It's A Matter Of Attitude
What's your home sound system like? Is it two-channel (stereo) or multi-channel plus video? (Home Theater) How many systems do you have? Is your system (or any of your systems) used just for music?
When you're listening to music, what else, if anything, are you usually doing? Do you normally listen by yourself, or with other people? How many other people? How long have you had your system(s)? When do you expect to replace or upgrade all or any part of it or them? Why?
Have you ever asked yourself any of these questions? If you haven't, maybe you ought to, sometimes. Maybe even now.
It's probably fair to say that all of us have some kind of a system for music listening, but that may be where the similarity stops: How or when we got it, what we do with it, how much effort, attention, and resources we put into keeping and maintaining it, and even our attitude toward the music we listen to on it can be different for every person.
Some of us are certainly devoted audiophiles ("Hi-Fi Crazies", as I and many of my friends describe ourselves), to whom our system and the music we play on it are major elements of our life and lifestyle. For others, a music system is just the stove they cook the steak on -- an appliance necessary to the preparation and delivery of something they like and want, but of little or no importance just in itself. And, for others, there's everything else in the middle and at both extremes. People's attitude toward music and the equipment they play it on varies like crazy, and it's that attitude that I'm writing about today, specifically to give you some thoughts on how to best, most easily, and most cheaply bring your system in line with what your attitude dictates it ought to be.
If you're just an occasional listener, or truly into the music but have little or no interest in the subtleties of your system's sound, it's probably reasonable to guess that you're not going to be updating your system with each new technological advance or looking to spend a great deal of money on anything other than, perhaps, your collection of recordings. And in fact, you may not even want to have a collection of recordings, but prefer simply to stream whatever music pleases you whenever it happens to do so.
If you're one of those people, let's keep the appliance analogy going, but say that instead of a stove, what you'll probably want is a refrigerator. Think about it: What more perfect machine is there? Virtually any refrigerator will work perfectly for many years without any service or maintenance of any kind. They all look at least okay; they all do their job; and, for all practical purposes, they never break -- just exactly the kind of machine you're going to want.
And what, in hi-fi terms, is the equivalent of a refrigerator? A receiver or integrated amplifier and a signal source (turntable, CD player, tuner, streamer, etc.). Even modestly priced models from the big consumer electronics companies all offer surprisingly good sound while being designed for near-total reliability and have features like self-resetting circuit breakers so that even user mistakes can't put them out of operation for longer than just a few minutes.
Coupling electronics like that with some of the genuinely good small and inexpensive speakers from designers like Andrew Jones, for example, will give a sound that's far better than just "good enough" and will do so cheaply and for many years to come. They're just the thing for the person who's no Hi-Fi Crazy, and just wants to buy a system and keep it. And, of course, improving any part of the system will make the sound even better, if that's ever desired.
For those of us who are Hi-Fi Crazies, the approach should be entirely different.
We're in the seemingly paradoxical position of knowing that while we're always going to have a system, it will likely be a perpetual "work in progress", constantly changing as gear gets progressively better and better and as we become progressively more able to afford new and better things.
If you're one of us, as early in the game as possible hopefully when you're buying your first system, but certainly before you buy your next one you should look into your heart, and if you can recognize that hi-fi is an obsession, don't fight it, but at least try to be smart about what you're doing:
Try to figure out the point (including not only all your system gear, but the room that it'll be set up in) that you want your system to eventually arrive at and start working toward that goal now. If you have an unlimited budget, just spend the money today. You're going to do it eventually, anyway, so why not do it now and start enjoying it as soon as possible? Besides, think of all the money you'll save in trade-in losses and depreciation along the way.
If you can't do it now, though (and really, how many of us can?) you can, with the right attitude the real desire to make your system and the musical joy it brings to you as great as it can be still save money and false turns in the process of creating it. It all comes down to a single concept: Neutrality.
For the one-time buyer the guy who just wants something that he can buy now and enjoy for years without hassle neutrality as an absolute isn't necessary. As long as there's the composite effect of neutrality where the flaws of one part of the system compensate for the flaws of another and cancel each other out to produce an enjoyable outcome "good enough" will truly be good enough.
For the audiophile with the goal of eventual perfection, however, three basic rules seem to apply:
· Always buy the best you can afford now, even if you have to stretch your budget a little to do it.
· Always remember that the less you hear of the inherent sound of the product you're buying, the more you're likely to hear of the music you're trying to reproduce.
· Always try to buy as few things as possible that will need to be replaced along the way.
And all of those things ultimately come down to the single concept of neutrality: If what you want to hear is just the music exactly the way it was recorded, the "best" component will be the most neutral one. If you just want to hear the music and not the components reproducing it, the ones to buy will be the most neutral ones. And if you want to buy things that won't need to be replaced as your system gets better and better and that won't cost you extra money (not just for the new components but as depreciation losses) every time you replace them, the ones to buy and keep are always going to be the most neutral.
Regardless of what your goal may be whether you just want something to play your favorite tunes on, you're setting out on a lifetime commitment project, or anything in between, approaching your system with the right attitude will help when it is finally time to put on the sound, sit back, close your eyes, and...