What Matters and What is Nonsense

I’ve been an audiophile for approximately 50 years. In my college days, I used to hang around the factory of a very well regarded speaker manufacturer where I learned a lot from the owners. When I started with audio it was a technical hobby. You were expected to know something about electronics and acoustics. Listening was important, but understanding why something sounded good or not so good was just as important. No one in 1968 would have known what you were talking about if you said you had tweaked your system and it sounded so much better. But if you talked about constant power output with frequency, or pleasing second-order harmonic distortion versus jarring odd-order harmonics in amplification, you were part of the tribe.

Starting in the 1980s, a lot of pseudo scientific nonsense started appearing. Power cords were important. One meter interconnects made a big difference. Using a green magic marker on the edge of a CD was amazing. Putting isolation dampers under a CD transport lifted the veil on the music. Ugh. This stuff still make my eyes roll, even after all these years.

So I have decided to impart years and years of hard won knowledge to today’s hobbists who might be interested in reality. This is my list of the steps in the audio reproduction chain, and the relative importance of each step. My ranking of relative importance includes a big dose of cost/benefit ratio. At this point in the evolution of audio, I am assuming digital recording and reproduction.

Item / Importance to the sound on a scale of 1-10 / Cost benefit ratio

  • The room the recording was made in / 8 / Nothing you can do about it
  • The microphones and setup used in the recording / 8 / nothing you can do about it.
  • The equalization and mixing of the recording / 10 / Nothing you can do about it
  • The technology used for the recording (analog, digital, sample rate, etc.) / 5 / nothing you can do about it.
  • The format of the consumer recording (vinyl, CD, DSD, etc.) 44.1 - 16 really is good enough / 3 / moderate CB ratio
  • The playback device i.e. cartridge or DAC / 5 / can be a horribe CB ratio - do this almost last
  • The electronics - preamp and amp / 4 / the amount of money wasted on $5,000 preamps and amps is amazing.
  • Low leve interconnects / 2 / save your money, folks
  • Speaker cables / 3 / another place to save your money
  • Speakers / 10 / very very high cost to benefit ratio. Spend your money here.
  • Listening room / 9 / an excellent place to put your money. DSPs have revolutionized audio reproduction
In summary, buy the best speakers you can afford, and invest in something like Dirac Live or learn how to use REW and buy a MiniDSP HD to implement the filters. Almost everything else is a gross waste of money.

For me and my systems, "tweaks" are improvements such as Herbie's Loudpeaker Feet. These were recommended on the Double Impact thread and I ordered them with trepidation because they were about $65 a speaker and the design improvement was not clear at first.

Turns out they work splendidly with the Tektons and are well worth the minor investment -- the speakers stay rock steady over time and the subtle cushioning improves bass response, soundstage, and security.

Have had my share of non-working tweaks and can only say that I will spend relatively little on an untrusted, untested, or non-reviewed addition. Spend time on Audiogon and other sites to benefit from user comments on these kinds of threads. Believe you get the best information from users/owners who describe their experiences devoid of special interest or economic motives.

The cable issue stopped being a concern for me when I discovered Blue Jeans Cable 7 years ago and started using their custom builds for studio and home setups. Check out Gearslutz for studio advice on cables. The standard used to be Monster mic cables but these have been replaced by Belden 1800f ones. Blue Jeans makes custom lengths and connectors so you avoid excess length and adaptors.

Like bstbomber above, am a lifelong musician with studio and audiophile setups. Move equipment back and forth between the two and have found that professional studio equipment always sounds good in audiophile settings but the reverse is not always the case.

"Having said all that, obviously you don’t have to look around too hard to find some poor guy somewhere who complains he can’t hear it, whatever the device in question is. We already know that." EXACTLY! And, in my book:  what DOESN’T, "matter", is what SOME consider, "nonsense".
I have been trained as a classical musician (gave up going to music school for Physics), been an audiophile for 50 years (sometimes I refer to myself as an "audioidiot" - kindly) and also owned one of the larger hi-end audio and video dealerships in the country for about 20 years.
Now I have been retired from the A/V business for  8 years, but the audiophile part will never go away.  Nor do I want it to go away.

I learned a lot about the current topic in my interaction with customers of all types and budgets (from a few thousand dollars to a few million dollars).  I think that …….
There are three types of people when it comes to music:
The gearheads: those who love the equipment above all else.  
The true music lovers - the lucky ones.  They can break into joyful tears when they hear a magnificent performance over a $1,000 system.
The folks who are both.  They love music and they also love the pursuit of audio reproduction.

We all, sort of, fit into one or the other of the categories.  And there is no reason to criticize people who share different goals than do we.  And different budgets as well.

Being "in the business" for 2 decades and having only modest budgetary constraints has given me the opportunity to try pretty much everything that there is to try - for the last 40 years.  My audio system has often seemed like a revolving door.
And the lesson that I think I have learned is that "what matters" in reproduction changes every decade or so. (I am not going to address the quality of the music recordings issue - it is well covered already).  And knowing a bit about where we all come from lends great insight into what matters most to many audiophiles.

