The most important piece in a stereo system???

I was wondering what people think is the single most important part of a stereo system? It can be the amp, speakers, CD payer, preamp, speaker wire, cables, tweeks, whatever you name it. I just want honest opinions. What would you spend the most money on? I think most of you will either say amp or speakers. I know having all good stuff will make your system sound better, but I just want to know the single most important part. Myself I think the speakers are the most important. I look forward to reading what you think. thanks in advance.
The most important part of my system is my ears. We all hear differently thats why there are some many choices of equipment and without the ability to listen the equipment is just metal, plastice, wood and wires.
Taking into account: cost, ears, and investment in time -- I would say the pre. Then, speakers -- because of expense & the rarity of finding well balanced & in-phase offerings. But without a good signal, the excellent speakers won't reproduce much, will they?
Actually, I think speakers are least important (after cabling), especially if you look for something that is musical and does not have any really obvious failings (boomy bass, harshness in top end, etc.) I would say source and pre-amp are most important, esp. these days when very good ss amps can be had for very reasonable prices.
I would also say the preamp. The preamp establishes the character of the whole system. Good speakers accurately produce what they are given. So if your electronics are have a weakness, then the speakers will reproduce the faults. Better speakers will only make that worse. I think we may overestimate the source. There are many very musically involving CD players, tuners and turntables that are not the latest technology.

I picked up a Cambridge Audio Dacmagic DAC recently to just to play around with because it was being given away ($100 with a $50 digital cable for free included). The Dacmagic is basically the guts of the CD6 single player with better power supply, etc. This thing is very musical. You just need to ignore in your head it is old Phillips bitstream technology. My 24bit player has better resolution, but it no more musical.

Thought provoking question. Currently all components are of equal value; literally. Amp, pre-amp, cd unit, speaker and wires all cost +/- 15% of each other. I'm currently spending an equal amount on rebuilding and improving the listening room. It took me a long time to see that as a component.

At first, I placed greatest value on the amp, then the front end, now I'm clear it's the speakers. Great speakers will set me free. But, only with the other equipment to support it.

Bill E.
A system by definition, requires careful and often numerous component change-outs to offer the best of the individual parts. That being said, I find the speaker the most visible of flaws. Maybe, that's due to it's revealings of up-stream anomolies or component mis-match, but speaker substitution often brings an entirely new presentation to the system. Then again, without an excellent front-end, following components falter.

But the most critical piece in a stereo system has to be the music.
Your room. Nothing else compares. If you have a bad acoustics or your room is poorly set up, then it doesn't matter what type of equipment you put in it.
Hi Souljasmooth, It's all important. I would start with PCs, Isolation products, house wiring, acceptible power conditioning, and room treatment. This will help bring out the best your components have to offer. Best of luck.
Speakers. Room. Software. Not necessarily in that order. Everything else pales by comparison.
everything makes some difference but to me....
the the thing that makes the most difference is the Preamp, followed by the Speakers these are the two that make Way More difference than the others. After that its the Amps, followed by the Source, and then the Cables.
Good food for thought! While I probably would have to agree that the room may be the most important, getting back to your basic question, my personal vote goes to speakers. I have heard, and it is a good arguement, that the source (garbage in barbage out) theory rules; however, I still contend that the speakers (for me) are the most important, and I say this because there is no single component which has the capability of changing the total sound of an entire system as much as do the speakers.

Good listening.

