Buying Hi-Fi Equipment and Media: The Fundamentals

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Ideally, one would listen to a recording directly, without the complication, interference, and distortion of components. Unfortunately, a recording remains unfinished until played back through an audio system. It is complete only when the original performance has been made audible again.

The question is—audible in what way? Muzak can be played on any functioning system and not suffer from the mediocre sound, because it is only intended as soothing background sound, not to communicate. No message, no subtleties are missed when Muzak is poorly “unrecorded.” But real music, to retain its full detail and texture, must be unrecorded so that nothing is either added to or subtracted from the original recording.

Poorly reproduced sound is like poor pronunciation—as long as what is said remains fairly simple, it can be followed well enough, second-guessing those words that are unclear. But as soon as it develops complexity, texture, detail, then guesses will as often be wrong as right and the message can come through very garbled. And it is a strain to follow someone’s mumblings or odd pronunciations. One goes away tired and even annoyed. While all equipment to some extent interferes with the music communicating with you, some components interfere much more than others.

The mainstream audio magazines and even Consumer Reports offer guidance on whether a given component functions reliably as an appliance or “consumer good.” The Health Department tells you if the restaurant is clean but not whether the food tastes good. An appliance that simply fulfills its implicit warranty of functioning for a reasonable period of time does not necessarily satisfy. Canned string beans may be edible and unspoiled but cannot be compared to fresh ones. Once again, it’s a matter of your expectations—if you require or desire the taste of real string beans, canned ones will not do. If canned beans are accept able, you need not invest the time and trouble needed to obtain and prepare fresh ones.

We can all compensate and compromise when we’re willing to, but sometimes we accept too easily the image or “concept” of a thing in place of the reality. Equipment that sounds good as opposed to just looking impressive can be readily found once you have the necessary information, and are also prepared to use your own ears and brain to listen to the equipment for yourself instead of letting the “experts” tell you what you’re hearing.

Recorded music is really too important to leave to the experts. Their wisdom may not be right for you. Unwilling to spend the time to become experts ourselves (or unable to find the needed information), many of us instead rely on salespeople, specs, and cocktail party experts as we would on a doctor, broker, lawyer, accountant, car mechanic, plumber. Instead, put faith in your ears and listen to the music, rather than trying to second-guess how the equipment will sound in the abstract.

Musicians, the very people one would expect to be reliable choosers of better equipment, in fact rather commonly settle for the mediocre. Finding such a distance between the live and recorded, they seldom attempt to bridge a gap that appears to them unbridgeable. At the same time, being so intimate with the sound of the real thing, musicians can easily take the necessary leap of imagination and fill in the gaps in the music that poor equipment leaves. But you need not be always disappointed with the sound of your system on returning from a concert. A carefully selected, set-up, and maintained system, while never the same as live music, can provide much of the emotional satisfaction and fulfillment of the live.

Trying simply to ignore the equipment is no solution. When you attend a live performance, you are there (aside from any social considerations) for the pleasure of just listening to the music. Yet for the performance to occur in such a way that the audience can enjoy it, there is a tremendous amount of effort put into the “show,” as it is called by the producers and engineers responsible for the hall acoustics, lighting, seating, amplification, temperature control, audience control, and so forth. Any aspect of the “show,” if badly executed, will interfere with the audience’s ability to enjoy and appreciate the musician’s performance.

Just as the “show” enables you to enjoy the performance but is not itself the reason for attending the performance, so the audio equipment enables you to enjoy the music but is not itself the reason for listening to the recording. The equipment has no value other than to enable the music to be heard to its fullest.

But poor equipment can seriously interfere with one’s ability to enjoy and appreciate the music. While most people would probably recognize at a live performance that a poor “show” was spoiling their enjoyment of the music, few people ever realize to what extent mediocre equipment (and/or setup) is interfering with their enjoyment of the recording.

Since the very early 1970s, when the integrated circuit revolutionized audio by opening “high fidelity” to a mass market, recorded music has come to be ubiquitous. It is piped into supermarkets, laundries, elevators, cars, dentists’ and doctors’ offices, and other waiting rooms of all kinds, listened to—or, more accurately, passively heard—while eating, reading, sleeping, waking, working. It is used to soothe kine and hen in dairy and hennery; it has become as surrounding as the air we breathe and as little considered. If the air, or if sonic reproduction, is neither unusually noxious nor unusually excellent, then it is given little heed.

People tend to assume that technology by itself will provide them with music. (Technology provides the equipment but not the music, and the equipment restores the music to life with widely differing success.) The more advanced the equipment (commonly meaning the more gadget ridden), the better the sound, or so the thinking goes. If it is expensive as well, then its excellence must be assured. It is not at all uncommon for people to spend several thousand dollars and up for a system they have no idea how to use. The importance of stereo system as status symbol shouldn’t be minimized, but then neither should the primal power of the music, which is ultimately the source of stereo’s multimillion dollar attraction.

Buying equipment should be based not on the features or price or advertising or convenience or specs, but simply on SOUND. The confusion about the respective and relative importance of music and machine arises easily enough because access to the music is possible solely through the machine. Until that access becomes effortless, attention will tend to be focused on what is preventing easy access—the equipment—rather than on what we are trying to gain access to—the music.

It is also a matter of expectations. If you never or seldom hear live music, then you have no reference point, and it may not be easy to make distinctions between “mediocre” and “better” components where “better” just means “closer to live.” If you can’t get fresh beans and nothing but canned ones are available to you, then your options are either to accept the canned or do without. Music, for many, is too important to do without, so they accept whatever is at hand.

THE CONSTANTS OF GOOD SOUND

Charlie the Tuna’s “Good Taste” Versus Good Sound

Audio in many ways has taken a strange path in developing be yond the crude novelty of the Gramophone. In the search for better sound, it has relied on advancing technology in the belief that what makes better equipment must ipso facto also produce better sound. What we’ve ended up with today is a glamorized Gramophone, fancied up with multiple switches and flashing lights. With our faith in technology, we tend to lose sight of the goal of audio, which is to re-create the experience of music. Art, delivered via machine, is passed over to its more accessible partner, technology.

