May 4, 2016
 by Paul McGowan

The dictionary defines synergy as the interaction or cooperation of two or more organizations, substances, or other agents to produce a combined effect greater than the sum of their separate effects. That pretty well describes what happens when we combine two or more pieces of gear within a given system. An effect, for better or for worse, that is greater than the sum of their separate efforts.

This added benefit (or degradation) is the result of interactions: how two pieces affect each other. A cable interacts with a product in good and bad ways. A phono cartridge interacts with a phono preamplifier in beneficial as well as detrimental ways. Speakers and amps, turntables and arms, computers and DACs. Each has its own set of positives and negatives when interfacing with each other.

How does one get the most benefit, and the least degradation from these interactions?

This used to be the exclusive purview of the dealer. Dealers assembled systems with synergy and sold them as packages to customers. Some of the finest setups I have heard were expertly curated assemblages of products, each synergistic with the other.

Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer audio-specific dealers these days, and of the successful ones, many have turned to custom installation and home theater systems to stay in business.

But the need to mix and match for best synergy has never gone away, and it’s healthy to remind ourselves that often the goal of assembling a proper system is minimizing negative interactions while maximizing positive ones. That’s what we’re actually doing when we pick this speaker with that amplifier, that DAC with that cable.

It’s also what we’re doing when we insert a preamplifier in the mix. Reducing negative interactions.

But what about the ultimate synergistic collection of equipment, the integrated?

Let’s take a look tomorrow.

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19 comments on “Synergy”

  1. Can you mathematically prove, Paul, that combining separates will result in synergetic all effects? I strongly doubt. I also doubt that anybody has already established a complete mathematical description of the signal flow in a stereo system. Only this mathematical model could show if there are synergetic all effects. As far as I learned from your earlier posts the final optimization step always is a most subjective voicing under non-standardized conditions. Try and error approaches finally. If every component inherently degrades the sound it might happen that two components create resonance effects maximizing the degradation in a specific audible range while other combinations does not show this resonance effect and seem to be a better match. Thus voicing an integrate seems to be a straightforward approach than voicing a random and varying combination of separates.

    1. I cannot mathematically prove anything, to be honest. Math was never a skill I mastered. I have competent engineers that can manage that and they spend their time designing great products, not trying to prove that which we already know.

      I am not sure it would even be worth someone’s time to do so. Like trying to mathematically prove adding chocolate sauce to vanilla ice cream has greater synergy than vanilla alone. I suppose it could be done, but why would you take the time?

      Easier just to listen for yourself.

    2. The mathematical model is called the “transfer function.” Transfer functions of individual components can be calculated and measured, however, because of the way one piece of equipment affects another such as a wire or power amplifier loading down the output stage of a preamplifier, taking them individually and simply combining them will not give you the overall transfer function. This explains why these components seem to perform differently when they measure the same. An amplifier performs beautifully into an 8 ohm resistive load but is horrible with a loudspeaker having a highly reactive load and even a strong reverse emf.

      The transfer function is expressed as a differential equation. Electrical Engineers use the Fourier Transform Equation and Inverse Fourier Transform Equation to switch back and forth between the transfer function in the time and frequency domains. In the frequency domain it is possible to more easily solve problems and understand processes sometimes than in the time domain.

      The electrical transfer function can be obtained from the input signal to the connections to the loudspeakers or between any two points in between. It can also be obtained from the microphone electrical output to the loudspeaker input taking into account everything in between. To calculate this takes a lot of math. This is what systems engineering is about whether for an audio system or the refrigeration and heating system for a building.

      From the speaker input signal to its mechanical response including how its sound is propagated into space is another transfer function. The last one is the transfer function between the point at which sound is generated and the point you hear it taking into account all reflections. This last one is my contribution to the art, discovering how to create a mathematical model of this transfer function, discovering how to measure it, and discovering how to synthetically recreate it.

