What is your upgrade philosophy?

With at least 4 or 5 (perhaps as many as 7) components (plus cables) comprising the system at any given time, certainly one is the best at what it does and one is the worst, and the others in between. When you have the fever and spare cash, do you prefer to take the one weak link and vault it to the top of the pile, or would you for the same money upgrade perhaps 2 components to middling status? Seems the former yields a better system long term, but the latter would provide more immediate improvement. Is there a method to your madness?
I started off with a very cheap system. Then I put together on paper my dream system and bought one piece at a time. I wouldnt shop so much by what component I wanted next as much as I did by good deals. I kept an eye out for an exceptional price of anything on my list and bought whatever was the best buy.

It was hard for a while because I drove an $11,000 pair of speakers with a $500 amp but after five years it is just about finished. As first when I changed out components the difference was huge. Towards the end it was more of an elimination of small but particular weak points but it was just as rewarding.

Now for home theater.

As an example, I waited ten years to buy my dream turntable. I made do with something that worked while I squirreled away the cash, then finally bought the analog front end I always wanted. I'm a firm believer in not buying "good enough" and upgrade through small steps but biding my time until I get the item of my choice. I'm to a point now where tweaks and such are about all I feel I need to introduce/change in my system. It's fun, inexpensive, and surprising.
I do prefere to upgrade a few components at the same time. For the past year I've had a bunch upgrades with analogue end, speakers and an amplification. Usually I do not pay too much of my attention on wires and buy them for the minimal match first.
I tend to agree with Perfectimage in that you should have a sense of what the final outcome is going to be and pick and choose as "deals" become available and your budget allows. That said, however, there is much to be said as to upgrading your souce components first and then working your way to the last link, i.e. the speakers. The old axiom "garbage-in, garbage-out" certainly applies in audio and what you hear coming from your speakers will reflect this.
Be ready to buy, but don't buy on impulse. I've followed this philosophy and those Wow! "deals" seem to come around the corner sooner than you would think. I've been researching amps for a year. I've bought two, and returned them both. I find that sometimes after getting the product home I sometimes get new ideas about the direction I want my system to go. Part of the fun is in looking for the equipment.
The logic of writing a list of gear you'd like and then saving the money to buy it wouldn't work for me. Chances are if your trying to put together a "dream system" time will run out on you before you save the cash. A dream system for most people would be rather expensive and by the time you got the money saved, the pieces you were looking at may be discontinued, or upgraded. I have been doing this stuff for 30 years and if I were to try to put together a dream system, say even 15 years ago, I find out what I wanted then isn't what I want now. My feeling is to get a general idea of the type of gear you want, perhaps to match the type of music you listen to. Find a dealer that will let you audition this stuff in your home, this is real essential. Chances are real good that what you hear at the dealers showroom and what you hear at home are going to be completely different. This is a great hobby for me and for many others. For me a great part of the enjoyment I have gotten from this is to audition gear in my home. Good luck and enjoy the music! ----->Ray
Hi Inscrutable; your question caused me a great deal of thought. Thankyou. After 10 years and about $50K spent, I've come to the conclusion that a really great sounding system can only be built by "trial and error", and taking into account your personal music quality/character preferences and biases (and of course your budget),eg I now know that I prefer music that is a bit warm and rich rather than cool, lean, or analytical.

I also believe that "neutrality" is an elusive, and maybe impossible goal. It may not even be a realistic or desireable objective. Subjectively, what I consider neutral you may consider colored. I suppose neutrality can be measured using instruments, but what the instruments show may not agree with what you hear.

I've done both of what you ask above-- sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn't. IMO, you have to be constantly searching for system synergy and satisfying your own listening preferences. I just paid over $11K for my "dream" speakers, and I'm finding them a bit cool and lean, and very revealing in "my room" and with the rest of my system. Yet prior to purchase, I thought they would fit perfectly with the rest of my system.

So, in a way I'm back to square one, and am trying to figure out how to get a little more warmth and richness in my system, while still keeping the strengths of the new speakers. What do I change to get what I want? I thought all my components would complement these speakers nicely-- but not so.

I think maybe a worthwhile general approach would be to pick out the most important component to you and carefully build your system around it a piece at a time. Knowing this now, I would start with speakers because of the major importance of speaker/room interaction. My system now sounds very, very good, but it has some weaknesses too. Good Luck and Cheers. Craig
Thanks to all for the responses so far.

Craig, i've done as you suggest might be the appropriate way. I found speakers I really liked and now am looking to optimize the surrounding/supporting gear. It's both fun and daunting. I find much appeal and logic in the approach of "buy a piece you LOVE, and then move on" even tho you may be able to achieve more aggregate sound improvement by spreading that same money over 2 or 3 pieces you merely "like". There has to be some relationship to time - if (because of budget) your time between pieces you "love" is 5 years, maybe trimming expectations and upgrading more modestly will still yield more musical satisfaction.

