Wednesday, June 01, 2005

System hierarchy debate, Part I

Source: The Absolute Sound December 2004, TAS Rountable Playpack systems: What Matters Most?

I strongly urge you to read the original article in TAS. In short, TAS' Wayne Garcia, Harry Pearson and Jonathan Valin discuss with Ivor Tiefenbrun (Linn's founder) and David A. Wilson (Wilson Audio's founder) about system hierarchy, i.e. which components matter most and the least in the playback system.

Let me give some background for this debate. So called The Hierarchy debate emerged in 1972 with the launch of Linn LP12: for quite many listeners it was troubling to clearly hear how a superior source component can improve the sound reproduction. The garbage in, garbage out metaphor became a central theme in system building thinking, further re-enforced in 1991 by Mark Levinson's launch of its No.30 Reference Digital Processor. The No.30 broke the digital sound barrier and very first time a digital product achieved what many thought was impossible for the 16-bit/44 kHz CD standard. The Mark Levinson continued to build on No.30's formidable performance with successive digital products, but it's the Linn's Sondek CD12, launched in the late 1990's, that took digital playback yet further, almost closing the gap between high-end digital and analogue gears in terms of musicality.

In the other end of The Hierarchy debate is "speakers matter most" school of thought. Idea is that you can spend disproportionately to speakers, then gradually upgrade the rest of equipments, and the speakers are able to resolve the improvements in the rest of your system. You might disagree with me here, but for me Wilson Audio is the manufacturer, which since its launch 1981 has been the most influential in speaker design. Their WATT, MAXX and Grand SLAMM models have sold in thousands, despite sky-high price tags (up to $225,000 a pair). For a comparison, Dunlavy sold only some few hundred pairs worldwide of its respected model IVA (before it went bust). The latest incarnations like WATT Puppy System 7 and new models like Alexandria are further proof how far speaker design can be taken. There are other great speaker manufacturer like Kharma, Tannoy, JM Labs or Avalon, just to name a few, but none has shapen speaker design over the last 20 years period like Wilson Audio. In various demonstrations Wilson Audio has used Apple iPod playing non-compressed music tracks as a source to further brag their "speakers are the most critical element in playback chain" mantra. Personally, I find that trick foolish and coarse.

Somewhere between these extremes then are various other "hierarchiers": some call for balanced system building akin allocating 50% of any given audio budget to speakers, rest spent evenly to source and amplifiers; others point out that the highest overall performance can be found through synergies or unorthodox allocation of budget. Nordost finds it's OK to spend 50% of the audio budget (and should I say of family's annual budget) to their Valhalla cables, some say €1500 speakers combined with the €10,000 esoteric amplifier is the right ticket to audio nirvana.

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