Doug Blackburn wrote the following articles in the first year of SoundStage! Since that time countless audiophiles have found them to be great information. We keep them on-line as a valuable resource for any audiophile in search of good sound.
Its an inanimate collection of boxes and wires. Why do people get so wrapped up in it? Maybe the real question should be 'Why doesnt 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 listeners mood. TV is more mindless. Theres no participation required on the viewers 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 arent 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:
Read the right material. This means 1 or 2 books. Robert Harleys 'Complete Guide to High End Audio' and Laura Dearborns '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. Thats 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. Dont let this happen to you. Heres 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 persons experience with that product. Your experience could be very different. So keep an open mind. Another thing to remember, reviewers usually dont 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, thats important. Dont 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 Im 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 dont really want guidance from these people.
So who is worthy of guiding you? I cant 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 cant read over your shoulder. Were 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 lets 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. Dont let me down, I know you can do it. And I know its worth the effort.
You will encounter all kinds of dealers for high end equipment. Unfortunately you cant tell much about the place from its 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... its 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 its time to get something off my chest. Ive 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, Ive 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 havent 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. Its 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. Dont waste my time... please!
If you are going to ask for advice, plan on following it or dont 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 havent 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 Im 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. Youll 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 thats 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 cant do this and do it right in a few days. Maybe not even in a few weeks (unless you dont have to work for a living!). Have patience, do the work, youll love the results.
This article will attempt to describe many of the things that make a difference in an audio system. Getting good sound is not an accident. You have about as much chance of buying what the salesman says to buy, putting it in your living room and getting really good sound as you have of winning the next big lottery jackpot. But if you know how tricky it is to get good sound, you can increase your chances of getting there. So let's talk about how to get good sound and see what kind of stuff pops up.
People are usually surprised at how important the room is. People who attend shows where high end manufacturers setup up incredible systems in not-so-incredible hotel rooms (beds, desks, TVs, etc. are removed for the shows) know that these rooms rarely sound good. And when they do sound good, more often than not the speakers are smaller models. This should tell you something. If you have a bad room and you can live without deep bass, smaller speakers are going to be a LOT easier to work with than big 100 lb.+ models. But small speakers may have limitations you might find unacceptable.
Now before I go too much farther, some true beginners aren't going to understand what I meant by that first paragraph. So let's take a short sidebar.
So this is just a little background about what is meant by small, medium and large speakers. When viewed as groups, they tend to follow a loose set of "rules" and you can make some general assumptions about the limits of their performance. But like most things, there are exceptions to the rules and generalizations.
And returning to room size and bass reproduction... the general rule of thumb should be "the smaller the room, the smaller the speaker". As with all generalizations, this usually holds up, but there are exceptions. What does this mean to real life speaker selection? If your listening room is perhaps an unused bedroom that is 13' x 11' with an 8' ceiling, you have a better chance of being happy with a smaller sized speakers. If your room is 30' x 25' x 12', a small speaker will be a very big mistake if you want large scale music played back at realistic levels with deep bass. Even the expensive small speaker won't help. The $8,000 small speaker is made for the serious music lover who is limited to a medium to small listening room, but who wants the best sound possible in that room. But if your budget is more limited, you can buy a small pair of speakers for $200 (PSB Alpha) that sound uncommonly good for their price. But you must connect them to good sounding electronics with good sounding wires. Connecting the little PSBs to common discount store electronics won't be half as nice as using better equipment.
Now we'll move away from the discussion of how speaker size and room size relate to each other. Everything about the room has an influence on the sound you hear at the listening position. The stiffness (or lack) of the floor, walls and ceiling are significant factors. What materials are used in the floors, walls & ceiling are important. The number, size and location of windows is critical. Too much glass in a critical path will sound really bad to the listener. Especially bad if the location of the glass is not symmetrical. For example: a sliding glass door on one wall with a normal wall opposite the sliding glass door. These 2 very different surfaces sound different because they do not reflect sound the same way. The sound in the room will always be unbalanced to one degree or another. If you cover the glass with curtains there can be a huge effect, sometimes too far into the opposite direction. Glass covered with very heavy drapes is perhaps better than "bare" glass but a moderate window covering is best. Z-pleated shades or light curtains are examples of better choices in many cases.
