Written by 6:00 am Audiophile, Audiophile News

Is It One Component or the System That’s at Fault?

Paul Wilson looks at the problems associated with finding a sonic problem…

When an audio system does not especially sound right, audiophiles naturally look for logical reasons why. Could the problem be a mea culpa creation of one’s own invention or is it the system’s concern? Finding logical reasons explaining sonic deficiencies, real or imagined, may easily be a sleuthing adventure not easily ascertained. 

There are more ways, Horatio, than may easily be rendered when setting up an audio system. Way too many. Some place a major emphasis on speakers, others on amps, preamps and DAC’s and others still on sources. There are even those audiophiles who commit a significant interest to cables, interconnects and power cords. Any of these setup choices may be done at the exclusion of any of the others. There are even a dedicated few who look at the total picture and view each segment with equal importance and measure. I call this last option the weak link in the chain approach – and the one I have historically taken. 

When all pieces of the puzzle are similar in terms of performance, quality, engineering excellence and even cost, and there is suddenly something aurally amiss, what or who’s to blame? Finding out may well be a difficult task. 

Often, this is more of a nagging feeling than something standing out like a bright light in the darkness. We have the feeling, notion or impression that what we are hearing is not quite correct. Something’s wrong. Putting our aural finger on the problem? Maybe not. Nevertheless, we’re sure it’s there. 

Other times our Spidey senses are attacked full out with an incontrovertible problem. Maybe the bass is way too strong and the mids are being masked. Perhaps the tweeters are so compressed the highs in no way sound natural. Maybe the imaging is just plain wrong. These types of sonic nasties are easily discernable.

Correcting them, oftentimes, not so much.  

Pursuing the weak link in the chain is relatively simple. If the DAC is of far lesser value and performance than the amp or preamp, or even the rest of the system, the question naturally becomes whether the overall sonic excellence will be compromised. Will a $200.00 speaker really be able to adequately perform when paired with the remainder of a system selling for $50K? 

There is a certain logic to the assemblage of a system with everything equal in value, features, performance and design. Furthermore, logic mandates if all things are equal, then a predictable outcome is expected. In the case of an audio system, the outcome is superior sonics. What happens when that mandate fails to live up to expectations? Precisely which link is at fault? 

Cables are perhaps the most replaced part of any audio system. Here again, there are many schools of thought on cables. They matter. They don’t. Those arguments will go on unabated. However, there are many audiophiles who are convinced that a cable may be the most expeditious method to correct something amiss. Maybe the highs are a little too bright so a “darker” sounding speaker cable is used to soften the sound. Maybe a better power cord. Maybe…

One of the more overlooked parts of any audio system is actually not the system at all. It’s the room. Play the system, hear the room is not widely disputed yet frequently not acted upon. A few room treatments will normally go a long way towards enabling a pleasing sonic picture we may enjoy from song to song to song. 

Not always will deficiencies be evident and forthcoming. Many times, the problem is heard, or we think we hear a problem, yet we cannot put our finger on what or why. We might invite an audiophile friend over to gauge their opinion. In this instance, the problem will often be cloaked in obscurity. We hear something, but what, exactly? 

How then do we find the culprit? Most of us cannot replace every component, one by one, with something different until the culprit rears its ugly head. What can we do in those instances? We might change settings, like filters on DAC’s or gain on phonostages. We can alter the settings on preamps, unless like mine, there are very few settings available to change. Maybe the problem is a bad connection, so we remove each cable and clean the terminals. Maybe we check to see if all the wires are tightly attached and nothing is loose. Maybe we learn to live with the disappointment. 

Audiophiles employ many different methodologies to improve the sound their systems produce. We move speakers and subs in an effort to find just the right position. We use ancillary devices like anti vibrational footers and platforms to correct issues we do not even know exist in the first place. We do these things as a sonic insurance policy to hopefully stem the tide of compromised sound. We’re audiophiles, it’s just what we do. 

In the end, we research, study, evaluate and test various combinations of components in the fervent hope the derived sound speaks to us individually. We all have within us the sound that is just right, the one we find most enjoyable. Are we able to define it exactly? No, probably not. We will know it when we hear it, however. 

With any luck, our audio system will be glorious and produce hours and hours of magnificent music. We can close our eyes and just enjoy. Sometimes, however, when something does not sound right, we hopefully will be able to immediately identify and correct the problem. Otherwise, it may be like that infernal cricket chirping in the bedroom in the middle of the night. We hear it, but crawl around on our hands and knees all we might, but finding the stupid thing, ah, that’s the rub.  

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