March 10, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

Imagine the angst of a first-time buyer of high-end audio equipment. Few places offer systems and everywhere there’s a bewildering array of component choices.

Where does one start on a hi-fi journey? It used to be that we went to our local dealer and picked from amongst a tier of systems from the affordable to the absurd. Today there’s far fewer qualified dealers and so first-time buyers are either left to their own devices or take what they can get from megastores like Best Buy.

Even magazines like Stereophile and The Absolute Sound focus more on components than systems. If I didn’t know better I’d simply do my research and purchase the best I could afford in any one category, tie it all together with what I could afford in cabling, press play and then pray.

Nowhere am I helped with maximizing synergy between components. If I bought the best DAC I could afford and played it through speakers that were too forward or bright what would I do to remedy the situation or even know where to start?

I suppose this all sounds like doom and gloom and that’s not my intent. I just felt it was important to let some of the issues facing first-time buyers bubble to the surface in the hopes of sparking conversation and debate. If we can talk problems through perhaps solution are right around the corner.

For our part, we’re working on the end goal of building systems first-time or experienced buyers can slip into without worry or bewilderment: choose your price point and be assured the system will work perfectly together.

I am certain there are other paths as well.

It’s good to talk them through.

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24 comments on “Bewildering”

  1. If system synergy is the most crucial aspect to be optimized for a stereo system isn’t it absolutely necessary to know every single components of a system when buying a new component which was voiced and optimized in a specific system of the manufacturer? Which system did you use, Paul, when designing your first phono preamp? How could you be sure the preamp excelled in other systems too? Why should I buy a component that was optimized and voiced in a system with huge IRS V tower speakers in a tiny room when my own room is even smaller and my speakers are not dipole designs? I guess, Paul, your today’s post raises more question than answers. 😉 Or simply leads to the conclusion to buy a system exclusively from one manufacturer only hoping that the manufacturer has the same sound preferences as me.

    1. Indeed there IS no reliable solution for the problem except buying from a trusted manufacturer who makes everything from source to speakers. There are few and even less I”d trust. PSA would be one, probably the only one…but most, if not all of us have to start from other situations.

      Which is why I said a few days ago when we had the source-topic:
      I’d rather start from an ideal amp-speaker combination and tweak towards integration of the rest instead of building up a setup from the source, choosing amps and speakers that match the source.

      1. If you are in the vicinity of a decent audio store, you could just go and listen to the combinations of equipment that the store has come up with. I got back into audio after a couple decades about 15 years ago, and I started with a perusal of the magazines you have mentioned, then made several trips to Audio Nexus (in Summit, NJ) before I made any choices. If you aren’t in the vicinity, you can look online at other people’s systems at places at various websites, and get some idea of what synergizes well after doing the usual reading through many posts and eliminating the outliers. It takes some work, but if you are buying equipment you are going to keep, it is worthwhile to do the research.

    2. Indeed. I hoped to spark questions and generate thought. Back in the early days things were very different as I wrote. There were dealers aplenty that you could audition gear and systems.

      I spent a good deal of my life learning which components went well together and which did not. Today, it’s not as easy, which was the point of my post.

      By building systems, as opposed to separates, that is one solution. To your point, not every system fits in every room but that seems more solvable than the synergy problem.

      1. For more than three decades I regularly visited a speaker designer who always proudly demonstrated me his new designs. And indeed, there were huge improvements. However there were rather marginal differences in sound quality when changing components including cables. The biggest effect on the sound quality always happened when changing from SS amps to vacuum tube amps. But I recently experienced this synergy effect described above when comparing different loudspeakers from another speaker designer who has now expanded his brand adding own cable and amp designs. There was only a single combination of his top tier amp and preamp and top tier cables with his third tier speaker which could generate PRaT. Only changing a single component the PRaT was gone. But this tier 3 speaker was too big for my listening room. An enjoying but also most frustrating experience. It will be a lottery and taking much time finding another system offering a similar PRaT factor. The short term solution: I would have to find a bigger room without sloped ceiling for listening music. 🙂

      2. Hi Paul,

        I just “drank the Kool-Aid” and bought a pair of Stellar S700’s and Gain Cell DAC/Preamp. As a budget audio guy (phile is overrated), my last preamp/amp purchase was an Adcom GFP-345 and GFA-545II amp new back in ’93.

