Audio equipment... the stuff we use to make music listenable and the stuff we use when we listen to the soundtrack of a movie at home. You can buy it in lots of different places. Most people think it is all the same. They are wrong. If you like any particular type of music a lot and you have only heard it on an inexpensive radio, cassette player or boom box, you are in for a BIG shock. Any equipment can play music, but you can't really hear everything that is in the recording until you have relatively good equipment. The "relatively good" equipment tends to be a bit more expensive, but there are exceptions. The places people go to buy their audio equipment shows that only a small percentage seek out REALLY good equipment. I think it is because most people don't know where the really good equipment is. AND most people don't know that really good equipment is available in almost every price range. People assume the really good stuff is too expensive for them so they shop the discount stores and spend money that could have gotten them MUCH more musical sound elsewhere. I'll try to get you pointed at the right equipment and the right places to look for it.
WHERE YOU BUY AFFECTS WHAT YOU GET
Department Stores & Discount Department Stores - my advice is to not even bother shopping at these places. They may have some name brands you have heard of, but the sound you get will be awful. Here is the interview for the "salesperson" for this department: "Do you have a stereo?" "Yes, the one my parents bought me for my 15th birthday." "Can you plug everything in and make it work?" "Like a lamp or vacuum cleaner, sure, no problem." "Can you work from 1pm to 9pm Monday, Thursday, Friday and 10am to 6pm Saturday and Noon to 4 on Sunday?" "I guess so. Do I get health insurance?" "No." "OK."
Regional/National Discount Electronic/Appliance Stores - these people move massive numbers of mediocre sounding, mostly imported, electronic "boxes" and mostly domestic speakers. None of these have the best possible reproduction of music as a primary design goal. The primary mission of these products is to SELL. How they sound is, regrettably for the buyer, a secondary consideration during the design process. In this market, sound quality has little to do with the sale-ability of a product.
"Mid-Fi" Shops - these places will have equipment that sounds a bit better than the discount houses. But their goal is also to move boxes and not to find and sell the best sounding audio equipment at each price point. These places will tend to move slightly more sophisticated boxes. You will see a mix of Japanese, European and American brands. Some of these brands will be all "style" and offer only unsatisfying music or movie sound. Most people will recognize the sound is better than discount shops. So they will pay their money and never discover the places that sell the really good audio equipment. If you go into one of these stores and see flat speakers hanging on a wall or huge Digital Signal Processors or big equalizers with fancy displays and 10s of sliders of knobs... run away as fast as you can. This is not where you want to shop for audio equipment that will get out of the way enough for you to make an emotional connection with the music you love.
"Hi-Fi" or "High End" or "Audiophile" shops - These places rarely advertise anywhere the average shopper would see the ads. Rarely in the newspaper, never on TV, never in Stereo Review or High Fidelity magazines (neither is on my list of audio magazines you should read, by the way), never on the radio. You can almost be certain that if you never heard of the place it is probably selling pretty good equipment. These guys are not "box movers" like the discount places. To find them, check the local Yellow Pages. You will see manufacturer names like Apogee, Magnepan, Audio Research, Theil, Vandersteen, Sonic Frontiers, Audible Illusions, Mark Levinson, Conrad-Johnson, Snell, Quicksilver, C.A.T., Jadis, SME, Benz-Micro, Graham, Grado, OCM, Kimber, Cardas, MIT, XLO, Discovery, Martin-Logan, Sound Labs, White, Manley, Golden Tube, Melos, SOTA, Tice, Wilson, Avalon, Spectral, Theta, Wadia, Muse. All but 4 of these manufacturers are U.S. companies. Most people do not know that the U.S. has a reputation for being the home of some of the most highly respected high performance audio products in the world. Some of the lower cost "high end" products come from companies like Audio Alchemy, PSB, AMC, NAD, Parasound, Adcom, B&K (not B&O), Creek. Neither list is complete. There are many other respected names. The purpose of this list is to help you find the "right stores".
Remember, "high end" does not necessarily refer to price. There are "high end" values in most price ranges from modest to "I didn't know those could be that expensive." "High end" refers, more than anything, to the reproduction of music in a way that is more satisfying for the music lover than can be achieved using "popular" audio equipment. I found out about high end audio completely by accident. I wonder how many others who could/would enjoy their music more with the right equipment have remained unaware of "high end" audio?