The dimensions of the room are far more important than people realize. This is different than the "size" of the room. You can have 2 rooms that are both 400 sq ft, but one could be 20' x 20' and the other 15' x 26.67'. The 15'x26.67' room will sound quite a bit better (for this example assume the ceiling height is a "normal" 8' for both rooms). Dimensions like 9x12x15 or 8x16x24 where there is 1 number that divides evenly into each dimension will sound MUCH WORSE than rooms that are not easily divisible like 9 x 16 x 25 or 8 x 13 x 17.5. This has to do with the science of acoustics. Rooms with "bad" dimensions have many frequencies which are reinforced and diminished by the natural resonance frequencies of those dimensions. Rooms with "good" dimensions spread out those resonant frequencies so that there is little or no strong reinforcement or diminishment of any frequency.
I don't want to get into a lot of detail here, it is a huge subject. You may or may not have options when selecting the room to put your system in. If you do have options, at least do some quick division tests on the room dimensions. If a single number divides evenly into any 2 room dimensions, try a different room if you can. If one room has all 3 dimensions evenly divided by the same number and another room has only 2 dimensions evenly divisible by a single number, use the room with 2 evenly divisible dimensions. 9.2' x 16.1' x 23' is a bad choice, 2.3 divides into each number evenly. 9' x 14' x 17' is better.
This just barely scrapes the surface of room issues and questions. A more complex consideration is how sounds reflect around the room axially. That means how the sound reflects multiple times from different surfaces. Somewhat spiral (axial) paths occur from those multiple reflections. This is very difficult to calculate or predict. Most audiophiles never even consider it, but it is a factor. Books on room acoustics are the best reference for someone willing to build or remodel specifically to get good sound. Home theater has a whole additional set of concerns and considerations that could lead to a room that is significantly different from a 2-channel music-only room. When designing the room, be sure you understand how it will be used. There are a lot of things to consider.
Bare floor vs. carpet? Carpet wins every time. At the very least get carpet covering the floor area between the speakers and the listener. This area is responsible for a lot of "floor slap", a particularly bothersome type of reflection.
Whenever there are 2 hard surfaces opposite each other in a room i.e. front and rear walls, ceiling and tile floor, sound will reflect back and forth between the hard surfaces many times before dying out. This will damage the sound quality in the room. Room Tunes "Echo Tunes" and "Corner Tunes" are designed to stop this repeating echo. They are very effective at this and not too expensive. There are 2 or 3 competitive products that are also effective. Treating a room with purpose-designed tuning devices is definitely recommended. "Echo Tunes" and "Corner Tunes" are a great place to start. For more info, ask the Room Tunes people for their booklet "Let's Tune Your Room", in the US call 1-800-724-3305 (outside the US 215-297-0227 voice or 215-297-8661 fax).
What do you hear in a room with well chosen dimensions that is properly "treated" with acoustical devices? Less "confusion" in the sound. Individual instruments and voices are clearer. The tone of the instruments and voices becomes more natural. When using "better" equipment, there is a heightened sense of space and position and depth. It is easier to follow 1 particular instrument through an entire song. Lyrics are easier to understand. Music does not get "cloudy" and smeared together during climaxes ("better" equipment helps this area of performance a lot also). All of this helps build the emotional connection between you and the music. How you "feel" about the music you listen to is an important element of how much you enjoy the music. And after all, the point of all the equipment you buy is enjoying music. When you hear a properly "treated" room for the first time, you will never want to go back to an "untreated" room.
THE EQUIPMENT - HARDWARE
Something interesting has happened in the last 20 years or so. We used to be buried in inaccurate, misleading, it-all-sounds-the-same equipment reviews in major audio magazines. Today, only one surviving "old school" mag is still trying to perpetuate one of the longest-lived lies about audio equipment. That lie has been that well engineered, similarly priced components sound pretty much the same. That is completely incorrect, but it sure made reviews of receivers easier. You didn't have to line up 3 or 4 similarly priced models and decide if there was a "winner" sound-wise. Amps do sound substantially different, one from another, as do speakers, preamps, receivers, CD players and every other component.
