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August 2014
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How To Get The Most For Your Money When You Build A System
Roger Skoff tells how to get a system that sounds like you broke the bank, even if you didn't.
Article By Roger Skoff


Roger Skoff  No matter how exotic, extensive, or elaborate a system I might want to own today, whether for dedicated two- channel high-end music listening; for home theater (anything from the simplest setup, to a full-scale "Theo Kalomirakis-style" 1930s movie palace reproduced in whatever level of detail I specify, or the equivalent of a government or corporate "War Room"); to an every-room background music and intercom system; to the most full-featured "Smart House" system; there are people out there who will do anything from just helping me to install stuff that I bought and brought home, to selecting the things I ought to have, buying it, delivering it, installing it, and acting as an interior decorator to make sure that it's sufficiently good-looking  and in keeping with the look of the rest of my home to ensure that my Lady Fair doesn't demand that both it and I be immediately removed.

That isn’t the way it was in the "good ole days". Back then, other than maybe having the builder put in a background music/intercom system when you bought a new house or had your old one remodeled, hi-fi was, to a very large degree, a "hands-on" hobby, and do-it-yourself (DIY) was definitely the order of the day.

Hobbyists, homeowners, and hi-fi crazies weren't entirely on their own, however: Kits, instructions  for assembling them, suggestions for their use and hookup, and for other things to use with them were available from Heath, Eico, Lafayette Radio, Radio Shack, and others; "raw" drivers and crossovers were available from Electro-Voice, James B. Lansing (now JBL), and University; empty do-it-yourself speaker enclosures were available from Acousticraft and others; magazines like Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, Popular Electronics, and others ran articles on installation, hi-fi-related "how-to" subjects like wiring and installing a built-in system, and even such classic projects as the "Sweet 16" speaker system, which consisted of sixteen "full-range" 4 inch drivers mounted as a 4 x 4 square on a flat open baffle, and sounded a lot better (at least for "mono") than you might expect.

The great guru of Hi-fi at the time was Julian Hirsch, of Hi-Fi/Stereo Review (later renamed Stereo Review) and his testing company, Hirsch-Houck Laboratories. Although I can't recall him ever actually listening to anything or making any kind of comment at all about its sound, he did do some 4,000 measurement-oriented "laboratory" tests of audio equipment for various magazines (more than 2,400 just for Stereo Review) and his monthly column "Technical Talk" gave advice and answered reader questions on just about every hi-fi subject.

Among the questions that came up in that column with some frequency were various forms of "How much should I spend for my hi-fi system, and how much of that should be spent on each component?"  His answer to that kind of question was, as I recall, something to the effect that the greatest part should be spent on the speakers because they have the greatest effect on what we actually hear; that less should be spent on the electronics because (although there's no indication that he ever actually listened to learn if it was true) he thought that all reasonably well-designed and well-built electronics should sound exactly the same; and, surprisingly – especially after Stereo Review's  controversial 1983 finding that cables have no effect on the sound – that (again, as I recall) some ten to fifteen percent of the total cost of the system should be budgeted for good quality cables.

What's even more surprising is that – although certainly for different reasons – I agree with his recommendations almost straight down the line: Speakers and cables are what you should spend some money on and give some care to selecting, and electronics, although by no means all sounding the same, are the products least likely to sound greatly different.

The reason for this, once you stop to think about it, is both simple and obvious.

Anybody at all can take any driver or combination of drivers at all, combine it or them with any crossover or no crossover at all, put them in any box or no box at all, wire them up, hook them up to any amplifier at all, playing any signal at all, and they will make a sound, and the person who put it all together WILL be able to declare himself a loudspeaker designer. Similarly, anybody at all can take any two conductive objects at all (A steel building girder, for example, and a straightened paper clip), hook them up in such a way as to form a circuit, connect them between a source and a load, and they will pass signal and the person who hooked it all up WILL be able to declare himself a cable designer and will be able sell his "cable" for whatever price he can get.

Because they can come from people who range anywhere from highly educated and completely knowledgeable experts to tinkerers, pure and simple, speakers and cables can and do vary wildly in their sound and performance, ranging from truly spectacular to absolutely awful. Interestingly, too, it's possible that the "designer" of a great-sounding speaker or cable may simply have gotten lucky, and, not knowing what he did to get the first one right, may never again be able to make anything else as good.

Electronics are different: You can’t just start hanging resistors, capacitors, transistors (or tubes, if you prefer), transformers, and other electronic components together at random and have any hope that they will magically turn into an amplifier, a preamp, or a CD player. Tales of infinite numbers of monkeys and infinite numbers of typewriters notwithstanding, it just can't happen. Unlike speakers and cables that, if they are badly or randomly designed, may still work but not well, unless electronics are designed by someone with at least a basic knowledge of what he's doing and a minimal level of competence, they won’t work at all!

What that means is simply that the differences between the very best and the very worst electronics are a whole lot less than the differences between the very best and very worst speakers or cables. And that, in turn, means that for the audiophile or music lover with a limited budget, the place to count your pennies is in the purchase of your electronics and the place to spend them is in the speakers and cables.

There are a couple of other things to consider, too: The first is whether the system you are putting together is to be the basis for your eventual masterpiece and will have to grow and improve as it gets ever closer to perfection, or if it will likely stay pretty much as it is, and you'll either keep it or eventually replace it all at once. The second is that, in either of those cases, you can not only spend more money to get better sound but you can spend more time doing more careful shopping.

When you are buying a system, shop! Listen to as much as you can, so that when you do make your decision as to what part of your budget should go to which components, you will have the best possible idea of what those dollars can buy.

If it were me, and if I was shopping for a system to just keep, the first thing I would listen to would be the speakers, and I would try to find the very best I could get for half or a little more than that of my budget. Then, I would try to find the very best cables I could get for something less than about a third of what I had left. Remember that the performance differences between higher- and lower-priced speakers and cables are likely to be greater than the differences between higher- and lower-priced electronics, and that therefore, even if you wind up having less to spend for your electronics, the likely loss in total performance will be less than if you had skimped on the speakers and cables. Remember, too, that price and performance don't necessarily go hand-in-hand, so that spending more or less on what you buy won't automatically get you more or less performance and satisfaction, so listen to everything and assume nothing! Then, after you've picked your speakers and cables, choose a receiver or integrated amp and a CD player or other source electronics to spend the rest of your budget on.

If I were shopping not for a system to keep, but for one to perfect over a long and happy hobby, I would do the same thing, but I would audition the cables first, on as many different systems as possible, listening for the ones that sounded the most different on each different system. (That's the way to find cables that have no sound of their own. If they sound the same on different systems, either the systems aren't very different or the cables are highly colored and what you're hearing when you listen to systems fitted with them is the cables and not the rest of the system) The reason for picking the cables first is that, if you know you're going to be growing the system, you know that it's likely that you'll eventually be changing all of the rest of the components. So wouldn't it be nice not to have to change the cables, too? After the cables, I would next pick my speakers, leaving just a minimal amount for the electronics. Well-designed cheap electronics are surprisingly good, and if I know that I'm going to change them eventually, why spend a lot for them now?

You can do all these same things, and if you do, you'll know that you've gotten the very best system possible for your money and your current intent, and you'll be able to relax with a smile on your face as you... 

Enjoy the music!  















































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