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Choosing a high-quality music-reproduction system is one of the more important purchasing decisions you’ll make. Unlike buying home appliances, your selections in components will influence how deeply you appreciate and enjoy an art form—music. A great-sounding system can even change your lifestyle as music assumes a greater importance in your life. A hi-fi system is a vehicle for exploring the world of music; the better the system, the further and wider that vehicle will take you.
Although selecting hi-fi components may seem a daunting task, a little knowledge and preparation will go a long way toward realizing your dream system—and staying within your budget. The informed shopper knows that choosing the right components, matching those components to each other, and setting them up carefully are more important than having a big bank account. This section will teach you to become a wise shopper and show you the path to assembling the most musically and aesthetically satisfying system possible for your money.
Defining Your Needs
The first step in choosing an audio system is deciding whether you want the system to reproduce 2-channel music, multichannel music, film soundtracks (and other video- based sources), or all of the above. Consider the different system configurations presented in the previous section and choose the type of system best suited to your needs.
Keep in mind that spreading out a fixed budget among home-theater products and five loudspeakers plus a subwoofer will generally not produce as satisfying results for music as would the same budget dedicated to a 2-channel stereo system. Two good loudspeakers (or amplifier channels) are better than five mediocre ones. Nonetheless, if home theater is important to you, by all means choose a multichannel system that will deliver both music and film soundtracks.
This decision of whether to choose a music-only or music and home-theater system isn’t an either-or proposition. You can selectively tailor the system for better music or home-theater performance just by component selection and budget allocation. For example, the music lover who occasionally watches movies would invest more in the left and right loudspeakers, and less in the system’s other speakers—subwoofer, center and surrounds. This scenario is particularly appropriate for the movie lover who favors character- and dialog-driven films rather than action movies.
Conversely, if your primary interest is in home theater, you’ll probably choose a loudspeaker system that equally balances the quality among all the channels. Later in this section will look at specific budget allocations for each path.
A related topic for home-theater fans is dividing the system budget between a video display and an audio system. The most common mistake made by the average home-theater shopper is to blow nearly all the budget on that big, bright, colorful plasma panel and find that there’s very little money left for the audio system. Sound is fully half of the home-theater experience; don’t make it an afterthought.
Once you’ve decided on the system’s overall architecture, you need to match the equipment to your room and lifestyle. Just as a pickup truck is better suited to the farmer and a compact car to the city dweller, a hi-fi system ideal for a small New York City apartment would be entirely inadequate in a large suburban home. The hi-fi system must not only match your musical taste, as described in the next section, but must also suit your room and listening needs. (The following section is only an overview of how to choose the best system. More detailed information on how to select specific components is contained in Sections 5—11.)
Many of the guidelines are fairly obvious. First, match the loudspeaker size to your listening room. Large, full-range loudspeakers don’t work well in small rooms. Not only are large loudspeakers physically dominating, they tend to overload the room with bass energy. A loudspeaker that sounds fine in a 17’ by 25’ room will likely be thick, boomy, and bottom-heavy in a 12’ by 15’ room. The bass performance you paid dearly for (it’s expensive to get correct deep-bass reproduction) will work against you if the loudspeaker is put in a small room. For the same money, you could buy a superb minimonitor whose build cost was put into making the upper bass, midrange, and treble superlative. You win both ways with the minimonitor: your room won’t be over loaded by bass, and the minimonitor will likely have much better soundstaging and tonal purity. Conversely, a minimonitor just won’t fill a large room with sound. The sense of power, dynamic drive, deep-bass extension, and feeling of physical impact so satisfying in some music just doesn’t happen with minimonitors. If you’ve got the room and the budget, a full-range, floorstanding loudspeaker is the best choice.
Another important consideration is amplifier power. The amplifier should be matched to the loudspeakers and the room. A larger room requires more amplifier power, as does a loudspeaker of low sensitivity. These issues are described in detail in the power amplifier and loudspeaker sections (8 and 9).
Setting Your Budget
How much you should spend on a music playback system depends on two things: your priorities in life and your financial means.
Let’s take the priorities first. One person may consider a $2000 stereo system an extravagance, yet not bat an eye at blowing $7000 on a European vacation. Conversely, another person of similar means would find a $7000 vacation a waste of money when there is so much great hi-fi on the wish list. The first person probably considers music as merely a dispensable diversion while driving to work. To the second person, however, enjoying and appreciating music is a vital aspect of human existence. How much of your disposable income you should spend on a hi-fi system is a matter of how important music is to you, and only you can decide that. Owning a good hi-fi system will probably elevate music listening to a much higher priority in your life.