The result is equipment designed more for selling than for listening. Systems like this can be compared to a musician who has only technical prowess. Such an ability has hurt as many musicians as it has helped, because technique alone comes to be relied on until it becomes the end rather than just a means—resulting in the neglect of musical substance. Performances like this are generally cold, uninvolving, and uninviting. The analogy, without anthropomorphizing, holds true for audio systems. Presumably, you don’t want to be admiring the system, you want to listen to the music.

Many mass-market and mid-fi equipment manufacturers know that gizmos (like technical prowess) sell equipment. Most of the yearly model changes consist of a redesigned face plate, perhaps a minor circuit change, and some new gizmo. To maintain a competitive price, generally some thing has to give and this is usually the quality—less easily seen and recognized, it does not directly help to sell the unit. But without the quality, all the gizmos in the world will bring you little pleasure—they’re the audio equivalent of “go-faster” stripes on a car.

Generally, features fall into three categories: the essential; the true convenience features, such as a table’s cuing device or preamp’s mute button; and then the gimmicks and “fiddle controls,” which at best accommodate preferences but little else. Most gadgets like this should be avoided—they’re commonly a sign of a mediocre component.

Products brought to market normally have to meet a price that is in line with their competition. The market for the higher-end components is perhaps less sensitive to this, but certainly mass-fi components are stringently regulated by price considerations. Gadgets add cost. And all they do is distinguish components that distinguish themselves in no other way. If the consumer is thereby persuaded to buy that table, then for the manufacturer it’s worth investing money in the gadget. But they still have to meet a price, so that gadget money has to come out of something else—generally out of the overall quality. The trade off is music for whizbangs.

So in effect, the consumer pays doubly for gizmos: once in the selling price, and a second time in the compromise and sacrifice of music quality as gadgetry is substituted for sound design. Go for the true convenience features if you want, but avoid the gimmicks and fiddle controls. Equipment that is designed for listening is generally as simple as possible.

Most specs are the equivalent of go-faster stripes as well. With no common standard, comparing specs of components is an exercise in futility—you’re comparing numbers but they have no context. Since there are at least several different ways to take each measurement, the manufacturer will of course choose the way most flattering to the component. To paraphrase slightly, there are three kinds of lies—lies, damned lies, and specs. The standard specs apply only to mediocre components—and only a fool needs to go around comparing one poor component with another.

Minimal Circuitry

As Will Rogers said, anyone can make things complicated; it takes a genius to make it simple. Einstein, Thoreau, and Picasso concurred— simplify as much as possible, and then no more.

Simplicity applies as much to the basic design and circuitry as to the absence of gizmos. Everything has a “voice,” as Ed Dell terms it. The more resistors, capacitors, wire, switches, knobs, lights, tubes or chips, in a circuit, the more distortion is introduced into the signal. Each of these so-called passive components is not only doing its intended job but also contributing unintended distortion, and thus more “veiling” between the recording and your ears. The simpler the circuit and the fewer these devices, the fewer colorations are added.

However sophisticated the design approach may be, the actual execution should be as simple as possible. The purpose of audio equipment is not to make the music but to release it from being locked up in space and time on the recording.

Incidentally, solid-state circuits may appear to be very simple, but in fact integrated circuit chips are extremely complicated. One tiny chip can contain an entire audio circuit that would otherwise take up a square foot of space or more.

Methuselahs Versus State of the Art

Most connoisseurs consider certain “vintage” components de signed 25 or more years ago to compare with some of the finer equipment available today (and they are available on the used equipment market at a fraction of the cost at which anything comparable could be built today). A classic budget system of yore was an AR table with a Dynaco PAS III preamp and Stereo 70 power amp—still a very worthy budget system today, though benefiting from an easy upgrade of the capacitors in amp and preamp.

These classic Methuselahs continue being so highly prized for their musicality because the fundamental elements that go into making good sound have remained constant. These universal constants apply to all systems, regardless of vintage or origin of manufacture.

The only reason a component becomes musically obsolete is that it was never musical to begin with. “Once a good component, always a good component” is a basic audio verity. A fine musical instrument isn’t transformed into a piece of junk merely by the passage of time and the “aging” of the technology used. While audio depends heavily on technology, technology is only a vehicle—engineering decisions must finally be based on musical considerations. NO matter how advanced the technology, audio will only sound as good as the ear of the designer.

The Marantz 8B amp, for example, is a great tube amp from over 30 years ago, designed by Sid Smith and manufactured by Saul Marantz, and is still sought after today. It has a rosy hue, at least in its unmodified stock form, and although this is a coloration, it’s a euphonic one that interferes little with the music. The original Quad English dipole speakers, with their fabled natural midrange, designed by Peter Walker in the early 1960s, continue to serve as a benchmark against which other speakers are compared. The same is also true of the Dahlquist DQ-10 speakers, which were the first (brought out in 1973) to excel at reproducing voices.

Naturally, just because a component is old, it isn’t automatically good. Early transistor equipment, and that built right through the 1970s, should be avoided. Even a classic may have been abused by the previous owner, so check out used equipment carefully before purchase.

The point is that a good system, knowledgeably assembled and well maintained, does not become musically obsolete. You can buy good equipment just once or you can buy cheap equipment and find you have gained little. A good basic system and a fancy mid-fi system cost about the same but what you get is quite different—fancy gives you little, good gives a lot and keeps on giving it.

Also, if you should choose to move up from your good basic system, that system still has a value and can be sold; fancy equipment has nothing going for it except that it’s the “latest”—once it is no longer the “latest” (which means within six months of your buying it), it has little left to offer. One of Busoni’s observations on music can be applied also to equipment: “Its ephemeral qualities give a work the stamp of ‘modernity’; its unchangeable essence hinders it from becoming ‘obsolete.’

The term “state of the art” is often heard about a new piece of equipment. The implication is that anything else is obsolete and must be replaced. A question is how accurately you can apply this term to art, or whether it is more legitimately suited for technology. Tube equipment never became musically obsolete. In fact, it has been making a slow but steady and strong comeback, not only in the highest high end but also in the budget high end.

Even if you do believe that the idea of “state of the art” can be applied legitimately to audio equipment, why should you be a guinea pig for testing the cutting edge of a new technology? Why not be the last person on your block to pay to do the manufacturer’s testing?

