Soundstage!- The Noisy Audiophile


Beginnerís Luck? Not a Chance!

August 1996

Itís an inanimate collection of boxes and wires. Why do people get so wrapped up in it? Maybe the real question should be 'Why doesnít EVERYBODY get more wrapped up in it' Not everybody is willing to make the effort to shop discriminately. Not everybody finds music a necessity. Listening to music at home requires some effort, not much effort, but some. You have to find out about music you like, buy it, bring it home and physically put it in the CD player or on the turntable. This leads to large music collections which must be looked through to find something appropriate for the listenerís mood. TV is more mindless. Thereís no participation required on the viewersí part. They push a button, sit down and absorb whatever comes out of the tube and speaker on their selected channel.

If you are a music lover, there is no other substitute for the pleasure, enjoyment and/or relaxation you get from the music you like. Good music to our own tastes is an important part of life to us. We cannot not imagine life without music. Why then do so many music lovers end up with systems that are so lacking in musical capabilities? Sometimes an uninitiated music lover gets to hear wonderful music on a good audio system -- I mean a MUSICAL high-end audio system, not a mass market system. Most of those music lovers are transfixed by the experience. It never occurred to them that music could sound like that at home. Then they find out how much work it is to find and buy and setup a system like that and we lose quite a few on those hurdles.

The music lovers who arenít daunted by the learning process usually go at the process in a very uncoordinated and undirected way. They learn bits and pieces, fit them together prematurely and go spend money on something that just does not work musically. We lose some more of them here or after their first or second unsuccessful attempt to assemble a good sounding system.

Two things can be done before failing that will greatly improve the chances of success:

  • Tip #1: Organize the learning process.
  • Tip #2: Find a helper. Now letís look at these 2 tips in more detail.
  • Organize The Learning Process

    Read the right material. This means 1 or 2 books. Robert Harleyís 'Complete Guide to High End Audio' and Laura Dearbornís 'Good Sound' are perennially recommended. The Harley book is newer, but the Dearborn book is still relevant and worthwhile. Reading the right material also means high end magazines. Beginners are encouraged to sample heavily from the following list: Stereophile; Fi; The Audio Adventure; The Listener. If you find those easy enough to digest, dig in even farther: Positive Feedback; Bound for Sound; The Audio Amateur (build your equipment or modify commercial equipment to sound better). There are many others out there and you will find them all through ads in these magazines. If you have read other articles of mine on Soundstage, this will sound very familiar. Thatís because it is important enough to keep repeating. The web has a site that allows you to sample a number of high end magazines: http.//www.audioweb.com

    Those new to 'high end' need to remember that achieving high end sound quality involves pushing the envelope. This translates to higher cost of the components. There is more interest among people in the high end community, generally, in a great sounding $2,000 amplifier or in a cleverly designed $8,000 carbon fiber turntable and tonearm than there is in good sounding $400 CD players. The music lover who is looking into high end for the first time can be frustrated by what they feel is a lack of coverage of equipment in the price range they find acceptable. Donít let this happen to you. Hereís an EASY way to avoid the problem. Read the reviews of the expensive equipment. Instead of letting yourself get frustrated by the cost of the equipment, keep asking yourself, 'What is this reviewer saying about this component that can help me understand how to pick something similar but less expensive?' And there you go, suddenly every review becomes useful. You can glean some references to CDs or LPs that have certain tracks that help uncover something that is useful to know about various components. The language of reviews will become more familiar, especially if you audition the same products at a friendly dealer after reading a review. Always remember, what a reviewer likes may not be right for you. Reviews are nothing more than 1 personís experience with that product. Your experience could be very different. So keep an open mind. Another thing to remember, reviewers usually donít have unlimited time to study a component and write a review. This means their reviews will most often summarize what a component is doing after 3 or 4 months in their system. Most people will find that they are continuing to improve the sound of various components in their systems for years after purchase. By setting up my preamp, for example, in increasingly better ways, I can honestly say that the preamp now sounds far better in my system than it did 2 or 3 years ago. Interconnect selection, location, feet, rack, tuning/damping have all moved the sound I get from this preamp far beyond what I was getting after the first 3 or 4 months. Other components may not be much affected by setup -- it all depends. This kind of thing also accounts for people wondering at how a pair of speakers at Shop A sounded ho- hum while the same speakers at Shop B sound wonderful... Shop B knows something about setting up those speakers that Shop A does not know.

    You are probably getting this nagging feeling that this high end system stuff will take a little time. Yep, thatís important. Donít read one book and one issue of 2 magazines then go out and spend several thousand dollars on a high end system. Your chances of success will be better if you go slower, learn more, explore more territory and listen to many different systems in different rooms.

    Find Someone Who Knows More Than You Who You Can Trust to Help

    I admit this will be a little difficult. The kind of person Iím thinking of is not that common. Simply owning a high-end audio system does not qualify the person to be able to help you. Dealers can sometimes be this person, but you have to choose carefully and watch out for warning signs that your interests are not the most important factor. There are a lot of bad dealers and lot of bad high-end system owners. In this context I mean people who are bad for the music lover, who is not an equipment lover, to be influenced by. I think everyone who has been interested in high end audio for any length of time will admit that there is a core group of enthusiasts who are really interested in cool/new hardware. A fair number of dealers want quick, or relatively quick, sales to people who mostly already think they know what they want. Or they want to sell to people who let the dealer sell them whatever the dealer thinks they need without having to work for the sale. YOU donít really want guidance from these people.

