I recently landed a dream job that taps into my passion for high-end audio equipment of all shapes and kinds. I’m a little bit thrilled.
My lede brag leads right into the subject du jour in our incremental study of all the links in the chain of a well-balanced stereo system.
The new gig is with a Front Range e-commerce business that curates, cleans and resells a large inventory of exquisite audio products to a worldwide online audience.
Side note — so many cool businesses you’d never guess claim this area as home. My wife works for a startup that is making little home robots, for instance. And institutions like the National Home Brewers’ Association reside here, although that’s not too much of a stretch. Still, I would have guessed it was in Portland.
Anyway, my new job is relevant because as a testing technician, I’m hooking up amp after amp after amp after amp and speaker after speaker every single day and listening closely to all kinds of brands and types and all kinds of different components stretching across the last 30 years.
So if there’s anyone in your life who believes that amplifiers, CD players or even wires sound the same, have them talk to me, because they’re wrong.
Just this month, I listened to amplifiers from these companies: Spectral, Edison Audio, Boulder Amplifiers (did you know that world-famous amps are locally made and have our city’s name engraved on them?), Bryston, Krell, Mark Levinson, Nakamichi, BAT, VAC, PS Audio (another Boulder-based company), Threshold and Naim.
Ever heard of any of these? They’re all quite popular in the audiophile world, but little known outside of it. Each of them has put forth great efforts to create a better amplifier, and each of their amplifiers sounds different. Some have more strengths than others, so it’s not just character that separates them.
And herein lies the first conundrum. An amplifier drives sound, pushes it along. An amplifier needs something to push against, or weird things can happen.
Speakers are what we call a “load,” in that they’re giving the amplifier something difficult to push against, which the amplifier loves. The thing is, different speakers present different types of loads, and huge variations exist in how much load speakers provide when the tone goes higher or lower.
So an amplifier driving one type of speaker can sound lackluster, but when paired with a speaker that has a more favorable load, all kinds of improvements can take place, from subtle to obvious.
A high-end amplifier is like a complex meal. It’s the sum of its ingredients, and sometimes more, depending on the ingredients. Many decisions in the timeline of its design are like taking one path at a fork in the road, where present decisions can affect earlier decisions and set future decisions at the same time.
And yes, when you get this deep into it, you run the risk of forgetting that this is all about the enjoyment of music. So let’s try to remember to have a good time with this series, and the old adage that “if it sounds good, it is good.”