Instead, buy equipment that has been out for a couple of years or so. This way, most of the inevitable bugs are likely to have already been worked out of it. There will probably also be a fair amount of information about it after that length of time, both in terms of reviews and of other users’ experiences. This can help you decide whether the component will match well with the rest of your system, as well as providing tips on setup to enhance the performance.

Perceived Value

“All works must bear a price in proportion to the skill, time, expense, and risk attending their invention and manufacture. Those things called dear are, when justly estimated, the cheapest.”

—JOHN RUSKIN

“Money is a blessing that is of no advantage to us except when we part with it.”

—AMBROSE BIERCE

Buy as good a system as you can afford. Spending $500, $1,000, or more on a component if you’ve got the scratch is not conspicuous consumption or frivolous, gross extravagance. Music is a vital nutrient to human life—a good playback system is capable of delivering a depth and intensity of musical experience far greater than most people have yet had the chance to realize. It makes a great deal of sense to spend money on a fine music system as a lifelong investment. Remember, components age like musical instruments—once good, always good. Something better may come out, but that does not make what you have any worse than it was.

Much of the excellent audio equipment is largely handmade, assembled one at a time, each carefully burned in, tested, and listened to before being sold. Like a musical instrument, fine equipment represents a combination of art, science, and craft, all of which take time and are therefore expensive. High-end companies are commonly quite small — sometimes no more than the designer plus a helper or three — and they tend to build components with the same care and quality invested by musical instrument builders. The goal is excellence of fidelity, rather than mass-fi equipment’s combined criteria of price point, ease and economy of manufacture, and marketability.

Small companies are also more expensive to operate and maintain because they cannot get the volume discounts of larger companies. Also, just because the fidelity is excellent doesn’t always mean the other aspects of the company are equally polished—sloppy business practices, disorganization, variable customer service, and mixed product reliability are more common than they should be.

Buying HFS equipment should be approached with the same attitude and understanding as buying a musical instrument or a piece of art. One may look inside the Lazarus preamp—a modest but pleasingly musical piece—and exclaim, “Why, there’s nothing there, what a ripoff, my clock radio has more parts than that and it costs a twentieth of the price!” What about a dulcimer made of catgut and little thin pieces of wood probably good for little else? It’s really not a question of a handful of parts. One cannot use “cost-effective analysis” to determine equipment value. In fact, how does one measure the value of a conveyor of music?

The relationship between price and performance is most often geo metric rather than linear. At the beginning of the curve, the increments of sound quality are pretty directly correlated to increments in price. But as you move on, the sonic differences get smaller and smaller for each increment in price. This is known as the knee of the curve. Once you’ve achieved a really good system, then a perceptible improvement in its overall sound quality, in contrast to simply a change in tradeoffs and compromises, is likely to cost at least double.

It is not so hard to minimize, even eliminate, the grosser distortions in equipment design. As the gross ones are eliminated, lesser ones are revealed, which are a little harder to minimize. This layer of grunge stripped away then reveals smaller distortions, like the nesting wooden dolls that each contain another smaller one inside. Each level is more difficult and more expensive to minimize; each increment in sound quality becomes smaller while the spread between prices becomes larger. Eventually, the point is reached where in minimizing one distortion you cannot minimize another, and it becomes a matter of tradeoffs among compromises rather than absolute improvements.

While music equipment should certainly be judged by its music- conveying qualities, some attention needs to be paid also to aesthetics, ergonomics, and reliability. After all, if you couldn’t get into your wine bottle to drink the wine, your perception of the whole event would change. The best-sounding equipment tends to be Spartan, ugly, expensive, and/or a pain to live with and use—as Ken Kessler says, “The mirrors in the house fog up because the product is so rude and ugly to behold.” Some of the musically finest equipment would be rejected by Consumer Reports and the mainstream magazines. For information on manufacturers notorious for either good or poor component reliability, check through back issues of The Absolute Sound, which really brought this whole subject out of the closet back in late 1985, and the other underground magazines.

Fidelity, Equity, and the Hassle Factor

Ed Woodard of Lineage supplied the above rune for buying equipment. The first element, fidelity, is self-explanatory. Equity helps make sure you choose components of lasting value, not gimmick or fashion value, so you can be sure you will be able to get your money out of it again if you want to. Hassle factor simply means that most listeners don’t want to spend their time constantly fussing and fiddling with their equipment, or waiting for it to come back from repair or the “latest” in a never-ending series of upgrades—they want to be listening to it. Keep these three words in mind as you shop and they may help keep you out of trouble.

DESIGNING A SYSTEM

Choosing the Compromises

Even the best reproduction is not perfect and so there must inevitably be compromises. Audio equipment is inherently defective. We live in a nonlinear world, meaning that what goes into a system inevitably emerges altered by its passage through that system. What comes out is not on a continuous line with what went in.

If sound could be perfectly reproduced, then all good equipment would sound the same and the only considerations in buying equipment would be its construction, its appearance, and its ergonomics. The reality is that not only do components reproduce imperfectly, but they also each reproduce differently. (And even if the components were perfect, the room would add colorations that were not part of the original recording.)

Given that all components and all systems involve compromises, both because reproduction is imperfect and because of budget considerations, it’s essential to consider carefully which compromises are the most acceptable and least offensive to you. A key decision in the overall sound of your system is what you are prepared to give up and what you’re not. Once the basics have been satisfied, some people find they value bass, others “detail,” others transparency. The basics include a natural midrange, tonal accuracy, the range of dynamic contrast from loud to soft (dynamic range), and resolution of low-level detail, which helps put the performance in three-dimensional space within the air of the performing room. The absence of glare, brightness, hardness, and similar irritations is also a basic.

Which compromise you make depends on the kind of music you like to listen to most. Rock demands power and bass to sound really authoritative. One pair of mono tube amps listened to for a while was pretty unimpressive until it was used to play rock. Then, at 200 watts a channel, it made the Cream’s live version of “Spoonful” on Wheels of Fire just spring alive. You could almost smell the Fillmore’s dusty old seats, the dope- and incense-filled air, the -- you fill in the rest. But bass and loudness, which these amps delivered, are very expensive if you also demand refinement. If you are a chamber music or jazz listener, your compromises are likely to be quite different from those of someone who listens primarily to orchestral works or to rock.

