Wednesday, April 3, 2013

Dividebytube's Guide to Building an Audiophile System

I've been into this hobby for a number of years and have gone down several dead ends.  This little article is a sort of "lessons learned" piece, which may be of some benefit to a beginner - or even an experienced - audiophile.

Consider the Source:
Like Linn, I believe having a good signal source is the most important part of any good stereo system.  Some others will tell you to spend the majority of the budget on speakers, or even the amplifier.  However, I've found a cheap CD player or turntable will just lead to heartache, making the listener chase their tail trying to find the best speaker or amplifier to match with the inferior sound quality.  Is the speaker too bright or is it the cruddy op-amp in the digital-to-analog converter?  Is the amplifier muddy or does the turntable poorly constructed, picking up vibration?  A fairly neutral source provides the foundation for good system building.

Amplifier Envy:
This idea is closely related to the first concept of source quality - don't go crazy with finding "the right" amplifier until you have nailed down your front end.  Yes, just the right amplifier does make a big difference, especially tubes versus solid-state or Class A versus Class AB, but don't worry about this aspect as much until you have sorted out the source and the speakers.  There are plenty of budget models out there that will do the job until the time is right for an upgrade.

Boom and Sizzle:
Speakers are like luggage - easy to buy and almost impossible to sell.  Before buying any speaker, consider your listening room, environment, and music likes.  For example, a small space will require a small speaker - there is no reason to excite room nodes and get a muddy sound with a monster speaker crammed inside of a tiny space.  If you have little children - a Quad Electrostat or a mini-monitor on a slender stand - may not be the best route.  And small speakers may not reproduce bass all that well, which won't work for head-banging levels, unless a subwoofer is used.

Picking an Amplifier:
I like tube amps, especially single-ended and/or low-powered ones.  Good sounding amplifiers of a higher wattage are few in number, but they do exist.  The Eico HF-60 and (rebuilt correctly) Dynaco Mark III monoblocks come to mind.  However one has to be smart enough to realize that tube amplifiers may not always be the best match for the speaker, especially if low-efficiency, wild impedance curves, or a large listening space is being used.  In this case, perhaps a bigger tube amp or a good solid-state unit is in order.  For example, matching a 20W 6BQ5 amplifier to a pair of Magnepans will lead to nothing but frustration, unless incredibly low playback levels are your thing.

The Good, The Bad, and the Feedback:
Zero Negative Feedback and single-ended was quite the rage for awhile.  However, these types of amplifiers require efficient speakers with higher impedance curves - think Altec-Lansing horns, Klipsch, or (modern) Zu speakers.  Pairing a single-ended 2A3 amplifier to a 4-ohm nominal speaker can result in some strange effects: muddy, underdamped bass or perhaps a rolled-off treble.  Some listeners may like this effect, but it isn't fidelity since the "romantic" tubey sound can dominate the music to the point where the differences between recordings becomes almost negligible.  That is to say, if every record or CD sounds the same, then you're listening to a pleasant distortion machine, not a high-fidelity amplifier.  In this case feedback - if judiciously applied - can actually help, providing speaker damping and extending frequency response.

Short Circuit:
Another strange audiophile fancy is the love for boutique parts.  Now don't get me wrong, I've personally heard differences between coupling capacitors, resistors, and wire.  But I also know that the circuit itself is the most important part, not the parts supporting it.  For example, a poorly design SRPP tube linestage isn't going to be greatly improved by slapping in a Teflon capacitor.  The circuit itself needs to be corrected, or an alternative and improved preamplifier needs to be purchased.

Flash in the Pan:
The high-end audio scene is filled with hyped products and broken dreams.  I could name company after company that have failed since the 1980s, and some of them even produced well-reviewed winners that should have seen these start ups to the road to success.  However, the audiophile market is a niche one and it's apparently quite easy to fail.  Unless you are handy with a soldering iron, my advice when purchasing equipment is to buy from established brands that have been around for awhile.  This will lead to easier service, possible product updates, and better resale value.  Some of the classic brands: Audio Research, Conrad-Johnson, Mark Levinson, KEF, Quad, etc have a long track record and the quality of their gear, plus the resale value shows this.

Vintage Madness:
I love old tube gear and vintage speakers.   However, in the world of amplifiers, only a few of the old designs really stand the test of time.  These were usually the expensive pieces back then  - Marantz, Fishers, the top-level Eicos, Fishers, Dynacos, Grommes, Fairchilds, etc.  On the other hand, the more budget integrated and console amplifiers suffer from poorer circuits, cheaper parts, and output iron with less bandwidth and smaller cores.  The same holds true with speakers - only some have really held up to the test of time, while the majority of the vintage units sound rolled-off and not very detailed.  Sure, these old-timey pieces can sound enjoyable, but they ain't hi-fi.

Separated at Birth:
If you're a simple kind of audiophile who wants the minimal moving parts, then by all means go the integrated or receiver route.  Just keep in mind that this path will minimize - unless in/out RCA jacks are included - your upgrade possibilities.  Personally I prefer separates - preamplifier and amplifiers - which allows different combinations of gear to be tried.  Difficult speakers to drive?  A tube preamplifier and a hefty solid-state amplifier might just be the perfect combination.

Budget Talks:
Even if you are silly rich, every stereo system is built around a budget.  Things to consider: how much are you willing to pay and how will it match with the rest of your system?  I could, with enough bad decisions, put together a fantastically expensive system of Stereophile Class A components that would make any listener run out of the room screaming,  For example, couple a low powered singled-ended amplifier with an inefficient speaker with a low 1-ohm impedance curve.  Though painful, it's best to start with a good front-end, and then buy and sell up the chain, keeping in mind that a manufacturer's lowest priced product is not always the best place to start.  For example it will be better to save to buy a Rega P3 than the entry-level P1.

David and Goliath:
There are giant-killers out there - budget gear that punches above its low price and gives a great listening experience.  KEF and Wharfedale speakers easily come to mind, along with some of the cheaper Chinese tube amplifiers.  However, no matter what you tell yourself, they still are budget pieces that can be surpassed with something more expensive.  It's just a matter of how much you are willing to spend and if you ears really demand that much perfection.  I think it's important not to lie to yourself and accept the limitation of your system, which brings me to my final point.

Times are A-Changing:
When buying gear and bring in a new component into the system, it's all too easy to get swept away thinking that the latest change is always for the better.  It's also far too easy to think an expensive unit will always surpass a cheaper piece.  It would also be wrong to think that newer is always better than older.  Again, system matching and careful listening is required here.  It's also good to have a few audiophile friends over who don't have an emotional investment in your stereo.  If they have experienced ears - and are of an honest nature - they can also tell you what faults they are hearing, instead of just concentrating on the best parts of upgrade.

As always, comments and suggestions are welcome.