what is more important ?


Hiya ,

Just wanted some views/opinions on what is the most important piece of equipment in the reproduction of sound/music.

I know and have heard that the dimensions of the room has the biggest impact but what about the speakers, amplification, and source... which one would give the biggest sonic differences(for better or worst) if replaced ?
If my current system needs upgrading which part of the chain should I focus on first to get the best 'bang for my bucks' ?

Cheers all


primarykey1
Speakers, and assuming enough power to drive them it's not even close that speakers matter the most.

Amp/Source

Room (that said, you have what you have to work with)
Speakers, room, and driving amplifier ( s ). At the same time, I can also say : Transport, digital cable, dac, ic, amp, speaker and room. This one track makes everything very obvious. A must have for everyone ( i posted this on the music thread quite a while ago ).
A few weekends ago, I went to someones house who purchased a power amplifier from me, as I have been selling off much of my collection, locally. The purpose of my visit was to help him to fine tune his system. I brought with me some of my cds that I know very well, and trust them, to tweak a system. Of these, I played a few test tracks from the Stereophile Test CD, # 3. What amazed this individual the most, and always find it an amazing demo, was the " localization tracks ", in which the voice and footsteps were " furthest from the stage ", " most front left of stage, most front right of the stage ", center of the stage, etc., and the walking to and from the microphone. I have always known, that the microphone placement, in, and on the recordings, were substantial, in how we interpret things such as " imaging ", " soundstaging ", " depth ", etc. Also, the mixing consoles, used to create echo, delay, etc. My point I am trying to make here, is, in order to determine what the most significant " piece " of a system is, or, as a " whole ", one needs to have a reference to go by, to help one to help the listener to determine what he or she likes, wants, and expects, out of a system. Without this, it is all a merry go round. I helped this individual out, and used, Stevie Ray Vaughn's " Tin Pan Alley " from "Couldn't Stand The Weather ", as a reference of mine, because it is a studio recording, done live, in a single take, without overdubs, or using too much trickery, and gives a good account of a simple, stellar performance of just a few amazing musicians, which makes listening, so very easy to follow. As a recording, it lacks nothing, and I have used it throughout my career ( I am not alone ), in putting systems together for people whom I worked with as clients. Our systems, every piece of them, every component, every wire, is to reproduce the " RECORDINGS ", and I feel, this is the first, and foremost, piece of the puzzle, and with this, everything else, will fall in place....or not. Sorry for my rant, but I have heard " stellar " gear, fall apart on this single track, and on some " mediocre " equipment, shine. Enjoy ! MrD.
Speakers then room for me.
Many good points made here. I tend to side with the approach of addressing the weakest link first. Yes, this can lead to a sort of component leap-frog, but eventually you'll end up with a well-balanced system. So don't worry about which component to upgrade first, only worry about synergy issues. If you like making improvements in small increments, with small budget increases, it's best to buy pre-owned.
The Barbarian?

“to crush your enemies
and hear the lamentation of the women”
What is more important?
I thought Conan had cleared all of this up for us....
The recipe for best results first shot:

1) Speakers first (taking room into consideration when choosing).
2) Then carefully match the amp that is capable of driving the speakers well.
3) Then match pre-amp to amp carefully as well, if separate.
4) Then top it off with good quality source gear of your choosing. If phono, make sure phono matches to phono stage of amp/pre-amp carefully as well.
5) Tweaks that might help: a) power conditioning, b} speaker placement, c) physical separation/isolation of components from each other (avoid stacking on on another), d) wires (need to be good quality, not expensive, Mogami is a very safe fallback for modest cost), e) also isolate speakers from suspended floors as needed to avoid interactions that muddy the bass and obscure the mid-range

You can start with an amp if you want but that will mean some speakers that might work best otherwise may not be driven well to the max.

