May 1, 2006
Jeff Fritz's Way to Build a Stereo System"Theres no best way to assemble a stereo system."
Well, actually, there is a most logical, most productive approach to putting together a high-end hi-fi system. And though Im sure there are exceptional systems that were built in any manner of other ways, and though youll hear hoots and howls from folks who disagree with me, if youre starting from scratch, you can bank on what Im about to tell you.
The first consideration is the room
Your very first consideration should be the space you have to work with. How large is it? Is it live or dead? Is it symmetrical? The answers to these questions will be critical to the final result you obtain. The most sure-fire way to learn just what challenges your room presents, and how to cope with them, is to hire an acoustic engineer to measure the room and then interpret the data. Even a not-so-extravagant room-treatment plan based on a qualified person examining, via e-mail, your rooms dimensions and construction type will pay far more dividends than any equipment investment youre likely to make. Treating your room will make whatever you put in it sound not just better, but could enable it to live up to its full potential. At the start of your project, you can involve such firms as Terry Montlick Labs or Rives Audio, who can tailor a plan specifically for your space. Spend your first bit of money with them. This groundwork is the foundation on which youll build the system.
Speakers are the most important piece of kit
Your speakers are the most significant determinant of sound quality of any gear youll buy. Simply stated, what youll hear at your listening seat is the speakers acoustic output interacting with your room. Look at a sampling of the measurements at SpeakerMeasurements.com and youll see some wildly varying frequency-response graphs. Now consider that these speakers will all go into rooms that will vary as much as speaker models do themselves. The potential for differences in sound quality attributable only to the room and speakers boggles the mind.
To put a finer point on it, you must accomplish two things when speaker shopping: First and most important, find a set of speakers whose sound you like. If you dont like the sound, the rest wont matter. Listen to a lot of speakers -- both more and less expensive than what youve budgeted for -- with a wide range of music, so that you can separate the wheat from the chaff. Over the long run, this decision will affect everything else you buy.
Second, find a set of speakers that will play optimally in your room. A good dealer, correspondence with the actual speaker manufacturer, advice from your acoustic engineer -- all will be helpful in this regard. I recommend that you buy the best speaker you can, but one that youve chosen specifically for your rooms size, shape, and acoustic signature.
Last, I prefer to buy from a company with a strong engineering department, so that I know Im getting a competently designed product. Anybody can throw drivers into a box. That doesnt mean they know how to design a loudspeaker.
The amplifier must match the speaker
Buy an amplifier that can properly drive your speakers. If you buy a 3W single-ended-triode amplifier to drive a pair of 82dB-sensitive, 4-ohm mbl Radialstrahlers and intend on listening to rock music in a large room, youre in for disaster. It doesnt matter that you just love the amp; you must pick an amplifier that mates well with the sensitivity and impedance of the loudspeakers youve chosen. As well, the amps power output must be sufficient for the listening levels you prefer. That may mean that 3W is enough power for a massive horn speaker, but know for sure before you buy.
The above points are critical for achieving the best sound -- these rules apply regardless of your budget or what type of gear you prefer. They also will frame a good strategy for spending your money wisely. Having avoided making costly errors in equipment purchases, you can kick back and enjoy your music with more satisfaction.
Here are a few more nuggets of advice that Ive come to promote over the years. Though not as critical as the above, theyre nonetheless well worth considering.
Buy your preamplifier from the manufacturer of your amplifier. The coordinated technical parameters of amp and preamp will ensure that both operate as advertised. You also might gain some useful functionality benefits, such as one-touch turn-on of both units.
Buy from companies that have been around long enough to have a track record. Lets face it: most of the gear we buy is expensive. You dont need a costly boat anchor, which is what you might have if the guy who makes your widget disappears. This is especially true if there are proprietary parts involved, and/or no schematic is available.
Dont go crazy on wire. Buy really good wire, but if someone tells you its advisable to spend 40-50% of your budget on cables, tell them to go jump in a lake.
And last . . .
I once heard someone ask, "What speakers would go well with so-and-so CD player?"
Wrong question. This person did not understand hi-fi basics. Garbage-in, garbage-out does make sense, but only after the room/speaker interface has been perfected and the speaker-amplifier combination is humming along. Once those prerequisites are met, you can make slight alterations in sound quality by optimizing your source component. But buy your CD player last -- and remember where you heard all of this.
Ultra Audio is part of the SoundStage! Network.