System synergy — components mating so well that the result exceeds the sum of their parts — is one of the most elusive goals in audio. You know it when you hear it. You just don’t hear it all that often.
There are the obvious pitfalls. You wouldn’t want to do something completely deranged like trying to rock some 85-decibel-efficient speakers with a flea-watt tube amp, for example, or add a ruthlessly revealing cartridge to an already-bright system.
Still, you might think that if you choose gear that is well-designed and doesn’t employ some obscure design schemes, you would have a fighting chance of getting at least OK sound. But we’re not in this hobby to shoot for OK, right? We’re looking for the combination that makes magic.
Here’s where the challenge comes. Even high-end designers — who know their gear inside and out — can struggle with synergy. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been pulled outside at an audio show and had an exhibitor whisper to me that his room-partner’s gear wasn’t meshing as well as hoped.
If industry veterans have trouble here, what chance is there for hobbyists?
The current environment presents additional hurdles. To audition a broad range of components, form opinions about them and find that perfect interplay, audiophiles have to work harder than ever before — a lot harder.
I got into a comment-thread exchange about this recently on audio-writer-extraordinaire Steve Guttenberg’s Facebook page. I said there that I worry about the current situation, not just because it takes some of the fun out for us longtime enthusiasts, but because it also puts up another barrier to non-audiophiles who otherwise might get interested in exploring hi-fi.
Twenty years ago, there were more large dealers who offered a good number of lines and had multiple listening rooms. For me, there were a half-dozen within a short drive. I spent many blissful Saturday afternoons hopping in the car with a friend and visiting these shops.
A few of those retailers still exist, but generally brick-and-mortar stores are few and far between and tend to offer a limited selection. For the shopper looking for that synergistic system, you have to hope the retailer has done some of the work for you and is showing gear it has found to match well. Still, there are a lot of reasons dealers offer the lines they do, and ultimate synergy is not always one of them. Or, a shop may have put together some simpatico components, but they might not be from the manufacturers that interest you or at the right price points.
Next in the search for synergy — and I almost hesitate to open this can of worms — is the home demo. Again, harking back to the “old days,” this was the only way to reliably add a component to your system. But in my city now — and probably yours, unless you live in New York or LA — the number of brands available is miniscule. And, the last time I asked locally to borrow a $7,000 pair of speakers for a few days, the salesman looked at me like I was insane. But that’s another column.
If you find a great dealer — even if it’s a guy operating from his house (increasingly common) or out of town (do some research and planning before you go on vacation or a business trip) — support him. Don’t take up his time and then search the online listings to save another 5 percent. His expertise — and investment — has value.
There are some other strategies to put together a system that really sings.
A growing number of high-end companies are offering no-risk home trials on equipment. It’s a hassle to wrangle gear that can weigh 100 pounds or more, and you might have to cover some shipping, but at least you can get an adequate trial where it counts — in your own listening room. This works better when you’re upgrading individual components than when assembling an entire system from scratch.
A third option is to go to a high-end show. I’ll circle back to this topic, but nowhere else can you hear so many brands in such a short time. The acoustics may not be optimal and you’ll have to tune out — or stare down — the occasional blowhard talking during your demo, but these events can be a great opportunity, And fun, to boot.
What should you not do? When I first was making my transition decades ago from Yamaha receiver/JBL speakers to higher-end brands, I pored through Stereophile’s “Recommended Components” list and check-marked the lowest-cost products — amp, preamp, speakers, etc. — that were Class B-rated, or one step down from reference. This way, I’d get the biggest bang for my somewhat limited bucks and still have almost flagship-quality sound, right?
Wrong. I did listen to each component individually before buying, but as I got them from multiple dealers, I never heard them together. Here’s where luck comes in, and this time it was not with me. That first high-end system turned out to be bass-heavy, closed-in and fatiguing. All the pieces were capable, they just didn’t play especially well together.
A few years later, when I was ready to upgrade, I heard a collection of components at an out-of-town dealer that definitely had the synergy thing in spades. Wow. I started to purchase those components, replacing the gear in my existing rig over time, as budget allowed.
When I started this process, the dealer gave me some good advice. The preamp I fell in love with, for example, came in a regular version and an “S” model that looked identical but had some upgraded internal parts. “Don’t go for the lower model,” he said. “It won’t be the same.” But, the “S” was $2,000 more, I responded. “Buy the best and cry only once,” was his wise response.
Remember, too, that bliss-inducing synergy may be a matter of getting everything just right. For instance, the speakers in the upgraded system I fell in love with were electrostatics. When I got them home, however, they didn’t have quite the charm they exuded in the dealer’s room. Then I remembered the salesman telling me, “What makes these really come alive is the cable.” The particular wire he used in the demo cost more than the transducers themselves, though, so I had tried my best to ignore that little detail. A few years later, I broke down and got the cable. He was right. Synergy finally was in the house.
So, to sum up, my advice is this: If you’re lucky enough to have a well-equipped, friendly local retailer, buy there. If you travel frequently to bigger cities, visit dealers and make notes on equipment that seems to work well together. Purchase something small, like a pair of interconnects; establish a relationship. Soon, the shop probably will be shipping you components for the ultimate audition — in your own listening room.
More manufacturers and brick-and-mortar retailers are embracing online sales. It’s common to get a 30-day, money-back trial, so give it a shot.
I also can’t recommend highly enough that you should attend at least one audio show a year. You won’t be able to mix and match in demos there, but there will be a lot of combinations. You’re bound to find something that pleases your ears and your pocketbook. And, exhibitors frequently offer sizable discounts you won’t see after the show weekend.
Unless you’re in the market for the whole shebang, though, this last strategy can be a bit dangerous. At the 2016 Rocky Mountain Audio Fest, I heard an all-tube rig driving a pair of traditional, stand-mounted British speakers. Walking in, none of the equipment was anywhere close to what I had at home or even the type that usually pushed my aural buttons. But the sound was gorgeous.
I practically started drooling as I flipped through track after track on the digital interface. Somewhat disbelieving, I went back the second day. Ditto. At closing time on the third day, they had to kick me out.
With my own reference system, I thought I’d found gear that blended well. Yet, there in front of me was a collection (with an all-in price a little less than the cost of my home rig) that offered a stunning display of symbiosis. I wanted to tell the exhibitor to pack it all up and ship it straight to my house.
So far, I’ve resisted the temptation to do that. But there isn’t a day I haven’t thought about it. You’ve been warned. True synergy, once you’ve heard it, could put another dent in your wallet.
(John Stancavage is a contributing editor at Part-Time Audiophile. He writes about equipment and music from the top of one of the few hills in northeast Oklahoma. Connect with him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)