It’s the time of year for saving money!
The argument over which is most important in your audiophile system–your source component(s) or your speakers–is an age-old debate with strong proponents on both sides. Scottish audio company, Linn, has historically made the argument that your system can only sound as good as your source (thus you should invest in one of their timeless, but expensive, LP-12 turntables).
In some ways, you could consider this the “East Coast argument,” if only by contrast with the high-flying West Coast position. The JBLs of the world seem to lean more on the notion that can have all of the fancy front end components you want, but if your speakers don’t have any bass or can’t play at a compelling volume level, then your system might just suck.
I started out on the East Coast side of the argument as a kid, as I actually downsized from floorstanding Polk speakers into tiny bookshelf Celestion 3 speakers that I won in a sales contest when selling AV gear in high school. The system began with by a well-hyped Rotel 855 Compact Disc player, an Audio Alchemy DAC, and a super-esoteric-at-the-time Naim NAIT 8-watt integrated amp from the U.K. I learned quickly that setting up an audiophile system in dorm room half the size of a prison cell was pretty close to impossible on a physical level. The ultra-rigid Naim speaker cables got in the way of my gnarly PC laptop (I was so glad to get rid of that nightmare along with its dot-matrix printer), which was needed to actually do my studies in the mid-1990s.
It took me exactly two semesters to move out of the dorm complexes at USC and into a pretty darn nice apartment with a roommate in the Fairfax District of Los Angeles, which is near where Rick Caruso’s Grove shopping mall is located now. It was a mere 15 minutes from school, but far from the non-college-town that South Central Los Angeles was in 1994.
Having my own bedroom and parking space was fantastically luxurious, as was having enough room to load back up on IKEA furniture and setting up a proper audiophile system, complete with a 27-inch CRT television and, even more exotic, a first-generation DirecTV satellite dish installed on the roof with a coax cable run inside of a drain spout and cut into a window in our apartment.
It didn’t take long for the Celestion speakers to go, as they simply had no bass. I replaced them with gorgeous THIEL CS 1.5 speakers finished in Bird’s Eye Maple wood that looked simply fantastic. But there was a problem: an 8-watt European integrated amp couldn’t hope to power these wildly inefficient loudspeakers. Drivers were bottoming out. Distortion was audible. The Naim ultimately got sold in on rec.audio.something on the early Internet. I bought into an Acurus stereo preamp and a very powerful Aragon 4004 power amp, which at the time were made in Anaheim, and everything changed for the better. I had the power to make my speakers do what they were designed to do, even if that wasn’t very much bass either. Gone was the distortion, as well as the driver issues, so my next commission checks went back into my front end, which included a Theta Compact Disc transport and ultimately a Gen-V DAC, which was pretty hot shit back in that era.
Overall, my mid-1990s college system was improving quickly, as I used most of my non-CD spending money to pay for audio and groceries (in that order, most likely), but what I found that I was doing was cycling back and forth between East Coast and West Coast philosophy. When my speakers got better, I needed more powerful or more resolute electronics. When I brought home better front-end components, the upgrade was the inspiration to listen to every CD that I owned over and over again. When that new-normal was. well, normal, the drive to get better speakers bubbled up.
In the end, what I discovered was that it was the journey I was having fun with. Careful investments in blue chip audiophile products paired with some good commission checks allowed me to experience more and more of the fun that the hobby had to offer. I was hooked. I was an audiophile junkie who was about to quit the world of selling ultra-level gear in 1996 and delve into the world of online publishing with an $11,000 commission check, a black and white Apple Macbook 520B with an internal 9600 baud dial-up modem, and barely a goddamned clue what I was doing other than making an audiophile publication for this Internet thing that everybody was talking about. The road more traveled was to stay in audiophile sales or morph into a high-end custom home theater installer/salesperson but NOOOOO, I had to do something different. Young and dumb is a dangerous combination, I would learn in the coming years, but I sure had some fun along the way.
What being a “publisher” in the audiophile space allowed me to do, though, was to experience far more gear from many different companies without having to invest my own capital unless I wanted to. But before I made that career switch, what I realized is that, in terms of selling gear, what made sense was to start clients out with the West Coast philosophy, meaning something like Wilson Audio WATT Puppy 3.2 speakers (expensive at the time at like $12,000 per pair) in a gorgeous finish that looked like they belong in a true high-end system, but paired with a modest Acurus integrated amp and mainstream CD player. From there, it only took me showing up with some Mark Levinson electronics and/or a good front end on the close and saying, “If I bring over $8,000 worth of gear and it blows your mind, are you prepared to let the stuff stay?” If, I got a “yes,” I know my close ratio was well above 90 percent–really much closer to 100 percent on that trial close, as my clients were about to take the next step in their own audiophile (or musical) journey, which was a big part of the fun.
