Garbage in - Garbage out?

How many of you think that the source is the most important component and that everything else in the chain should be upgraded to the source? Is it worth it to spend mucho $$ on a cd only source these days? I've got upgradeitis...
Let me be the first to try out Jeffloistarca's new acronym: STFA!

And while this dead horse has been repeatedly and mercilessly flogged on this forum quite a bit recently, I still have to say that all my audio experience (while not nearly as extensive as that of many participants here) points unambiguously to the inescapable conclusion that electromechanical transducers are without doubt the weakest links in the audio chain. For those of us of a digital bent, that means speakers, speakers, speakers! On the other hand, if vinyl is important in your system, the electromechanical transducer at the beginning of the chain (cartridge) is probably very nearly as important, and there I would have to agree that garbage in--garbage out becomes a much more reasonable proposition.

The flaw in the GIGO hypothesis as it relates to digital, however, is that the differences among various digital devices seem to range from minor to extremely subtle; whereas the differences among speakers can be enormous.

Having recently had the opportunity to mix and match components from three different systems in my own listening environment over the course of a number of weeks and months, I can say with complete conviction that it is always the speakers that make the largest differences in the sound of the system. I do not deny that there are differences among amplifiers, CD players, cables, etc., but again, at least among equipment of decent quality, these are often minor compared to the differences in speakers.
Check out the "OK this will be a good thread" thread from a week or so back, it has a lot of discussion on the subject.
Rel is a realistic person. The fault with the source theory, which harks back to Ivor the Invincible, is that not each link in the chain is equal. By far the hardest components to design and build are speakers. Ivor was right, in a way, an analogue front-end being at its core a transducer, it is also quite prone to various ailments, so, for analogue fans, improving that part of the system yields appreciable results. Why no one tests systems as a whole still baffles me, since no one yet has been able to listen to a power amplifier without a source on one end and speakers on the other. Check out the archives, this, like most other metaphysical audio subjects, has often been discussed on this site.
Look at your system as a whole and find the weakest link. A different amp (or source) can profoundly change the way a speaker sounds, so the most effective upgrade is not always as simple as changing "the most important component". But you cant fix a "bad" source or amp with great speakers, so generally speaking, yes garbage in-garbage out. And thats all I've got to say about that.
Having worked in high-end audio for several years, I absolutely concur with Rel - the transformation of mechanical energy to electrical (cartridges) and back again (speakers) are the areas most subject to the introduction of distortion and spurious noise. Even a very good speaker will have distortion levels several orders of magnitude greater than your average amp. How many of you would buy an amp that had 5% distortion at rated output? ALL of the speakers you have ever heard probably had more than that.

And don't even get me started on the foolishness of statements like: "Boy, that new power cable I just paid $800 for made a night and day difference in the sound of my system." Talk about garbage in and garbage out...
Pbb, I like it (re:)

Why no one tests systems as a whole still baffles me, since no one yet has been able to listen to a power amplifier without a source on one end and speakers on the other.
I agree with Albert regarding Pbb's comments i.e. he hit it on the head. If one did "SFTA", you would find that i've said all along that your system is only as strong as your weakest link. It is the system that you're listening to, not any one component. One "killer" component does not make a system high performance. Even a combination of multiple "killer" components does not mean high performance. If that were the case, we wouldn't see so many "flavour of the month" products for sale, would we ??? Sean
Maybe it was because of Ivor but in UK the emphasis was always on the front-end. When I lived there I used to read about the US penchant for big amps and wonderous speakers.

Now I'm in the US I've got the amps and speakers (albeit B&Ws !).

But I do think things have changed with digital sources being the norm and that bits are bits, to overly generalize. Analog sources are still hard to reproduce though.

And another over generalization. Technology hasn't changed much in speakers or amplifiers while manufacturers and content providers are always trying to change source formats. Mono vinyl to stereo vinyl to Cd to multi-track CD to ? So it may be worth the 'risk' to plow disproportionately (that's a long word!) more of your money into things that you're less likely to change out, like amplifiers and speakers and cables and power supplies, than would logically be the case in the pursuit of the best sound for the buck.

Just my 2c, or so.
IMO it's all important ... and thus funds should be relatively equally split between source, amp and speakers. I'm a Brit, but I remember the "source first" argument was started by Linn, who at the time were manufacturing .... let's see .... turntables ... what a great coincidence !

Unfortunately this means that achieving a significant upgrade is hugely expensive. So I usually forget about upgrading and go and buy some more CDs and LPs.
>>said above by PBB: The fault with the source theory, which harks back to Ivor the Invincible, is that not each link in the chain is equal.

>>said above by Rlwainwright: Having worked in high-end audio for several years, I absolutely concur with Rel - the transformation of mechanical energy to electrical (cartridges) and back again (speakers) are the areas most subject to the introduction of distortion and spurious noise.

