ULTRA AUDIO -- Archived Article

May 1, 2006

Jeff Fritz's Way to Build a Stereo System

"There’s no best way to assemble a stereo system."

Well, actually, there is a most logical, most productive approach to putting together a high-end hi-fi system. And though I’m sure there are exceptional systems that were built in any manner of other ways, and though you’ll hear hoots and howls from folks who disagree with me, if you’re starting from scratch, you can bank on what I’m about to tell you.

The first consideration is the room

Your very first consideration should be the space you have to work with. How large is it? Is it live or dead? Is it symmetrical? The answers to these questions will be critical to the final result you obtain. The most sure-fire way to learn just what challenges your room presents, and how to cope with them, is to hire an acoustic engineer to measure the room and then interpret the data. Even a not-so-extravagant room-treatment plan based on a qualified person examining, via e-mail, your room’s dimensions and construction type will pay far more dividends than any equipment investment you’re likely to make. Treating your room will make whatever you put in it sound not just better, but could enable it to live up to its full potential. At the start of your project, you can involve such firms as Terry Montlick Labs or Rives Audio, who can tailor a plan specifically for your space. Spend your first bit of money with them. This groundwork is the foundation on which you’ll build the system.

Speakers are the most important piece of kit

Your speakers are the most significant determinant of sound quality of any gear you’ll buy. Simply stated, what you’ll hear at your listening seat is the speakers’ acoustic output interacting with your room. Look at a sampling of the measurements at SpeakerMeasurements.com and you’ll see some wildly varying frequency-response graphs. Now consider that these speakers will all go into rooms that will vary as much as speaker models do themselves. The potential for differences in sound quality attributable only to the room and speakers boggles the mind.

To put a finer point on it, you must accomplish two things when speaker shopping: First and most important, find a set of speakers whose sound you like. If you don’t like the sound, the rest won’t matter. Listen to a lot of speakers -- both more and less expensive than what you’ve budgeted for -- with a wide range of music, so that you can separate the wheat from the chaff. Over the long run, this decision will affect everything else you buy.

Second, find a set of speakers that will play optimally in your room. A good dealer, correspondence with the actual speaker manufacturer, advice from your acoustic engineer -- all will be helpful in this regard. I recommend that you buy the best speaker you can, but one that you’ve chosen specifically for your room’s size, shape, and acoustic signature.

Last, I prefer to buy from a company with a strong engineering department, so that I know I’m getting a competently designed product. Anybody can throw drivers into a box. That doesn’t mean they know how to design a loudspeaker.

The amplifier must match the speaker

Buy an amplifier that can properly drive your speakers. If you buy a 3W single-ended-triode amplifier to drive a pair of 82dB-sensitive, 4-ohm mbl Radialstrahlers and intend on listening to rock music in a large room, you’re in for disaster. It doesn’t matter that you just love the amp; you must pick an amplifier that mates well with the sensitivity and impedance of the loudspeakers you’ve chosen. As well, the amp’s power output must be sufficient for the listening levels you prefer. That may mean that 3W is enough power for a massive horn speaker, but know for sure before you buy.

Other considerations

The above points are critical for achieving the best sound -- these rules apply regardless of your budget or what type of gear you prefer. They also will frame a good strategy for spending your money wisely. Having avoided making costly errors in equipment purchases, you can kick back and enjoy your music with more satisfaction.

Here are a few more nuggets of advice that I’ve come to promote over the years. Though not as critical as the above, they’re nonetheless well worth considering.

Buy your preamplifier from the manufacturer of your amplifier. The coordinated technical parameters of amp and preamp will ensure that both operate as advertised. You also might gain some useful functionality benefits, such as one-touch turn-on of both units.

Buy from companies that have been around long enough to have a track record. Let’s face it: most of the gear we buy is expensive. You don’t need a costly boat anchor, which is what you might have if the guy who makes your widget disappears. This is especially true if there are proprietary parts involved, and/or no schematic is available.

Don’t go crazy on wire. Buy really good wire, but if someone tells you it’s advisable to spend 40-50% of your budget on cables, tell them to go jump in a lake.

And last . . .

I once heard someone ask, "What speakers would go well with so-and-so CD player?"

Wrong question. This person did not understand hi-fi basics. Garbage-in, garbage-out does make sense, but only after the room/speaker interface has been perfected and the speaker-amplifier combination is humming along. Once those prerequisites are met, you can make slight alterations in sound quality by optimizing your source component. But buy your CD player last -- and remember where you heard all of this.

...Jeff Fritz

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