When “the Best” isn’t the Best for You – Chasing Specs
Many times when people ask for AV advice online, they phrase the question in an either/or form. I want to buy a new X. Should I get Y or Z? Which is better? Well, there is an answer our there that is technically correct and then there is the true answer. Many times we can say, with some authority, that one product is technically better than another on specific criteria. Too often, people make the leap that if something is better on one or more specifications, then it is, in fact, better. This is often not the case. When people start looking at the numbers, it is easy to get bogged down in the minutia. That’s why I’ll often find myself recommending to people that they stop chasing specs. But what do I mean by that?
Say you are shopping for a car. If you start comparing specs, you’ll quickly find that one vehicle might have better numbers than another. For example, if you are worried about cargo space, you might want a car with a lot of internal room. But that doesn’t mean you go out and buy a tractor-trailer. I mean, objectively it has more cargo space than any SUV. But it isn’t what you want or need.
Same with homes. You may want that master bath with all the amenities. But if the home only has that one bathroom, or doesn’t have a roof, or any number of things, you aren’t going to buy it. Not because it isn’t objectively the best bathroom in your price range. It is because a house, or a car, or a set of speakers needs to be judged on more than one criteria.
Losing the Forest for the Trees
When shopping for AV products, it is easy to focus on one spec and look for the best performer. The problem is, nearly all AV products are more than just their specs. For instance, let’s take one of the simplest AV components – the humble speaker wire. Speaker wire does very little in your home theater system. All it does is allow electricity to flow from the amplifier to the speaker. That’s it. But if you were to focus on chasing that one spec, you’d find yourself quickly in trouble.
Say the spec you were most interested in was resistance. Resistance limits the flow of electricity so it must be bad, right? So you should buy a cable with the lowest resistance. The easiest way to lower resistance is to use a thicker cable. The thicker the cross-section of the copper, the less resistance.
You can probably see where this is going.
A massively thick cable has its own problems. It is hard to find, expensive, heavy, and impossible to run in your wall. On top of that, your speaker wire terminals on your AV receiver and speakers can’t accept such massive wires. Sure, you have a wire that has the lowest possible resistance. But at what cost?
More Complex AV Components are Systems
One common thing I see said often is that a 4k native projector is always better than has simulated 4k. Simulated 4k, or “wobble-k” as we like to call it, takes a chip with a lower resolution (usually 1080p) and “wobbles” it a number of times very quickly to display all of the 4k pixels. On paper, it seems that this wobbling should be worse than a display that can show 4k natively.
But that’s not all a display does.
There are 4k-native displays out there (projectors and flat panels) with horrible color accuracy. They can’t do HDR correctly. Their HDMI eARC ports are limited. And a host of other things. Is that display still better than a “wobble-k” display that has all of those other features nailed?
I’d argue, “No!”
Objective vs Subjective
Something can be objectively better than another thing but still not be actually any better for you.
Let me explain.
If you put two top OLED panels next to each other in a dark room and compare content, one is sure to be better than the other. How much better? Usually not much. Let’s say all the features were the same but OLED 1 had slightly more accurate colors over OLED 2. Heck, in the reviews, they’ll tell you how close they were. But, objectively, OLED 1 is better than OLED 2. So, which one do you buy? If the prices are the same, OLED 1, of course. But what if they aren’t?
The thing is, in your room, without the ability to compare the two directly, OLED 1 and OLED 2 would both look great. Even if you were to buy one, and then bring it back and buy the other, you probably wouldn’t notice any difference. Objectively, OLED 1 is better. But from the user’s standpoint, they will never “see” that difference. So how much more would you spend on OLED 1? If it were me, not one dollar. If you can’t experience the “betterness,” then it isn’t there.
The Main Culprit: Subwoofers
Where this shows up most often is in subwoofers (where chasing specs is practically a religion). People are very concerned that they are somehow “missing” some bass by not having the world’s largest subwoofer in the world’s smallest home theater. As I’ve said before, buying a sub too big for your room is just paying extra so that you can turn the volume knob lower on your sub.
A subwoofer that can play cleanly down to 20Hz in your room at reference level is all the subwoofer you’ll need. You may want two of them for a more even response, but you don’t need larger ones. Yes, there are subwoofers on the market that can play lower. So low that you can only feel those notes (anything below 20Hz is inaudible). But you know what you can hear? The upper harmonics of those infrasonic notes. Your 20Hz subwoofer can play those just fine. Plus, there is exceedingly little content below 20Hz in any movie and just about all music. Paying extra for something you literally can’t hear and probably won’t feel with all the other sounds rattling your couch? Doesn’t make sense to me.
How To Know What To Buy
Knowing what to buy is the hard part of shopping for AV gear. Step one is always to ask good questions. Those questions should never be, “Which TV is better?” Instead, they should be, “In my room (description of your room), will one of these TVs be better than the other? And in what ways?” If your room is bright (lots of ambient light), then the TV that has objectively better black levels isn’t worth any extra money because you’ll never experience them. If you have a full surround sound system, the one with better built-in speakers isn’t worth any more money because you’ll never use them. If you chase one of those specs, you’ll waste money on performance you’ll never use or see.
Just because a piece of AV gear is that “best” at something, doesn’t mean you’ll ever notice it. Chasing specs can lead you to spend extra money on features and performance that you’ll never experience. If you have the money, then go ahead. But, if you are like most of us, spending extra for performance you’ll never experience is ludicrous. It’s like buying a bus instead of a minivan because it can hold more people. Sure, that may be objectively true. But try taking it through the drive-thru.