Getting Started with High-End Audio

OK. So you've decided that you're going to adopt the Audiophile Ideal: Perfect reproduction of recorded sound. Or maybe you're just curious about the Ideal and wonder whether it really does matter to one's enjoyment of, and involvement with, music that reproduction be better than it is with your current rack system. If so, how do you learn more? and how do you get started being an audiophile?

First, what to do if you're just wanting to learn more. There is, simply, no substitute for listening to a good high-end system: Actually, for listening to a lot of good high-end systems, so that one gets, not only a sense for how good reproduction can be, but also for how different systems sound, what different kinds of compromises one might make, and so forth. Obviously, if you know someone who has such a system, you can just wander over and check it out. But, if you do know such a person, you have probably heard his or her system and don't need this advice. So what to do? My only advice would be to find a good, local high-end dealer and visit them. Most such dealers enjoy talking to people who are genuinely interested in getting to know about high-end audio; not all, sadly, but most. And you will find that these shops are very different from the 'electronics stores' with which you are otherwise familiar: Typically, they have a number of 'listening rooms' where they can, and will, set up systems, constructed from components you want to hear, and allow you to sit there and listen to music for quite a long time. (If the first store you visit doesn't treat you as I've just described, tell them you're leaving, tell them why, and go to their nearest competitor.) Take CDs with you that you think you know pretty well: You're likely to leave thinking you didn't know them at all.

Secondly, what to do if you want to get started with high-end audio? The best piece of advice I can give is this: Find a sales person you trust, and ask him or her to help you plan your new system. Let them know, up front, if you want to do this over time. (If they're not willing to help you do so, then, again, tell them you're leaving, tell them why, and go to their nearest competitor.) They should be able to talk to you about what you currently have and how you might best plan a sequence of upgrades. Sometimes it makes the most sense to start out by getting a good pair of speakers; sometimes it's the amp that it would be best to upgrade first; only careful thought will suggest the right course.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that you are constructing a system. All too often people think they can put together a good system by putting together a bunch of good, individual components: But that can be a recipe for disaster. For a wide variety of reasons, what are, on their own, good pieces can sound terrible when put together. There can be electronic reasons for this (poor matching between the output impedence of a CD player and the input impedence of a pre-amp, for example), but the main reason is really very simple. Every component has flaws and strengths. What one wants, then, is a collection of components whose strengths complement one another and which do not highlight one another's flaws. And the only way to know how all of that is going to work out is to listen.

This is why most high-end dealers will allow their customers to take components home for a listen. (Another reason is that, especially with speakers, how they sound will also be affected by the characteristics of the room in which they are placed.) Typically, the dealer will ask you to leave some kind of deposit, of course: But, once you get started on your upgrade path, you may well find that the dealer is more than willing to loan you component after component, even when you don't have any immediate intention of buying! That's how I've managed to listen to most of the components I've heard: For example, there was one time that I was looking for a new amp, and I must have had a dozen amps go through my house over a six month period. My dealer trusted me: And he knew that, eventually, I'd find something I simply had to have. Which I did.

There are a few general rules one can follow as one starts to build a high-end system. Although every part of the system is important, the music that comes out of the speakers can not be any better than that delivered by the 'source' component, be that a CD player, a turntable, or what have you. A system that consists of excellent speakers and a great amp, but a cheesy CD player, is going to sound cheesy: The great amp and speakers will do little more than highlight to flaws of the CD player; this is not likely to lead to a musically satisfying experience. Therefore it often makes sense to start with the source: You'll hear a real improvement right away, even if you don't then get to hear all of the improvement.

It's also worth saying that one can save a great deal of money by buying used equipment. In some cases, this is not an entirely good idea: I myself tend to shy away from used CD players, unless they are really high-end; CD players, like tape decks, do have a tendency to break (it is usually the motor that dies), and they can be very expensive to repair (though the motor itself costs about $5, it takes a long time to replace it). But a well-made amplifier or pair of speakers is not so likely to cause trouble: And one can save an enormous amount of money by buying such a thing used. Every component in my current 'reference' system I bought either used or demo, and I've never had a single piece in for repair, except an amplifier whose transistors I fused by making stupid speaker connections....

It is important to remember that the goal is to increase your enjoyment of music. To me, the best indication that I'm listening through a component that is going to make me happy, in the long term, is that I forget I'm doing anything other than listening to music. I find myself putting on a CD, which I'd meant to use to test some feature of the component, relaxing, and just settling into the music. That's what we all want. The problem is to find it.