What I wish I understood back then was the importance of room acoustics and how that stretches one’s audiophile dollar a lot more than constant changing of gear. I dabbled with some homemade absorption, which helped, but when you live in an apartment you can only go so far. Ultimately, I got with Bob Hodas and we played with some of the digital EQ products of the day, which were bleeding-edge products but also were anything but reliable and sonically inferior to what a $500 Denon receiver can do (automatically, meaning without Bob and $50,000 worth of measurement gear) for any consumer.
My advice for audio enthusiasts in 2020 is twofold. First, it is very important to enjoy the journey no matter if you start with a source-first approach or a speaker-first outlook. In the modern world, it really doesn’t matter, because you will likely be circling back to the electronics and then other upgrades over time and that is all part of the fun. Secondly, I would suggest that room acoustics and now digital room correction are key elements to audiophile success. Fixing the physical maladies of your listening room should be your top priority, and then the digital room fixes can come next, but in today’s audiophile world, these are game changers that can get you much closer to the promised land, faster and for a lot less money than how I did it back in the day.
Also, don’t ignore the effect a well-installed subwoofer or two can have in your room, in that the old LP-12 argument is more relevant when you can pair a really killer small pair of speakers with a sub that is perfectly blended with your listening room. That’s yet another fast way to get to where you want with full range audio that sounds nothing short of delicious.
Where do you stand on the speaker-first or source-first debate today? How did you start your system and where are you today in your journey? Let us know in the comments below.
Speakers (and Amplification) are worth a larger investment simply because they will still be viable after the next evolution of source units.
My Klipsch floorstanders and Carver TFM amplifier (owned since new!) both hail from the last century and have served me well through at least a half-dozen source units, from a cassette player to the Oppo UDP I purchased in 2018 as they were winding down production. It might seem like a minor point but back when I thought my Philips turntable CD Changer’s ‘192x Oversampling’ was a big deal I would not have imagined the real star of my audio life would turn out to be a mid-level solid-state amplifier.
Home theater has muddled the head end somewhat with the relatively rapid evolution of different physical connections (S-Video anyone?) and both physical AND digital media formats, but good ‘ol speaker wire, Banana Plugs, and RCA (and XLR) connectors still have their pride of place on today’s rear panels just like they did in decades past.
As a fellow Klipsch owner, I agree. I run my HT as 3 channel, so I use the receivers pre-out to drive a 3 Channel power amp.
I ran my Carver preamp’s Sonic Holography for TV and movies forever it seemed. My first real foray into home theater was a cool Yamaha unit that incorporated a 3-channel amp for adding Center and Surround channels to an existing stereo system, don’t remember the model. First center channel speaker was Cambridge Soundwoorks Center Channel Plus, still works though I don’t use it anymore.
Neither and both. It’s a damn SYSTEM…
Yes, both! It’s like asking what’s more important in your car, the engine or the transmission? Neither is more important than the other. It’s a damn SYSTEM…
I’ve worked in the CE business for my entire career; running some of the top brands in the audio industry. With no reservations, I say speakers. They are the easiest component in a system that an average consumer can appreciate sound improvements. Yes, electronics, source materials, speaker wire and interconnects all help improve the performance of speakers but should be considered complimentary not core to a system. Let’s not forget, whether you’re living in a small apartment or luxury home, speakers have the strongest impact on ones decor. Many consumers buy audio gear with both their eyes and ears and, in some cases, systems need to also satisfy their partners.
I totally go with that…
seems like most here equate price with sound quality. IMO this is an audiophile myth; that a ten thousand dollar amp must sound a little better than a nine thousand dollar amp. This myth is most obvious in the case of wires.My current system is an OPPO CDP, schiit vidar amp, and maggie LRS speakers. Entire system costed less than 2K and it’s the best sq I’ve ever heard and I’ve been an audiophile for 40 years. BTW the wires are 14 gauge copper speaker wire. 6 feet long, each.
Wife factor is a definite consideration.