Reading Stereophile just might make you paranoid though. In a recent interview in Stereophile, the point was made that people pick up Stereophile and read about the audible flaws in a $1,000 amplifier, or flaws in the sound of a $7,000 pair of speakers or flaws in the sound of a CD playback system that costs $5,000 or more. People in general tend to expect that equipment that expensive should be flaw-LESS. Reading about the flaws does not make them feel real good about spending a lot of money on good high end equipment when they could spend, say, $500 on a receiver that nobody has had anything bad to say about it. What these people don't realize is that the $500 receiver is AWFUL sounding in comparison to good high end equipment. SO BAD sounding that "real" high end magazines devote little or no space to them. Judged by the same standards applied to equipment in high end reviews the majority of "mass market" electronics components (primarily sold in large electronics discount chains or department stores) would be "unacceptable". If you decide to take the plunge into high end - do not forget this. You may never see this mentioned anywhere else. Do not let discussions of very small shortcomings of expensive equipment allow you to assume that it does not sound better than inexpensive equipment. The expensive equipment is being judged using unbelievably high standards. Those standards applied to Circuit Guys kind of equipment would expose some pretty bad sound imports.
What hardware is the most important? This question is impossible to answer, it's like "Which came first, the chicken or the egg?" Speakers are important. The kind of music you listen to is important - it can have a huge influence on what speakers and electronics are best for you. The equipment you drive the speaker with is important. But you can't really do a good job of selecting this equipment till you know what speakers it will be used with. And the type of music you listen to and how loudly you like to listen is a strong influence on the equipment too.
An example: Let's say that you grew up listening to Motown and psychedelic music from the 60s and 70s and after all these years, you still listen to that kind of music almost every day with a sprinkling of newer music for variety. You take your time picking a speaker that works well for you, then find an amp and preamp to drive the speakers. You are in heaven. Then one day you are visiting a new friend who happens to like jazz and you get to talking about music and you ask to hear a couple of things that someone who doesn't know much about jazz might appreciate. Your new friend does what most jazz lovers in the same position would do. He pulls out original Columbia "6-eye" LP pressings of Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" and Dave Brubeck's "Time Out". You are knocked out by this music (and well you should be, these are 2 of the most creative and successful classic jazz performances of their time). On the way home you stop at a used record store and buy a copy of "Time Out" (no copies in Kind of Blue in stock at the moment) and ask a sales person about classic jazz. He goes to get the owner who selects another half dozen titles for you (MJQ, Coltrane "Ballads", Monk, Dexter Gordon, Ben Webster, and Count Basie). The owner cleans the LPs on a VPI cleaning machine for you as a courtesy and you head home eager to hear the new LPs.
You sit down for a listen and the music is... boring. Throw on the Grateful Dead live in Europe for a quick sound check... yep it sounds wonderful. What the heck happened? Bad karma. You just outgrew your original speakers. Just like that. You found something else you like and didn't even know it till today. And now your system is suddenly obsolete. If you find a different speaker that works well on jazz AND the other music you already liked, you might find your amp and preamp aren't right any longer. It's a vicious circle. Because of this, I recommend caution. Go slow. FORGET that you have receiver or speaker money burning a hole in your pocket to get spent. TAKE YOUR TIME. What's the rush? People are always looking for quick canned answers so they don't have to think or learn. Buying audio equipment is a good place to set that attitude aside and HAVE FUN with the learning/buying process. A bad decision on audio components can be an expensive mistake. A good decision will make you feel warm all over - and your music will sound great. When you shop for speakers or electronics take the music you like, but also take other types of music (or rely on the shop's selection) to make sure OTHER music sounds good on that equipment too. This will help prevent surprises in the future.
A word about home theater... people in general are WOWED by large screen video displays. Everybody seems to want one, the bigger the better. But none of them can fool you for even 1 microsecond into thinking you are looking at something real. The picture is completely and obviously fake to your brain. Even the very best quality displays in the world will not fool your brain for a second. Now think about sound for a minute. If you have ever heard a really good audio system, there are moments when the system can reproduce sounds that are so close to the real thing that the hairs stand up on the back of your neck... then you grin. You can be COMPLETELY fooled by a good audio system. Not constantly, not 100% of the time, but often enough to know that your audio system is approaching the sound of "reality". So consider the role of audio in a home theater. You are stuck with a video display that will NEVER completely suck you into a "virtual reality" immersion experience so matter how good it is. But, you can enhance your home theater experience by doing the audio part right. The better you do the audio, the more you will be sucked in to the "experience" of the movie. The unrealistic video display won't be forgotten, but the "being sucked in" quotient will be much higher with better quality audio. Never underestimate the importance of great audio in a home theater.