Notice that __ny, P____er, J__, Te__n___, S__s__, Sh______, _ish__, _en_oo_, _am__a, etc are not on the list of "high end" brand names. Getting good sounding audio equipment from these companies and their cousins is not likely though there are odd exceptions. P____er makes some really good laserdisc players and a few select CD players that at least do a pretty good job. __ny has a pair of speakers that get occasional mention and a tiny scattering of top line models that may border into "high end" performance. But for the most part these are "box" companies. They want to move lots of boxes that salesmen can sell to customers who are not very well informed.
Well informed... in this context, knowing that Store A has Receiver X for $35 less than the same receiver at Store B does not mean the consumer is well informed. This means the consumer has shopped for price only. The consumer will still purchase mediocre sounding audio equipment, probably because they don't know they can get something that sounds so much better. What more people need to realize is that you can buy GOOD SOUNDING audio equipment and figuring out what sounds good to you is NOT all that difficult. Yes, it is harder than picking 1 refrigerator from 10 possible 22 cubic foot models. But if you like music, the effort is MORE than worth it. You'll get years and years of pleasure from your purchase of quality audio equipment. More pleasure than you realize is possible today. Do the research, it's worth it.
The rest of this article will offer some tips on where to start and what to read to help you better understand the world of "high end" audio. Remember, "high end" means "good sound". Certainly, the prices of the best equipment can be breath-taking, but there are affordable "high end" products also. "High end" sound helps convey the emotion of the music to the listener on a much higher level than run-of-the-mill equipment. Why drive a boring car when you can drive something the FEELS good? Why listen to boring music reproduction when you can have something that draws you into the music like never before? High end audio is virtual reality for your ears - it is a huge step forward from "ordinary" equipment.
Another warning... one way the discount houses move so many boxes is with the colored lights, arrays of switches, and fancy remote controls. In a darkened room, some of the discount equipment looks like a miniature city at night. "High end" audio equipment is usually short on glitz and glamour in the lower price ranges. In the more reasonable "high end" price ranges, you trade lights and switches and fancy remote controls for more basic looking equipment that sounds wonderful. Lights and switches cannot make the music sound better, don't be a sucker. Music lovers should NEVER settle for less than the best SOUND they can afford.
Final warning... shopping at a "high end" store is not like shopping at a factory outlet store or discount house. Don't look at $1,000 speakers and expect to pay $600 for them. Do look at $1,000 speakers and TRY to get them out the door for $900 or $950, but more often you will get them out the door for closer to $1,000 and maybe some "free" speaker cable. "High end" stores will spend a lot more time with you. They will even help to educate you if you are a beginner. The easiest way to get a discount at a "high end" store is to buy a complete system all at one time.
GOOD SOUND ISN'T ACCIDENTAL
Why do I use the collection of equipment I have? Synergy and personal preferences. Something happens when you put the right pieces together. This cannot be a random process. You cannot read a list of this month's most fabulous components in a magazine, go down to Circuit Guys, pick one from column A, 2 from column B and 1 from column C then bring them home and have anything approaching really good sound. You have to do a lot of work. This system I'm using now sounds great. It's better than you would expect if you heard the individual pieces combined with other equipment that was not such a good match.
Finding a dealer who has half a clue about how to put together a good sound system is more than half the battle. These guys can be indispensable. But they are hard hard hard to find. Carrying the right brands alone is no guarantee the dealer knows how to make a great sounding system. You have to travel to them. You have to listen to their best shots. If you don't hear something that grabs you emotionally, thank them for their time and move on. Do not pay attention to the appearance of the store. The worst looking place may be best at making a musical system. If you are treated rudely or condescendingly - leave. Eventually you'll find your man, or in rare cases in this male-dominated business/hobby, woman.
Read magazines like Stereophile, Positive Feedback, The Audio Adventure, The Listener, The Tracking Angle (music with coverage of it's sound quality as well as performance quality), Bound For Sound, and Fi (new and just getting started). If you don't know these magazines, find Stereophile at a newsstand and you'll see ads for most or all of the others. These magazines will open up a whole new way of understanding and evaluating audio components. Don't take everything you read in these magazines as gospel... the information is usually 1 person's opinion and your preferences may be for something different.
