Which component is most responsible?

I anticipate this question will garner varied opinions, which I look forward to reading: Which component(s) is most responsible for hearing clear, distinct separation of voices in a chorus or when listening to multiple background vocals, as I often hear audiophile speak of.

Nothing is possible unless your speakers can accurately reproduce the signal it is fed. If they can do that then the rest is found in set up and electronics. Not necessarily easy, but possible. Order of priority of electronics Amp to match speakers, source for producing a signal and lastly a pre-amp. Lots of folks like the last first, likely because its effect is more subtle than the others. Personally I think it is easier to fit a pre-amp into and existing system than the others unless you are buying/building a really high end system and the subtle stuff is going to be critical.
the preamp is the key to the sound you are describing.

Happy Listening.
Awhile back I started a similar thread. For me, the holy grail was a clear spatial separation of the first and second violins in string quartet recordings. My premise was that the problem was inherent to my speakers (magnepan 3.7Rs) due to the side by side arrangement of the ribbon tweeter and the quasi-ribbon midrange.
I got a variety of suggestions from power treatment to other speakers, even headphones. In the end, the solution was realized by a preamp upgrade. You may find that you will find the biggest improvement by replacing the weakest link. In the end, every component in the chain has to be up to the task. Speakers can't recreate a spacial relationship that your CD player smeared, but the reverse argument is equally true.
This has to come from the source or else nothing downstream can put back what was lost. Massed chorus music and complex full orchestra passages are extremely challenging to the entire audio chain so that it all needs to be right or else muddiness results... much easier to get distinctness with a few "voice" lines than many competing voice lines
Sticking my neck out here, but with all things not being equal, but some things being more equal than others, it is in most cases, the spealers. Why? Refinments in electronics has been ongoing for at least a couple of decades. While some may argue there is still a difference between an amplifier that has .1% distortion & one that has .05% is significant, I've yet to find one person who can distinguish & identify a particular amp based on normal conditions, based on distorion alone. Average output level, say 3 watts or less. Playing it to extremes some differences might present themselves, but there should not be any noticable difference based on distortion alone. Speakers on the other hand never have had, in spite of what one might like to think, such a level of performance since their inception.

Example: If you believe some speakers are unlistenable, how can it be that we can and have listened to a lowly transistor radio for hours or days at a time and still managed to recognize a familiar voice or instrument? And we did it without any disruption in/to our sensibilities or outrage for what we had to "endure."

That cheap tape recorder of days past will still allow us to recognize with out any doubt our own voice, or that of family members & a host of other things.

Take a given source, & try a couple of dozen different speakers, and you're going to hear the subtlties of that same dozen speakers. Ultimately you'll find some that are more to your likeing than others. No two people or two speakers are the same. You may succumb to the suggestions of others. Some may make valid points, some you might confirm or not.

Now, make you best choice, put your money down and get on with life. Once & a while though, our insecurities overwehlm us.
Which component(s) is most responsible
Components is correct, all of them. As Davide256 said, "This has to come from the source", then the preamp/amp must do its job to drive the speaker with this quality created by the source, and the speaker must be able to reproduce this quality. Just having all high quality components/speakers will not assure that you will achieve this quality. Synergy between components/speakers is extremely important as well.
I disagree about the 'source' theory. I have heand the clarity of separate voices in a choir, or individual violins in various systems. and most of them had 'ordinary' sources. Cheap Cd players.. Generally the ones which can 'do' the job have a good preamp, a stellar amp and great speakers.
I heard this phenomenon first time back in 1984 when I listened to Carmina Burana auditioning speakers in Chicago with Infinity RSIIa speakers (EMIM units in there) Powered by a Onkyo Integra amp, the big one. And a Integra preamp. Ordinary second generation $400 CD player. No special wires or anything..

So I challenge the 'source' folks to explain it...
Maybe it was a 'magic' CD player?

Now it is true a great source can sound marvelous.. But many cheap ones can sound really fine with great maps and speakers. (Maybe they just never heard a good inexpensive source?)
It's how it was recorded. Either the recording has or it doesn't. If it does, even a moderate quality system (with attention paid to setup) will reveal this effect.
I'll be in the minority here, but my ranking would be.

