The best way to design an audio system.

What is the best way to design and assemble a high-end audio system?

Should you first adopt a system philosophy?

Or should you just pick out a component you really like and build a system around it?

These seem to be the 2 most popular methods of assembling systems that I have read here on the Audiogon forums. Of course, I have my own thoughts on this subject, but I am interested in how everyone else feels about this, and what are the reasons for their opinions. Considering that we have alot of new people on the Audiogon these days, it may be helpful for them to read about how the "old timers" and "experts" configure their systems and why.
After 30 years in the business, and lots of system design, I believe that starting with the speakers is the way to go. They do make the bigest sonic impact on the system sound. Room size, cosmetic (WAF), bass extention and level issues will be important in this decision.

Once you have picked out your speakers and you have knowledge of your listening environment and listening biases you can pick a complementary Amp and preamp or Integrated amp. Features are also important in this choice. Solid state or tubes, remote control and system flexability and future upgradability are all issues to look at in addition to sound quality. I have seen too much money spent here so as to not end up with a balanced system. The idea is to get the quality power that you need to run your speakers, in your room, to the volume levels that you need. Overspending here means that you will not have enough for speakers and sources.

You then pick your sources to sonically complement the amp & speaker choices.

Finally you use cables and Line conditioners to fine tune the system. I am a big believer in doing the Line conditioning first so you can clean up the system. With this all in place you will then know what cables to add to the system to fine tune the tonal balance to your liking. Cables are like system equalizers that fine tune a systems performance. Too many people think that cables will "FIX" their system problems whereas I believe that if there are basic system issues they should be fixed and then use cables to get the most out of your other system choices.

System design is not easy and too many people look for the best amp or preamp that they can buy and end up not getting the best overall sound. Balance is the key.

I think this is a very relavent and thoughtful question for A-gon. I have two systems that were built around different principles, but it's not exactly clear (even to me) if it was a philosophy or a component, because it evovled from one to the other. First is the reference system. This started from hearing a pair of Martin Logans and being extremely impressed with their transparency and imaging capabilities. I decided this was going to be the cornerstone of the reference system. So, already, is it the philosphy of the transparency and imaging or the component? I'm not really sure to tell you the truth--but I knew I wanted the sound that M-L could deliver. However, in building the system--as with most--there were weaknesses that were exposed as the system got better through upgrading components. The most problematic weakness was the bass. I had listened to Genesis 200s and wanted to recreate bass at that magnitude and realism. Now that is virtually impossible to go from a 12 inch woofer and try to compete with 16 servo driven woofers--but always set the bar high and see how close you can get. The first step was to actively bi-amp the system. This helped quite a lot, but still was soft in the bass. Even the Krell KMA-160 on bass didn't quite give the dynamics I was trying to acheive. At this point we have departed from a component in trying to acheive a sonic goal. The next step was to replace the bass drivers to Focal Audiom drivers. We reinforced the bass cabinet and changed the damping material. I did this with the help of some engineers to figure out how well it would be mated with the panel. It turned out extremely well and meshed better with the panel than the original woofer. At the same time I was able to get realistic dynamics. Was it up to par with the Genesis 200s--no, but it would match or surpass virtually any other 12 inch driver I had found. I could go on about the evolution of this sytem through the source components--but I don't think that answers your question any better than this one specific example.
The other system was a family room system, that originally started with the concept of a low cost monitor system. I purchased Epos EP-12 and a solid state amplifier--which I would up hating. I replaced the amp with Cary tubes to give the system some warmth and character. Not trying to design a high resolution system at this point, just something that would be enjoyable to listen to. I later replaced the Epos with Red Rose R-3s. These really sound great with tubes and now the system evolved into a high resolution system that also has incredible bass for such small monitors. With these monitors it was now time to increase the resolution by going to NOS tubes. The system as you can well imagine, which started with one goal in mind has changed dramatically (but it's still enjoyable to listen to--so that goal didn't change).
You have to calculate the room dimensions, size and distance of actual listening area to be used and know the frequency and SPL range that you want to reproduce with authority. Pick speakers that are suitable for those specifics and don't over or under do the project at hand. This means looking for something that is reasonably efficient, has the appropriate radiation pattern and does not have a wild impedance curve. The more that you compromise those basic requirements, the more complicated your job finding suitable support components will be.

No matter what you do, if you have speakers that are inappropriate for the room or your specific requirements, everything else that you do will strictly be an attempt at a "band-aid". You'll spend all of your time trying to correct your initial mistake rather than enjoying what you already have.