The second factor—your financial means—can often suggest an audio-system budget. One general guideline is to spend about 10% of your annual income on a system. If you can afford a high-quality system, I encourage you to invest in quality components. I’m often amazed to hear stories of well-heeled individuals who appreciate music yet own poor-quality audio systems.
Whatever your financial means, I strongly urge you to establish a significant budget for your high-end system. The expenditure may seem high at the time, but you will be rewarded night after night and year after year with your favorite music wonder fully reproduced. A year or two from now, as you enjoy your system, the money spent will have been forgotten, but the pleasure will continue—a good music-playback system is a lasting and fulfilling investment. Moreover, if you buy a quality system now you won’t want to sell it or trade it in for something better later. It is sometimes false economy to “save” money on a less than adequate system. Do it right the first time.
There’s another way of determining how much to spend for a hi-fi system: Find the level of quality you’re happy with and let that set your budget. Visit your dealer and have him play systems of various levels of quality. You may find yourself satisfied with a moderately priced system—or you may discover how good reproduced music can sound with the best equipment, and just have to have it.
The Complete vs. the Incremental Purchase
After you’ve established a budget, you must decide which of the following three ways of buying a hi-fi is best for you:
1) Buy an entire system made up of the finest components
2) Buy an entire system made up of components within a fixed budget
3) Buy just a few components now and add to the system as finances permit
The first option doesn’t require much thought—just a large bank account. The purchaser of this system needn’t worry about budgets, upgrading, and adding components later. Other elements of buying a high-end system (I’ll talk about these later) do apply to the cost-no-object audiophile: allocating the budget to specific components, dealing with the retailer, and home auditioning. But this sort of listener isn’t under the same financial constraints that force the tough choices inherent in the other two options. Just choose a top-notch system and start enjoying it.
Most of us, however, don’t enjoy such luxury, and must live within the set budgets of options 2 or 3. Option 2 is to spend the entire budget on a complete system now In option 3, you’ll spend your entire budget on just a few, higher-quality components and add the other pieces later as money becomes available. We’ll call option 2 the complete purchase, and option 3 the incremental purchase. There are advantages and disadvantages to each approach.
Buying an entire system at once means that the overall budget must be spread among all the components that make up an audio system. Consequently, you’ll have less to spend on each component. You may not get the quality of components you’d hoped for, but the system will be complete and you can start enjoying it right away. This type of purchase is more suited to the music lover who doesn’t want to think about equipment, but wants a system he can set up, forget, and use to enjoy music or home theater.
The listener more inclined to treat audio as a hobby, or who has her sights set on a more ambitious system, will buy just a few components now and add to the system as finances permit. This listener may spend the same amount of money as our first listener, but on just a pair of loudspeakers instead of on a whole system. She will use her old receiver or integrated amplifier, turntable, or CD player until she can afford the electronics and sources she really wants. Her system will be limited by the receiver’s performance; she won’t immediately get the benefit of her high-end loudspeakers. But when she does buy her dream electronics, she’ll have a truly first-rate system. This approach requires more patience, commitment, and, in the long term, more money. But it is one way to end up with a superlative system.
The audiophile buying a system piece by piece can benefit from rapidly changing technology. She can start with components that don’t change much over the years—power amplifiers, for example—and wait to buy those products likely to get better and cheaper over time, such as digital source components.
Another benefit of adding components to your system one at a time is the ability to audition components in that system before buying. Rather than putting together a whole system in a store showroom based on your own auditioning or a salesperson’s recommendations, the incremental buyer can carefully audition components and choose the best musical match for the rest of the system. This is a big advantage when assembling a hi-fi best suited to your musical tastes. This piece-by-piece approach is more for the hobbyist, and demands a deeper level of commitment to audio. It also requires a great deal more patience.
In short, if you want to get a good system, forget about the hardware, and just enjoy music, buy the entire system now. Given the same initial expenditure, you won’t end up with the same-quality system as if you’d bought pieces slowly, but you’ll be spending less money in the long run and can have the benefit of high-end music playback immediately. Moreover, you can go about your life without thinking about what piece of audio hardware to buy next. The complete purchase is recommended for the music lover who isn’t—and doesn’t want to be—an audio hobbyist. Many music lovers taking this approach, however, find themselves upgrading their systems piece by piece after discovering the rewards of owning a high-end audio system.
Conversely, the music lover on a budget who plans to build an ambitious system, and who takes a more active role in audio equipment, will probably build a system gradually. This listener will more likely read product reviews in magazines, visit the dealer often, and take equipment home for evaluation. By doing so he’ll become a better listener and a more critical audiophile, as well as develop a broader knowledge of audio equipment.