It's all equally important. The single most important thing is that all of the components work well together. From the breakers feeding the outlets power to the window treatments in your room to isolation and everything in between. WATT/Puppies are great ... but coupled with the wrong amp (even a very expensive one) will have trouble surpassing a system a tenth of it's price. Half a dozen 'little' problems in your system/enviroment will cause just as much sonic havoc as a bad component mismatch.
I basically agree with swamwalker...front end,dac/cd player! Having said acoustics also play a major role in overall final sound quality.
Quality of recording and room are absolutely the most important. On the specific system components, the pre-amp per Gregm's and other comments above.
It's a little bit like asking which is the most important link in a chain. In your system it is the weakest link. Admittedly, each chain in the audio link is different. I disagree with the comment above that "good speakers accurately reproduce what they are given." I am far from a speaker expert but I have made about 20 pair and all speakers color sound a great deal. They have a really amazing job to do. A Loudspeaker is a compound transducer. In conventional speakers electrical energy is transformed to magnetic energy, magnetic energy is transferred to mechancial, and mechanical energy is transferred to acoustic energy. Every step introduces distortion (disorder). It will be this way until they repeal the law of entropy. Don't hold your breath. No speaker simply reproduces what it is given.
The frontend. Everything flows from that.....just my opinion. The other views here all valid too. We all try for the end, music music. Good question, perhaps no definate right answer.....they all have merit....regards, Bluenose
Room and music go without saying, but I believe the poster (correct me if I am wrong) was thinking about "components" when he asked the question. If I am right, I may alienate some of the posters above, but I posit this question: Which "system" do you think will sound worse: (1) great source and amp/preamp combo with say $500-800 Infinity or JBL or Polk Audio Circuit City speakers; or (2) Technics CD player and receiver from Circuit City through Avalon Eidolons or PipeDreams or even Maggie 3.6s?

I have heard both types of experiments and all I can say is that even the BEST speaker in the world cannot save a crappy source or low budget reciever. BUT, the great electronics made those Circuit City speakers sound pretty damn good.

That was my experience but, as always, YMMV.
I cant believe how mixed the opinions are. I thought most of you would have said either the amp or the speakers. From most of the people that I have talked to, they either say the amp or the speakers is the most important. I also forgot to mention the room in my original post. I would like to hear more comments. thanks again!!
Souljasmooth: Consensus is real hard to come by in a field dominated by personal tastes. I'm not surprised a lot of people said "source," because that's been hyped by the marketing guys for a long time. IIRC, the "garbage in/garbage out" thesis was first articulated decades ago by a company that specialized in turntables. (Surprise!) It had some truth in analog days--there's no way an amp can fix flutter. Today, well, electronics are a lot more alike, and speakers are just as varied as ever. But people hear all kinds of things, so opinions will vary.
You are only as strong as your weakest link.

Just like a track team that runs relays, an outstanding performance from one participant can be completely hindered or even negated by a less than perfect contribution from someone else prior or after the fact. With that in mind, you may never know what one piece is capable of unless everything in the system is of equal capacity. Sean
Well, everyones system has to start somewhere, so it may help to re-phrase the question, eg "what one piece of equipment would you most want to build the rest of your system around?". For a long time, I was convinced that source components amd pre-amp were most important-- until I got a really superb pair of speakers. Now, if I were to start from scratch, I would want the best speakers I could afford, and I would build the rest of my system around them.

That said, I also strongly believe in the weakest link approach and am constantly trying to identify it. As I've acquired better and better gear, I've also really come to appreciate the importance of good clean AC, the room/speaker interface, power cords, and certainly high quality recordings. I've enjoyed reading the varied responses above too. Good thread. Cheers. Craig.
Only as good as the weakest link. The entire system including the room.
Garbage in, garbage out. You cannot improve the source downstream, it only gets worse. Get the best front end components you can (Analog, digital, tuner, hell even cassette deck). Build from there; having the best speakers, amp, wires, or room won't fix a flawed signal generated right at the very beginning of the chain. Common sense in my view. ATB, Jeff
Speakers! Gee whiz.
Fmpnd is right on (in my opinion).
Great speakers with poor electronics sound terrible. I'd add that cheap CD players (<$200) are pretty listenable through all but the highest end spkr/amp setups. Therefore if I were to assemble a system bit by bit over many months (assuming I already have some sort of cheap CD and speakers ala circuit city) my order would be (I would buy in this order to ensure that at all stages I had a system I could bare to listen to):
1. Amp (this will set final budget)
2. Speakers (spend approx same as amp)
3. cables (spend about 1/10 of total system cost)
4. CD/DVD player. (spend approx 1/2 of cost of amp)

