How To Spend Your Money, Revised: Revisiting The Stack Ranking

Two years ago, I laid out my reasoning behind upgrades, that is, where to spend and why. Given the latest threads on pricing and audiophile psychology, I figured it might be time to revisit and see what, if anything, has changed.

Here’s the general premise:

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).

Makes sense, right? I still think so, too. I boiled it all down to this little chestnut:

Everything matters, but very little matters very much.

I still subscribe to this. It’s remarkably pithy and has some staying power. There’s an admonition and an injunction as well as a clear roadmap back out of the rabbit-hole we all-too-readily fall into. You want to make a worthwhile change? Something big and so obvious that even your head-shaking, long-suffering significant other would notice? Then make it count.

Here’s the list:

1. Loudspeakers. Hands down, the biggest impact to your sonic performance. It’s not even close. In fact, you could reorder this list and say that ‘speakers’ occupies the first 6 positions on a 10 item list. Yes, it’s that important. Chances are, your loudspeakers are what’s holding you back from taking the next step along the path to audio nervosa nirvana. Now, I’m not advocating bankruptcy as a means to this particular end — because this step is also, most likely, the most expensive one facing you. I have no idea how to break down your audio dollar, but I know way more folks that have overspent here and done so because they know that growing into their speakers is more satisfying that growing out of them. For me, the acquisition of my first pair of truly reference speakers revolutionized the entire experience. I’m still trying to live up to them.

2. Amplifier. The amp/speaker pairing should be talked about in hushed tones, in sacred spaces, with lots of incense. It’s holy. It’s the single biggest step you can take — after you’ve selected loudspeakers that can unzip your spine from your back. It’s the job of the amp to make those loudspeakers do their work. Said another way, it’s the amp that will allow you to realize even some of the promises your chosen speaker has made to your trembling audio soul. The point here isn’t “spend”, but “matching”. Yes, better loudspeakers cost more. It’s a fact. Everyone in the industry is still searching for the David that can take down Goliath. It hasn’t happened. Doesn’t mean it can’t, or won’t, but it hasn’t. But when it does, the amp is going to be the weapon that David uses to win.

3. Preamp/Line Stage. I used to lump this in with the amp, but I’ve broken it out now because it needs its own discussion, and quite frankly, it’s simply not as critical as a good speaker/amp pairing. The job of the preamp is rather easy to say, but sadly, not so easy to do. To my understanding, the job of the preamp is to get the hell out of the way. Said another way, it’s the device that allows you connect your sources to your speaker/amp combo, and allows you to actually enjoy the system and not suffer calamitous hearing damage. The “connection” bit has to do with being able to drive your amp — more careful matching here — and the damage part has to do with the volume control. That latter is the “secret sauce” of your entire system — screw that up and you cannot unscrew it somewhere else. This is your system’s bottleneck.

4. Source. This reminds me of an old adage that says “garbage in/garbage out”, and another that says “you are what you eat.” Even the very best system in the world can only put so much lipstick on a pig. If your source material sucks then there really is very little point in much of audio’s high-end. Adele’s travesty of an album 21 will sound like trash everywhere other than an iPod, so if this is the only album you own, buying a dCS stack for playback may be … unnecessary. Moving up from there, your choices for sources are rather limited to analog or digital. In analog, you have tape (either reel-to-reel or cassette) or vinyl. In digital, you have computer-based, SACD or CD. And that’s it. Wanna radically improve your rig? Add a capability you didn’t have before! That is, instead of upgrading your DAC, consider a tape machine. Instead of adding a second tonearm, get a DAC. That sort of thing. It’s worth noting that, unless we’re talking about analog, digital is still a work in progress. The move from CD to computer-based is well underway in audio’s high-end, so investment in CD playback may have limited shelf-life. DACs also seem to be in the middle of rapid innovation, so plunking down enough cash to buy a Honda (new or used) might not be the smartest long-term play. Happily, there are lots of really interesting and satisfying moves to be made in the sub-$5k segment, so this may well be the most affordable place to get truly revolutionary performance.