Whichever approach you take, the information in the rest of this section—selecting a system suited to your listening, allocating the budget to specific components, and dealing with the retailer—applies equally well.
Value vs. Luxury Components
High-end audio components run the gamut from utilitarian-looking boxes to lavish, gold-plated, cost-no-object shrines. The packaging doesn’t always reflect the quality of the electronics inside, but rather the manufacturer’s product philosophy. Some companies try to offer the best sound for the least money by putting excellent electronics in Inexpensive chassis. These are the so-called “value” products. Manufacturers of “luxury” components may put the same level of electronics in a lavish chassis with a 1”-thick front panel, lacquer-filled engraving, expensive metalwork, and custom-machined Input jacks or terminal posts.
A designer of very expensive electronics once told me that he could sell his products for half the price if he used a cheap chassis. He felt, however, that the level of design and execution in his electronics deserved no less than the ultimate in packaging.
Some buyers demand elegant appearance and a luxury feel; others merely want the best sound for the least money. To some music lovers, appearance and elegant packaging are secondary to sound quality; they don’t care what it looks like so long as it sounds good. Conversely, some audiophiles are willing to pay for gorgeous cosmetics, battleship build-quality, and all the trimmings that make some products exude elegance and luxury. There’s an undeniable pride of ownership that accompanies the finest-built audio components.
When choosing high-end components, match your needs with the manufacturer’s product philosophy. That way, you won’t waste money on thick faceplates you don’t care about, or spend money on a product that doesn’t do justice to your home decor.
Another type of manufacturer puts mediocre or even poor electronics in a fancy, eye-catching package. Their market is the less sophisticated buyer who chooses on the basis of appearance and status (or the company’s past reputation) rather than sound quality. These so-called “boutique” brands are not high-end, however, and should be avoided.
Allocating Your Budget to Specific Components
There are no set rules for how much of your total budget you should spend on each component in your system. Allocating your budget between components depends greatly on which components you choose, and your overall audio philosophy. Mass- market mid-fl magazines have been telling their readers for years to spend most of a hi-fi budget on the loudspeakers because they ultimately produce the sound. This thinking also suggests that all amplifiers and CD players sound alike; why waste money on expensive amplifiers and digital sources?
The high-end listener makes different assumptions about music reproduction. A fundamental tenet of high-end audio holds that if the signal isn’t good at the beginning of the reproduction chain, nothing downstream can ever improve it. In fact, the signal will be degraded by any product it flows through. High-end audio equipment simply minimizes that degradation. If your CD player is bright, hard, and unmusical, the final sound will be bright, hard, and unmusical. Similarly, the total system’s performance is limited by the resolution of the worst component in the signal path. You may have superb loudspeakers and an excellent turntable and cartridge, but they’ll be wasted with a poor-quality preamp in the signal chain. Quality-matching between components is essential to getting the most sound for your budget.
As explained in Sections 8 and 9, loudspeaker sensitivity (how loudly the speaker will play for a given amount of amplifier power) greatly affects how large an amplifier you need to achieve a satisfying volume. High-sensitivity speakers need very little amplifier power. And because amplifier power is costly, it follows that a system with high-sensitivity speakers can be driven by lower-cost amplification—provided that the amplification is of high quality. Fortunately, manufacturers have recently responded to the need for relatively inexpensive high-performance amplification by designing integrated amplifiers with outstanding sound quality, but with lower output power. By put ting the preamplifier and power amplifier in one chassis and cutting back on power output, manufacturers can put their high-end circuits in lower-priced products. The trick is to find those bargain integrated amplifiers that deliver truly high-end sound, and mate them with loudspeakers that not only have the appropriate sensitivity, but are also a good musical match. This approach will get you the best sound for the least money. If, however, cost is secondary to sound quality—that is, if you’re willing to spend more for an improvement in sound—then buy the best separate preamplifier and power amplifier you can find.
For the following exercise, I assembled an imaginary 2-channel system of the components I’d choose if my audio budget totaled $2000. This hypothetical system follows a traditional audiophile approach. Here are the costs per item:
As you can see, loudspeakers consumed 42% of the budget, the digital source took up another 20%, and the integrated amplifier consumed 30%. The remaining 8% was spent on interconnects and cables. These numbers und %s aren’t cast in stone, but they’re a good starting point in allocating your budget. If you wanted to include a turntable, tonearm, and cartridge, thee budget for the other components would have to be reduced.
The 42% figure for loudspeakers is flexible, although it’s a reliable guide. As described in Section 9, many moderately priced loudspeakers outperform much more expensive models. Use Section 9’s guidelines on choosing loudspeakers to get the most performance for your loudspeaker dollar.
