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August 2013
Enjoy the Music.com Review Magazine
Skoff'ing Up Food For Thought
The small stuff.
Article By Roger Skoff


  Do you remember the old saying "Don't sweat the small stuff"? It's sound advice; there's only one problem: What is "the small stuff"? Do you know? Do you even know what the big stuff is?

There are constant running battles in the audiophile press, in Facebook, and elsewhere about whether certain audiophile products work and whether they're worth the money. Although we (yeah, me too!) love to wallow in righteous indignation and call people "trolls" and worse whenever it's our own ox that gets gored, the whole "worth it" issue ultimately comes down to decisions of relative big and small: 

For example: More than twenty years ago, "Bill" a wealthy California neurosurgeon and (for those of you who know the name) a pal of Al Morimoto, bought three sets of XLO's then top-of-the-line Type 5 speaker cables to install between his three pairs of Cello Performance Amplifiers (a little over $20,000/pair, as I recall) and his $80,000 Goldmund Apologue speakers. Just to complete the picture, Bill was running everything off his (all prices are estimates, as I remember them) $30,000 Goldmund Reference turntable (with just about every expensive cartridge then available, including the Koetsu Rosewood and the Kiseki Lapis Lazuli); his $12,000 Cello Audio Palette Equalizer (which he just used as the world's most expensive wired remote control); and his $12,000 Cello Suite preamp.

The cost of the cables was about $1,000 a pair "($3,000, total) and Bill, after the cables had burned-in, called me to say that he was "grateful" that he had had the opportunity to buy them and that he thought they were a great bargain because "Nothing else that I (his words) could have done at anywhere near the same price could ever have made as much difference to the sound of my system."

So here's the question: Is $3,000 for cables (remember, that's twenty-some years ago, and just the cost of the speaker cables; no phono cable, and no interconnects or power cords) a big expense or a small one? Is it too big? Or just a fair price? Is it worth the money?

To those who would give the automatic "knee-jerk" response of "No!" or even "Heck, no!", I would probably (once I had finished snickering about the silly euphemism), reply with, "What kind of a car do you drive" and when they said "a Mercedes" or some such like, I would probably ask "Why did you buy that, and not some smaller, cheaper car – a used Yugo, for example -- that would still get you where you want to go?" And then, of course, the fight would start. 

Other people might answer the question of cable value by remarking that the $3,000 Bill paid for his cables only amounted to about 1.5% of the cost of his whole $200,000 system, so they were a relatively very small expenditure, and of course they were worth it. They might even (again, remember the time frame) point out that Julian Hirsch and others had recommended 10% of total-system-price as a "reasonable" expenditure for cables, so they were actually a bargain! And I would have to ask them, "How is it possible for one thing to determine the value of another?" Would those same cables be worth less if they were to be used in a less expensive system? Would they be worth even more in a more expensive system? Can the same expenditure be both big and small at the same time?

Compared to the total cost of Bill's system that $3,000 for the cables really wasn't very much, so does that make it small? How about the cost of the system, itself; was that big or small? Certainly not everyone could afford to buy a system like that, right? So does that make it big? What if, instead of being just wealthy, Bill had been a real-live-no-kidding-billionaire, like Bill Gates or Warren Buffet, and $200 Grand didn't even qualify as serious pocket change? Would that have made it small to him?

Those last words, "...to him" are an important clue: "Big and "small", by themselves, have no absolute meaning – even the Earth, itself, which is huge to us, is less than tiny compared to some other objects (the Sun, Jupiter, Saturn) in our solar system. The only thing that gives meaning to the words big and small is comparison with something else to provide them context, and without context, nothing can be judged at all.

Once a context has been established, though, you can start to establish standards to help you make a decision: The first one is easy: Too big, as regards a potential purchase, is more than you can afford or, for whatever reason, are willing to pay. If, for example, you happen not to be a billionaire or even a neurosurgeon, you may not be able to afford a system like Bill's. And even if you can afford it, maybe you simply aren't interested enough or committed enough to spend all that money. That applies at every level of expense – if it costs more than it's worth to you, no matter how little the number of dollars may be, the price tag is still too big!

Okay, "too big" is easy; but what about "too little"? Is that even possible? As far as price goes, littler just about always seems to be better. I don't think, for example, that I've ever heard of anybody not buying something just because it didn't cost enough, although, I guess that, if the thing to be bought is a present for someone, it could be rejected because it's not big enough or costly enough to make the desired impression. In that case, though, doesn't it seem that the rejection isn't because the price is too little, but because the item doesn't meet the buyer's needs?

And that, finally, gets down to the real Little Red Riding Hood question: How much is "just right"?

That's easy, too: Bill's $200 Grand super-deluxe "wonder and glory" of a stereo system, must have been "just right" for him, otherwise he wouldn't have bought it. And that means that the $3,000 he spent for the speaker cables must either have been "just right", too, or maybe the cables were, as Bill, himself, said, "a bargain" – small in comparison to the price of his system or to the cost of gaining comparable satisfaction otherwise. 

And that – satisfaction – is what it all ultimately comes down to. Everything that you ever buy requires making a "this or that" choice: Buying "this" will keep you from using those particular dollars to get, or have, or do "that", so if "this" and "that" are both about the same price – just about the same "size" in terms of your resources and interest -- which would you rather have? Or would you rather just keep the money? Which will give you the most satisfaction?

In terms of high fidelity, whether it's cables, or big dollar electronics or speakers, or little dollar tweaks, it's all about what will put the biggest grin on your face and do the best job of helping you to...

Enjoy the music!











































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