It's All About Increments

I have been changing and upgrading for 8 years now. It is an interesting and sometimes exciting process. The exciting part is when I make a change or upgrade that results in more than I expected. But, in most cases, what I have done to improve SQ has produced simply incremental improvements. I discussed this years ago with Paul Kaplan, and it has always stuck with me.

Because it's true. When you look at your own system, and all the changes and upgrades you've made over years, how many of them resulted in more than an incremental improvement in SQ? And for each non-incremental improvement, how many increments did it take to get there? Let's be honest with ourselves. We don't like to admit that the $5000 we just spent on a power conditioner or amplifier has not brought us $5000 worth of improvement in SQ. But, most of the time that's the reality, no matter how we rationalize that the $5000 was well spent.

What often happens is that we are really happy with the change -- but then revise our opinions once we get to the next level. It is all a matter of perspective and cumulative experience. This is equally true when it comes to the murky world of cables. Maybe more than equally true. And, as regards room treatments, in my opinion it takes more than many folks think it may take to "get there". No single room treatment covers all the bases. Each addresses one facet of the puzzle. Maybe two if you are really lucky.

Thankfully, there have been a few instances where improvements to my system have actually turned into breakthroughs, invariably when I got lucky after a series of "incremental purchases". The breakthroughs in my system were the Atma-Sphere S-30 power amplifier, Audio Horizons TP2.3 preamp, Raidho C1.1 monitor speakers, PS Audio PerfectWave transport, NAD M51 DAC, Monarchy power regenerator, medical grade isolation transformer and David Elrod cables. Most of these breakthroughs were preceded by many less-than-stellar antecedents that were inevitably put up on the auction block to make way for the next entrant. One increment after another -- one step at a time.

This process of increments and breakthroughs has finally culminated in a beautiful sounding system. Since I am an inveterate tinkerer and tweaker and do a lot of special DIY things with my system, this has been a painstaking process -- but also a labor of love. I continue to make changes to my system. A new component, some new cables and some room treatments are in the works between now and next year. But I am winding down after all these years, having come to the point where I am more than happy with the sound my system produces.

How about your system? How has it evolved over the years?
I'm in the middle of revamping my system and going from a preamp-less, single-amped system with transport & DAC to a preamp-less, active tri-amped system with a CDP source. By no means do I have an unlimited budget...although I did find myself regularly buying up about 10 grand's worth of Alan Maher Designs electronic noise-reduction gear over the course of about 4 years. In fact that was going so entirely well for me it became the impetus for me to change my system. I, too, have always been a tinkerer and part-time DIY'er. But, the AMD stuff, for one example, has allowed me to rethink my system for the better - while still keeping those costs down from the word go...much lower than I believe they otherwise would be for me to get the same or similar sonic results. There were scores of AMD pieces bought and I refused to buy any of it other than one or two pieces at a time, so that I could evaluate as I buy all at once would've been crazy, of course, so it was indeed a series of incremental changes. But, the cumulative effects have been wonderful. Apart from that, I've made an unbroken string of non-AMD tweaks. Here I tend to go where others do not. I buy equipment infrequently, but with the intent to hang on to it. After I've satisfied myself a piece of gear is not going to fail on me within the first 2 or 3 months of using it, I think virtually nothing of making modifications that will void warranties. I don't buy anything with the main intent of resale and always fully prepare myself for the possibly that my actions may render a given component of mine unsellable, un-returnable...or even unusable...! (although I've come close once or twice, that hasn't happened...yet...knock on wood). But, over the years, I've found all that to be entirely worth the risk for me (though, I will admit that this sort of approach is certainly not for everybody).

Non-AMD tweaks have included simply putting some adhesive-backed flocked paper on my (2-way) speaker baffles - covering the whole baffle and right up to the edge of the operating portion of tweeter. This no-tech tweak was unexpectedly a major breakthrough - like I'd spent $$$$ on my speakers. No more residual brightness (kissed all contemplations of cable changes, EQ compensation and, for the moment, even room treatments goodbye) This idea is not entirely new, but I don't know of anyone here at Agon who's currently doing that. They should. We spend all that time and focus on room treatments for reflections that are well away from the source while we entirely overlook the ones closest to the driver - exactly where they are doing the most harm! Cost: less than 5 bucks.

Also, having been at the tweaking game as long as I have, I've come to accept that all connectors are actually, of course, the spawn of Satan...! That is, generally if they're not made of (solid) copper, silver or gold, I either replace them or bypass them. I've learned brass can be ok for duplexes...and I've even used some Mapleshade IC's that had brass connectors of a certain kind that were great (there's always an exception to the rule), but they are otherwise almost always a problem. I know some folks cryo them.