I’ve heard systems at this price level that are absolutely stunning musically. When carefully chosen and Set Up, a $2000 high-end system can achieve the essence of what high-quality music reproduction is all about—communicating the musical message. I’ve even heard a whole system with a list price of $1200 that was musical and enjoyable. The point isn’t how much you spend on a hi-fi , but how carefully you can choose components to make a satisfying system within your budget.
These guidelines are for a dedicated 2-channel music system, not a multi-channel music and home-theater system. The different requirements of home theater suggest a somewhat different budget allocation. If most of your listening time with a multichannel system is devoted to music, the budget guidelines are very similar to those described earlier, but with a shift of money from electronics to loudspeakers. That is, OU should spend a bit more of your total budget on speakers. That’s because home theater and multichannel music require five or six loudspeakers, and spreading out a fixed amount of money over five speakers rather than two inevitably results in com promised performance. If music is your primary consideration, put most of your speaker budget into the left and right speakers, with less devoted to the subwoofer, center, and surround speakers. Those readers who spend more time watching movies should spend even less on electronics and source and more on speakers. That’s because the center channel loudspeaker plays an important role in the home-theater experience (it reproduces nearly all the dialogue), and choosing a quality model is of paramount importance.
In my experience, the sonic differences among amplifiers, preamplifiers, and source components are much less pronounced when watching movies than when listening to music. So much of our attention is taken away from the aural experience by the overwhelming visual sensory input. I’ve used audio/video receivers in my system (during product reviews) and found many of them lacking when reproducing music, but nothing short of thrilling for film-soundtrack playback.
Let’s look at the same hypothetical $2000 budget, but this time spread over a home-theater system. We’ll use an audio/video receiver instead of a stereo integrated amplifier, a multichannel loudspeaker package rather than left and right speakers, and a DVD player rather than a CD player.
The individual component allocations are similar to that of the 2-channel music system, but we’ve shifted some of the money from amplification and the digital source to the loudspeakers.
If your budget is considerably larger than $2000, the percentage allocations to amplification, sources, loudspeakers, and cables are quite similar to the example shown above.
Upgrading a Single Component
Many audiophiles gradually improve their systems by replacing one component at a time. The trick to getting the most improvement for the money is to replace the least good component in your system. A poor-sounding preamp won’t let you hear how good your CD player is, for example. Conversely, a very clean and transparent preamp used with a grainy and hard digital source will let you hear only how grainy and hard the digital source is. The system should be of similar quality throughout. If there’s a quality mismatch, however, it should be in favor of high-quality source components.
Determining which component to upgrade can be difficult. This is where a good high-end audio retailer’s advice is invaluable—he can often pinpoint which component you should consider upgrading first. Another way is to borrow components from a friend and see how they sound in your system. Listen for which component makes the biggest improvement in the sound. Finally, you can get an idea of the relative quality of your components by carefully reading the high-end audio magazines, particularly when they recommend specific components.
In Section 1, I likened listening to music through a playback system to looking at the Grand Canyon through a series of panes of glass. Each pane distorts the image in a different way. The fewer and more transparent the panes are, the clearer the view and the closer the connection to the direct experience.
Think of each component of a high-end audio system as one of those panes of glass. Some of the panes are relatively clear, while others tend to have an ugly coating that distorts the image. The pane closest to you is the loudspeaker; the next closest pane is the power amplifier; next comes the preamp; and the last pane is the signal source (CD, SACD, DVD-A player or turntable). Your view on the music—the system’s overall transparency is the sum of the panes. You may have a few very transparent panes, but the view is still clouded by the dirtiest, most colored panes.
The key to upgrading a hi-fi system is getting rid of those panes—those components—that most degrade the music performance, and replacing them with clearer, cleaner ones. This technique gives you the biggest improvement in sound quality for the money spent.
Conversely, putting a very transparent pane closest to you--the loudspeaker--only reveals in greater detail what’s wrong with the power amp, preamplifier, and source components. A high-resolution loudspeaker at the end of a mediocre electronics chain can actually sound worse than the same system with a lower-quality loudspeaker. Following this logic, we can see that a hi-fi system can never be any better than its source components. If the first pane of glass—the source component—is ugly, colored, and distorts the image, the result will be an ugly, colored, and distorted view.
As you upgrade your system, you can start to see that other panes you thought were transparent actually have some flaws you couldn’t detect before. The next upgrade step is to identify and replace what is now the weakest component in the sys tam. This can easily become an ongoing process.
