I hate to be first, but I just happened to log on and find this, so here goes:
The common wisdom is to start with the source and work your way downstream. The further upstream in a system, the more important the quality, as what is not passed on from there can not be retrieved downstream. An opposing view is that loudspeakers vary the most in their presentation of music, so they should be selected first, according to the listeners priorities and taste. Doing so will then influence the choice of upstream components. There is no right or wrong on this subject, it is a matter of philosophy.
Then there is the opinion that the room has the biggest effect on the sound heard, so it should be made as good as possible before a system is assembled. Related to that is the notion that a loudspeaker should be chosen based on the size and shape of the listening room. Large panel speakers stuffed into unsuitably small rooms is not uncommon, I myself having done so.
Another consideration is the owners taste in music; different music's place different demands on equipment, loudspeakers in particular. A speaker great for Classical Chamber music may not be right for one who listens primarily to, say, large-scale orchestral works or Hard Rock.
Some people have a favorite amp for which they look for an appropriate speaker with which to mate it. In the same sense, the owner of a particularly favored pickup arm may look for a cartridge that will work well with that arm. Others consider this bassackwards, feeling the cartridge and speakers, being transducers, should be selected first, an arm and power amp appropriate for them then being chosen.
None of the above dictates budget allocations, and for a good reason. There is not necessarily a direct relationship between price and performance, nor between price and what any given listener likes. For instance, a panel loudspeaker lover will most likely prefer a modestly priced one to a much more expensive cone-driver speaker, for instance a Magneplanar 3.7i to a Wilson Sasha.
This is more than enough from me!
This question has been asked many times over the years. You could try searching the archives for other answers.
From my experiences, and listening to others, there seems to be no magic formula for success. No shortcuts for experience. There are dozens, perhaps hundreds of paths to audio nirvana.
Some swear by speakers first, some amps first, some will call the preamp the heart of the system, while others will even call cables the key to success. Some will spend 80% of their budget on speakers, some will spend 80% of their budget on cables.
If you ask 10 different audiophiles the same question you will get 11 different answers.
I think its silly to even attempt to build a system by allocating a percentage of funds to each component and then trying to stick to that number.
A great system is only as good as its weakest link! Therefore you want to select components that work well together and not by their price tags.
Put me in the camp though that believes in selecting the speakers first and they must be heard by the intended user. Then select an amp that that will properly drive them. I have seen too many people buy an amp only to find out later that it cannot adequately drive a pair of speakers that they auditioned and fell in love with.
Nab2 - I agree with the other posters feedback, but would also like to add...
As you move up in the price range the "ratios" can change dramatically.
e.g. - I have a pair of speakers in my AV system that are around 18% of the whole system - but on my 2-channel system they represent around 35% of the total system cost.
Factor in an individuals personal brand preferences and/or their desire to have the latest technological advances and you will get ratios that are all over the map.
It can also change based on how much "hi-fi Knowledge" a person has to begin with or acquired over the years they have been involved in this "obsession".
As an example of this - if you would have told me 30 years ago that I’d be spending as much as I have on cables - I would have said you were insane - but here I am :-)
The variables are many and in many ways the question in your OP is as difficult to answer as that age old question...
How Long Is A Piece Of String?
Good thoughts above. The speaker/amp interaction is perhaps the most critical, and since speakers do vary much more in their presentation than amps, I’d suggest starting with speakers and then choosing an amp based on their demands/requirements. There are certain electrical interactions that are very important; read through posts by members almarg and atmasphere to understand some of them. If I were starting from scratch, I would work upstream, then. There are interactions between amp and pre-amp that are also critical to getting a wide, smooth frequency response based on their input and output impedance. With respect to pre-amp, if you will have more than one source, then source switching is of course necessary. If you will have only one source (for example from a digital to analog converter (DAC) or multiple digital sources through a multi-input DAC, then you can use a simple passive volume control or passive pre-amp. An excellent passive is MUCH less expensive than an excellent active pre-amp. However, with passives, componenet matching is critical, so read up on that, if it’s an option. IMO, if you are going primarily or exclusively digital, you’re in a good position right now to maximize your investment. High quality high resolution DACs right now can be had very inexpensively, and can be driven from digital files ripped to a computer.
If you are going analog, then that is an area that requires, IMO, more direct guidance. Give us some more information in the areas noted by the posters above (room size, musical preferences, approx. budget) and we can start to get more specific.
Finally, a very good way to get started is to go to one of the shows that are out there; Rocky Mtn Audiofest, Capitol, THE, Newport, etc. Take a tour around to get some idea of what impressed you, then go back to those rooms and ask questions.
As a start, I found "The Complete Guide To High End Audio" Fifth Edition by Robert Harley very helpful as an overall guide to your questions. It is available as an iBook on iTunes. I refer to it from time to time.
It has a section devoted to cost allocations which is very useful.
The book has been the best investment I've made in Hi-Fi to date.
I favor the notion of selecting the speakers first, because they truly limit what your system can do, there is great variation in their sonic portrayal and you need a speaker that works for you - - and the speaker/room interaction is critical to success. It is really good to get really good at dialing speakers in to their optimal location within a room, so you will want to study and practice up on that. Jim Smith has built a fine business based upon his experience and skill at just this.
I fully agree with Swampwalker: once you select the right speakers for you and your room, then the speaker/amp interaction is the next thing to get right. Matching the load of the speaker to the drive capability of the amp is key, and then you also need an amp that matches the sonic palette the way you like.
And, yes, I also think the preamp is "the heart of the system". And who can argue that if the source cannot deliver it, nothing downstream can make up for that, so....
