The Upgrade Plateau

Published On: April 23, 2021Tags: , , , , ,

Always Reaching Higher

Audiophiles are dedicated, sometimes fanatically, to the continual improvement and refinement of their sound systems to increase the quality of the sound. With familiar recordings used as a reference, they change speakers, components, interconnects, power sources and more, in pursuit of ever-increasing musicality, realism, and immersion.

When an upgrade is made to a system, a perceptible improvement in sound quality is usually delivered to the listening position, justifying the (often substantial) investment. As the upgrade process continues, eventually a better piece of gear that “should” have made a noticeable improvement doesn’t deliver the goods.

This is when the evolution of the audio system often grinds to a halt. We call it an “upgrade plateau.”

Read the full article here! and also at Audiophile Review!

The Heartbreak

The Upgrade Plateau Man napping on a recliner in his hifi roomFor most audiophiles, hitting the upgrade plateau is a big disappointment. Other rooms may seem to sound better than theirs, even with inferior equipment. But after researching, reading reviews, and spending a bunch more money, they still cannot achieve the same level of quality.

Faced with this situation, some audiophiles resign themselves to their “lackluster” systems as defining the end of the road. They give up on the idea of trying to get better sound.

Then, there are the others, like you, who refuse to give up! You want to learn, you want to fix, and you want your room to sound the best it can.

The Explanation

The Upgrade Plateau looking down at a skeptical man lowering his glassesLet’s take a look at what is really going on.

The problem is never about hearing (or not hearing) the main signal. The problem is not hearing the subtle detail within the signal. The main signal will always have a strong tonal presence that combines with dozens of lower level partials or overtones, and some overtones are very low in level.

When audiophiles listen through quality headphones, all of these quiet details are readily audible and nothing is missed. But when the same selection is played through their in-room system, stuck on an upgrade plateau, the subtle musical details seem to disappear, rendering the playback less realistic, less engaging, and less musical.

Through discussions with friends and reading articles, books, and forums, some sage audiophiles begin to imagine that the problem might not be with the electronics of the system, but rather, the acoustics of their room. The room acoustic is creating a reverberant noise floor that is masking the fine, low level musical detail.

The Upgrade Plateau Noise floor graph

The trouble with listening to any sound in a room is that once we hear it, the sound continues to be reflected around the room until it dies out.

The Upgrade Plateau line illustration of hifi room and reflections

Compounding things is the fact that music is not merely one sonic event followed by a reverberant decay; music contains, on average, about eight separate dynamic sonic events per second, each of which is followed by its own reverberant decay.

The Upgrade Plateau sheet music notes

In a typical untreated small room, it can take about a second for a particular sound to quiet down enough to become inaudible. Playing music in small rooms generates a self-noise floor, which is made up of the various reverb levels from the music that’s been played during the previous second. The strength of this self-induced noise floor can equal or exceed the strength of the direct signal.

No matter how refined the signal path of your component system may be, this noise floor will mask the low level details.

How to Ascend to the Next Level: Lower the Floor

We all want our investments to be justified, and for our efforts to be rewarded with results. Audiophiles work on room acoustics because beyond a certain point in the evolution in the performance of their audio system, reducing the room acoustic self-noise floor in the room becomes the only possible improvement they can make. As the noise floor is lowered, those precious details become un-masked and the music takes on a new level of realism and enjoyment.

It may be clear now that further improvements in the electronics become audible only after room acoustic upgrades are completed. But even then, audible progress through component upgrading occurs only to that point where the room’s self-noise floor again has to be addressed. More acoustic treatment is needed. And back and forth it goes, alternating between electronic upgrades and room acoustic upgrades, continually stepping forwards and upwards towards perfection in high-end audio.

The Upgrade Plateau audio performance happiness graph

The process may take years of time and boatloads of patience. In the end, you will be rewarded with the most satisfying listening experience imaginable.

When Component Upgrades Just Won’t Do…It’s Time for TubeTraps!

Nobody likes wasting money or wasting time. Plan on regular acoustic “checkups” as part of your routine audio system maintenance to make sure your next component upgrade purchase is not an exercise in futility. Keep your ears peeled for that dreaded plateau, and you will know it is time to seek help.

Not sure where your room noise floor currently sits? We can help with that.

Latest Newsletters!

Go to Top