Unfortunately, as the level of quality of your playback system rises, your standard of what constitutes good performance rises with it. You may become ever more critical, upgrading component after component in the search for musical satisfaction. This pursuit can become an addiction and ultimately diminish your ability to enjoy music. Don’t fall into that trap of caring so much about sound quality that you forget the reason you pursue high-quality audio equipment—connecting with the music.
How to Read Magazine Reviews
I’ve deliberately avoided recommending specific products in this guide. By the time you would have read the recommendations, the products would likely have been updated or discontinued. The best source for advice on components is product reviews in high- end audio magazines. Because most of these magazines are published monthly, they can stay on top of new products and offer up-to-date buying advice. Many magazine reviewers are highly skilled listeners, technically competent and uncompromising in their willingness to report truthfully about audio products. There’s a saying in journal ism that epitomizes the ethic of many high-end product reviewers: “without fear or favor.” The magazine should neither fear the manufacturer when publishing a negative review, nor expect favor for publishing a positive one. Instead, the competent review provides unbiased and educated opinion about the sound, build-quality, and value of Individual products. Because high-end reviewers hear lots of products under good conditions, they are in an ideal position to assess the relative merits and drawbacks and report their informed opinions. The best reviewers have a combination of good ears, honesty, and technical competence.
You’ll notice a big difference between reviews in high-end magazines and reviews in the so-called “mainstream slicks.” The mass-market, mainstream magazines are advertiser-driven; their constituents are their advertisers. Conversely, high-end magazines are usually reader-driven; the magazines’ goal is to serve their readers, not their advertisers. Consequently, high-end magazines often publish negative reviews, while mass-market magazines generally do not. Moreover, high-end magazines are much more discriminating about what makes a good component that can be recommended to readers. Mass-market magazines cater to the average person in the street, who, they believe (mistakenly, in my view), doesn’t care about aspects of music reproduction important to the audiophile. The high-end product review is not only more honest, but much more discriminating in determining what is a worthy product. If you’re reading a hi-fi magazine that never criticizes products, beware. Not all audio components are worth buying; therefore not all magazine reviews should conclude with a recommendation. Also beware of so-called “consumer” publications that regard an audio system as an appliance, not as a vehicle for communicating an art form. In their view; the improvements in performance gained by spending more are not worth the money, so they recommend the least expensive products with the most features. They take a similar approach to reviewing cars; why spend lots of money on a depreciating asset when all cars perform an identical function—_moving you from point A to point B? It is simply not within their ethos to value spirited acceleration, tight handling, a luxurious interior, or the overall feel of the driving experience.
As someone who makes his living reviewing high-end audio products, I’ll let you in on a few secrets that can help you use magazine reviews to your advantage. First, associate the review you’re reading with the reviewer. Before reading the review; look at the byline and keep in mind who’s writing the review. This way, you’ll quickly learn different reviewers’ tastes in music and equipment. Seek the guidance of reviewers with musical sensibilities similar to your own.
Second, don’t assign equal weight to all reviews or reviewers. Audio reviewing is like any other field of expertise -- there are many different levels of competence. Some reviewers have practiced their craft for decades, while others are newcomers who lack the seasoned veteran’s commitment to the profession. Consider the reviewer’s reputation, experience, and track record when giving a review credence. Also consider the reviewer’s standards for what makes a good product.
Finally, listen to the products yourself. If two components are compared in a review; compare those products to hear if your perceptions match the reviewer’s. Even if you aren’t in the market for the product under review; listening to the components will sharpen your skills and put the reviewer’s value judgments in perspective.
A common mistake among audiophiles looking for guidance is to select a component on the basis of a rave review without fully auditioning the product for themselves. The review should be a starting point, not a final judgment of component quality: It’s much easier to buy a product because a particular reviewer liked it than it is to research the product’s merits and shortcomings for yourself. Buying products solely on the basis of a review is fraught with danger. Never forget that a review is nothing more than one person’s opinion, however informed and educated that opinion might be. Moreover, if the reviewer’s tastes differ from yours, you may end up with a component you don’t like. We all have different priorities in judging reproduced sound quality; what the reviewer values most--soundstaging, for example--may he lower in your sonic hierarchy. Your priorities are the most important consideration when choosing music-playback components. Trust your own ears.
In sum, reviews can be very useful, provided you:
• Get to know individual reviewers’ sonic and musical priorities. Find a reviewer on your sonic and musical wavelength, and then trust his or her opinions.
• Compare your impressions of products to the reviewer’s impressions. This will not only give you a feel for the reviewer’s tastes and skill, but the exercise will make you a better listener.