  2. Paul,
    I like to listen to music – on my hi-fi system – because it’s fun.
    But our hobby does no longer mediate this simple and elegant philosophy.
    Who was the evil spirit, who has called us to identify ourselves as audiophiles and to separate us from the masses listeners.
    Who told us HiFi is not enough,it has to be “audiophile” it has to be “high-end”!
    He led us into a world of snobbish and complacent arrogance.
    The industry and manufacturers have jumped on this train too quickly.
    They made sure that the average income is no longer sufficient to be provided for high-quality HiFi.
    Amplifiers for the price of a sports cars, speakers that cost as much as a row house.
    Turntables that set more by sparkle and shine at prices you previously were able purchase complete systems.
    All this is the result of arrogance.
    They tell us pseudo-scientific things to justify such extortionate prices.
    They say things that are so ridiculous that you do not want to repeat it
    But all this is not enough.
    You have also to own a second solar panel on the roof of your not yet paid home.
    The current for your music system should not contaminated by other electrical devices they say.
    A sophisticated line filter still would be beneficial, so you also need to have one, and a whole smorgasbord of cables to prices, any jeweler would become pale.
    Once in the clutches of this kind of “high-end-experts” it’s hard for most of us to go back to solve it – almost a audiophilic “Stockholm Syndrome”.
    In the meantime, many have forgotten how to listen to music, they listen only to their investment.
    Let it be “high-end” – please let it be “high-end” – yes it has to be “high-end”.
    Make no mistake, do not fool yourself!
    The musicians are the true artists, not the manufacturers of cable lifts and sore mouth.
    We spend far too much time with the fetish investment and too little time with the music.
    After a concert or a visit to the opera no one asks whether the bass was loud enough or whether the voice contained too much sibilance.
    You’ve had either joy of music or not.
    This is what a young colleague of mine told me when he heard my system for the first time:
    “It sounds great, really good but you bought it a long time ago, when there were shops with specialists in our home town and you for yourself are a specialist.
    Today there are only two audio dealers in the city and they sell components which I really cannot afford.
    On the other hand I do not intend to go to the home-entertainment-supermarket to buy things I do not like at least. ”
    When he left, he put his earbuds back in his ears and tuned in for the next mp3 file on his iPhone.
    This is the situation in Germany today but I think it is not very different in the US.
    So don’t complain – we are all guilty!

    1. I agree with you and I think it’s important we understand the different levels at which we play and enjoy music. The younger members of music lovers have their equipment and enjoy the hell out of music. Nothing wrong with that and your example is right. In Germany, and also the US, fewer and fewer shops exist that sell higher end equipment – more sell the earbuds. But that’s always been the case.

      Think of restaurants. When I lived in Germany there wasn’t a restaurant that didn’t serve pommes frites that were hand cut potatoes hand fried in a pan. They were wonderful. Today, you’d be hard pressed to find a restaurant that doesn’t use the McDonald’s style deep fryer and frozen pre-cut fries. But, if you look, you can.

      And that’s the point. There will always be people who desire something better – and can appreciate it when they get it. That’s me, probably you. Your younger friend may someday get interested in better sound – and then there will be companies like us to help him on his path.

  3. You have once again hit the nail on the head. Expensive power cables and interconnects are one of the most controversial topics for audiophiles. The believers and disbelievers are passionate about their views. You have identified exactly why this passionate controversy exists in the first place–synergy.

    One expensive power cord or pair of RCA cables may or may not make an audible difference in a system. It depends on the components and it depends on the other cables in the system. It is not about one cable. It is about the “synergy”–the combination. I can’t say there is any science to this. It is all about what you hear. The reason some people hear improvement and other’s do not has to do with the system as a whole. Everyone has different components with different power cords and different interconnects. What might make an audible difference in my system may not make an audible difference in yours.

    I have always wished that I could buy a component and someone could tell me what cables and power cord will optimize its sound. Unfortunately, no component is an island in a system. But, fortunately there are companies that will lend power cords and interconnects. The “nay-sayers” on this topic need to borrow cables and test them, but test them in combinations until you hear what you like. Change enough components, power cords and interconnects and everyone will hear a difference in their systems. In the end, it is all about hearing what you like and identifying that in A-B tests is really the hard part.

  4. There are good points to be made for more synergistic systems that leave less room for amateur guessing in composing components. Backes & Müller comes to my mind, active speakers with built in DACs. Dynaudio, Linn and others followed this path. Also Devialet’s AmpDAC with speaker specific DSP.
    You get an almost professionally tuned complete system (if your room behaves well) between 10 and 20 k. But it compromises your hobby a bit, you can only fiddle around with DSPs and download updates. Or tune you room. Maybe this is the future and PS AUDIO should think about it, too?

    1. As we learnt here you can still invest in power cables costing the equivalent of a budget car and in power conditioning components for these active wireless speakers. 🙂 And if these active speakers finally will be powered (hopefully) by Tesla batteries charged with solar energy there is still enough room for acoustically tweaking the listening room. But again: the first step for any significant improvement is the return of recording and mixing engineers to good old manufacturing practices based on psychoacoustic laws!

      1. Thank you for mentioning this. I already have a battery powered system. Only my old Dl III DAC runs on mains, and my next DAC will likely be 12V, too. No more filters, mains purifiers, expensive cables. Room tuning and optimizing my computer for playback give me enough room for tweaking.

  5. “Amplifiers for the price of a sports cars”
    “cables to prices, any jeweler would become pale”
    You think this is absurd ?
    You know what I find absurd ?
    Sportscars for the price of an amp. Jewels for the prices of cables.
    What is a sportscar more than a piece of metal and some rubber ?
    What is a jewel more than a piece of rock ?
    All a matter of perspective !
    Jewels and cars don’t give me any pleasure, audio gear does !
    I don’t give a damn about cars. I care a lot about music and audio, so that’s much more valuable to me.
    And high-end gear gives me a lot more fun when I LISTEN than mediocre-end does.
    I can hear that it sounds much better than crappy gear. no matter what nay-saying measurements-geeks…erm say.
    And if I can afford it, I buy it. Rather than a piece of rock.

