Many edged swords

April 12, 2021
 by Paul McGowan

Perhaps my single most asked question is what piece of equipment makes the most difference.

My quick answer has always been the loudspeakers. Loudspeakers are the most flawed element in the chain and thus the most variable of the bunch.

In one sense, speakers are like clothing. You choose them because they best fit your taste.

But there’s a many-edged sword in this choice. Highly resolving speakers display more flaws while speakers that mask differences are gentler.

Of course, we understand system chains rely upon a synergistic relationship: one bad apple spoils the bunch.ย  That said, without both great electronics and a highly resolving loudspeaker, there’s no hope for ever reaching the lofty heights so many of us dream of.

As in most things in this life, it’s a balancing act.

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21 comments on “Many edged swords”

  1. “Loudspeakers are the most flawed element in the chain…”
    By this reasoning I would theoretically agree.
    “As in most things in this life, it’s a balancing act”
    And I would agree with this even more.
    However, time & time again, over the decades, at home & in the audio retail environment, I keep being constantly surprised & experience more occurrences of goosebumps from the quality of the recording(s) (initial source) rather than any other element in the home audio chain.
    And this seems true whether we are talking about High-end Hi-Fi home audio or High-end Mid-Fi home audio.
    If the initial source is an average or low quality recording no amount of loudspeaker accuracy is going to make that recording sound ‘true to life’.
    However an extremely well recorded CD (maybe an Octave Records recording ๐Ÿ˜‰ ) can make even a high quality somewhat synergistic Mid-Fi audio rig sound bloody amazing.
    A truly high-end audio rig with an average recording just ends up amplifying the garbage in component by exhibiting the detail to the max, regardless of whether you are employing a pair of Elac Debut Reference DBR-26, a pair of Harbeth M40.3’s, a Pair of Wilson Audio Sasha DAW’s or even a pair of PS Audio FR-30’s.

    1. I answer, speakers as well because I know of no way of correcting for a poor loudspeaker system.
      On the other hand, there are many sources and amplifiers that sound good with my Green Mountain Audio “Imagos”.
      They are time aligned and phase coherent 4-ways using only first order crossovers and transmission line bass ports.

  2. It’s like asking which body organ makes the most difference. Brain? Heart? Kidneys? Liver? They are all so vital. Any impairment can severely diminish the performance of the entire system To begin to answer the question you have to know the magnitude of each component’s deficiency.

      1. Why choose the arse as a loudspeaker analogy? Why not choose the mouth and throat containing the vocal chords powered by air from the lungs? The human voice is one of the things fine audio systems attempt to reproduce accurately. The other end just contributes unwanted distortion. ๐Ÿ™‚

  3. I fully agree. But in the end it is the professional speaker setup (matching power amp and speaker cable & careful positioning in an acoustically optimized listening room) which sets the bar. I was blown away when I had a first listening with a pair of big Magnepans – and thus never invested classic multi-way boxed speakers when assembling my first stereo system but rather invested in the best headphones available. Another audiophile epiphany was a pair of giant horn loudspeakers with bass horns reaching from floor to ceiling. And the cleanest and most engaging sound I got recently from a single driver crossoverless point source speaker (flat from 30 Hz to 15 kHz) driven by a 25 Watt tube amp – in a nearfield listening setup of course. However this gem was limited concerning highest SPLs. The unsolved challenge for multi-way speaker designs is getting the drivers playing coherently and taming the complex phase shifts of a passive crossover. No wonder that it takes so much time for PS Audio finalizing the design of the FR speaker series.

  4. i want to offer only one idea from psychology which explains many of my “goosebump” experiences. That is, Just Noticeable Difference. IOW, when there is a noticeable change in resolution/accuracy/detail/etc. that in itself produces the alerting response called gooseflesh. IMHO, it is enhanced when the musical content is involving, but this is not necessary. More details at:

  5. The Whole is only as good as the some of its parts. The audio chain is a sacred beast that provides and acts like a conduit into ones soul….ok just getting about the last part. ๐Ÿ˜‰

    The post here is dead on, Paul. I feel the same way. I look at speakers and headphones as the Allstars that need great teammates in order to be or become Allstars.

    Lastly Fatrat is right. The asshole is the most important organ in the body cause whatever goes in must come out. ๐Ÿ˜‰

  6. Based on my personal audio experience I agree with Paul that the speakers are the most important element in a home audio system. They make the biggest difference it what you hear. I always advice people to buy the best speakers they can sensibly afford and they can improve on the rest of their gear after that because their speakers will be able to let the improvements in the rest of their gear show through and not mask it as poorer speakers often do.

