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Eyor
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which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

I've only recently begun searching through the world of high end audio and I love what I've heard so far (checked out the selection at Magnolia) and definitely would like to invest in a system. However, I'm not quite sure where to start, or for that matter, how many/what components are needed.

So, the essential question has two parts;

What are all of the components needed for a great home audio system (forget video, only interested in the audio)?

Is there an optimal sequence in selecting components? what?

Are there any references for this kind of info?

Thanks very much to anyone who would care to respond, I realize this may be a pretty lengthy topic.

jkalman
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

Speakers, speakers, speakers. I would spend 75% on the speakers, perhaps more (80-85%). Then buy the rest (an amp, preamp, cd player, and cheap cables).

Eyor
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

Thanks Jeff,

I figured that was the case but wanted to confirm. So far I've listened to Vienna Acoustics Waltz's and Sonus Faber (don't remember which model but was in the $800/spk range). Looking to stay in this range, what are the primary brands I should check out?

- Mark

Jan Vigne
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

Many of us would reverse that buying pattern and place source first. Reasoning garbage in = garbage out is still an effective way to build a system. There are no components that can replace information lost in the previous link of the system chain.

In my experience I've heard very modest speakers ($200 pr.) sound terrific with good to excellent pieces in front of them. I've seldom heard good speakers sound like much of anything with mediocre components in front of them. Much depends on what you are listening for.

I sold audio with one fellow who sold almost nothing but Klipsch Cornwalls and a Yamaha receiver. Certainly with the 104dB efficiency of the Cornwall the receiver had a very easy job since the Klipsch was not a difficult speaker load to drive. Gobs of macrodynamics and plenty of volume with more than enough Klipsch style bass were the keys to that sound. To him it was musical.

I've demonstrated Rowland, McIntosh and other high end electronics with a top notch source playing through modest bookshelf speakers to let clients hear the amount of detail and expansive, stable soundstage such a combination can create.

IMO timbre and tone are the province of a better front end and electronics. Pacing, timing and microdynamics can be destroyed at any point in the system and once they are damaged nothing can repair the qualities which make music expressive rather than just mechanical. But the system remains a group of components which must function with synergy between them and you must decide what consitutes good sound as a final product.

Most long time listeners will tell you they have changed their mind multiple times as to which single component is the most important piece of gear but it usually resolves to be whichever is currently the weakest in the chain.

The most important thing to know beforehand is you must have your priorities fairly well established before you enter the showroom. The best way to do this is to go hear some live music.

There is no need to spend large sums of money. A T-amp hooked to some well executed standmounted speakers (single driver, full range works well with the strengths of the T-amp), using a good source and modest cable choices will produce sound that leaves very little to be desired unless you have the cash to retrieve that last little bit of music available. Then be ready to see a review of another component which might be "better" than what you just bought.

Often the best systems are those which have been assembled with attention paid to details such as set up and speaker placement. A good stand or stands will go a long way toward getting the best out of components. "The devil is in the details" and "don't sweat the small stuff" both apply here.

Jeff Wong
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

Mark - While it's hard to argue with Jeff's recommendation of speakers in practical terms (realistically, speakers might garner the most immediately noticeable difference, and one must start somewhere, not a vacuum), I feel it's important to consider the system as a whole and firmly believe a good source (garbage in, garbage out argument) is something to consider.

I see Jan has posted while I was composing and that I've echoed similar thoughts.

bobedaone
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

Well, Eyor, be prepared for a host of different answers on this one. My advice is to match the quality of components to each other. I believe Mr. Kalman to be our resident speaker guy, and recently took delivery of a beautiful pair of Wilson Watt/Puppy 8's. While I don't question his reasoning that speakers are very important, I stress that you should assign value to individual components on a case-by-case basis. Jeff drives his Wilsons with Ayre components (source and amplification), which, by all accounts, are exceptional pieces of gear. So, yes, speakers are very important. They are the "end of the line", and influence every sound you hear. Without some quality transducers, you're missing out. However, be sure to create a solid foundation for them with source and amplification. Speakers can be magical, but they're only as good as what's behind them.

So, my advice is to get yourself some quality speakers, but I'd be down from Jeff's very high allocation. I think 40% speakers, 40% amplification, and 20% source may be closer to ideal, unless you're playing in Jeff's league and can afford outstanding source components and amplification to accompany your new super-speakers. I could spend a day or ten in Jeff's listening room.

As far as what you need, I suppose I covered that indirectly, but I'll make a list.

*speakers (and maybe a subwoofer, if you're so inclined)

*amplification (which can be an integrated amplifier or separate preamplifier and power amplifier(s))

*source component(s)

-digital: CD player, SACD player, DVD-Audio player, any combination thereof, or a universal player. You might also consider a music streamer, such as the Slim Devices Transporter, if you are willing to rip your music collection to a computer's hard drive.

-analog: tuner (?), turntable

surge protector/power conditioner

and enough copper to string everything together

Welcome to the forum and good luck with your audio adventuring!

All the best,

Elk
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?


Quote:
Most long time listeners will tell you they have changed their mind multiple times as to which single component is the most important piece of gear but it usually resolves to be whichever is currently the weakest in the chain.


Precisely my experience and well stated.

My first impulse was to declare the amplifier as the most important, because this was the change that made the greatest improvement in my system's recent past.

On further reflection however I would put amplification and source about equal, with speakers a close second. This is because a decent CD player will satisfy most people if the amplification is of good quality and the speakers are clean and clear - even if they are modest.

Then I would upgrade speakers. If I then could hear the differences between source components, I would get a better CD player or turntable.

And so it goes.