ALL THE OTHER STUFF
Yes, all of it makes a difference. But not necessarily in EVERY system. And sometimes the difference is not an improvement. But in a lot of cases there will be improvements from carefully selected "other stuff". Let's look at different items one at a time. These aren't being listed in "order of importance" or anything, they appear in the order they came to mind.
RACKS / SHELVES
This makes more of a difference than you can believe. If you aren't in a good isolation/damping or mechanical tuning rack, you have no idea how good your system can sound. You can pretty much forget traditional high end racks with welded frames and fixed particle board (usually black) shelves. Avoid anything with glass shelves at ALL costs. The racks/shelves/bases/stands I know that work best are Bright Star racks and isolation bases and Michael Green Designs JustaRacks and Clamp Racks. Both do their thing VERY differently. Which one is best for you.... don't ask, I can't tell you. It is all very complex. Both rack systems have the potential to move the performance of a well matched system from nice to wow. It isn't so much that the difference in sound is huge, it is more a matter of the system being able to do subtle things it could never do before. And those subtle things help build the illusion of a live performance in your room.
I used to be a DISbeliever in the importance of the right racks/stands. You won't catch me without them now. Consider them essential. But only if you select the right ones. Other racks may be more convenient or cheaper or look cooler, but the Michael Green racks and Bright Star racks can, when installed properly, make your music sound better. The other racks will hold your equipment. Some of them will be "neutral" soundwise, meaning they won't improve or hurt the sound you get. But beware the "designer" racks, these will actually make your music sound WORSE.
WHEN, you might ask, should I worry about racks/shelves? Well, it depends on your situation. You will have plenty of things to do with a new system to amuse yourself for a year or two before you really HAVE to begin thinking about a rack or shelf system (or supports for your amps to get them off the floor). If your budget can't deal with the additional cost of shelves right at the beginning, start with something effective and cheap like mdf (particle board) shelves supported and separated by bricks. Save some money for "real" shelves while you experiment with cheap tweaks to find out whether mechanical grounding or isolation/damping works best in your system/room.
FEET - SQUISHY... HARD... POINTY... ROUND
One thing I can tell you... the stock feet on your audio components (regardless of price) are almost always THE WORST thing you could use for feet. In fact, when you do find good sounding feet, you should consider REMOVING the stock feet to help further undo their evil sound corruption (literary exaggeration, but the first time you hear this you'll swear you are either: brainwashed, psychotic, an alien abductee, or pretty darn observant).
I have had no success with soft absorbent rubber feet. I used to think things sounded better on soft absorbent rubber feet until I tried Michael Green Designs AudioPoints. These brass cones improved everything I tried them under including my video monitor (better picture, not much change to TV sound), 2 VCRs, CD player, laserdisc player, preamp amp, surround decoder, surround amp, center channel speaker, front l & r speakers, & turntable. I was wildly skeptical at first. But every location I tried them in sounded better with them replacing either the stock feet or soft absorbent rubber feet. Now the soft feet sound: slow; lacking in detail; uninvolving; unfocused; less-quiet background.
So feet really do make a difference and they all sound a little different one from another. This makes a REAL hard choice for someone trying to get good sound. How could you EVER figure out on your own what are the best feet for YOUR equipment. There must be 10 kinds of soft feet available and 15 or 20 different flavors of hard feet, usually cones. It just isn't practical to try all of these in your system. Advice? Find some you can actually afford and ask a dealer to loan you 3 soft ones and 3 hard ones (maybe 2 kinds of hard ones) and try them in your system. Try them under different components to make sure you select hard where needed and soft where needed. From this test, just pick one and be satisfied with your decision. If you can afford $10 feet, $20 or $40 feet aren't going to sound 2x or 4x better, maybe 1.2x and 1.4x better is more realistic. But if your budget can deal with more expensive feet, the accumulation of all those small improvements becomes pretty big when the whole system is outfitted.