It’s a cyclical argument. You’re always chasing the dragon…
Seems likes a steering wheel and wheels are important things in a car. I think speakers can make a big difference now since many people will be streaming content. In the past I started with an AR turntable and Dynaco A-25 speakers. I ended up after years of different speakers with B&W M801s2 speakers. Thanks to Bruce Adams I got a Technics SP-10 Mkiii turntable as my big source. Now I really miss Tony and Paul from Mondial Designs Ltd. who got me my first Aragon 4004 and 24k preamp. I still have a 8008BB with a custom faceplate and the 24K and an 18k preamp. Thanks to Richard at Parasound I also use a Model 275 amp with the 18k preamp in my house on the Jersey Shore. With so many people using wireless speakers (SONOS, Bose) today I say get the best speakers you can. I like the powered KEF LS50 speakers. I agree with Peter that speakers are something people can hear a difference with and good ones last a long time. And remember to spend some money buying music, the real reason for this crazy hobby!
I always like music but I started my audio ocd behaviour 20 years buck my first speakers I believe was nht super o after I tried few bigger nht few paradigm focal mirage m3si was my favourite of all but one of my friends but dunlavy 5 after I listen the dunlavys I was so impressed I found one pair dunlavy Athena I kept them for 6 years i was extremely happy I never believe I will sell them but I find the bigger dunlavy 4s the 4s ur beter in every way I think this is the last pair of speakers for me except if I find the bigger models my experience with electronics the better staff i have in the front end my speakers sound better even audio interconnect speakers cables ur very important ?
I would lean toward the view that the source is more important, with the caveat that it doesn’t make sense to invest 20,000 dollars in electronics and front end and use them with three or four hundred dollar speakers. Also, as pointed out above, system matching is important. Having said that, I believe you will get more mileage out of spending say 5,000 dollars on an amp and a turntable than spending 5,000 dollars on speakers. There are many one to two thousand dollar speakers that are worthy of the finest front end and amplifiers.
I thought I would add that the “speaker priority” view is largely profit driven. It is well known that with the possible exception of cable, speakers have the highest markup of any component. The idea that speakers are the most important component has largely been promoted by speaker manufacturers and dealers seeking to increase their profits. What else explains the phenomenon of 200,000 dollar plus speakers, which are unnecessary and obscene in my opinion?
Id have to say your own ears solve this argument when it comes to audio I think we all have our own definitions of what we like and how we like to listen to it and I believe what your saying its about the journey my music and my gear is always changing and growing I just wish my wallet could keep up …Happy New Year..and thanks for what you do keep it up
OMG… I started with Heresys and a TD-160C.
Currently, I run Klipsch La Scalas as my main channels, and Heresy II’s hooked in parallel.
I guess I believe in speakers? I have an Adcom 3 channel power amp driving everything.
Very simple to resolve – If you have a high-end integrated amp, CD player, etc., first connect a pair of inexpensive rack-system speakers to them, and listen. Then connect a pair of any Klipsch Heritage line speakers to the same sysem. You will be in for a shock. Question answered!
As the owner of Bose acoustimass speakers I value Hi-Fi stereo sound.I also use a pioneer CD player and a really nice Technics surround sound receiver. But my Bose speakers are the star of the show.based on my years of stereo experience I would recommend that people put most of their money into really really nice speakers
You lost me at Bose speakers were the star if the show! 0 out of 1000 audiophiles use Bose. Bose is a college dorm starter pack. And the leader of a dog and pony show for beginners!
Are you calling me a zero? If you heard my system you would be impressed, and that’s an UNDERSTATEMENT
No sir. I’m 62 and way past my name calling. Plus I have zero reasons to call you anything as I don’t know you. I used to manage a chain of audio/video stores in the late 70’s. I was impressed with the Bose but based only on the size vs soundfield end. However even then audiophiles and musicians were not impressed with the sound per say. It was a novelty speaker at best, much like Mazda’s rotary engine. I even purchased a Bose 21 system for my bedroom in early 2000’s but again for size constraints. If you feel Bose is a great sounding system, the obviously you have not had the pleasure to listen to ANY true, well made and highly rated speakers. I would mention my favorites here but high end speaker appreciation is very subjective. What I’m trying to say ..gingerly as to not give anyone else butt hurt is…true audiophile speaker lists from 1 to 10, do not include Bose even at the 1 rating. Do yourself a big favor and visit some stereo salons and check out they’re selections and see what you have been missing. By salon…I dont mean Best Buy!!!
Sorry, but I must agree with matrixx9. Bose was the talk of the town long ago and was the holy grail. Now, depending on what type of music you listen to, there are far better speakers out there to give you WAY better midrange detail and bass. That Bose system may now be suitable for a great office or kitchen/dining room system, but not for straight up music listen sessions.
