One key to building great systems over time.

One of the great things about participating in an audio forum like this is that it exposes you to users with all sorts of experience levels. Analyzing questions, I find myself assessing the person’s experience and then going back to that time in my history. I have been at this for fifty years… and I am constantly called back to my first few years when I was working to make sense of the whole environment.


It dawned on me that one aspect that really helped me was learning to focus on “main stream” highly reviewed (professionally) audiophile equipment. 


When you are young and have few pennies you have to take chances on “giant killer” components… and off beat / new astonishing technology. You have lots of time and little money. But looking back, after the first few chaotic years of swapping this “astonishing” component (that had a couple good attributes, but a lot of weak ones)… I slowly realized that the components that stayed in my system (like for 10 years or more) were highly reviewed components from respected high end companies. Back in the late 70s’ early 80’s that was, as an example:  Audio Research, Threshold Pass), and Nakamichi.


They cost lots more… but, if I would actually buy one… well, my jaw would drop… and I would realize… holy cow…so worth it!  My search for that component would end.


Over the ensuing decades, putting together a fantastic upgraded system has become much easier. The last couple major upgrades I have made… ~$45K to $75K and finally to $150K have had completely predictable results been the most fulfilling of my life. The decisions were simple.


So, for those just starting out… trying “highly touted” giant killers is a necessary way of assembling a system that is outside of your budget. But this also leads to lots of disappointments and equipment churning. 


I think my advise is to read lots of professional reviews (they are not all perfect), listen to that equipment when you can, and invest in these well regarded audiophile company components as soon as you can… or sooner. As a beginner, you don’t know what you don’t know… so companies with long histories of being at the very top of they fields are very likely to outperform in ways you are not aware of. 


I am talking about companies like Conrad Johnson, Audio Research, Boulder, Pass, Wilson, Sonus Faber, Rowland, Aurrender, Magico, Transparent. That is not an exhaustive list.


I hope this is helpful to those trying to make sense of this very complex and contradictory pursuit.  






When I was an active audio consultant, I felt it was my job to help the listener understand the various differences between components, such as tubes vs ss, box, panel, horn speakers, etc. and determine what the listener’s preferences are, based on the music that brought them the most enjoyment. Many of these people were more interested in the sound of equipment, and the prestige in owning said equipment, than to engage, musically, with the performance, of their favorite recordings. And when I say favorite, I am talking about Sheffield Labs, Telarc, and other labels that presented a higher degree of pinache. They would only listen to these better recordings, which showed me, they were audiophiles, first, and music listeners, second. I find this to be the case today, based on my experiences, reading, and talking with people. But, those that put the music first, were the easiest to assist in their journey, and were happier, long term, to listen to the system I helped put together, than those that went on the " next purchase " bandwagon. A system should ENGAGE the person, in that moment of listening, and this engagement, is where things get interesting. We need to determine what attributes of sound, are the most important to us. I learned mine, at a very early age, and I give credit, to my dad, who loved music and bought some nice gear at the time, and to my music teacher, who helped me determine what to listen for. Being a member of a chorus, was also an enlightening experience, and added to my golden ears. Golden, as I know, what characteristics in a sound system, are important to me. Some of you have gotten to this stage ( no pun intended ), and some, unfortunately, have not. My advice has been the same for years, on this forum. the musicianship...the artistry...and the arrangements...WHAT are the musicians doing on " your stage " ( your system ). Most folks are more interested in WHERE are they, on the stage, and the sound, size, distance, of the stage / environmental acoustics. While I do believe these characteristics are important ( they ARE on our recordings ), those qualities of sound are secondary to my main interests....The artist’s PLAYING, singularly, and together. The PERFOMANCE itself. I ranted enough, and I apologize. My best, always, MrD.

Very interesting point mrdecibel ...

Myself i think that most audiophiles are such as you described because they never .learned that between music personal engagement and the gear component is acoustics learning...Many  are lazy and buying is way less costly in time than studying and experimenting with basic synergetical gear...

Then they test their gear instead of listening music between two upgrades...

Basic acoustic and electrical and mechanical embeddings teach us how to gain the most from any system ... Upgrading teach nothing...


I think what the OP is saying is to buy the best you can afford. And if you can't, save up for a little bit longer instead of going after the next 'giant killer'. Don't think his point was to buy uber expensive systems.


Well, honestly everyone’s experience is different and their objectives different. There is a class of folks that @mrdecibel alludes to who have the money and are listening to their systems, and want the latest great reviewed amp or speakers, and yeah, they are kinda lazy. They want the prestige of the latest Mark Levinson amp. To me, that is not an audiophile… they are really not into the music.

To me, real audiophiles are dedicated to achieving the best sound / music reproduction possible over the long term. So how much system listening / music listening a person appreciates falls unto a continuum. I know I have been seduced somewhat by certain system aspect at times… but my main interest has been music, as most but not audiophiles.

Over my lifetime I have been able to invest larger and larger amounts of money in my systems. Audiophilia is not a pursuit of the lazy or stupid… so, in general they are likely to do well in life, especially over time. I think this is true for most audiophiles. It is not unrealistic to expect their income will rise over the decades. So better systems are in the future.The amount of effort I have put in, has probably been relatively constant at hundreds of hours a year for over five decades. Invested in reading, researching, listening to acoustical music, auditioning systems and equipment, and tweaking my system, even though I only upgraded on average once every seven years.

While it is not the cost of a system that makes the audiophile… it is the dedication and passion to the pursuit that makes the audiophile.


So, if you are looking at a typical audiophile, they will be looking to upgrade their system over decades. The most difficult time for someone new to the pursuit is the first decade… it can be very overwhelming, there are so many ways to get frustrated… sideways moves, trading one benefit and losing three… chasing detail and loosing the musicality.

One of the most eye opening experiences that has happened to me repeatedly during my pursuit of the high end has been to stretch and buy a real piece of audiophile gear… frequently used in the beginning. Real audiophile gear, even if old (well, typically less than 10 years) typically outperforms “the DAC or CD Player of the year” or the new hit, by a large margin. These components have every aspect optimized by design engineers that completely understand the nuances of high fidelity sound.  You know, the 45 pound preamp, or 150 pound amp. Why? Every detail has been meticulously considered and optimized. The manufacturing processes have been carefully crafted, with all sorts of tests and checks to guarantee flawless operation. These products have been perfected over decades of research, addressing all aspects of sound quality, not just a few.

My point is, if you are working to put together a truly exceptional system over the long term, navigation through the complexity and ambiguity can be aided by staying mainstream audiophile… real audiophile gear, when possible.