Matching is important, and I think the CD source has the least overall impact on the soundless even than the cables (again .. just my experience, no flames please).
Note if you want an analogue front end then I think the turntable/arm/cartridge is equally important to amp and speakers, and should be purchased first. In this respect I think that digital front ends are much more forgiving.
In theory, as Linn states the source is the most important. In reality it is a complicated interaction between the source material, all components and the room. However what I think is a better question is. How can I get the best sound for my budget? I actually assemble my system in my own strange method. I methodically try to, over time get the best of each type of component for my budget. For example When a pair of Aerial 10Ts were available at the right price my a/d/s speakers went, Linn LP-12with Lingo Bye Denon ,when I found a sonic frontiers SFCD-1 at the right price my Tandberg 3015a went. CJ Premier 14 bye bye CL35 MK III, 10B , goodbye Luxman T110 , and so on. The same goes for cables etc. Everything matters , but I think cables can be a bad investment if you go too far in a moderately priced system I stop at Monster 1500i m 1000i and kimber kable. To acheive the above I sell vintage audio as a hobby online to help trade up whenever I can. Lastly being that cost is a key issue for most people (not the reviewers of Stereophile), In certain systems there is a sensible proportion you should spend. Is the $ 20,000 Linn CD-12 great ? Yes but in a $ 25,000.00 system its a bad balance. You would be better off with a Rega or other sub $ 1,000.00 or less player etc. etc. I almost forgot dont forget about using good source material like good clean vinyl, 180 heavy remastered vinyl. MFSL cds etc. Enjoy!
That's a false dichotmomy Fmpnd, because no one is going to pair no-fi speakers with high-end source or no-fi source with high-end speakers. So, construing the question to assume decent hi-fi components all through the system, whether budget or expensive, would you rather listen to a NAD cd player through Eidolons or an Accuphase cd player through PSB mini-speakers?

I've made the weakest link argument before, since speakers are the least accurate component in a hi-fi system, and all speakers are colored in one way or another. But, that said, there are a lot of inexpensive to moderately priced speakers that are quite decent.

The biggest changes in sound for me, from mid-fi to hi-fi came with changes in amplifiers and cd players.

As much as I love my Harbeths, I have to disagree with my friend Charlie and say source, but amp is a close second.
1. own the best preamp that you can reasonably afford
2. buy the speakers that you intend to keep for life & then build the rest of rig around them
1. Speakers. Speakers are the most important component when you are first starting to build your system.

When first setting up your system, you should consider:

a) Budget.

b) Room size. Small rooms, small speakers, vice versa or somewhere in between.

c) Speaker placement. If you cannot place the speakers properly, do not expect to get good sound. Save yourself some time and money and buy a rack system from Circuit City.

d) How loud do you listen you listen to your music.

e) What type of music you listen to.

f) Aesthetics. Some speakers are big and ugly and you would not want them in your home no matter how good they sounded.

The above will dictate what Speakers you should get. You may not get the "right" speakers if your budget is too small. The speakers will then determine what amp you should buy. CD players offer the most bang for your buck so you can save here. Avoid expensive cabling.

Speakers 50%, Amp 25%, CD player 20%, Cabling 5%
Garfish, you pretty much said what I was thinking. "What piece of equipment do you build your system around". It is kind of the same thing as "what do you think is the most important piece in your system". Thanks for the comments. I have enjoyed reading all of them.
I've been thinking about this question also-- it is a tricky one indeed. My take so far: speakers (excluding room, recordings, AC power etc.)are the most imperfect component, yet they are critical. I like speakers that are well-balanced: in other words I'd rather give up a little in a lot of areas, rather than have a few glaring strengths(or weaknesses)-- such as transparency at the expense of all else. One could build a great system around an inexpensive set like the Kestrel Hot Rods. As far as other components go, the preamp is a big one. If the preamp is so-so, then all else will be so-so. Unfortunately, great preamps are "bankroll". Here is the irony (I feel) one can have a great system w/ decent speakers and a great preamp, but one (as far as I've heard) cannot have a great system w/ great speakers and only a decent preamp. Don't skimp on the pre once you've settled on speakers that you can live with. Guess what: sources and cable (even power cords) make huge differences as well.I would say after the pre, assess your sources, then amp, then cables/mains. Then go seek professional help!
Garfish, just curious which speaker makes you revalue the priority in the system building.

The least important are the cables...
Great question. I used to think speakers, until I brought the Tenor Audio amplifiers into my home. They were so much better and different than any other amplifiers I heard, that I had to re-adjust my thinking. Shortly after, I became a dealer for Tenor. I know some will try to bash me for this response, but I do not care. I am speaking as an audiophile not a dealer.

