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My Philosophy As An Audiophile

What's really important?

The music, stupid! That's what's really important. The sound is in a way secondary, but a really good sounding system adds to the enjoyment of the music. So, below are my thoughts on what's important in an audio system.
I look at the importance of components in three "orders" due to their effects on the total sound of a system. First order denotes the largest impact on a system. This is reserved for components that even skeptics could agree will make a difference. The Second Order areas can make a significant impact on the sound, but not nearly as much as first order components. Third Order issues need only be addressed when all First and Second Order issues are put to rest.

The First Order

The Front End

My personal favorite is vinyl (obviously), so the bulk of my expenditure has been on my table, arm and cartridge. Why? It's simple and logical. If you're not getting everything you can, both good and bad, off of the recording medium, nothing, REPEAT NOTHING you can do with fancy preamps, interconnects, cables, amps, speakers or even EQ can ever get the lost information back. Period, end of story. Perhaps you have some recordings that you don't want to retrieve everything. Well, that's what a second 'table is for. Get a more forgiving setup which will still allow you to enjoy those far less than perfect recordings. For the record, I do not consider CD players as first order components, simply because from what I've seen and heard, the standard is sufficiently flawed as to preclude them from first order consideration. In other words, even if you do get everything off of a CD, it doesn't matter. Not enough was put onto a cd in the first place.
And make sure that front end is properly and exactly set up, even if you have to pay someone to do it.
Even though the table, arm and cartridge can be purchased separately, they must be looked at as one system. While arm/table matching is in some cases not critical, certain tables and arms do not match up well. Stability problems can be an issue with linear tracking arms and loosely suspended tables, as the center of mass changes rather drastically with linear trackers. Likewise, certain heavy arms can be bad matches for some kinds of tables. Cartridges and arms, on the other hand (arm?), need to be matched rather tightly, as the form a dynamic mechanical interface. Anyone who's personally experienced the "Grado Dance" (which is not necessarily limited to Grado cartridges) can attest to that. Cartridges need to be properly matched to the effective mass of the tonearm so the resonant frequency of the cart/tonearm system falls somewhere between 5 and 15 Hz. I've heard that between 9 and 10 Hz is an ideal target, being some halfway in between footfalls and warps (<2 Hz) and the audible range (generally considered 20 Hz and up).

Record Cleaning Devices

I can't understand in this day and age, the vinyl collector or record loving audiophile who does not own a record vacuum. No matter how clean you think your records are, unless you're using an effective record cleaning method along with a vacuum record cleaner, they're not clean. Cleaning solutions vary, from home grown mixes of detergent, isopropyl alcohol and distilled water to the cleaning fluids sold by VPI and Nitty Gritty for their respective machines, to the fine products sold by others including The Disc Doctor. Brushes vary also, as do vacuum record cleaning machines. I've built my own (details will be available when time permits) which is based on the VPI machine. Commercial machines are available from Nitty Gritty, VPI, as well as others.


The next first order component is your speakers. I've got very practical and easy to follow advice on choosing speakers. Find the speakers you can't live without while keeping within your budget and buy them. More than that I can't say, since choosing speakers is a very personal thing. But they will make a very large impact in your system's ability to reproduce your favorite music. I've always been partial to planar speakers. I love the Maggies, Apogees, and Quads. They seem to reproduce music with an ease and naturalness that cones and domes can't seem to get right, to my ears at least. Your mileage will no doubt vary.

The Room

Perhaps the most overlooked, and at the same time perhaps the most important, part of your system is the room you will listen in. Enough can't be said about this one. One of the things that makes me laugh the hardest is when someone goes out and spends $$$$ on interconnects and speaker wires to get the sound of their systems just right, while completely ignoring the effects their rooms have on what they'll hear. If you don't believe, try this simple experiment. Find the direct reflection points on both of your side walls. This can be done by placing a mirror on the wall, and using a flashlight from your seating position. The idea here is to place the mirror on your side wall in the spot that when you're sitting in your listening position and holding the flashlight in front of your face pointed at the mirror, the reflection from the mirror hits the speaker on that side of the room. Do this for both sides. Once the two points are found, place a blanket over each area, cue up a record, and have a listen. Now, take the blankets back down and listen to the same piece.
One isn't necessarily better than the other, depending on your individual room, but the exercise here was designed to show how big a difference altering your room can make. For more information about rooms and acoustics, I'd recommend one of several books by F. Alton Everest. One is the Master Handbook Of Acoustics, and the other I can personally recommend is Acoustic Techniques For Home and Studio, which is a very practical guide to taming problems in your room.

The Second Order

Here's where I tend to differ from conventional wisdom, if there is any in the high-end. Second order components include preamps (line, phono and head varieties), amplifiers, crossovers, and as previously stated cd players. But, you'll say, these things make a big difference. To that I say that big is relative. Changing the first order areas make a big difference to me, these make a more modest but still important difference. My advice in this area is that once you found the first order components, then find a preamp that'll do the least harm to your chosen source, then find an amp that'll drive the speakers you can't live without. Don't make the mistake of buying your amp before your speakers or your preamp before your cartridge. You might find that the amp you thought was so great isn't a good match for those speakers you can't live without. Likewise, buying a preamp prior to your cartridge will almost certainly narrow your options when it comes to choosing a cartridge.
Tubes Vs Transistors. I'll not debate this one. I'll just say that if I can use a component that follows my rules above and has tubes in it, I will. If I can find a way to eliminate transistors from the signal path, I will. I like the sound of tubes better, and feel they do a better job of not getting in the way of the emotional and musical expression in recorded music. End of story.

The Third Order

Ok, here's where the flames usually start. Third order components, to me, include interconnects, speaker cables, tweaks, and accessories. Don't get me wrong, these things can make a difference, but not always a good difference. Interconnects and cable are too often IMNSHO, used to make up for deficiencies elsewhere in a system. Why the hell would anyone want a filter network attached to their cables? Why, if the components are chosen properly, would anyone need one? I don't know, and I don't care. I make my own interconnects and speaker cables from very high quality computer networking cables. I've had great success using Category 5 cable and IBM Type 1A. Both well under a dollar a foot, plus some time spent soldering. They won't enhance the midbass, roll off the treble, or smooth out the sound. What I feel they will do is give you an uncolored and neutral transfer of signal between components. They are not particularly forgiving. Details to follow.
As for other tweaks, I'm not into magic stones, green pens, or wildly expensive wooden discs or even digital cables. I've never heard any of these things make the least bit of difference in any system I've listened to. But, if you think they make a difference, and they enhance your listening experience, and you think they're worth the money, go for it. I can't judge what you hear or don't, nor do I want to. If it makes you happy and doesn't hurt anyone else in the process, go for it. Just realize, there are those out there looking to take advantage and profit of the fact that the human ear and mind can be fooled into hearing differences where none exist.
Well, that's the short version of my personal philosophy on audio. I hope to have time to add to this, with perhaps a guide to choosing components.

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