Commonsense System Strategies

There's an old Russian folktale about a farmer who goes to a fair. He buys a bread roll from a vendor. He eats it, but he's still hungry. So he buys and eats another roll, and then another. Still hungry. Next, he buys a donut from a different vendor. At last, he's no longer hungry. The farmer then says to himself, "I wasted the money I spent on the rolls—I should have just bought the donut first!"

This story illustrates a problem with the way most of us buy stereo equipment: If only we could know in advance what we would end up being happy with, we'd save a lot of the money we spend getting there.

But it's difficult to take the leap of faith and buy, for instance, speakers costing $20,000/pair, when we aren't entirely certain they'll turn out to be worth the money to us. There's a comfort zone in crawling before walking. Proceeding incrementally can be a security blanket, but it also can be a false economy.

The trap lies in losing a lot of money on a long series of small-increment upgrades: "Okay, I really like my $1000/pair speakers, so now I'm ready for $1500/pair speakers." But if the truth of the matter is that, because of where, how, and to what music you listen, the step-by-step process is just a long, painful way of eventually getting to a $20,000 pair of speakers, you're losing out all around.

I think that in putting together an audio system, the single most important fork in the road also happens to be the one that is almost always ignored: Is the system intended to reproduce music to be listened to as an end in itself, or is the music intended to accompany other activities, such as entertaining, reading, sewing, or putting model ships in bottles?

I'm not making snooty value judgments here. I'm just as happy with the notion of good audio equipment serving up "lite" jazz like Claude Bolling in the background when friends gather at the end of the work week, as I am with the notion of someone's listening intently to Birth of the Cool while following along with the musical score. But these uses are really different, and so the optimal choices of equipment may also be different.

If the music is meant to accompany other activities, you have wider options, and can get good results while spending less money. Listening to Claude Bolling at cocktail time, no one expects to hear a three-dimensional soundstage with precise image locations. What may be more important is that the essential timbres of the music not radically change when people stand up or move about. Some speakers that sound fabulous when you're sitting in their sweet spot sound less engaging when you stand up or walk around. Whether this makes a difference depends on what your system is basically for.

Let's now assume that you want a system for listening to music as an end in itself. The next fork in the road is between systems that attempt to reproduce the full frequency and dynamic ranges of music, and systems that don't.

There's an unavoidable tradeoff here of quality vs quantity. Due to the logarithmic nature of musical frequencies, each additional octave of bass capability requires the reproduction of wavelengths twice as long. It's not at all unusual to see two speaker models from the same manufacturer, the larger costing twice as much as the smaller, but the larger one's bass extension going only 4–6Hz deeper.

Also coming into play here are the specific genres of music you listen to. While some classical works call for huge forces, such as orchestra plus chorus and pipe organ, others are for solo lute or solo flute or solo classical guitar. Death metal and jam bands are both considered "rock," but one is usually played louder than the other.

Even within the same genre, different listeners listen at different volumes. Mastering guru Bob Ludwig keeps his listening level at an average of 85dBA. If neighbors or sleeping children limit the volumes at which you can listen, that should be taken into account. Don't buy what you can't use.

This is the point at which you have to form some realistic idea of what it is you want your stereo system to do for you. One person might want to hear Claude Bolling, not too loud, as she chitchats with her chums and refills their Camparis. Another might want to hear early James Taylor LPs with transparent fidelity that would have been hard to imagine when those records were new. Another might even want to play electric guitar along with Tom Petty and really crank everything up.

Your choice of music, how loudly you will listen, and the particulars of your listening room will determine which loudspeakers will work best for you. Choose amplification only after you have chosen your speakers. If the best speakers for you are a comparatively difficult load to drive, that limits your amplifier choices. Source components then fall into place, usually according to how much of your budget is left.

If taking a huge leap daunts you, by all means take an incremental approach, but also resolve that it will not become an infinite regress. If John Atkinson's enthusiastic review of KEF's $20,000/pair Reference 207/2 loudspeaker has you tempted but nervous, ask your dealer if you can get 100% trade-in credit within a year if you buy KEF's $5000/pair Reference 201/2s instead—but don't serially buy all the speaker models in between just because they're there.

Final words: Don't shop only on the basis of price; instead, shop for long-term value. Treat dealers as you yourself want to be treated. And know your own motivations: Audiophilia nervosa is sometimes just shopaholism for males, except that instead of handbags and shoes, they buy DACs and power cords. It's not supposed to be about shopping; it's supposed to be about enjoying music.—John Marks