Expensive Electronics/Inexpensive Speakers?

I'd like to expand on the "expensive electronics/inexpensive speakers" discussion begun by John Atkinson in his Levinson No.26 & No.20 reviews. "Perhaps because it acts as a bottleneck on the signal," he wrote, "the quality of an amplifier or preamplifier is far more important than that of a loudspeaker when it comes to preserving or destroying the musical values of the signal. This would appear to be heresy in the US where, to judge by the letters I receive, large, complicated, expensive loudspeaker systems are often driven by relatively inexpensive, modestly performing electronics, the rationale behind this being that, to quote one correspondent, 'It is the loudspeakers that produce the sound, therefore they are where the majority of the budget should be allocated.'"

To the best of my knowledge, the "primacy" question was first launched in this country by Consumers Union, who opined back in the 1960s that the two transducers in a system (cartridge and speakers), being inherently most error-prone, made the biggest differences in the sound; therefore, the largest portion of your audio budget should be spent on them. (Of course, these are the same people who won't admit that either amplifiers or CD players sound different, so no wonder!) The approximate recommendations I remember were 50% on speakers, 20% on cartridge, and 30% on everything else.

Then along came Ivor Tiefenbrun in the mid-'70s to announce that the 'umble turntable—hitherto almost completely overlooked as a candidate for primacy—had to be considered first. After all, it doesn't take a genius to figure out that anything lost at the very front end can never be retrieved by the loudspeakers, nor that distortions created by the phono front end will be only amplified faithfully thereafter. Ivor was not so modest as to claim only 50% for the turntable: if you have only $995 to spend, you should buy an armless Linn Sondek and save up for all the rest! Recently Linn has moderated their initiation fee somewhat, the Axis with arm costing only $675.

At this distance, temporally and geographically, both positions seem extreme, but letters to Stereophile indicate that Americans are still strongly influenced by the first view, and a mere glance at Hi-Fi Answers—where people frequently apologize for owning other than the hallowed Sondek—bears testimony to the latter.

It is clear there is a teleological problem here, one that will grow more acute when Dick Olsher gives birth to his long-awaited speaker-cable survey (which I know will recommend cables costing $4000). I mean, what's a poor reader to do? Spend $11,000 on the Versa Dynamics turntable, $2500 on the Ortofon 3000 combination, $11,000 on the No.20, a mere $4600 on the No.26 (you could spend more), $35,000 on the Infinity IRS V, plus $7500 on assorted cables? At least you'll get a good basic record player, though no CD or tape. Even proceeding on the unwarranted assumption that you'll have enough spare income each year for one of these items, which do you get first? And if, heaven forfend, you can only spend, say, $4000 in toto, what do you apportion where?

The first thing I think you need to do is divide up your hi-fi into subsystems: phono front end (turntable, tonearm, cartridge, including internal wiring); auxiliary sources, which themselves constitute systems (CD, cassette, reel-to-reel, FM, DAT); amplifier-speakers, which must be considered as a unit even though in the High End they are normally manufactured by different companies; the hub, or preamplifier; and the cables that connect all of these.

You could divide things differently, and there could even be different subsystems, implying different values. The preamp and amp could be considered a pair, much as JA has done in his Levinson review. The cabling could be considered a system itself, with a new subsystem—the electricity from the wall—given individual importance (Enid Lumley and Jimmy Hughes would no doubt favor this approach).

Whatever your choices, the subsystems require internal integrity and consistency, and weighting according to their importance. Is FM only for background, or is it a principal source? If LP and CD are listened to equally, then much care must be given to making your CD analogous in sound to your LP, creating a matched pair of subsystems.

There is a huge amount to be said on this, but I see from my ever-present character count that I won't get to say it all this month. Briefly, then, my choice for primacy: the preamp. Everything goes through it—if it has a character, everything in the system will have that character, so you'd better like it; and it performs key, very difficult functions, though they're often not seen as such. Speakers? You can have a great system with superb electronics but really modest speakers ($500); I've never heard a great system with modest electronics or turntable.