Three recent, key learnings

I have had more than a normal amount of time on my hands, and I have made a number of "cost-neutral" changes to my system. I have had a great time, and I have had a couple of minor revelations:

1: There really is a thing such as system synergy. I have tried to carefully change the make up of my system. Right now I think it is working pretty good. I have an AR-XB table with a mid-range Grado cartridge, a Cambridge Audio Azur 540p Phone stage, a Sonic Frontiers SFL-1 Sig. preamp, a McCormack DNA-1 amp, Vandersteen 2CE Sig. speakers and an M&K subwoofer.. I am currently using an OPPO 980H universal player for digital. I use various lower end Cardas, Kimber, Tara and Morrow cables. Right now the system just sings...I recently replaced a more expensive amp and speakers with these, and they just seem to work right together. I am thrilled with the sound

2: Decent anlog is superior to decent digital as a source. I realize my OPPO plyer is probably a weak link, but I am total surprised by how much better this old AR table sounds over the OPPO player or the Rotel/MSB combo I had earlier. The best way I can explain it is that I can turn the music up much louder and thoroughly enjoy it when when using the turntable, and it sounds like music. With digital it has this edge to it and it drives me crazy, and just wears on me.

3: A good system can't make a poor recording sound good. So often I get frustrated when the music doesn't sound the way I want it to. I wonder what I can do to my system to change it, but what I am realizing is that it is often the shortcomings of the recording that I am hearing.....analog or digital. For example I can play the first side of "Eye in the Sky" vinyl by Alan Parsons Project and just love the sound. Then I play another album and it just sounds blah. The same happens with digital. I can play a Mary Black disc and it sounds great, and then someone else and it is hard and lifeless.

Anyway, these are some of the things I am learning, probvably elementary for most, if not all of you, but I am having a blast navigating through this hobby, and finding great deals on used equipment.

Finally I am hoping to improve my digital front end. If anyone has a recommendation for a cost effective "analog sounding" player that can play multiple formats I would like your input.
Two other notes. First for me, I think the biggest improvements have been the addition of the Vandersteen and McCormack gear. It is a great match, and kind of cool that with very little effort you can talk live with both designers.

Secondly, I have learned to not buy gear without auditioning first. Several times I took chances on equipment that was attractively priced, and well thought of by a narrow audience. In every case it was a sideways move, and I did not gain synergy.
Congratulations on a very nice realization about system synergy and the beauty of analog playback. I too pride myself on the ability to create a marvelous sounding musical system without breaking the bank. You're going to love your Vandy 2's. As you can see from my systems, I've been happy with the Vandersteen sound for quite a long time, and I'm now thoroughly enjoying my move to Revel speakers. Happy Listening.
1: There really is a thing such as system synergy.....
nice to read your post & read your realizations. I'm afraid that I have to disagree with your revelation of "system synergy" - there is no such thing as system synergy. Each & every audio component has to hold its own electrically & sonically in the overall system so that the grand total sounds fantastic. Electrically means that the input/output impedance of the unit has to be a correct electrical match to the other component upstream & to the component downstream. If this electrical interface is screwed up, you'll get screwed up sonics. Sonically means a whole host of things such as little or no global negative feedback, high quality signal capacitors, robust power supply (this itself is a loaded statement but I will not discuss any further here as I want to keep to my main point), chassis damping, segregation of analog & digital power supplies, local power supply decoupling & the list goes on.
It is my belief that you have stumbled upon "system synergy" because you have accidently put together a system that has the correct electrical interface more than any other parameter. It would be good if you realize this & understand why the electrical interface to each & every component is correct so that when you are ready to make a change in your gear you select another piece of audio gear that also has the same correct electrical interface.
Well, I would differ with you on that point. I do not disagree that a piece of the puzzle is getting electronic components that match well from a purely physics perspective. But in my case, beyond that, experimenting with speaker placement, getting the sub integrated with the speakers and room, paying attention to turntable set up, moving furniture and listening position in the room....etc made a huge difference. Everything seems to work together in a way that I would describe as the output being greater than the sum of the parts. In this system the change to McCormack and Vandersteen gear made a significant improvement at no net cost. The gear I replaced was respected and more expensive from a retail perspective, but it did not work as well in my system. That is all I am saying...I made careful changes and the experience improved significantly. Each incremental change was a step up, and the changes in total were very pleasing. Maybe system synergy is the wrong phrase, but it sure felt and sounded that way to me.
Agree with conclusions 1) and 3), not necessarily 2), which might vary case by case depending on specifics of the analog versus digital compared and other factors as well.

