As you'll see in this issue's Letters, our Recommended Systems feature in
TAS 143 stirred up quite a controversy. At issue is how much of one’s overall system budget should be allocated to
loudspeakers. I had recommended driving an $11,700 pair of Wilson Audio Sophia loudspeakers
with a $1,551) Naim Nait 5 integrated amplifier. Juxtaposed with this system was Jonathan
Valin's recommendation of a $128,832 package, of which "just" $19,000 was spent on loudspeakers. Both of us have lived with and enjoyed
our respective choices, and both of us felt confident recommending them as systems we would buy ourselves. But which approach is
In the early days of "hi-fi," the conventional wisdom held that because the
loudspeakers actually produced the sound, they were the most important component and deserved the lion’s share of the budget. Implicit in this argument was the
belief that turntables, preamps, amplifiers, and cables had little or no effect on the
sound. This idea was stood on its head in the early 1970s by Linn Products founder Ivor
Tiefenbrun, who virtually single-handedly demonstrated to the world the turntable’s effect on reproduced sound.
Thus began the movement that held that the further upstream the component,
the more influence it had on the overall sound. Source quality was paramount. This school of thought holds that if the signal isn't pristine at the start of the
chain, nothing downstream can ever make it better. In fact, better loudspeakers at
the end of a poor-quality reproduction chain actually sound worse than less good
loudspeakers because the better loudspeakers more accurately reveal upstream flaws and distortions.
I understand the logic of this position, and partially subscribe to it. Believe
me, you don't want a grungy, bright, hard, and flat CD player or digital processor
feeding high-resolution electronics and loudspeakers.
Nonetheless, my recent experience with very high quality and easy-to-drive
loudspeakers, combined with exceptionally musical and affordable amplification, suggests that there’s still a strong argument for putting most of your
into loudspeakers — provided that the components are chosen and matched extremely
carefully. High-sensitivity loudspeakers with a flat impedance curve can be driven to
satisfying levels with low-powered (read "low-priced") amplification. And there are
a few precious gems of inexpensive amplification that deliver outrageously good sound when matched with the right loudspeaker. Find the right combinations of
these components and you get the best sound for the least money.
This is, of course, not the approach one takes when cost is secondary to sound
quality. But it works when bang-for-the-buck is a priority. It's like a Subaru WRX; it gets you much of the BMW 331) experience for a fraction of the price,
but no one would choose the Subaru if cost were not the primary consideration. That's why we present such a broad
spectrum of prices and approaches in our Recommended Systems feature.
Putting together a musically rewarding stereo system requires vastly more
insight and sensitivity than an "'‘x' percentage should be allocated to the source,
'y' to the amplification, and 'z' to the loudspeakers" mentality. Component matching
is an art, with rules and guidelines about how to assemble a system. It therefore
seems appropriate to close this piece with a quote from Michael Polanyi's Personal
Knowledge: Towards a Post-Critical Philosophy: "Rules of art can be useful, but they
do not determine the practice of an art; they are maxims, which can serve as a guide to an art only if they can be integrated into the practical knowledge of the
art. They cannot replace this knowledge."