to improve the sound of your audio system? Can it ever really
be good enough? Being in the business of manufacturing audio
gear I see the audiophile frenzy to upgrade components from
a rather inside perspective. For some it is an never
ending quest, for others it stops when the pocket book runs dry.
weakest link game is about spending as little money as possible
while getting the highest fidelity you can. And it starts
with the fundamental understanding that a chain is never stronger
than it's weakest link. The audio chain is no different. You
absolutely will NOT hear anything sound better than the poorest
sounding component in your chain.
motivation for writing this paper comes from seeing people handicap
their audio system on a daily basis. It's tragic to see someone
purchase a great component and then handicap it with a weak link
somewhere else in the chain so that they misjudge the new component.
The weak link makes it hard to hear a justifiable improvement.
A great amp might actually sound worse do to it's more detailed
and revealing nature.
the right are pictures of a typical audio chain. The chain
starts with the recording or CD itself. This is one part where
have little control - other than the option of purchasing CD's
that are well recorded.
first real link in the chain that you do have complete control over
is the source - in this example, the CD player. This is often the
weakest link. Won't matter how good your cables and electronics
are, they can only reproduce the signal your source gives them.
If you are just putting together a system from scratch, spend
the most money on the source. Then as time goes on you can gradually
upgrade your amps and speakers, cables etc. With a good source
you'll stand a better chance of hearing a justifiable difference
between components. For example, you may have a $500 amplifier
and have brought home a $1500 amplifier to compare with your
own. Without a good source it is likely to sound perhaps 10%
better than what you have making it hard to understand why it costs
3 times as much. With a good source you may perceive the difference
to be huge and easily worth the upgrade.
second link in the chain to focus on is believe it or not, all of
the electrical connections. This is THE most completely overlooked
and underestimated link in the chain. Here is a great example:
yourself probably have a pair of interconnects that cost a little
bit of money. Yet you handicap them with dirt and oils that
actually shave the performance down to around 50% of what it could
be. Take your interconnects out of your source and take a
cotton Q-Tip with some 99% alcohol and insert it into the RCA jack.
Twist it around a few times and pull it out. The Q-Tip will
must have clean connections everywhere. Even clean and possibly
sand the prongs on your AC power cords. Leave no stone un-turned.
is where it gets tricky. Your preamp, amp, speakers, and each set
of cables is considered a link. Which one is the weakest?
Identifying the guilty one is largely a guessing game. If you are
trying to decide between the preamp, amplifier or speakers you first
need to set the stage to be able to recognize it when you hear it.
To that end you should look closely at your cables. Both interconnects
and speaker wires, even if they are not the weak link in your present
system (not that you would know for sure) they need to be good so
that when you do start auditioning different preamps or amplifiers
you will be able to hear the most difference.
that you have purchased a source that is clearly the most expensive
component or have gotten lucky enough to find an affordable
sleeper that sounds far better than it should... and you have purchased
or at least tried better cables the next link is likely to be either
the amp or preamp. Even a pair of boom box speakers glued into a
cardboard box can give you enough information about all the electronics
upstream to make some comparisons. Since you likely have
better speakers than that, focus on your electronics for now.
easiest way to determine if your preamp is a weak link is to listen
for clarity. To do this we need to simply remove it and listen
to the amplifier hooked directly to the source. IF the amp has no
gain (volume) control and the source has no variable output, you
will have to insert a passive volume control between your source
and amplifier. With the preamp out of the chain listen for
improved focus, detail and overall clarity. If putting the
preamp back in the chain reduces any of these in any detectible
way then your preamp is a weaker link then your amplifier.
come in a wide range of transparency and power. Switching out amplifiers
is often the biggest change to your system as a whole that you can make
at this stage. Amplifier's are typically the link in the chain with
the most potential for cracks. For example, the amplifier may have
lots of negative feedback (most do) and therefore limit the depth
of a sound stage to just a few feet. It would be impossible to evaluate
the differences between two CD players or DACs if you were
trying to pick the one with the best depth and imaging. The amp
would make the soundstage almost the same on both. This is
by the way why it's wise to start this venture with the best source
you can afford.
example is how the amp relates to speakers. As a speaker designer
who places great value on the speakers ability to disappear, I can
recall many times when a given amplifier completely killed the disappearing
act and you could hear sound coming directly from the speakers.