If you've done your homework with the speakers, this will narrow down the field of amps quite a bit, so that shouldn't be a problem. As such, you should go back to the source components and find something that is both user friendly and offers the sonics / features that you prefer. When it comes to digital, I think that a lot of people never hear how good it can really be as they don't spend the time to really set things up as good as possible or experience several different front ends within their system. They settle for less because they've never been exposed to "good" digital. Remember, the rest of the system can't reproduce what the source has never recovered. Sources are PHENOMENALLY important.

From there, move onto the "backbone" components, i.e. preamp and power amp or integrated. With an excellent source and a set of speakers that WILL work in your room for your specific situation, your goal is to find a preamp that offers the versatility that you need while doing as little to the signal ( in or out of band ) as is possible other than to regulate the amplitude. A "straight wire with gain" if at all possible. A power amp needs to take this signal and amplify it to the levels required to efficiently respond to your speakers needs WITHOUT being "pushed". This means the amp has to have the ability to deal with a wide range of impedances, levels of reactance, output levels, etc...

If you've done all of that, the rest is a matter of fine tuning the "voice" of the system. This can be done with various cables ( power, interconnects, speaker ). Don't forget that a rack or whatever it is that you intend to support the components with CAN and DOES affect what you hear. Do some research in the archives here as to what works well. A basic suggestion would be to use a very rigid support structure with lightweight shelves that are free-floating.

Treating the room acoustics to varying degrees will also tend to highlight minute differences that you might not otherwise have taken notice of. This is due to frequency response and / or timing errors. These differences would have otherwise covered up the subtleties that good systems make obvious but do so in a fashion that seems completely natural.

Once you've gotten to this level, you are well beyond addicted and you'll soon be giving us advice about what to do and the tweaks that we need to try : ) Sean
Finished your project Sean, or did you use the stealth computer?
Before I began putting together a high-end system I ran pro sound for a rock band & got a good education in the basics. A lot of them carry over to home audio & the biggest culprit is AC. It's amazing how much noise one dimmer switch can put into a system. Then there's phasing, everything being correctly grounded, shielded cables only going where they belong & so on.

As for my system, what I've tried to do is recreate that "live" sound as best I can & have gone through a few different set-ups to get what I'm after. You'll never know how a piece will work in your system until you hear it there. You can get a pretty good idea from hearing it in another application but it's not the acid test.

Then there's synergy. You might fall in love with a certain component but it just won't work in your system. You can either build your system around that one component or try something else. Or build a second or third system around that one component.

If you're happy with the sound of your system then when you want to upgrade or change something you can evaluate that one change & make a decision regarding that one change. If you're not happy with the sound then you have to evaluate what you don't like about it & go after that particular thing until you get satisfactory results.

For me its been a combination of hearing a piece I liked (i.e. speakers) & going after that sound and sometimes its just been experimenting in a certain area (i.e. SS amps) because I wasn't quite happy with what I had. The rest of the time it was trying many different items (i.e. cables) until I settled on one I was happy with.

I suppose it's a combination of some sort of system philosophy & favored component(s) although I would throw in trail & error as one of the main ingredients.
I don’t have anything that rises to a philosophy. I’m more of a member of the “Church of what’s happening now.” I think this is because everything in audio is such a compromise. The idea of going after “The Absolute Sound” seems ridicules (good advertising pitch though). If you just look at what we use for speakers (cones, ESL, etc) they are very imperfect. You can’t have it all. I like what I have and then I listen to what someone else has put together and it gets something out of the music that I haven’t heard for awhile and it sounds good and I tweak. I don’t think we audiophiles are monogamous. It’s like your favorite food, you eat it every day and it gets a little stale.

Personally, I especially like dynamics and transient response lately. Actually for some time now. I tweak for that. This has led me to efficient speakers. Horns and single drivers, light cones without much excursion etc… I’ve been on a little DIY tube binge too for a short while. I’d like to come up with all sorts of philosophical reasons for liking SETS but in the end it’s just that they sound pretty good and are simple enough that even I can half understand it.

There is something about the first watt of power theory that seems interesting. I mean if you have a 90db and 100db sensitivity speaker what kind of power are you using?

