THE SYSTEM IS THE HERO
Published on March 1, 2005
THE SYSTEM IS THE HERO
a reply to Martin DeWulf [Bound For Sound] and an open letter to readers
Dodson: quibbles and qualifications
My time with the Dodson DA converter was essentially the same as Marty’s, down to the loose solder joint that rendered the unit silent. I found the sound to be lively, with a good delineation of space but slightly limited top frequencies. It was a more brilliant presentation than my Forsell unit, and similar to the Resolution CD player I reviewed a couple of years ago.
My conclusion would be similar to Marty’s as well: if you’ve got about three
grand for a DAC, this would be a reasonable choice – especially if your unit doesn’t need service in the field. (Marty’s tolerance of the solder problem, and his reaction to the manufacturer’s poor support, are superior to mine.) It occurred to me, as resin-laden smoke curled up my nose, that the Dodson was an interesting unit, but it was not the key to the improvement I heard in my system. The Monarchy Audio 24/96 ($295) with my old Forsell sounded equally good, if different. I started thinking about how systems work or fail, and that’s what this note is about.
One from the crypt
Everybody has a fond memory of a system: a collection of pieces heard at a show, or at a friend’s house. Sometimes it’s a system you assembled. The individual parts might not have been wonderful, but the combination was dynamite. Then you sold one piece and replaced it with something much better, something which had received terrific reviews – and your system fell apart. The magic was gone. Sorely disappointed, you resolved to save your money, bide your time, and buy an even better component so that you would ascend into sonic paradise. It’s an old mistake.
We reason that if a system sounds good and we substitute one new component, then the system’s overall performance will reflect that one change: if the sound is bad, then the new piece is responsible. Twenty-five years ago Ivor Tiefenbrun at Linn and Peter Viereker at Naim recognized the mistake and began to sell their equipment together. The result was a very musical sound: the Linn turntable and Naim electronics worked beautifully together, and popping in a piece from some other manufacturer, no matter how terrific, often degraded the effect. Jim Winey at Magnepan and William Johnson at Audio Research exhibited their wares together, and thrilled people at CES. Judd Barber (Joule) and Bobby Palkovic (Merlin) have become a regular feature at trade shows. All of these companies make estimable products, but they have learned that trying to make a product that will sound good in every system is impossible. After hunting around they have found the best match. I suggest you do the same.
A long time ago my friend Peter bought what he was told to – by people like Peter Axcel at The Audio Critic and Gordon Holt at Stereophile. (This is a really old story, but it has relevance for today.) So Peter assembled an Apt preamp and amp, which were the middle class solid state electronic heroes of the day, along with a pair of Dahlquist DQ 10s, and so became the envy of all the hungry grad students and hifi groupies. (The rich people got Levinson electronics, Kyocera and Nakamichi digital gear, and Snell speakers.)
The woman I was dating at the time wanted a system too, but like me was subsisting on a teaching assistant’s salary. I carefully hunted the used shelves in local stores and came up with a NAD 4020A tuner to match a NAD 3020 integrated amp. There was a pair of Cizek One speakers with dented cabinets in one emporium and a Sansui turntable in another. A wealthy lawyer gave me a low hours (and low prestige) Audio Technica cartridge, and I bought some Romex house wire for cable. For speaker stands we used old cable spools.
One night we ate dinner at my girlfriend’s garage apartment, with music provided by the humble, rag-tag system. Peter politely remarked that it sounded pretty good, considering what it cost.
Then we repaired to Peter’s place for an evening of music, respectable wine and erudite conversation. It didn’t take one side of an album to realize that his system, composed of really good stuff, all certified admirable by the leading minds in the field, was dull, with bass that sounded out of phase, poorly articulated midrange, and shrill but unclear treble. (Dahlquist used a Motorola piezo tweeter in his five-way system, and it really did etch glass.)
Peter was deeply annoyed at the obvious deficiencies in his sound, and devoted himself even more deeply to his academic discipline. I married my girlfriend and got to use the system, parts of which are still working in various rooms of our house.
I relate this story about Peter, who was a very dear friend with excellent taste in
music and a discerning ear to illustrate a point: you can’t buy stuff you haven’t tried. Even if Marty, with all of his experience and discrimination, tells you how good something is, you have to get the stuff into your system and play with it. Since home trials are often hard to come by, you may have to listen at the local hifi store. If the product isn’t available in your town, get in the car and find a place that carries it. I am fortunate to have friends with systems very different than my own, and I visit them to get a sense of what stuff sounds like. Sometimes they let me borrow a piece. All of these steps take time and may even require a bit of resourcefulness, but the reward is good sound. To borrow an expression from a rule about another kind of long term relationship: buy in haste, repent at leisure.
You can pore over an equipment review, trying to discern nuances in the author’s prose and the messages he has concealed within the text until you’re nearsighted; you can post questions and read messages on Audio Asylum until you’re late for dinner; but you will not discover the truth about a piece until you’re actually heard it.