WIRES - NO WAY, YOU'RE NOT GOING TO GET ME TO SAY WIRES MAKE A DIFFERENCE
One of high end audio's great debates... how can wires POSSIBLY make a difference unless they are such wacky designs that the audio signal is modified by them? I don't know how. Maybe nobody knows for certain. But the evidence is indisputable. Wires do not sound the same.
If you doubt that wire is a factor in the sound of your system, try a cheap experiment. This will work on ANY system I've ever heard including boom boxes. Go to the hardware store and buy enough stranded 14 gauge electrical wire to connect your speakers. Then buy the same amount of 14 gauge solid core wire. When you get home, hook up the stranded wire and listen to music for an hour or so to get used to the sound of the stranded wire. Now disconnect the stranded wire and hook up the solid core wire. Again listen for an hour or so to be sure you are really hearing what you are hearing. If you have doubts, try the stranded again. I think you'll find a significant difference.
Pig headed know-it-all types may try to tell you that resistance, capacitance and inductance are the only 3 things that could POSSIBLY cause wires to sound different in an audio system. These guys are pinheads, plain and simple. The dielectric (insulation) that is used in the wire has a big role in the "sound" of a wire. Electricity flowing in a wire causes a "field" to be generated around a wire. If the voltage is DC (constant voltage, never changing) the field generated is also constant. However, audio signals are always changing. This causes the field around the wire to be constantly changing. In fact the audio signal is "+" half of the time and "-" the other half of the time so the field around the wire is not only shrinking and growing, but changing in polarity constantly. The dielectric "insulation" has an inherent property (explained by physics even!) that causes it to momentarily store a little energy then release it back into the conductor. This would be relatively insignificant with a signal that was constant or at least always "+" or always "-". But when the signal constantly changes AND constantly changes from "+" to "-" and back, this store-release function of the dielectric becomes significant. The whole point is that wires do matter.
More than anybody, I'd like to be able to tell you that wires aren't all that important and cheap ones are just fine. I can't. Just this week I listened to a $6 pair of interconnects from a national chain store, a 7 year old $40 pair from a famous national brand name manufacturer and a $95 pair from a small new company. The $6 pair sounded congested and smeared. Listening to music was not a pleasure. They lacked bass and the higher frequencies were rolled off and indistinct. The $40 pair was clearer and cleaner but sounded "fuzzy", dark, and opaque. Music was more enjoyable, but still had a lot of irritating qualities added in like loss of detail. The new $95 wires were gems. Open sounding, clear, clean, transparent, dynamic with a richness of sound that closes in on real life. These wires were a lot better than much more expensive wires I have. When you shop for interconnects, be sure DH Labs Silver Sonic BL-1 is on your list. To save money, you can buy their RCA plug and bulk wire and assemble them yourself (soldering required) for about 30% less. To locate a DH Labs dealer near you or arrange a mail order purchase if there is no dealer, contact their distributor in the US, Terry Ross at 301-601-4745. This is a seriously good sounding interconnect. Even if you are considering interconnects costing 10x their $95 price you should try them.
The know-it-all pinheads will write this "test" of as complete hooey because I knew which wires were which when I changed them. So of COURSE the most expensive wire "won". I was psychologically predisposed to assume the more expensive wire would sound the best. HAH! I didn't tell the whole story. The $95 wire sounded better than $179 wires. Are you smiling yet? And the $95 wire sounded better than $350 wires. The know-it-all pinheads are just seconds from having anuerisms - the blood pressure is phenominal. But I'm not done yet! The $95 wires sounded better than $600 wires too. Stand back, the pinheads are about to blow...
In wires, like many other high end audio products, usually the more you pay the better performance you get. Not necessarily in proportion though! You can pay double and get only a 3% improvement. Only you can decide if the improvement is worth the expense. This is true for all high end products, I just happened to mention it here in the discussion of wires.
Well chosen wires will help you get more enjoyment from the music you play on your system. They can bring together a slightly disjointed sound into a wonderful "completeness". There's no other way to do this either. Wires are an essential element of the entire system. Think of wires as more components to be evaluated and selected. But perhaps not as "primary" system components. Wires are something you can "fine tune" with after you have the system setup and sounding good.
POWER CORDS - THE INSANITY STOPS HERE?