• Don’t assign the same weight to all reviews. Consider the reviewer’s reputation and experience in the field. Flow many similar products has the reviewer auditioned? If a reviewer has heard virtually every serious CD player, for example, his or her opinion will be worth more than that of the reviewer who has heard only a few models.
• Don’t buy—or summarily reject—products solely on the basis of a review. Use product recommendations as a starting point for your own auditioning. Listen to the product yourself to decide if that product is for you. Let ears decide.
It is a truism of high-end audio that an inexpensive system can often outperform a more costly and ambitious rig. I’ve heard modest systems costing, say, $1500 that are more musically involving than $50,000 behemoths. Why?
Part of the answer is that some well-designed budget components sound better than ill-conceived or poorly executed esoteric products. But the most important factor in a playback system’s musicality is system matching. System matching is the art of putting together components that complement each other sonically so that the overall result is a musicality beyond what each of the components could achieve if combined with less compatible products. The concept of synergy—that the whole is greater than the sum of the parts—is very important in creating the best-sounding system for the least money.
System matching is the last step in choosing an audio system. You should have first defined the system in terms of your individual needs, set your budget, and established a relationship with a local specialty audio retailer. After you’ve narrowed down your choices, which products you select will greatly depend on system matching.
Knowing what components work best with other components is best learned by listening to a wide range of equipment. Many of you don’t have the time—or access to many diverse components—to find out for yourselves what equipment works best with other equipment. Consequently, you must rely on experts for general guidance, and on your own ears for choosing specific equipment combinations.
The two best sources for this information are magazine reviews and your high-end audio dealer. Your dealer will have the greatest knowledge about products he carries, and can make system-matching recommendations based on his experience in assembling systems for his customers. Your dealer will likely have auditioned the products he sells in a variety of configurations; you can benefit from his experience by following his system-matching recommendations.
The other source of system-matching tips is magazine reviews. Product reviews published in reputable magazines will often name the associated equipment used in evaluating the product under review. The reviewer will sometimes describe his or her experiences with other equipment not directly part of the review. For example, a loudspeaker review may include a report on how the loudspeaker sounded when driven by three or four different power amplifiers. The sonic characteristics of each combination will be described, giving the reader an insight into which amplifier was the best match for that loudspeaker. More important, however, the sonic descriptions and value judgments expressed can suggest the type of amplifier best suited to that loud speaker. By type I mean both technical performance (tubed vs. transistor, power output, output impedance, etc.) and general sonic characteristics (forward presentation, well- controlled bass, etc.).
These reports of system matching can extend beyond the specific products reported on in the review A fairly good idea of which type of sonic and technical performance is best suited to a particular product can be gained from a careful reading of product reviews. For example, you may conclude that a particular loudspeaker needs to be driven by a large, high-current amplifier. This knowledge can then point you in the right direction for equipment to audition yourself you can rule out low-powered designs. You can also get a feel for how professional reviewers assemble systems in the biannual Recommended Components feature in Stereophile.
By reading magazine reviews, following your dealer’s advice, and listening to combinations of products for yourself you can assemble a well-matched system that squeezes the highest musical performance from your hi-fi budget.
Do’s and Don’ts of Selecting Components
Some audiophiles are tempted to buy certain products for the wrong reasons. For example, many high-end products are marketed on the basis of some technical aspect of their design. A power amplifier may, for example, be touted as having “over 200,000 microfarads ( of filter capacitance,” “32 high-current output devices,” and a “discrete JFET input stage.” While these may be laudable attributes, they don’t guarantee that the amplifier will produce good sound. Don’t be swayed by technical claims—listen to the product for yourself.
Just as you shouldn’t make a purchasing decision based on specifications, neither should you base your decision solely on brand name. Many high-end manufacturers with solid reputations sometimes produce mediocre-sounding products. A high-end marquee doesn’t necessarily mean high-end sound. Again, let your ears be your guide. I sometimes discover moderately priced products that sound as good—or very nearly as good—as products costing two or three times as much.
You should, however, consider the company’s longevity, reputation for build quality; customer service record, and product reliability when choosing components. High-end manufacturers run the gamut from one-man garage operations to companies with hundreds of employees and advanced design and manufacturing facilities. The garage operation may produce good-sounding products, but may not be in business next year. This not only makes it hard to get service, but also greatly lowers the product’s resale value.
High-end manufacturers also have very different policies regarding service. Some repair their products grudgingly, and/or charge high fees for fixing products out of warranty. Others bend over backward to keep their valuable customers happy. In fact, some high-end audio companies go to extraordinary lengths to please their customers. One amplifier manufacturer who received an out-of-warranty product for repair not only fixed the amplifier free of charge, but replaced the customer’s scratched faceplate at no cost! It pays in the long run to do business with manufacturers who have reputations for good customer service.
