Can’t Tell You What To Purchase, But Here’s How You Begin
There are few things we can do in life that reflect who we are, what we enjoy and how we wish to experience those things. For music lovers, nothing is more important than maximizing value while minimizing undesirable effects. To that end, it’s important to understand, or perhaps realize that a solid sound system is not merely a series of electric devices, but a chain of electric devices and how they do or don’t work together in achieving that perfect personal and individual listening experience.
“There are two primary philosophies when it comes to building a system.”
I’ll admit spending a lifetime in a trial and error loop, where great components just didn’t function together as a unit, a conceptual whole. I purchased my first formal system back in 1970, and I’ll admit, cost was a prime consideration. Over those long years I’ve found that there are two primary philosophies when it comes to building a system, and within those two philosophies there are countless parameters I’d like to venture a considered opinion on. As to those philosophies, the first is to construct a system designed to respond in a particular manner. Those considerations would embrace how you hear the music, be it a warm, highly detailed or an analytical presentation. Some folks enjoy a wider deeper soundstage, others an upfront monitor style musical vision. Without a doubt, this means you’re going to need to involve a salesman, and who of us doesn’t feel intimidated at graphs and language that seem counterintuitive … in my case, making me feel rather dumb. But you know, if you’re honest with yourself and the person attempting to assist you, things can work out. First of all, don’t engage in stereophonic dialog you really don’t understand, second, buy what sounds good to your ears, not features that are touted as ‘embracing and enhancing a more immersive sonic experience.’ This brings me to that second philosophy, and that is the correct sound for your ears alone … this has noting to do with impressing your neighbors and friends.
“Remember, you are not re-creating the music, you are listening to it.”
From here, I’m going to say that pure music is a two speaker affair, too many speakers come with amplifiers that offer far too many options for enhancing the sound, where each step down that road only takes your further and further from the artist’s intentions. Remember, you are not re-creating the music, you are listening to it. I personally run a mid-priced high end system, a full McIntosh Stereo, Turntable, Amplifier, CD Player, and my prized Marantz Cassette player. The McIntosh offers very limited adjustments to the sound, meaning I’m hearing what the artist and producer intended, I’m never sweeping my room with overly enhanced aspects.
A knowledgeable salesperson is essential. As much as I’d like to pretend, I do not know everything, regardless of how much I read. I have a skillset that others do not, I was sought out for that skillset, people trusted me and my judgement. The same applies to your salesman, you should be looking for someone with years of experience, not someone who can ramble off statistics, you should find someone you are comfortable with and trust. I understand that it’s often difficult dealing with a salesperson, feeling that they are making a commission for merely selling you a product anyone could sell you. But, and this is a big BUT, your salesperson should be working for you. There is no reason to walk into a store and purchase a sound system and walk out, that’s just silly. Your salesperson should understand that you’ll be back several times or more before handing over your cash, and then, only at that point should you be discussing price in the terms of reality. Once you reach that stage, consider showroom pieces have not been used hard, as about purchasing a demonstration model, you can save thousands of dollars.
The primary source of your musical experience is derived from your speakers, speakers are by far the most intricate part of any system, hovering around the 80% of importance threshold. Unrealized by most is that a speaker is a complex arrangement of moving parts, the linear movement of drivers and cones, along with how they interface, act and react to the resonance of the box housing them. I feel obliged to impress on you that good speakers move air, air carries the sound, steer clear of those tiny speakers designed to blend into your listening space, speakers need to have a presence, they need to be acknowledged and treasured. For this reason, it’s highly suggested that you purchase a set of speakers that are mirror images of each other, made and fabricated at the same time, twins if you will, who go through their life revealing and aging together, becoming more rich and responsive in a like manner over the years. For this reason one should not purchase a set of speakers off the shelf. If you wish quality sound, you’re going to spend some money, there is no way around that. To that end, the person selling you speakers should come to your house, understand your listening space, understand your furniture, bright and dull spots in the room, high or low ceilings, and of course the size. I run Bowers & Wilkins 804 Diamonds; prior to my salesman stopping by the house, I’d intended to spend about $25,000 on a much more expensive pair, though was informed that for my listening space, those large more intense speakers would only hinder my listening experience. It’s these sort of steps you must be willing to take to arrive at your destination. While you certainly don’t need to spend the dollars I did, finding speakers which range (cover) high treble, bass and offer superior tonal balance is the ultimate goal.