Millercarbon- amen!
I don’t always agree with you, but you hit the nail on the head. A very large part of the hi-fi listening experience is subjective. As I have heard the saying before, “We do not see what is in front of our eyes, we see what is behind them”. That saying holds true for one’s hearing and “perception” of what was heard.
Other ways to think about upgrades.. Lost of little upgrades...Particularly works well if you buy used gear. New not so good as one is constantly losing money ..Or, buying one really good bit of gear every few years.. Gradually bringing the entire system up. 
Lots of folks say start with the speakers, get the best you can. The other way to do it is buy the best source you can... When I watched "The Audiophiliac" YouTube video on his own system, I was struck at his sources. $18000 a pop. vs the rest of the system. Other 'nice' stuff, but not like his sources.  Anf he has been around.. Having been a salesman at Sound By Singer..

I tend to agree with the speaker-first camp but I've also used a cost-balanced approach to very good effect. As an example, say $1000 each for an integrated amp, source(s), and a pair of loudspeakers, throw in a modest amount for cables and you can have a nice sounding system with no glaring deficiencies. Plenty of research and careful matching is a must, of course. 
First: speakers quality improved by the necessary tweaks...

Second:   room treatment...(absorption and reflection panels, Helmholtz resonators,Schumann generators...)

Third : amplifier and dac  tweaked...

Fourth : Last but not least at all, tweaks and cleaning about mechanical vibrations, and the  electro-magnetic grid of the room and the house...


My experience is contrary to many people : Buy good products but dont focus on pricey one at all; the most important fact for audio is not the price/ quality value of your gear but the way you install and implemented them in your room...The most astounding upgrade comes from that, not buying anything more costly...

Speakers without a doubt.

Anyone can hear the difference between nearly any pair of speakers in a blind situation.

Hardly anyone, (including industry experts),

in blind tests, 

can consistently identify the difference between any decent solid state amp, solid state pre-amp, solid state source equipment.

I am not saying subtle differences don't exist, just that the audible differences are extremely minimal, perceptible perhaps, but not measurable to any extent compared to speakers.

A sound level meter is a wise investment, before you begin, learn to use it now, with your existing system, write stuff down. Do not expect even near perfection, just go for this is better than that.

Speaker differences, speaker placement differences, will readily be identified, by you and by the sound meter. Hook up a million dollar CD player, good luck getting a million dollar sound meter to find any difference.

I advise limiting your choices to speakers with high efficiency (less power needed for any listening volume, less power needed for momentary dynamic peaks, especially bass notes).

Take your own CDs with you for auditions, ones you pick to reveal speaker differences, highs, mids, bass, favorite voices, favorite instruments, ...

Next, which speakers are the best choice for your listening space? That is very hard. I strongly advise taking your time, reading, learning the fundamentals, (doing your best to ignore marketing mumbo jumbo).

I advise avoiding ports or passive radiators, go with sealed boxes. The worst situation is to end up needing acoustic treatments due to improper speaker choice and/or placement.

AVOID too much bass, helps avoid room interaction problems and keeps you in a more affordable world of choices. Ports and passive radiators are to get more bass out of a smaller enclosure. Great, IF in a space where they can work as intended, which is most often not the case.

Relocation: People love finding the ideal location and 'spiking' them. Not me. Realistically, I move my speakers from best room placement when off, forward to intermediate casual listening (still some less than ideal bass boost/room interaction), and move them into their ideal location for focused listening. No way would I limit the use of my room, by leaving them in their ideal location. Weight, and height make important differences, that is why I mention it before selecting speakers.

Efficient speakers, NOT NEEDING much amp power. That is the key to happy use of Tube amps, or lower power Solid State amps. In either case, efficient speakers put you in a lower cost need for power.

You will change everything over time, efficient speakers will be your friend for life.

At some point, stop tweaking, learn/experience more, acquire more music!
Like the guys said above....any system needs to start with your speakers.  Amplifier choice will flow from it and the overall coloration of speaker and amp together will help with choice of DAC, phono stage, cartridge, etc...

Exactly how much you allocate to each part of your system is TBD. I have met folks that will tell you about 50% of your system should be dedicated to speakers.  I has in a retailer in Westchester County New York and the POV was that you should maximize amplification because it will extract every scrap of ability from the speaker.  

