Sibling Rivalry?

Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962)

A Friend pointed me to this article titled "The Art of Listening: Your Guide to Evaluating Speakers" authored by Daniel Kumin and published on our sister site Sound & Vision, wherein he states:

"Choose an amplifier or receiver that’s as powerful (within reason) and as excellent as you can afford; at rational listening levels, “too much” available power will never compromise a speaker’s sound, but too little power definitely can. Beyond that, qualitative differences, if any, among amplifiers will be utterly swamped by the tiniest of speaker differences, so forget about ’em. Ditto cables, power conditioners, antiresonance juju, and even different CD players or streaming sources."
I know I have my feelings about the rigor of Daniel's position, but decorum dictates silence (more or less).

What do you think about this notion that everything before the speaker is relatively inconsequential. Does this jive with your reality?

Fetuso's picture

I read the article and i appreciated the timing as I'm currently shopping for new speakers. I've heard other reviewers advise prioritizing speakers when building a hifi system. I don't want to put words in the reviewer's mouth, but I interpreted that statement to mean put your most money and effort into the amp/speaker combo. With that said I've swapped out various cables with noticable changes to the sound, not always for the better.

Michael Lavorgna's picture its power rating is like judging a movie based on how long it is ;-)

I also recommend starting with speakers when buying a hi-fi (here) but I believe it to be very poor advice to discount the importance of the rest of the system.

Fetuso's picture

That's a fair point. I've changed amps several times and each has had an obvious and not subtle impact on the sound. I took the article as more advice on how to start, but you're right.

You should check out this other reviewer i like. I forget the name, but the dude apparently lives in a barn and has all sorts of cables and internet stuff. And he has a pet named Roon who's always ready. Handsome too, from the picture.

Michael Lavorgna's picture

Fetuso's picture

Wow, she is beautiful. She's got whiskers just like dad. Congrats.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Vhiner's picture

A few years ago, my Thiel CS3.7's had to be sent to the factory and I actually put in a pair of 70's Advents for a while. My multi-thousand dollar front end made those Advents sing like I'd never heard them before. Speakers are only as good as what you feed them, IMHO.

garrettnecessary's picture

I find it strange that people think amplification is so much less important than speakers. The biggest difference I've ever heard in my system -- excluding my present system which is powered -- was Pass amps and a Tact Millennium amp. In both cases the difference with what was before -- a Classé with the Pass and I can't remember what with the TACT -- was shocking. Same speakers but totally different presentation and sound. I think speakers are actually a bit overrated.

bubblewrap's picture

Everyone needs to do the 'blind test' experiment. Just once.

You decide to confirm the obvious difference you are hearing between two amplifiers, cables, DACs etc. You spend a little time creating a test where you can swap between them without knowing which you're listening to. In my case, I think it was an amp with a tape monitor button that 'toggled' so that if I closed my eyes and pressed it quickly many times I didn't know where it had landed. It turned out that the difference I thought I could hear so clearly was, in fact, imaginary. After that, I was a changed person.

Speakers do sound different (but always influenced by psychology). Cables do not. DACs that are working properly do not. Amplifiers that are working properly do not. You can safely bet your house that the differences you think you are hearing in a sighted comparison of cables, DACs, decent amplifiers that measure well, and high res vs. CD, are imaginary. We all hear these imaginary differences.

(OTOH there is more than one 'maverick' darling of the audiophile business that makes amps and DACs that do not work properly. They probably do sound different, but the faults also show up in the measurements).

Michael Lavorgna's picture
And one that obviously does not jibe with my experience. I've been involved in this hobby for some 30+ years, have participated in any number of 'blind' tests, and I've found the exact opposite of what you're saying. I also review things like DACs for a living and have been at this for 5 years (I began as a reviewer in 2005) and again my experience differs from yours.

Of course, the speakers people choose to buy vary significantly from one another in performance, sound, and the demands they place on an amplifier so the idea that "Amplifiers that are working properly do not [sound different]" misses the important point that in the real world, amplifiers are attached to loudspeakers and their performance, as a system, will vary depending on the combination.

But I can understand the comfort, albeit a false comfort, in believing that cables, DACs, and amplifiers all sound the same. It sure makes shopping easy!


bubblewrap's picture

I am not saying that audible differences do not exist - there is at least one firm producing duff audiophile DACs and amplifiers.

But I am saying that the reason why the blind test was originally developed in *real science* (not "blind tests" organised by cable manufacturers etc.) was because people can't help but imagine differences that are not there. The scientists don't go to that effort and expense for fun. You may dispute it, but the phenomenon is real, and I don't believe you are immune from it.

The point of my comment was that if you are, just once, open to trying it, and find yourself imagining a non-existent difference, you aren't so cocky after that.