    So who is worthy of guiding you? I canít answer this specifically for you, but I can show you how to figure out how to do it for yourself. If you pay attention to this next bit and do what I tell you to do, you will eventually be a very very happy music lover. You will put out a little work but when you finally select and buy your high end audio system it will be perfect for your budget and musical needs.

    I want you to take some kind of stiff card that will fit in your shirt pocket and write a heading on each side. At the top of one side write Good and on the top of the other side write Bad. Write real small so someone standing near you canít read over your shoulder. Weíre going to fill out the 2 sides of this card. Then you are going to carry it with you when doing anything that has to do with the eventual acquisition of your high end system.

    Here are the things to write on the Good side of your card:

    And now letís fill out the Bad side of the card:

    OK, this is a start. After each experience you have with someone involved in high end, check the experience against the good and bad sides of the card. There will be some inevitable overlap... it will be an exceptional person or dealer who is all good or all bad. So you want to maximize the positives and minimize the negatives. Donít let me down, I know you can do it. And I know itís worth the effort.

    You will encounter all kinds of dealers for high end equipment. Unfortunately you canít tell much about the place from itís look alone. There are fancy brass and marble places that are grotesquely ostentatious. There are some sloppy-looking places that will be totally worried about selling you just the right stuff. And of course there will be sloppy looking places that deserve to be run-away from and fancy places that will treat you right. Some good dealers have been in business for 20 years, others for 20 months. Some good dealers have been in the same location for 5 or 10 or 20 years. Other dealers move every couple of years. Some dealers sell from their store, others sell from their living room or basement.

    High end audio is like every other business, there are good and bad people involved. Dealers do bad things like take your money for a special order then never deliver the product. Dealers do great things like become your friend and earn your trust. Individuals you talk to who are high end enthusiasts all have their own goals and ideals about how their systems should sound. If your goals and their goals are not a good match, their advice is not good advice... for you.

    Which brings me back to reviewers. Man I wish people would smarten-up. Reviewers are not infallible gurus. Mindlessly buying the hardware 1 or 2 or 3 people recommend in their respective magazines is a terrible way to assemble a high end audio system. Picking components from a list of well-reviewed hardware is another bad way to build a system. Too many people become overwhelmed by the learning process and fall victim to the irresistible desire for a fast answer, a quick fix, a mindless decision. This is how we allow someone else to sell us their vision of perfection. It could be totally at odds with our desires/wants but we accept it because it relieves us of the burden of doing it for ourselves. It also relieves us of any possibility of experiencing the reward of doing it for ourselves. So make the decision to get in to high end audio on your own terms. If you are already in with us but you did it the wrong way and ended up with an unsatisfying system... itís never too late to go into recovery mode. The info in this article will help you move up to something a lot more satisfying.

    Now itís time to get something off my chest. Iíve had EMAIL from several people asking specific questions about their systems. A lot of them ask about what component in the system is the one most likely to benefit from an upgrade. Typically, Iíve given some advice that points the person at 1 specific component and suggests listening to 2 or 3 or more possible replacements before making a decision to change the component. I cannot believe how many of these people who OBVIOUSLY havenít taken the time to develop a CLUE about building a good high end system run off and buy something new without taking the time I recommended to try several alternatives. And frequently the component they purchased is just as problematic as the original that was in question -- the match for their system is no better and they carry on about what an improvement it made. Itís as if there was an alien in possession of their mind forcing them to go out and throw more money haphazardly at a problem instead of taking time to investigate the problem. Learn something about it THEN make a selection. Donít waste my time... please!

    If you are going to ask for advice, plan on following it or donít bother asking! There is nothing more disheartening to me as a writer about high end things than to leave an answer for someone and find out a few days or a week later that they fixed the problem with another irresponsible purchase. I havenít had a SINGLE person come back and say, "Thanks, so much, I followed your advice and spent 3 months listening to 2 good tube amps and 2 good solid state amps. I learned a lot about my system and what was important to me and I bought a new Firebender 500 that Iím really happy with." I always recommend listening to several different amps or preamps or CD players and taking the time to do it. I rarely recommend a specific brand unless I have some experience with it that I know might make it fit a particular situation or system.

    Upgrading a single component takes some time to do right. First there is the reconnaissance phase where you read reviews about possible candidates and travel to local dealers to see what is available. On those reconnaissance trips, you want to listen to a lot of different models of whatever component it is you want to change. Youíll end up several favorites, maybe 2 or 3 out of 10 or 20. Those 2 or 3 then need to somehow GET INTO YOUR SYSTEM. Overnight or over a weekend, whatever you can work out with the dealer. In the process of doing this, anticipate that existing interconnects or speaker cables may not work best with the new component. Borrow something appropriate along with the component so you have something else to try. This helps eliminate simple incompatibility problems that are just cables/interconnects and have nothing to do with the component itself. So thatís how you do it... narrow down the field. Try 2 or 3 best candidates in your system with a few different associated wires to be sure you give them the benefit of the doubt then pick the cream of that crop. You canít do this and do it right in a few days. Maybe not even in a few weeks (unless you donít have to work for a living!). Have patience, do the work, youíll love the results.

    Doug Blackburn - The Noisy Audiophile