2)Recording Quality (If it's not on the material, it's not there.)
3)Source (turntable quality is obvious), with digital there are differences in the quality of the DA Converters and how they sound on the analog side. This is why people spend gobs of money on expensive DACS.

4)Electronics (I'm probably in the minority here, but I don't feel amplification should add any coloration to the source)
clean ears..
Talk about can-of worms. Pardon me but I'm just finishing a glass of Bonacorsi 2011 Pinot and it's been my experience that most well made components can get you to where you're going but cables are what take you there. The bar has been raised to the point where most amps, preamps and speakers are game for what you have to throw at them.

Before I get squashed with replies allow me the space to state that most threads I've come across that pertains to what takes to get you there are related to cables since that is what most folk tune their systems with. They're already content with their systems and it's the cabling that brings coherence or focus (the ability to hear that separation in the chorus).

Damn, this Bonacorsi is a sleeper. :-)

All the best,
Onhwy61 beat me to it, but to hear distinct separation of vocals requires the microphones to be placed in the optimum locations to achieve that effect.

It always tickles me when someone defines this or that component as having great imaging because they can hear the location of each instrument on the stage. If it was not recorded that way, you will not hear it that way.
+1 Onhwy61 and Minkwelder, those were my thoughts exactly. So in essence, it IS the source, the recording though, not some source component in an audio rig.
An owner.
The room has the greatest impact on soundstage and detail.
Speaker setup and room acoustics mostly.

Assumption is rest of gear feeding this is decent quality and matched well.
In this order: speakers, preamp, amp, source components, cables.
You can take your sound to the next level by paying attention to things like
vibration control and isolation. Much has been written on this subject,
and I recommend Lloyd Walker's piece on his website and Jim Smith's
"Get Better Sound." There are many threads on this site that talk
about such issues...

What shelving material are you using? Are you employing
anything between your electronics and the shelf it rests upon?
Are your speaker cables and interconnects off the floor and
properly configured? Why not pay attention to the little things
that will make it possible for you to more fully enjoy the gear that
you already own?

I am a fan of treating the room, too. The new Synergistic Research
HFTs and FEQ are really terrific, for they will let you hear what you have
been missing, but has always "present," all the time.
You can audition them risk-free for 30 days, and I recommend this.

I think, when you are looking to make very fine discriminations,
it makes sense to work with the big, expensive pieces that you
already own, and ask yourself, "what fine-tuning, which adjustments can give me the biggest sonic bang for my dollars?" The journey can be a lot of fun, and yield unexpected rewards...

Isn't it that everything counts, everything contributes to the end product
that reaches your ears? You can surely replace speakers, components, and cables in your system.

If you are not making attempts to make improvements with the gear you already have, aren't you more likely just to interchange pieces, and
increase the cost of your system, without any assurance that you will
be pleased with the end result?

It is your dollars, and your time. The choices are yours!
I appreciate all of your responses thus far. I'm beginning to think the weakest link is my speakers. I recently went from a solid state amp to a pp tube amp that opened the soundstage and provides a tonality in ways that it will be very hard to go back to a SS amp. However, I think my Polk LSI15’s are limiting me in achieving distinct separation of voices in a chorus. My front end consist of an Oppo with a Monarchy MN24 DAC, which is a very organic. I alternate between the internal Preamp in the Monarchy and a passive preamp. I don’t think the electronics and source are the culprits??
FWIW, separation of voices in a chorus is very difficult to achieve UNLESS it is in the recording in the first place! And it usually isn't, at least in my experience. Be sure you have a recording that really has the distinct separation of voices you are seeking. The clarity that you seek would also be apparent in the 'soundstage' presented by an abundance of recordings and would not only be apparent in the separation of instruments. That is just a starting point. Once again it is clarity of individual tone as well as location of the instruments.

