Component Matching

The Right Stuff

The challenge we have as consumers of hi-fi is selecting the right components to achieve the best sound possible - and for most of us, within a budget

In the last few years I’ve been pretty fortunate with my component selection and a couple of times a component has grabbed my attention to the point where it seems to cry out “BUY ME” and those choices have worked out quite nicely, but they were based solely on how they sounded, Fact is I got lucky.

Early on I was not quite so fortunate and my selections were largely based on the recommendation of sales people. Unfortunately their agenda is not the same as their customers.

The audio industry has come a long way - adopting technical standards so that the electrical inputs and outputs are a closer match. But there is still so many other technical aspects of a hi-fi system, that as consumers we should consider.

One issue many people are not aware of is the impact cables (i.e. power, interconnect and speaker) can have on the sound and performance of their hi-fi components.

There is no simple solution to this issue since each individual component in your system may respond differently to various cable brands and types.

Some examples of the types of problems that may arise are
  • the capacitance of a speaker cable interferes with the operation of the amplifier causing it to sound less than optimum.
  • Interconnects can affect the sound if their capacitance is too high, the resulting sound becomes too bright
  • It is well documented that high capacitance phono leads can have a detrimental impact on the performance of phono cartridges.

Yet most manufacturers seldom provide a technical specification of what type of cabling should be used with their components.

Fortunately, some audio stores will provide cables for in-nome auditions, so you can listen to your components response at your leisure.

You also have to factor in whether a new component will work in harmony with the components it is attached to. Reviewers often observe that some components display a certain “SYNERGY” in their system, whereas other products provide a more mediocre performance.

What do they mean by SYNERGY? the dictionary says:
  • The interaction of elements that when combined produce a total effect that is greater than the sum of the individual elements

Another term that is also used more often these days is RESOLUTION, which is used to refer to the level of detail a component is capable of conveying.
e.g. the very fine reverberations of the recording venue, or the breathing of the woodwind instrumentalist or the background humming of a jazz bass player.

A more well defined use of this word is in the world of digital photography and pertains to the number of pixels on the sensor - more pixels = higher resolution

Unfortunately, at present there is no method to quantify audio resolution in such a concise manner, so identifying whether two components are well matched from a resolution perspective based on their technical specification is impossible
e.g. it would be nice to have a rating on a box saying this component is capable of resolving to 110 RES - we could then elect to surround it with like components of 110 RES or close to 110 RES.

The point at which we tend to discover a “synergy” between components is often when we introduce a new component and the resulting improvement exceeds our expectations - we tend to announce that it has great synergy with the rest of the components.

The unfortunate truth is the component being replaced was either-
  • not capable of resolving the audio signal to the same level of detail as the other components in the system, in which case replacement is required, or
  • not working to its optimum abilities (e.g. due to poor cables), in which case you might not need to replace it, or
  • not working in harmony with the rest of the components in the audio pathway, replacement is definitely required due to it’s negative impact on the rest of the system.

Each component can in fact impact the performance of components either side of it - e.g. a technically adept pre-amp can negatively impact both the upstream source components operation and the downstream power amplifier it is connected to. However, when connected to different components it sounds quite amazing.

Another factor to take into account when attempting to assemble a hi-fi system are the power cables used. A good quality power cable will allow a component to perform to it’s absolute optimum ability - in most cases much better than with the power cord provided by the component manufacturer.

And finally - the same applies to the interconnect and speaker cables - they too can affect the overall sound and the way in which the connected components perform. High capacitance interconnect cables can impact the performance of components they are attached to, over and above the effect the capacitance has on the actual audio signal i.e. it acts as a filter and often results in a brighter or thinner sound. Speaker cables can actually make some amplifiers sound quite harsh if the capacitance is too high.

So, matching components can be quite a complicated process, but if you know your existing components and have good quality power cords and interconnects you can reduce the risk of making a selection that is less than optimum.

The only real solution to this problem is to audition new components in your system and make sure you have quality “cables” on hand to allow it to really - “strut it’s stuff”.

My own personal strategy has been to use the best power cables I can afford, together with low capacitance interconnect and speaker cables. That way I know that any performance limitations of a new component is due to it’s design and construction and not to the existing “infrastructure”.

An example of this strategy presented itself recently when I installed a new tonearm on my turntable. The performance improvement was not as good as expected, since the quality of the tonearm and tonearm wiring should have provided a much higher quality performance. I subsequently upgraded the phono stage and to my delight the benefits I had expected from the tone-arm were finally realized.

The real issue here was that my old phono stage did not have a sufficient resolution capability to transfer the micro details now being retrieved by the tone-arm and cartridge, to the amplifier - the new phono stage has much more resolution capability and in tandem with the tone-arm the resulting performance exceeded my expectations.

So, should you choose components that provide the same resolution? - good luck with that!

  • Any brand new component you purchase today will probably have a higher resolution capability than components in the same “snack bracket” purchased 5, 10, 15 years ago, because the quality just keeps getting better with time.
  • If you purchase a component and it does not perform significantly better, then it may be one of the other audio components in the audio pathway
  • there may come a time when the rest of your system is performing to it’s optimum, but not as good as the new component - in that case, several components may require upgrading

Does my new phono stage have the same resolving capability as the tone-arm? - Probably not, but right now It does reveal a certain “SYNERGY” Happy
Can my other components (i.e. amp and speakers) continue to reveal micro-details that new source components expose - I hope so (my wife says it does)

Resolution used to be directly proportional to price - higher price = better resolution - and to some extent that is still the case - but sometimes components come along that perform way above their modest pricing.

These components are not so rare, but may require an additional investment in the better power supply or power cables. I did own two Cambridge Audio components whose performance was elevated to the level of components costing many times their price by simply replacing their power supply

So, research your purchases before you buy and peruse the many forums for “users feedback” and remember, any assessment you read are the findings relative to the person making the assessment and the components they have - what you achieve may be very different.