I must emphasise that I am not a believer in using blind tests for anything other than demonstrating our own fallibility. Once we have established that, we can use much more sensible methods to assess the worth of audio components. Such methods are the ones that brought us digital audio in the first place: the genuinely clever people who invented it didn't sit around listening while twiddling knobs and soldering in bits of audiophile cable. They worked out what was necessary, designed it, built it and measured it to confirm it was working properly. The same is true for all the equipment in studios that produce the recordings we listen to in the first place.

Michael Lavorgna's picture
Your response appears to be based on something other than what I wrote ;-)
solarophile's picture

IMO, the first step is to make sure you have a decent room that can do justice to whatever expensive speakers and amp you want to put in them. If I don't have a good enough room to put the speakers that's quiet, free from other distractions, I wouldn't be buying very expensive speakers. Nice headphones and headphone amp might be more enjoyable and money saving.

Otherwise I think the article is right. Get good speakers as the first priority. Then spend your time tweaking the other stuff at leisure!

Michael Lavorgna's picture determining the appropriate loudspeaker. I also agree that when building a system, one should start with the loudspeaker and work your way backward down the chain of components.

Where the article referenced above is misleading is in suggesting that we can "forget about" differences in amplifiers, etc.

ktracho's picture

I haven't purchased any equipment in the last several years (kids in college), but my take on this is to take a more balanced approach. Sure, you can start with speakers, but don't exhaust your money on them. Instead, get a feel for what you'd be happy listening to long term. In my case, I still enjoy listening to the speakers I got ten years ago, which I got for a bargain (about $700) from a manufacturer that had just gone out of business. I've heard a number of speakers that sound better since then, but if I had, say, a few thousand to spend, I'd prefer buying an amp instead of upgrading the speakers, because that would increase my enjoyment more. By the way, tube amps can sound very different from solid state amps. Also, the most enjoyable sound I've experienced is an inexpensive tube amp driving my 30-year-old Stax headphones through a transformer. And cables did make a difference for me on that system through a "blind" test I didn't do on purpose.

otaku's picture

I have to disagree with conclusions of the article.
A couple of years ago, Mikey posted ten needle drops of an LP track, recorded with ten different cartridges. I correctly picked out the two most expensive cartridges, the two least expensive, and my own cartridge, in the correct order. (You can dig through the forums to verify that I posted my results BEFORE Mikey identified the cartridges). This was a completely blind test of just a photo cartridge. I would be very surprised if this did not apply to other components.

leetbruce's picture

Sadly, the reviewer may be right for far too much of av gear that's targeted to the general public. For them, driving a "Yugo" is and has been "good enough" and cheap or free changes in sound quality (i.e. moving speakers and furniture) will make a discernible difference. But, for those of us who have had the privilege of "driving" a BMW M5, Mercedes S class, etc. audible qualitative differences do exist between all types of gear ...especially after we've moved and moved our speakers 100x to find just the right place aesthetics be damned.

solarophile's picture

Gotta be careful with that analogy though. Sure, obsessive people who have moved speakers 100x will be sensitive to sound differences. But that doesn't mean there is strong correlation between price/brand and sound differences with peripheral things like cables. A person could spend thousands on cables and achieve little if anything between spending that price difference between the Yugo and Jaguar XJ!

Steven Plaskin's picture
Congrats on your new addition to the family. She's cute!!
Michael Lavorgna's picture
My wife and daughter found her - she's a rescue but it kinda feels the other way around ;-)
Wilderness's picture

The speakers are most important, but I know from listening that everything in the chain matters with sound quality in a home system: music files, sound software, DAC, interconnects, speakers, subwoofer, etc.

Even a 3.5 mm cable in a car matters. I switched to a Moon Audio blue dragon cable to connect my Sony ZX2 and the improvement was huge in my car, which has 12 speakers, a subwoofer, and a powerful amp. The same cable to connect my iPad Pro in my car helps, along with a better app with an in app purchase and a sound profile. I have also tried a Dragonfly Red DAC in my car and that helps with my iPad.

struts's picture

..that the speakers are (pretty much) the only components in the signal chain that interact directly with the room. This makes a good match, including placement etc. extremely important, and not just the speaker's "inherent" (i.e. anechoic) properties such as frequency range, resolution, dynamic headroom etc. (although again this is an oversimplification since all of these are affected by room interaction as well).

The point being that in a world without room interactions (think headphones), the greatest bang-for-the-buck is often to be had by upgrading the weakest link in the chain, or the component that is doing the thing you object to most. In other words in principle all components make some sort of "equal" contribution to the quality of the resulting sound.

