Audio System Components

There are five broad categories of components in an audio system: Source, amplification, loudspeaker, connections, and accessories.

Source

Source components decode the information that has been encoded on storage media (vinyl records, CDs, etc.) and reproduce the original recording of the musical performance. High fidelity, or hi-fi, denotes how faithful the reproduction is to the recording. On live recordings, listeners can recognize not only the individual sounds of the instruments but also where the instruments are located in the three-dimensional space of the venue. On studio recordings, listeners can hear the final mix and sound stage intended by the recording engineer.

Flaws in a source component cannot be corrected by another component later in the chain. A good source should make a good recording sound good and a bad recording sound bad. A bad source may make a good recording sound bad or a bad recording sound better, i.e., more “musical sounding”, but it is still a bad source.

Amplification

Amplification components boost the sound signal. A preamp takes a low signal from a source, boosts it to standard voltage level, and outputs it to an amplifier. The amplifier boosts the signal to an even higher level to drive components in the speaker that, in turn, reproduce the recorded sound. The preamp also serves as a control point for adjusting the volume, inserting frequency equalization to the signal, and switching between different components as the source of the signal.

Loudspeaker

Loudspeakers are designed to have a distinct “voice”: The designer will have tweaked the speaker’s components (drivers, crossovers, cabinet) to reproduce what they deem as the sound of the original recording. Two designers may use similar physical parts (capacitors, inductors, resistors, etc.) yet create two entirely different voices. Furthermore, listeners may love one design and loathe the other, depending on the sound they were seeking.

Connections

Whether wired or wireless, the connections between audio components can have a significant effect on the reproduced sound. As inherently passive components, connections should be as transparent as possible. Using connections to tune the sound to one’s liking (tempering a “bright” sound or boosting the high frequencies of a “dull” sound) is masking a problem that should have been fixed elsewhere in the audio system’s chain.

Accessories

Sturdy racks or stands provide a stable base for a system’s components. Tweaks such as vibration control, when applied correctly, can optimize the system’s performance. On the other hand, a turntable dust cover can cause vibrations that are picked up by the stylus riding on the record grooves. Though often overlooked, accessories can enhance the overall sound – or ruin it.

Allocation of Audio Budget

We are often asked how important is a particular piece of equipment relative to the entire audio system. In other words, what percentage of an audiophile’s budget should be allocated to each type of component? Below is a suggested rule of thumb.

Type of ComponentAllocationRationale
Source30%A bad source cannot be corrected with another component or treatment down the chain
Loudspeaker30%The choice of loudspeaker is so personal that skimping on the cost may lead to wrong choices.
Amplification20%Amplification needs to match the choice of loudspeakers, e.g., more power for less sensitive speakers.
Connections10%Cables cannot make bad components sound better but they can make good components sound worse.
Accessories10%Accessories can eliminate or reduce bad effects from the environment on the system components.

One may argue that since the preamp is the control center of the system, it should warrant a larger portion, something like 20% by itself. A listener who puts a high value on the bass performance of a speaker may argue for a beefier amplifier capable of controlling the speaker’s drivers for a tighter and more powerful bass.

In summary, putting together an audio system should start with understanding the listener’s preferred sound and priorities in achieving that sound. Contact us at gingko@gingkoaudio.com for help with the journey.