It is the rule rather than the exception in any hobby that we continue to improve. So too with the hi-fi hobby. We keep tweaking and improving to get closer to our ideal (which is not necessarily the reality) Because of this eternal chain of tweaks, the system keeps changing and so do the relationships between components. And that means that in some cases the balance disappears. The trick is to quickly restore balance and make progress. But how do you do that?
If all goes well, you have a baseline – a base quality – against which you measure your system. After all, how else are you going to determine whether something is better or worse?
Now even that baseline is tricky, because hi-fi and playback quality are quite subjective. Even your state of mind has an influence. That’s why your editor and presenter better not review if he’s cranky… That usually goes away after a nice cup of coffee, by the way.
But let’s say for a moment that you have a good idea of the basic performance of your system. The trick then is to determine what the relationships are between the components. Where is the likely weak spot? Don’t forget to include the acoustics of your space. Too many people don’t look at it, but it’s an incredibly important link.
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A simple way to determine it is to look at age. There is a lot of progression in d/a converters in particular. Streamers and streaming bridges too. This is purely due to the progression in the digital field. In short: if you have an older converter or streamer, it pays to look there (exceptions aside… there are those products that just remain rock solid).
Another way to determine where gains can be made is price and class. Price doesn’t always say something, but it is an indicator. If an amplifier in the 1000 euro class drives a pair of 5000 euro speakers, chances are that there are gains to be made there.
Finally, balance in sound or interpretation. A pair of speakers that are fresh in a colder room and with a cool amplifier and source is just not possible. You will have to start somewhere with re-balancing the set. In this case, we would tackle the speakers because they have the most interaction with the room and are the easiest to replace. The acoustics are trickier.
What exactly are you looking for?
If you think you’ve found the “weak link,” it’s also important to ask yourself what exactly you’re looking for. More detail? More calmness? More ‘space’ in the playback? More bass? Tighter bass? Or all of the above? (Which is very difficult with one upgrade). The reason you need to get this in focus for yourself is that haphazardly replacing components without a plan doesn’t really accomplish anything in many cases. And a dealer can’t really recommend anything without you specifying exactly what you’re looking for.
If you have found the weak link and have identified a few possible candidates, it is always a good idea to try these candidates in a controlled environment. The best is to try them at home in your system. And then ideally side by side. The reason is that our memory is treacherous. We can’t remember sound for very long. Just try to remember what your system sounded like a year ago. You can’t. A week ago is already very difficult. You only know if it was good or not, but not exactly how.
If you are filtering candidates, try to limit it. Because you make it exponentially more difficult if you start putting a lot of products next to each other. Rather put two or three side by side than five or six. This way you avoid confusion and subsequently frustration. So be rigorous in your selection criteria.
Can tweaks help when upgrading a system? Yes they can! But it is usually not a solution to a fundamental problem. A tweak can refine something, but it cannot compensate for a lack of bass or warmth. Or make a flat stereo image completely 3D. Just to name a few. Tweaks are there to dot the ‘i’. It is not a fix for a system that is out of balance. By the way, with tweaks we don’t mean directly adjustments to the acoustics or a separate group for the audio installation. In our view, these are fundamental adjustments to the entire system.