I am in the earlier camp and am obviously biased in favor of speakers. And based on personal experience, starting with an incredible pair of speakers, I have varied between a $3000 Class D up to $17000 mono-blocks and I feel I lose less stepping down in terms of amplifier than a switch in speaker.  
Speakers. The difference between cheap speakers and good ones is huge. The difference between a cheap anything else and a good one not so much except maybe cartridge. The speakers will determine the sound of your system more than anything else. With good ones you will be able to appreciate upgrades in other components. 
Georgehifi, humidity does not effect the efficiency of ESLs unless you have adjustable bias and are forced to turn it down. Most of us adjust the bias to the highest point satisfactory for all conditions as bouncing your bias around screws up settings with other devices like subwoofers.
Want to guess what the most important piece of equipment is in a car? The nut behind the wheel.

Same here. If you know what you're doing you can build a budget system that sounds just wonderful. But if you don't, then no components under the sun will ever get you there.
Yes but they are close to last on the list.  
Cables make very minor differences, and that's what actual measurements reveal. 

This hobby gets most expensive and frustrating when legitimate analysis of what you're hearing isn't taking place, but rather, going to forums and pitching questions about what equipment will do what to achieve your goal, or just blindly buying gear with no grasp on what it does on a basic technical level. 

I recommend starting small and simple and learning for yourself. Nobody can actually explain to you what different distortion sounds like, and that's what distinguishes one system from another. 
hiya Folks,

do interconnects and speaker cable make any significant difference?

The reason I am asking is because whenever I ask staff at Hifi shops they are always trying to flog me expensive cabling.


Cheers again
Hiya

I done some research I found out that a mains conditioner could be the solution to my inconsistence performance issues, but some of them are quite expensive... seems that this Hifi hobby can be never ending and I am learning new stuff everyday... thanks guys for all your advice... really appreciate it.

Cheers Guys and Gals
For me it is the preamp. While the loudspeaker will change the sound to a much greater extent, I find those changes broadly consonant with the fabric of the music. 

I find the electronic distortions of electronics much more jarring to my ear, even in lesser quantities.
I started a thread last year about "Finding the weakest link" in one's system as the best place to upgrade.  
Find what is actually the least good bit of kit matters. 
Since if you replace SOMETHING ELSE.. that worst sounding bit is going to hold back your ner gear, AND might make you think the new gear is no good (to the point of returning it) When in fact the problem was someplace else. 
One person who should be able to help is a dealer. However if you have no long term relationship to a dealer.. that road is fraught with fears of being taken for a ride.https://forum.audiogon.com/discussions/finding-the-weakest-link-when-upgrading
I think budget and balance is the place to start. Some time ago either Stereophile or The Absolute Sound put together hi-fi systems or groups that they recommended by price points. It was one of the better issues by the magazine, since it took in consideration “synergy” of components. One must know what can be afforded and what components compliment each other. Buying $60 Magico speakers and having $2k leftover for the rest of the rig, would result in not getting the best sound from the speakers. Conversely, spending $60k on source, amp, preamp, cabling and having $2k leftover for speakers would also not result in good sound. For many who know this....great. For those who don’t....big mistakes could potentially occur.
Get the best sounding speakers you can afford first.
Speakers do not change dramatically from day to day. If they seem to sound that different day to day, then there is something wrong with your system, that is, the components. 
And also , do your research be in love with what you are getting before you even get it. Everybody is upgrade upgrade upgrade . Can you imagine the system youd have if you did waste money upgrading on half measures? .blah . 
I started with speakers . Because everyone has something to hook to them. And sources can be half arsed while you get a feel for your room. Once you are convinced you are committed and can afford it . Get the best amplifier just above your budget , play with that a while and feel the G’s of having control of your speakers for the first time . then get a preamp you definitely cannot afford. And you are rockin. In that order. 
I believe the weakest link in my system is the speakers which are causing me issues with inconsistencies whenever I play them i.e. they sound good one day and not so great the next.
That can't be the speakers, unless your moving them around, or they are Electrostatics with dynamic bass drivers, as the ESL's can be less efficient on very humid days compared to dry days and with a dynamic bass driver the whole speaker can sound bass heavy on humid days and visa versa on dry days.

If none of these apply to you then it's your electronic chain (source to amp/s) that is your problem.