        I’ve been doing the discrete 5.1 thing now for over 20 years and love it but lately I’ve been drawn back into 2 channel stuff thanks to legally purchased 2.8/5.6MHz DSD, 192/96kHz/24 Bit downloads. I sold all my Vinyl years ago but carefully preserved them onto DVD-Audio discs and of course my music server. SACD & DVD-Audio are littered all over whats left of my physical media collection and I’m no fan of streaming unless it leads me to buy the Artist’s actual product. Big fanboy of both you and Gus Skinas (his Elton John SACD’s are brilliant)

        This is my first dip into the “mid end” and I agree. One should try to keep things “all-in-one” where budget can afford. Can’t wait for my delivery in a few weeks.

        Wife (she’s hearing impaired both side since a Toddler) and I are planning a trip to Boulder later this year to see the views and most importantly, tour the factory during the weekdays.

    3. Back in the 1970’s 80’s you would Have the option of choosing your individual components which you could afford. You had numerable options with components from the USA, Japan, and Europe. The key here is quality at an affordable price. You could pick up a half way decent stereo system for around 1000.00 or less. Audio was what the average consumer purchased during that era. You did not have to sell your body to get great sound. The audio market has been focused on the well to do not the average consumer. Of course the audience has been dumbed down. Musicianship in the USA is almost non existent. Europe still has some taste. There is no need for expensive equipment when your “music” is monotone”. Just get an old am radio with a vocal band pass filter. Something that is not taught is the “Art of Listening”. If we had an educated listening audience we could start to bring back the “Audiophile”.

  2. Supermarkets started out selling predominantly food, now they sell just about everything. However, it’s not quite the same experience buying say a pair of shoes from a supermarket as going to a shoe shop who should provide fitting and specialist knowledge. With audio systems, why should a manufacturer known for building brilliant speakers be any good at designing amplifiers or dacs? When I got into hifi it was a case of going to a maker who you decided made the best product, at a price you could afford, and assembling a system accordingly. Whilst I can see the logic of a one make system it requires a certain level of multi skilling and hopefully not a jack of all trades approach. One make also limits choices for future upgrades, system tuning (for want of a better phrase) and somehow just seems less interesting. As an aside, what is it with all these fashion brands that stick their name on a watch and all of a sudden they’re watch manufacturers?

  3. I lived through an example of this just yesterday, I’m embarrassed to say.

    My friend owns the company that makes my preamp. I know he mentioned that it inverts phase, so I needed to account for that. Well, I somehow let that slip in my mind, and had not. He dropped over to listen to my system and after about 1/2 hour asked if I had accounted for the inverted phase of the preamp. My HSU crossover has an invert phase button that inverts phase for both of the subs. I pushed that button and the effect was quite remarkable.

  4. It seems to me PSA already started down the path by offering a complete system with the Sprout Series and Elac’s. The next step could be with the Stellar series, with a goal in the end of someone finally having a full blown BHK series and media player. That path can certainly be done in incremental steps. Once the AN series of speakers are a product then it all stay’s In house, Except the connections of the components between themselves and also the mains.

    What I think would be the next logical step now is to offer products or suggestions based on experience of what is required to interconnect the components at different price – performance points. Even something as simple as a readily accessible list that could be linked to forum discussions for pros and con’s. Something like Paul’s favorite path followed by Darren’s favorite path etc…

    If PSA doesn’t want to be in the business of cables then partner with someone who is, so you can offer a complete package right up to the “highest end”.

    Once the studio is up and running you have completed the whole circle from recording to reproducing.

  5. Paul…”If I didn’t know better I’d simply do my research and purchase the best I could afford in any one category, tie it all together with what I could afford in cabling, press play and then pray. Nowhere am I helped with maximizing synergy between components.”

    First time buyers who have done their homework and decide they want\need system synergy seem to have a great choice in the PSA Stellar line up (pre-power-regenerator). Hopefully, an entry level Stellar SACD source is on the horizon…(hint-hint)! IMO, I categorize “speaker systems” separately due to the VAST diversity of unknown variables (personal musical taste, investment cost, listening room dynamics, etc.) and the HUGE selection of designs, sounds, sizes and prices in the world marketplace.

    I’ve always worked backwards in the decision chain of component purchases…Speakers First, then Power needs, Pre-control needs, Source types and Cabling needs, all with a “Synergy of Balance” for the listening room I’ll be using (usually little control over that) and the types\recordings in the music I listen to. For the most part, this scheme has worked well for me over the past 45 years!

    However, from my 1st “stereo” then, to Todays, feel I’m as close to “Audio Nirvana” as ever…certainly has been a long growth process that beginners to quality reproduction enjoyment may have to go through!?! Yes, it does seem they’ll have more of a challenge in this current retail market place to “hear” what 2-channel playback Can Ultimately Offer.