Speakers should be free of obstructions, they should not be tucked behind furniture or cramped into conflicted spaces. With that in mind, each speaker should be placed so that it mirrors the other in its room position.
Amps are in essence the partners to your speakers, with serious listeners considering these to be integral elements that work together. For this reason one should consider how well any given amplifier can drive a set of speakers essentially depends on the speakers themselves, their impedance, sensitivity and overall general tonal balance. Again, this is where your dealer steps in, as many speakers offer generous measurements on paper, yet in the real world, your listening space, is difficult to drive with inappropriately spaced amplifiers. Often amps look great on paper as well, seem entirely compatible with your speakers, yet when push comes to shove, sound much larger than they suggest. Knowing and understanding this intersection is essential.
SOURCE – Turntable/CD Player:
I’d like to preface this section by saying that for years I was never a fan of CDs for a variety of reasons, and again, while you may not have to spend $7,000 on a CD player, it was only hearing a CD on a player with a dynamic transport system that I was finally able to appreciate the richness and beauty they had to offer. It makes me sad to think that so many people are listening to subpar CD players, never understanding what they are missing. Of course this brings us to the doors of Analog and Digital, a world today where we for the most part must live in both spaces. No matter your choice, this is the final point for music information to be relayed to your ears. If the source is not up to snuff, then the amp and speakers, no matter how good, will not sound up-lifting. For this reason, it’s important to find both the most accurate and neutral of sources. On the bright side, even entry level higher end Turntables and CD Players are very good, though I would suggest that spending less than $1000 on either will leave you wishing you’d spent more, and spending more in this area (laughing) is only going to encourage you to spend even more, as each step forward will only encourage you to take the next … this is an area where money does mean a better more responsive product.
Inner-connections are like jewels that link your components together, these connections bring it all to life. You can get lousy connections at most box stores or on line for a couple of dollars, or you can spend $20,000 on oxygen free connections with gold or silver wires, passed through a stabilizer, ensuring a free and consistent flow of information. You would be surprised what a simple upgrade of cables can do for your sound. Yes, many people look at these cables a ‘stereo jewelry,’ and often rightly so. The good news is that people are always upgrading these cables, and since there is little wear to them, you can get great pre-owned sets for a fraction of the original cost. I would encourage you to save all boxing, this makes for a better resale, as I promise, you will be upgrading. I’ve hesitated to talk about specific products, though here I will suggest that you can begin with the AudioQuest Sidewinder series, and then move up. AudioQuest makes a fine product. For those of you on a budget, or simply wish the audiophile experience from time to time, accept nothing less than Monster Cable’s high end, these are very nice and will serve you well.
Think of cables as pipes through which water runs, a larger pipe will offer less impedance to the signal, allowing that signal to travel smoothly, without bleeding independent signals together. These signals travel best through gold or silver, pure oxygen-free copper is fine as well, though the low end aluminum should be avoided entirely.
The connecting ends of the Inner-Connects are extremely important as well. Older systems and lower end systems may still use aluminum plug receptors, and less expensive cables may also use RCA pins made of aluminum. The trouble with these, especially if the female RCA In’s on your receiver and the RCA male plugs on your cables are aluminum is that over time they will eventually oxidize together; not a pretty sight. Best to use gold, even gold shielded connectors.
Speaker Cables have the same inherent effect as your inner-connection cables, and it’s vital to match your amp and speakers to these cables. This can become problematic with runs of 3 meters or more, as the signal will dramatically drop off, requiring some sort of on-line (on-cable) enhancing device. Again, while it’s not necessary to spend thousands of dollars, a dynamic set of mid-range high end cables will set you back $1500, though it’s a cost you won’t feel six months down the road, with quality tunes rolling through your head.
Even though they are very popular I would highly suggest that you stay away from those push-pin or banana clip setups, incorporating a screw-down system for speakers is far superior, a bit more labor intensive, but all the more worthwhile.
