I always thought separates (power amp & pre) were the way to go and went through agony trying to get a good match, although integrateds always appealed to me as well if one could live with a passive linestage because the issue of matching pre and power amp would be gone. Also integrateds have the advantages of hard wiring over IC's. My current amp is an HK990 which has an active line stage and an adjustable gain feature which is intended match the outputs of various sources but which can be used to match pre and power amp without any apparent degradation in sound quality. It is an answer to one aspect of system synergy although I don't know of any other integrateds that feature this. The integrated would have to have an active line stage in order to achieve the adjustable gain.
Another major factor would be matching amp to speakers so that the amp would have enough damping ability to control the drivers but not so much that it overdamps causing a thin qquality with loss of bass. Paul Speltz addresses this issue with his autoformers. You can read research conducted on this issue on his website.
This is an interesting question.
I think the closest thing to a "formula" for system synergy is to "work backwards." Start with the room. Match the speakers to it. Then match the amp to the speakers. Then match the source/preamp to the amp. Then match the cables to their respective components. Then assess your need for tweaks. This is an oversimplification, of course, but you get the idea.
As far as what constitutes "matching," that is different for different component pairs. For speaker/room matching, the considerations include things like: Where will the speakers be placed relative to room boundaries? What is the total SPL you hope to achieve? How far from the speakers will you be sitting? Can you place room treatments in the room, if necessary? The answers to these questions can affect your choice of the speaker's transducer type, sensitivity, radiation pattern, frequency extension, etc..
None of this is terribly original, but I think it's sound advice. One thing it leaves out, however, is among the most important considerations for system synergy: What types of music will be played back on the system? IMO, if your hardware isn't designed with your software in mind, you will never be totally happy.
System synergy and enjoying the music is certainly what our hobby is all about. It is not just a matter of proper TONAL balance, but instead, discovering what components and cables work well together to compliment each other, our listening preferences, AND our listening rooms. Unfortunately, there is no "magic formula" that we can go by to determine this. There may be a few "rules of thumb" we may discover over the years that may tend to steer us in the right direction, but it is often a personal thing.
I have helped other fellow audiophiles put together systems, assisting them with their quest, and one thing I have learned is that what may sound great to one person, can often sound rather un-pleasing to others. We all have personal preferences as to what we find as either "pleasant sounding" or "correct". Also, people tend to enjoy different types of music as well, and the presentation of that music will also vary. If someone prefers hard rock, and does not have an interest in, say violin or female voice, then one would tend to build a system around that preference. I always try to get a feel for an individuals' musical taste and listening preference before making any suggestions. I would prefer to have them hear a few different systems first, and getting their reactions of what THEY hear as pleasing or not. Even my own taste tends to change from year to year. Beyond "getting started in the right direction", you just have to experiment and let your personal taste be the judge. If the music does not move you emotionally, keep experimenting until it does!
My experience has lead me to believe the best way to go about it is to find speakers that you like, but that also work in your room. Speaker to room matching is the most important thing to get right. Room treatments are critical here.
Then find an amp (integrated in my case, preamp + amp for others) that works well with those speakers.
Then the sources, then cables.
I say this because I've had some really good speakers with some really good amplifiers, but because the speakers didn't work in my room it was all for naught.
Technically it's matching impedances of source -> amp/pre -> speakers.
The general rule is where output impedance is substantially lower than input impedance.
I agree with Byroncunningham's suggestions. Start with types of music you want to play first and speakers that can play those types well, then select what will work in your room from that group.
I also agree with Byroncunningham's observations except that I think it omits an important initial step, that is determining which type of speaker (dynamic, horn, planer, electrostat) is most likely to produce the type of sound and 'sound-stage' that is most important to you. They all do it differently and what I prize may not float your boat at all. You must also assess your willingness to really work to get the best results out of the type you do chose.
Most high quality results do not just happen when you follow generic advise from reviewers and audiophiles. Formulas, to the extent they exist at all, are merely starting points and are devoid of sensitivity to personal desires/needs.
FWIW, it took me many years just to find the type of speaker that I could make work for me (that was before the Internet existed) and once determined it took many more to find the specific speaker that did exactly what I expected out of a 2 channel system set up to excel with classical and jazz music.
Marakanetz has the "long term solution". Do I not buy the $3000 Paradigm towers I've been salivating over because they might not sound good in the room? No--to use a double negative. The room is more or less acousticly friendly to sound which comes from all speakers. I know that wood, carpet, glass, concrete, bookcases, drapes all contribute to the acoustics, and I probably know how to improve the acoustics. The only question I ask in regard to the room is whether or not it is too large or too small for the speakers. Component matching is the great challenge in system building and the fun. Maybe amp A is better than amp B. But if I can match amp B with speakers that it is not underdamping or overdamping but damping just right, I can get it to sound better than amp A which is underdamping the speakers. The room cannot correct an amp-speaker mismatch and that is also why Paul Speltz's autoformers would be a fun toy to play with. If you buy companion separates or an integrated, part of the matching has probably already been done by the designer, but you still have the source and the speakers to match. I'm an audiophile stuck with a liberal arts background so I'm not very articulate on the technical aspects although many members could articulate the details of matching components. But the technical answers are the long term solution. I think personal preferences follow. I don't think one says, "wow. I really prefer the sound of an underdamped speaker to one that is perfectly damped".
I support most of the suggestions so far. Clearly it's a process starting back to front. But also, I think synergy is really putting together a system that gets the most out of each component. Yes, in the end you have to like it and we all have different preferences.
How about this. For me the most difficult 'find' is the speaker tweeter that appeals to me. Once I've found that, I then need to decide the 'amount' of bass my room can handle. Am I better off with a 2 way monitor or do I risk trying to get good bass response and deal with room resonances etc. Usually the speaker tweeter you like comes in a variety of speaker sizes.
Next, amp power choice is critical to drive the speaker properly. I usually look for 2x the rated speaker minimum. So 50-200w power handling needs a minimum of 100wpc.
Next, the pre/amp/integrated will tend to cost roughly what the speaker costs.
Listen to several and look for a tonal balance that appeals to you - some tend to be more forward, some more weighty etc.
Look for a neutral cables, the best you can afford (speaker and power).
You've got synergy. The front end is more flexible, just make sure to save as much as you can for the front end. It's really important, but not, in my opinion a critical part of the synergy.
Anything worthwhile in audio gets technical. If you don't have the background, you need to try to grow into it.