I started re-evaluating whether I would be better off finding amps that matched speakers, or speakers that matched amps. Since the Tenor's are 75 watts per channel, they clearly will not drive some speakers to their maximum potential. So, knowing that the Tenor's are the finest amplifiers I have ever heard, it was a clear choice, build around the Tenor's.

I have heard the Tenor's make mediocre speakers sound very special, but I have never heard a mediocre amplifier make really great speakers sound good.

Since the Tenor amplifiers are integrated, I obviously do not have to worry about a preamp. All that would be left is a source and cables.

My recommendation to you, is to find the most impressive product that you can, and build around it. For some it is the preamp, others the speakers. For me, it turned out to be the amplifiers.

Good luck,

I like Jonathan's last bit of advice, it seems like that's what I've done, as I've built my system around my Jadis JP80 preamp and JA80 amps. My feeling was that the preamp was the most important component, as everything in the sources runs through it, so I stretched to get my dream pre and amps about 10 years ago and have worked around them since. I've been fortunate to have a good room, but I would also agree with others as to the importance of the listening room as well, as I've heard very impressive equipment severely compromised by poor listening rooms.
The source (turntable or CD player).
Think about the audio replication process and the answer(s) are clear: the transition from mechanical to electrical signal (phono cartridge dragging thru vinyl, laser reading a CD) and then vice versa (speaker taking electrical signal and converting to cone/driver movement) are OBVIOUSLY the most critical processes in reproducing audio - everything in between simply pushes electrons around. Therefore, it makes good sense to spend the bulk of your audio dollars on a great turntable/cartridge setup followed by a great set of speakers.

The advent of digital sources has changed this balance somewhat, and I would now counsel someone to spend most of their bucks on great speakers - great speakers hooked up to a mid-fi system will still sound very good, crappy speakers (why does the phrase Bose 901 come to mind?) powered by an audiophile system will always sound crappy.

Speakers = 40-50%
Input source = 20-30%
Sound processing/amplification = 20-30%
I take a bookend approach. I believe the DAC is the most important piece, followed by the speakers, then the pre-amp, then the amp, then powercords,then the power conditioner, then speaker cable, then interconnects, then the transport. I base this on my preception (flawed and colored by taste) on the general level of development in the Audio Industry. I think there's more variation in DACs and Speakers then in the other components, hence perception and taste come more into play than with the other pieces.
Percentages depend to some extent on absolute $. When I bought my current speakers (which I never intend to replace unless they wear out) they were the most expensive component in my system, and on a US retail price basis, a bit less than 40% (ignoring record playing equipment and just counting cdp -pre -amp -speakers and cabling). Ive since upgraded cdp and amp and downgraded the pre and the US retail price of the speakers would be about 25% of the total retail, and actual cost about the same percentage.

Since I am perfectly happy with the current breakdown, 40% on a retail basis for the cdp and 25% for the speakers (more like 35-25 on actual cost), I think that's a good balance now. (About 3% on cabling btw.)

Maybe I agree with everyone. 40 to 50% on speakers you can live with through upgrading, ending up at 20-25% when you're through with the process.
It's funny. I read all the posts and everyone says the same thing about a different component. I thought it was this , until I changed that and found a large improvement. I think the truth be told, they are all important, to the extent that the weakest link in the system determines the sound. Thats why people buy the component they like and build around it , trying not to screw up the sound they know their favorite component is capable of......just a thought.
The preamp. If you have made a bad choice in the selection of the preamp, it is very hard to "correct" it with speakers, source or amp. If you have made a great choice in a preamp, you are 85% on the way to nirvana. Also, a lot must be said for synergy. I have seen great components (preamps, speakers, and amplifiers), while great individually, that just don't go together. No reasonable technical explanation can be given. Whereas the substitution of a "lesser" component will bring back the ease, effortlessness and beauty. Craig is right. The real question is not which piece is most important. It is which piece do you want to start with. I say that the best place is the preamp.
In a sense, everyone above to me seems to have a good point. But basically its the weakest link, isn't it and finding it will make all the difference. Apart from that, although I very much agree with what RCprince has pointed out, to my experience it have been the speakers. Only after finding the right dipoles, I've been really happy with my system.
Cheers to all and compliments of the season!
-Agree w/ Groovetuber and Audiocaptain, all links are important, some are easier than others to get a passing result with when you throw them into a system. The music (a whole 'nother can of worms), the recording and the ears and brain of the listener are at least as important. There are lots of audiophiles and high end dealers who have expensive gear and pathetcally mediocore cd or record collections. The average $10k system/Great material/ great recording/ receptive listener. ALWAYS beats a $100k system w/ most poular music/ a run of the mill recording in front of not very absorbent (most) listeners. I wish this wasn't true. A lot of great musicians who make excellent recordings make zero or next to zero $$ because of this.
The people and home around it.
I think all of the pieces are equally important, so I think that you should start with one piece that you really know and like the sound of: (speaker,amp, pre-amp,or cd player), then build the rest of your system around it to get the sound that you are looking for. One piece of equipment in your chain can drastically change the sound you are seeking, so audition carefully around the piece that you have selected to start with, and when your finished, you will have a sound that you should truly enjoy.
The most important component is the weakest link component. Could be anything from cables(not likely but possible) to input source to speakers to your room's accustics.

