Step 1 — Know Your Objective

For many people who get into this hobby or lifestyle, they don’t realize exactly what they’re getting into. Many times, this hobby takes them much further than they think. The hobby itself has only been around for a hundred years or so. Stereo is less than 60 years old and home theater is just a baby. Soon, many systems will be computer based. We’ve come a long way in a short period of time.

Knowing your objective is important and here’s why. Let’s take me for example. I enjoy all my systems and always have. I built my first multi-room system at the age of 10. My brother, who is two years older than me, had the cool music. While I was getting force fed The Osmond Brothers, he was listening to the Allman Brothers. I needed to step up in status, quick. That is, if I wanted to go out with Patty Bohrman. So I sneaked into my brother’s room and rewired the back of his stereo. Then I ran the wires down the hall to my room, concealing the evidence, and became cool. Since then, I’ve not been without systems throughout my home. And, I also don’t get hung up on “the system.” Don’t get me wrong. Having a reference system, or two, or seven, is great. But, making a lifestyle system sound like a reference system is a blast.

One of the downfalls to this hobby is education. Many people have systems that just don’t work. They read a magazine review on a particular component or system that may be set up in an environment that works great for the reviewer. But, that doesn’t mean the end user will get the same results. And, sometimes the results are not even close. That’s why system matching is so important. I always teach, “Don’t look at the faceplate or the name tag when choosing a system.” More importantly, how does it sound in your room? Which leads us to the question, how does your room sound?

Step 2 — Learn About the Environment Your System Is In

No matter what system you have, if the room or rooms don’t accommodate it acoustically and mechanically, you may have a tough time getting a balanced sound.

Let me know if you want me to expound more on Steps 1 and 2. I’d be happy to do so. It’s too bad there’s not a good “how to” book on stereo and video systems (for real). The books that are out there seem to jump ahead of themselves or they leave out the most important parts, like how rooms sound different from each other. That’s the whole ball game as far as I’m concerned.

Step 3

Step 3 is about the first through the last components of your system, in most cases. Think about it. You choose the room that you want to put a particular system in, you setup the system, and then you spend your time trying to make that system sound good in that room. The key phrase is “in that room”.

When I go on tour around to A/V stores or audiophile societies to talk to them, I usually ask if I can set up a system in one of their rooms. I do this so people have a chance to hear what I’m talking about instead of just being bored to death by just talk. The owners of the stores and the hobbyists are usually surprised when I pick one of the lesser expensive systems and smaller rooms to do my listening demo. But where the surprise really comes in is when the little demo system outperforms the store’s most expensive high end system in their big showcase room. When I’m asked why, the answer is always the same — “Simplicity.”

Simplicity is the key to good sound. Many times, when you install a system that is too complicated for a given room, you end up with poor sound reproduction. This problem doesn’t get fixed by purchasing more expensive, more complicated components. In fact, when you do this, the sound usually suffers even more.

How do you prevent a mismatched system? Get to know you room. Before I get too deep into the listening, or home theater environment, or both, there’s an important resource available to you that you should take a look at — the members of TuneLand. There are all “levels” of people up there on this forum. Many of them have become or are becoming experts in the art of tuning. I have seen them band together to help more people than some of the biggest magazines. That’s no slam on mags. It’s just that reviewers are trying to get so much product information out to you that sometimes their own systems suffer. There are some reviewers I recommend more than others that you read and I would be happy to do so privately. The TuneLand members, however, go the extra mile to achieve their goals. I’m biased, but I think the TuneLand members are the best listeners in the world and can offer you some of the best advice in the world. Here’s why. TuneLand members never stop growing in the learning process. To these guys, listening and tuning become a way of life. One more benefit is they all live in different parts of the world, have different types of rooms, and, most importantly, have different tastes.

(Note: This is an invaluable “road map” that is being laid out here. As readers can see in the first two steps, the steps to achieving personal sonic nirvana are intertwined and the boundaries between each step are less than distinct.

The distinctions between the various steps become even vaguer as you proceed along. As we proceed through the next step, which is an “evaluation” step, you will see that it will also overlap with previous steps. But, if the reader follows them, he will have an invaluable tool which has been talked about far too little, if at all, by the gurus of high end.)

Step 4 — Evaluating the Ingredients

Sometimes, when we’re cooking in a new or different kitchen than what we’re used to, we automatically go through a ritual called “evaluating the ingredients.” This ritual, or practice, goes much further than the food itself. We take inventory of the food, spices, tools, and even the type of heat. The preparation becomes a method that includes timing and balance.