Your taste in compromises will probably guide you into choosing certain broad sonic categories of equipment: a moving magnet or moving coil cartridge, tube or transistor electronics, dipole or dynamic speakers. Budget considerations and room realities also enter in.

With electronics, for example, transistors don’t begin to sound as good as tubes, for many listeners, until you get into the higher price ranges at which most tube equipment is also sold. You can buy used tube equipment for prices competitive with moderately priced transistor gear. Examples are the classic amps Marantz 8B and Dynaco Stereo 70 or mono Mark Ills and IVs. You can also combine tubes and transistors. If you do this, go with a tube preamp and a transistor amp. The preamp signal is smaller, more delicate and fragile, so it benefits from the qualities of tubes. The amp signal is less fragile and so can more readily tolerate the disadvantages of transistors while benefiting from the better bass and oomph of transistors.

With speakers, the choice between dynamics and dipoles is not just a matter of money and music. It is very much a matter of room realities. Dipoles must be placed well away from walls and are far more sensitive to setup and room anomalies than are dynamics. Carefully read the Speaker Setup section before looking at specific speakers.

Component Matching

Interactions between components often affect the sound as critically as the components themselves. Just as musicians and their instruments must all work together in an ensemble, so the components, including your room, ears, and musical preferences, must also all work together as a system. How well these components—from recording to your ear—work together is one of the central elements that determine how good your system sounds. The parts of a system must be assembled holistically. All components err; you want to be sure you don’t combine ones that all err in the same direction.

The same system, set up in two different rooms, can actually sound like two different systems. The same component, inserted in two different systems, can sound like two different components. The same system reproducing two different kinds of music is even likely to reproduce each with differing degrees of success.

Every component, from music source to amp stage to speakers, adds its own particular distortion or tonal coloration; any set of components combine these colorations. Some combinations work well, some absymally. Two otherwise good components mismatched will lose their virtues; two merely acceptable components can sound far better combined. When the sum is greater than the individual parts, this is known as a complementary nonlinearity.

This whole issue of matching components would make it appear advantageous to buy something like a rack system, where all the components have been “pre-matched” by the manufacturer. This is very tempting for the neophyte—it seems such an easy and neat solution to a lot of difficult and messy decisions. But the manufacturer’s decisions in assembling that rack system are seldom the ones you would choose for yourself, because they were made for different reasons.

The manufacturer is trying to offer an attractive package and offer a lot of “bang for the buck.” High fidelity doesn’t have “bang”—it gives you music rather than fireworks. The manufacturer is very unlikely to be a great turntable designer and also great at speakers and amplifiers. So generally the components are assembled from a number of different manufacturers. As the package is being put together to meet a price, and needs a lot of features to sell itself, quality must be com promised. Generally, this whole approach is mass-fi only. There are a few exceptions—notably the English company Linn, headed by the notorious Ivor Tiefenbrun, which produces tables, amps, and speakers. The firm is still most highly regarded for its tables. Conrad Johnson, long admired for its amps, l(as also introduced the Sonographe turntable to some acclaim. However, this is very much the exception rather than the rule.

Therefore, you must use your judgment to select components that are innately good, that combine so that the sum is greater than the parts, that are well suited to your room, and that are successful at reproducing the kind of music you listen to the most. This extends also to accessories. A very good system can be greatly diminished by a set of cables that on another system might sound fine.

Here’s an example. If you have a good but somewhat bright cartridge and combine it with a thin, bright amp and speakers that also tend to sound bright, you will end up with a system you will be very unhappy with. The components individually may qualify as high fidelity, but the overall sound falls far short. A mild problem in each component has been intensified into a serious system problem that is likely to drive you away from listening. This is especially likely with women, who tend to be more sensitive than men to such higher-frequency distortions.

If you take the same bright speaker and bright cartridge, but counterbalance them with an amp that softens or rolls off the higher frequencies, the overall sound will be euphonic and less fatiguing. Both system combinations may be equally imperfect, but one combines colorations in such a way that the results are unlistenable while the other minimizes the colorations so the music can come through. You must be very careful to avoid combining components that will exaggerate each other’s colorations.

When you listen regularly to more than one signal source, you should be careful to tune the system to ensure sound good with all of them, rather than optimizing for one source. If, for example, you were to compensate for a slightly dull cartridge by choosing slightly bright speakers, the system may sound great playing records but not so good with tuner, CD player, tapes. As soon as you switch your signal source so the dull cartridge is out of the equation, the system may sound quite hard and shrill.

As a general rule, the tonearm/cartridge and amp/speaker matches are probably the most critical. If you use more than one front end, the amp/speaker match remains a constant with all signal sources, so concentrate on this and get it as neutral as possible.

The careful matching and balancing of components is equally important whether their quality is good or mediocre. Not surprisingly, the less expensive, less good components tend to have more noticeable colorations—that’s what makes them less good. So it is important that the colorations work together. Better components, on the other hand, tend to be more neutral and to add less of themselves to the music, but as a result they are also more revealing. So poor matching here, while perhaps more subtle, will be cruelly exposed. Also, better components need more meticulous setup to reveal the music fully because their potential for good sound is so much greater. Colorations contributed by poor setup may be somewhat lost in the overall grunge of a lesser system, but will audibly add themselves to better equipment.

All audio systems have their own characteristic sound, just as all water has some kind of taste. The particular taste of the water will flavor your tea or coffee, just as the “sound” of your sound system will flavor your music. The goal of high-end audio is twofold: to minimize the system’s “flavor,” and then to make the residual flavor as euphonic and musical as possible, so as to interfere the least with the music.

Replace the System or Upgrade the Components?

It is good advice to change only one component in your system at a time. This can be a lot more interesting than replacing everything in one fell swoop. You will be able to hear exactly what improvement each change makes. Going step by step also spreads out the costs of a new system.

All things being equal, follow the system hierarchy and start up grading the audio signal from its beginning. The closer the component is to the recording, which is the heart and soul of the system, the more critical is its performance. The reason is simple enough. If the full detail of the music signal is not retrieved from the recording, it can never be recaptured down the signal chain. The components cannot improve the signal; they can only minimize the amount of distortion they add. Any error upstream tends to be compounded as it proceeds along the hierarchy.