"Electrically means that the input/output impedance of the unit has to be a correct electrical match to the other component upstream & to the component downstream."

Agree with this and I would say that this is a good technical indicator relating to system synergy.
Something to consider when making statements such as 'a great system will never make a good recording, or a poor one, sound great'. This may be true, BUT consider that a lot of audiophiles like to tune their systems to get revealatory or detailed sound, but end up with a bright upper mid-range concurrent with eviserated upper bass/lower mod range. This will often, initially at least, give them the impression of increased detail etc, but ultimately it grows fatiguing.

More often than not, I think, this occurs when the audiophile buys and daisy chains a lot of components which have been tuned by the manufacturers to emphasize 'detail', individually not by much but cumulatively excessive.

An excellent recording on such a system can sound cold, sterile, bright, fatiguing, etc. A recording which sounds great on such a system might just sound congested and dull on a more balanced system, one that is not just jazzed up to impress the novice trying to achieve a goal such as infinite resolution. Well, almost infinite. :-)

FWIW, I would prefer to tune my system to sound best when playing the majority of my recordings, not just the few SOTA/Audiophile ones, that IMHO rarely have performances of music of any lasting value. There are a few, just dammed few.

Incidentially, we all do tune our systems. Some just wish to call it synergy, or take credit for their advanced wisdom which allows them to identify and put together in an ideal room perfect components.
Most recordings are, well, average! No surprise there, assuming a Normal Distribution!

Then there are a small % of really good ones and a small % of really bad ones. No surprise there either.

However you achieve it, that is the best you can hope for. If sound quality on average appears to skew one way or the other, there is likely still some tweaking that might be done to make things overall sound the way they should.

Also, IMHO, most average sounding recordings are still quite enjoyable to me,at least these days having done a reasonable job of achieving my desired sound, ie the recording very seldom prevents me from enjoying the music/performance. I think that is a very achievable and practical goal for most! Its often when unrealistic expectations to make average recordings sound great or poor recordings sound average in a pure technical sense that the audio merry go round comes into play and chances are that one will not be able to get off as they continuous seek an unrealistic goal.

I wonder sometimes how often "audiphiles" shoot themselves in the foot in the interest of achieving the ultimate sound with recordings that are inherently inferior to start with? I know I have been prone to that in the past but I think I have learned my lessons. Only great recordings can sound great. But I find most recordings good enough to enjoy on their own terms, even if often this might not measure up to high standards.
While a little off topic, I think it is interesting to note that what often makes a recording outstanding or poor is nothing more, or less, than the source component. For example with my system I find both Telarc and Reference lables generally sound better with SS sources than tubed sources. If you do not have both component designs you might never notice and just write off/or rave about the same disc without realizing the issue. FWIW.
Mapman, did you check and confirm all the math?
"Mapman, did you check and confirm all the math?"

Hang on......

The biggest challenge would be quantifying recording quality accurately. That's a largely subjective thing.

But in my gut estimation, FWIW, I think its true that most recordings tend towards the average with fewer towards the extreme good or bad. For sure only a small % could be considered technical reference recordings, though a fairly large % may still turn out be be quite nice and enjoyable nonetheless.
Hi Stuart - I have to say I would generally agree with every one of those three premises, especially the second one. I would, however, also generally agree with Newbee's first post as well.