Another I-wish-it-wasn't-true situation. Power cords may not need to be #1 on your list. But as you refine and tune your system over the years, do not overlook what power cords can do for you. The Cardas (their web page is as unusual as their advertising) Hex 5C power cord on my OCM-500 amp is indispensable - it just makes the amp sound "right". Without it there is a hashy, mechanical character to the sound. A roughness and a-musical coarse edge that makes the amp less satisfying. You don't notice this at first. It begins to become noticeable after you have tuned up the system a bit and you are getting pleasant, detailed, musical sound. You begin to note a dissatisfying edge you wish was not there. I didn't know what it was at first. My dealer (Hi John!) suggested trying the power cord... and the objectionable character was gone immediately. Oddly enough, the power cord made the amp sound even better the next day and there was more improvement for the next 3 or 4 days, especially when I left the amp running 24 hours a day. After the 4th or 5th day, the improvement peaked and leveled off where it has been ever since.
WHAT ABOUT LUNATIC FRINGE DEVICES?
Tuning Dots and Belts and the like - I've not had the opportunity to try them yet, but goofy as they may seem at first blush, there are actually quite good reasons why they would do some impressively useful things to the sound of your system. Some manufacturers of top notch high end equipment use them in their products and these guys aren't just playing around. Can be AWFULLY pricey though and this is why I've held back.
Magic Discs - ditto, no first hand experience, but people I trust say they are effective. I don't see HOW, but if it was obvious they wouldn't be so unique in the market. This product SEEMS to be very high on the dubious list and I would completely understand your feelings that these are nothing by "Emperor's new clothes" devices. But if you haven't tried them (like me) you shouldn't pass judgment.
Purple Silk Purses & Ferrites- silk purses wrap around interconnects, power cords, etc. - smart people say they work... better than plain old ferrites? don't know for sure. I dislike the sound of ferrites on interconnects or speaker cables. Not sure why silk purses would be OK in those locations. Ferrites on power cords should be mandatory. Make the silence more silent, more obviously cleanly silent. Lets details be heard that you couldn't hear before, not because they are louder but because the haze that obscured them is gone.
CD Mats of various descriptions - yep, they work, maybe not for the reasons claimed by the manufacturers, but they do work. I use a <$10 one and get 95% of the performance of the expensive ones. Typically the sound with the "topper" will be "cleaner" meaning the silence is quieter which makes the detail in the recording easier to hear. They tend to remove a percentage of the negative character of digital sound that people who like the sound of analog (LPs) object to. Music becomes a little less mechanical and a little more musical.
Power Line devices - Here's another one of those "it depends" answers. For most people using 100-120v 50/60Hz AC, there is probably a benefit most of the time. Sometimes the benefit is quite substantial. If there is a limitation, most often it will be with amplifiers. There might be a little loss of dynamics and punch with some amplifiers. If this is more objectionable than improvements in other areas, plug the amps into the wall and everything else into the power line device.
Record Cleaning machines - yes, yes, yes. LP fans need one of these. I like the VPI machines. A friend who owned the other brand switched to a VPI after he saw my VPI cleaning procedure and how much more effective it could be (brush in the direction of rotation and backwards to help lift more dirt than otherwise possible).
Record clamps/weights - I don't use one. My turntable does not support the label area of the LP. This accommodates LPs with slight warp without need for a weight. Other people I know of who have experimented with weights/clamps say each one sounds different and what works well on 1 turntable is probably not best for a different turntable design. Another try before you buy situation.
Vibration Isolation bases - yep, these work too. As always, try before you buy. Some are air suspension devices, others use dead mass like sand for damping, others use magnetic suspension. Results vary from system to system and component to component. In some systems where vibration from external sources is constantly present (i.e. as in large cities) they can be revelatory.
Contact cleaners - yes, use SOMETHING which is always preferable to nothing. Gold plating does not stop connection problems from happening. Gold plating is soft and porous. base metals can penetrate the plating and "gunk up" the connection over time. You can do expensive cleaning with tiny bottles of 2-part cleaner that cost a lot of money and get good clean connections. Or you can go to the grocery store and buy the fuzziest brand of pipe cleaners they have and go to the hardware store and buy a pint or quart of "cleaning solvent" (often in the paint department). look for "trichlor" or something longer that begins with "trichlor" on the label. Dip the pipe cleaners in the trichlor and clean your contacts. Follow instructions on the can. It's highly flammable. Don't breathe vapors. Use in ventilated area. Change the pipe cleaner end for end after every connector and get a new one after cleaning 2 connectors. Do this every 6 to 12 months.