Equally true is that a component downstream that is less good than the front end will tend to block the benefits of that front end—you need to observe some balance in the quality of all the components.

If you are planning to buy an entire system but have budget constraints—and who doesn’t?—then choose your primary signal source, which is the one you listen to most, and buy it. The system’s secondary front ends can wait a little while until your coffers fill up again. If you splurge on getting a ‘table, tuner, deck, and CD player, you will probably have to compromise on amp and speakers and later will have to upgrade everything. If, more modestly, you buy a very good table (or whatever front end you choose), along with a good amp section and speakers, then you’ll just need to add tuner, deck, CD player later and can buy each separately.

Of course a system can be only as good as its weakest link, so if any component is disproportionately poor, correcting this imbalance takes precedence over observing the hierarchy.

PREPARING TO BUY

Audio equipment is an expensive investment, and can also to be an emotional one, with the potential for either great happiness and solace or nagging dissatisfaction, though it may be unexpressed and perhaps even unacknowledged. Putting together a system that will bring real satisfaction over an extended period must be approached holistically and with patience.

Make haste slowly. There is no one “right way” with audio; there are just varying shades of compromise, ranging from gross to increasingly subtle. The soundcraft in this book can help you to eliminate the gross ones, and then just how far into the subtleties you want to go is up to you—this will get you started. Whatever you buy, however much you spend, there will always be something better. There are no absolutes, no one “best” component, no ultimate system. Do you want to spend your time chasing equipment or listening to music?

People tend to think of “high-end” sound in terms of money first and quality second. The difficulty is that most people don’t know how to identify its quality and so cannot readily see it. You can spend just as much or more on a mass-fi system and end up with far less quality and satisfaction, yet somehow there seems to be so much more to show for your money by way of flashing lights and knobs, switches, dials, options, and “rich Corinthian leather.” High-end equipment is so minimal that people may think they’re being taken for a ride with the high price.

Set Up Your Present System

The first thing to do before you do anything else is to set up your present system correctly. This may seem crazy when you are going to take it all apart again to put in new equipment, but you will learn a great deal through these efforts that will help you in choosing new equipment.

The difference proper setup can make even with the most modest equipment is really surprising. All systems gradually decline and drift out of tune, and gradually your pleasure and interest in listening also decline. A new system or new component will often sound better—at least initially—not because it necessarily really is better, but because new connections and contacts were made and setup was improved.

You may be surprised how much better your system sounds just through correct setup. “Better” in audio operates on a subtle scale— music playback occurs on a literally microscopic level—so while these setup procedures may seem small and subtle, yet they can be clearly heard once you attune yourself to what to listen for and how to identify sound quality. Listen for a while over a period of days before going any further. You may even decide not to upgrade at this moment.

Of course, if your turntable is a plastic, direct-drive, suspension- less Japanese toy, or your electronics are transistor models of early 1970s vintage, then you may not hear much if any improvement, and these components will almost certainly need replacing. If, on the other hand, your electronics are 1960s tube equipment or your turntable is early Thorens or Acoustic Research, then you’ll almost certainly want to keep these, if only in order to pass them on to friend or family.

Proper setup also includes using the correct accessories—these are as essential as the components proper. They are not merely esoteric refinements of a system, but as essential an ingredient as the steak in steak-and-kidney pie.

In recent years, which wire to use has been the subject of great debate. In fact, whether using one kind or another kind made any difference was initially the debate but, despite Stereo Review’s refusal to hear any differences, it is widely accepted that cables and interconnects are just as important as the other components in a good system. The problem is that how they interact with the system seems even less predictable than is the norm for the other components. Straightwire appears somewhat less system dependent than a lot of others. Straightwire’s Flexconnect is very good value—it is inexpensive while maintaining many of the good qualities of the more expensive LSI. This is a good place to start if you haven’t tried out interconnects before. As you bring the quality of the rest of your components up to where you want, go back and experiment further with fine-tuning your system with wire.

Learn Equipment Basics

Read the equipment chapters in this book. Understanding the fundamentals of how a system works, what a component is supposed to do as part of that system, and how to distinguish between the gingerbread and the real stuff gives you a tremendous advantage in making your choices. Though there are literally thousands of components out there, the majority are built like cheap toys, to be played until you tire of the sound and then thrown out. Weed out this plastic rubbish and then you are left with relatively few components. It becomes reasonably easy to whittle down the choice further by considering your budget, what is available in your area, and whom you want to give your business to.

The Role of Specs

The inexperienced will laboriously compare and judge components by studying the spec sheets, happily ignorant of the half-truths and limitations of this approach. What specs are supposed to measure represents only a very small part of the sonic picture, and how the measurements are taken varies from one company to the next, even from one model to another. In the great spec wars, whatever method of measurement will give the best appearance is the method used. Specsmanship has become such a marketing tool that audio circuits are actually changed just to make a spec measure better, irrespective of how this makes the equipment sound. As one reviewer expressed it, spec charts are often revealing primarily of the manufacturer’s hopes, and should be accepted by the public with the admiration accorded a work of imaginative art rather than the credence granted to a mathematical axiom.

Specs are viewed as being “objective”—they promise the solid ground of cold hard facts, real data, inarguable concrete reality. Judging equipment by listening to it, which is considered a subjective approach (and therefore, according to its denigrators, unreliable, inconsistent, in accurate—in a word, human), restores the ultimate judgment to the real world instead of the lab by evaluating the product holistically in a real life situation. Spec measurements are not taken using music but instead using a sine wave—a far simpler wave than music. It therefore cannot really effectively test how the component will behave with music, which is all the consumer, as opposed to the equipment designer, need be interested in.

Even if one were to take the position that specs help to identify the musical qualities of a component on its own, specs cannot identify how two components will interact (which is the only way components are actually used, as opposed to tested). Sometimes, two components can have the same specs but will sound quite different. Sometimes, the one that sounds better actually “specs out” worse.

Specs are useful when designing equipment, not useful when assessing musical qualities. Who would make a decision to buy a particular piano, guitar, harmonica, contrabassoon, according to its specs? It’s like testing food to measure “objectively” whether it tastes good.