But then, if the trial-and-error experience is likely - then the key is making your mistakes faster (or less expensively at least) to eventually realize what you really like.

It's an interesting conundrum.
Perfectimage summed up what I did so amazingly I am scared right now! I had something cheap for a long time, and new what I wanted and then piece by piece started buying them, I want a new digital front end(transport, hoping for Burmester), I would like to replace my avalon eclipse with eidolon's eventually(that being the final speaker upgrade), I would think(note think about only, there may be no action) about replacing my BAT-VK60 with a Boulder or Accuphase amp, the pre will not be replaced for around another 20 years!(accuphase, well it will be in 2 more weeks!). I like to upgrade one thing at a time, before the new pre, my pre was the weak link, now the CD player is the weak link, soon to be replaced....and so on. But I am getting close to the end of the affordable upgrades/the end of upgrades for me. Then I will be going cable crazy!!!!!!

I agree with a lot of the above post. Your system should be built around your speakers, it is better to try different equipment in your home, and the best speakers in the world wont sound that good with lousy electronics.

The key is though we all need to start somewhere and we need a reference point to compare different equipment to.

There are also drawbacks to a five year plan which is what I did. You never hear the potential of the products you do own until you are done. Manufacturers and models change as you build. Some of your equipment depreciates as you are still building although if you choose wisely its never by much. And before you are done there is a new format to compete with.

The advantages are. After five years you are further then you normally would have been. You have years to audition different products until you are ready to buy. Some of those discontinued models you originally wanted drop in price. You end up with an excellent reference point to start switching out new products.

I consider this hobby a life long adventure. I admit I enjoy the equipment almost as much as the music and I am looking forward to the next thirty or forty years of building and experimenting.
This is such a great thread I wanted to make another comment. I bought a lot of my equipment through a trusted dealer. I always got 15% off of list and although that is well above audiogon prices I feel that the money was well spent in expertise. They really understood what I liked and always had the best suggestions on what brands suit my taste.

Countless times I left their store annoyed telling them they were wrong. I would then go off and audition many many other products only to return months later to tell them they were right.

I was lucky to find them and the extra money I spent to get products through them was well worth the expense. I look back at what I originally planned to buy and I cringe. Never underestimate a good dealer.
Definitely start if possible with the that speakers you intent to keep for good. Build up the rig with the best that you can afford & don't try to cut corners / save $ by trying the cheaper stuff. I spent so much more $ by first trying to mid-fi economize, but was never satisfied until I started buying the good stuff & selling off the "bargains". If I had put more of the $ wasted into good equipment to begin with then I'd have an absolute killer rig today. It's still pretty nice now, but for the $ I spent along the way it could be that much better. Don't fall for "false ecomomy" it's much more costly in the long term.
Bob (et al),
Your last comments I have learned the hard way over the years on other pursits. Seems I am never sorry for buying QUALITY. A co-worker from long ago had two signs on the wall:
"The bitterness of poor quality remains long after the sweetness of low price is gone." and
"If you don't have time to do it right, when will you find time to do it over?"
Probably applies as well here, huh?
I think it depends on your situation - if you have a really good idea where you want to end up and a pretty good idea what your budget over a long period of time will be, then map it out and buy the pieces one at a time as you can afford it. This will cost the least and probably get you there the fastest.

If you don't know exactly what you want and aren't sure how much you're willing (able) to spend over the long haul, then I think you upgrade pieces as you go, one at a time if that makes the biggest improvement, more than one at a time (spreading the money available) if that proves more satisfactory at any given moment, but being sure that after every upgrade your system sounds significantly better. If the improvement is subtle and the equipment isn't where you want to end up, you're probably just being impatient. If the improvement is significant and the equipment isn't where you want to end up but it's going to be several years before you can have it "just so", well it's going to be somewhat more expensive but you're going to get extra years of enhanced enjoyment out of it as well.

One point from other posts that bears repeating is this - draw up your dream system today and buy it over several years without updating the dream based on all the new splashy reviews coming out of newer gear. It's amazing how the $50K dream system becomes achievable for less than 1/2 that just a few short years away. This, to me, is the biggest value of having your eyes set on something you know you can't afford for years - while you're saving and getting closer to the goal, the price is coming down and if you can resist the temptation to change your goal to the latest-and-greatest model and remember how much you wanted the now-discontinued (and heavily depreciated) model that still works every bit as good as it did when you began the dream, you're miles ahead financially. -Kirk