I've also (carefully) cut away the outer jacket of my speaker wires. I did that after my own experiments with a Hagerman FryBaby convinced me there were gains to be had with wires that already had hundreds of hours of use on them...much more open sound. But, for me, the best way to treat the outer jacket was to just simply remove it - no need to treat what isn't there.

And I've learned, of course, after just about every change I make, to revisit moving my speakers around to best take advantage of the improvements...can make all the difference sometimes.

Usually, when I try a tweak, even if there initially seems to be no, or very little, difference from it, I very much resist the urge to remove it right away or otherwise declare it useless. From my own experience I know sometimes a tweak is not necessarily audible until other tweaks or changes are in place that can unmask the difference. Conversely, I also I know that just because I've used a tweak and I've found it to make a good difference doesn't necessarily mean that particular tweak is the best of it's kind...or even a halfway decent one, really. Experimentation is the key and that usually takes time in the long run. Of all the tweaks I've tried through the years, I can only recall one that was a complete dud for me. That was the green Marigo dots to be used on a mid driver. Tried them on 2 different pairs of speakers. No matter how equidistant from each other or how close to the edge of the cone I placed them, they did absolutely nothing except create cone breakup, even at moderately low volumes and with any kind of music...yuk (oh well, will never spend money on that again). But, I try to learn from everything - success or no.

For me, every system comes with its own set of distortions - its sins of commission that need to be chased down and banished. Remove one of them and it can reveal two more. Spending gobs of money on each component is often no guarantee of immunity from this effect. That's the way it goes. But I think, particularly as I have gotten more practiced at it over the years, it's become possible to end up with a system that truly has nothing but sins omission - even with rather modest gear. About the only requirement has been that I must pay attention and learn to follow the avenues toward that wherever they may lead.

So, all the while I find these discoveries have been shaping my own attitudes and approaches toward getting good sound and have even been helping me to zero in on how to compare how my system sounds to live (acoustic) music. Ultimately, I feel that ends up being the only enduringly correct goal...regardless of wherever we are ultimately satisfied (or not, for some!) to declare the pursuit at an end. Hopefully, by this time next year I, too, will be closing in on my "winding down" phase. But, I will agree, by and large it is the "incremental changes" that rule the day.

Regards. John
In regards to the above, I suppose what I'm getting at as well is that all the AMD gear has changed things for me. I should point out that I regard it as a different animal than power conditioning. Electrical noise is basically infinite...and in ways that are rather random in nature. Squash it in one place and it pops up in another. So, no matter how many different products you apply, or how much money you spend, there would still be electrical noise present. But, power conditioning can only reach a point of saturation after which performance is either curtailed or it begins to introduce a negative impact on the sound - weird tonal balances, lack of dynamics and so forth. So, with power conditioning there will always be the law of diminishing returns on your investment whereas with electronic noise reduction there is no technical limit to the amount you can simply becomes a practical matter of how much you prefer to spend. If the amount you've spent brings you a satisfactory level of sonic improvement, then that's all you need to spend. And if in the future you should change your mind, you can always add more (that may be a blessing for some and a curse for others, I suppose). Also, in my view, from what I can see of it, power conditioning makers like to spend most of their time stealing each other's ideas and rebadging them as their own, anyway. So, I'm not exactly surprised whenever someone says what you have about the ubiquitous $5k all-in-one-box conditioners out there that everyone seems to have these days.

