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Audio Dollars and Sense

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Last Christmas day, there was an interesting thread on Computer Audiophile that set me back a bit. In that thread, on LessLoss’ new Blackbody products, which I was thoroughly dissing, I brought up what seems (to me, at least) a rather salient conversation that relates to my recent posts on some tweaks. I’m going to call it the First Law of Audio (FLA):

Everything matters, but very little matters very much.

What I was trying to get at then is how one ought to spend one’s money in audio. In the audiophile industry, there’s just so many tweaks out there that it’s easy to get lost and end up spending a ludicrous amount of money on things that are only (at best) subtly responsible for the sound of the overall system. Which brings up the First Corollary to SLA:

Spend your money where it matters most, first, and work your way down from there.

When considering an upgrade, try to figure out what it’s worth to you. Using that methodology implies that the degree of sonic impact supports a commensurate investment. So try to work out where are your biggest gains are going to be and this in turn will indicate how your investments, and their apportionment, are best applied.

I’ve come up with the following list as a guide. It’s not exhaustive, nor authoritative, but it is reflective of my own experiences and now guides my investment strategy.

Where to spend your money?

1. Speakers. Hands down, the biggest impact to your system’s overall sonic performance will be made by your speakers. While a new amp, pre, or source may make your speakers come alive (or not), changing them will in no case make a non-planar sound like a planar. Ain’t gonna happen. So, how much of your budget should you consider blowing here? If your total system budget is over $20k, then I’d go for half, at least. Why? Well, speakers are tough. There are some deals to be had in the sub $10k market, but not many, and each comes with a set of compromises (namely, bass extension). These compromises don’t typically get sorted until you hit the $10k+ mark for some reason, though, yes, there are exceptions. But at $20k, you can buy a lot of speaker and still have lots left over for everything else — which can be upgraded over time.

2. Amp + Pre-amp. I put these together, but I suppose others would break them up and rate them and their impact accordingly — to each their own. Together, I think the point of these two elements is to make your speakers sound as good as possible, and that’s about it — which is the highest praise you can heap upon your amp and pre, IMO. You don’t need to break the bank to do really well in this category. There are some spectacular integrateds that might be just your ticket, especially if you’re willing to choose wisely on your speakers. Remember, it’s a lot easier to design great sounding amps if those amps are low power — so if you choose more sensitive speakers, or those with reasonably stable impedances, you’ll be able to get by with a lot less power.

3. Source. I’ve said it before, and I’ll probably say it again: it matters! But not as much as the other stuff, above, regardless of how much cash you throw at it. A dCS stack is never going to make your Yamaha home theater receiver sound like a conrad-johnson or an Ayre. That said, your entire playback chain will be slaved to the purity of the source — but note that a shitty source only implies less than optimal sound. Awesome speakers will still sound great even if your source is a mixed tape played back from Sony Walkman. And your Bose Wave Radio will still sound like shit regardless of what you hook to it. Anyway, if you haven’t considered computer audio, you really should. A computer DAC like a Streamer II+ from HRT sounds spectacular at $350. The new Oppo BDP-93 will debut at $500, and should be fantastic. The point is that you don’t need to break the bank to get an awesome source. So don’t.

4. Speaker cables, interconnects, and yes, room treatments. Again, the best that all these things can hope for is to make the above gear sound it’s best — by themselves, if designed well, they ought to add nothing. Quick survey: if you’ve spent more on your entire set of cables than you have on your speakers, congratulations! You’re an idiot. Sell them all, now, and go buy yourself better speakers. Do it! All those fancy specs can be matched or bettered by cables costing a fraction of “audiophile cables” — which is great, because while I believe that cabling possibly can impact the sound of the system, so far, I haven’t heard any evidence of it. Room treatments, on the other hand, I have had some luck with. But the reason they’re here, instead of at the top of the list as some would have them, is that even the very best room treatments will only be partially successful in taming your room. Most of us have suboptimal rooms, and yes, you should do something about that, but the problem is that the issues almost always lie in regions that cannot be addressed simply or cost-effectively. Bass nodes are a troublesome PITA and about as difficult to completely banish as Sarah Palin from Fox News. Spending a pile on room treatments is a battle of diminishing returns — do what you can (or what your significant other will allow you to) and then stop. Chances are, you’ll be able to reduce your trouble areas, but not eliminate them anyway, so don’t kill yourself.

5. Tweaks. In this lowly, wildly subjective and IMO totally irrelevant category, I put racks, footers, cable risers, tube dampers, resonators, and, yes, power conditioning and power cables. What these things hope for — and in many cases, aspire to — is audibility, and most fail utterly.

Case in point here is the hapless LessLoss Black Body, very obviously a category #5 product. Here’s the kicker — even if they were free, everyone would benefit more by selling them and spending that money elsewhere in their system.

Does that mean you should never spend money in category #5? No. You should — because it’s fun, and hell, you never know till you try. But — and this is a big, fat, knarly butt of a but — you really ought to indulge iff (if and only if) you’ve gotten categories 1-4 sorted to your satisfaction. And even then, be fully prepared to have that $800 in footers from Marigo do nothing but look odd.

There is a caveat, and perhaps it’s unfair to throw it in at the tail end of an unduly downer of a post, but it’s this: if your system is very revealing (and if you have to ask, it isn’t), then you may need to spend more money in category #4. And for those folks, category #5 becomes an enchanted playground filled with voodoo, spirits and dark rituals.

I say all this because too often we, as audiophiles, get wrapped up in the tweaks — we invert the pyramid, if you will — so it’s worth resetting the worldview before wondering if we ought to be wandering off the map into the realm of the highly subjective.

Which means this: if you’re looking to invest in your system, save up and make the big changes that will have dramatic impact. Then, over time, work downstream as you tune and refine … and eventually, tweak.

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About Scot Hull (975 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.