How to Build a Good System
A stereo is a complex chain of electrical devices which together make sound. Matching each component to each other is the key to achieving a particular sound or more importantly a correct sound.
Because each component in a stereo system is designed to do a different thing, it is often difficult to mate sympathetic components. Often, endless trial and error is required to find pieces which are either neutral or at least complimentary to each other. All components have faults and good system matching maximizes value while minimizing ill-effects.
In our experience, there are two philosophies to system building. The first is to build a system to sound a particular way. You may enjoy a warm sound, or a highly detailed and analytical sound. You may prefer a wide deep soundstage or an upfront monitor-style presentation. Building a system with any of these in mind is a personal preference and it can pay big dividends to clearly think out and actualize exactly the kind of taste you have. A good dealer will be able to recommend components much easier if you tell him the particular character you like, or what you don't like.
The second philosophy (and the one we promote) is that there is a correct sound to strive for. For those that have heard certain reference components lovingly set up by music lovers, it becomes clear that there are similarities between all the best systems. First and foremost, the music is enjoyable. The best system will allow you to become immersed in the music without calling undue attention to specific characteristics of the sound. Secondly, the music will be faithful to the recording. Bad recordings should be tolerable and musical and good recordings should create moments of amazement. Lastly, there should be a sense of scale and dynamics appropriate to the music and the recording in question. The best systems handle large dynamics and small dynamics with equal deft.
Once you have heard a system that strives for realism and transparency first and foremost it is difficult to return to a system that is based on a singular character because it makes all music sound similar. Characteristics such as warm or bright become meaningless when the stereo system is producing instruments "as they are."
Naturally, achieving this ideal when building a system can involve spending large amounts of money but it can be accomplished inexpensively with careful matching and the help of a knowledgeable dealer. Your relationship with a dealer is the best bet to saving time and money in choosing the correct components. Nobody has heard more systems than your dealer and if he is knowledgeable and generous you should be able to make a very good relationship with him. Despite the proliferation of opinions on Internet forums, the majority of these people have heard a very limited number of components in a very limited number of rooms and combinations. Their reference is probably very different from yours.
Building a system should follow a particular order of importance which is loosely based on the difficulty of attaining neutrality for a particular part of the system. The order we recommend is as follows:
Speakers are by far the most variable part of the system. We usually say that 80% of a system's sound is from the speaker. A speaker is a complex arrangement of moving parts which only operate efficiently when there is linear movement of the drivers, perfect integration of the drivers and proper (or lack of) resonance of the box. Getting any one of these factors correct is a monumental task, let alone all in tandem. For this reason, speakers tend to sound extremely different from each other to a degree no other component exhibits. Also, unlike other components, the best way to approach buying a speaker is to choose which elements you can live without! For example, a speaker which covers only the upper bass to the high treble will often have a superior tonal balance to an equivalently priced full-range speaker. Getting correct bass out of an inexpensive speaker is very difficult. Also, choosing a speaker to fit your room is often ameliorated by choosing one which doesn't produce as much bass as you think you need. Do you need high volumes or to fill a big room? Placement in your room is also a very important factor to consider. Do the speakers need to be close to a wall, in corners or can they be positioned freely? This will have a huge effect on the speaker you should choose.
The amplifier is the partner of the speakers. These two can almost be considered one element as they are so integral. How well an amplifier can drive a pair of speakers will largely depend on the speakers themselves, their impedance, sensitivity and general tonal balance. Many speakers have generous measurements on paper but in the real world are very difficult to drive with appropriately specced amplifiers, while other amplifiers which on paper have conservative specs sound much bigger than they suggest. Knowing how combinations interact is the domain of a good dealer. The best will be able to accurately discuss products he doesn't sell.
Sources are divided into Digital and Analogue. In either case, the source is the first and last point for musical information in your system. If the source doesn't create it, the amplifier or speakers cannot turn it into sound for you to hear. As such, finding the most neutral and accurate source is very important but thankfully the overall standard of source components has become quite high. Even entry level sources are reaching very acceptable standards of fidelity which in many price brackets will exceed the limitations of associated speakers. DACs and CD players around $1200 in particular have finally come of age and there are a number of truly exceptional designs out there. Even the worst ones are generally magnitudes more "correct" than an equivalently priced speaker.
However, for those that have heard a top flight turntable in a well-sorted system, it is difficult to deny the superiority of vinyl as a musical medium. While the lesser convenience and availability is undeniable, we strongly believe that vinyl can be made to sound better than CD in all ways save for background noise. Moreover, it is our experience that you can better expensive CD players with inexpensive turntables. Investing in an analogue source is entirely a personal choice but we strongly recommend you visit an "analogue friendly" dealer to make up your mind first hand. Today's turntables and cartridges sound far better than what you may have heard 20 years ago - simply stunning.
Interconnects carry the lowest level signals of your system and are the most sensitive to variations in design. Most interconnects sound different, but their character is not usually correlated with their price. Be wary of "audio jewelry." Since interconnects are easy to borrow and don't suffer from demo damage, ask your dealer for a recommendation based on your system and take a couple home for demo. Cables can act like tone controls which can fix small irregularities in your system, but the best cables will also reveal musical information and levels of emotion that transcend tonality. While many people enjoy spending thousands on interconnects, we believe there are select cables in the $100-$500 range that match the best in the world. Do not treat an interconnect as a "fix" for your system. You should be looking at changing the component that is creating the problem in the first place.
Speaker cable can have a similar effect to interconnects and it is important to match it to your amp and speakers. This becomes extremely important if you are running longer lengths of cable. Anything over 12 feet becomes a problem and you will need cables suited to long lengths so as to not unduly affect performance. As with interconnects, home audition is the best route.
Having proper support and isolation for your speakers and equipment is very important and can transform a good system into a great system, especially in the case of speaker stands. Some speakers respond well to mass loading, others need sympathetic resonances to achieve correct tonality. Matching your speaker to a stand is very important. Equipment racks, especially for digital and analogue sources are also very important. Often much of the harshness of digital can be attributed to ringing in the player/rack. Analogue obviously benefits from isolation. Finally, keeping everything level improves the sound of all components. There are many good stands in the sub $500 price range.
We believe power cables make a difference but we feel the current craze over after-market power cords is completely overdone. Power cords should be treated as a final tweak to a system that already sounds great, not as a saviour for something that sounds bad. It is our belief that it is always better to spend the equivalent budget on better speakers or source component than on a power cord as there are far greater variances in either of those than in power cords. As a general rule we like to spend 10% or less of the system price on power cords.
When putting a system together, keep the above priorities in mind and try to think of your system as a "system." Even if you don't buy all the components at once, or if you are replacing one component at a time, have a goal in mind so that you don't get off track. If you hear a system that you love, why try to approximate it with other components - just buy that system!
Finally, if you're upgrading, spend a lot of time with your system. Learn it, listen to it and move it around. You will learn so much about the strengths and weaknesses of your system just by moving the speakers to different places in the room. Listen to other peoples' systems and think about how you can get the sound you want in your room. When you figure out what it's going to take to get that system, ask your dealer to help you and then buy it and be done with it.
The happiest audiophiles are the ones that have "finished" their stereos and have no intention of changing it. The beauty of a good stereo is having it at home and enjoying music!