All of that is on one side of it for me. But, the other side of it is that I'm supposing what you could be bumping up against is the failure of the high end in general. If that's true I imagine that may well bare out for a lot of us. Many cite high-end greed and the willingness of many companies to sell one (ultra-expensive) piece of gear versus several less expensive ones as exactly what's killing Audio for the rest of us, and so on. If we end up with that discussion, then the best answer I've found (apart from AMD) is for me to mainly look hi and lo for upstart companies that appear to offer some worthwhile innovation...ones that do not yet have the visibility in the audiophile community to start commanding high prices. The only problem is, of course, that I must be willing to be a little adventurous and take the risk on an untried product, not waiting until it is the next big thing. I could buy used, but there's often a lot of recent technology that is left out by doing so. But, I'm increasingly indisposed to behave, as a buyer, the way high-end companies expect me to behave - to come to someone highly visible...just because it's presumed I want to play it "safe" with a well established (and nameless, faceless corporation of an) audio company. This is where I know I'm getting hosed and feel that I should likely be out there putting my 40+ years of experience in this hobby to better use than that. I don't know how to exactly quantify all that, but that's about what it may come down to for me. In any case, I may just have to be prepared to take the alternative route, whatever that may end up being for me. But, I find the AMD works so positively and is such a game-changer that I can concentrate on a lower end of the market and not run into the problems you describe - or, the ones that are usually associated with less expensive gear either, I've found so far, anyway. Although, like I said, I don't have an unlimited budget, but I have every reason at this point to believe this will be the last system for me, and by far my best. And beyond what I've already outlined for myself, I don't see much of anything that will need to be revised, but we will see...there's always the unforeseen isn't there? But, I've generally welcomed my re-evaluations of what it means to "get there" whenever things have gotten to the next level...but...somehow, I remain committed to my original goals more or less. I think that's where the comparison to live music comes in. It's that the sins of commission are invariably 'unmusical' and being as free as possible from them goes a long way for me, even if the system is not mega-expensive or ultra-high-end. We may disagree on where "there" actually is, but this is what does it for me.
Even an incremental upgrade would be something, when stacked in series. But all too often what this really means is an improvement in some areas and a downgrade in others, with the appealing "newness" of the new component winning out just long enough to convince us it was all an upgrade -- rather than (more realistically) a lateral move or even an outright loss. Chasing the latest trends and flavor-of-the-month is far more likely to keep you in the neutral/negative side of these transactions -- all the while burning money and patience.

Sometimes a new component's over-emphasis on one particular area can result in the "wow, I never heard THAT instrument in this recording before!" phenomenon. No, you just never had it stand out enough to be noticed all on its own before -- go back and listen again with your old gear; you'll certainly hear it this time. Hard to say which rendition is more accurate without a good reference system already in place. If your old gear is truly obscuring entire instruments (even in the background at low levels), then it's flat out broke.

That said, there are true upgrades to be had in this hobby, for all levels of systems. The hope is that as you gain experience (the kind more deep than a 5-minute audition), and as your reference system truly improves, you will become far more effective at sorting out real upgrades from impostors. Then you can go about your business of confidently building a wonderful system at the "next level" (whatever that means to you).

The only AMD product I tried were the little boxes with the crystals inside. I found they did not bring a significant improvement in SQ to my system, so I moved on.

At the present time I am doing a lot of DIY modding of power cords and speaker binding posts. I am also doing DIY room treatments. My experience has been that one size does not fit all. We have to discover what works best for our system. This takes a lot of time and patience, but not necessarily a lot of money, thankfully.

For me, the key is getting to a point where you are happy with the sound of your system and no longer feel the urge to make further changes. I'm getting closer and closer to that point this year. The key is that the sound now exceeds my earlier expectations. So, whatever improvements may be in the offing will be icing on the cake.

I agree with you that, with most manufacturers of power conditioners, it is a matter of variations on the same theme or themes. You have to be a bit creative, and also a bit lucky, in this area to get good value for your money. It's all about value -- how much you are willing to spend on a small or a big incremental improvement. In my experience, the incremental sonic improvements brought by most changes in components and cables have not represented good enough value for the dollars invested. I will not mention any manufacturers by name here because I don't want to go where that will lead.

What kinds of improvements did you notice with the Hagerman FryBaby?


In my experience, in my system, hearing something new in a familiar recording as a result of an upgrade or change has usually signaled an important step up in SQ. I agree with you that if there is a trade-off then the "improvement" in SQ may not be what one will choose to live with in the long run.
Once we get used to an incremental change for the better, we tend to downplay it's benefit: "It can't have been all that good", "It was only a small step".

How wrong we are. If something sounds better, does it really matter if it's life changing or "just" a bit better?

When something sounds more authentic as a result of a simple fix, I'm all for it as it allows me to enjoy it all the more. Big step or small step, I'll take it. Like most here, I draw the line with expense and therein lies the rub, with most.

All the best,
Sabai writes, "For me, the key is getting to a point where you are happy with the sound of your system and no longer feel the urge to make further changes."

I agree that's the key, and I think I've pretty much reached that point. Nevertheless, next week I plan to replace a Sony XA5400ES that sounds very good in the system with an Ayre C-5XEmp. I hope that results in an upgrade and is the end of the upgrades.

The most efficacious upgrades have been replacing KEF 104/2s with KEF Reference 107/2s and replacing a Cary Cinema 11a with a Parasound JC-2, the speaker upgrade resulting in by far the greatest improvement in sound quality, but the JC-2 lifted a veil. Nearly all my components were bought used, so the value is high.

Sabai writes, "For me, the key is getting to a point where you are happy with the sound of your system and no longer feel the urge to make further changes."