In the early years (70s and 80s) it most certainly was all about the equipment.  All of it, and many of us built our own speakers since we could do things that the manufacturers could not build and sell in a nascent market.

In the following decades the industry blossomed with an increase in audio lovers and an increase in wealth in the country.  The high-end business matured into a competitive race for the highest quality gear possible.  And it often seems (as usually was) that the more money you spent, the better the end result.

The early part of the 21st century has brought on the ability to have a good system for a fraction of what used to be required.  And to have, for a larger sum, a system that is better than previously possible.

And this decade has finally  introduced the power of processing (that finally actually works) into our systems.  And what a difference that can make!  I was an early adopter of some of the miniDSP gear and used it to good effect in numerous systems.  

So enough about history: what have I learned?  As the third type of person - audiophile AND music lover, I believe the following to be true:     

First: get your room right as best as it can be done!  Go for symmetry and use appropriate acoustic materials (are these tweaks?) where they belong.  Diffusors and absorbers.  The electronics now available can help resolve many of the faults in your room, but they cannot, even the most expensive units, completely eliminate the problems presented by your listening space. So if you can get "permission" to do some acoustic modifications in your room - do them first.  Electronics do NOT change the principles of acoustic engineering.                                                                Second: pick your processing.  There are a few good choices, from the modest miniDSP to the current state-of-the-art in the Trinnov Altitude and its "pro gear" siblings.  These units that deal with the "psychoacoustics" of timing/amplitude/phase are changing everything and will continue to change everything.  And more gear will continue to bleed into the audio market from the professional recording domain.  This is the stuff that is used to produce the recordings, and it is only to be expected that it should be part of the reproduction chain as well.                Third: look at your overall budget.  None of us have completely unlimited resources to drive into audio gear, but take what you have and apportion it out wisely.  This often does mean that the key ingredient in the mix is your choice of speakers.  This determines the dispersion patterns in your room as well as the power requirements for proper dynamics.                              Next: FIND DOMEBODY THAT YOU CAN TRUST that has tried  the rest of the gear you contemplate purchasing.  The choices are so complex.  This includes the "tweaks".

So, do your choices of speaker cables, analog and digital interconnects, preamps, amplifiers, power cords, racks/isolators, grounding cables/systems, etc. matter.  Yes they do!  Perhaps a bit less than before the computer processing/software that has emerged.  But they still DO make a difference.  Especially in the more discriminating systems where small changes can have a significant effect on the ability of a system to reflect reality.                                                                                                The trick is to discern which of these "tweaks" is important for YOUR system.  And not to be concerned with what makes a difference in somebody else's system.  We can learn from each other without criticizing.  There is always someone with more experience and knowledge.  Tap that experience and knowledge.      

I have met quite a few interesting audiophiles through Audiogon over the years.  They have learned from me, and I have also learned from them.  And this accumulation of "audio buddies" is what makes the sport of high-end audio really satisfying.
And I am always happy to talk "audio talk".
+1 barrarich
Agree completely with your emphasis on room control and the changes from the new computer reality. Have described several times on Audiogon my belief that soon there will be only one box and it will include a media server, open-ended preamp with room correction (= accepts plug-ins), class D amp and as much memory as appropriate. All currently exists, it's just a question of some company making the business model and copyrights work out.
I primarily agree with Geoffkait.  One never knows if a tweak will render a huge, minor or no difference in the sound quality, positive or negative.  I find that the acoustics of a room is 50% of the sound quality.  A big percentage.  I was able to use Synergistic Research HFT system to remove all types of room treatments except for my Hallographs to greatly improve the sound of my system from adjusting room acoustics.

As to speakers, there are many fine ones out there and I chose the most cost effective ones for now which provide me with excellence in many facets, yet not the finest (or expensive) in any category.  Not necessarily easy to drive as they have low impedences with high efficiency.  I'm satisfied not spending $50K (Einstein, VR55K VS or Lumenwhite) to get 15% lesser performance at $2500 (Legacy Focuses used), although I am saving up to purchase one of those three in the near future (had the Focuses for 18 years).  It took more effort to find a great pre-amp than speakers or amps.  High[end quality pre-amps are really difficult to engineer well.   The best ones I've heard are $10K+ (e,g, EAR 912) while some high priced ones are awful (e.g. Ypsilon).

As to cabling, I tried many cables but stick with a high end, moderate cost brand GroverHuffman cables.  I've tried cheap Monster Cable ICs for poorer friends systems on my system (300s, earliest model of 3 300 types is best,usually $10/m on ebay) which were musically acceptable although rolled off the frequency extremes and were not great at retrieving detail.  I also heard High Fidelity and Transparent Audio cables many times and thoroughly reject them in favor of Monster Cable 300s.  Another inexpensive but really fine phono cable is a very low capacitance, silver coated 26 gauge copper solid core cable bought in bulk.  Beautiful sounding at $40, my friend uses it instead of my $450 phono cables.  So, the right choice of inexpensive cabling can work musically/sonically.   As to using low cost, lower quality cables on a high end speaker/amp/pre-amp system, why sacrifice sound quality if one can afford much better cabling?