Are You in your Happy Zone?

Once in a blue moon, I'm asked this question: How much should I spend on an audiophile rig? It's usually asked by someone with no real interest in buying an audiophile rig, but who's fishing, for giggles, for the exorbitant figure that is the presumed going rate for joining our hobby. Sometimes, when the mood strikes, I'll bang out a randomly absurd number—"$80,000!"—then lean back to observe the fallout. Nine times out of ten, that fallout consists of a head shake and a snicker, as if to say, "You guys are nuts!" But on those occasions when honesty seems the best policy, my short answer to the how-much question, regardless of the buyer's financial means, is the same: As little as possible.

I know—coming from an audiophile, that sounds weird, even unnatural. But it's a life lesson rooted in a technique I used, as owner of a sales company, to grant bonuses to employees in amounts that were just right: no less than they expected, and no more than was necessary to put them in their Happy Zones.

My technique was inspired by the Chinese philosophy of yin and yang, which holds that opposing forces work symbiotically to sustain the natural equilibrium of the universe. The Chinese call this natural equilibrium the Tao—literally, the Way.

I see the Happy Zone as the Tao inside us, as the unique balance of yin and yang devoid of the disruptive effects of extremes. It's where we feel most assured, content, and satisfied, lacking in nothing.

Put another way: The Happy Zone is the red circle at the center of the dartboard, from which every ring expanding outward is farther from the ideal, and thus worth less.

It was that red circle I was shooting for with my bonus technique, the success of which came down to pulling off one trick: the Smile Test. I imagined the about-to-be-bonused employee wearing the most natural and centered smile—the Happy Zone smile—for which I intuitively and empathetically found its matching cash amount. It rarely failed.

What does this have to do with audio? Everything. The concept of a sweet spot is universal; it applies to all things of which we can have too little or too much, including high-end gear and its assortment of orbiting accessories.

I suggest, for fun, trying the Smile Test on yourself and the audio upgrade you've been contemplating. (Yes, I know you've been mulling an upgrade—I'm a friggin' wizard!) Turntable? DAC? Speakers? Assuming you have to choose among different candidate components, imagine inserting them, by turns, in your audio system, and living with each until its sight and sound become commonplace. Then examine—not with your analytical brain, but with the magnetic drawing power of your heart and gut—the sort of smile evoked by each potential scenario. Sure, every one of them can evoke a smile, but of those smiles, only one will appear to us as notably more natural and centered.

This happens because the audiophile Happy Zone is all about our consciousness tapping into that part of our inner self capable of resisting the temptation to under- or overserve ourselves—our inner golden mean, there to keep us from straying too far off the Yellow Brick Road. It works, in my case, by reminding me that:

I'm not rich: In the real world of cohabiting dependents and home repairs and escalating debt, I have to budget my leisure spending like a grownup; that is, with an eye to the future, and with enough self-discipline and gratitude in my heart to appreciate what I already have and not spend money frivolously.

Technological progress doesn't stop: It may go sideways, or backward, but chances are that whatever we buy today will be replaced by a better-performing and/or lower-cost variation of the same thing tomorrow. This is especially true of digital audio, which, while having made great strides in technology and sound quality in the last couple decades, continues to be repackaged in proprietary formats that abruptly cease to be supported by those who bring them to market. As a result, I've contracted digital fatigue, one symptom of which is impotence of hope: I can't get my hopes up like I used to! DSD? DEQX? Sorry, but these latest initialisms sound a lot like yesterday's contenders; this time, I think I'll wait it out to see what comes to me, rather than the other way around.

Nothing lasts: As a human being who also happens to be an audiophile, a) I will eventually get bored. No component my conniving and pesky id kid tells me I should buy now, because it's the one, will remain the one forever after; and b) My tastes will change. As with my appetite for other consumables for which there's a selection to choose from, any audio gear I've ever owned has reflected only a temporary stage in my evolution as an audiophile.

Obviously, not all of my audio purchases have ended up winners. But none was a random or an inconsequential choice—each represented a unique moment in my development as an audiophile, suffusing my life with a maturing wisdom that has helped me segue from one Happy Zone to the next.