Cheers George   
Thanks for that buddy, I believe the weakest link in my system is the speakers which are causing me issues with inconsistencies whenever I play them i.e. they sound good one day and not so great the next..even the wife has made such comments. I am trying to get a good pair of speakers that will bring out the best in my system, I have been looking at the DynAudio and Q Accustics ranges, the DynAudio sound the best so far to my ears.


Cheers Buddy
OP here is our advice after 30 years of professional experience.

First of all everything matters, the electronics, the source, the speakers, the room acoustics, cabling, power etc.

However, you need to first select the loudspeaker which best fits your room and personal tastes. Big room big speakers, small room small speakers, the larger the room the more bass response you need as the room size will offer less reinforcement of the lower frequencies.

Also the speakers are a piece of furniture so the look of the speakers and the amount of bass, how loud they play and overal efficiency and sonic requirements will determine the rest of the chain.

For example if you have a 101db horn speaker you don’t need a 300 watt solid state amplifier, a 10 watt tube amp or first watt type of amp will do great. also certain loudspeakers requre current so a big solid state amplifier is required.

So speakers will determine the amount and type of amplifier

Then you select the best sounding sonically compatible analog or digital source. Some dacs or CD players may use tubes and sound lush or others will bring out detail.

Then once the system is setup you will use natural devices, and speaker positioning to tune the room, and then finally adding absorbing panels for slap echo, or diffusion panels or combinations of both to help balance out the room.

In your case you must evaluate what your weak link is and tackle that first.

When I was starting bulding my first true high end system in my 20’s it was a pair of Quad ESL 63 and I didn’t have the money for better electronics, so here were a pair of $3k loudspeakers this was 1985, those same speakers are $10k now, being driven by an Aiwa mini system did the Quads sound better than the Heil AMT 1D’s loudspeakers they replaced, yes they did.

Over time came better electronics a Hafler DH 200, and an old PS Audio preamp, with an AR ES 1 table and a starter Dynevector phono cart, then came a Merrill Table with an Alphason tonearm and better cart.

It took 5 years to build that system and at the end it was matched and sounded fantastic.

The moral of the story is that good speakers are just a start, the better the electronics the more you get out of those speakers, and the better source uncovers greater detail and soundstaging.

So you have to start somewhere, so you look at your weakest link and then build out from there.

Dave owner
Audio Doctor NJ
thanks for your reply... so much to consider with no real shortcuts to obtaining the best possible system, this hobby can be so enjoyable and frustrating at the same time

Great post, Al. How many standard deviations of degrees is that? : )
This question has been debated in a number of prior threads, and as might be expected there has been no consensus. Here is one of several prior threads in which this question was discussed:

https://forum.audiogon.com/discussions/what-is-most-important-part-of-a-system

Following is my answer as stated in that thread:

Do not expect any consensus among the answers which will be provided, or among the answers that have been provided about similar questions that were asked in the past.

Some will say the source is most important, because its shortcomings cannot be compensated for by any of the downstream components. I dispute that rationale, for two reasons:

1)That logic ignores the DEGREE to which different types of components may have shortcomings.

2)The source can’t compensate for the shortcomings of the downstream components either.

Some will say the speakers, because in general they (and their interaction with the room) arguably make the biggest difference in the character of the sound that is heard.

Others will say the preamp, contending that it is "the heart of the system."

My own answer, expressed in general terms, is that a chain is as strong as its weakest link, wherever that link may happen to be located in a particular system.

And more specifically my own perspective leans in the direction of "speakers first," but to a greater or lesser degree depending on how "important" is defined (especially the degree to which price is reflected in that definition); and depending on whether the source is analog or digital; and depending on the degree to which the particular listener values deep bass extension and the ability of the system to handle recordings having particularly wide dynamic range.

Regarding the last sentence of that post, keep in mind that for a given level of quality differences in deep bass extension and maximum volume capability can dramatically affect the cost (and size) of a speaker. And the importance of deep bass extension and maximum volume capability will vary widely among different listeners.

The bottom line, IMO, is that there is no general purpose answer. The specifics of a particular system, as well as listener preferences, have to be considered on an individual basis.

Regards,
-- Al