Fundamentals first

May 24, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

I am often asked to weigh in on upcoming decisions for stereo system upgrades: Bi-wire or bi-amp, what to do with the room, which amps, speakers, power products?

Where to get the biggest bang for the buck.

My answers are always conditional. I ask first what it is the person’s hoping to achieve, secondly, what’s the state of affairs for the system as it currently stands, and last is budget.

The first part of the question is answered pretty much the same: Better soundstage, more accurate tonal balance, increased foot tapping.

The range of answers I get to the second part of my two-part question is always a delight for it is here where we get to the core of what needs to be addressed.

And often what needs to change is boring. Boring because more often than not we’ve not spent enough time nailing down fundamentals.

It’s certainly much easier to add a quick fix than it is to address the basics. But it’s the basics that determine the final outcome that tweaks and upgrades can only hope to enhance.

I nearly always recommend a hard look at first the loudspeakers, second the amplification chain, and last (but certainly not least) the AC power chain.

Then, if we’re open to some suggestions to shoring up our fundamentals, we can discuss budget. Maybe it’s worth investing everything into those dream speakers while tolerating a compromised amplification and power chain until finances recover. Or, perhaps we’re lucky enough to identify that one weak link in an otherwise robust chain.

Whatever the case it’s always helpful to step back and think of what we have as a system rather than a collection of bits and bobs.

Fundamentals first.

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14 comments on “Fundamentals first”

  1. Isn’t the main problem inherent with dream loudspeakers that they require most expensive room treatment and setup optimization – not to mention a minimum room size and listening distance for making the dreams come true? Thus better go for active (!) loudspeakers with internal sophisticated DSP for easy adaptation to the room and the listener’s preferences.

  2. Today, during my ‘Music Monday’ (music appreciation session) I was again (still)
    reminded by my modest (AU$3,300) audio rig how fundementally important the
    actual recording (source) is compared to any other single ‘link’ in the audio chain.
    If I spent US$47k on the AC power, the room & the audio gear & made the whole
    chain virtually near perfect & then played an original ‘Robert Johnson’ album
    (an average recording)…guess what?
    Flat recording in; flat recording out.

    Today’s retro album:
    Spin Doctors – ‘Pocket Full Of Kryptonite’
    Track 10, ‘Shinbone Alley/Hard To Exist’ is especially tight & displays some of
    Eric Shenkman’s best guitar work…maximum PRaT 🙂

  3. There is best bang for the buck new and best bang for the buck used. Do the research. Read reviews both by professional reviewers and bloggers. Gather as much information as you can.

    1. I think that’s good advice. There’s a wealth of information out there so why not make use of it. It may not be your ears, room or opinion, but if a consensus is found I wouldn’t ignore it.

  4. I would not underestimate the “small” changes. When you improve the system 5 times by 3 percent, you get an improvement of 15 percent. Nevertheless, fundamental changes are often not possible for various reasons (price, space, WTF).

  5. If someone asks for your advice you always have to ask FIRST what his BTF is. (Budget Tolerance Factor).
    Also known as BAAF (Bank Account Acceptance Factor).
    The rest is easy. Buy the best (his) money can buy.
    And what is the best? The “stuff” that gives him the sound he likes most. It’s that easy 🙂
    BTW., if you’re long enough in this hobby you learned what THE most important factor is : the soundquality of the cd.
    After that, ex aequo, room acoustics and speaker placement. Period.
    Get that right and there’s not much that can go wrong.
    Oh.. I forgot something (after all this is a PSA site) : good, clean power is important. You don’t wanna hear the motor of the fridge switching on and off when you’re listening to Beethoven’s Mondscheinsonate.
    Finally, of course YOU are in charge of the “stereo”, especially size and placement of speakers. You decide what to buy and where to place it, not what your spouse allows you.
    If that’s not the case, then forget all other advice. Hopeless mission.

  6. My experience is that the first priority is not the speakers but the room. And, based on what Paul has done over the last couple of years–when he built a new room before he began modifying his speakers–it appears that the room is his first priority also.

    Until problems in every room are dealt with, you don’t know what your speakers and electronics are capable of producing. How often have we changed components only to later conclude after a room change that they were much better than we thought they were?

  7. Foot tapping, indeed.
    I seem to have 3 listening modes.
    One for the car, one for general listening pleasure and one for what I call technical listening.
    In car mode.. oh boy do I listen to some crap! Then at the other end of the scale in technical mode I’m never satisfied.. There’s always something that needs addressing.
    In the middle sits comfortably the foot tapping head nodding world of just listening for the pleasure of the music and the memory of the time and place said music evokes, with the mind glossing over the imperfections within the chain of equipment that supplies our acoustic world of both pleasure and angst.

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