How do you determine your weakest link?

I still, after all these years in the audio game, do not get this: I started, last year, with a speaker upgrade; which I was very happy with. Then, new stands for my monitors. The rest is history. Everything went. I finally ended with upgrading my CDP to integrated, IC. That difference, too, is blowing my mind. The litany of audio lingo seems to be redundant when describing sounds of ICs,amps, preamps, speakers. You know the deal. Everything from soundstage (my personal favorite. just fooling ya) to upper end detail. When I changed my Thiels because I wasn't happy with the upper end harshness, I knew it was the speakers. Would I have known it was from the speakers if I hadn't read posts and reviews galore about Thiel upper end harshness? Maybe (if I hadn't read) I could have decided that I needed a new, softer sounding, laid back, integrated? Since I have changed everything else, since my speaker upgrade, my upper end (as well as a ton of other things) continues to change for the positive. Now, I love my system. Really do. Eventually, however, I know, I will feel I'm missing something. How will I know which component will get me that something? Sorry about the cirmlocution? Thanks in advance my fellow audiophools. warren
Hi Warrenh. My odyssey has been largely trial and error. A few years ago I freaked every time I played CD's featuring flute or soprano sax or upper register piano. It just sounded shrill. Hurt your ears kinda shrill, especially at advanced volumes. Everything else sounded cool.
My first thought was that the recording microphones were distorting. My second was that the digital transfers were dodgey. The first victim was the speakers, but no fix there. Then I upgraded the power amp. But I still didn't get it. I changed interconnects and speaker cables; upgraded my DAC; found the matching transport. Everything was getting better balanced and more focused but the problem persisted. Then I switched pre-amps. Yippee! Everything fell into place, the shrillness vanished. I'd uncovered the culprit. I firmly believe that the higher up the feeding chain you go, the more intolerant the system is to distortion and the more important degrees of "fineness" become.
So nowadays my searches are more about refining what I have. But even when I miss a score on some unit that I think will increase the rhapsody that I've stumbled upon so far, it really doesn't bother me. Happy holidays and hi-fi happiness to you :^)
I definitely agree that as the system gets more "revealing" there is a much lesser "margin of error" in selecting your components. You had better get it right, or you WILL hear about it when you turn it on.

This places a much higher dependence on the audiophile's knowledge of what things will improve his sound. This is really only obtained through experience, coupled with some technical knowledge about why certain things sound the way they do. This is part of the hobby, yes?

If everyone could go down the the local Circuit City and get the optimal audio quality sound, in a one-stop-shop, this wouldn't be much of a hobby. I think that finding the right equipment, and learning about, it is part of the fun.

But, getting back to your question of how to find out what is the weak point. If you have studied and listened enough to buy a piece of gear, then you should know what the strong and weak points are, in it. If your system problems are not cured by this addition, then the problem, or part of it, lies elsewhere. I think that this is where some technical knowledge and applications experience, comes into play. Studying technology, and reading others' impressions, is a good way to make some generalizations, that can narrow down the field for you. Not reviewers. Actual users who have nothing financial to gain from their statements.

I use a combination of my listening experiences over the years, combined with some technical knowledge about how things work and how they "usually" sound. This has worked for me to fine tune my system.

For example, if I have an all-tube system, and I still am having some problem with "grainy" sound, and then I remember that my preamp has a J-Fet in the phono section, I kind of know where my problem is, don't I? Or if I have a SET amp that is not real expensive, and I have some upper-end roll-off, and some bass-bloat, I should realize that the amp is most likely the problem, and I need some better output transformers. Or if I have a bass extension and SPL deficiency, and my speakers have only 6" mid-bass drivers for woofers, I know that this is where the problem is.

These are just some simple examples, but I'm sure you see what I'm getting at. Knowledge and listening experience have to play a part in your selection.