There are many systems, in my case McIntosh, who have developed refined and tooled their components to not only work together flawlessly, but these components have been created to work with generous speaker lines. Yes, I am fully aware that some people prefer one company’s turntable, another’s CD player … and then there’s the consideration of tubes. Some audiophiles live their lives putting together the ultimate system, but this is more of a hobble, more of an unattainable religious obsession, as these folks never actually reach the end goal, and let’s face it, if you’re like me, you simply want your music to sound good.
No matter what anyone tells you, purchase what sounds good to you. I listened to several systems without knowing which I was hearing, taking notes as each one played for fifteen minutes, then sat down and seriously listened to my two favorites for a couple of hours. Don’t expect to be able to do this on a weekend, stop in during the middle of the week when the shoppe is not busy and you have a free run of the equipment.
There are a number of things no one tells you about until it’s too late.
First, your turntable has been designed with a particular mat, flying the flag for your fav band with a turntable mat looks cool, though consider that the mat may be too thick or thin for your tonearm to rest precisely. Better to stay with what’s been provided.
Then there is the question of Direct Drive Turntables vs. Belt Drive Turntables. There is nothing wrong with direct-drive, the precision and calculations embedded in these pieces of equipment is outstanding. I run a belt-drive manual turntable, and there’ve been endless nights I simply didn’t want to get up and lift the tonearm … sounds lazy I know, but reality nonetheless. The issue surround direct-drive turntables was that there was a “suspected” inherent noise from the motor that many audiophiles claimed distorted the harmonic resonance. I’ve never met one person in a blind test who could tell me which was which. If you insist on a belt-drive, consider the new line of Thorens fully automatic belt driven turntables.
Most turntables are equipped with a cartridge and stylus, don’t be afraid to up grade. The most important feature of the stylus is how it rides in the grooves of your records. Inform your salesperson of the records you play and the music you listen to. Older records will benefit from one stylus, while the new 140 and 180 gram records can use another. Rock music requires a more rich feel, more meaty, while many jazz fans prefer a stylus that is more bright and clear. Again, this is what you’re paying for, listen to those cartridges and make your decision. When it comes to turntables I can not implore you enough to have the turntable setup and running by the shoppe. Even if they charge a few dollars, in the end it’s all worth it.
I could go on for days talking about tonearms, balance, vibration, rigidity and stylus to grooves angles, but that’s for down the road, right now concentrate on getting a good system up and going.
You need not purchase everything at once, begin with the best turntable you can afford. I say this because over time, the most expensive part of your stereo will be your vinyl. Add an amplifier and CD player of the next couple of years, then the connectors. Lastly, as it’s most important, and you’ll have time to consider more purposefully, with more judgement, get your speakers last. Me? I always want the bright shininess right away. Now looking back some 50 years, I do wish I’d purchased one really fine piece of equipment at a time, rather than settling for something that didn’t deliver a couple of years later.
This brings me to the last issue I have, another that took me years to resolve. If you life in a house or apartment with wooden floors, no matter how deeply carpeted, you stereo is going to skip when someone walks by it, that’s just the way the cards play out. What encouraged me to make the deep plunge, was that my home is built on a concrete slab … I can jump in front of my stereo, pull out records from the cabinet below, and there’s never a skip. Don’t be fooled by people attempting to sell you wall hanging units, they don’t work, your stereo will still find a way of skipping.
Much thanks for taking the time to read.
Bio: I was a nurse in Viet Nam during the war, purchasing my first stereo there in 1970, a Sansui Receiver/Amp, a Thorens Turntable, Sony Cassette Deck and a set of Acoustic Research Speakers. Of course that was only my first step into the golden age of stereo, where for the next fifty years I’ve ridden the crest of that wave, always pushing the envelope for more warmth, more smoothness and more satisfaction. It was only in 2015 that I finally realized that I wasn’t on a path to a great musical listening experience, but a path of sonic bewilderment, one that would never lead to a final ‘just right’ conclusion. While I certainly was enjoying music, the music had become almost secondary, where I believed that if I simply tweaked one more aspect, purchased yet another tonearm, that the music would finally embrace me, allowing me to sit back and relax. The trouble was, like a caring lover, the music had always been embracing me, it was me and my relentless quest that was not allowing me to be comfortable in the arms of those warm round notes. Find yourself a sweet-spot and create your musical comfort zone, as in the end, that’s what essentially matters.
– Jenell Kesler
Photos by Klemen Breznikar