Weakest link

How do you determine the weakest link in your set-up without any other equipment on hand?
Let's assume that the system already sounds pretty good and is balanced enough, no junk anywhere in the chain. Fun, isn't it?
I'll give you an example. Recently I got a little dissatisfied with how fast guitar musical passages sound. I thought that the dynamics was somewhat constrained, though still quite good. My amp has more than enough power and current and speed for the speakers and the room. A thought occurred that it might be the power cord on the amp. The amp is Redgum RGi120 integrated with passive preamp and 120wt/ch power amp and I have Custom Power Cord Company Top Gun on it. Top Gun was designed for mostly source components and preamps, it has a filter network, but works fine for not big amps. Works great with my phono stage, another Top Gun. All the stuff is plugged in PS Audio Premier which can theoretically limit the dynamics when you push it hard. So I plugged the amp in the wall and the sound got so bad, including the dynamics, that the comparison was ridiculous. Anyway, I took a risk and bought Purist Audio Dominus Rev. B Ferox power cord. Didn't receive it yet. Now this should be interesting. My interconnects and speaker cables are Purist as well but not Dominus, newest Neptune RCAs and original Colossus speaker.
I started this thread for the sake of the discussion, that was just an example.
Easy.  It is always the speakers.

Unless you include the room as a component...
I think you’ve already nailed it. It can be virtually impossible to confirm what the actual weak link is until you’ve made (usually) at least Some sort of substitution.

Sometimes even rudimentary substitutions can be rather illuminating on a given problem...and sometimes can only cloud the issue further. The real trick is, I think, as you have done, is to try to identify the exact nature of whatever sound problem you feel you have and then to try to work backward, by way of substitutions, toward uncovering what one component item (or more than one...or even several - yikes) that is responsible. Sometimes I’ve found that continuing to make substitutions (for various other reasons) had "improved" the one particular problem I’d had in the back of my mind without ever actually making it go away...only to finally hit paydirt and find the true cause to be elsewhere. Then again, on a different sort of problem, a similar series of substitutions may act to actually audibly unmask the underlying problem, making it even more irritating. In the long run of having futzed around with all that over the decades, Either of those two scenarios, either the unmasking of or the covering up of a problem, can sometimes be useful in the diagnosis process and anything like that can help reduce it all down to the next likely suspect.

But, yes, without a doubt, it is most often like trying to pull at a sweater, especially when things seem to be, as you say, sounding pretty good and pretty well balaned to start with.

The real question may be how much the original problem is bugging you and exactly how far you might be willing to go to squash it. Not an unrealistic or unworthwhile question to pose in this hobby at all, I’ve found.
ivan, that's very thoughtful. Yeah, when the system is operating as a whole and especially when operating already quite well, how to separate the contribution of each element and each interaction.
In another, this time hypothetical example, if the music has insufficient drive pace and flow, I would look at the source before anything else.
If you will let me add, Inna, to what I posted above. All in all, what I’m saying really, is that this likely a ’stage’ that everyone seems to get to with their system and is often not to be taken lightly if one wants to successfully navigate through it, IMHO. Many people do not foresee this last step as being even necessary when they fully get into system building. You research your components/wiring/room/etc and make your purchases, install and set everything up, listen and tweak some...and then you’re done, right?? Except that a lot of times it may be necessary to go back, based on some perceived problem(s) that never got satisfactorily resolved, and redo some things...maybe even some very basic things...like component choices...(although not always that, of course).

But, I think this why I tell people to always try to learn from their mistakes from system building. I suppose I’m of the opinion that too many folks, once they feel they’ve made a purchasing mistake, may just pack the thing up right then and there and send it back without a second thought. Without fully wondering what the real nature of the mistake in their mind, or the equipment, actually was.

And when you get to this ’final’ stage of problem solving, all you really have to go on are your audio instincts...and if you have not done your ’homework’ along the way and have been passing up all your opportunities to sharpen your instincts, then you can really end up being stumped at this last stage and really have no real sense of where to even begin.

There’s no reason not to just dive into it really, but it’s just that (IMO, anyway) this stage of the game is not likely going to prove to be something that can be ’played at’...that is, that it seems to me to be unlikely that most folks will be able to just dabble with it and fix their perceived problem(s) on the first try. Sometimes you see people in this kind of boat on forums who are trying to get someone to help them out and basically do this for them online. But, it can be so very difficult to help them at this point because it is such a hands-on kind of thing - and that’s really what a person’s own audio instincts are for...the trial-and-error process that hopefully eliminates the person’s problem and not their wallet.

Just sayin.

As to your hypothetical about the lack of drive, yes, my own instincts would be to at least consider the source unit.