On-line audio oriented forums are mostly awful. In many cases, Excessively Overbearing Know-It-Alls constantly stifle discussions of subjective performance differences. The EOKIAs think you should be able to explain every difference in sound with a "scientific" measurement. The EOKIAs are descendants of the same "scientists" who predicted death to humans who exceeded 25mph. When humans traveled 25mph in motorized vehicles the EOKIAs of the day said "well OK 25mph doesn't kill, but 40mph will kill for certain." And they worked up to the sound barrier which they were again CERTAIN would kill humans. It's a disappointing thing to see that even in 1995 there are still people so stupid and blind that they cannot accept that things happen which are not measurable or explainable with 1995 science. 1995 science is not "complete". The human race does not yet know everything there is to know. The only on-line place I know of that remains relatively safe from the EOKIAs is The Audiophile Network (818-988-0452). There is a modest annual fee for the service (around $27 last time I renewed) that gives you up to 2 hours connect time per day and offers Internet EMAIL support (no forums, message groups, etc, only personal EMAIL). The folks there are a friendly group of hobbyists, manufacturers, and writers. Discussions range from scholarly to wildly funny.
When you begin to read these magazines or log on to TAN, you will find people writing about music and music reproduction in ways that might be a bit odd and off-putting at first. Stick with it. These people have developed a way of verbally describing the performance and sound of equipment/music that you might find hard to understand at first. This is OK. You'll pick up the meaning as you tune your listening ability. There are 2 books that bear recommendation "Good Sound" by Laura Dearborn and "The Complete Guide to High End Audio" by Robert Harley, which is a bit newer. Each might be a bit too much for complete "high end" novices, but you can "grow into" the parts that you aren't ready for in the beginning.
The worst problem for the first time system buyer or for the person who has a system but wants to step up to something better is not knowing enough about your preferences to even know that you have preferences! This is where those trips to dealers can be enlightening. Take some of your own music with you. But let the dealer play some of the things they like to demo with also. You may hear things you never expected. Consider the Chesky Records "Ultimate Demonstration Disc". It includes a tutorial about listening for different things in different music tracks. Once you understand the tutorial, you can skip it and listen only the music tracks. This is useful when going from store to store. One other tip I learned from a sharp "high ender"... don't take ONLY the music you love the most. Most of the time, your most favorite music will distract you from what the system really sounds like. Listen to some well recorded music that isn't your favorite in the beginning so you can concentrate on the SOUND. Once you know a bit about the sound, put on some of your favorite music and see if you experience a stronger-than-ever emotional connection with it. This will tell you a lot. If the emotional connection is lacking, keep looking for other equipment that sounds good AND locks you in emotionally to your favorite music.
One thing you will learn VERY quickly is that all recordings do not sound the same. The best recordings will make selecting better sounding equipment easier. This is why I recommend the Chesky Records "Ultimate Demonstration CD". It contains quite a few superior recordings that reveal things about the sound of components that lesser recordings will hide. But do not use this reference alone. If you like Motown or zydeco or swing bring some with you so you can be certain that the new equipment won't assassinate your favorite music. In "high end", music assasination is quite possible to have happen. All you have to do is combine the wrong components. If anyone ever tells you "No system could ever make that recording sound good" they might be right, it could be a pretty bad recording. But if it is music you really like, tell them "Yes, but many systems can make this recording sound unbearable and I do not wish it to be unbearable." The system you want to own will do justice to the best recordings that are available but it should also reproduce the less well recorded music you like without making it unlistenable.
For years I made all the classic "mistakes" people make when entering "high end". One of the worst was believing reviews in magazines too much. Finally, a dealer got me headed off in the right direction. My interest and budget grew over the years. Things were updated, upgraded or replaced. Before I found a dealer who knew what he was doing, I threw everything out and started over from scratch 3 times. I went without a system for 4 years in the 80s. I've done tubes, solid state, normal speakers, panel speakers, cone drivers, planar drivers, 2 piece speakers, 1 piece speakers, subwoofers and no subwoofers, mini monitors and huge full range speakers.
