Tuesday 21 May 2013


Upgrading your Hi-Fi equipment can be both deeply satisfying, and deeply unsatisfactory, and both at the same time.  Satisfying, because you have invested in something that you have either wanted for a long time, or have spent a long time researching and preparing.  Unsatisfying, because, so many times, after the 'thrill of the chase' is over, and the 'new car smell' has worn off, you often find that your new installation is somehow not much more musically satisfying than the previous system.  Go on - admit it.  We've all been there.

There are many reasons and causes for this, but I am going to focus on one of them that I see happening more frequently than any other.  The loudspeaker fixation.

It is perhaps natural to focus on the loudspeaker as the 'most important' item in your playback chain.  Very clearly, different loudspeakers have an immediately obvious different sound signature.  Anybody can hear readily the differences in sound when you change from one loudspeaker to another, whether you are an audiophile or a civilian.  Although (thankfully) it is not something we see too much of these days, it is relatively easy for a retailer to hook a bunch of loudspeakers up to a switching box and have the customer switch back and forth between them in real time, the differences between each model standing in stark contrast.  It is not so easy to set this up for - say - a bunch of amplifiers, or a bunch of speaker cables.  But even so, as O. J. Simpson's lawyers might have put it, I am willing to stipulate to the differences between loudspeakers, that they are real, substantial, and readily apparent.

However, differences in sound, and differences in musicality, appear consistently to be different things.  It is an inconvenient truth that while anybody can readily appreciate the former, for most people it appears that the latter has to be learned.  This is an uncomfortable notion, in that it implies all sorts of connotations such as 'golden ears' or 'trained musician', and other faintly elitist notions.  But it's generally true, and is perhaps a subject for a post all of its own one of these days.  It used to be that this learning process was something a good dealer should be able to train you to do.  (This was something Ivor Tiefenbrun, the founder of Linn, drilled mercilessly into all of his dealers back in the day.)  But too few dealerships these days seem to have mastered that art.  In my case, I was shown the light by a sales clerk in a high-end London audio store during the course of one Tuesday afternoon.  What I learned that afternoon has stayed with me all my life.  (Geez - it sounds like I'm coming out!...)

But back to loudspeakers.  Most people who are not audiophiles - and many who are - have a tendency to categorize audio equipment in one of two groups.  Those that sound different, and those that don't.  For example, most will happily put loudspeakers into the "those that do" category, and interconnect cables into "those that don't".  Amplifiers are usually described by audiophiles as being among "those that do", although real-world behavior tends to suggest that people actually treat them as "those that don't".  The easiest way to quantify this behavior is to consider the way people apportion their budgets in building an audio system.  It makes sense that individuals would apportion the money they spend in the way that best reflects their own perception of where the most bang can be had for the buck.  Most people - audiophile or otherwise - seem comfortable with the notion that a full 50% of the budget for an audio system should be set aside for the loudspeakers.  It is my view that this is seldom the most satisfactory proportion.

So, given that loudspeakers indisputably sound more immediately different than do amplifiers, how does an audiophile set about choosing the components that will comprise that new upgraded system?  I think that the best way to think about different loudspeaker systems is to recognize that each different model has a 'character' of sound which is immediately evident, and a 'quality' of sound that is not.  The elements of 'character' are often expressed in terms of a loudspeaker being more or less suitable for one genre of music or another.  And its true.  Some speakers definitely make a better job of pop/rock than classical, and vice versa, and yet others come into their own with intimate jazz.  And for most people, buying an audio system involves an element of compromise driven by budgetary constraints.  If you want to hear 'quality' go listen to a pair of Wilson's entry-level (but still car-priced) Sophia 3's. These loudspeakers are widely available, and are all about sound quality.  The 'character' might or might not be to you taste, but the 'quality' is indisputable, and is there in spades.

So the process of buying a system starts with identifying a loudspeaker model that works well with the sort of program material the listener wants to play over them.  That's not at all a bad way to start.  But don't make it the end.  By choosing your loudspeakers you have not broken the back of the task by any means.  The key to musical fulfillment lies in what comes next.  You should spend equal amounts of time on loudspeakers, source components, amplifiers, and cables (in that order).  There is a solid argument for apportioning costs in the same way as well.  Many people have a real problem spending as much on cables as they do on a pair of loudspeakers - and I can sympathize enormously with that argument - but if you are serious about buying your system based entirely on what you hear, then that is what you should be prepared to do.  

In closing, I must say that the effects of cables (power cords, interconnects, USB cables, and speaker cables) never ceases to floor me.  Like almost everybody else, I have a real problem in accepting the perceived value of (for example) a pair of speaker cables as being on the same level as the loudspeakers to which they are connected, but I must disclose that my B&W 802 Diamond loudspeakers are connected using a pair of Transparent Audio Reference interconnects which cost very nearly the same price.  And dammit, those Transparents really do make the Diamonds sing!