Well, for heaven's sake, don't stop there. The best is yet to come. Resist the fleeting feeling of happiness, it is a deceptive emotion, like self satisfaction.
Sabai, for my experiences with the FryBaby click on the only review so far under my name. About the only things I kept from the old system listed there are the Monarchy speaker wires and the AMD stuff.

Also, Alan has moved on and improved from the crystals he used to use (which he no longer does) and has greatly expanded his innovations of technologies - even from the time I last bought from several months ago (even I can no longer keep up...!).

It doesn't matter if it's life-changing or a bit better. What matters is what to cost to get there. As you point out "therein lies the rub".


As you point out, buying used to maximize value is vital. Getting caught up in the soup-de-jour syndrome can be very costly.


Do you have a link for Alan?
I have come to the conclusion that if you have first rate equipment such as has been highly rated by credible reviewers/magazines; improvements are far more a product of tweaking the system than forever changing out components. If you are really looking for positive/real changes, take a hard look isolation control, EMI/RFI rejection, Shumann Resonance, acoustic control of the room, signal processing, etc. Fairly small changes can make impressive improvements. Not all will work perfectly in every system, but it's worth the effort to experiment. Most companies will give you 30 days to evaluate with a money back guarantee. Many tweaks are cumulative. Acoustic Revive, Nordost, Mapleshade, Audio Magic, Marigo, Walker Audio are all great places to start, but there are many other fine companies making great upgrade enhancement products. Tweaking typically gives by far the biggest return on investment.
Alan is on facebook (Alan P Maher). Just send him a fb message to introduce and ask any questions. Currently he has a facebook test group of around 300 or so members (of which I'm still one) which, up to recently, he has been selling exclusively to. I don't know if he has room for new members at this time or not, but sometimes another member or two will leave the group and that may make room for you, I dunno. The test group is good because of the more-than-half-off prices, but we are buying what amount to prototypes and giving him feedback so he can fine-tune or redesign the final product, if needed, before selling to everyone, which he's just beginning to do. A very limited number of products are available on Amazon and at last look he was about to launch a website, but I don't know that it's up and running yet, so you may have to get that link from Alan.
Once you get close to the target you are aiming for, the differences from there can only be incremental, although there are many ways room acoustics can still affect the sound. That's what room acoustics do!

Who's to say there is only one "best" sound? Why not just build multiple systems in multiple rooms and enjoy some variety? MAximize the utility of those audio investments we are so prone to want to make.

SOmetimes I wonder if that is what many hardcore audiophiles miss in their quest for a single ultimate sound? Variety is the spice of life. It comes naturally in that each recording is usually a little different. So is each room's acoustics and the sound one will hear there.

There are a lot of systems that "sound good". That does not make them "high end", IMO. How do you define "high end"? For the answer, do you turn to the audiophile who says his/her system is "high end"? Or, do you turn to companies that call their products "high end"? I am not talking about a "best sound" or an "ultimate sound". I am talking about a comparatively "high end" sound. Comparatively. Here's what I am getting at.

What would happen if you got together a group of folks for a listening session. In the theoretical listening room you would have 5 theoretical systems representing 5 levels of "high end" audio equipment. Let's say the theoretical folks in the listening group consisted of newbies, seasoned audiophiles, dealers, manufacturers and reviewers. You might want to add others.

At the end of the listening session a vote would be taken: which systems produced "high end" sound? Grade the 5 systems from 1 to 5 in this regard. Each person would then be asked to explain their vote. Which systems sounded "high end" and which did not. Or which sounded more "high end" than others. Opinions would be solicited as to the why and wherefore.

All good questions, but who gives a rat's arse if someone sticks the "high end" label on something or not? It either sounds good or does not. WHich sounds best seems to always be a pure subjective judgement that depends as much on the listener's state at the time as anything.

"High End" is mostly a label used for good sounding more luxury oriented gear that costs a premium, sometimes for reasons not clear, sometimes not.

Its a lot like wine in terms of being a subjective judgement. IF it costs more, it should be better right? Right????
Nothing like a wine analogy to bring perspective to all things audio. Just last week I sampled some Spanish wines that blew away all of my preconceived notions of what great wine should taste like along with their accompanying price.

It completely changed my mind on what can be. The same can be said for audio, once you've heard it in the context of your own system.

All the best,
Re the 2nd PPG of my 7/6 post: The Ayre C-5xeMP has been installed in my setup and is another of the most efficacious increments. Wow, what a difference. Music somehow sounds less recorded, if that makes any sense. I expected DSD to sound superb and it does, but the improvement in CD sound was unexpected.