90dbW/m speaker
Driven with 0.5 watts = 87dB
Driven with 0.25 watts = 84 dB
Driven with 0.125 watts = 81 dB
Driven with 0.0625 watts = 78 dB
Driven with 0.03125 watts = 75dB
Driven with 0.015625 watts = 72 dB
Driven with 0.0078125 watts = 69 dB (1/128th of a watt)
Driven with 0.003986 watts = 66 dB
Driven with 0.001953 watts = 63dB
Driven with 0.000976 watts = 60dB (about 1/1000th of a watt)

100dbw/m speakers
Driven with 0.5 watts = 97dB
Driven with 0.25 watts = 94 dB
Driven with 0.125 watts = 91 dB
Driven with 0.0625 watts = 88 dB
Driven with 0.03125 watts = 85dB
Driven with 0.015625 watts = 82 dB
Driven with 0.0078125 watts = 79 dB (1/128th of a watt)
Driven with 0.00390625 watts = 76 dB
Driven with 0.001953125 watts = 73dB
Driven with 0.000976563 watts = 70dB (about 1/1000th of a watt)

A medium room and normal levels (85db?), of course you’re sitting a few feet away, but you're only using .03125 to .0625% of one watt. About 1/4th of a watt w/ 90db speakers

No wonder TWL is running that little single watt w/ Lowthers if it performs good down there. I remember reading a piece by Kurt Strain where he would optimize his amp circuits for different 1/10ths of the first watt depending on the speaker load and sensitivity! How many systems are optimized for that?

Oh, I almost forgot, I keep everything on bubblewrap!

PS: If anybody is interested in a list of DIY tube electronics related materials available on-line drop me an email. A couple of us are trying to put together intro/beginners material that, if we get our act together, will be posted over at VALVE magazine and we need some honest feedback.

I remain,
Start with lots of money!!
I'm not so sure Sugarbrie. It doesn't matter how much you start with--this whole hobby is a disease and the habbit becomes rapidly more expensive. I can't imagine where I'd be now if I STARTED with a lot of money!
The first thing I would do is to go to as many live jazz concerts, classical music concerts etc. as possible. If you armed with a good pair of ears, then everything will be much easier since you got a reference or references.
Also try to listen as many types of speakers(well tuned system) - from moving coil(regular cone speakers), plannar, electro-static, full range, horn speaker etc. Compare it to your real life experience in live music. See which one bring you closesr to the real thing/sounds real and give you the most emotional impact/satisfaction. Then start from there...........
Twl, I approached it with a combination of philosphy and preferred components (i.e., speakers). Here's what I did when I got reasonably serious:

I started out with a set of goals: 1) B+ system (did not want to spend a ton of money), 2) system that was not too big physically, 3)digital emphasis, 4) good bass so I could enjoy rock and jazz, 5) good vocals. Next, I researched ads and reviews (yeah, I know now not to rely too much on that!) Next, I found three reasonably high end stores near Boston. Then, I listened to a lot of equipment in sound rooms, narrowed things down and brought a bunch of stuff home and listened to it. Finally, I made the buy -- focused on speakers first, then pre-amp/amp combination and finally the CD player.

With upgrades, I bought a lot of cables on Audiogon and asked a lot of questions about system matches to narrow down the options. I upgraded my amps based on ads followed up by a home trial period in conjunction with buying at a great price. Ditto the speakers. Home trial -- testing for dramatically improved performance on all critical fronts and combining it with a sharp pencil around pricing. Generally, for the upgrades, it was home trial, marked improvement in performance and very good deals that drove the decisions. I would not have upgraded components or speakers unless it was a giant leap forward (incrementalism is just so expensive!)

How would I do it now? Ideally, I would read more reviews here, spend more time listening to systems at the shows and in various high end audio shops (e.g., Goodwins in Boston), beg for invitations from fellow Audiogoners to listen to the great systems that they built and I would narrow down the philosophy before buying. The philosophy would be in very different terms than before: I would really think through analog vs. digital (or both), high power vs. low power, type of amp design (e.g., tube), and type of speaker (e.g., bass reflex). The second two decisions would have to follow the first two. I would then set a budget and general budget ratios for the equipment and cables. Certainly, the room dimensions and surfaces are important and I would likely include treatments in the budget. That would be in a perfect world. Since I'm nowhere near perfect ... (By the way, while I would like to think that I would buy much more equipment used, I would not do that if I found the equipment at a dealership and that dealer spent quality time with me)

I did not discover Audiogon until after I made many of my initial purchases. I am still discovering new ways that members have configured systems that just sound awesome!
Twl I know you're very experienced at this by now, but if you were not, starting out from scratch - I'd then advise...
* spend some time at an audio show if at all possible
* chose speakers first based upon personal sonic preference
* make your preamp the best component in your rig (if applicable)
* realize that there are NO absolutes in this hobby: what didn't work for another might work quite well for your rig & vice-versa
* tubes might be best left for later on
Nice stuff, guys. Teach our new people the stuff you've learned, and help them understand. Keep going! This is for them.
I must have crossed over some threshold somewhere (or this website has). Every time I make a comment that is not meant to be entirely serious, people respond to it as if I were dead serious. (They tend to be audio dealers, and the like.)