This commonsensical approach was true twenty-five years ago, but it became critical more recently with the rise of web sites like Audiogon. Now you can find remarkably expensive equipment at fabulous discounts. I’m thinking of a $45,000 speaker that showed up last week for about a third of retail. Even with shipping, this is a fabulous deal – or is it?
If your floor won’t support a pair of four hundred pound boxes, if your room has dimensions that will generate standing waves that render the bass boomy and uncontrolled, if your amp will take one look at the speaker load and flip all the circuit breakers in your house, this is a very poor bargain. You’re going to be proud of the monuments while your friends cruise by to gawk and ogle, but you and they are going to hear the calamitous result. They’re going to go home to make fun of you, and you’re going to be stuck in the living room, wishing you could get back to those sensible, eminently musical Vandersteen 3As you had before – which some other Audiogoner is now enjoying.
There’s another matter that must be addressed in this context: your taste. I guess no one would say he doesn’t like “musical” equipment. You wouldn’t oppose “open” sound, would you? Go a step further: how important is bass response to you? Is it really the defining sonic characteristic that separates truly great systems from mediocre ones? Do you care deeply about soundstaging? Is dynamic range what rings your bell?
Until you are absolutely clear about what you want your system to sound like the probability that you will be able to assemble a good system is small – sort of a random walk through the hifi store. Once you have a sense of what you want, then you can start listening to products with a sense of direction.
I broach the next subject with some reluctance, but it is just as important as what comes before. Unless you are willing to put in the time to make components work together and in your room, you are nothing more than an audio poseur, like a man who buys a Ferrari 385 GTB but only drives a few miles to the office. It impresses the neighbors, but it’s nothing more than a display, an exercise in conspicuous consumption.
If you read Marty’s reports in Bound for Sound you see that he spends a great deal of his time fiddling around: does this interconnect perform between these components? Does this power cable allow this amp to operate optimally? What happens if we substitute this preamp for that one? The guy’s a fanatic about getting excellent sound, which is one reason I respect him.
Let’s say that a pair of Wilson Watt/Puppies appears on Audiogon tomorrow for twelve thousand bucks. They are current models, and they are mint. As it happens, you just took a new job and the signing bonus was exactly twelve grand. You can’t take a vacation but you want to reward yourself. How better to signify your achievement than to put a pair of $22,000 speakers in the living room? They’re small enough to win your wife’s approval, and prestigious enough (there we are again) to stun your buddies.
The one factor which is constant in every glowing review of Watts back to the late 1980s is that meticulous setup is essential. Are you willing to spend days and weeks moving these trophies around? If you’re not I think you should spend the money on roof repairs, where you have a solid expectation of success.
A reader once sent me a note about his system, which was a very respectable collection, except for the speakers which I know to be a little harsh at the top, restricted at the bottom and dynamically feeble. Plainly he could afford bigger and better, but he refused to venture to the elite stores and test their wares. After a few mutually unsatisfactory exchanges, we broke off communications.
My point is: take Marty’s advice in context. Pay attention to each detail in his description of the setup and bear them in mind as you decide what will work for you. It’s not just his taste in music and his priorities that matter. Marty is meticulous about getting the small details right. As he demonstrated in the synergy issue a few months ago, you can achieve a remarkably good sound for a relatively modest amount of money – if you’re willing to spend the time to learn the component’s characteristics, see how they fit together, and then spend time lugging speakers/dressing cables/adjusting furniture.
Know your room
So tomorrow you get lucky: an Astounding Speakers Reference Signature Laboratory
Standard Mk. XI subwoofer appears on Audiogon — for only $2,000! Now you have been reading about, and salivating for, an AS subwoofer. It was on the cover of one glossy magazine and won an award at another. It’s not just a way to get the bottom octave into your system, it’s a magnificent tribute to your good taste, your commitment to music – and no one will know you bought it used because it’s in mint condition.
Let’s pause for a moment, even though some other guy is getting ready to fire off a Paypal and steal this dream machine away from you. Forget about room acoustics, which I hammered you about earlier. Let’s ask instead: how much low-frequency music do you listen to? Is this subwoofer going into a home theater system? If so, do you really need something this big? Will your main speakers integrate well with this coffin? It worked for some reviewer with a real time analyzer, but he also had the manufacturer, the importer, three burly movers and a couple of weekends to get things sorted out. Are you feeling resourceful today, gentle reader?
An Englishman once told me that Lowther speakers (you know, very high efficiency full range single driver) sounded “lowthy.” And yet there are respectable, discerning people out there who prefer the obvious limitations of these expensive, quirky things to the failings of other more conventional designs. You, not I or Marty or any imperial audio authority, have to figure out what you want your system to sound like.
That very difficult decision settled, you have to put in the hours to get all the parts to work together. Even if you have arbitrarily large amounts of money there really is no substitute for obsessive attention to small matters of system compatibility. It’s time consuming and can be very frustrating; but the alternative is the much larger and far deeper disappointment that results from sinking your ego into an unrewarding collection of parts that defeats the original purpose of this exercise: the music.
– Richard Weiner
Reprinted with permission from: Bound for Sound
Martin G. DeWulf, Editor & Publisher
108 East Division Street, Kewanee IL 61443
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