Another factor to consider before laying down your hard-earned cash is how long the product has been on the market. Without warning, manufacturers often discontinue products and replace them with new ones, or update a product to “Mark II” status. When this happens, the value of the older product drops immediately If you know an excellent product is about to be discontinued, you can often buy the floor sample at a discount. This is a good way of saving money, provided the discount is significant. You end up with a lower price, plus all the service and support inherent in buying from an authorized and reputable dealer rather than from a private party
The best source of advance information on new products and what’s about to be discontinued are reports in audio magazines and websites from the annual Consumer Electronics Show.
Your Relationship with the Audio Retailer
If, in the past, you’ve bought audio equipment only from mass-market retailers, you should expect to have an entirely different sort of relationship with a high-end dealer. The good specialty audio retailer doesn’t just “move” boxes of electronics; he provides you with the satisfaction of great-sounding music in your home. More than just an equipment dealer, he’s usually a dedicated audio and music enthusiast himself—he knows his products, and is often the best person to advise you on selecting equipment and system setup.
Consider the very different relationships between seller and buyer in the following scenarios. In the first, a used-car dealer in downtown Los Angeles is trying to sell a car to someone from out of town. The seller has only one shot at the buyer, and he intends to make the most of it. He doesn’t care about return business, the customer’s long-term satisfaction with the purchase, or what the customer will tell his friends about the dealer. It will be an adversarial relationship from start to finish.
Then consider a new-car dealer in Great Falls, Montana, selling a car to another Great Falls resident. For this dealer, return business is vital to his survival. So is customer satisfaction, quality service, providing expert advice on models and options, finding exactly the right car for the particular buyer, and giving the customer an occasional ride to work when he drops off his car for service. He knows his customers by name, and has developed mutually beneficial, long-term relationships with them.
If buying a mass-market hi-fi system is like negotiating with a used-car dealer in downtown L.A., selecting a high-end music system should be made within a relationship similar to the one enjoyed between the Montana dealer and his customers.
Take the time to establish a relationship with your local dealer. Make friends with him—it’ll pay off in the long run. Get to know a particular salesperson and, if possible, the store’s owner. Tell them your musical tastes, needs, lifestyle, and budget— then let them offer equipment suggestions. They know their products best, and can offer specific component recommendations. The good stores will regard you as a valued, long-term customer, not someone with whom they have one shot at making a sale. Don’t shop just for equipment—shop for the retailer with the greatest honesty and competence.
Keep in mind, however, that dealers will naturally favor the brands they carry. Be suspicious of dealers who badmouth competing brands that have earned good reputations in the high-end audio press. The best starting point in assembling your system is a healthy mix of your dealer’s recommendations and unbiased, competent magazine reviews.
Unfortunately, not all high-end dealers subscribe to the idea of serving their customers’ long-term satisfaction. A few even take an elitist attitude toward their customers. If you encounter such a dealer, take your business elsewhere. The retailer is a key ingredient in realizing high-quality music reproduction in your home; don’t settle for one that isn’t committed to your satisfaction.
The high-end retailing business is very different from the mass-market merchandising of the low-quality “home entertainment” products sold in appliance emporiums. The specialty retailer’s annual turnover is vastly lower than that of the mid-fl store down the street. Consequently, the specialty retailer’s profit margin must be larger for him to stay in business. Don’t expect him to offer huge discounts and price cuts on equipment to take a sale from a mid-fl store. Because the high-end dealer offers so much more than just pushing a box over the counter, his prices just can’t be competitive. Instead, you should be prepared to pay full list price—or very close to it.
Here’s why. After paying his employees, rent, lights, heat, insurance, advertising, and a host of other expenses, the specialty audio retailer can expect to put in his pocket about five cents Out of every dollar spent in his store. Now, if he discounts his price by even as little as 5%, he is essentially working for free, and only keeping his doors open a little longer. If the dealer offers a discount or marks down demonstration or discontinued units, you should take advantage of these opportunities. But don’t expect the dealer to automatically discount; he deserves the full margin provided by the product’s suggested retail price.
In return for paying full price, however, you should receive a level of service and professionalism second to none. Expect the best from your dealer. Spend as much time as you feel is necessary auditioning components in the showroom before you buy. Listen to components at home in your own system before you buy. Ask the retailer to set up your system for you. Exploit the dealer’s wide knowledge of what components are best for the money. Use his knowledge of system matching to get the best sound possible on a given budget. And if one of your components needs repair, don’t be afraid to ask for a loaner until yours is fixed. The dealer should bend over backward to accommodate your needs.
