A high-end audio system with those seemingly magical properties that can transport you out of your listening room and into a musical performance can be elusive. Audiophiles are notorious for spending, in some cases, obscene amounts of money in the building of such systems. What is a mystery to me is why, for many, building a system is done so haphazardly. Often, money is burned as components are bought and sold and bought again -- good for Audiogon -- all in an attempt to find the synergy that yields complete contentment. Is there a clearer path? To me, yes. For what it’s worth, here is my advice for attaining the sound of your dreams.
First, consider the room. If money is no object, certainly the most direct route to success is a blank space and a good acoustical engineer. This will generally give you the most neutral sonic canvas with which to lay out your system. I did exactly this years ago with my listening room, the Music Vault, and I can say without hesitation that my room is the most crucial factor in the sound of my audio system. But a custom room is not within reach of every audiophile.
There are other things you can do to maximize the sonic potential of the space you have before you build your first, or next, system, and those things begin with left-to-right symmetry. Make your room and furnishings as symmetrical as possible. Avoid, for example, a space in which the only possible speaker positions come with a large opening to the left of one speaker and a hard wall to the right of the other. Such an arrangement would render almost useless that smooth off-axis frequency response your speakers’ designer so carefully designed into them. Next, assuming you achieve some semblance of symmetry in your room, treat the first-reflection points: the area on each sidewall, floor, and ceiling where the direct soundwaves from the speakers will be first bounced off of before reaching your ears. An old but effective method for determining where these spots are is to have a friend hold a small mirror up against the wall and slowly move it across and up and down the wall. The location you will place the treatment is wherever the mirror is when, while seated at your listening position, you can see the tweeter of one of the speakers reflected in the mirror. You can treat these areas with absorption or diffusion, products for which are made by a variety of companies. Shelves filled with books can also nicely serve this purpose. But remember to treat both sidewalls. The floor can be treated with a throw rug, and acoustical panels can be placed on the ceiling; regarding the latter, it will be even better if your room has exposed ceiling beams.
Once you know the room you have to work with, find your speakers. My advice is to buy the best speakers you can, because they’ll have a bigger impact on the sound than will any other component in the system. Now, best doesn’t necessarily mean most expensive; it means “best” in terms of the best acoustical output you can afford. Really good full-range speakers -- i.e., those with a frequency response of 20Hz-20kHz or higher -- will always cost more than bass-limited minimonitors, but you can supplement smaller speakers with subwoofers if the need for deep bass outstrips your budget. Either way, choose speakers from manufacturers that rely on acoustical measurements in the design of their loudspeakers. Engineering-driven companies use hard science derived from computer modeling and acoustic measurements in the development of their products, and make no mistake -- this is what you want. Avoid golden-eared speaker designers who design crossovers by ear and optimize cabinet geometry by what feels right. Please read “Buying High-End Audio: The Real Deal” for more insight into getting the all-important speaker choice right.
Bryston Middle T in the Music Vault
Next, select an amplifier based on the speakers you’ve chosen. This seems pretty straightforward, but too many audiophiles don’t do this. We all know that low-powered single-ended-triode amps need highly efficient speakers, such as horns, to work well. But some push-pull tube amps, and many solid-state power amplifiers, have a hard time driving speakers whose impedances drop below 4 ohms. I’m a proponent of powerful, low-distortion, high-damping-factor, solid-state amps that have abundantly stiff power supplies and the ability to deliver a neutral audio signal regardless of load. However, I am not tied to any specific design trait that might tempt me to buy only one type of design to the exclusion of all others; e.g., no-negative-feedback designs, or amps with only linear power supplies, or those with only a single pair of output devices per channel. There are companies that swear by each of these design types, but that doesn’t mean that any of them is right and all the rest are wrong. I’ve heard enough excellent solid-state amplifiers of different enough topologies to know that there is no one path to great sound. There are absolutely top-performing amps of many different breeds: compare the smoothness of Ayre Acoustics’ zero-negative-feedback amps to the authority of designs from Boulder Amplifiers, with their gobs of properly implemented feedback; or the rich, class-A power of a Gryphon to the rock-steady class-D of a Hypex-based design; or consider Devialet’s hybrid class-A/class-D approach. Again, make sure you choose your amplifier based on the kind of load it must shoulder when asked to drive your loudspeaker of choice. Let its sound with those speakers guide you. And if you need a preamp, pick one from the same company.
“Garbage-in, garbage-out” makes sense. When it comes to source components, a 1980s CD player will make your system sound pretty bad. But guess what: most of today’s digital components sound really good, if not downright excellent. For instance, to my ears, today’s best digital-to-analog converters -- i.e., those costing tens of thousands of dollars -- are not night-and-day better than today’s best seven-grand DACs. I know, that’s blasphemy around these parts, but in my experience it’s true. I’d rather have a great $7000 DAC and invest the change in a better pair of speakers than skimp one dollar on the speakers in order to reach for a $15,000 DAC. Not only will the better speakers contribute more per dollar spent on them to your system’s ultimate quality of sound; considering how quickly digital technologies continue to improve, they will also be a better long-term investment. (If your main source is vinyl, you’ll have to read someone else. I don’t have a turntable and can’t advise you.)
A few other tidbits: choose cables from a good manufacturer, but don’t feel that you have to go crazy. I’ve never believed that you should spend a certain percentage of your system’s total cost on cables in order to achieve some kind of “balance.” Also, tweaks are for tweakers, of which I am not one. Some guys can spend hours raising their cables off the floor and changing the footers under their DACs. I believe in solid support under the gear, and I’m not saying that a certain footer absolutely won’t change the sound. However, I have little patience for this type of experimentation; more often than not, when I’ve done the tweak thing, the results are fleeting and not clearly improvements. My time is better spent elsewhere.
So there you have it. It’s a pretty simple formula, really, but I’ve developed it over many years in this industry, and it has served me well. As always, I hope it helps. Let me know what works for you.
. . . Jeff Fritz