[SoundStage!]Audio Hell
Back Issue Article

August 2002

The Weakest Link

[applause, applause]

Thank you, thank you and welcome to the show that separates the fans from the fanatics, the obsessive-compulsives from the compulsive-obsessives, the occasional listener from those who truly hear. Yes, we’re here today asking the question, "Do you really have any #@!* idea what you’re doing?" So without any further ado, please let me introduce today’s system.

Our first component hails from the shores best known for reliable spinners of vinyl. He is a top-loader dressed in an attractive metal chassis. Let’s all hear it for Rega Planet 2000 CD player.

Our next piece of equipment is of French-Canadian heritage. His favorite activity is providing ample current to the hungry speakers of the world. He is a brutish remote-controlled integrated amplifier. Please welcome Simaudio’s Moon I-5.

Our third and fourth contestants are a pair of loud mouths from the country of France. They are an efficient little pair with Spartan appearance and imperial sound. Let us greet the Triangle Titus 202 loudspeakers.

The fifth competitor of our show is of unknown origin. He was picked up off a shelf at the local home-improvement center. Cut from a 50-foot spool and dressed in clear plastic, please welcome 18-gauge zip cord.

And last but not least, our final entry was discovered at an auction on eBay. Her taste is most expensive and is often seen hooking up with only the most exclusive of components. Please give a most neutral welcome to Nordost Valhalla interconnect.

So with our components all in place and the theme song playing, let’s find out who is The Weakest Link.

Who indeed? My wife and many of my friends that are not "fidelity inclined" would probably vote me as the weakest link. After a while you’d think that they would begin to understand the serious implications of proper component isolation or the vast importance of cable capacitance. What world are they living in?

For the "enlightened" among us who have already committed themselves to this hobby (or perhaps should be committed), our goal should be obvious. We are on a never-ending mission to seek out the weakest link in our systems and eliminate it through the method of upgrading. I recently informed my wife that my system was finally where I wanted it. I was satisfied with every component.

Exactly how long can a laughing fit last?

Now that we’ve dedicated ourselves to ferreting out the chink in our sonic armor, where to begin? Sometimes the answer is obvious. I once met an "amateur" who thought he really had it together. He ranted on and on about his amazing pair of Levinson monoblocks and B&W speakers. We’ve all met this name-dropper without a clue. After a brief interrogation I also found out that he was still using a 100-disc Sony CD changer as his source. After a tactful suggestion that he look into improving his source, he did inform me of his plan for an upgrade. He was just waiting another month until Sony released their new 500-disc changer. Just shoot me.

Another obvious but often overlooked audio Achilles’ heel is cabling. It’s not uncommon to hear audiophiles brag about how short the signal paths of their amp and preamp are. We will even go as far as measuring the signal path of each input in our preamp to find out where to hook up our best source. We go to all this trouble and then hook everything up with something akin to lamp cord on steroids. Why does this vital component quite frequently become the one most ignored? Because it’s not sexy!

The new amplifier is described with words like "muscle" and "control." It is a symbol of your system’s authority. An amplifier usually occupies a rather visually prominent position in the system. We might even provide it with its own stand, emphasizing its importance. The preamplifier is the board of directors. It’s not only quite visible in the system but also very tactile. It's the command center, and we interact with it almost as often as with the source. The source usually takes the top position in our rack and is therefore both a visual and tactile center of interest. Because of the source's prominence in the system, it is not unusual for companies to go to some length to make these components aesthetically pleasing to both the owner and guests who may stop by. A little sexiness makes it much easier to hand over that credit card. There’s a reason that the styling of the K-Car hasn’t made a comeback.

Cabling, on the other hand, is fairly utilitarian. Speaker cables, in general, look like either garden hose or ribbon strung across the living-room floor. Interconnects, hidden behind the components, don’t even get that much credit. Cabling is about as sexy as canned corn. It’s no wonder that companies like Synergistic Research are draping their power cords across the naked buttocks of beautiful models. It's about time to put a little sex appeal into this often neglected highway of our signals. Listening to your system through poor cabling is akin to drinking purified water from a filthy glass. What’s the point?

But what if the weakest link isn’t so obvious? Perhaps it’s best to start at the ends and work your way in. I’ve always maintained that, all-else being equal, the most critical components in the system (other than the room) are the source and the speakers. The source is where it all begins. If you can’t extract a decent signal from the software in the first place, then all is lost. Once garbage is fed into the system, then garbage will come out of the system. You may be able to change the flavor a little, but it’s still garbage. It also seems that this is the area where the biggest improvements are being made as of late. CD players and DACs that cost $600-$900 today will compete with many of the multi-thousand-dollar units of only a few years ago. The speakers are the final interpreter. They are the ultimate masters of seasoning in this recipe. Speakers are by far the most subjective component in the system. If this weren’t true, wouldn’t all mega-buck reference-level speakers begin to sound similar? I can tell you from experience that they don’t. If you are not at all satisfied with the overall tonal quality of your system, you probably need to start here.

As you begin your walk down this upgrade path, make sure you avoid some of the more common stumbling blocks. First of all, make sure that you have tended to proper room setup. If your speakers are jammed into the corners, or the room is filled with nothing but hard reflective surfaces, you’ll have a heck of a time hearing improvements as you spend your precious dollars. Also, be careful not to let retail price tags be your guide as to where your limitations are. There is some reasonably priced equipment out there that deserves respect. At $495 a pair, the little Triangle Titus 202 can compete with speakers costing five and six times as much, and they would not feel out of place with some mighty pricey electronics.

Keep the concept of balance in mind as you move along. A system made up of less expensive components that work well together will sound infinitely better that an unbalanced megabucks system thrown together because each component had a Class A rating. Trust your ears. Trust your ears. Trust your ears. Your ears are for listening. Your eyes are for reading. Many audiophiles seem to forget this.

Of course this is really all an exercise in futility. As you weed out one weak link in your system it only focuses the attention on the next weakest link, and so on, and so on, and so on, and…

...Bill Brooks


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