Source first, or...?

Where to Put Your Money, part II

Paper by Björn Törnroth
Original date: 1 December 2006 (preliminary draft)
Copyright © Björn Törnroth 2006

The source first principle states that you should concentrate on the source, e.g. a CD-player, in order to achieve the best possible sound quality. This is usually translated into meaning that you should put most of your money on the source. Proponents often use catchy phrases like "crap in - crap out" and "the chain is only as strong as its weakest link" and "it can never sound better than the source".

I do not deny the merits of the source first principle as such. At least as long as we call it a principle, i.e. a way of thinking, I have no objections. In reality, however, "source first" (simply "SF" from here on) is not treated as a principle, but as a theory, and a vaguely scientific one at that. And in that role there are a few objections, partly philosophical and partly empirical. Also, a few limiting factors need to be payed attention to, otherwise the theory is simply too broad to be of any use.

First of all, a hifi system is not a chain in the sense that food is not a chain. It's an amalgam, a synthesis, a system, a whole. The very idea of a CD-player having a sound "on its own" is conceptually confused. It does not have a sound without an amp, a speaker, cables, electrical power and, let's not forget, a CD. The same can be said about the rest of the components on a system. They are part of a system as a whole. A real chain is indeed only as strong as its weakest link. If its weakest link will break at 400 kg, so will the whole chain, regardless if all the other links can take 800 kg, and a single mighty link that can take 1200 kg makes no difference what so ever. Not so in a hifi system. A killer system for 10 k€ with a measly 200 € CD-player will sound significantly better than a 3 k€ system with the same CD-player. (I will expand this point at a later date.)

There is also talk about all components acting as filters, detrimenting the sound in all steps of they way. This is nonsense. It assumes that we somehow start with a magical "pure sound" at the beginning, which is then channelled through the different stages of a hifi system, getting tainted at each step, until it leaps forth from the speakers. Again, there is no sound without any of the parts required in a system. Of course, all components have their own sonic signature, but not in that sense. It's simply a confused way of thinking. (I will expand this point at a later date.)

The expression "sound quality" is not a simple one. It can mean different things to different people. But that's another story. Suffice to say that we should keep in mind that we might have different things in mind when we talk about "sound quality". If you define realistic sound pressure levels and dynamics as primary sound quality parameters, the source first principle has little to offer, since what you need is big speakers and powerful amplification.

And what of the expression "the weakest link"? Is it always clear what that means? I think not. Is it the component that costs the least amount of money? But relative to what? Certainly a CD-player costing 1 k€ is more of a weak link than an interconnect costing as much. It must therefore be the relative quality of each component in relation to its own group of products. We would need some kind of a scale that can be applied to all product groups. I suggest a theoretical percentage scale. 0% being something that doesn't work and 100% being the highest conceivable quality theoretically possible. Of course, the 100% mark will vary with technological progress, but that's not a problem for our purposes here, which is to estimate how many percent of the possible sound quality we get in a given product, and anything beyond 95% must remain highly theoretical.

We are now in a position to estimate each components worth in percents of the conceivable absolute within its own group. This would give a plausible meaning to the expression "weakest link". It's the one component with the lowest percentage of absolute conceivable quality. But how do we know our estimates are correct? The ranges are hypothetical and subjective. And how do we compare different product groups to each other? Even if we're not grossly wrong in our estimates, it doesn't necessarily follow that replacing the component with the lowest percentage will bring about the biggest sound quality improvement.

Of course, we might simply state that, at any given time, the one component which will yeld the bigget improvement upon switching, is therefore the component with the lowest percentage. But that doesn't help us at all, since the point of the theory was to help us decide what to improve in the first place. In fact, we wouldn't know the answer until we had tried improving every single component in our system.

We also need to put the theory into some kind of economical context. No simple rule where to put your money will be get the best possible sound at all possible price points. I think (!) there are at least three levels: "El cheapo" (i.e. budget), "Middle of the road" (i.e. mid-fi) and "You nuts, dude?" (i.e. high end). The most important factor here is the different maturity levels of different components, but more of that later. At the time of writing, I think the SF principle has its greatest merit in the mid-fi context. In the budget context I think a little more has to be spent on speakers, and as we climb into the context of really big bucks, even more should be spent on the speakers. Simply because that's where the biggest improvements are to be had.

I believe there is a certain price point for each component where we reach a kind of maturity level where we can say that we're getting "enough" of what's to be had. Let me take an example. (Again, please keep in mind that this is at the time of writing.) I personally think a CD-player in the 2-3 k€ range is a mature product, delivering "enough" of what theoretically can be squeezed out of the CD format. Call this the 90% level if you will. Even if we increase the CD-players cost to 10 k€ we only get 95% - only 5% more.

That money is best put elsewhere, I think. Speakers do not in my opinion reach their maturity level at that price point. I think we need to climb up to, say, 10 k€. (I'm omitting the zeroes not to make me depressed by the insane amounts of money I'm talking about here.) At that price point a speaker is big enough to nail you against the wall and good enough not to have any obvious compromises. I have no idea where amplifiers reach their maturity level. Certainly something happens when we get to the 2 k€ level and it seems like we need to go quite a lot higher, perhaps even four times higher, in order to get any serious improvements. Perhaps there are more than one price point where significant things happen. I don't know.

My conclusion is this: The source first principle is not without merit, at least as long as we put it into an economical context. It's biggest benefit is to remind us not to forget the source, which happens quite easily when faced with towering speakers and power-plant-sized amplifiers.

Björn Törnroth
bjorn at tornroth dot net