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The Absolute Sound

From The Editor...
October / November 2003
By Robert Harley

  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 "correct"?

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 hi-fi budget 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."


  Robert Harley



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