IMHO, these are some of the more intelligent things I’ve read here on the subject and when PBB and Albert Porter agree on an issue it’s enough to get my attention! (hehehehe)

The components in the chain do not have the same function from a tech point of view. They are doing completely different things and each technology is at a different state of development. You can’t even approach the subject or say something meaningful from a “front-end” / “back-end” analysis.

Inevitably a discussion that starts with terms as general as “front end” will end with the all encompassing and powerful audio answer: “synergy”. I have started to gag on the word. It generally stops the discussion just where it gets interesting. This started with me about a decade ago in office meetings. Some doe-eyed up-and-comer would say something like “we should combine these departments because the combination has a real fundamental “synergy.” I learned to take it to mean that he/she didn’t know enough to say anything in particular or he/she was smart enough not to say anything that could be pinned down. A smart move!! A real candidate for the board of directors! I think I remember the brokers describing the AOL Time Warner merger as a real “synergy thing.” It's like a magic incantation.

In any event, I've chosen to use the word "Robust." I always liked Juan Valdez and his robust beans and I think it is time to move on from “Synergistic” front-ends to “Robust” back-ends. Just can’t stop progress.

I remain,
There is no doubt that speakers are an exceedingly important part of the equation. However, I would disagree as to the "digital is digital" argument. I've heard numerous instances where a much better source (e.g., a CD player with great power supply, etc.) has made a world of difference in the sound of the system. Very good speakers can only reflect what is being put through them and they will not make a silk purse out of a sow's ear. However, it is axiomatic that good electronics feeding good speakers will produce a better sound. So, in essence, the "garbage in, garbage out" theory has some validity.
When we tested and set up turntables in the Toronto shop I worked in, back in 1974, it was always easy to tell the difference between units--even through the 6-watt ss amp and minispeakers with the woven raffia grilles which we used to listen with. We mostly did Garrards, Connoisseur BD2s and some ERAs although we never refused even a BSR, but when an Ariston came in everyone could hear how good it was compared with the rest. This was before any of us had heard an LP12.

Perhaps this experience is no longer valid in the digital age, but when I've been asked what to buy now by someone whose dreams were bigger than his wallet, I've always said to get the best source you can now, and upgrade your downstream stuff later on. You will have more pleasure over the long term, because you will spend more time with your system than you would if you bought a cheaper source and better speakers to hear it through.

Perhaps different contexts--digital, or a system which is already well into the high end, or greater knowledge and experience--may make this advice inappropriate. But when the format wars are won, many of us will need a source upgrade. Would anyone care to say now that SACD will be what we all buy ?
There is really no other way to evaluate what effect the other system components have on the sound without the speakers. The system is built around the speakers for the most part. In the end you are matching to the speakers, more than solely evaluating the other gear.

It would be like evaluating a DVD player for movies without a Video monitor. Using good speaker matters as well. You would not use an old Black & White TV for the DVD demo.
Speaker sets the tone and color of the sound, and it is limited by how low it can go usually. Good sources are to have a refined high, show off dynamic as much as possible, and give out good signal/noise ratio. Amplification is taking the signal from source and push speaker honestly to express its tone. Sources and amp can only tune the speaker a little but still the color of the sound is determined majorly by speakers. You can't push sonus faber to sound like Martin Logan no matter what sources or amp you use, IMO, speaker carry the "color" of the sound.

Depending on what is missing to your ear, you fix that part. Gargage can come in from source, or amp, or your speaker.
That is a great post Albertporter!!!
I 100% agree, and have stated that whenever I listen to a system, I always remember that I am listening to the WHOLE system. Not just the speaker, not just the source, but EVERYTHING from the AC in the wall to the speakers.

Unless you are REALLY familiar with a system it is not really possible to judge any one component of a system (except speakers in a general sense), when listening to any given system (unless you have a lot of time to swap out components and really critical listen to differences, this is the way to get a handle of component sound.)

A wise man once told me that the most important components of an audio system are the turntable cartridge and the speakers because they are the only two components that transform one kind of energy into another. I agree, with the caveat that everything else in the chain of system components can impact the sound along the way.

My findings, from 30 years in the hobby, are quite at odds with the general consensus expressed thus far. I find that the distortions in speakers and cartridges (transducers) are generally consonant with the fabric of the music itself and find the distortions in electronic components, such as amps, preamps, CD players, etc. to be electronic in nature and destructive to the fabric of the music. The violence done to the signal by electronics is grating and amusical. So, for me, I'd always upgrade the electronics first.
I'm an infrequent poster here and an admirer of Albert Porter's rig. Thanks for all the comments.
Why are we giving Albert the credit for Pbb's thoughts?
With a new hi-rez format being the real improvement in digital sound...I wouldnt recommend blowing your wad on a conventional "redbook" player at the moment(why pigeon hole yourself...flexibility is the key in my book) far the cheapest componet in my system is a Sony SACD/cd player...I happened to go that route because my old digital source was just that...old...and I agree...source is important...but to really make a quantum leap in have to have speakers and electronics that would reveal any improvements to begin with...