However in a world with room interactions (think speakers, especially in an untreated listening-room-cum-living-room) it is quite likely that those interactions are causing at least some of the things you object to the most. If you accept this thesis then the sound of the speakers in your room is the first thing to get right and "room-dicates-speakers-dictates-amplification" is the logical way to go about things. If that was the real point of the article then I agree.

Room interactions or not, the only time an amp (or source) will sound the same, is if your ears are incapable of resolving the differences between them, rather like my eyes are increasingly unable to resolve the difference between a 6 and an 8 without my reading glasses. And if your speakers are incapable of resolving those differences your ears don't stand much of a chance.

Beetlemania's picture

NAD receiver, B&W DM12 monitors, Technics turntable, Rotel cassette player, and Marantz CDP. My first step up to true hi-fi was my Ayre integrated amp in 2002 (I still use this wonderful sounding component). The little Ayre made my B&Ws sing like never before! The amp made a "huge" difference. I don't know how much, so let's just call it X amount. My next upgrade was to replace the B&Ws with Thiel 1.6s. Again a "huge" upgrade in SQ, roughly on par with replacing the amp (~X).

Next, I upgraded the CDP to an Ayre CX-7. This also made a large jump in SQ but not as much as the amp and speakers. I'll call it 60% of X. I have since replaced the CDP with an Ayre QB-9, something of a lateral move from the CX-7 but the upgrade to QB-9 DSD was probably 20% of X. Other stuff like speaker cables, power cords, and USB cables were more like 1-10% of X. Changing from the Thiels to Vandersteen 2Ce Sig IIs was probably 15-20% of X.

I've often wondered how my experiences would have differed had I started with the speaker upgrade first. Would I still think that the amp made as big a difference as the speakers? I guess I'll never know but I do know that the amp does indeed make a *very* large difference and that you can't just buy any amp and expect it to make your speakers sound as good as possible. Moreover, each part of the chain has a role to play and you have to pay attention to each component if you want maximum SQ. I like my Vandersteens enough that my next amp upgrade will be an Ayre AX-5. I'll upgrade the speakers later as budget allows.

So, my experience is at odds with the opinion of Mr. Kumin.

circlark's picture

I think Mr. Kumin's point is way more valid to the average S&V reader than to a AudioStream/Stereophile reader. I got into listening via Home Theater, and I think for Home Theater, he's not far off. At some point I decided I liked listening to music way more than watching movies, and was very happy to switch from a mass-market receiver to a dedicated integrated. I enjoyed the music more with the better amp, even on the same speakers. But if I'm watching movies in stereo, between the integrated and receiver, it's totally the same for me. For movies, an extra $100 thrown to the speaker budget probably means more than $200 thrown at the receiver budget. But in our side of the hobby, the balance is different. (as are the prevailing prices, unfortunately!)

Beetlemania's picture

Someone watching a movie cares far less about SQ as the visual sense takes precedence. This person is far more concerned with the visuals. I would say picture quality but most HT folks only want to know two specs: price and size. In that case, just buy as many watts as your budget allows.

docwa2000's picture

About a year ago Doug Schroeder wrote an article using a Van Alstine ABX Comparator. In his comparisons, which were double blind, he was able to discern significant differences between all components, including speakers and interconnects (I don't believe power cords were compared), but not amplifiers. Even he was at a loss. This included comparing solid state to tubes. I don't know if I would go so far, but I believe the amp is the least influential component. I would certainly spend more on the preamp and speakers than the amp or digital front end, as those have gotten ridiculously good even at moderate cost.

pdxdon's picture

Everything makes a difference in this hobby, yet spending more does not necessarily yield better results and most of us are on a some sort of budget. We also have to remember that we have trained ourselves to focus on and identify details that people without the same passion will ignore. It is important to us, so we pay attention.

I suspect there is a wider variation in the quality of speakers than in other components, yet I also feel that advances in speaker design happen slower than some others. I am perfectly happy with 12 year old ProAcs, for instance. It is also important to have a good match between amp and speakers in terms of adequate power output and "flavor" matching.You don't need 500 watts for 90 db efficient speakers in a small room, to use an absurd example.

I am old enough to remember the 70s Linn idea of the primary importance of the source, the idea being if you lose or corrupt musical information in the beginning, nothing downstream will bring it back, and I think that too makes sense, though at the time it was taken to extremes.

The quality of your power matters, and cables do too. I recently added some great amps and tried to go cheap on cables and found it strangled the system.

There is no absolute here. While the easiest thing to do as an audiophile is to go into "nervosa" mode and concentrate only on the next series of upgrades, it all has to be done in a balanced way that works for our life's circumstances and honors the music and gives us pleasure and peace.