We also take inventory when putting together our systems. But, many times, we leave out key ingredients. Whenever we do this, just like in cooking, we try to make up for our mistakes with “spices.” Things don’t always come out the way we want. When this happens in our hobby, it’s common to go on the downward spiral of equipment trading which usually leads to big holes in our wallet and, still, unsatisfactory sound. By evaluating the ingredients, choosing them carefully, and applying the proper method of tuning, we will have a good sounding system every time, regardless of price.

The next questions are:

* What are the ingredients?
* How do we evaluate them?

The list of ingredients (components) can be broken down into three main categories — electrical, mechanical, and acoustical. These three categories are completely intertwined. Therefore, I’ve named them the “Audio Trilogy.”

The Ingredients

The ingredients for a system will entail more than you think. If any one part of this system, or ingredient, is not paid the proper attention, the system, as a whole, can suffer sonic values. Many times, poor sound is blamed on the wrong things because of a lack of understanding of how a system works.

A system actually starts outside the home at the local power plant. The grid in your area can make or break your system. This does not mean run out and buy yourself a line conditioner. Most people buy line treatment unnecessarily. Later, remind me and I’ll get into electrical energy flow and how it works. You’ll be surprised to find out about how electricity does NOT work more than how it does work. But, that’s too deep for right now. As the electricity arrives outside your house, it is distributed by a transformer, then to a meter (for you to get those big bills), and then finally inside your house to your fuse or breaker box. It doesn’t stop there. The electricity then runs down a wire (usually in conduit) to a wall receptacle.

(Note: Any other outlets, in your room, make your line, by default, not a dedicated line.)

Dedicated means one circuit, one outlet, one component. I know this is impractical for most. But, the system that comes the closest to this will outperform a system that doesn’t, every time. Remember, simplicity is the secret to good sound.

You’re wiping your forehead going, “Boy, I’m glad the electrical part is over.” But, it’s not. This is a part where a lot of people mess up. They don’t think of their system as a whole. You cannot compartmentalize your system. It is impossible to truly review an individual component. Your only hope is to follow a method of controlled gates and drains of energy. The cost of your components has nothing to do with good sound. Some of the least expensive parts of your system make the biggest difference to your sound. In fact, in many cases, the more complicated a system is designed, the worse it sounds.

Once you leave your outlets, you head to several power supplies. The more “in tune” these power supplies are with each other, the better your parts can harmonically be balanced to carry the sound source signal down the electrical host. If you cannot harmonically balance these power supplies, then it is better to have fewer of them. Take some advice. Only use more components if you know how to make them perform together. You could take something like that little all-in-one system I recommended for the HT mini-system and blow away a hi-end system that someone does not know how to make work. And, there are a lot of professionals who don’t know how to make them work. But, give them time; they’ll learn — just not as quickly as you will.

The power supply’s job is to supply the proper electrical energy to all the parts inside and outside their particular chassis. I say inside and outside their chassis because they do three things:

1. Pull the energy from the wall.
2. Supply the energy to the component’s function.
3. Supply the energy to regulate the line level signal being sent to the next component through the use of an interconnect cable. Or, in the case of the amplification stage, send power (with the encoded source signal) to the speaker by use of speaker cable.

See, you guys thought I was going to give a list of the components.

Once the source signal is inside the speaker, it is converted to a larger scaled replica of the same source signal.

(Note: The reason I am not dividing the energy up into different categories is on purpose. All three energies that make up the audio trilogy come from the same root source and therefore, by the laws of nature, are co-dependent on each other. It’s the way we harness these energies that makes them appear different from each other.

Let’s call this replica “sound waves” (still hosting the trilogy). Sound waves, again, have three basic interactive properties:

1. Speaker response created by the changes of the source signal.

2. Environmental interaction with the surroundings.
3. Listening “perceptions.”

Everything affects everything; everything is tunable.

(Note: The energy that hosts the perception of sound waves, or any of the source signal parts or conduits, is omnipresent.)

Keep in mind that there are three energies working together in your system and room – acoustical, mechanical, and electrical. Placing these three energies in tune with each other is the key to obtaining good sound. So, as you assemble or listen to your systems, start thinking of your system/room as a whole, in terms of the energies of which they are comprised, instead of as individual parts which have little to no relationship to each other.