Rule 5. Straight line speed gets you nowhere fast if you don’t have the handling to match
The chassis and suspension might not be the most visible or the sexiest part of a car, but they are what joins the engine to the wheels, keeps those wheels on the ground and that car on the road. In an audio system, that role is occupied by the line-stage – and it can totally make or break the performance of the system as a whole. Over the years, ever since the advent of CD, it has been fashionable to try and eliminate the line-stage from the audio signal path, either replacing it with a variable output source component (as championed by Wadia and dCS, amongst others) or a passive pre-amp of some description. In my view, what benefits that seem to come with direct connection or passive control are merely a reflection of how bad many line-stages really are. For something that on paper at least, should be so simple, designing a decent line-stage is incredibly difficult – making worthwhile examples rare if not necessarily expensive. In fact, it’s really what establishes the musical foundation, sorting the incoming signals and defining the quality and integrity of what reaches the power amp and speakers. The line-stage is the living, breathing heart of any system and you need to listen long and hard until you find the one for you.
This is, I grant you, not an opinion shared by everyone; many enthusiasts (including some on the Hi-Fi+ team) use systems without active line stages. However, I still hold that the best systems I’ve heard all feature an active preamp.
Rule 6. Don’t decide on a two-seater if you have a family
One of the biggest mistakes you can make when it comes to building a system is pre-allocating your budget, dividing it up by unit function – so much for the source component(s), so much for the amplifier and so much for the speakers. In reality, such an approach is utterly nonsensical. Not only will the relative component costs change with technology, but with overall budget too. End up with a horn speaker and it could cost many times the price of the driving amplifier – the complete opposite of a classic flat-earth pairing. Building a CD replay system or a record player are two completely different engineering problems with completely different cost structures: there’s no correlation between the expenditure on and performance of the two solutions – not to mention the fact that the record player needs a phono stage as well!
Finally, think back to our first three rules. Assembling a coherent set of cables and supports as well as executing the electrical work necessary doesn’t have to be massively expensive (at least in high-end audio terms) but there is a minimum cost involved. In the context of a £3,000 system that cost might well constitute as much as 50% of the budget – a figure that seems ludicrous on paper, until you actually listen to what these elements contribute to the overall sound. They aren’t just luxuries or accessories, they are the foundation on which the system is built and on which it’s performance depends. Although many disagree, I remain convinced that £1,500 worth of electronics and speakers properly set up with £1,500 worth of infrastructure, will out-perform £3,000 worth of kit set up on a sideboard using bell-wire!
Audio history is littered with examples of apparently mismatched systems that really worked. From the £2,000 ARC SP8 pre-amp driving the Meridian M2 interactive loudspeakers (£800 including the power amps) to the ARC M300 mono-blocs paired with the Sonus Faber Electa Amator, or from a quartet of Naim NAP135 power amps driving active Kans to the Border Patrol P21 driving the Vox Olympians, the proof is in the listening and you can only listen to a system – not individual components. Which is where audio and motoring diverge. The problem is, that when it comes to reproducing music, the simple measures (quicker, faster, further) don’t apply. What makes the difference between a set of equipment that just makes a noise, a good system that makes something approaching music and a great system that makes sense of both the music and the musical performance, is its ability to reveal the fragile chemistry preserved in the signal. Most people assume that the results are dictated by the quality of the boxes that make up the system, but in reality it has much more to do with how well the boxes work together and well you let them work.
As I said earlier, six rules aren’t a lot to follow and they won’t guarantee your arrival at audio nirvana – although they will set you on the right path and keep you heading in the right direction. But ignore even one and either you won’t have all the wheels on your hi-fi wagon, or you won’t get far before they start falling off: you set out to buy a Ferrari but you’ll end up with the audio equivalent of a Reliant Robin!