How To Spend Your Money: Stack Ranking Upgrades

I keep getting asked about this, so I thought I’d repost it from it’s original thread over at Computer Audiophile. I could have sworn I already did this, but I’m tired and lazy tonight, so I thought I’d just re-do it rather than re-link it. [Insert yawn here].

The notion is pretty simple: You should spend your money where you’re going to get the most bang for your buck, and do that first, before wandering down the stack rankings and frittering away your money on things that matter less (or not at all). Pretty simple, eh? Well, sure it is. If you have any self control at all. Which is apparently something of a problem for an audiophile.

Anyway, everyone has their own personal stack rankings. We all create these, usually over some extended period of time, and they’re based on our own unique experiences as we wander through our affliction hobby (either that, or we just borrow the Received View from some unworthy or other, an all-too-common approach that has it’s own maze of trapdoors). Some of these approaches are silly. Some of them are very well thought out, logically ordered, and empirically driven. Mine belongs to one of those two approaches.

After enduring a rather protracted bout of OCD last winter, I ended up coining Axiom #1, which goes like this:

Everything matters, but very little matters very much.

How it happened was like this. I borrowed a whole pile o’ cables from The Cable Company. I got Audience Au24e’s, Kimber Kable Select 1021s, Harmonic Technologies Magic Link, Acoustic Zen Silver Reference IIs, Purist Audio’s Aqueous Anniversary’s, Revelations from DH Labs and (later) some Golden Reference from Cardas and some from Blue Jeans Cables.

In reference to that pile of cables, I have to say that most share similar characteristics. That is, all are very well made. However, beyond that, some are shielded (SR, HT, AZ, PAD) and some aren’t (Audience, DHLabs — and who knows about the Kimber). All are single ended, except the PADs. About half are silver, or some combo of silver/copper. All are ~1m. So, a nice selection of some nice mid-level (sub $1k) interconnects, all supposedly tried by my fellow audiophiles as being “synergistic” with my gear (as according to The Cable Co).

And you know what? Damned if they don’t all sound pretty much exactly the same. I mean, so much so, that I’d bet anyone would be utterly unable to discriminate one from another in an even remotely blind “taste test” (there are two exceptions, but they do prove the rule). Ok, so, fine — I was utterly unable to do so.

How can this be? Each company has it’s own geometry, it’s own approach to shielding, dialectric, conductor, capacitance, inductance, &c. That is, they’re all wildly different. They should sound different! Yet … it didn’t matter. At all.

This brought me to the larger consideration of how and when to spend money improving my system by attempting to figure out what it’s worth to me. Using that methodology implied the following : the degree of sonic impact supports a commensurate investment.

So, naturally, one might ask where are your biggest gains going to be (which in turn indicates where your investments are best applied)?

Here’s the list:

1. Speakers. Hands down, the biggest impact to your sonic performance. While a new amp, pre, or source may make your speakers come alive (or not), changing them will in no case make a point-source sound like a planar. Ain’t gonna happen.

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.

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 sound like a conrad-johnson or an Ayre. And note that at this point, we’re pretty far along the “it makes a difference” curve. To make significant, audible improvements here requires “heavy lifting”.

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. Now, this is going to annoy a lot of people. Especially people attempting to sell room treatments and/or people that have already invested in room treatments (and cables). All I can say is, “sorry”. After investing piles of cash in several hundred pounds (weight) in absorption panels, I can safely say this — most of you may need a little, many need none, and everyone who’s bought this stuff has probably bought too much. Rooms simply aren’t as bad as we’ve been led to believe. Ditto for power. As for cables, well. That’s a whole other story, but suffice it to say that, yes, cables can make a difference, but usually that’s only so by design (in other words, they’re specifically designed as tone controls). If you’ve ever read a “professional” review of any cable, chances are excellent that you’ve been misled. “Hyperbole” is not your friend, gentle reader, even if it is how a reviewer gets paid. Just something to keep in mind.

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 (at least it was in the thread originally cited) was the Lessloss Black Body, very obviously a category #5 product. My point is this — even if it was free, most folks would benefit far more by selling them and spending that money elsewhere in their system.

Does that mean you should never spend money in category #5, as a matter of course? No. Not at all. You should — because it’s fun, and hell, you just never know till you try. But — and this is a big, fat, knarly butt of a but — only only only after you’ve gotten categories 1-4 sorted to your complete (ha!) satisfaction. And even then, be fully wide-eyed and prepared to have your $3000 in fancy footers do nothing but look good.

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’re going to need to spend more money in category #4. And in that case, category #5 becomes the edge of the Nevernever, a forbidding faerie-land 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 really ought to be coming back in off the edge of the map from the realm of the highly suspect 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.

About Scot Hull 1039 Articles
Scot started all this back in 2009. He is currently the Publisher here at PTA, the Publisher at The Occasional Magazine, and the Executive Producer at The Occasional Podcast. There are way too many words about him over on the Contributors page.