I can not comment on the performance of your Polks. I've never heard them, but that said before I decided to ditch them I would be sure I had them, and my room, optimally set up so I could tell if they really were deficient or if it was just premature up-gradeitis.
Newbee, perhaps you could suggest a suitable recording to the OP that you know has a good separation of voices. That takes the recording variable out of the problem.
Of course it must be on the recording first, of current recordings the wonderful Swedish choirs on BIS lead the pack IMHO.
After that its the preamp and it not be an expensive one, the Hafler DH-101 was good at it as was Nikko back in the day.

I keep a Bryston BP-6 around for the sole reason it is stellar at this, though my EE Avant trumps it in about every other way. Of course if you use Vinyl the cart must be up to it as wel, I switched to a Nagoka MP-200 from a Grado Silver for that reason.
Any of the usual suspect 300-500S monitors will do what needs to be done.
I would rate in this order: The recording..source..pre-amplifier...amplifier....speakers.

The speakers are often the most innocent...unless they're not!

Another way to look at this: all in all the pre-amp in the most responsible.


Yes, you need a good choral recording recorded a certain way to even have a chance, so make sure that is in place first, otherwise you will spin your wheels.

Here's a good recording to try off the cuff:

Mitch Miller

Here's another:

Power cord.

(and/or wall socket).
Yes, reasonably clean power however achieved is a must for this as well.
Turn this one around. If you have a system that already convincingly separates a choir, what component could most easily destroy this if replaced? I would be tempted to say recording first but the truth is any sub par component in the chain could blur the choir. In general, it is the weakest link, not a certain component category, that limits the capabilities of the system. IMHO.

Following up on Brownsfan's suggestion I've picked out a couple of acapella choral recordings you might like (I do anyway) which are probably still in print and might serve your purposes, although I must admit, as I suggested in my first post, that if I were trying to pin down specificity I probably would not use choral music for one simple reason. Choral music tends to be a powerful blend of voices and single voices rarely stand out especially with minimal mic'ing techniques, but even with spot mic'ing, except when used for the soloists. Anyway, here goes....

Rachmaninov's All-Night Vigil, by the Estonian Phil Chamber Choir conducted by Paul Hiller on Harmonia Mundi.

Grechaninov's Passion Week by the Pheonix Bach Choir & KansasCity Chorale conducted by Charles Bruffy on Chandos (SACD)

Sibelius Choral music by YL Male Voice Choir conducted by Matti Hyokki on BIS. This disc has both acapella as well as choral accompanied by orchestra Lahti SO conducted by Vanska. I'm partial to the acapella performances, especially of Finlandia-Hymni a transcription for all male choir of the original, the orchestrated Finlandia. I understand the transcription was to be used by soldiers matching to the war with the Soviet Union in WWII. I still get choked up when I listen to it.

"Which component(s) is most responsible for hearing clear, distinct separation of voices in a chorus or when listening to multiple background vocals, as I often hear audiophile speak of."

All of them.
Speakers, and for me only those that are time and phase coherent, which means Thiel, Vandersteen, Dunlavy, Meadowlark.
I think my Polk LSI15’s are limiting me in achieving distinct separation of voices in a chorus.

FWIW, separation of voices in a chorus is very difficult to achieve UNLESS it is in the recording in the first place!

From my experience both of these statements are false. I can create the separation and location in a preamp design no matter what the source, amp or speakers. So IMO and from what I have designed, I can achieve this without the other components and recordings. Just changing the output resistors in a preamp to naked Vishay resistors will provide some of what you are looking to achieve. Filtering your ac inside the preamp will also provide clarity and better separation, and removing capacitors in the signal path will add to the separation, and last using a TVC volume control will add to the separation no matter what the amp, source or speakers are. Sure they other components will improve on this but the preamp can be designed to achieve this.
I believe it comes down to the 2 ends of the chain. 1st, the mic'ing, mixing, and mastering have to capture and preserve the vocal separation. Then, the speakers and room have to allow for the reproduction of what was captured.

The other pieces each play their parts, of course, but I feel to a lesser degree...

