A speakers performance is highly variable and its sound will depend on the amp driving it. But the greatest amp (whatever that is) will sound like crap if the speaker sounds like crap. The quality of the speaker is the ultimate limitation of your system (assuming proper set up and room integration).
Its the synergy of the 2 components together.. so one speaker could infact sound better with a 200 dollar amp and another better with a 2000 dollar amp, but not all times will the 2000 dollar amp in place of the 200 dollar amp and speaker combo sound necessarily better but different.. Reality is similar amps in the same system will probably be just that, very similar. The speaker will make more impact on the tone or final sound you seek in general.. But one further, the Room is the most important component in the system, if it can sound excellent then mostly a good designed speaker with resonable electronics will sound good. By the way the real problem with amps seems to be matching up to a preamp that sounds right with it, not even so much the speaker / amp interaction all the time. Its one synergistic chain, not all combos work.
To what end? If it's a purchasing priority, I would first go with the best amplification I could afford and upgrade speakers as funds permit. To me, if I buy a top notch speaker and it resolves so well that it shows the short-comings of cheap amplification, it would be a miserable listening experience as I await better equipment. That's the only reason I would ponder this question in the first place. Just my 2 pesos.
I will buy the best speakers first according to your listening taste, budget, and WAF. Then start saving again and hunt for the appropriate amp that will go well with your speakers.
How do you know what amp to buy if you do not know how demanding your speakers are? Just like you want to buy the tires first when they are on sale without knowing what car you are going to buy.
If you have your dream speakers, you will have the motive to get extra cash (legal or not) to get a good amp asap. You will suffer a bit in the short run. If you need 5 years to save up the money for the amp, then it is another story.
If you don't match the speaker to your room acoustics, the money you spend on the rest of your system is a complete waste (well, almost). You will never appreciate the differences between higher quality source, amplifiers, cables etc. if you don't (first) get the speakers/room right. At least, that has been my experience.
There are two standards in place for speaker and amplifier design, and if you use an amplifier with a speaker of the other standard, or vice versa, you very likely will have an incompatability. This is not a matter of taste, nor is it a matter of poor speaker limiting a good amp (which clearly happens as well but is not my point).
The two standards are Voltage and Power. Under the the Voltage standard, the ideal amp makes the same *voltage* into any load. An amp that makes 29V RMS into an 8 ohm load makes 100 watts and can then make 29V RMS into 4 ohms is now doing 200 watts. This is the traditional transistor amplifier. Speakers designed for this behavior may have a varying impedance curve but the result will be flat frequency response when used with a Voltage Standard amp.
Under the Power standard, the ideal amp makes constant power with respect to load. The typical example is a tube amplifier that might be 220 watts into 4,8 and 16 ohms. Speakers designed under this standard expect constant power regardless of their impedance. A good example is the Coincident Technologies speaker. Another is the Sound Lab (most planers are Power standard as their impedance as nothing to do with box resonance).
Some correlations so this is easier to recognize: in the Objectivist/Subjectivist debate, Objectivists are all on the Voltage standard, and most Subjectivists are not. Transistors/Tubes I already mentioned.
An example of a mismatch: a tube amp on a B&W 802. The 802 is designed to see the amp double power into the woofer load; tube amps do not do this and so the speaker tends to be lean with tube amps.
Another example: transistor amp with Sound Labs. ESLs have decreasing impedance with frequency and the Sound Lab is about 1.5 ohms or so @ 20KHz. It is usually 16-30 ohms in the bass, depending on the version. A transistor amp will make far too much power in the highs and not nearly enough in the bass (the difference in power varying by at least 10-1!), resulting in lackluster bass with very bright highs. Usually people who have this combination compensate by putting the speaker too close to the rear wall to enhance the bass, but the results are questionable.
So you have to determine which standard your amps and speakers are built to. After that then you can exercise 'taste'.
I thought that I would throw in a dissenting opinion. While I agree that the speakers have a greater effect on the total sound, I would say that the distortions of loudspeakers are, basically, consonant with the sound of the music itself. On the other hand, the sound that electronics produce are electronic sounding distortions, which are much more irritable, even in small amounts, than the distortions of loudspeakers. So, cast my vote for the amp being much, much more important.
Oh, and without the amp, no sound comes out of the speakers; the amp is the chicken.
I am decidedly in the "speakers are more important" camp. They are the transducers, going from electrical to mechanical energy. In addition, they interface *directly* with the room. Get the speakers right for the room and the amp is a doddle.
One other thing, I'd MUCH rather bring amps in and out of my house than speakers - think about it.
What would sound the best the VR11 (biggest Von Schweikwert) paired with the cheapest 'any' hi-fi amp, or VR2 (second cheapest Von Schweikert) and a Krell or an Audionote Tube or something of that calibre? I suspect the later would sound better IMHO.