Isn't that what audiophilia—or any pursuit—is all about: for us to be happy? It's why, to the question of how much anyone should spend on an audiophile rig, my long answer is: As little as possible—provided it's enough to send you into your Happy Zone.—Robert Schryer

naim00's picture

...Nothing lasts: so true!... but once we enter the dimension of time into our happy zone, aren't we back to where we started? Instant gratification and a happy smile from a new set of under-$200 headphones is usually my first choice, it reminds me of being kid again. Or weeks of self-doubt, then some extra efforts for the sake of Really Big (and Lasting) Smile when unpacking LCD-4s? Thanks God both Sennheiser Orpheus and HE1 seem to be sold out, no need to worry about The Ultimate Smile ;-)

Anton's picture

I get complicated feelings about this, sometimes.

I am almost always in my happy place when riding in almost any car when I am digging the music. So, I can almost get to my happy place for free.

I can toss on my yachting cap and sing along in my happy place when the Pina Colada song (Escape, for the factual correct crowd) comes on the overhead and we turn it up.

I can lose my happy place in the midst of fellow audiophiles being in their happy places, but they don't notice a system doing something cruel to the music.

I hope that, most moments, I am already in my happy place even before I turn on my Hi Fi when I am at home.

I guess my way of relating to your great description of the process would be that sometimes I will be listening to something, somewhere, in a specifically audiophile way and have a moment where some switch gets turned on and I say with a smile, "Hey, you know would be fun?!?!"

That question has lead to all kinds of places, audio and otherwise!

Thanks again for a great article.

rschryer's picture

To quote John DeVore: "...a listener is most engaged, or lost in the music, when they don’t have to think about the listening experience at all. The more a listener feels the need to parse out what’s happening in the music, the less that listener is going to be musically engaged." So if your audio gear can do this for you—if it allows you to enjoy your music by not stressing you out over how it sounds—then you're probably in a Happy Zone, and the concepts of how much the gear cost and where the music is coming from—a stereo, DAP, or car radio—become irrelevant. Sure, you can spend a lot of money on audiophile gear, but once you've hit your Happy Zone, what more do you want? What more is there? Extra happy? For how long?

kursten's picture

I scored a pair of Paradigm Studio Reference 100s for $400 a while back. If you do your shopping in markets that have a wealthy transient population (New York, LA, San Francisco, Seattle) you can find just about any slightly used luxury good for half the new price.

Anton's picture

We don't have TV service, so we joke that we live 9 months in the past waiting to catch things on DVD.

Same goes for audio! I mostly shop 2014 and back!

DaleC's picture

The average new ski boat would build an AMAZING audio system and a boat doesn't get used anywhere nearly as often as a great system.

rschryer's picture

It all comes down to what makes each of us happiest. A ski boat does nothing for me, while a spiffy new audio component can make me giddy with joy. Bottom line: there is no wrong answer, nor one absolute right one that applies to all. Vive la différence!

Doctor Fine's picture

As John McLaughlin used to say on his political show: "The CORRECT answer IS..."

Build enough of a quality system that it will NOT ever need upgrades AND that it BELONGS in the room in which it resides. That is ALL it takes.

In other words DON'T put a $4000 stereo in a high end mansion. And DON'T put a $50,000 stereo in a trailer.

My personal main system has remained unchanged for twenty years.

I made it flexible enough that it works in MOST any medium sized domestic room of various dimensions up to about 20 feet wide. It has been moved twice and will soon be moved once again.

The speaker system is modular and consists of sufficiently powerful componentry that it approaches actual concert volume levels IF I have a room and neighbors which would allow that sort of use. It also sounds great at a whisper.

I go to shows. I NEVER hear anything that sounds better than my system in MY room. Probably because most shows the rooms suck and mine is a known factor with lots of time spent on tuning it to best effect. The first time I took five years getting the best sound out of it by moving speakers EVERY DAY. THIS is the most important deal breaker...SETUP.

Oh and I honestly believe it takes ENOUGH dough to purchase life like components and there are no fantastic cheap deals out there worth mentioning in my over fifty years of spending and dealing in audio gear. But there are LOTS of important must-haves that influence how good the sound will be.

Class A is more natural sounding than class D or Class AB. Wide frequency response is a MUST. Low noise is a MUST. A quiet playback room is a MUST. Tuned reverberent space is a MUST.

As for how much MONEY??? It takes about $20,000 to assemble a "keep it forever" quality system for a living room in a $400,000 house. You can spend quite a bit MORE but I doublt you can "keep it forever without upgrades" if you spend a lot less than that.

In other words about as much as a good piano.

There. I said my piece. YMMV.