System Building Rules—and How to Break Them

Much has been made of the influence that Linn, Naim, and Rega have had on our ideas about music-system hierarchies: Before they and a handful of other British audio manufacturers kicked off the debate in the 1970s, the conventional wisdom worldwide was that the loudspeaker was more important than the record player, amplifier, or any other link in the domestic audio chain, and thus deserved to be the object of significantly greater care and attention, not to mention investment of cash. But the Brit-fi approach was different, and ostensibly better reasoned: Because musical information that's distorted or dropped entirely by a record player, a CD player, or any other source can't be made right by any other component in the system, it is the source that must be considered the most important component of all, and to which the majority of funds should be allocated.

That point of view was solid, as far as it went—but in recent years I've wondered if it went far enough. After prolonged exposure to countless systems assembled under the influence of Source Supremacism, I began to believe that there must be more to life than a dry, tidy, musically competent system that also sounds a bit colorless and lacking in presence. And it turns out there is.

Sure, a record player, CD player, or tape deck represents the only shot you'll get at realizing certain playback goals: maximum information retrieval, maximum orderliness of information, rhythm, pacing, tunefulness, momentum—musical fundamentals all, God bless 'em. But the other links in the audio chain offer musically important qualities that themselves can't be obtained elsewhere. The amplification stage may not be responsible for all of the color and texture in reproduced sound, but after decades of serious listening, I'm convinced that that's at least partly true—not because color and texture are additive qualities, but because the original waveform must be electrically translated well enough that all the color of the original survives. Likewise, the hobbyist who appreciates, above all others, a certain type of musical presence—a big sound, a tidy sound, a laid-back sound, a sound in which the performers are simply more there—must turn to the loudspeaker type that's most capable of offering it. And that's not to mention the altogether more obvious matter of bass depth: Sources and amplifiers capable of "playing" an orchestral bass drum with realistic pitch and heft are not at all rare—but such speakers certainly are.

Thus I've come to associate the three major component categories—source, amplification, and loudspeaker—with three distinct phases of the playback process: information, interpretation, and presentation.

The source, of course, is the font of all raw information: Get it here or don't get it at all. The amplifier interprets that information by teasing your household current into an electrical facsimile of its waveform, either poorly or well. The loudspeaker presents the waveform to the air in your room—and determines, in large part, what percentage of the music you'll actually hear.

Needless to say, there are overlaps. A musically weak combination of turntable and tonearm can leave pitch relationships sounding unclear or even subtly wrong—but so can a musically weak amplifier, through the addition of unpleasant harmonic products and the blurring of attack and decay components. Bass depth may be a function of loudspeaker design, but bass weight can depend, to a surprising degree, on the source component—even something as seemingly innocuous as a turntable power supply.

When you build an audio system, you must begin by identifying those qualities that are most important to you in music playback. More important, you must then make peace with that most controversial realization of all: That no domestic audio product—or type of audio product—does all possible things equally well, and that you and no one else can choose those aspects of recorded music to which your system will hopefully exhibit the highest fidelity, and disregard all others as irrelevant.

If your list is topped by musical timing, momentum, and the ability to play lines of notes with a believable sense of flow, then the source really must be selected with the utmost care. If your music library is exclusively digital, finding separates or a one-box player that satisfy these requirements—especially the third—will be daunting but not impossible, and you may wind up having to spend more than you expected to. If you enjoy LPs or 78s, you'll find both an easier road and—surprise!—some real bargains, many of which are indeed branded Rega and Linn. Pay attention to the proper matching of turntables, tonearms, and cartridges, but don't fall prey to suggestions that you must spend more on your tonearm than your cartridge, and more on the turntable than the tonearm: That may have been true for 10 minutes back in the 1980s, but it isn't anymore.

If the timbral color, richness, and sheer human warmth of musical sounds are the things you live for, you may do well to budget as much as you can for a preamplifier and power amplifier of exceptional design and quality. The finest such things that I've heard—the names Shindo, Lamm, and darTZeel come to mind—aren't cheap. Yet building a system from the center out will reward the person who's attuned to color in reproduced music, not to mention sheer drama. Be prepared to spend months, even years, traveling to various shops and listening to the best of the best. Develop a feel for what it is that a good power amp, in particular, brings to the party that nothing else can, then invest in your (presumably) heirloom amplifier. Add, then upgrade, source and loudspeaker, as appropriate.

The bottom line: I don't propose to undercut the influence of the classic Brit-fi approach, which has served countless consumers well. If you're new to this, and you're not quite sure what your priorities are, then you won't go wrong by placing a greater emphasis on your amp than on your speakers, and an even greater emphasis on your source. Just keep in mind that the world of music replay is a bit more nuanced than it seems at first glance, and it may not be possible to reap the greatest rewards without breaking, or at least bending, the rules—even the good ones.