentally and through all of this, I have retained the Conrad Johnson Premier 14 line stage that I bought in 1996. I'm looking for a Premier 17LS2 if I can find one for substantially less than what the Premier 14 cost me, which shouldn't be difficult.

Here's how to denude the Music Boy/Petra cables. It's a lot simpler to do than explain and requires no soldering or crimping. All you're doing is cutting the existing RCA plugs from the cable, cutting an inch off the end of the cable jacket and fitting the center conductor into the hole in the RCA jack and holding the cable's ground wires to the outside of the jack. This makes a really dramatic improvement to the already good sound of these interconnects. Here's what you will need:

  • The cable itself sold by Starlink as both component video cable (3 conductors) and audio cable (2 conductors)
  • A box cutter, x-acto knife or something similar
  • Wire cutters
  • Wire stripper
  • Scissors (to trim back the ground wires)
  • White Teflon plumber's tape, available at any hardware store. The standard width is 1/2".
  • Rubber washers to fit snugly over the outside of the RCA jack, to hold the ground wires in place. The perfect size is Danco 80359, identified as "Seat Washers for PRICE PFISTER/ Fits Two Handle Faucets 3H-8H/C." There's a picture of one in these instructions. If you can't find these, you can use a couple of o-rings, but the faucet washers are really better.

I suggest practicing on a length of cable. The stuff is so cheap that if you waste some, it doesn't matter. There are only two slightly tricky parts to the process. The first is cutting through the outer jacket without cutting the ground wires inside it. A little practice will make you adept at this. The second is winding the Teflon plumber's tape around the center conductor's dielectric. It tends to stick to itself and is very thin. Also, it's a trial and error process because the inner diameter of RCA jacks varies as you will discover. Again, practice makes perfect. The first set of interconnects took me two hours. Now I can do a pair in no more than 15 minutes." David P.

Eric S. had this to share: "In response to your question regarding downsizing, I have recently revised my system not really for economic reasons but simply for space. I'm in the Bay Area where the premium for living is rapidly approaching $1K per square foot in my neighborhood. Not really a surprise then that my living room instead of a dedicated area is where the stereo is on display, so real estate and appearance are considerations.

My recent system included a Sim Audio W3 amp, Blue Circle BC3 Galatea preamp, Sehring Audio 602 speakers, Rega 2000 CD transport, MSB Gold DAC,
McIntosh tuner and fat Harmonic Technology speaker cables. At its peak, the system's retail value was around $20,000.

My current electronics and music library could almost stack carefully in the palm of my hand: 47labs 50-watt Gaincard, Sehring Audio 602 speakers, Apogee Mini DAC with USB input, Mac Mini computer primarily running iTunes but also live 365 player for Internet radio, Lacie 250GB hard drive containing about 500 CDs in Apple Lossless format, Audience AU 24 (<1/4" in diameter) speaker and interconnect cables and two of Richard Gray's 400 power supplies (by far the largest components but hidden out of sight)

Retail value of this system is about $10,000 and my rig has never sounded better. Much of the recent improvement has been the source. However, the Gaincard too is a remarkable component - no larger than a paperback book plus a coffee- can sized external power supply."

Ferenc C. admits how he "was into the audiophile nervosa for a long time. I had lots of (expensive or DIY) gear from SS to SE to digital amplification, from horns to full-rangers to electrostatics, all kind of front ends, room treatments and room corrections but never found any of it satisfactory for the long term. I'm listening to mostly large-scale classical music and opera and almost never as background music. I always sit down in the sweet spot for the full enjoyment.

I've completely converted to ambiophonics and I don't care about the gear anymore. In my opinion, stereo reproduction is so psychoacoustically flawed that it simply cannot let our brains relax to enjoy the music. Once the reproduction is at least halfway correct in psychoacoustical terms, a whole new horizon opens up. The ever-present inaccuracies of the recording/reproduction chain are no longer important and I can enjoy the music on whatever gear I have as long as it is set up the psychoacoustically correct way.

The most important part of my current setup is a Yamaha yss-901 DSP chip for crosstalk cancellation for the front stereo dipole pair and a JVC xp-a1010 digital acoustic processor feeding 4-8 ambience channels/speakers. Everything else is interchangeable. Currently I'm using older EV-2s for the main dipole pair and KLHs for the ambience channels with SI amps. I carried over nothing from my earlier expensive gear as I do not believe it represents any real value.

The whole current bunch is of garage sale and eBay origins, worth less than $200. It is less than 1% of my crazy-day investments but for realism and enjoyment, this is the best thus far. My listening hours are also way up. I feel I have lost nothing and only gained. Most of the prized audiophile qualities are artificial and do not exist in a real acoustic event but now I can reproduce and enjoy home audio just like in a real acoustic environment. I have been listening this way for a year now. The other day and just for fun, I created a stereo setup with Stax electrostat speakers. I was horrified to be reminded how bad and unreal stereo really is."

Jason S. "went from an expensive Plinius 9200 integrated at $4000 retail to a $300 NAD 320 BEE and a $260 Musical Surroundings Phonomena to replace the phono stage on the Plinius. The sound is actually more coherent and less muddy with my Spendor LS 3/5s, simple Kimber Cable Silver Streaks and DH Labs Q10 speaker cable. Running into that is a Rega Planet 2000 and a Rega P2 with simple Goldring Elektra cartridge. I believe that I have attained 85% of systems costing around $15,000 in my small room."

These are just a few examples of music lovers who've been to El Dorado and eventually managed to achieve equal results or better by scaling down their audio investment. If you have a similar story, we'd love to hear from you for part 3 in this little series. If nothing else, it'll remind us that it is possible to get rid of that judging monkey on our back that relentlessly whispers to us about winning and owning the best. If the fun goes down the drain in that process, more has been lost than gained. If it is fun and you can have equivalent fun or more for a lot less? Hell, nothing wrong with that either, is there?