Chain repair

May 31, 2019
 by Paul McGowan

A generous helping of maple syrup can improve the taste of a bad pancake but it can't promise perfection.

Ridding yourself of a sonic problem by replacing one piece in your system's chain is a tempting proposition. Sometimes it's just what the stereo doctor ordered. But, more often than not, we get a bit of a boost that never quite addresses the problem.

Customers often send me a list of their systems in the hopes I can point to the weakest link in the chain. It's sometimes painful to make a suggestion when I can see the real problem isn't a particular link but the chain itself.

We tend to build our systems around an idea or a particular piece, perhaps a favorite amplifier or turntable. We're then building our chain in support of a few links and what we wind up with is a less than a great chain.

I am most pleased when a person shows me their system and everything's spot on with just a few exceptions. The joy of recommending a particular piece of kit that will link the pieces together and sing to the heavens is always welcome.

If we've built a solid chain, replacing a single link can make all the difference in the world.

How strong is your chain?

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15 comments on “Chain repair”

  1. I feel a lot of audiophiles are hobbyists that just like changing things for the sake of it and to try something new, which is perfectly reasonable.

    I had no reason to change anything and didn't for over 10 years. I got into streaming fairly early, with a Linn DS streaming DAC about 10 years ago, and a lot of the digital changes have arisen from developments in streaming technology, in particular software platforms, all of which is now very advanced. I had bookshelf speakers when the kids were young and since moving to larger stand-mounted speakers, the chain starts at the speakers. The chain was short, got longer, is now short again. I prefer short.

  2. Funny how a person can be of two or more minds. There's my audiophile mind and my engineering mind and they could hardly have seen the world more differently. My parents told me that when I was two years old I built my first phonograph out of tinker toys and I cried because it did't work. That was all it could do. It was my infant audiophile mind in its earliest stages of development. Obviously I was born to be an engineer since I was trying even at that early age to build things. When I was 25 years old it was an entirely different story. When my audiophile mind built a quadraphonic sound system and it didn't do what I expected and wanted it to do by a long shot based on what I'd heard about this marvel, my engineering mind stepped in. Now understand that a good engineering mind is ruthless and uncompromising. It gives no quarter. And this is what it told my audiophile mind that just wanted to have fun. "You bumbling incompetent idiot. Where the hell did you learn about this, from hobby magazines, advertising literature, trade show salesmen, shopping around? Where the hell were you when I was sitting in all those classrooms and labs all day trying to learn something from all these superb professors and cracking those textbooks racking my brain all night trying to understand it and solving problems all those years? Sleeping? You're worthless. You're fired. Get out and never come back. I've got a job to do. " Told you it's uncompromising and ruthless. And over the years it has only gotten worse. Much much worse.

    Engineering minds work differently from audiophile minds. It first defines and end goal. If it is for example a power distribution system is needed it begins by performing a load study. What do I have to power and what forms does that power have to take. Then it looks at what it has to work with. Is it adequate? Is there enough or does it have to be replaced with something else. And then it has to find a path between the two often staring at the end or goal and working backwards, sometimes starting at both ends meeting at a common point in the middle but rarely if ever starting at the beginning and working towards the end. It discards the irrelevant and focuses on the essentials. There may be more than one path and there may be paths that lead to dead ends. The engineer's job is to find the best path that works or if there is no path then to understand and explain why. For example, there is no path to a perpetual motion machine. The engineering mind is constrained by scientific knowledge and if he or she want to create something that violates that knowledge then new knowledge must be found either by the engineer becoming a scientist or by working with scientists who find new scientific knowledge that doesn't have those constraints.

    So how does the audiophile mind see things? Usually the advice is to start with the speakers because that is what has the most influence on performance. Then select an amplifier appropriate for driving those speakers, then the sound source and then perfect every element to the greatest degree possible. If the goal is "the absolute sound" then not only is there a lot of unnecessary expense on things that are irrelevant and a lot of time consuming and costly trial and error but in the end it won't work. Linn will tell you to start with the turntable, his justification being that if you don't have a good source nothing else matters. Of course he may be just a slight bit prejudiced since he makes most of his money manufacturing and selling turntables. And when it comes to speakers he does't want anyone else's in the same room because he says it will degrade the sound of his speakers. Of course it just might be that he's afraid of a direct comparison with his competition.