In 1988 or 1989 when I met a dealer who knew how to put together a synergistic sound system, I'd never before heard what careful matching of components could do. All those earlier efforts were just a prelude to finally putting together a system that meshed. If you keep a cool head, you can avoid 15 years of not-so-good system matches. After 20 years of this messing around, there's still a lot I don't know. Hard as it may be to avoid, beginners should not feel intimidated or inadequate. It's a long road. Reasonable audiophiles and dealers know this and will treat you well.
When you decide to enter "high end audio," you can do it any way you want to do it. Some people have a 6 or 12 month period of intense learning and listening experiences. Then buy a system they really love and "drop out" of high end forever. They just use the information base and experience base that exists in high end audio to help them find a superb music playback system and once that is done, they go off to enjoy the music happily ever after. Other people retain a long term interest and slowly evolve their systems over periods of 10 or 20 years. Another group become heavily involved. They often make component changes to their system, read every magazine, and visit dealers often. It becomes their main hobby.
Today I am still trying to bring out the best sound from my system. Just 2 weeks ago I tried something with my amplifier that made the amplifier sound better than it had ever sounded before. This is stuff the reviews in magazines almost never have enough time to cover. The level of detail is too fine and publishing schedules require that a review be started and ended in 2 to 6 months in most cases. In my new house it took almost 6 months to find exactly the right locations for my speakers! When I was shopping for a better amplifier, it took me 1 1/2 years to find one I was willing to spend money to buy. Beginners need to learn patience when building a system. "High end" audio systems don't usually have quick answers that are always right.
Every house is different, every person is different, every combination of equipment is different. To do "high end" right requires 1 of 2 things: 1) a long term investment on the buyers part in educating him/herself about systems and what makes them sound good; 2) finding a dealer whose expertise and judgment you have complete trust in. With option #1, you do a lot of work, most of which will turn out to be fun. With option #2 you meet dealers till you find one who is on your wavelength and put yourself in that person's hands. #1 fits people who have time and perhaps a tighter budget. #2 fits people who just haven't got the time to invest in a 3 to 10 year "system building" process and who might have a bit more budget flexibility.
To teach yourself enough to be able to build a system effectively, you have to bring new things into your house and listen to them for a little while to see how they work with your system, with your room, and to see how well they match your preferences. Soon you will find that you do have preferences developing. But only after experiencing listening in different rooms and in your own room.
Keep a reference point. Listen to live music as often as you can. Especially live music that does not rely on microphones, amplifiers and speakers. This will help you learn the true sound and nature of real instruments and voices. This is invaluable when listening to audio equipment. Electronic sound reproduction can't yet match the quality of live music, but the best electronics are a lot closer to reality than the worst stuff. Do not hold "big names" in awe. Some of the most familiar names to people who are not aware of "high end" sound, produce notoriously mediocre sounding equipment. Do not rely only on price. There is good cheap equipment and poor cheap equipment. On the other end of the scale there is expensive equipment that is a poor value sound-wise and expensive equipment that deserves its high price. In the middle ground where things are more expensive than the cheap stuff and more affordable than the expensive stuff - there can be some incredible performers.
SPEAKING OF SPEAKERS
One thing beginning and intermediate equipment shoppers often get confused about are speakers. There is a huge array of models, prices, and companies. Some people become mesmerized by the appearance of a certain speaker and must have it. This is not the way to achieve good sound. Try to forget what the speaker looks like and be concerned only with the quality of the sound. There are huge differences. Discount houses, department stores and shops specializing in "mid-fi" often sell speakers that are exceedingly polite to the point of being unable to make exciting music sound exciting. Or they sell speakers that have so much "personality" that only one kind of music sounds anywhere close to OK on them. When you visit a "high end" audio shop, you enter a different world. The emphasis is on speakers and other products that make music sound exciting. These products let you experience the emotion and soul of the music. If you use music as background noise or wallpaper for your life, these "high end" shops will not have much of interest to you. But if you are someone who loves music, "high end" shops are the places to go. Some people like a scotch or martini or micro-brew beer at the end of a stressful work day. I like to come home, change my clothes and have 45 minutes or an hour of great music. Talk about stress relief. Of course there are many "audiophiles" who enjoy BOTH the spirits and the music together, nothing wrong with that!