Actually speakers first - you can get away with slighlty crappy amplification but the speakers have to be well-balanced. Then you need a amplifier that controls these 'great' speakers very well. If you have crappy control over speakers they'll sound flabby and loose...
It is not uncommon to have an amp that is twice the rated power that the speakers need - more control - just be very careful not to over-power the speakers...
I have to disagree with some of you here. If you have a great speaker, there is no way it will sound all that great if it exposes a poor amplifier. EX.: try putting a cheap transistor amp on a good horn system- you will regret it.
Ex.: put a cheap transistor amp on a set of Sound Labs- *no way* will the speaker live up to its capability.
Ex.: try putting an SET on a set of B&W 802s. -Sorry!
Ex.: put a cheap transistor *or* cheap tube amp on a set of Magnaplanar MG20.1s. What a waste!
Ex.: put a set of Rogers LS3/5as on of the bigger Ayre transistor amps- will you realize the capabilities of the amp? no! and no slight to the Rogers either but the two simply will not show each other off.
I have dozens of such examples. My advice- if you plan to buy a Masarati put a decent set of tires on it. If you get a really nice speaker put a really nice amp on it.
OTOH you could just take a wad of hundred dollar bills, go up stairs and flush then down the loo in the master bedroom. The effect will be the same :)
I won't part with my speakers, that have been the only permanent item in my main system for 10+ years that are in storage in another continent (not the makeshift/cheap system I have listed here on audiogon), so I would have to say 1 more vote for speakers!
I believe the speakers are the first consideration between the two. Speakers have to be chosen to work in a given room, which can vary quite a bit. Speakers are probably the least accurate component in a system, therfore one should find speakers that are the least objectionable to one's unique sensibilities (or lack there of). Of course that doesn't mean you should choose inapropriate amplifcation. Of course, I'm a hypocrite as my amplifier costs more than my speakers. In my defense, I chose my speakers first, and then decided on amplification, and I doubt I would have chosen this particular amplifier to power the other speaker options I considered.
I have to disagree with some of you here. If you have a great speaker, there is no way it will sound all that great if it exposes a poor amplifier
Ditto. Out of nowhere, the age-old insistence upon amplifier/speaker synergy has transformed into the suggestion that any amp'll do. Not so. Witness how the amplifier suddenly becomes the most important component of your system when it is the reason your speakers don't sound their best. I'm not convinced you can evaluate the importance of one independently from the other.
If you know what you really want (from life or from your sound system), you will be better equipped to make intelligent choices about the best way to accomplish it. And unless you are infallible, this whole process will still be a trial-and-error journey; in addition, what you want may well change as you change.
Thus far in your audio journey, haven't you learned a great deal about what you do and do not want from your sound system?
Getting to the question at hand, I don't think you should choose the amplifier with great care and then throw just any speaker on it. Nor do I think you should do the reverse, unless you're Dave Wilson giving a demo! And even then, I suspect he took the time to find a cheap amplifier that still sounded pretty darn good on his speakers.
In my opinion the question to ask oneself is, "What am I really trying to do with this sound system?" Once that question has been answered, the next one is pretty obvious: "What's the best way to accomplish what I want?"
Here's my generic answer to the first question: "I'm trying to recreate as closely as possible the aural perception of a live performance on music that I listen to a lot within my budget and without creating a sore spot in my marriage."
Now to the best of my knowledge there is no well-established consensus on exactly what the minimum requirements are to recreate the perception of a live performance - so there's still lots of room for individual interpretation as to the best way of accomplishing that part. In some cases the speaker/amplifier matchup is not critical (as Dave Wilson has demonstrated), and in some cases it is very critical (see Atma-Sphere's post above).
I think that in most cases the speaker's characteristics have the most influence on the final sound of the system. Sometimes this will significantly narrow down the amplifier choices, and sometimes not.
[As a side note, an amplifier's input has variations in the domains of time and magnitude (voltage), as does its output. A speaker's input varies in time and magnitude, but its output varies in those two domains plus three dimensional space. So I claim that at least in theory speakers have more opportunity to screw things up - which they often take full advantage of!]
Now some people place a very high priority on the beneficial characteristics of particular amplifier types - SET and OTL come to mind. For these people, amplifier type (if not specific amplifier choice) will come first. Once that choice is made, the range of speakers to choose from will naturally narrow down considerably.
Personally, there are certain types of amplification I would like to use, and certain types of speakers I would like to use, because in my experience these do a good job of taking me down the road towards what I want.
