The Most Important Component?

As a young audiophile in his late teens, the author encountered the statement that he patently did not believe, “The amplifier is the most important component in an audio system.”  It was heralded unapologetically and without defense in an introductory book on audio, the title of which was long forgotten.  Having already built several speaker systems, and being keenly aware of the sonic “signature” imparted by each one, it was apparent to me that much potential improvement in sound quality lay with the speaker.  As the years went by, I continued on a path of design and execution refinement, on a quest to make the best speaker system possible within budgetary constraints.  The relatively steady and monotonic approach to more believable sound was both fueling passion and furthering assurance that the speaker was the most important component in an audio system, at least more so than the amplifier.  It eventually became my guiding principle and a spoken paradigm within the context of amplifiers and speakers that, “With any amplifier of sufficient power and competitive distortion levels, the merits of an audio system can be determined largely by the speakers.”  The naivety of this statement is now appalling to me, but it was based on reasoning that was not altogether unsound.  

If one link in a chain is substantially weaker than the others, then two conclusions are possible:  The strength of the chain can be determined by knowledge of the weakest link alone, and the chain can be improved by operating on the weakest link alone.  If this “weakest link” in the audio system is invariably the speakers, then one could listen to any system and attribute all that he hears to the speakers, whether good or bad.  Remarkably, this is often the mentality that pervades audio shows, as frequently demonstrated by the nearly exclusive attention given to the speakers.  But how justifiable is it to point to any system’s speakers and declare them to be the weakest and deciding link? 

Let us first be reminded that the audiophile is looking for a believable listening experience; he is not a spectrum analyzer or a distortion analyzer looking for good numbers.  Those familiar with the workings of speakers know that the process of converting electrical current into sound is fraught with numerous problems, the intrusions of which on the resulting sound are easily measurable in even the best examples.  If we were to look at frequency response or total harmonic distortion, to name just two popular metrics, the speaker system would almost certainly be the worst offender in the entire rig.  But since the audiophile is not so concerned with numbers as with believable sound, something else must be brought into consideration.  It turns out that distortions imposed by speakers, if not egregiously high, are not necessarily a spoiler to a believable listening experience.  This is because the distortions caused by speakers are simple distortions caused by simple mechanisms, some of them similar to the distortions produced in the human ear.  As such, the brain is quite willing to tune them out and the psyche is equally willing to forgive them, much as it does those produced by the ear. 

The same cannot be said of the amplifier, especially of the poorly designed solid-state variety.  Based on the transistor, the solid-state amplifier produces distortion from high-order non-simple mechanisms, and such distortion is not forgiven by the brain and is not in the vein of what we would call “musical.”  Further, power supply noise in both tube and solid-state amplifiers combines with non-linear distortion mechanisms to lay down a mask of complex noise over the entire audio signal, sometimes resulting in what I refer to as the “boring effect.”  When the micro-details of the music are obscured by this complex noise mask, the listener is unaware of any defect that he should forgive or improve, yet he is also bored with the experience and finds himself wondering what is on TV.  The listener simply cannot be entertained by what he is not permitted to hear.  The greatest amount of distortion may belong to the speaker, but the worst kind of distortion often comes from the amplifier, especially when reasonable attention has been given to the front end, that is, the music server, DAC, and preamp.  Proper and diligent design efforts can render a solid-state or tube amplifier that does not degrade the listening experience, yet many designs fall short of this.  

And so it is that as all faults cannot be thrown into the same bucket labeled “distortion,” neither can the most measurably distorting component always be blamed the cause for a bad listening experience.  Instead, the component that typically creates the most egregious forms of distortion must be treated with the greatest care when configuring a system.  We can readily recognize and agree that a bad speaker is unforgivable.  But in cases where a bad speaker is not present, the entertainment capability of an audio system can often be improved dramatically by upgrading the amplifier.  Not only will the listener be relieved by the reduction of unmusical, high-order distortion products and the fatigue that accompanies them, he is likely to be astonished by the emergence of highly entertaining and involving musical detail that was formerly obscured without his knowledge.  The better the speakers, the truer this statement is.  And if asked again how to build an exquisite audio system, he is likely to say of his own volition, “The amplifier is the most important component in an audio system.”

Mike Vice

President

Bella Sound

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On a lifelong pursuit of audio excellence.

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