Over time, you will get this, if you work at it.
Warren, I hate to break it you but when you replaced your Thiels you put a painkiller on a fracture - what your Thiels were telling you with their "harshness" was that something somewhere in your system wasn't pulling its weight. The Thiels are notorious tattle tales - they let you hear exactly what kind of quality your system has. The harshness your were hearing was either from a solid state amp, DAC, SS preamp or transport. Check other threads for Thiel comments - they are far from negative. You'd be surprised how Thiels sound with the right equipment.
I would have kept the Thiels and auditioned other front end compnents first taking advantage of the Thiels transparency. But, in the real world we have cost and (ahem) wife constraints to deal with. But with that said, what works for one may not work two. By going with things that work for you, and the process continues to yield benefits to yourself, then who's to say otherwise?
It was the Thiels. That's a fact. I loved them, but they didn't get the treble right, for me.. I don't want this to generate a whole rap about Thiels: pro and con. I do understand what you're saying, however, but the CS 1.5s were a little rough on top. Just a little, but it was too much for me. You guys are right about time and familiarity with my music system. Probably the level I'm at now, I will be able to descern, more easily, how, my future needs can be met with a change. Please don't let this cathartic revelation stop your posts. I love it...
My suggestion is for you to enjoy your music and stop coming to places like this. Spend your free time at places like Borders. If you have itchy fingers at the computer keyboard, go to and search for your favorite artists on a regular basis.

Give some more to charity or put more in the collection plate or poor box if you are a churchgoer so you dont have so much money burning a hole in your pocket.

You could always start a 12 step program in your local area for people suffering from audiophilia nervosa. "I am Warren, and I am an audioholic. It all started with. . . ."

In answer to your question, unless you have a poorly designed bad amp or cdp, and those are very rare and you would already know it, your speakers are always your "weakest link." You can always improve your system with better speakers.
Warrenh, I would like to relay an anecdote to support GS5556' and Twl's points:

I listened to the Avalon Opus on Saturday using two different SS front ends: with Linn pre + Music Fidelity Amp, then with all SPECTRAL gear (twice the price). The SPECTRAL was very analytical and detailed, the music fidelity was very musical. (I have come to view musicality vs. resolution as one of the high end's great paradoxes) If I had heard the Opus through SPECTRAL only, I might have blamed the speaker for what I heard. The OPUS is voiced using the spectral, so I was a bit surprised. The Music Fidelity+Linn gave a powerfully musical and involving presentation through the OPUS.

The two SS set-ups were then used to drive Martin Logan Prodigy speakers. The Prodigy's did not resolve any differences in these two front ends. I fidgeted through this part of the audition.

Here is what I confirmed: (1) If the speakers are transparent enough, differences among front end components, including cable can be dramatic and compelling. (2) There is no substitute for learning the hard way.
As your system positively evolves two factors become increasingly more important, the room and the recordings. Once your system is capable of high volumes and deep bass a whole slew of room related issues arise. When your system starts to demonstrate transparency, dynamics and nuetrality, then you'll begin to notice how poorly recorded some of your favorite records are. There's a vast body of readily available knowledge on how to properly address room related issues. The quality of recordings is not so easily dealt with and I think it is the root of alot of disatisfaction among audiophiles. We want deep and wide soundstages from recordings that were concocted in a small studio. We want silky smooth strings from close mic'd violins. We want tons of details at the same time we demand a warm, full-bodied sound. Red Book digital standards only makes these goals more difficult to attain. All those Audiogon threads asking for a warm sounding cable, an analog sounding CD player, or a tube-like solid state amp are actually attempts to correct recording related issues.
That is an excellent point, and one I find happens frequently. It's only through some good references that I realize that it's the recording.
Onhwy61 has explained this perfectly. It's the room and the recordings what basically limits a system. One can work w/ the room, but not w/ the recordings. That is unless one wants to become a freak who listents to crap music that has been well recorded...

Since I got my Swans back from Modwright I have been letting things break in and adjust to my new place. Once I got rid of most glare (or find out its origin) I finally pinned down a nasty resonance in the crossover range (due to bad room acoustics). It was time to find out how much limiting my recordings really were. I decided to play one of my direct do disc LPs for the first time in this new setup: Lincoln Mayorga vol. III. AMAZING!!! What a difference. That's it. It became pointless to keep on spending more money improving stuff. I had reached the point of diminishing returns. And I had achieved my goal:

"A near field system capable of successfuly playing any recording of any type of music regardless of its recording quality."

The improvements that I had noticed to be cost effective was sending two of my power cords and one set of IC's to Jena Labs for deep immersion cryo. That brought a lower noise floor and better extension in the treble--substantial enough to give me goose bumps when playing trombones on substandard salsa recordings. So that's telling me in which direction I should steer...