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Joy of High-End Audio: The System Builder

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Publisher’s Note: This Commentary is first published in the Offiical Directory of the 2nd (July 15 – 17, 2011) California Audio show.

When most people think of stereo systems they contemplate the music emerging from them. When I think of stereo systems, I consider the assemblage of gear and contemplate the effects of that arrangement of equipment upon the sound. I am not just an audiophile, but a system builder.

A system builder is different from an audiophile in two particular ways. First, the system builder seldom listens to music merely for pleasure, but rather quite often assesses the sound quality. Hearing a good stereo, there is plenty of opportunity for pleasure to be taken via the performance, and at times the system builder gets blissfully lost in the moment. But more often than not, analysis of the sound happens concurrently. This analysis is a part of the pleasure/pain cycle of the system builder. There is pain from less than desirable sound, but incredible pleasure when the system sounds better than in the past. Yes, this is an obsession, but a fairly harmless one, unless a budget is badly broken in pursuit of that ideal sound.

The second peculiarity of the system builder is euphoria in discovering new components, cables and speakers. When I had assembled several better stereo systems I realized there are an astounding number of gradations of audiophile quality sound and myriad systems to achieve it. The nuances between audio systems are not earth shattering but are quite pleasurable. Because of the pleasure of those nuances it is not uncommon for an audiophile to be drawn to a particular genre of equipment. For instance, music sounds substantially different through a single-driver, high-efficiency speaker than through a large-panel Electrostatic speaker. There are endless choices of sources (vinyl, disc or streaming), preamps, amps, cables etc. Each of these has the power to alter the sound dramatically. One could spend a lifetime trying different electronics and hearing the outcome. I certainly want to!

Understandably there istypically a correlation between sound quality and money spent. For more than a decade I exchanged CD players, amps, speakers and cables in an attempt to find heavenly sound on a budget. It didn’t work. No matter what budget gear I used there was always something wrong with the sound; the music was flat-sounding, or bass-shy, or shrill, or not clear enough. That may sound strange to someone who hears a pretty good system. Visit an audio shop or spend a weekend at an event like the California Audio Show and you’ll wonder how anyone could ever be dissatisfied with even the affordable rigs on display.

This is what separates system builders from the average audiophile. Most music lovers are content to play a lot of music and do so on a system which stays intact for years. They might seek quality equipment initially, then plow most of their money into media. Often they turn their attention to surround systems for the HT experience. Not me; I continue to spend approximately 85% or better of my audiophile budget on straightforward two-channel equipment. I have cable TV fed to my custom theater with 7.1 surround, but I have never hooked it up. I watch a movie about once a month, maybe. If you were to peek into my room you would likely catch me doing what I love, listening to two-channel music. I may be tweaking the rig to wring out better performance, or I may be reworking it entirely with a new amp or source in search of a great new experience. It is fantastic stereo sound I’m after.

In essence the system builder is an extreme audiophile. The system builder pays as much attention to the equipment as to the media, because the equipment dictates how the media sounds. I don’t find simply listening particularly exciting. What does excite me is pushing performance to the extreme. That might be part of the DNA of the system builder. When I learned to downhill ski, the thrill of the sport was in advancing until I could ski black diamond moguls. Similarly, my thrill in audio is to build extreme stereo systems, not merely competent ones. I want music to sound so rich, so enveloping, and so palpable that the act of listening nearly takes my breath away! I want to be mesmerized by the beauty of the piece playing. I want to hear older pieces of music become animated as never before. When music is heard in such a fashion it is thrilling!

When a big enough change is made, an audio system sounds so good that all music seems new! One of the impulses of the system builder is staying up into the wee hours of the night playing piece after piece of well-known music, exulting at how it sounds so new! Moments of sheer ecstasy occur when at the end of a set of music I am overwhelmed, incredulous at the music washing over me. At such moments I lose track of time, and worries melt away as I am fully immersed in the experience.

The explorations and discoveries of the system builder never end. A new product introduced at a show, a discussion online, a visit from another audiophile, a novel technology – all of these drive the incessant march of system development and beautification of music. There will never be a sonically perfect system, but there will always be improvements.

I consider system building a challenge, as I want to discover ever-escalating performance which thrills and impresses me no matter what music I listen to. Some people suggest fascination with the gear is off base, an aberration of the love of music. My reply is that the music is only as good, and for me involving, as the system which plays it. Serious mountain climbers can be fanatical about their gear; I’m a bit fanatical about audio systems. Likewise, when you have experienced music reproduced at a State-of-the-Art level, then perhaps you will understand the impulse within the system builder and may even desire to become one yourself!

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