Audio reviewers just love car analogies, the perfect shorthand for the cost/performance/benefits curve. Often it’s just laziness or a mistaken impression that they’re actually audio’s answer to Jeremy Clarkson (same shape, just without the audience figures or the money) but there’s one area in which the parallels are too close to ignore. Motorsport and audio are all about the same thing: performance – and how to achieve it. When it comes to trying to build a decent hi-fi system, the conceptual challenges are surprisingly similar to building a sports car – just without the comfort blanket of meaningful, empirical performance indicators.
Buy a car with a published performance that includes a sub-four second 0-62mph figure and you probably think you know what you are getting. But do you? It’s undoubtedly quick and it definitely takes off from the lights, but to actually reach a mile-a-minute in less than four seconds, you need a professional driver, slick tyres, perfect weather, and a perfectly manicured drag strip – not a weekend warrior on the Clapham High Road. More to the point, there’s actually no guarantee that if you race a car with a 4.2 second 0-62 figure away from the lights, you are actually going to achieve that target. It’s all down to the conditions and the vehicle that’s best suited to them. When it comes to actually going under the four-second barrier, it’s all about creating the conditions for optimum performance – or realizing potential – and hi-fi systems are just the same. Get the right car, the right driver, the right mechanic, fuel, tyres, and track – and you’ll see that car at its best. Bolt together an engine from one source, a chassis from another, add a bunch of tuning parts and fill it with something you found in a can at the back of the garage, and you’ll be lucky if it even starts – yet that’s exactly what a lot of people do with audio equipment. Then they wonder why they’ve stopped listening to it. Most end users spend too much time agonizing over the equipment choices and not nearly enough worrying about giving that equipment a fighting chance. The boxes might well be the sexy bits, but they quickly lose their allure if you can’t hear what they’re doing – and that’s definitely down to the operational environment.
The enduring popularity of What Hi-Fi and the Stereophile Recommended Components listings rests on the buyer’s need for answers. But we all know (including the people handing out those Five-Star reviews and Class A ratings) that simply assembling a system made from those prize-winning components is a recipe for disaster. The problem is that, even leaving matching and set-up issues aside, picking products off somebody else’s short list is like letting a total stranger choose your meal in a restaurant – somebody who has never met you and has no idea that you suffer from violent food allergies!
The first step to building a really good hi-fi system is understanding that the only person who can provide those ‘which product’ answers is you. So rather than trying to offer you short cuts that turn out to be dead ends, spurious ‘recommendations’ that ultimately don’t deliver, perhaps it’s time to approach this problem from the other end. If magazines can’t (and really shouldn’t try to) provide universal recommendations, perhaps they should work on making it easier to arrive at really meaningful answers of your own. With that in mind, and couched in the form of a loose assortment of half a dozen motoring truisms, three devoted to establishing a decent operational foundation for your system, three concerned with selecting the system itself, here are the golden rule of system building success. Following them won’t guarantee musical satisfaction (there’s a bit more to it than that) but ignore even one and you’ll be severely limiting your system’s potential. How do you build a system? Here’s how…
Rule 1. Don’t try and run a top fuel dragster on diesel
When you listen to an audio system, you are actually listening to your AC supply. The electricity that comes out of the wall is the raw material that is converted into sound – and just like any other process, the resulting performance depends on the quality of the fuel you use. The increasing use of wireless communication systems, switching power supplies, and the massive increase in electrical components loading the national grid all contribute to a situation where AC quality is at an all-time low. What we tend to forget is that a lot of those problems emanate from within our own houses, with multiple appliances, computers, mobile/wireless phones, and data systems all polluting the immediate area. Running a single, dedicated mains spur to feed your audio system, preferably wired with a screened, heavy-gauge cable, and selected sockets and hardware in the fuse-box is possibly the single most cost effective contribution you can make to the performance of your audio system. It might not offer the instantaneous gratification of a NOS injection system, but believe me, the benefits are both permanent and absolutely fundamental.