When “acousticians” try to spec out good acoustic spaces and then apply that “hard data” to building a good-sounding concert hall, the success rate is not significant (at least not significantly good). Measurements are an attempt to gauge reality; music is the reality. What you want to know about a component is not how well it performs as a component, but how successfully it conveys the music into your listening room.

To call a component “musical” refers not only to having relatively little distortion but also to the kind of distortion. Given that perfect linearity—the absence of distortion—has yet to be attained, both designers and users instead strive to make the inevitable distortion euphonic, so that it interferes with the music minimally and blends with it in a more acceptable, even if not exactly a pleasing, manner. Irrespective of spec sheets with their THD (total harmonic distortion) and TIM (total intermodulation distortion) and other measured distortions, there are more unmeasured, unnamed, unidentified distortions than a spec sheet recognizes. So a low listed distortion is only a negative definition of quality; it tells you only what isn’t a problem while overlooking every thing that is. Specs do not necessarily correlate with sound quality. In fact, THD, the most common spec, has been known for decades not to correlate to sound at all.

The dangerous thing about trusting your ears is that what they hear can fly in the face of theory and then you no longer have any experts to rely on. If your ears hear differently from what theory prescribes, then go with your ears and throw out the theory. Theories change; your ears change also in the sense that as you learn more about listening, you hear more details. But while it is easy for us to deceive ourselves, and for our ears to lead us astray, the theories have no more solid grounding than our ears do. Trust your ears.

Used Equipment

“Used” by no means necessarily means old and abused, nor second rate. Some of the best components available are still the classic Methuselahs. And there is always a goodly amount of equipment being sold off—there are many eager souls out there who have the equipment bug and buy a component when it first comes out to good reviews and then soon move on again to the next rave review. There are great benefits to staying at least a year or so “behind the times.”

Buying used equipment, whether vintage or just a few years old, requires some simple precautions. Through a dealer, you should be able to get a guarantee or at least return privileges; through a private party, neither of these. A dealer will probably be a bit more expensive because of the extra service.

Prices should be about half the original retail price; if the equipment is more than several years old, perhaps dropping down to 40 percent. The higher the original price, the steeper the drop-off.

Just because the component is relatively cheap, don’t be too casual about the purchase. Thoroughly check out the component’s reputation for reliability. Look over the unit you are considering very carefully. Put it through all its operations. With electronic components, look in side the chassis to see how clean everything is. Switches should work smoothly and quietly. If you do not have return privileges, listen to music through it for more than just five or ten minutes.

DEALING WITH DEALERS

You wouldn’t expect to be able to buy a fine musical instrument at a Wal-Mart or K mart. You shouldn’t expect to find fine playback equipment there either. You should go to a place that specializes in audio equipment without also selling toasters and Mickey Mouse telephones. This alone may not solve all problems—audio dealers are them selves sometimes confused about their own image as “purveyors of the fine art of recorded music playback.”

Travel around to half a dozen different dealers and chances are that you will hear as many different recommendations about what to get. Each will scorn the others’ advice.

From everything one hears, there are few audio dealers who can be depended on for impartial guidance. They are, naturally, preoccupied with making sales and not necessarily with educating customers. Most dealers are themselves so steeped in industry hype that their ideas are just as mistaken as their customers’, except the dealers have the lingo down pat. A friend characterizes talking to audio experts as being like talking to mid-19th-century “experts” on evolution—you’ll hear all kinds of crazy notions. Uninformed of the fundamentals, they nonetheless know the jargon fluently. A barrage of terminology is a potent weapon for the subjugation of gullible customers.

A retailer may try to switch you away from a new component in short supply. A retailer is likely to refer you to the manufacturer in the case of a problem rather than taking care of it directly. Some high-end manufacturers are excellent about helping out their customers, some are not—try to find out before you buy. A retailer, on hearing about a problem with a component you’ve just purchased from that store, is likely to conclude immediately that the problem is with one of your other components (not bought from that store) and recommend you replace that component (with one from that retailer, of course). A retailer may also recommend components that in fact do not make a good match, most likely out of ignorance but sometimes just because they are on hand.

Unfortunately, this really does seem to represent the majority of dealers (you may be able to add stories of your own). Regrettably, it also holds true with high-end dealers. Among these, you may run into another problem—the Morris the Cat routine. If you don’t know the right buzzwords or have the “right” equipment, you are likely to be either cowed into submission or shown the door. Many dealers are more interested in selling you equipment than in selling you good sound.

Looking at the other side, customers can be pretty awful too. A lot of people are tire kickers. They come in knowing very little but pretending to know more than they do, and then try to wheedle an education out of the dealer, while fighting him all the way. This is most likely to occur on a Saturday at midday, when the store is at its busiest and the sales that pay the bills to keep the store open during the rest of the week need to be made! Observe basic courtesy and consideration. And don’t, if you take up a dealer’s time, then go off and buy the component by mail order or at a discount house or at another retailer who’ll give you a slight break because he hasn’t had to invest any time in you. Though you may not have stolen cash out of the till, you have just as surely robbed the dealer by taking time and attention away from another sale.

High-end stores are generally tiny businesses, often run by people who do it because they love audio. High-end dealers tend to be service oriented, unlike mid-fi dealers, who are principally order takers. They must maintain a sizable inventory in a price range from audiophile-be ginning affordable to exotic, and in a design range offering tubes and transistors, straight-line arms and pivoting, dynamic speakers and dipoles, and so forth, along with a large selection of accessories. A great deal of attention may go into selling a set of Tiptoes while very little profit is made.

Audiophiles on the whole are a talkative lot and there is always plenty to talk about, what with new equipment, ideas, and controversy to keep life interesting. Customers may come in to talk even more than to buy. Listening to equipment is time consuming (and sometimes patience consuming) and requires that the dealer provide a special listening room, an unhurried atmosphere, and the willingness to suggest alternatives and to allow the customer to compare. You are dealing, as often as not, with minutiae. Even though the equipment itself is tangible, what you are actually comparing is what it does to the music, which is not tangible, and so to estimate the differences accurately may require a lot of thought.