There is a constant interplay between components. One can easily overbuy on one component or the other and not make much of an improvement overall. But each component has to at least be up to the abilities of the overall level of the remaining pieces. There is a lot of give and take.

smejias
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?


Quote:
Is there an optimal sequence in selecting components? what? Are there any references for this kind of info?

Hi Mark.
Welcome to the forum, and thanks for a great topic. In addition to the opinions and suggestions offered here, you might also like to check out this old thread.

Jan Vigne
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?


Quote:
Speakers can be magical, but they're only as good as what's behind them.

And above, below, to the side and in front of them. The listening room is the final component, the largest and the most difficult to deal with. Sadly, it is the one component most often ignored because it's more fun to buy a new piece of equipment rather than solve the problems of the room. We can wrap our minds around watts and bits fairly easily but we have trouble understanding slap echo. However, the room and its furnishings will be the component which has the greatest influence on the final sound quality of your system. Bright room, the system will reflect (pun intended) that quality. Dull room, the system will pay back in kind.

Ultimately, what's required to create a credible sound is a very good room. Or, money and time spent making adjustments to the room you already have. Since the room is probably the one component most difficult to change, the choice of room and placement of components - and you - within the room are of supreme importance. Pick a lousy room or ignore even a fairly good room and you'll never know just how good your system might be. Place the speakers - and you - in the wrong position within the room and no matter what you've spent on the speakers, you will not hear them at their best.

Money spent getting the system's environment in order is never money misspent.

cyclebrain
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

Speakers are going to have the greatest audible variations along with their room influence.
Trying to compare speakers in a store, or even worse between multiple stores is not going to provide a true picture of how they will sound at your home. Where you position them in your room wil also make a major difference.
Don't get locked in to my speakers have to go here.
Because of there being so many speaker/room variables we usually have to rely on Stereophile test reports to provide us with a baseline comparision between speakers. If you can try them at home that would be good.
Also beware of thinking that certain traits that you like initially like good bass or high end doesn't become annoying over time. Is it real bass or just boom? Is it a clear high end or just fatiging sizzle?
Lastly, buy what YOU like. YOU like.

Eyor
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

Thanks to everyone for the great response so far. Two follow-up questions:

1. I understand the 'garbage-in garbage-out' principle, however, I wonder how much can the source or amplification component actually distort the original recorded media? Has anyone experienced a noticeable change in sound quality with changing only the source? amplifier?

2. Also, it seems a lot of 'quality of equipment' assessments are highly subjective. Are there some components which are more subjective than others? are there any absolutes or reliable methods of comparison?

Elk
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

1) Changing the source component from one to another can make a large difference in the reproduced sound. Changing the amplifier can also make a big difference.

2) The entire hobby is completely subjective. Most equipment measures pretty well on the test bench, although there are some the fall outside of acceptable parameters - like lots of jitter on a CD player - but these are quite rare. It really comes down to what you like and what is important to you.

bobedaone
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

I've been upgrading my system on a piecemeal basis. I started with a Yamaha CD changer, a Sony receiver, and the Paradigms. First, I upgraded the CD player to an NAD C525BEE. Wow! What a difference. I enjoyed that improvement for a few months. Then I replaced the receiver with a Rega Brio3. Wow! What a difference. Those two pieces of gear are really letting the Paradigms sing. Everything is important.

Elk is exactly right that this is a very subjective hobby. After all, the only thing that matters is what YOU hear!

ohfourohnine
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

As Elk put it, it absolutely comes down to what you like and what is important to you. As you've revealed through the discussion, the notion of starting with speakers and building from there appeals to you. Do it then. That puts you squarely on one side of the ages old debate - which never will be settled.

In your favor, whichever side of the debate you wind up on, is the amount of really good hardware in the marketplace today. You've put a priority on speakers and indicated a willingness to buy them in the $1600/pair range. Assuming your priority would make speakers 40% of your system budget that leaves you $2400 for amplification, source, and interconnect/cables. You'd have to be severely retarded not to be able to find excellent quality components today for the rest of your system given that budget.

Take your wallet and go out and audition. There's nothing more for you to learn here. Get back to us when you're ready to share your enthusiasm about the system you've put together.

Happy Listening,

Eyor
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

Thanks again to everyone who responded. This helps me narrow down my 1st priority for searching (speakers), though I can't help but think there are some objective ways to measure sound. At least from the source + amplifier category I'd imagine you could make some measure of signal/noise ratio, though this may be too much of an oversimplification...any thoughts?

drowland3550
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

I think it's also important, especially when starting out, to think about where the price/performance sweet spot is for various components. You know, to take a moneyball approach to sound. Then the question isn't 'which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?', but rather 'where can I save the most money in my budget without giving up much in quality?' Right now, in today's market, my guess is that speakers are the right answer to the second question. That is, you're more likely to be able to find excellent speakers at an affordable price than to find an excellent cd player or amp on the cheap.

Elk
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Re: which components have the greatest effect on sound quality?

These measurements do in fact exist, but for the most part are not all that telling. Most modern electronic equipment measures quite well. For example, it would be very hard to find a CD player that does not have a frequency response worse than plus or minus a small fraction of a dB. That is, they all have a flat frequency response - yet CD players can sound very different.

Unfortunately, while measurements can provide some guidance there is much we do not yet know about how to measure the sound of components.

It really is best to trust your ears and to be honest with yourself about what you like in music reproduction. If you like subtle harmonic complexity and timbrel accuracy, buy equipment that excels in this area. If you like slam, drive and punchy reproduction - buy equipment that does this well. Neither is right or wrong, just different.

There is no real substitute to listening to lots of equipment and finding what you like.

This is the simultaneous joy and frustration of the hobby in a nutshell.

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