One disagnostic I use is to purchase a very good set of headphones. This elliminates the room, speakers, amp, and some cables from the question. If the headphones sound much better then your speakers then you have a weak link in speakers or amp.....

Got to separate the variable.
Try think of the stereo system as a human system; which part can you say is the most important ? Can you compromise an eye or an ear and still call it a good system? I think you will then get your answer !
Preamp! Don't skimp on it. I wouldn't have thought it before I got into this hobby, but my preamp upgrades have offered the most obvious improvements in sound (Arcam Alpha to Bryston BP20 to Sonic Frontiers Line 3). To answer those who voted for front-end, I believe the 'garbage in garbage out' arguement but I've found the difference between a good $1000 player and a good $6000 player more subtle than such a price difference for other components. As for speakes, I've found speaker enhancements offer the biggest change in the character of the sound but not necessarily the quality - excellent speakers with crap electronics will merely show how bad the electronics are. My friend had B&K electronics drive a pair of Nautilus 804s and the sound was so harsh I was keen to leave the room. Overall, I've found every component matters - I've found my money best spent on a system with roughly equal expenditure on all components and cabling accounting for no less than 20% of overall system (System is YBA CD1a, SF Line 3, Blue Circle BC2s, Audio Physic VirgoII, SPM Ref interconnects and FIM Gold Speaker Cable).
If I had to pick the single most important component I would say the preamp. Why? Because this unit is responsible for taking a very small signal that is passed to it from your source and accurately conveying this information to the amplifier. The preamp also adds gain to the signal before feeding it to the power amplifier so any inperfections at this stage will get multiplied by the amplifier no matter how accurate it is.

My friend who is an engineer would say that the component closest to the source is the most important. So if you listen to CD's than the transport/DAC is the most important. I believe that you can get good quality CD players for reasonable prices and that buying a more expensive CD player does not make that much more of a difference. There are diminishing marginal returns with CD players that increase exponentially with price. Therefore, I don't recommend investing too much money on this component relative to the whole system. My friend would disagree.

An audio dealer in my area would say that the source is what's closest to your ears. That would be the speakers. They are important so its hard for me to argue against this.

I would suggest not focusing on what is the most important component as this argument really does not work well in building a synergistic system.

For instance, take my previous argument about the preamp. If the preamp excels at accuracy and linearity, but the amplifier does not then the system will not reach its potential. If your source ,say CD player,has a bad preamp section then we have a problem again.

First, decide what room you what to build your system in and make sure the room does not have any major flaws. Next, compute a budget for the entire system and audition different equipment that you are interested in. My personal recommendation is to consider Vacuum tubes. They have a musically involving sound. This is especially true with SET amplifiers.

If you decide to go with tube equipment make sure to go with a tube pre and power amp. You can run into impedance mismatch problems with a SS amp and Tube pre or vice versa.

Hope this helps
Based on my experience, I have to say that the speakers, in combination with the room, are far more important than any other component. I have owned a number of speakers over the past 15 years or so and have found each to have individual sound characteristics (although sometimes the differences have been fairly small). Minor changes in positioning of the speakers and/or listening chair can also greatly affect sound quality in my experience. Phono cartridges would be next in line after speakers.
Have also owned a number of amps, preamps,and/or receivers, (ranging from Classe separates that cost about $3k to a $100 Pioneer SX 205 receiver) and several different cables and have never been able to detect ANY audible difference amoung these components.