  6. What constitutes synergy between components? Are there any basic guidelines, electrical specifications within a certain range, that one can apply to determine a relative match, say, between the output (impedance) of one component to the input (impedance) of another in the chain? There will always be the subjective, trial and error, aspects to fine tune the matches but some basic rules to start the build process would be helpful. Dealers have the knowledge gained by the experience of exposure, time, and practice in matching but some published guidelines would go a long way as a starting point, a framework, so as not to seem so daunting. It can’t have been done by just trial and error.

  7. Music is a social activity, so social mechanisms are the best way to learn. Audio forums are a step in the right direction, but just as speakers are not a complete substitute for music, on line discussions are not a complete substitute for face-to-face interactions. Some audio stores promote group interactions, notably Innovative Audio Video in New York who brings in designers for product expositions. There are also some outlets for “destination audio”, high-end listening rooms that are supported by door charges or sales of food & beverages (not Beveridges). You can take time to sit and listen with other afficionados, discovering a curated permutation of system and content.

    Audio shows are a mixed bag for sampling systems. They have the widest range of gear for auditioning, but presented in cliques and extremes in sub-optimal conditions.

    The best example I know is audio societies. This includes the Audio Engineering Society, but also local organizations in Boston, New York, Connecticut etc. My best information came from AES conventions and local chapter meetings and the Connecticut Audio Society.

    Finally, my relationship with audio was determined by attending concerts. This is the foundation of audio education, training your ears to real music immersed in a sea of faces and musicians responding in real time. If audio moves you after a thousand hours of concert time, you know it is getting close.

  8. Let’s see what Gayle brings to Axpona this year- I was pretty intrigued by his source-to-ear-and-everything-in-between concept last year. Not that it will EVER replace the Saturday stereo store cruise…

  9. I’m glad you are starting to think in terms of systems and not just individual components of systems. This is how formal engineering education works starting in the sophomore year when students have enough math to begin to understand concepts from looking at the forest as well as the trees. The forest is more than the sum of the individual trees, other plants, animals, soil sunlight, climate. It is their interaction that defines them. When conditions change they adapt or they wither and die if they can’t.

    Taking this aerial point of view the first question that arises is what do you want the system to do. At one extreme you are constrained by budget. What are the aspects of you want the system to perform and what are their order of importance. At the opposite extreme where cost is no object the constraint is the state of the art. Can the state of the art be advanced by improving one element of the system? Sometimes, often not or at least not by much and not in proportion to the added cost.

    Another question is how to configure the system. There are often many options. Sticking to the same one all of the time may leave you without the ability to adapt to different conditions. If it proves to always be unsuccessful there may be an inherent flaw in the concept. A different room with different acoustics. A different recording with a different spectral balance. This is why as an engineer I want the most control, the most flexibility, the greatest number and range of adaptations. Does it require skill to use them? Yes and misusing them can result in very unsatisfactory performance far short of expectations.

    If you don’t have a goal in mind for the system to perform how can you even begin to approach a design? If the goal is to duplicate sound produced one way in one place with sound produced another way at another time and place then the logical approach is to first study sound, to determine what you can hear and what you can’t and how the physics of sound affects that perception. Audiophile claims aside, focusing on building a sound system capable of reproducing 46 khz is as useless as buying photographic film and a camera that can reproduce ultraviolet light for taking a photograph as a memory of and experience you had. You couldn’t see it during the experience and you won’t see it from the photograph.

    So what are your goals, your order of priorities, your understanding of the physics of what you want the system to do, the money you have available, and what method will you use to achieve those goals? And how will the engineered product adapt to different conditions? The most expensive and least likely to succeed approach if you are starting from scratch as someone capable of analyzing and understanding all of this is to copy other peoples’ failed ideas and select components of the system by endless trial and error hoping for success. And when you reach the point of utter exasperation and turn to an “expert” to ask what needs to be done, what do you need to do to achieve the goal of duplicating sound this way he’ll tell you “it cant be done.” This only means that everyone who took the same approach which means everyone in the business can’t do it. Endless variants of the same ideas that don’t work is not engineering, it’s blind tinkering.

    1. I guess the core problem of home audio is the total lack of basic and mandatory standards based on the laws of psychoacoustics. No researcher in wind tunnel testing would rely on non-calibrated pressure or velocity transducers. But audiophiles rely on non-standardized and non-calibrated loudspeakers of most strange and contradicting design concepts. Thus stereo is rather a playground than a field of serious science. A hobby!

  10. “Where does one start on a hi-fi journey?”

    Or for many of us baby boomers “Where does one RE start on a hi-fi journey?”

    That is the position I find myself in. Having sold off my “vintage” late 70’s 80’s equipment and no longer subject to the economic limitations of my youth.