Rule 2. Don’t try and drive a Ferrari across a ploughed field
Let’s be honest, you wouldn’t do it: indeed, you probably couldn’t do it – not enough ground clearance or suspension travel. The Ferrari is definitely designed to run – in fact, will pretty much only run – on perfectly smooth surfaces. Your audio system is the same. Think of discontinuities in the signal path or external mechanical interference as the furrows of that field and you begin to get the picture. Each microphonic intrusion or change in the materials or nature of the cables connecting your boxes together will erode performance, destroying the linearity and musical coherence you are trying so hard (and spending so much) to preserve. In turn, what that means is that you need to pay attention to what sits between your equipment and the floor and what connects it together. So choose racks and shelves that are dispersive and non-resonant in nature – which means avoiding welded steel, glass and if possible MDF. They need to provide a stable and level surface and also consider what (if any) isolation the structure provides from the outside world, between the rack and the floor or the rack and its shelves: and no, spikes don’t count. Likewise, choose your cables (all of them, including the power cords) from a single, coherent range, where a manufacturer uses the same conductor, dielectric materials and design concept across all the products.
Rule 3. It’s all about traction…
All the power in the world is no good to you if you can’t hook it up – and spinning wheels don’t get you very far. In motoring terms you can talk about torque and tyres, but it’s the road surface that is ultimately the limiting factor. For audio systems, the equivalent constraint is the signal to noise ratio, or noise floor: it’s the other side of the isolation/integration argument outlined above – just even more critical. In this case it’s all about grounding – mechanical and electrical. In real terms, what you are seeking to isolate or protect isn’t the equipment but the signal path within it and that’s an important distinction. As well as mechanical energy reaching the signal path from the air and the floor, via the rack, the equipment generates internal mechanical energy too. Transformers vibrate, as do capacitors as they charge and discharge and other components as they pass the signal. The actual level of the energy might be low, but it is right where the signal is, making it disproportionately destructive. To make matters worse, the soft ‘isolation feet’ fitted to most products actually trap that energy inside your electronics where it smudges the signal and raises the noise floor. Hard couplers that ground the chassis to a dispersive supporting surface (which could be as simple as a plywood or laminated bamboo shelf) provide an exit path for that energy – generally with pretty dramatic results. The resulting drop in noise floor, increase in dynamic range and improvements in timing and rhythmic articulation can have a profound impact on just how listenable your system is. Ever wondered how those ‘isolation’ cones worked? Now you know – and it’s not by isolating the equipment!
Likewise, there’s no substitute for a clean ground when it comes to reducing the electrical contribution to the system’s noise floor. Use a single, star-grounded distribution block to power your equipment, with the centre of the star connected not just to the main AC ground but also to a separate ground-post buried in your garden and you’ll experience an equally dramatic reduction in grain, a blacker background behind the music, richer, more vibrant colours and more emphatic dynamics – all crucial to your system’s musical expression and sense of emotional communication. Once again it’s a cheap and easy fix that delivers results it’s hard to credit – until you experience them.
Once you’ve paid attention to the basic steps outlined above you will have established conditions of operation that will give your equipment a fighting chance of performing somewhere near its potential – and you a fighting chance of hearing what it’s doing and the musical impact of any changes or choices you might make. Now it’s time to look at the system selection guidelines…
Rule 4. Don’t try to bolt a big engine to a tiny transmission
There are certain critical junctions in any system; joins where the parts need to mate seamlessly if the whole is going to become greater than the sum of the parts. In a car, it goes way beyond whether the mating parts use metric dimensions or not: the design team needs to consider power and torque curves, gear ratios, and performance goals. Audio systems are exactly the same, except that the critical junctions are not necessarily quite so obvious. We tend to divide systems into three parts: source components, amplification, and speakers. In fact, we should divide them in two: everything up to the amplifier inputs and everything after them. The electrical relationship between the driving amplifier and the speaker load it is connected to is so critical that it cannot possibly be separated if you want to get everything out of both components. The speaker/amplifier pairing should be chosen together (even if you are not buying them together), matched to each other and the room in which they’ll be used. That’s the only way to achieve the best possible performance.