    I use to tell people that the second most important piece of gear in their system was the source gear especially if the source is vinyl, then I would tell them the cartridge was the next most important. I realized that I was wrong about that when I finally got a truly great set of speakers ( Magico S7’s ). The dealer I got them from showed me by when driving the speakers with a wide range of amps how much the sound of the speakers improved as they were driven by more powerful amps. You must have enough power going to the speakers if you want to get both the full frequency range capability ( especially in the bass ) and the full dynamic range capability from the speakers. Thus I now tell people that after getting the best speakers they can sensibly afford then get an amp that has enough power to let the speakers do what they are capable of doing.

    This does not mean playing the speakers louder, but rather playing the speakers at the same volume level while getting a fuller sound.

  7. All the audio purchasing suggestions here are sound advice (ouch!)
    There is an alternative view. No piece of equipment is the most important, every link in the chain is required to make the system work. Once a system is established the item to upgrade first is the weakest link.
    However it certainly is a balancing act, hi-fi on one side, money on the other.

  8. From the moment that the music recording process is completed and the master issued, the loudspeaker is the weakest link. You can get from server to the amplifier with transparency, or inaudible changes to the signal. But the speaker is still the weakest link. In addition, the interaction with the room causes the biggest problems. This is why “smart” speakers, that include room adjustments and integrated amplifiers (powered speakers) are the best step forward. I’m looking forward to being able to travel again to hear what D&D or Kii can do. You can get amazing [measured] performance for a complete system for less money than the traditional “boxes and wires” approach. But if you have $$$ in boxes, they are a decent hurdle to jump. Technology moves, and nowadays it moves most in the speaker arena. Boxes and wires will become obsolete sooner rather than later.

    1. CtA,
      “…will become obsolete sooner rather than later.”
      WOW, that’s such a definitive statement.
      Very scientific from someone who ‘bleeds’ science.
      How soon is “sooner”?
      Btw, I disagree with you.
      Passive loudspeakers will still be around in high-end home audio set-ups in ten years time…is that soon enough for you?
      Thanks again for the laugh ๐Ÿ˜‰

  9. I used to think it was speakers. That is, until ATT made me get rid of my DSL and switch to their high speed fiber. With the new modem having its optical connection … and, using an audiophile copper – Ethernet cable, running from the modem to the PC… I have become at times startled. For, what used to sound “routine good,” now can sound like I am playing from an analogue source. Sometimes like something is originating from somewhere my room..

    And, another positive observation. Audio files that were copied on my computer? They now sound better as well. Apparently, one big effect with audio quality using a desktop, is the effect the modem can have on the motherboard! It does not have to come from the internet. The modem somehow effects something going on with the motherboard itself for audio in general.

  10. I donโ€™t stream or listen to files but if I did I wouldnโ€™t find Genezโ€™s comment at 5:09pm particularly good news. It means that audiophiles who do now have a whole new set of parameters to check, verify and potentially improve. This in no way simplifies the audio chain but further complicates it.

    Doubters to these benefits may simply shrug their shoulders but, it presents another opportunity to the snake oil salesmen, and who is confident enough to deny before having tried it.

    1. Richtea….

      Its good news though. It may open up for a greater understanding as to what causes some to hear what they refer to as the “digital” sound. When I switched to the ATT fiber I began to wonder what happened. I am using a Schiit Yggdrasil DAC..which is a ladder DAC. Now, if I were still using a “chip” DAC it may prove to be a different story. Analogue has been around for a very long time. Yet, I still find the potential for sonic accuracy to be higher with good digital. Its being perfected one byte at a time.

      1. Genez,

        Yes, anything that improves the sound is a good thing. Iโ€™m a digital fan but CDโ€™s. Itโ€™s just that like all new formats streaming is touted as the next big thing (it probably will be) perfect and simple. Youโ€™ve now found that by making changes it can be improved. Reminds me of the development of CD replay over the years, now the cycle can begin again. Happy listening.

  11. The room and set up of the speakers might be the most flawed component in the chain. No doubt a flawed or cheaply made speaker sounds worse than a flawed or cheaply made amplifier, but not by much especially if your speakers are good enough to identify that flaw in the chains before it. Speakers and our ears are the judge of what’s happening in the amplification, wires, and source material.

  12. One proof that loudspeakers are typically the weakest link is that listening to even mediocre upstream components through headphones is often rich and revealing, whereas the same gear played through mediocre loudspeakers is typically disappointing.

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