    1. [@jb4]
      IMHO either you do not even have a glimpse of an idea what I was saying or you are one of these snobbish arrogant ingnorants. I think you only feel better if you find people whose equipment sounds less good than yours but that’s not the goal.

  6. I think Paul’s point is “right on”. Too often I see on the forums that someone has bought some piece of equipment, pair of speakers, etc. and is not satisfied with the sound. Then you have those who criticize over the purchase of some component, when that component, in concert with the other components of their system work really well together. Another thing seen on the forums on occasion is a question about which one thing so and so can buy to improve their system.

  7. In theory a well made integrated should sound better than equally well made separates. After all one is getting rid of interconnects and the signal path is shorter because of the proximity of parts. So why are separates rated better than integrated assuming that they are equally well made ? Regards.

    1. Could it be that it is much easier to design a new separate – benchmarked to a competitors separate – because it has much less complexity than an integrate design? The complexity with separates comes into the game when the naive endusers combine specific separates from different sources brands with interconnects from other brands!? 🙂

  8. bernd
    Really, after reading my comment your conclusion is that I’m an ignorant snob..?
    Well, that proves you don’t understand one word of what I said.
    You are dumber as I thought. Alas.

  9. Great topic Paul! I remember one of my local audio dealers giving me 4 pair of interconnects to try. 2 pair were silver, 2 were copper. I was eager to try the silver ones, they were more expensive so they must be better. Well the silver interconnects sounded better on my Linn LP12 turntable, but the copper sounded better on my Wadia 860 CD player. I remember scratching my head wondering which the better pair was. I think it is all too easy for us to take the objective components that make up a subjective experience and believe that once we quantify and measure the objective components that we can then determine what it’s subjective outcome will be. Imagine calling 5 fine dining restaurants and asking the owners to give me the ‘specs’ on their steak before I come to their restaurant. Yet we do this all the time in the audio world.

    I would like to extend the topic a bit, I am saddened at the lack of ‘synergy of organizations’. I used to be able to go into either one of the ‘used to be’ local audio dealers and either one would give me a component to listen to for a week in my system before I bought it. They both understood that it would probably sound different in my system then in their showroom. I wouldn’t consider buying individual components online as I couldn’t listen to them first, either one of the owners had no problem giving me a CD player, a turntable, a pair of amps to try as they knew that I would ultimately buy from them. This was a synergy that worked to both our benefit. I am saddened that this is essentially no longer (at least in my area). This latter synergy actually was more beneficial to me than the ‘component’ synergy.

  10. I’d like to think that every audiophile started as a music lover, and other than a small percentage of the wealthy, or newly wealthy who buy a high end system for the status of it. The mythological audiophile who has 10 lps or discs, only played to impress other, that the rest of us are still driven by the music.
    I’ve said it many times I will listen on a transistor radio if that is all that is available. My quest
    for better sound started 45 years ago. It has always had the goal of getting closer to that music. My love of music has, led to my fascination with high end gear. Some seem to forget that “high end” is not strictly determined by cost. With careful selection a high end system can be assembled for under $1000. A system that will convey the music in a way that will touch the soul. Wil it be as detailed or as full range as a more elaborate system, probably not, but it will truly play music.
    Right now I’m listening to a Meg Myers song, a free download in Mp3 320. I am getting just as much joy from it as the songs before and after it recorded in 24/96. Why, because it is about the music.
    Do I dream of upgrading a system that is already on better than anyone’s I personally know? Yes, I know there is more to be heard. When I upgraded my preamp, I heard details in familiar music that I had not heard. Two examples were albums I had owned for over 40 years. My old preamp had some tube hiss, that I lived with because to me, it was a musical preamp.
    As long as upgrades are driven by the desire to be more in touch with the music you love, I see nothing wrong with the quest for the better gear.
    And I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that music led to me being fascinated by the gear. But acquiring that gear is in service of the music.

    And on a side note, to me there is no reason to or benefit of buying an expensive gem. Other than as an investment. Would I like to own a Porsche, sure but it would not get the daily use that my stereo gets.

  11. “The chain is as strong as the weakest link” – said a million times, and then completely ignored by the audio crowd. Every system that has a ‘sound ‘ is presenting the listener with the qualities of the weakest element – so, in a million dollar system the impact of a $5 connector not doing its job correctly is what you hear, not the value of the other $999,995 worth of kit …

    All as obvious as hell, but quickly discarded by the enthusiast who is totally infatuated with his latest expensive toy – the way out is obvious, but never talked about – determine where significant audible damage is being done at that moment, and fix that issue; continue doing so until the system overall is working to one’s satisfaction. Remarkable effective technique, one I’ve been using for decades – and the mess other expensive systems often come across as is the result of not using that approach …

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