Why comparing specifications is completely pointless

Bitrates, sampling rates, bit sizes, wattages, amplifier classes…. as an audio enthusiast, there are countless specifications to compare. But it is – virtually – all meaningless. Why? Because the specifications that matter are not reported ánd because every manufacturer measures differently. let’s explain that.

Since we started measuring ourselves, a world has opened up. Seriously. It feels a bit like we’ve suddenly found an extra light switch that allows us to better illuminate our work area. Although we have to say: we can now see all the junk around us much better. By the way, the deeper we dive into this matter now, the more questions we get…. and sometimes we also question our own “old understandings. But hey… that’s also part of it.

Back on-topic… The additional knowledge and depth gives an awful lot of insight into how devices work, which is important. Thereby we also see clearly how brands handle the (honest) specification of their products. That does make a difference.

1. Power (Wattages) means nothing!

To get straight to the point: power (wattages) means nothing. In many cases it says for example: 100 watts into 8 Ohms. And if you are lucky, there is a specification for 4 Ohms. That gives a little insight into the reserve; with a very stable amplifier the power doubles. What is often not mentioned, however, is how it is measured, and how much distortion occurs at maximum power. Is that 1%? 10%? Is it at 1 kHz? Full spectrum? In short: it is useless to compare wattages if you do not know this.

It is much more interesting to know what the behavior of the amplifier is at very low power levels. Below 1 watt for example. Below are three power measurements. Look carefully at the vertical axis … that is the distortion. The horizontal axis is the power. The Fosi amp has nearly 90% distortion at 39 uWatts. And well over 15% at 1 mW. 1 watt comes to 0.5% which is horribly high by today’s standards. In fact, most speakers are well below that. The Pass Labs X150.8 shows 0.35% at 37 uWatt, and then drops down. At 1mW it shows 0.07%. The Advance shows neat values in its price range: 1 mW comes in at 0.4%.

Why do we insist on this? Simple: the first watt is crucial. All microdetail is in the low regions of power. These values are nowhere to be found. Only maximum power, but never the distortion for 1 watt or a complete graph, when that’s what it’s all about.

Conclusion: full power specs say nothing and cannot be compared without more information. Thereby, the first watt is important.

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Rounding up

We have touched on a few common specifications: wattages, bits & sampling rates / frequency response / speaker impedance and finally cabling. However, this is only the tip of the iceberg. There are (many) more specifications that are not or very easy, or even impossible to compare. If you have any suggestions: please let us know!

More clarity and insight is needed in the audio world. And also in other industries for that matter. In PCs, GHz’s are also not comparable without more insight about instructions per second or branch-prediction algorithms. And in the car industry, horsepower doesn’t mean much without insight into the power structure, gearbox ratios and the weight of the car.

Yes: complex matters, but relevant. And if it doesn’t interest you; you don’t have to read it: skipping is also an option. However, the purpose of this background story is to prevent you – the reader – from focusing on specifications. Above all, go listen and trust your ears: not just the specifications of a product.

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