    So what does the engineer have to say, at least this one. To achieve the absolute sound, look at the last element of the chain, the sound that reaches your ears. That is the goal, to come as close to duplicating it at live performances as possible. The element just before that is the listening room acoustics that plays a critical role. Before that are the speakers. At the start of the chain is a library of recordings each of which was made differently and has different requirements for what its absolute sound is. Sometimes, in fact often there is no objective standard to judge by and so there isn't necessarily an optimal path but one that is most pleasing...Hmm, sounds like a subjectivist to me. That's the best that can be done with what I call "manufactured music." That's where the recording has little in common with the actual musical event that took place but was engineered through extensive manipulation to usually come up with a marketable product from a weak performer. Ever hear any of these pop singers sing without their engineers creating their market voices? I can do better singing in the shower.

    Focusing back on the subject at hand. So the first thing the engineer must do is study or invent the science that explains how that sound field arrives at your ear works. Given the state of the art of acoustics that's not an easy task at all. Working with all of the available elements at hand and given the characteristics and variables of the listening room whose properties can only be altered to a limited degree based on its size, shape, and manner of construction and all of the variables of the recordings, a chain or group of chains must be created that gets you from the recording to the desired sound field with variables at both ends. Given that in "the absolute sound" most of what you hear live are reflections, usually at least 90% you have to know that this is going to be a very important part of the chain if it has any chance at all of achieving anything remotely like the goal. That sound field was created in a room specifically designed for listening to music and was hundreds of times larger in volume and each dimension an order of magnitude larger than the dimensions of your listening room at home. This is where real engineering skill is challenged, put to the test. If you actually think this can be done by the existing path the same chain every existing audiophile system is designed to you are only kidding yourself. As I posted the other day, there are two schools of thought among audiophiles including those who have turned their hobby into a manufacturing business. One has it that by perfecting every detail of every link it the chain they will get to where they want to go. They have gone to absurd lengths to do just that. The other school of thought has it that this cannot be done, the absolute sound can't be recreated in a home from a recording. Which category do you fall into. BTW, IMO neither of them are correct.

    1. Unless you prefer to listen to concerts from inside the Schroeder limit, where the direct sound is over 50% of the energy and you can hear the start and stop of every note with great clarity, the waveforms are more accurate, the crest factor and the dynamic range are over 15dB more.

      I gladly trade envelopment for articulation, intimacy, nuance, expression and impact.

  3. IMHO, Analytical and Musical System Synergy (power-sources-components-wiring-speakers-listening room-great recordings) has the potential to impart as real a reproduction of the original venue as I've ever experienced live these past 50 years!! It's taken some time, research and testing, but I know this as Fact as I've finally achieved my musical playback goals for reproducing the aura, ambiance and soundstage intentions by the best label recording engineers (ex: Reference Recordings). There's Many more superb recording labels in the industry and I find it very interesting at the diversity and differences that can be laid down in source materials. Day or night, eyes wide open or closed, great recorded acoustical music genre appear (auditory & visually) in their proper space right there in My listening room!

    As Paul's analogy of solid links in a chain contribute to ultimate strength, I feel 2-channel "Stereo", with All Parts of the chain link carefully blended and contributing, Can and Does equal a "Live Representation" of the musical artist's performance!!

    Go ahead, you can pull on my chain all you isn't going to break! πŸ™‚

    BTW, LOVE the "Vermont Maple Syrups" we obtained from our recent trip there! However Paul, I will not waste that Precious Gold on bad pancakes! πŸ˜‰

  4. DS Firmware version 3.0.6 gave me a glimpse of how good sounding my chain can be, a problem room notwithstanding, but unfortunately came with an unacceptable price. I say that not so much out of criticism of the firmware, but from the excitement its good qualities engendered about what’s possible.

  5. How good a chain is can be quite subjective but when for that individual the final result is so good that the person is always looking forward to listening to his system and rarely if ever has a thought of changing anything and in fact dreads the idea of changing anything lest the sound deteriorate then he has arrived as they say. Does this happen ? Yes. It is always a matter of trial and error. It has to be tried in the system and then accepted or discarded. No other way. So if one is on this journey enjoy every bit of it because once you have arrived there is no going back. And by the way it need not be very very expensive. Keeping an eye on the bottom line and judicious use of elbow grease goes a long way. Regards.

    1. Well stated, Oliver! I've never listened to my wealth of recorded music these past years as much as I have these last 6 months (see my above post). Yes, I do fear making further changes that could easily ruin what I've achieved!