Good dealers should be able to tell you why they carry the equipment they do, should not automatically scorn any equipment they don’t carry, and in fact should be prepared and able to point out the merits of good equipment they don’t carry.

Then, once the sale is made, they still have to stand behind the equipment. They should have the ability to install the components, be prepared to answer questions about it in the ensuing weeks and longer, be prepared to go to bat with the manufacturer on their customer’s be half if need be.

All around, the most satisfactory approach is to find a dealer you trust and really like, then confine your choice to one of the components that dealer handles. It is better to base your decision on the dealer than to buy a possibly slightly better ‘table from an audio weasel and wind up with no dealer support. Who needs more misery in life? Dealer support should be a critical consideration and it’s OK to base your final decision on what your dealer carries, assuming obviously that he specializes in good equipment.

Your choice of components can perhaps be broadened by buying through mail order, but this has a lot of drawbacks—namely, no dealer support, nowhere to go for advice, and nowhere to turn for help if you have a problem. There are a few exceptions, always—the Mod Squad springs to mind—but you’re probably best off if you can establish a relationship with a decent local dealer.

How to Audition Equipment

Instead of floundering in an ocean of audio technology and terminology, remember that the most important factor in choosing equipment is having sufficient listening and evaluation time. (Keep in mind: “Jargon is a noise that keeps our brains from understanding what our mouths are saying,” according to Russell Ackoff.) You can determine how a component sounds only if you listen to it, and only you can determine whether what you hear will be satisfying to you.

The complication, of course, is that a component will sound different depending on what other components it is matched with and the room it’s being played in. Listen to the equipment in different acoustic environments so you can better distinguish between the aspects of the sound that are a matter of the particular room acoustics and associated equipment, and those that are part of the component itself. Try to keep the associated components consistent from environment to environment so you are not comparing component changes as well as environmental changes. This is very easy to say but harder actually to carry out. Best of all, try to listen to the equipment in your own acoustic space and with your own other components. If you can find a dealer who will let you borrow the equipment like this, you should be happy to do just about anything for him.

To establish some consistency in auditioning, bring your own recordings with you instead of using whatever the store offers. If you listen to the store’s music, your lack of familiarity with it adds additional confusion, it is difficult to distinguish between the recording’s flaws and those of the component, and the recording may have been chosen specifically to make that equipment sound good.

So before you begin the process of auditioning, select half a dozen recordings that you know very well and that typify the kind of music you listen to. Voice is an excellent test—we all are intimately familiar with voices of all kinds and can pretty readily determine when a voice is being played back convincingly and when not. Also, using acoustic (unamplified) music that has been minimally miked will be more revealing than a multimiked recording of amplified music, where it is harder to tell what is the fault of the recording and what of the playback.

Listen to the recordings on your system a number of times so you really know them, and also try to identify what you like and don’t like about your system. There are two reasons why it is important to be very familiar with your reference recordings: One is so you know the flaws of the recording itself, and the other is so you can distinguish between what your system does to the recording and what the various components you are auditioning are doing to it.

Van den Hul, noted cartridge designer, described his do-it-yourself “course to upgrade your listening” in The Absolute Sound. Use a record you like and be prepared to s some time listening. Do it at a time when you can be relaxed and to concentrate. First train your ear to listen just to the dynamics. Then, listen again, but this time listen just to the low-level detail. Next, listen to the overall sound but still not to the music; listen instead for 4he depth in the sound and the reverberation. A lot of systems that may have good stereo—left/right—imaging have no depth to the image; they are flat. Then listen for the definition of the sound, whether an instrument sounds like itself or like something else. For example, trumpets should sound like trumpets, not tin cans; violins like a horsehair bow touched to gut strings rather than like steel strings. Finally, concentrate on the timbre.

Then listen to the record yet again (this is why it has to be a record you really like) and listen for two of these things at a time—dynamics and low-level detail, depth and definition, and so forth. And finally, listen again, this time to the whole music. If you have allowed yourself enough time, you will notice a sharp focusing of your perceptions and you will be able to listen with more pleasure. You’ll probably also notice that your perception of all sounds has become more acute.

Always, bring the same recordings around with you from place to place and use the same cuts. Be aware that even audio salespeople don’t always know (or care) how to treat records well and may put their greasy fingers all over the edges or use a dirty stylus. Constant playing will wear out any recording except a CD, so be sure to use ones that are easily replaced. Incidentally, LPs are the first choice because they are still the best commercial recording medium.

Auditioning equipment involves tedium, impatience, and frustration. It can also be fascinating because it offers an intense education in the nuances of music playback. If you run across people who can help point out what to listen for, this can be invaluable. Just be sure their tastes coincide with yours and that they are not just pointing out the obvious good points of a component and glossing over the poor ones. If you can, audition the best system you can find just so you have an idea of what is possible.

Gauge a system or component as you would music—not by intellectually pulling the sound to pieces but by listening to the whole. You’re interested in the totality of the music, not in how well the component produces certain individual aspects of sound. When you listen to music, - you don’t really want to be conscious of the strengths of the equipment, you want not to be distracted by its flaws. The goal of good audio is to minimize the flaws rather than to maximize the strengths.

The impact of the music should be a sense of ease. Some equipment gives you all the analyzed-out bits really well—like many CD players—but the bits never all come together into an emotional experience of music. That’s what you’re seeking—whatever equipment will give you the most of the life and sound of the music, even if it does certain specific things less well than another component.

Keep your focus on what you’re listening to rather than what you’re listening through. This can be difficult when you are specifically auditioning equipment and comparing it with other components, but keep in mind that while the function of the equipment is to reproduce sound as accurately as possible, its purpose is to supply you with pleasure. Also be aware that any component you listen to will sound different from your own system, but that different does not necessarily mean better.

Don’t play just a minute of music. Play through at least a cut or two per album. You need time to adjust to a new component, a new environment, to become comfortable with your surroundings so you can focus full attention on the sound. Also, you may not immediately notice that the sound is distorting. One of the most significant criteria of a system or component is whether, after listening for an extended time, you experience listener fatigue—a sense of tiredness, irritation, a desire to turn off the system, even leave the room. Music should be enticing, involving; it should draw you in so you don’t want to do anything else; it should reward you for listening closely. Linn suggests the “hum along” test—if you can easily hum along with the system, then it must be good. But you can also hum along with a radio very easily, so though this idea has some legitimacy, it’s only the beginning.

