How do you divide your audio-systems budget so that
you not only get all the components you need but also the highest performance per dollar
spent? Excellent question! There are two basic lines of thought. Ill present them
both, followed by my own two cents based on years of experience in audio sales and
The first argument was championed by Linn Products Ltd., the Scottish company best
known for their revolutionary turntable design. It goes something like this: The audio
system is a chain. Theres a beginning, the source component (i.e., CD player,
turntable, etc.). Theres an amp in the middle and finally the speakers at the tail
end. Add cables to connect everything together and youve got the natural progression
of the signal, from input to output. This line of thinking holds that most of the money
should be spent on the source component, whether it is CD/DVD, turntable, tape deck or
radio. Its the old garbage-in/garbage-out maxim -- the end result can only be as
good as the information gathered into the system from the recording itself. The Linn folks
have a point. If your source component cannot extract the music off the disc in the first
place, then nothing in the chain can magically restore it.
The second argument holds that of all the components in the audio chain, the
loudspeakers are the most compromised because theyre the most complex -- speakers
are electro-mechanical devices, and they vary from one another more than, say, CD players
or amplifiers. Further, when you listen to a stereo, the component you are actually
hearing is the loudspeaker. This argument holds that most of your budget should be
allocated to the speakers.
This is where my two cents come in. Lets start at the source. If you use CD/DVD,
youre dealing with a very mature medium thats come a long way since its
inception. The technology involved is mind-boggling. Even an $89 portable CD player
contains a laser mechanism thats accurate enough to retrieve all data without
errors! In fact, this entire technology has been refined to the extent that a
current-generation low-cost CD or DVD player for $200 or so will give you performance that
would have cost significantly more not too many years ago. You dont need to
spend that much on a CD player today to get fabulous sound.
So while the wily Linnies did have a valid point about concentrating your efforts on
the quality of the source component back in the days of records, times have changed.
Great-sounding source components are more affordable than ever. What still is true,
and will remain so for the foreseeable future, is that loudspeakers are the component with
the greatest potential for compromise. Theyre also the component with the greatest
range of possible sonic flavors and will give you your biggest bang for the buck. The
recommendation to start your system by choosing the speakers is truly wise. This will also
determine how much power youll need for an amplifier. Does this mean now that most
of your money should be spent on the speakers?
To answer that, lets consider the famous law of diminishing returns, which simply
says that, at a certain point, the price:performance ratio begins to level off, and it
becomes very expensive to achieve small improvements in sound. Beyond that point,
improvements become ever smaller, but the associated costs increase logarithmically.
Thats how the state of the art is advanced -- but you don't have to subsidize
it -- opt out of the escalation while the improvements still seem worth the extra cost.
Modern speaker manufacturers, especially the really big ones, have perfected the art of
trickle-down technology. This means that when their statement-level speakers advance the
technology -- at great cost -- that technology will eventually be used in the products at
the really affordable end of the line. So the wise buyer will utilize both the point of
diminishing returns and the trickle-down philosophy to buy as much speaker as
possible, incorporating as much of the top-end technology as has trickled down to that
Having chosen a speaker, we need an amplifier. For simplicitys sake, lets
assume we're buying an integrated amp at this price point. Upcoming reviews will report on
the differences between integrateds and separates and when to consider one over the other.
The important thing to know is that amplifier technology is also very mature. A
$1000 pair of speakers should mate nicely with a good $500 integrated amplifier.
I just used a $2000 budget to allocate $1000 on speakers (50%), $500 on an amplifier
(25%), and $300 on a CD player (15%), which leaves $200 for cables or other accessories,
if needed. Using this type of math, youll arrive at a very well-balanced system.
However, don't take those percentages as gospel -- after all, when you have $1000 or
$10,000 to play with, the options change, even though the basic ground rules remain the
- Loudspeakers influence the sound of your system more than any other single component and
should make up the biggest single expenditure in your system.
- In turn, loudspeaker selection should guide the amplifier selection process since the
amplifier/speaker interface is crucial (I will discuss this in more detail next month).
- Finally, a good-quality CD source is available nowadays at relatively low cost.
Its the least critical component in the system and should cause you the least
concern about getting "just the right one."
Enough said for today.