No matter what we use as the first descriptive word to describe the thing we use to play audiophile music, the word "system" usually follows behind. We euphemistically refer to those collection of boxes as a "stereo system" or an "audio system." Of course, there are other names but these two are likely the most popular. It is also not uncommon for an audiophile to tell someone "I'm going to listen to the system." I have frequently told this to any number of people and never was it necessary for me to explain myself. Calling those boxes a "something" system sort of says it all.
"System" also can be used in a different way - one that helps audiophiles obtain better sonics. Because the goal is better sonics, our systems are not an assortment of individual parts functioning independently. Rather, they are all part of a collection of interdependent devices all of which use the attributes of each other for the betterment of the whole. Because if higher sonic quality is really the actual prescribed result, and one always subject to improvement, one component by itself may help - but to really achieve the highest level of sonics, it takes a complete system.
Our collection of components, regardless of the cost, need to operate well with each other. Building an audio system should be done in such a way that the sum of the whole is better than any one individual part. Sure, we can measure attributes of one individual component to another, like different speakers for instance, but it is the combination of speakers, cables, amps, and digital and / or analog sources all working harmoniously together that transforms an average group of components into a remarkable system.
Anyone who has ever attended an audio show has witnessed this firsthand. Whatever the price point may be, the various components in that system were chosen because of how they sounded together as a whole. In fact, the music played was even chosen because of how well those songs made the system sound. This is particularly true if a specific attribute, such as bass response, will be displayed.
System choices have many factors to consider. How well suited are things like amps, preamps and DAC's? Is it better to use all three by one manufacturer to achieve design harmony, or will picking components made by different manufacturers actually work better?
How are components chosen, by price, personal knowledge, technical specifications, recommended by a trusted friend or dealer or in some other way? How far should the system synergy goal be taken? Perhaps the most important is the amp to the speaker. How many audiophiles investigated the amp's damping factor when considering a new purchase? Were cables even considered? And if cables are not considered as a valuable entity in and of themselves, did the buyer conduct an actual listening test to determine if their opinion was correct or were they swayed by outside forces?
Another factor to consider is the proverbial weak link in the chain. As much as any audiophile may roll their eyes at yet another overused catchphrase, it does raise a valid question. That being, are all parts of the system on an equal footing when it comes to quality and performance? Using world class speakers with lamp cord will produce music but will never allow the speakers to sound up to their full potential. So the whole system should be on an equal quality and performance level.
Once things like amps, preamps, speakers, and sources have been chosen, how much time and attention is devoted to the room? Because of you think the room is NOT part of the overall system approach to sonic improvement, think again. Rooms and room boundaries must be considered to achieve better sonics. Making sweeping changes to the room may not be practical or feasible, but they should at least be considered and improved where possible.
What about ancillary devices? Such devices include anti vibrational footers and platforms, cable elevators, and in modern times, equipment racks. Take anti vibrational devices for instance. Every component in my system has them. They range in cost from $20.00 each for Black Diamond Racing Cones to nearly a thousand dollars each for Stillpoints Ultra 6 with base, to about $2000.00 each for Symposium Super Plus platforms. Depending on the importance I attach to each component determines what I use, but each component, even the Nordost Qb8 Mark II power distribution blocks powering my system have Nordost Sort Kones under them to thwart unwanted vibrational energy. Because at their most basic, all components in our systems vibrate. Those mechanical vibrations can be removed (probably not completely) or converted into electrical energy that finds its way to the speakers as distortion. How many audiophiles, I wonder, make extensive use of such devices in a total system approach? How much sonic degradation from not using anti vibrational devices the result?
Racks are another great example. Thirty years ago, an equipment rack could easily have been a piece of furniture or even at its most basic, concrete blocks and lumber. My how times have changed. Recently, I priced a rack from one of the most highly respected manufacturer of audio racks today and was shocked at the price - a whopping $30,000! And no, I didn't buy one. That is, however, what is possible today. Even if we spend far less for an audio rack, should what they can accomplish sonically not be part of the overall consideration?
Audio systems are called "systems" for a very good reason. All those boxes and wires should be thought of as a sum of the parts way of thinking to collectively improve the sonic quality of the total system. We can individualize and mix and match all we like, but in the end, our system as a whole is responsible for that "oh wow" feeling.