Now, all that said, sources don’t really matter that much. Yes, they matter — remember the chestnut I coined above? The emphasis is on the back half clause — “very much”. At this point, it’s time to step back. Way back. Now, look at the system. Compared to loudspeakers, the amp to drive them, and the preamp to drive them, the source is chopped liver. Unless we’re talking about an iPod, most sources are surprisingly competent at what they do. Absolutely — there is room for improvement! But what you’re doing to the system overall with an upgraded source is, at best, tuning. The gains to be made by a better source are real, but marginal — even when everything else in the playback chain is able to reveal the improvement. Guess what? Most systems (again, taken as a whole) won’t be set on their ear by a better cartridge or a newer DAC. So, if you want to make a big change? Add something new, don’t just upgrade what you already have. Go get a tape deck, or a turntable or a DAC — whatever you don’t already have and have always wondered about. Got all that? Then go get a new, better, CD player (or whatever).

5. Cables and Room Treatments. Pardon me while I pile on the caveats, but let’s start by saying this: the best that everything from this point on can hope for is to make the above gear sound their best — by themselves, if designed well, they ought to add nothing.

Let’s start with room treatments.  I understand that putting them “all the way down here” will surprise some people. Especially people that have already invested in room treatments. All I can say is, after investing piles of cash in several hundred pounds (weight) in absorption panels, I can safely say that 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 — and even if they are (or worse), fixing them is most probably beyond your power (and budget).

As for cables, well. Yeah. About that. I don’t want to get into the Great Cable Debate here, but to all of you that are again surprised by the relatively low placement, again, let me repeat that I’m not saying that Category #5 doesn’t matter. Let me say it again: everything matters. And yes, this applies to cables. I do think that cables can, and will, matter — and not in the trivial “try using your system without them” kind of way. The sad fact of the matter is that most electronics designers did not have you and your system in mind when they designed their piece of it. Most of this stuff works, and works well, but saying that it works well together might be overstating things a bit. Cables can ameliorate quite a lot of that. I’ve also found that designers can mitigate much of this through their designs, should they bother to do so. But, even then, I feel that some cables can and do sound different. Ceteris parabis, the differences between cables are subtle. There are some exceptions, but they’re unusual, which is why cables as a category is down here near the bottom of the pile. Again, I’m not saying that cables make no difference. But if the goal in investing is to make obvious, tangible — and unequivocal — impact, then you should start elsewhere.

While we’re at it, power “treatment” falls here, too. This could be power cables, new circuits, or so-called “conditioners”. On that last bit, I add that zap-quote emphasis because while some actually do, most don’t, and adding them to your system may well make matters worse, not better. “Good” power conditioners are hideously expensive — think “adding another amp” expensive — so, while I do believe they can and do contribute to your system’s overall sound, you don’t start here — you finish here. Hence, the stack rank, capisce? Right.

6. Tweaks. In this lowly, wildly subjective and IMO nearly irrelevant category, I put racks, footers, cable risers, resonators, magic rocks, rods, crystals and the like. What these things hope for — and in many cases, aspire to — is audibility, and most fail utterly. Some can matter quite a bit — like tube dampeners. But when they do, you have other problems. Solve those, and the need for tweaks vanishes.

Does that mean you should never spend money in Category #6, as a matter of course? No. Not at all. Feel free — 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 $3,000 in fancy footers do nothing but look weird.

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 #5-6. Perhaps a lot more. In that case, your precious system teeters on the edge of the Nevernever, a forbidding faerie-land filled with voodoo, spirits and dark rituals. Good luck.

So, there you have it.

I think that we, as audiophiles, have a tendency to 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.

That’s my advice. Not that I stick to it, but in the world of “do as I say, not as I do”, I think that making your own mistakes (instead of repeating mine) might be worthwhile. Just a thought.