But then again, the "best way" to design any "high end" system, is not to have any budget restraints. Then you don't need to make any compromises. (Don't we all wish it was so for us!!)

I agree a good place to start is with the speakers. They are after all the only thing in your system that lets you judge the affect of every other component in the system. While not as good IMO; in some ways the speakers could also be last. You would pick the ones that sound best using the components you have. (This would be a lot harder.)

Rives, my list of "projects" is never ending. As such, i've simply been limiting myself to logging on AFTER i've made a reasonable amount of progress on something that i wanted to get accomplished. My problem, probably like many of you, is that once i get planted in front of this "one eyed monster", i have a hard time tearing myself away from it.

As was noted ( i think by Zaikesman ), it is just too hard to go "cold turkey" : ) Sean
Sean you're right - even Kelly couldn't do it :)
& he really tried; even declared himself officially outta here, & still he can't keep his fingers off the keyboard
If you start with a large and diverse collection of "great" music, then within reason, whatever else follows is gravy. Which is not imply that people don't have very strong opinions about gravy.
Wally an Sean seem to have it right.But flexiblity for whenever the inevitable urge to chenge out tsuff is important.I would like to get more efficient speakers and go with a smaller,more refined amp than my 6L6 based Mesa baron.But the fact that it's twelve ouput tubes can be switched to triode/pentode in thirds allowing very different sound and power (90/120/150 wpc) makes me loathe to give it up for just when i have found the 104 db sens "Horns of my dreams", a deal that can't be past up on some insensitve speakers with diffcult loads will inevitably be offered up.I therefore end up holding on to stuff longer thnI should but that pisses me off too.Whatever i do I remeber that Murphy was an optomistic 'Phile.
Sugarbrie: I knew you were kidding to some degree--so was I. I guess satirical comments don't always come across that way in text only.
Though lacking the experience and expertise of the respondants thus far, the beginning of my audio journey nontheless encompassed a lot of their suggestions. My current system replaced a mass market one, so I lacked a usable reference for how an audiophile system should sound or how to go about building one. I had sold audio gear years before, but hadn't followed the market for quite some time. Recognizing those short comings I layed out a plan of attack.

In order, though some of this overlapped, the steps were:

Education - Auditioned a wide variety of components, especially speakers, to learn what was available, where my tastes lay and what seemed to satisfy them. Read everything I could lay my hands on including Audiogon, Audio Asylum, the audio news groups and both professional and amateur reviews. Asked questions at every opportunity of anyone who might respond. Learned quickly to take it all with a grain of salt, too...

Consideration - Thought through the short and long term expectations of the system with an eye toward an upgrade path. Using the auditions as a baseline a general budget was decided on, as well as how much to spend on each component. One issue that complicated things is that I rent my home. The room is always subject to change and that had to be factored in, too.

Confirmation - After the above was reasonably well lined out there were more auditions, again mostly speakers, this time focused on a defined set of desired traits. Once the speakers were decided on the rest of the gear selection literally fell into place.

Acquisition - Buying half the gear used kept the budget under control and allowed for upgrades to items like cables and tweaks. Being patient and waiting for the used gear to be offered for sale was the hardest part, but it literally saved me thousands of dollars.

Retrospection - The end result has met all expectations and has proved to be a good foundation for future improvements. But perfection is hard to acheive.

Were I to start over a few things would be different. More of the budget would go into the source components and speaker efficiency would get greater attention. Monitors with subs would also get consideration.

One -tion also needs mention. That is procrastination. Upon reflection, I over analyzed everything in an effort to avoid making mistakes and made some anyway. Today I'd be more apt take the plunge and fix the errors along the way. Even a mildly mismatched system would have been better than the extra three years I endured the mid-fi system!
Well, because I am not an old timer I hesitated, but after learning nothing new here, maybe I am on the other side for this topic. To choose a system, I would try to audition as many types of systems I could, like esl, planar, dynamic, high-efficiency, headphones, turntable, CDP). Second, I would think about and be extremely honest w/ myself about practical concerns, like money, S.O., amount of self-energy I would like to put in to my system(some systems need more energy than others), what sort of buying I am comfortable with(e.g. dealer, used, internet). Third, discover what speakers I enjoy from the system type, within the relevant practical concerns that have a tonal balance that suits my room. From there pick the component from the type(speakers, amps, preamps, source, cables)that has the fewest sonically reasonable options. Usually that is the amp, because whatever speaker you choose will only be happy with a limited number of amps. Last, like others have said, room treatment is very beneficial. There are a lot of ways to put a system together, and the philosophy is whatever works for you. Better answers come from more specific questions.