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If you buy a piece of audio equipment in 2016, there is the almost perfect certainty that it can be made to work with almost any other piece of equipment new or old. We shouldn't kid ourselves that this is wholly intentional- a fair bit is down to luck rather than judgement- but it is a good place to be. As such, most equipment can be relied upon to work together but what if I were to tell you that there is a level beyond simply working together that can elevate performance to the truly sensational?
The effect is usually referred to as system synergy and it is the audio electronics equivalent of the gin and tonic, chocolate and peanut butter or a good BLT depending on your dietary preferences. It happens for a few reasons and your own personal preferences will in part shape how you judge the results but at a less romantic level it breaks down to numbers. If you can start thinking about the circumstances and conditions that pieces of equipment will work together, the effects can be hugely beneficial to you listening enjoyment.
The good news is that the reasons behind many pieces of equipment working better in combination than others is usually down to a discernable and repeatable relationship in their design and performance. These relationships can be between two 'major' components like an amplifier and speakers but also between parts of a record player as well- most notably the arm and cartridge and the cartridge and phono preamp. As this is a blog about the purchase and enjoyment of the vinyl record, these will be the main focus of attention.
In a perfect world, the perfect tonearm and cartridge combination wouldn't be a combination at all but a single component with the stylus, suspension and generator assembly all seamlessly built into the end of the armtube. Doing this would allow for the arm to be designed to handle a specific set of requirements and be exceptionally rigid at the same time. The expense of doing so and the implications that the arm is junk if the cartridge becomes worn or damaged have been enough to ensure it has never been tried.
The principles it was shooting for are key to selecting your cartridge though. Each tonearm has a specific set of resonances and an intended total weight and this behaviour is directly related to the cartridge you choose. Choose carefully and your turntable will banish unwanted vibration and noise outside the audible spectrum. If you don't, you can make two pieces of equipment that sound excellent in isolation, sound like a bag of spanners. This is not an abstract concept, it is one that applies to all turntables of all ages at all price points.
Happily, where once you'd have to do some head scratching and remember long lost edicts from school math lessons, the internet is now on hand to help. If you use the Vinyl Engine database and plug in the published details of your arm and cartridge, it will work out whether the proposed partnership will gel correctly. Given that checking will cost you nothing and the benefits are potentially considerable, it makes a great deal of sense.
Neither is it the only relationship that makes sense to check. The partnership between your cartridge and preamp is equally significant. The performance of your cartridge breaks down into a number of variables- output, capacitance and impedance. These will always be supplied by the manufacturer in the specifications they provide and if you have a moving magnet cartridge they generally adhere to a fixed standard that makes choosing a preamp a simpler business. If you do have the ability to fine tune the input settings for your preamp to better match the cartridge though, you can unlock quite surprising levels of performance from the same basic hardware. Even if you can't adjust the settings, you can do some sensible things to help performance along. The impedance and capacitance of a cartridge will change the longer the cumulative length of cable between it and the preamp so don't have cables any longer than you actually need for the task.
The numbers game doesn't end there either. Nothing will top the relationship between your speakers and your room for critical relationships but its relationship with your amplifier has considerable importance and breaks down into a few categories. Slightly counter intuitively, the figure that actually doesn't make a huge amount of difference is the maximum power of the amplifier and the maximum power handling of the speakers. Unless the power you need to hit your preferred listening level is above the rated power handling of the speakers (and if it is, somewhere your system construction is seriously amiss), this is a non issue.
What might surprise you even more is that using an amplifier with a low power output- well inside the notional maximum handling of your speakers- can be more damaging than overpowering them. If you exceed the designed performance envelope of an amplifier, it will start to distort and distortion kills speakers far more readily than overpowering them with an amp that is not suffering from distortion while it does so. Some time ago, I used the perfectly nonsensical combination of a pair of Audio Note speakers designed for low power valve amps with a monstrous Musical Fidelity integrated amp that had no less than 500 watts of power at its disposal. Despite a notional overload potential of about 600%, the combination worked well and nothing blew up.
There are also some other useful numbers to judge the relationship between your amp and your speakers. If you speakers have an impedance rating of four ohms, you need to make sure that firstly your amp is able to work at four ohms to avoid smoke and failure and secondly it pays to check if the amp is able to work well at four ohms. Does the power output increase into four ohms? In a perfect world, it should double but on a more prosaic level, an increase of 25-30% over the eight ohm figure is desirable as it suggests the power supply arrangements are up to the job.
The sensitivity of the speakers is also important. The figure you see quoted is the output of the speaker when given one watt of power with a pink noise signal- so for example 88dB/w- 88 decibels on one watt of power. The higher this figure, the less power you will need which can be helpful with amps of lower output like valve designs.
All this can look seriously intimidating but the reality of it is that these relationships are straightforward calculations between two sets of figures that almost all manufacturers supply. There is also no shortage of help available online- including on our very own forums- and from dealers. If you take a few minutes before you buy products to check that it is going to fit in with the performance of your existing equipment, it can be the difference between 'hmm' and 'wow.' Numbers make the universe work but in this specific instance, they can rock your world too.
Ed is a UK based journalist and consultant in the HiFi industry. He has an unhealthy obsession with nineties electronica and is skilled at removing plastic toys from speakers.