The Hi-Fi Hierarchy (according to me)

We've talked about this before (and again with a wink) but a recent email conversation with a reader, and a real-life conversation with friends, brought it to mind. This time, I'm going to make it real simple (because it is).

The Hi-Fi Hierarchy List (in order of importance):

  1. Room/setup
  2. Speakers
  3. Amplification
  4. Sources
  5. Plumbing (everything that's involved with getting music from storage and the Internet to the hi-fi including hardware and software)
  6. Cables
  7. Everything else (like file formats, USB tweaks, etc.)
So, if you want to change the sound of your hi-fi the most, get a new room followed by new speakers (or move your room/speakers around), and so on down the line. Or to put it another way, if you want to change the sound of your system the least, start from the bottom up.

Easy peasy lemon squeezy!

And remember, the quality of the music is of utmost importance followed by the quality of the recording.

en1omb's picture
blang11's picture

Know where I can pick one up? :)

Michael Lavorgna's picture
roscoeiii's picture

Try something like DEQX or other room correction software. A less expensive option would be DSPeaker Dual Core, which predominently adjusts the bass rather than the more comprehensive correction that DEQX provides.

AllanMarcus's picture

I think File Format, if, say, MP3 vs 320VBR or lossless, makes more of a difference than cables and plumbing.

Itsaboutthemusic's picture

Unfortunately, I've never been able to lay claim to a space that is has really good characteristics for listening.
I mostly agree with your priorities, which is why I tend to hang on to speakers I like, but out of practicality I tend to pretend the room is ok.
Also, my tires always have a few more months of tread, there's always a few more days of toothpaste in the tube, and that squeal in the air conditioning doesn't mean anything.

Hugo450r's picture

When my air conditioner makes a funny noise I turn up the stereo.

Seems to help. Also works for squeaky brakes.

alfa's picture

to be useful, imo. Basically i agree though, just get the correct speaker for the room positioned correctly. Then add an amp suitable for the speakers. But digital aside, where differences may be clear but relatively small, the biggest audible differences will be heard when changing electromechanical transducers, speakers and vinyl cartridges!

What is really important though will be getting each component in the chain to match with its neighbours. Get an amp that interacts with your sources and speakers in a good way and you will be very happy! :)

myrantz's picture

The Hi-Fi Hierarchy List (in order of importance):
1. You (i.e. the audiophile)
2. ...
3. ...

Always put yourself first. Always remind yourself you are the integral part of the audio system. Your audio system is only ever going to be as good as you are.

The rest of the dots will "auto-magically" connect once you understand yourself and truly know what you like and dislike in terms of how you listen, interpret and appreciate music.

Identify your strengths and weaknesses in your active listening skills. Talk to people and understand how they listen. See if you can incorporate their insights into how you listen too.

The better you are, the better your audio system will be.

philipjohnwright's picture

from Glasgow.

Even though you've nailed it in one.

bobflood's picture

however, it is usually the one thing least under the control of most of us. The phrase "wife acceptance factor" comes to mind. Not everyone can afford a "barn" for their hobby so in desperation a lot of money gets spent chasing a dream that can't happen in many rooms. When I sold homes in Florida there would be people who would bring a high-end rig down with them and be very upset because it sounded so bad due to all the tile floors, very high ceilings and sparse soft material used to decorate.

Not sure I agree with the rest of the order. I think the source should be higher up the list.

The one thing that is absolutely true is the importance of what happens in the recording/mastering process.

This argument has been going on for the fifty years that I have been doing this hobby and it will never end as there is no "right" answer.

midfiguy's picture

Having just moved, and having just fitted out a room specifically for enjoying electronic media, I have learned first-hand how much a room matters. The room renovation was more of an intuitive project than scientific one, and aesthetic considerations mattered. Pretty much everything about this room is different from the one I'd previously been living and listening in: dimensions, especially ceiling height, sound absorption, reflectivity of walls, you name it. In any case, my stereo - the exact same system - sounds much, much better than it did in my old house. I can't claim much credit. Mostly, I just got lucky. If I were still in my old house, I could spend a whole lot of money trying to make my system sound as good as it does now, and I might not succeed due to the inherent nature of that room. Funny thing, I used to think my stereo sounded pretty good!