I upgraded my speakers, they sounded like crap. So I upgraded my cartridge, a bit better. So I upgraded my pre, boom huge improvement. Matching components to make a system sound great is, in my opinion, the key
I’ve been an electrician for almost 30 years and an audiophile ever since I got a Kenwood ka 3500 and some altec Lansing speakers when I was 12 years old. From there I can’t even remember all the equipment I’ve had. But I do remember the four Klipsch lascala as I had. BGW systems amp. At that point it didn’t really matter what source component I used, the sound was phenomenal. However, large enough gauge speaker wire was extremely necessary and speaker placement was also very important even though their size usually won the argument. But the La Scala’s are gone and ever since then I’ve had to become resourceful. And my opinion is it is the system and how its setup in relation to all the components that makes it either okay or the audio-orgasm that validates the hobby. Digital room correction does help but it doesn’t beat trial and error. And with speakers weighing upwards of a 150 lb each my audio hobby also doubles as my exercise routine and stress reduction. You can buy anything you want no matter how much money you spend you’re not going to get the enjoyment out of it that a surprise score at a goodwill or swap meet/yard sale can bring. Or the reward of getting the 6 towers and three subs in the exact right place in your average sized living room. For me the only downside to this hobby is trying to explain to a girlfriend wife whatever why I spend so much time tinkering with speakers and wiring and amps and OMG. But when the subs can dewrinkle your Levi’s and those towers put chills down your spine it works out fairly well. Now for some Metallica.
Spit Out The Bone ! 🙂
I have a mix n match system 7.2.4 but I like how is sounds and it works for me. Wife factor also works well. Pioneer lx 701 amp, oppo 203 bluray, apple 4k streaming box, Roku 4 k streaming box, LG 4k 75 inch tv. Definitive Technology bp 9060 front, Monitor Audio silver center channel, Definitive Tech Lx11 side channel speakers, Monitor Audio RX rear channel speakers 4 svs ultra for atmos effect, I have vault ceiling and theses work the best. Comcast cable box. Dual Definitive Technology subs. All speakers are hardwired. All streaming boxes are HDMI connected to router. So far it all works for me.This all fits into a 12×25 room . I bought the amp first then built off its capabilities.
Source first, if you don’t retrieve all the information contained in your record no speakers are going to put it in there for you.
The low efficiency vs high efficiency speaker debate has been going on for years! I’ve tired of the low efficiency, high powered speaker amp duo of which you speak. Yes! They sound great at high volumes and I certainly love to feel the kick of the drum or the slap of the string in the pit of my stomach as much as the next guy!..
My journey has truly lead me to The high efficiency speaker/low power tube amp combo that I currently listen to. 60 watts of KT 88 push pull amplification Paired with 105 DB Klipschorn speakers Whether paired with an LP 12 or a tubed CD player does it for me. The synergy that my tube and horns setup supplies is nothing short of breath taking! My system listed as of today
A pair of NOS Valves VRD 60 WPC push pull power amps.
A Juicymusic Blueberry with cream preamp.
A Sota TT.
A Jolida JD 100 tubed CD player
A Mac Mini 2 TB music server feeding into a Topping D-70 DAC.
A 1987 pair of klipsc corner horn speakers with Klappenberg extreme slope x- over networks
This system just sounds right. All pieces pair well with each other and the over all synergy is gorgeous!! You are now at the point of diminishing returns. For every (thousands of ) dollar(s) you spend brings less noticeable upgrade. This system forces me to listen to the music rather than the stereo as the stereo just does it right. In the end, it is all about the music!!!
Listen on and enjoy!
Agreed: the low-hanging fruit is room acoustics, which has a low cost-benefit ratio. Too, a better room lets you hear gear improvements more clearly. And while one should make the room better before adding DSP, if that’s not possible, for whatever reason, DSP — especially the latest generation — still can help a lot.
The entire idea of a single powerful amp with monstrous cables that power everything is history (not that it does not work) along with the front source back end speaker argument. The better way: high end amps should be built into each with a amp to power each speaker of a cabinet and balanced or optical or radio signals sent from the source. In this arrangement the speakers become expensive and your source less critical and less expensive. A properly made active speaker has individual amplifiers for each speaker within the cabinet, inactive components of a passive system can only beat that when the entire system is engineered to work together (very expensive).
You had a Laptop in college in 1993? That is extraordinary!