Assuming a competent (or better) recording, I vote for the room as the component that can do the most harm to the sound.
Assuming the recording is excellent...
IMO a general purpose answer to the question is neither useful nor possible. Differences between systems, rooms, recordings, and listeners will inevitably mean that the weakest link has to be identified on a case-by-case basis.

FWIW, though, if the question were re-phrased to be asking what factors generally have the greatest possibility of adversely affecting "separation of voices in a chorus or when listening to multiple background vocals," given that you are using a digital source, IMO the answers would be the recording, the speakers, and speaker/room interactions.

-- Al
LOL! This thread is beginning to remind me of that old Why the rectum is the most important organ joke. ;)

Jmcgrogan2, haven't heard that one in a very long time, guess it's been around for years.

This thread is reminding me about reading this some time ago,

Put 10 audiophiles in a room to discuss a topic, and they will emerge with at least 11 different theories.
"12-18-13: Quad-man
I would rate in this order: The recording..source..pre-amplifier...amplifier....speakers.

The speakers are often the most innocent...unless they're not!

Another way to look at this: all in all the pre-amp in the most responsible."

Its good to see that so many people are giving preamps the credit they deserve. This wasn't always the case. Preamps are often overlooked when building a system. They're just as important as any other piece.
Your system is only as good as the weakest link. You are the weakest link! Goodbye!!!

Sometimes the owner is the weakest link. :o)
I just had this very experience in this past month. I was auditioning speakers, and had tried the Martin Logan Motion 40s, the Sonus Venere 2.5s, the GoldenEar Triton 7s, some 2001-isth McIntoshes, and Aperion T3s. But when my wife and I played Mendelssohn's "Elijah" cantata with full orchestra and 8-part vocal harmonies, the Magneplanaer 1.7s ran away from the pack. They were the only ones that easily tracked the 8-part vocal harmonies in the midst of a fullscale orchestra operating at … er … full scale.

I pay attention to sources, to phono and line level preamps, interconnects, and speaker cables. But they can't fix a lack of phase coherence, cabinet resonances, driver overshoot and ringing, driver-to-driver discontinuities, and in-room power response deficiencies from crossover-based suckout. Those belong to the speakers alone and can't be fixed by upstream components and cables.

The Magnepans are devoid of clarity-robbing enclosure resonances. Also, with their large radiating area and minimal excursion, they are also less vulnerable to inertia-based distortions. Maggies aren't the only speakers that address these problems; other panel speakers such as electrostatics offer the same strengths. Open baffle dynamic speakers, especially those with multiple tweeters and mids also have an advantage here, both in reduction of cabinet resonances and also minimal inertia-related distortions.

The point is, if you want lots of delineation in polyphony, speakers that rely on radiating surface vs. excursion have an inertia-based advantage over designs based primarily on diaphragm excursion.
Johnnyb53, nicely put. In another thread I mentioned just how much my sound improved by using smaller vent slats on my Tonian Labs TL-D1s. They are a semi-open baffle design and are never completely sealed. They vent to the rear and when going to the smallest vent (allowing the largest opening) the images lost that projection artifact and almost seem to float and radiate sound in more directions. A most pleasant improvement. Along with that, there's more detail retrieval which adds to more realism.

All the best,
+1 like to JMC. When should we finally get these buttons? There's plenty of existing code so little to no effort required...
The best recorded choral CD I've heard is BIS CD-533 "Christmas Music" featuring the a capella male chorus Orphei
Dranger of Upsulla University.
Its not all Christmas music and its not all in Swedish,but is all magnificent. Three male voices alone singing the "Coventry Carol' made my hair stand on end.

Straight up gang, the Swedish Choirs are the worlds best and the BIS label makes the best Recordings extant.
3 male voices is a simple task for decent system... 100 + voices with multiple counter harmonies is not. Carmina Burana is a piece my system struggles with for air and definition in massed chorus passages regardless of LP or digital.
Davide 256, I think we all know that. The 3 voices are 1 track of 16.Carmina Burana is miked for what it is, an exercise in vulgarity.
But then I am at fault for not mentioning that the Choir of a major European University, with a student body of 40K, where Choirs occupy the position of sports at a US Uni , has more than 3 members.