      The trial and error journey Has Been very enjoyable and you are right...there's no going back now that I've discovered "My Audio Bliss"! You're also correct, a mid 4 figures has gotten me right where I always wanted to need to invest anymore, just consistently Loving my Music, over and over again!!! πŸ™‚

  6. My chain is pretty strong because I have heard the best and I know I'm close. And professional reviewers have heard the best and have rated my components high. It's also a hobby for me since there are some great bargains in the used market if you have done your research and know what you're looking for. I have so much stuff I can open a used audio store. Not the most expensive stuff but a lot of it is Giant Slayers. I have no weak links unless I want to spend 10 times what I have already spent. I wouldn't at all be worried if the crew at Stereophile were doing a listening review and evaluation of my system. A lot of my stuff falls in the class A to C+ of their rated components. I would give my system an overall B+. So goes the life of an audiophile with the golden ears who does his homework. I'm satisfied with my system but it's never over. And my sons just starting. He's building both a CD and a record collection. I will help guide him as he builds his chain.

    1. I got a fresh do over. I'm formerly watchdog005. Changed the name when I uploaded an Avatar photo to go with it thanks to Paul and Gravatar. I'm probably going to change my photo from time to time but I'll keep the name the same. My son just graduated from RIT so I'll find an updated photo with the four of us and my little girl in the photo grown up. This is really an old photo and many pounds and gray hairs πŸ™‚

      1. My integrated amplifier is a Creek Stereophile recommended components rated A. My FM tuner is Luxman T-117 Stereophile recommended components rated A. My headphones are Sennheiser HD600 Stereophile recommended components rated A. My CD player is a modified Magnavox with a TDA 1541A S1 Single Crown DAC. Probably gets a C+ borderline B with the mod. My other CD player is also a Magnavox heavily modified by Conrad Johnson and carries their name on the face plate rated B in Stereophile recommended components.

        My speakers are the same as the A rated NHT 3.3 except for a 10" woofer instead of a 12" in a slightly smaller cabinet not as deep but otherwise identical and depending on the room could sometimes equal or outperform the 3.3 so I give it a B+ or borderline class A recommended components. With my Velodyne 18" Servo Subwoofer with a class AB amplifier, PSB Subsonic 7 class AB amplifier with 15" servo sub and my two Sunfire Carver signature dual 12" Subwoofers that takes my 2.9 speakers to A rated in any sized room.

        My Denon 103D MC cartridge and Audio Technica AT20SLa and AT155LC MM's and my Technics 1300 and SL-B2 Turntables with Audio Technica at 650 step up transformer are highly regarded but I would give them a C+ overall. My wires are Monster M-1 and M1000i all Stereophile A rated.

        And yes my system has synergy. So I would give it an overall B+ with the weak link being the CD player and Turntables but I'm happy with their sound for now and where I would go to upgrade I guess. Maybe a PS Audio DAC and transport? πŸ™‚

        I have lots of other highly rated stuff too in my secondary and 3rd and 4th systems like Celestion SL 6Si, NHT Super one and Super zero bookshelf speakers, B&K ST140 amplifier, Proton D1200 amplifier and 1000 1100 Proton preamplifiers, Adcom GTP400 preamplifier/tuner, PSB Subsonic one and five Subwoofers for smaller rooms, B&W LM1 Magnesium made for home or auto, not the cheaper LM1 later made and B&W DM302 bookshelf speakers, EPI 180 and 100 designed by Burhoe and 1979 Technics SA 800 and SA 600 vintage receivers I adore for their warm 70's sound. Tons of accessories, tweeks, contact cleaners and capacitor upgrades for my EPI's and other spare parts rounding out my hobby and collection.

          1. πŸ™‚ Joes Audio Forgot to name my cartridge collection of around 30, and 8 turntables, 17 pairs of speakers, 9 Subwoofers.

            Seriously though I'm probably just your average audiophile. I'm sure there are those who make me look puny.

            1. I guess I'm not even considered a "Wanabe Audiophile". 1 CD player (an oldie but goodie Philips CD880), Emotiva Pre and Power Amps, Ascend Acoustic Sierra-1 NrT 2-way Stand Monitors, a single Axiom EP500 12" sub and MC Reference Interconnects and Speaker Cables, all in a dedicated 90sf listening music room.

              Very modest "mid-fi" separates and venue, but synergisticly, a 1st round Knock-Out 1-2 Punch! πŸ˜‰

  7. My chain is pretty highly optimized. I make "zero knob" DSF recordings at live shows that I curate, I pick my rooms for acoustic suitability and make speakers and acoustic furniture to tune the rooms to my taste. I also made some chip amps with proprietary implementation and a passive preamp using ultra-low noise relays.

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