Once I was on a two-lane road in the countryside following a painfully slow logging truck. My frustration grew as a straight-away was not forthcoming to unleash all 375 of my V8 horsepower and pass the blasted thing. When a straightaway finally came, I hit the gas and as I went by, I noticed something mildly troubling - the logs on this huge truck were held by only three chains. What if one or more decided to break right when I was passing?
In audio, following a weak link doctrine could be a champion move. An audio system, in its totality, is really nothing more than a collection of sources, components, speakers, cables, interconnects and power cords. When they function well together, sonic bliss follows.
Regardless of the total cost of our system, we all want those systems to be a cohesive force. We want everything to play nicely together and bond. Everything should be complementary to everything else. If we can accomplish that, we have the best opportunity for better sonics.
Only one thing stands in the way: complacency.
Common sense mandates when installing something new, be it component, cable or speaker, we do so because we are after an improvement. Few audiophiles make lateral changes. An improvement in sonics is the goal. When the new whatever is indeed installed, what becomes of the rest of the system? If everything going forward in the signal chain is of a lesser level of quality or performance, have we really moved the needle forward?
Suppose, for instance we buy a new set of speakers. Our new pair retails for, say, $30,000 and we are replacing a set that cost, say, $10,000. Common sense tells us we should get better sonics, right? Probably so. However, are we getting everything we could because those speakers are fed with components and cables not nearly on the same level as the new speakers? Do we then start replacing the entire system so everything is on the same level of quality and performance? If so, here's my advice - get your checkbook ready, it's gonna be an expensive ride.
Another similar example would be replacing something at the start of the signal chain, like a source, for instance. If the new front-end component is dramatically better than everything that follows, are we going to get all the presumed sonic improvements we eagerly anticipate, or do we start upgrading everything else? Once again, start thinking checkbook.
Another way to look at this is bringing an individual component or cable up to the level of the rest of the system. Let's go back to our newly installed $30,000 speaker system. If the speaker cable currently being used sells for a $100.00, will the speaker be capable of sonically delivering everything it could? If the speaker cable is the only weak link in the chain in that imaginary system, would it not follow, therefore, a cable upgrade is in order? Presuming, of course, the belief that better cables matter. Those that don't will simply not care.
Naturally, a valid question is where to stop in such an enterprise. How far does one take the weak link theory? If we allow that upgrades are done with the obvious intent of improved sonics, does it not make sense everything in the system should be on the same level so the system can deliver a unified sonic presentation? And if we are not disposed to revamp an entire audio system, and suffer the dramatic cost requirements, does it even make sense to upgrade anything at all?
One way to move forward is with a plan. Before even starting the upgrade process, decide which part of the system is the logical beginning. It would also be advisable to have some frame of cost in mind and how long the process should take. Plan for bumps in the road like the need to replace the automobile that cannot hold out any longer. Give a reasonable length of time to complete phases of a system overhaul. Like speakers and cables this year, server and DAC next year. Or, conversely, go for it and do everything at the same time.
Perhaps the way to not go about such an enterprise is how I have typically done things. I jumped from component to cables, to speakers, to vibration control, to room treatments to this to that and all done with no plan whatsoever, and probably worse still, no budget. In the end it all worked out and to the one critical judge that matters, namely me, my system sounds amazing. By no means did it start there, however, when five years ago I started thinking "what if?" Probably the two scariest words in audio!
There is really no way to get around that in order to get better sound, something needs to be changed. Logic tells us those changes are best accomplished when an existing something is replaced with a better version. Likely as not, costs for the better version will be higher, maybe even dramatically higher. In some cases, particularly cables, if a better speaker cable is installed, it theoretically should deliver better sonics. I've had that happen numerous times. Again, if you believe in cables as do I.
Manifestly, this is the continuing saga of our hobby. Chasing the elusive dragon of better sonics typically takes a reasoned, researched, well-funded and anticipatory approach. How far one may take the weak link theory will always be a personal decision made by an audiophile based on their ability, and desire, for better sound. Just like zooming by a logging truck on a country road, it can be a thrilling, exhilarating, and even a mildly scary ride - all for one goal, better sound.