Back to Basics

Why separates?

I often wonder if more people aren’t willing to get involved with great sounding audio systems because they are intimidated by all the stuff. One look at the back of even a moderate stereo setup is enough to send many running for the hills. Wires, cables, connectors, oh my!

Receivers were no doubt popular because they contained it all in a single box. A set of speaker cables, the remote control, and you’re good to go. But then, you might want to connect the TV, perhaps a turntable, Sonos connect… you see where this can lead.

When I was in my twenties things were much simpler. Everyone I knew had a stereo setup, and those setups were simple. Mine’s a good example. Turntable, Kenwood integrated, Phased Array loudspeakers, two concrete building blocks—one underneath each side of a long wooden plank that served as the shelf. A bag of pot if I was lucky, a collection of albums.

Life was simple.

Then I heard my first high-end system and everything turned upside down. Music sounded live, it had dynamics I didn’t know were possible. Drummer Chuck Ruff’s licks on Edgar Winter’s Frankenstein pushed me back in the seat like the Maxell Tape ad and I was gobsmacked, smitten for life.

But that first high-end system had far more going on than my simple Kenwood integrated and two lengths of lamp cord connecting my speakers.

The exotic separates system had multiple boxes, cables, exotic looking accouterments. Frankly, it was as bewildering as it was exciting.

A new column for Copper

Editor Bill Leebens asked me to speak to our Copper readers who might be more music oriented than technical. Readers who want good sound but haven’t yet dipped their toe in the high-end waters. A column on the basics, starting from scratch, easy to understand.

Back To Basics will not appeal to everyone. For the well informed, it might be territory eliciting a yawn. For others it may be an easy refresher in how things work and why.

Why separates?

You don’t need separates to make great sound. A well setup integrated or receiver, even an all in one loudspeaker like B&W’s great MM-1 computer monitor produce terrific sound in small doses and in the right circumstances. And there are others as well.

C1-MM-1-Explore

B&W MM-1 computer monitor speakers can be used without a computer as a system

The term separates comes from the idea of dividing up an all in one music player into separate pieces, each with a specific purpose.

Remember the all-in-one radios of many years ago? Maybe one sat on your mother’s kitchen counter, like this old General Electric beauty.

Vintage general electric clock radio

It’s an all-in-one music system from the 1950s. What’s inside? This radio has four basic elements that make it work.

  •  A radio tuner
  •  A power amplifier
  •  A loudspeaker
  •  A clock

Together this box tells you the time, wakes you up with music if you set the alarm, entertains you while you’re doing whatever it is people do.

When General Electric put this box together their mandate to their design team wasn’t likely, “take the best five elements in the world and put them together in one box”. No, chances are good they said, “we want to sell a clock radio for $19.95. Cobble together what it takes to make a profit and meet these minimum performance standards.”

In the 1950s, when this pink kitchen radio was sold, there were already excellent standalone radio tuners, power amplifiers, loudspeakers, and clocks too. Were you to have collected each of these separate items individually, connected them together, you would have made a significantly better sounding product.

Your mother would never have placed all those bits on her kitchen counter. More likely, she would have thrown you and your collection of kit to the garage.

Separates are for the obsessed

I suppose that sounds harsh. But if you’re obsessed with food, you buy the best you can. Obsessed with furniture, watches, music, cats, books, sports… the nature of the word suggests not a negative term, but rather explains a desire for improving that which interests you.

Good sound and good music interests me. I am obsessed, and my father was as well. I suppose the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.

I’ll never forget the look of horror on my mother’s face when my dad cut a hole in the hall coat closet and mounted a subwoofer, explaining the volume within the small enclosure and the damping provided by the coats and sweaters was perfect for reproducing bass.

It’s ok to be obsessed with something. Keeps us mentally alive.

Separates can make better sound than all-in-one systems when care is taken to collect the right combination of separate equipment. And separates don’t have to be expensive to be good.

Germany’s ELAC speakers, designed by Andrew Jones, are a great example. They are only hundreds of dollars for the pair, yet make good sound when paired with a decent integrated.

ELAC speakers

How to decide which way to go

Should you think of separates?

The easiest answer is, maybe.

My mother would have chosen the pink General Electric radio without batting an eye. My father, not so much. Their goals were different. Mom wanted convenience and a small footprint, dad wanted sonic excellence within his economic means.

Not everyone wants excellence. I cringe when I witness someone listening to music on the built in speakers on their laptop. The tiny squawks passing as music are like nails on a blackboard to me, but bliss to others.

What are you trying to achieve and how close are you getting to that goal? That’s the real question you need to ask. happy with what you have? Or pining for something better? As I mentioned, there are excellent all-in-one solutions worth trying.

But if you find yourself fatigued after an hour’s listen to music, or perhaps just uninspired, maybe it’s time to step up and take a look at the world of separates.

A trip or call to your local dealer can often be a real ear opener.