Oh, and I have allocated ~25% on the cables in my system; certainly not by plan, but by happenstance from comparing various options in my system and finding that they often make as much of a difference as a solid component upgrade. I would never have predicted to end up in that circumstance, but I am happy that I did, given the results.
In the end, everything matters - - but I do think starting with the speakers in the room makes the best sense (certainly has for me).
Front end - house mortgage
Application - Midsize Car
Speakers - Children’s college education
The most important aspect is to tell your wife that the cost is no more than 50% of what it actually is. If you can get away with 10% she's a keeper.
I agree with most of this stuff…although too damn lazy to read all of it…but somewhat disagree with the "different musics place different demands on equipment" idea, at least when recommending system choices. All well recorded music is by its nature dynamic, including chamber music, and a good system should be able to play all of it well within its power and speaker driver limits. It’s really a matter of loudness dynamics capability, which is a given…but if somebody chooses a rig for good sound reproduction it should play everything equally well within those limits, or be selling (buying?) yourself short. Chamber music can kick ass. As far as what proportion of cash goes to what item, remember that good speakers can sound great paired with great sounding other rig parts, and vice versa. A lot of my gear is bought "previously owned" so somebody else took the depreciation risk…do that.
"a good system should be able to play all of it (music) well within its power and speaker driver limits". Well of course---"should be" is right! And if one has enough dough, the choice between, say, maximum SPL and amount of bass, versus, for instance, inner detail, micro dynamics, and transparency may not need to be made. There are loudspeakers that DO excel in all those regards, but at what price? Unless I'm mistaken, most of us have to settle for loudspeakers which do NOT excel equally well in all parameters, therefore requiring most to prioritize in the matter of speaker capabilities.
"within its power and speaker driver limits" is a huge qualification! If one doesn't think the music of AC/DC requires a different balance of capabilities than does Chamber Music, so be it; my experience is different. I love AC/DC, but I'm sure not going to play their music on my Quad 57's!---that's what my Eminent Technology LFT-8b's are for. But I find the Quad unequalled for Chamber, Bluegrass, Singer/Songwriter---heck, all acoustic music played at moderate SPL. I listen to J.S. Bach's Concerto for Orchestra and Harpsichord (one, two, three, and four!) and similar music on them, and they allow me to keep all the harpsichords separated, to follow the delicate thread of each as they wind their way through the sound of the orchestra, around and across each other. Very difficult for some loudspeakers to do, loudspeakers which do things the Quads are incapable of doing. Things that AC/DC music requires. Horses for courses, as they say.
My goal is to sound as close to Carnegie Hall as possible regardless of cost within reason.
great query for a thread- 10-20% goes to cabling, as it is often, overlooked. Remember, any system is as good as it's weakest link.
Keep me posted & Happy Listening!
I am not going to argue w anyone who wants to spend thousands on cables, but IMO, start out w decent, neutral, used interconnects and speaker wires. There is a huge mark-up/depreciation on them, and unless they are poorly made or poorly designed, they should not be as significant as a component upgrade. If they are, then you are way out the price - performance curve anyways, so god bless. Not likely to be where a first-timer is. My advice is to think of them as the final spice, not the main course.
On a decent budget, (and assuming digital sources only) I'd do it thusly:
Dedicate about 80% of your available cash to finding speakers that sound good in your room. Do the best you can to feed them (source/electronics) with the other 20%. There are times this may not work - if you choose speakers with a crazy load, you may not find an amp that can drive them appropriately. However, that case will be the outlier.
My logic is that transducers dominate a system's sound. In a digital system, that means the speakers. This isn't to dismiss the impact of the other components, but it's my view on how to prioritize. System matching and room matching are important, so my caveats above about appropriate amplification and room matching.
If you want a vinyl source, it gets more complicated. The cartridge is another transducer and it can be expensive to find the right one and a good home (arm/table) for it. That skews the budget allocation significantly. However, if you're going digital - I'd say speakers (subject to room matching) first and foremost.
This approach also anticipates the future. You're a hobbyist and will spend more as time goes by. Upgrade source and electronics from that future budget, as needed.
BTW If you're lucky, the speakers you choose won't eat up the entire 80% you've allocated. That will make the near term more fun, but - either way, I'd try to get the right speakers first.
Here's the (not so) secret to wide range capability sound…get a set of mains that sound good (to you) to at least 50hz, then get a used REL sub. Problem solved.
Agree 100% Wolf. In fact, very few (and very expensive) speakers don't benefit from a superior sub. A pair of modestly priced main speakers and sub(s) can outperform a "full"-range speaker (very few speakers actually provide low-distortion, sub-35-40Hz output of sufficient quantity) of the same, or more, total cost Some great speakers have excellent built in subs (Vandersteen's upper models), and are an exception. And the right sub can make a bass and SPL-challenged planar a more appropriate speaker for many people. Further, a sub or (preferably) two allows the main speaker to be positioned for it's best sound, regardless of it's low bass performance in that location, the listener then free to position the subs(s) for best bass. No more having to compromise between best imaging/tonal balance/etc and best bass.
There are lots of variables but this is how I would proceed:
1) Determine the location of system and decide on monitors or floor standing speakers. I would allocate 50% to the speakers.
2) 40% would be allocated to the source, amp/preamp or integrated. This doesn't necessarily include both an analog and digital source. I like to have the amp and preamp from the same manufacture.
3) 10% for cables
If you can buy used or demo that is the best way to go, then you will have money for the room treatments that will be required in step one.
Money where mouth is. $
1% audio system