I chose my speakers because I listen to many different kinds of music. 78rpm recordings from the 20s/30/40s, LPs, and CDs all get played in my system. Some high end speakers are just too brutally detailed to sound good on a wide variety of music. Feed these brutes only the very best recordings and they may sound wonderful, but feed them Linda Ronstadt, old Duke Ellington recordings, Madonna, The Four Seasons or Caruso and they will pretty much turn you off the music. But SOME "high end" speakers will still make this less-than-perfectly-recorded music sound good. I get thrilled by the beauty of exceptional recordings, but "typical" commercial music from major record companies and older recordings still sound at least OK.
PREFERENCES? I AIN'T GOT NO STEENKIN' PREFERENCES
What about preferences? How can preferences change your music system? Well, the kind of music you enjoy can have a big effect on what you should be looking at. Where you live has a big effect. The size of the room available for the system is a major factor, perhaps not a preference because most of us don't have much of a choice. Usually people have only 1 room to put the system in and the system must work well there.
An apartment dweller who enjoys small jazz combos above all else might want relatively small speakers and a low powered tube amplifier. Someone who likes orchestral music and lives in a house in the suburbs might want a full range system that can reproduce the power and delicacy of the orchestra. A headbanger in an old house in the country might want 500 watts and butt kicking speakers. The bad news is that an apartment dweller with a small room who wants full range orchestral or rock music and movie surround sound may have unrealistic expectations.
For beginners, an alternative to a big system is a headphone system. There are some new products, especially those from a company called Headroom that make headphone listening a lot more pleasant than it used to be. And headphones made by Grado (beginning at $60 or so) sound much better than speakers costing many times the cost of the headphones that many high end beginners on a budget start with a headphone system.
Use care with volume levels - hearing damage from high headphone (or speaker) volume is easy. Every music lover wants their ears to be in top shape as long as possible so they can continue listening to music for years to come. Sound levels above 90 dB for 1 hour or more causes small hearing loss. 90 dB does not seem all that loud unless you hear it immediately after dead silence. Rock concerts often peak at 105 dB or higher. 110-120dB is generally accepted as the range where people begin to experience pain from sound. A 2 hour concert that is mostly 100 dB and louder does cause permanent hearing damage, even if you THINK it doesn't. Protect yourself, use earplugs! Use earplugs on airplanes too. Long trips will be less tiring and your ears don't need the beating they will take.
OK, I'M CONVINCED, BUT WHERE DO I START?
It's hard to know how to assemble a good sounding system. You can argue endlessly about whether you begin with speakers and build from there - or begin with an amplifier and preamplifier and build from there. At some point you just have to decide how you are going to do it. Your music likes and dislikes, the size of your room, and your budget will set some very specific limitations on the speakers that will "fit" your system. So speaker selection may be the right place to start for many people. Selecting a beginning and building up a system really should not be an impulse decision. This is where time needs to be invested so alternatives can be weighed.
AND WHAT DID YOU SAY ALL THIS WOULD COST?
How much to spend on a stereo music system? Let your budget and your love of music be your guide. One word of warning... don't spend SO much on the music system that you have no money left to buy new music! There is a half-joke-half-serious high end "rule of thumb" that goes like this: If your music collection doesn't cost at least as much as your stereo system, you aren't a music lover, you're an equipment lover. For those just beginning, that might be modified to: If you aren't spending as much on new music every month as your payment on your stereo system, you're not a music lover... The point is, keep things in balance. Great stereo equipment with a small music library and no money to add new music becomes very boring very quickly. If pushed up against a wall, I think most audiophiles would say that the "cheapest" high end system you could buy with new components would probably be close to $1,000 for a pair of speakers, integrated amplifier (amp and preamp in 1 box), CD player and proper good quality wires to connect everything. If you look at the average cost of systems owned by people who are "into" high end enough to read several of the magazines you are probably in the $10,000 range for speakers, separate amp and preamp, CD player, turntable, wires, and accessories to improve the sound of the system. The independently wealthy or lottery winners could spend more than $250,000 EACH on a music system and a home theater.