For dynamic issues, I might look to passive crossovers first, either their design or their parts quality, or even consider going active.
OTOH, I once had a setup that had a very relaxed, breezy kind of sound. But, it was soo relaxed it lost a sense of purpose with bass lines. Changing amps, as it turned out, to a nice, clean, tight signature was just what the doctor ordered.
Thanks for lettin' me rant above, Inna...not that I give anybody much choice. ;>)
Ivan, you are not ranting, this is all good and to the point. I think, you are the first here to mention audiophile instinct, sharpened articulated and generally advanced by listening knowledge and experience. That's very important.
I like this kind of slightly relaxed but well controlled and poweful dynamic sound. I could think of best Conde Hermanos acoustic guitars as an analogy. Heard live only one - played by Paco de Lucia. What a sound.
Thanks for the kind words @inna. 

Wow, Paco de Lucia is definitely one I would love to hear live!
We don’t know, what we don’t know. I think my system sounds good. I have decent components, but I thought my system would benefit from having one power conditioner. I sold my Torus RM-15 and Audioquest Niagara 1000. I purchased a Torus RM-20 and couldn’t be happier. I think the Torus RM-20 allows my system to breath. Consequently it is more detailed and open sounding. Not night and day different, but noticeable. Unless we are willing to experiment we just don’t know what we can improve in our system.
How do you determine the weakest link in your set-up without any other equipment on hand?

As of 2009, I ask my dealer he's always right...Finally!!!
weakest link is always media.
That's my point when I say we don't know what we don't know. One, we must have an open mind to try different things to listen to and let our ears determine if there is an improvement worthy of the cost. Two, we need access to different equipment without obligation to purchase. The 2nd part can be very difficult. I submit there is always an opportunity to improve, but not always feasible. At some point I hope I just accept my system as it is.

This is a like cosmetic surgery.  A little "work" might be quite complimentary, but we've all seen people who took it too far.  Is your system one of those systems where you did too much work and took it too far?  Over time any system can be improved, but when normal people see your system are they in awe and happy for you or do they go WTF and feel pity?
I listened to a system in excess of 500K and enjoyed it. Never once did I feel pity or anything else. Everyone is different. If someone has the financial means to purchase a million dollar system, house,  or car who am I to judge anyone.

Again IMO only I build components, DAC (DHT), preamp DHT,  amp and speakers.  I have built and repaired almost every major brand over the past 20 years.  The power supplies to my DAC & preamp are 35 lbs., and use high quality parts.  So based on me being able to play around with all kinds of components and build my own and modify others, the weakest link is the source, again IMO only based on being able to try so many different components in my system and others.  IMO once you get a great source then you can really hear into a system.  Yeah everything has a place but to me the source makes the biggest difference.  It was hard for me to understand this until I had the opportunity to really hear so many components in my system.  The source is what provides the soundstage, dynamics, tone, did I mention tone, separation, etc.

Happy Listening, again IMO.

I’m using a music server and DAC. What’s more important...the music server or DAC?
In my system, my speakers are the weakest link because it's the cheapest ones, but they sound good.
I could view the system as consisting of three elements which in turn consist of sub-elements: Source, 'wire with gain' and speakers/room. I believe any of them can be the weakest link. In my system source feels as the strongest element with the other two about equal.
Once you isolate a system's weakest link and then take corrective measures, then by definition some other component is now the weakest link.  Do you repeat the process over and over?  I take it on faith that any system can always be improved, but so what?  There should come a point where an audiophile should kick back and stop thinking about the equipment and the setup.  Well, at least for a month or two.

You can build a very balanced system with no clear weakest link. That's what I have been trying to achieve. Once done you can relax and enjoy it until you feel the need to take it to another level, step by step.
I agree with onhwy61. At some point I want to be able to say "so what"! I'll be there after I change another outlet and maybe add a power cord to my JL Audio sub. Any recommendations on power cable for subs?

Says it all. Start at the source, evaluate, and work your way down the chain.
We are talking about systems that already sound good, not about 'start-ups', you know. But if you mean strengthening the source when embarking on entire system upgrade path leading to a higher level of performance, then why not, depends on what you have and can afford. In my case, the first step would be speakers not the source, then amps.
ricred1, again imo the DAC.  In my own experience having build a DAC that I consider very special as well as others who have been in the industry for many years, dealers, store owners, people who have spent more money trying so many different components in their systems, etc., my DAC was an eye opening experience for these people.  They never ever heard anything do or sound like what the DAC did.  To me Direct Heated Triode designs are just something special.  For the ones I have built and sold, it took less than 30 seconds for these people to say, "I want one".  I know people who like me can build and modify anything.  Even those people were impressed with what my partner and I built.  It wasn't something I set out to do, it was just for my system only.  As friends heard my system they all wanted to have the DAC.  I can only say that you have to think that this is something you have not heard before and with an open mind think what if there was a component (in this case a DAC) that just changed the way your system sounded say 50% to 100% change in soundstage, dynamics, tone, separation, timbre of all instruments, etc.  What actually would that sound like?  The last dealer to hear the DAC in his store told me "man you should name this the "fun box", you are going to be a thorn in the big guys side.  I won't be posting about my gear on forums going forward as I am getting close to the final production now and will try to help when I can but won't be saying much about what I do as a company.  BTW, I also built a music server to go with the DAC as I could not find anything that I thought sounded as good.

Thanks for reading and listening to me for what its worth.