Above $500/pair, i don't think there are any really "bad sounding" speakers. and, according to ancient wisdom, all amplifiers sound the same... when i upgraded my system to B&W 801's, i had a denon 200w/ch amplifier. it was well made, and looked really cool. but the B&W's sounded somewhat "artifical". i was able to trade up to a hafler xl-600, which sounded much more convincing (realistic). about 2 years later i borrowed a used levinson 23 amp to experiment with. in 2 minutes or less i was so impressed- instrumental textures were so nicely reproduced, that i decided i HAD TO HAVE it!! so i acquired a ml-23.5 which i enjoyed the heck out of for several years. the search for improvement still was not over- my next amp was a krell FPB-300, which threw a 3D stage, something i didn't know i was lacking...! the krell was more open and transparent as well, although the levinson's bass was still comparable. a few more years passed, and a friend let me audition his pass aleph 1.2's against the krell. the improvement was not all that big, but the "warmth" and presence of musicians with the pass amps was addictive none-the-less. which brought me to try out rowland m-12's, which mimicked the sound of the alephs without the weight and heat. still not 100% happy, i lucked into a pair of levinson 33h's at a price i could afford. they were so much more dynamic than anything i'd heard before, with an uncanny-low noise floor. so these are still in use to this day. but on some days i feel they're a little too neutral and long for the pass alephs again... maybe i should get a pair of XA-160's...!!! i feel the speakers and the amps that drive them are totally inseparable. rather than the car/tire analogy, i would suggest more of an engine/the gas that goes into it pairing. but the quality of the amplifier you choose is so special, that no matter how humble or elaborate the loudspeakers you bond with, i am sometimes overwhelmed by how much "life" is either added to or stripped away from the music depending on a circuit board or a power supply. yet, in the very beginning, when i had the denon amp, i was completely oblivious to the significance of this often-overlooked "little detail".
Best explanation award goes to - Atmasphere for describing Power and Voltage and how they work together in determining Amp/Speaker Synergy. People really do need to know the "design philosophy and criteria" that goes into both the amp and the speaker design and to make sure that these "philosophy and criteria" are not in disagreement with each other.
Best common sense award goes to - Audiokineses for "knowing yourself" and knowing your system and knowing what you're trying to accomplish in the end.
Of course if was to buy the speaker or amp first, I think I would want to have some idea at that time what good amps or speakers choices should follow. I would also understand, that until these choices were made and implemented, that my system probably wouldn't be sounding up to it's potential. Having said this, I still think having a great amp will allow most speakers to "sound" up to their potential, than the visa versa.
I tend to lean toward the speaker side of things as this addresses the "voice" of your system, however you must recognize that there is a balance to maintain in maximizing your satisfaction of the results.
If you are trying to get the "best of the best" during the time of initial purchase (and if you can afford it), knock yourself out.
Otherwise the best advice that I can give is to make sure that the purchases you make are:
(A) Well suited to run together (no use running a low efficiency speaker on 5 watts of power)
(B) "Modular" (i.e., having room to grow on either the speaker side or amplifier side or both, depending on how you will grow your system)
(C) You *LIKE* the final results (at least for the time that you want to own them).
I usually keep my components for a LONG time since I try to keep expenditures to a minimum. This means that I look for equipment that I can truly enjoy even if I get hit by lightning tomorrow (at least while selecting wings and a (high end) harp, I could say, "Dang, wish I coulda got 'xxx', but oh well, at least I rocked the house with 'yyy'!").
On the other hand, it is "modular" enough so I can switch components without undue downgrade in quality (and resellability in case of the "oops" factor).
Nobody yet refuted my wisdom. By concentrating on high $$$$ quality cables, one can make any amp and speaker combination sound fantastic. If the amp is weak then simply raise the amp up slightly so that gravity assists the current flow down the cable to the speaker. This way you can perfectly control the sound. If the amp is too powerful then put it on the floor.
A quick glance at audiogon systems shows that many people already know about these tweaks...often the most powerful monoblocks are sitting on the floor where they are less likely to overdrive the speakers ;-)
An average source or amp will make any great speaker sound mediocre, at best. What should be dynamic and involving, making it difficult to turn away, will simply tame the potential of the speaker, rendering it boring and uninvolving.
You are of course listening to the speaker it makes the sound. IMO the two most colored items in the audio chain is the cartridge and the speaker. A good amp should only have a sound when it is misbeheaving(asked to do something it cannot). There is a reason they don't emphasize distrotion figures for speakers(or cartridges for that matter. Speaker should be chosen first and then an amp should be purchased that is ideal for that load. We are handicapped becasue even if a reviewer knew what amp should be used with a speaker he will not have it on hand at the time of review. A dealer is also limtied by his knowledge and availablity of the right amp. Often even the manufacturer does not reccomend the right amp for his speaker. I would never have bought the CLS if I heard it being dirven by the Krell elctronics. One also needs to factor in speaker cables in that equation.