Keep notes. As you go from place to place, or listen to the component on several different occasions, or listen to different kinds of mu sic, you will collect different impressions. If you can keep a record of this to refer back to, it will help to clarify your thinking and. reduce some of the frustration. Note most importantly your emotional responses to a presentation of music. Your analytical critique may lead you astray, but your emotional reactions are likely to be very accurate. Hear the same setup in the same situation again some time later and you will probably respond emotionally the same way. But you may critique it quite differently, perhaps because you have more experience and more comparisons, or just because you can verbalize your feelings another way.

The ear, it is claimed, had a notoriously fallible recollection for sound heard even just a few seconds earlier—scientific tests have been devised to prove this. Yet honest experience contradicts this proposition. Many can hold the sound of a component or system in their heads long after having heard it and can clearly and accurately describe just what they heard. We can instantly identify voices over the phone, even of people we may not have spoken to for days, weeks, months, and longer. Sometimes we can even recognize a voice heard only once some time ago. This is obviously a form of audio memory that does not con form to the “scientific tests” devised to disprove its existence. This does not contradict the value of keeping notes.

Do not try to compare more than two components at a time and also do not try to do A/B comparisons. This is where you listen to one component for a minute and then immediately switch to the other, and then repeat this back and forth a few times. Then you are asked to describe the differences. This can be very confusing and is really not a valid comparison. Listen to a side or more of music on one component, then listen to the same music on the other component. Assess each component immediately after listening and then compare the two of them at the end. A/B testing is the subject of a lot of controversy—how valid it is, how much the switching boxes used affect the sound, what the psychological stresses might be that would change how one hears under these conditions. What it boils down to is that this is not how you listen to music, that it does not seem to offer much in the way of real benefits and certainly seems to have some very definite negatives.

Here are a couple of other factors to consider. How the equipment is set up is critical. If proper setup at home can make a significant difference to sound quality, this is no less true at a store. Some say that having more than one speaker in the room can also alter (worsen) sound, but unfortunately it is very hard to find dealers who can afford a room with only one pair. If you are trying to compare two components at the same shop within a brief space of time, don’t compare more than two at a time—two are enough of a challenge and your mind simply cannot encompass all the variables involved in any more than two. Volume levels must be meticulously matched. The component that is playing more loudly can be mistaken as sounding better.

Unfortunately—as there is little either the dealer or the customer can do about this—quality components sound significantly better after a period of breaking in. When you buy a component and start listening to it at home, you can hear the sound slowly improve over a period of hours and days. It may even initially start out sounding pretty rude. At a store, rarely will a component have had proper break-in time. Manufacturers often try to break in equipment before it leaves the factory but, at least in the case of electronics, if it has been left off for more than a few days or a week, it will need to be broken in all, over again. This is also true for interconnects and cables. (Yes, you may well be saying, “Oh, come on now.” But it is true and very easily audible in some cases.)

Good Music Choices

The music you bring with you should be typical of the music you listen to most. When you’re getting down to a final decision, it can be revealing also to bring along some different kinds—if you listen to complex music, bring something simple and listen to how the speaker handles it. You may be missing something in the complexity that the simplicity will reveal, or vice versa.

Change the volume setting for each music selection. Different types of music need to be played at different volumes—large-scale orchestral needs the largeness of high volume whereas folk should be played more softly. Music is composed to be played by specific instruments at those instruments’ characteristic volumes—the playback level should reflect the original live intention.

The voice is particularly revealing—if the speaker is good on voice, it’s probably good on everything (though the voice can’t reveal the quality of bass and highs). Because it is the instrument we are most familiar with, it is the most difficult to reproduce convincingly. The female voice has extensive dynamic range and power requirements, together with subtle inflections and a quality of intimacy. You should be able to hear the voice in the throat and the breathing. Speakers tend to add honkiness and screechiness to voice. Classical or complex music could hide this speaker coloration. Cyndee Peters’s Black is the Color and Your Basic Dave Van Ronk are good voice records—the music is enjoyable and the sound is wonderfully natural on both. *

Piano is probably the most difficult instrument to play back naturally—to reproduce both the transient strike of the hammer and then the resonance of the string accurately is very difficult. Time problems are particularly noticeable here.

With percussion instruments, the beginning of the strike is mid range, followed by the bass of the transient itself. The strike on the skin should be separate and distinct from the sound of the body resonating.

Strings should sound like strings, not steel instruments of torture. The Absolute Sound, Stereophile, and JAR all publish lists of recommended recordings—recommended for both their music and their sound quality.

Making the Purchase

Some tips on closing the sale from your end: You should be able to have a money-back guarantee on the equipment, for something like a week or ten days, which not only covers any defects in the equipment but also allows you to listen to the equipment in your own home with your own associated equipment. With the best will and intentions in the world, equipment seemingly well chosen in the store may not sonically survive the transition home into a new acoustic environment and different system. This guarantee should be in writing and it should specify money back, not just credit or exchange—the store may have nothing else you want as a replacement.

Though we feel, given the kind of money involved in audio, that a dealer really owes this to the customer, also consider what this does to the dealer. That dealer is effectively loaning you equipment that may or may not come back to the store, and that may also come back damaged with the customer claiming this to be the dealer’s fault. Equipment that was possibly damaged by the customer is a loss that has to be eaten by the dealer. Customers may also use this guarantee as a lending library—curious to hear a component at home, they may be just pretending to buy with no really serious intentions. This trick cannot be pulled too often unless they keep moving around the country, but it still puts the dealer at a great disadvantage.

* Opus 3 no. 7706 and Kicking Mule 177, respectively.

Just because the equipment is in a sealed box, don’t assume that it is pristine and has never been opened. Sometimes you will be sold a display sample, or one returned (and perhaps abused) by someone else. There is no problem with this if the price is dropped accordingly, but some stores will try to sell you a sample as if brand new. Have the box opened and the component checked in front of you before you pay for it. Operate all knobs and dials; check for the instruction manual and warranty.

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Updated: Friday, 2016-05-13 19:19 PST