Wilderness's picture

I made several recent changes that have led to audio bliss:

1) I added a Wyred 4 Sound Remedy reclocker.

2) I connect from my computer via optical instead of USB.

3) I positioned speakers at 10 feet away and with much wider separation than where they had been. I also have speakers for nearfield, but I almost never listen to them now. I am really digging having speakers at 10 feet.

The Remedy reclocker made the biggest difference. Now I hear much deeper into the music, and the treble has plenty of sparkle without being harsh.

I am convinced that everything matters: File format, software, cabling, reclocker, DAC, speakers, stands, speakers location, and room. And the music!

I think the music is most important, followed by the speakers, then the reclocker, and then the software.

achristilaw's picture

Synergy is the final outcome that is desired. The loudspeaker isn't to large or small to fit the room acoustics. An amplifier that fits the speaker loads sweet spot. A system that actuates the type of music you actually listen to. Good sources and cabling. Yes, the difference is apparent in good and bad wire through design. Good stuff doesn't cost all that much.

PaulW's picture

I agree with the list, but not much I can do with my room. I live in an average house with limited space available.

I don't have a listening room (nor would I want one). While the room for my Hi-Fi may not be the best acoustically, it's centrally located so I can listen while cooking, surfing the internet, having a beer while sitting on the sofa, etc.

MilesFerg's picture

I've been upgrading my stereo and the last thing (after spending a lot on speakers) is the streamer/DAC. I've been using a $35 Google Chromecast Audio for almost 2 years now. It drew me back into really listening to music. I stream mostly Tidal (some Spotify) and files via UPnP. Why are most of the streamers out there 50, 100 and 200 times the cost? If I'm going to spend a lot of money on a DAC, is an expensive streamer redundant and a waste of money? The Chromecast is limited in what it will stream (I think 16 bit, 44.1). So I obviously want higher rates, but I only want to buy functionality once.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
...based on price and I certainly would not want to begin my search from the position of looking for something that's "expensive" or "a lot of money".

In my experience, each piece of the playback chain is important including the streamer. That being said, there are a number of DACs out there that include a 'streamer' or network player which may be of interest.

Audiophile Neuroscience's picture

I agree with the list but maybe source should be considered separately. Of course it has to be *present* but generally it is out of our control, even more than the room, except in locating better sources of course.

Generally garbage in and garbage out IME. Some will argue that the better the system the more it will release the potential of poor recordings. Certainly I have 'rediscovered' older recordings with information I hitherto hadn't realized. I would fall short of calling them bad recordings that have been somehow been made good by the system.IME a bad recording/mastering will be shown for what it is.

Put another way, you can have the best playback system on the planet but a crappy recording/mastering will be reproduced in all its glory.Highly resolved crap IME/IMO.

Audiophile Neuroscience's picture

I am assuming source means music recordings not front end components


Michael Lavorgna's picture
I wonder if the distinction between 'listening for' and 'listening to' is relevant here.

As you point out, we have no control over the quality of a recording. I listen to the music I want to listen to, regardless of sound quality, when I'm listening for pleasure, i.e. not reviewing. Here, the quality of the recording doesn't matter to me because I'm listening to music I enjoy.

When I'm working, I'm listening for certain aspects of reproduction. Here, the quality of the recording comes into play.

For me, if I try to 'listen for' things when listening for pleasure, it takes away the pleasure.

Audiophile Neuroscience's picture

The distinction between "listening to" and "listening for" is a great point. It is possibly a challenge for many audiophiles including myself. Certainly audiophiles have been criticized (by some) for listening to music to test their gear instead of enjoying the music.

I am not a professional audio reviewer so the demarcation for me is not work vs pleasure. In truth, sometimes I listen for pleasure and sometimes to analyze my audio system, maybe more often than I should, a blend of both.

Still, there are times when music elevates me to pure joy and those times are more likely with a great recording and when the system just gets out of the way of the music.The system and room
disappears.Having said that, I still enjoy the Stones even if the harsh SQ strips the paint off the wall,lol


MrMoons's picture

My digital source and my speakers are the same price, and my amp/preamp are relatively cheap, all things considered.