If you want to eliminate this repetitive cleaning task for years (literally!), get Caig Labs ProGold spray (about $16-$18) and spray on CLEANED connections. ProGold is a preservative, not a cleaner. Clean first, then spray with ProGold. ProGold bonds with the gold plating and stops base metals from migrating through the plating and makes a thin air-tight film over contact points to keep oxygen out of those points where contact is actually made. I don't hear an "improvement" from using ProGold, but connectors do stay clean over long periods of time and I don't have to keep cleaning them every 6 months. I do hear an improvement from cleaning connectors if it has been over 6 months since the last cleaning if ProGold was not being used.
ALL THIS SOUNDS LIKE WORK. WHY BOTHER?
I assume you have read this far for 1 of 2 reasons: you are obsessed with audio equipment because you were abused/deprived/mistreated/misunderstood/ignored as a kid; or you love music. If you are obsessed with audio equipment... fine go off and do your thing: tweak your system endlessly and listen to your 5 LPs or 5 CDs. If you love music, all this "work" is a means to enhancing your enjoyment. I know people who come home from a tough work day, put on some of their favorite music and are either in a total trance-meditative state or giggling to themselves or playing air guitar within seconds of dropping the stylus or lighting the laser. The learning, comparing, testing process is a means to an end. The end is maximizing your emotional connection to the music.
EXAMPLES and, finally, THE END
My only exposure to classical music when I was growing up was the occasional portable (mono of course) record player a music teacher might use or the annual high school band concert in the auditorium. Based on those experiences I figured classical music was the ultimate in boring. In the early 70s I bought a Consumer Reports magazine with evaluations of "affordable" hi-fi components. I went out and bought "best buy" components, a receiver, speakers and changer/turntable. One late night when I was spinning the FM radio dial (manually!!!! no remote control in those dark ages) looking for some Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young or Yes or Hendrix I whiffed by a station and heard something unfamiliar but compelling. I backed up and dialed in the most incredible music I'd heard since "Third Stone From the Sun". I sat transfixed with speakers very close, almost like headphones. I listened for more than 20 minutes and learned that I had been listening to Schubert's 8th (Unfinished) symphony. I liked classical music and never knew it because the emotional connection had never been made before. I went on a 10 year classical music rampage that included several years of season tickets to the Cleveland Orchestra. I didn't give up the other music I already loved, but I embraced classical music. And made up for lost time.
This same kind of thing happens now almost every time somebody who doesn't listen to particularly good equipment or different types of music comes to hear my system. One of my first questions is "What kind of music do you listen to?" and they will say jazz or rock or soft rock or new age. There isn't usually too much passion in the response. Next I'll ask if they like some specific things: Brazilian music? zydeco? bluegrass? Celtic? classic jazz (if that wasn't one of their earlier answers)? progressive rock? English dance music from the 1600s? harp? organ? baroque? chamber? Most people say "not really" multiple times. Then I put that music on anyway. And that is where the fun begins. People become either giddy or nervously excited. The experience of hearing something irresistible that they thought they didn't like is as much fun as an amusement park ride. I find that most people who own high end systems because they love music (rather than just being obsessed with the equipment) typically own many different types of music. I'm not really a country music fan, but I have a Mavericks LP (Music for All Occasions) and Willie Nelson LPs (Stardust and others) and CDs (Across the Borderline and others) and an Emmy Lou Harris CD (Wrecking Ball) that you could never take away - it is really good music.
The point of this closing ramble is to help you understand how your relationship with music could be shaken by a well selected, well setup and "tuned" audio system. Shaken in a good way. Most people will either accidentally or intentionally discover musical interests they never knew they had. That's the kind of thing that makes life interesting - the kind of thing that makes life worth living. Sometimes I laugh out loud over how much I like a type of music I "shouldn't" like. Something like Ladysmith Black Mambazo's "Shaka Zulu" album. 20 or so African men singing (a cappella) in their own language, stomping enthusiastically on the stage, clapping hands, slapping body parts. Pure joy. Getting your system "right" is a lot like fine tuning your own transporter / time machine. It can take you places you never thought you'd go.
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.