I hate that. But think about it - suppose the guy who
owns the amp at fault buys a pair of my speakers because he's looking
for a more holographic 3D soundstage... you can see where I might
be going with that.
only way to tell if or how bad your amplifier is handicapping your
system is to try different ones and compare. In my own systems I
make the amplifier the strongest link in the chain by a factor of
about four. That way I can focus on all the remaining links
for the duration. I already know that regardless of what a
person spends on a source, vinyl or CD, it is not going to sound
as good as the original master tape played off the mastering deck.
Because of that I know that there will never be enough money
in this lifetime to have a perfect source and the source will always
be a weaker link than my amplifier. Once I have the amp in
place I can play with different sources, cables and speakers forever
and always be in a position to hear the differences they bring.
better a speaker is the worse it is capable of sounding.
can be compared to telescopes in the sense that a given speaker
will magnify the signal by a certain amount. Do you want to
look at the moon or see the craters on it? There is a big difference
in speakers. The mainstream speakers are designed with complex crossovers
with higher power amplifiers in mind. What makes a great sounding
one is it's ability to mask without being obvious about it. True
high fidelity speakers tend to also be high efficiency speakers.
(There are probably more high efficiency speakers with questionable
fidelity than without, but that usually lies in the execution.)
Assuming you have a good high efficiency speaker it's like going
to high higher power lenses on the telescope. This higher level
of detail makes hearing differences in components all that much
easier. Often what happens to first time owners of high efficiency
speakers is a rude awakening that reveals weaknesses in other components.
Weaknesses that the lower resolution speakers did not let you hear.
high efficiency speakers are ultimately required to hit the top
of the fidelity ladder it becomes practical to have the amp
and source quality to back it up. The quality I'm talking about
is the kind you have to hunt for. This is why it works to
leave the speakers for last. I have a favorite, my HDT speaker
that is so honest and so quick that your gear or the recording must
be on it's game or the speakers can sound simply horrible. In the
same moment you can hit the stop button, put in a well recorded
disk and suddenly the speakers sound so right you get goose bumps!
this is the basic audio chain - on the surface. It can be broken
down into smaller but longer chains within each piece of electronics.
This is commonly referred to as the internal signal path. How many
links are in the internal chain of a particular amplifier or preamplifier...
well on the one extreme end like our Zen amp, there are 4 components
in the signal path; 1 capacitor and 2 resistors and a transformer. Each of these components
in the signal path can have as great an effect as any of the other
links we've talked about in this paper. Now on the other extreme
end, say a solid state AV receiver, the signal path may have as
many as 50 or more links. A chain with 50 links has a larger chance
of one or more weak ones when compared to a chain with only 4.
still are the connecting nodes between each link in the amplifier,
such as the solder and wire. Then there are the supporting elements
which also become links, such as the power supply, sockets, connectors,
tubes, IC's and so on. Below that are the layout, magnetic fields
of each part and wire, the chassis and eddy currents.
sample pictures on the top right of the basic audio chain represent 8 links, but if
you break it down to the internal links of each component the
audio system has between 100 and 1000 links in the chain. Since
the game of it all is in guessing what link is actually the weakest,
having less links increases your odds.
when does it end? Most people who chase fidelity perceive
the ladder as the ladder of accumulation. The more it costs
and the more of it you have the better your odds. The irony
is that it's more like a pyramid. The higher you get to the
top the less stones there are. The ideal chain would consist
of a single gain stage connected to a single voice coil (per channel)
targeted at a single listener.