Components, Unite!

Ever since Stereophile took up the cudgels for subjectivity, and had the temerity to insist that even the best products have certain colorations, we have stressed compatibility in choosing components. By compatibility we do not mean merely matching impedances and signal levels, but mating components whose sonic peculiarities tended to offset one another.

We have published periodic, though sporadic, "Recommended Components" lists in the magazine, and dutifully catalogued their sonic earmarks to help buyers match up one component's colorations against another's. But neither the recommendations nor the earmarking have really been much help to prospective buyers. Most audiophiles still own a hodgepodge of sonic incompatibles, which are judged to comprise a "good" system if the sound they produce is even tolerable. But "accurate" in home audio is a joke.

So, we tried listing "Recommended Systems," consisting of component'i which we have found to work uncommonly well together to yield a high degree of musical accuracy. Nobody seemed to like that idea. "I don't wanna buy a system; I have a system!" was the gist of our mail. "I wanna upgrade it; what should I buy?"

Audiophiles love to salaam at the altar of accuracy, but the fact is that many are worshipers of feeble faith whose sole criterion for excellence is ultimately how "good" it sounds to them. Which does not always mean "accurate." (This is undoubtedly one reason for the audiophile resistance to Compact Disc; it's too cutand-dried. You plug it in, turn it on, and that's it. No diddlies. No fun!)

Of course, there's nothing fundamentally wrong with diddling something to make it sound better. After all, the end result—the sound—is really the only basis for judging the success or failure of a music-reproducing system. But trying to achieve neutrality by balancing off one set of colorations against another is a haphazard, and confusing, way of going about things. A typical example of what can happen is the case of the system which sounds superbly musical and natural when reproducing analog discs and rotten with everything else—FM, analog tape, Compact Disc—because a marked deficiency of brightness in the cartridge is compensating for an equally marked excess of it in the speakers. Get rid of that compensatory brightness deficiency, by switching to a more neutral signal source, and the system will sound hard and shrill.

Less obvious but equally bewildering to your average audiophile is the case of the incredible power amplifier which generates sonic dross when borrowed by a friend. This is simply a case of incompatibility, but it is a major reason for the wildly varying opinions in audiophile land about the relative merits of components.

The standards of potential reproduction accuracy are enormously greater today than they were even five years ago. But as that potential quality has improved, the likelihood of a consumer achieving it by purchasing one expensive component after another has become increasingly remote.

For example, most good loudspeaker systems are designed to interface optimally with an assumed "standard" state-of-the-art amplifier. There are probably five solid-state amplifiers that might be considered state-of-the-art, and perhaps the same number of loudspeaker systems. Through any one speaker system, each of these amplifiers will sound different—not dramatically so, but enough to make some of them distinctly better suited than others for use with that speaker. And only one of them, or perhaps two at most, will make that speaker perform at its very best.

Different speakers, of course, sound even more different than amplifiers, and only a few of them will elicit from a given amplifier the most musically convincing sound that it is capable of. But among all those speakers and amplifiers, there are one or two combinations which can be truly said to be synergistic. These are the pairings that breathe life into reproduced sound, elevating it to the level of musicality. Every audiophile is convinced he has heard such sound, but the sad fact is that practically no audiophile would even recognize it if he heard it reproduced in his living room. Since most audiophiles hear real, live music so infrequently, they have only a vague memory of what it sounds like. (Okay, smartypants, how often do you get to hear live music?)

For that reason, they tend to be oblivious to middle-range accuracy—that is, the accuracy with which a system reproduces the timbres of musical instruments. Unlike such things as imaging and inner detail, which may simply be gauged according to quantity (the more, the better), midrange accuracy is a qualitative attribute. If we think of imaging precision, for example, as a graphed line sloping upwards from poor to whoopee!, we must think of midrange accuracy as a bellshaped curve. The system will locate itself on that curve according to how closely its sound agrees with our memory of real instrumental sounds. But without an intimate familiarity with those sounds, memory will serve us ill as a means of judging them.

Accuracy, relative to the live-music experience, does not in fact appeal to most audiophiles. Live music does not have superb imaging, razor-sharp detail, impeccable balance, and total freedom from coloration. By these criteria "the real thing" is nearly always imperfect because it is widely variable. There is no absolute sound of music. The sound varies depending on many things: the hall the music is played in, where you sit in that hall, the temperature and humidity at the time, the mood of the performers, and the particular instruments and music they are playing. A frequent concertgoer is aware of this variability and knows better than to expect perfection from every live-music experience. The true-blue audiophile is unhappy with anything less than perfection from every recording.

The live-music listener tends to be far more tolerant of reproduction imperfections than the audiophile, because his memory can fill in what should be there but isn't, and can tune out what is there but shouldn't be. Audiophiles are often amazed at the truly horrible quality of the record players that professional musicians listen to.

The average audio hobbyist does not know, and cannot know, what is possible in reproduced sound because he has never heard what is possible. Without ready access to a wide cross-section of components to try out in his home, and since no high-end store carries all the best components, he has no opportunity to audition all possible combinations of The Best. He can only buy this recommended amplifier and that recommended speaker and declare that the combination pleases him or that it does not. If he is wise, he will not dwell on the virtual certainty that what sounds "best" to him is probably a pairing of two state-of-the-art components which are actually the third-best choices with one another, given the full range of available products. (One of the things that makes a magazine like Stereophile so valuable to a prospective buyer is our access to a wider selection of state-of-the-art equipment than is available either to dealers or consumers.)

Even trickier than amplifier/loudspeaker pairing is the selection of phono "front-end" components. (The "front end" consists of everything in the system preceding the power amplifier.) Here we have not just two interacting pieces of hardware to contend with, but four: the cartridge, arm, turntable, and phono preamp. Not only do the arm and cartridge require proper matching to optimize the system's low-end resonance, but each of these components also has its own unique colorations and interactions with other colorations. The chance that any such assemblage will perform up to the full capability of any of its parts is little better than haphazard. This is why there is so little consensus about what is The Best cartridge, arm, turntable, or preamplifier. Take any "Best" front-end, substitute another "state-of-the-art" component for any part of it, and it is no longer The Best.

Ever since sound-reproducing devices were available to consumers, second-guessing the manufacturer has been a challenging and often rewarding pursuit. (I have seen a letter, penned in October 1904, in which a phonograph user reported that the "ringing" quality of a brass horn was much diminished by wrapping the horn with cotton.) Even during the heyday of hi-fi, most amplifier designers, for instance, were pretty unimaginative, and would merely lift circuits and parts values from textbooks or from the applications literature published by the tube manufacturers. Any reasonably knowledgeable audiophile could effect dramatic improvements in the sound of those early amplifiers and preamps by changing the values of certain resistors and capacitors. Commercial loudspeaker systems were often assembled from off-the-shelf drivers and crossover networks, and their manifest sonic deficiencies were an open invitation for hobbyists to apply their own creativity, changing this driver and that crossover choke to make the system sound better. Many component manufacturers—some of them big, successful, fully instrumented firms now—started out with "hobbyist" designs created and manufactured in someone's garage.