If you give the high-end dealer your loyalty, you can expect this red-carpet treatment. This relationship can be undermined, however, it to save a few dollars, you buy from a competitor a product that your dealer also sells. If the product purchased elsewhere doesn’t sound good in your system, don’t expect your local dealer to help you out. Further, don’t abuse the home audition privilege. Take home only those products you’re seriously considering buying. If the dealer let everyone take equipment home for an audition, he’d have nothing in the store to demonstrate. The home audition should be used to confirm that you’ve selected the right component through store auditioning, magazine reviews, and the dealer’s recommendations. The higher price charged by the dealer may seem hard to justify at first, but in the long run you’ll benefit from his expertise and commitment to you as a customer.
If you don’t live close to any high-end dealers, there are several very good mail-order companies that offer excellent audio advice over the phone. They provide as much service as possible by phone, including money-back guarantees, product exchanges, and component-matching suggestions. You can’t audition components in a store, but you can often listen to them in your system and get a refund if the product isn’t what you’d hoped it would be.
In short, if you treat your dealer right, you can expect his full expertise and commitment to getting you the best sound possible. There’s absolutely no substitute for a skilled dealer’s services and commitment to your satisfaction.
That’s why your dealer’s skill and knowledge are crucial to realizing the best possible sound for your budget.
A used audio component often sells for half its original list price, making used gear a tempting alternative. The lower prices on used high-end components provide an opportunity to get a high-quality system for the same budget as a less ambitious new system. Moreover, buying used gear lets you audition many components at length. If you find a product you like, keep it. If you don’t like the sound of your used purchase, you can often sell it for no less than what you paid.
There are two ways of buying used equipment: from a dealer, and from a private party. A retailer may charge a little more for used products, but often offers a short warranty (60 or 90 days), and sometimes exchange privileges. Buying used gear from a reputable retailer is a lot less risky than dealing with a private party (unless you’re buying from a friend).
The audiophile inclined to buy used equipment can often get great deals. Some audiophiles simply must own the latest and greatest product, no matter the cost. They’ll buy a state-of-the-art component one year, only to sell it the next to acquire the current top of the line. These audiophiles generally take good care of the equipment and sell it at bargain-basement prices. If you can find such a person, have him put your name at the top of his calling list when he’s ready to sell. You can end up with a superb system for a fraction of its original selling price.
A few pitfalls await the buyer of used equipment, though the disadvantages listed below apply mostly to buying from a private party rather than from a reputable dealer. First, there are no assurances that the component is working properly; the product could have a defect not apparent from a cursory examination. Second, the used product could be so outdated that its performance falls far short of new gear selling for the same price—or less—than the used component. This is especially true of CD players, CD transports, and digital processors. Third, a used product carries no warranty; you’ll have to pay for any repair work. Finally, you must ask why the person is selling the used equipment. All too often, a music lover doesn’t do his homework and buys a product that doesn’t satisfy musically or work well with the rest of his system. If you see lots of people selling the same product, beware—it’s a sign that the product has a fundamental musical flaw Finally, buying used equipment from a private party eliminates everything that makes your local specialty retailer such an asset when selecting equipment: You don’t get the dealer’s expert opinions, home audition, trade or upgrade policy, dealer setup, warranty dealer service, loaner units, or any of the other benefits you get from buying new at a dealer. Approach used components with caution; they can be a windfall—or a nightmare.
Many manufacturers improve their products and offer existing customers the option of upgrading their components to current performance. This is the “Mark II” (or III or IV) designation on some products. The dealer can usually handle sending your component back to the factory. Some manufacturers prefer to deal with the customer directly, saving the dealer markup and keeping the upgrade price lower.
I have ambivalent feelings about manufacturer upgrades. Some upgrade pro grams provide lasting value to a company’s customers. Enjoying the benefits of a company’s advances without selling a component at a loss and buying a new one can be a wonderful bonus. Conversely, some manufacturers think of an upgrade program as a profit center, charging large amounts for even minor improvements. Consider a company’s track record when evaluating potential future upgrades. For products that are upgradeable via software updates, ask how much these revisions will Cost. Some manufacturers charge nothing, or a nominal fee, for updated software.
If you read the rest of this guide, subscribe to one or more reputable high-end magazines, and follow these guidelines, you’ll be well on your way to making the best purchasing decisions—and having high-quality music reproduction in your home.
One last piece of advice: After you get your system set up, forget about the hardware. It’s time to start enjoying the music.