    This forum has been a good source on my rediscovering the joys of audio.

  11. If the parameters are “first-time audio buyer” then the solution is already on the list.

    If they go with albums, check.
    If they have 2TB of music on a hard drive, check.
    If they don’t own an external DAC and want to play the headphones from your laptop, gotcha covered, check.

    We realize that a $599 integrated at the center, add a pair of Elac bookshelf speakers and a pair of Massdrop 6XX set of headphones, and you are there.

    Modern technology has come along with computer-based Music and computer-based marketing.

    The Sprout is an ideal first choice.
    And the sterling reputation of PS Audio and tremendous customer service makes the purchase–sight unseen–safe and reliable.

  12. After years of equipment churning and accompanying expense, I decided to put my faith in an engineer/designer who has both the technical expertise and real-world sensibilities to produce an audio “system” that only requires the addition of a source component, is extremely flexible, and virtually agnostic to it’s location within the room. Thus I went with Kii Three speakers, designed by Bruno Putzeys, the man behind Hypex/nCore & Mola Mola. The Kii’s eliminate the need for interconnects & speaker cables, and incorporate the dac & amp modules inside the speaker cabinet, with preamp functions, EQ, boundary adjustments etc. handled by the Kii Remote Control. All I needed to add was a music server and a Roon subscription. I’ve never been happier with my system than I am now. My daydreaming of system tweaking & upgrading has been replaced by immersion in the listening experience. Can’t ask for more than that.

  13. I don’t think beginners should be over concerned about selecting components. Although I have not used too many different components myself, my experience over some 60 years is that there is no substantial problem about suitabilities of components working together with each other. Some may sound better certainly. As every manufacturer aims at achieving high fidelity in producing their products, they should work together reasonably well in my opinion.

  14. Paul, Your are definitely on the right track;
    (1) Building carefully engineered components to stand alone or in a system…. (2) Marketing directly to consumers via internet…. (3) Staying lean and focused on core products. (4) The “Ask Paul” youtube videos (just you and the camera having a casual conversation) lead the industry in education and building trust…, a winning combination. Brick and mortar dealers may not exist 10-years from now.

  15. Leaving aside theater systems as an avenue of entry, I don’t think anyone has yet pointed out that a common, if not the most common, starting place these days re audio has something to do adding better audio capability to a computer, be it a desktop, laptop, pad or smartphone. Another popular avenue works with adding headphones and a headphone amp to such a system, or maybe to an already owned DVD/Blu-ray player and receiver. There are a lot of companies capitalizing on this realm of markets, some as an avenue or bridge to something more classically audiophile.

    My experience is that someone looking for greater enjoyment beyond elementary computer audio better come prepared with some cash, since there’s invariably a lot of trial and error, or trial and improve, involved in building a system. I suspect that element is a big part of why there’s so much skepticism, if not outright hostility, to the claims about equipment and tweaks of those that are able to pay (are most claims about bits are bits, for example, really about science or finance?).

  16. It’s a different world, when I first got interested in stereo there was Stereo Review and High Fidelity. I never saw an issue of Stereophile until 1993.
    Remember when every drug store and most grocery stores had a big section of magizines? Mad Magazine, Hot Rod, and Stereo Review.
    Julian Hirsch said that specs were all that mattered, so I believed him. I looked for features when I bought my first integrated amp, once I had checked the specs.
    The thing was we only had the store and other friend’s systems to compare.
    When I bought my first pair of decent speakers, the dealer had about a half dozen pairs of speakers, all sitting on the floor. They were run through a switch box, that could choose the amp and the speakers. No matching of levels, just listen and choose.
    And if it didn’t sound all that good, you were only out maybe $500. My first decent turntable a Garrard SL65 came with a cartridge for a penny more.
    I bought my Dual 1219 from a mail order place, I think the ad came from the back of the Stereo Review. I got a Shure V15 Type 2 at a place called the 7 Mile Fair for I think it was $50.
    I think there is still a similar route for younger people. It gets more complicated for late bloomers, who don’t want to start with a budget system, and then move up a component at a time.

  17. Paul – you left out 1 of the most important pieces to the pie and that’s the room. Everybody’s rooms are different. You can buy the best components out there but if it’s a terrible room, it will sound like [email protected] I have multiple PS Audio pieces in my audio room and in my other systems and I think you could pull off creating synergy systems for people but I would start off asking questions about the room and power. Maybe even getting them to run software on their iPhones/iPads so they can send you the data to determine how their room sounds. Then you can also suggest room treatments/carpet/etc… so it’s a complete package

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