Standing glaringly in the way of accomplishing this difficult task is one immovable object : variety.
Any audiophile already predisposed to one technology or another likely has a leg up on one who seemingly likes everything and cannot decide which is their favorite. If analog is the favorite, then confusing choices are reduced by a long margin. If digital is the preferred format, there are still a lot of choices to make and the elimination of analog a minor help. Those given to the enjoyment of both have double the workload in the difficult, and some would say continuing task of putting together a high performance audio system.
System synergy is perhaps often overlooked, possibly ignored, and quite likely a convent most will only peripherally address. Yet, however, it is an all important part of building the right system to enhance musical playback. Because in the final analysis, we all want, need even, our systems to move us in ways lesser systems cannot.
Suppose, if you will, you decide to build a really nice system. Out with that “big box” $499.00 special, in with the “luxury audio system.” Jaw dropping sound. Something to really leave friends and neighbors wide-eyed with disbelief. Great. Wonderful. So how, exactly, do you go about starting?
One of the first difficulties is wading through the seemingly endless array of technologies and why each claim sonic greatness. Many manufacturers these days offer nearly turnkey solutions. Certainly, many companies making amps, for instance, also make preamps, integrated amps, streaming devices, and DAC’s. All one needs are some speakers, interconnects, cables and — “bingo!” — music awaits. Sounds pretty simple, right?
It seems likely that most who look to put together an entire audiophile system or part of one will utilize all available resources. They will contact dealers, visit all the ones that may be close by. They will read equipment reports both in print magazines and online. They might even participate in any of the wide variety of online forums for possible suggestions. Any or all of these may well leave one more confused than when they started. They may also provide useful and worthwhile answers to mitigating questions.
One convenient roadmap is to simply utilize the various components made by the individual manufacturer. There almost seems to be a certain symmetry in this approach. Amps, DAC’s and source components by the same company have a greater probability of playing nicely together as compared to different manufacturers. On the other hand, suppose the reviews, forums, and nearby dealer all promote THIS amp as the best in its price class? Would the better choice, then, be to buy it and hope it plays nicely with all the other equipment – equipment made by different manufacturers? What about matching to speakers? Cables? Racks? Room? It can easily become exponentially difficult decisions.
Another option is choosing something by a different manufacturer for everything. No two components made by the same company. And I see a certain logic to that approach as well. Not only might one take advantage of a really stellar component as compared to a manufacturer’s other products, but it might also be possible to take advantage of lesser priced components whose performance parameters are still minimally acceptable sonically.
This approach even offers the user the opportunity to easily evaluate how well, or not so well, a replacement component sounds. If Brand “X” speaker cables are acceptable, and they are by one individual manufacturer, then replacing them with a cable from a different company makes it very simple to tell any perceptible difference, be they positive or negative. Or none at all. Same might be said for a higher quality cable in the “Brand X” product line.
Of course, none of this speaks to the obvious goal by many manufacturers of making an “all-in-one” component, thus eliminating all guesswork.
It should seem patently obvious the best and most identifiable method in component selection is by the simple task of listening. Deciding if a source, amp, preamp, integrated, speaker or the host of cabling is right and correct for your system, whether all at once or incrementally, is best done by a personal evaluation. Being able to do so in your own system, preferably in your own home, will be the most revealing and give the user the most credible and reliable information on what to purchase. Best of all, it accurately answers questions. If you are starting at ground zero, this can make for a long journey to a complete system. If you are replacing something, or upgrading, fewer and easier decisions await.
I have put together quite a few stereo systems in my long audio odyssey. In each and every case, I felt like I had the best system I could at the time with remarkable sonics. And in each case things worked fine… until they didn’t.
Until I decided I disliked something and began making changes. That continues even today. I’m satisfied with the status quo. Until I’m not.
I don’t suppose there is a 100% right way to put together an audio system. Building one from scratch will require a lot of work, research and financial commitment. Replacing a component is sometimes fraught with guesswork and hopeful enjoyment of what is to come.
All the lone audiophile can really do is utilize the resources around them. Dealers, reviews, forums all may very well offer helpful insights.
Listening is, of course, the best option. And sometimes, well, sometimes you just get lucky. If, however, you do buy something and discover to your horror you dislike it, there is always trade in, and trade up. I should know, I’ve done that very thing often enough.
Sometimes, though, the real fun is in the journey.