Rule 5. Straight line speed gets you nowhere fast if you don’t have the handling to match
The chassis and suspension might not be the most visible or the sexiest part of a car, but they are what joins the engine to the wheels, keeps those wheels on the ground and that car on the road. In an audio system, that role is occupied by the line-stage – and it can totally make or break the performance of the system as a whole. Over the years, ever since the advent of CD, it has been fashionable to try and eliminate the line-stage from the audio signal path, either replacing it with a variable output source component (as championed by Wadia and dCS, amongst others) or a passive pre-amp of some description. In my view, what benefits that seem to come with direct connection or passive control are merely a reflection of how bad many line-stages really are. For something that on paper at least, should be so simple, designing a decent line-stage is incredibly difficult – making worthwhile examples rare if not necessarily expensive. In fact, it’s really what establishes the musical foundation, sorting the incoming signals and defining the quality and integrity of what reaches the power amp and speakers. The line-stage is the living, breathing heart of any system and you need to listen long and hard until you find the one for you.
This is, I grant you, not an opinion shared by everyone; many enthusiasts (including some on the Hi-Fi+ team) use systems without active line stages. However, I still hold that the best systems I’ve heard all feature an active preamp.
Rule 6. Don’t decide on a two-seater if you have a family
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when it comes to building a system is pre-allocating your budget, dividing it up by unit function – so much for the source component(s), so much for the amplifier and so much for the speakers. In reality, such an approach is utterly nonsensical. Not only will the relative component costs change with technology, but with overall budget too. End up with a horn speaker and it could cost many times the price of the driving amplifier – the complete opposite of a classic flat-earth pairing. Building a CD replay system or a record player are two completely different engineering problems with completely different cost structures: there’s no correlation between the expenditure on and performance of the two solutions – not to mention the fact that the record player needs a phono stage as well!
Finally, think back to our first three rules. Assembling a coherent set of cables and supports as well as executing the electrical work necessary doesn’t have to be massively expensive (at least in high-end audio terms) but there is a minimum cost involved. In the context of a £3,000 system that cost might well constitute as much as 50% of the budget – a figure that seems ludicrous on paper, until you actually listen to what these elements contribute to the overall sound. They aren’t just luxuries or accessories, they are the foundation on which the system is built and on which it’s performance depends. Although many disagree, I remain convinced that £1,500 worth of electronics and speakers properly set up with £1,500 worth of infrastructure, will out-perform £3,000 worth of kit set up on a sideboard using bell-wire!
Audio history is littered with examples of apparently mismatched systems that really worked. From the £2,000 ARC SP8 pre-amp driving the Meridian M2 interactive loudspeakers (£800 including the power amps) to the ARC M300 mono-blocs paired with the Sonus Faber Electa Amator, or from a quartet of Naim NAP135 power amps driving active Kans to the Border Patrol P21 driving the Vox Olympians, the proof is in the listening and you can only listen to a system – not individual components. Which is where audio and motoring diverge. The problem is, that when it comes to reproducing music, the simple measures (quicker, faster, further) don’t apply. What makes the difference between a set of equipment that just makes a noise, a good system that makes something approaching music and a great system that makes sense of both the music and the musical performance, is its ability to reveal the fragile chemistry preserved in the signal. Most people assume that the results are dictated by the quality of the boxes that make up the system, but in reality it has much more to do with how well the boxes work together and well you let them work.
As I said earlier, six rules aren’t a lot to follow and they won’t guarantee your arrival at audio nirvana – although they will set you on the right path and keep you heading in the right direction. But ignore even one and either you won’t have all the wheels on your hi-fi wagon, or you won’t get far before they start falling off: you set out to buy a Ferrari but you’ll end up with the audio equivalent of a Reliant Robin!