There is a thriving used equipment marketplace. Those on tight budgets can buy the hip high end products of yesteryear for small fractions of their original cost. There is even a bi-weekly publication in the US dedicated to the used high end (mostly) equipment market called Audiomart. You can place ads free when you subscribe.
How about "home theater" and "high end" stereo systems? No problem. Lots of high end companies make home theater products. But building an entire home theater system all at once that also sounds really good playing music is not necessarily easy. I recommend beginning with a good stereo system. Connect your TV/monitor and use stereo sound while you get to know your room and the sound of your system better. Select your stereo components knowing that you'll be adding center and surround speakers and more amplifiers later. Select brands that have home theater products that will integrate into your well-set-up stereo system. When you are happy with your stereo and your budget is ready for another big purchase, go for the rest of the surround system. Some stores, magazines and audiophiles will try to tell you really can't have a good stereo for music and a good surround sound system for movies in the same room because the demands on the 2 systems are just too different. This can be correct or incorrect - it depends on your stereo system, it depends on your musical preferences, it depends on your budget. Given a relatively unlimited budget and 2 large rooms - sure, separate music and home theater systems can result in both sounding better. But in the real world where you only have 1 room to work with and separate systems would push the performance of BOTH the video and music systems far down the ladder, combining systems is perfectly logical.
If you are a jazz combo fan and you really love the sound of smallish speakers with low powered tube amplifiers in your smallish room, adding surround sound is not really recommendable. You would be better off with a completely separate system for video. A good video surround system will have deep bass and enough amplifier power to make effects in the movie have the proper impact in the room. A polite stereo system for chamber music or acoustic jazz isn't going to get it for movies. But a more powerful full range stereo system can be perfectly suited for integration into a surround sound system. The jazz/chamber music lover can find bigger more full range speakers that still make their favorite music sound wonderful. They just need to remember the ultimate goal for their stereo purchase when they are selecting components so those components are also appropriate for the surround sound home theater system. Room size is a big factor in home theater also. In a small room, a 60" TV is worthless. 25" or 27" might be the biggest size possible. If the screen is too big or if you sit too close, the picture will look awful. The bottom line? One system for music and video is possible and it can sound better than 2 separate systems on the same budget, but you have to be careful about your purchases. Some rooms and music preferences will make separate systems more attractive, though sound quality of both will suffer unless the budget is increased.
High end sound is something special. Everyone who visits my house and is unaware of "high end" becomes extraordinarily excited about how good music sounds on a high end system. They would be equally excited about many systems I've heard at dealers and in the homes of other audiophiles. "High end" is worth the effort to seek out.
Beginners... read magazines; visit dealers; consider joining The Audiophile Network; listen to live music especially without microphones, amplifiers and speakers; don't make impulsive decisions; don't obey know-it-all older brothers, cousins, dealers or reviewers; trust your own ears; understand that some equipment employs "tricks" to make them sound good for 10 minutes or 30 minutes, but once you have to live with the product it can become irritating; when you listen to music on a "high end" system, listen to the little details and the width, depth and height but do not forget to take the temperature of your EMOTIONS, if you feel "cold" towards music you love, something is wrong. If you feel "warm" and excited you could be listening to some special equipment.
Intermediates... you have already tried making a "high end" system, maybe more than once, but you haven't been satisfied with the results; you may be forgetting to check your emotional reaction to the music on the system, don't be too cold and calculating, let your emotional reaction to the music steer you in the right direction; do analyze technical parameters of the system's performance/sound, but always do an emotional inventory, your subconscious reaction to the sound will tell a lot; stop assembling systems from lists of "hot" components; seek out other systems to listen to at people's houses and at dealers, at some point you will hear a system with "magic" and that's what you want to aim for getting in your system.
Everybody... I don't want to get too swamped with EMAIL, but if you have some questions that are raised by this article and you'd like to ask, send internet EMAIL to email@example.com. I'll do my best to reply quickly. But I really want you to read magazines and visit dealers and maybe go on-line with The Audiophile Network and get the opinions of more people than just me or a relative. I have my own listening and music preferences and they may not be a good match for yours. Just like friends', reviewers', and dealers' preferences may not be a good match for yours. It all comes down to doing some of the homework yourself.
Good Listening!.....The Noisy Audiophile