Synergy and Upgrading



Granted all of my talk about individual designers and designs, AMHERST AUDIO is more and more about system synergy. The search I have carried out over the past decade has been for the most natural and emotionally convincing sounding components but, increasingly, also, for the combination of components that expresses the most natural and whole sound.

Synergy outside of audio means the process whereby two or more substances work together to achieve an effect of which each is individually incapable. Its root means literally ‘working together:’ from son or syn and ergon. In audio, the term has come to mean something like energy or work moving in the same direction, toward the same ends. And presumably achieving them more effectively because of this shared effort. Some systems achieve satisfactory results by having components working against each other, by achieving some sort of balance of opposing forces, usually with the help of ‘corrective’ cabling. I have owned several and heard many of these systems; and as exciting as some of them have been, they lack the ease and confidence of systems whose components are all going in the same direction. Unanimity in preference to debate.

Most of the components I sell will, used wisely, sound quite good in many other systems. Gilbert Yeung’s tubed preamps, for example, are legendary for breathing musical life into systems with other people’s all-solid-state amps. I know for a fact that Reynauds perform well with Audiomat integrated tube amps, and even with Plinius and Bryston solid state separates. Audio Note front ends appear to be the sort of beginning that no system can foul up. And Audio Note cable is legendary for bringing peace on earth and good will wherever it goes. But. But if you were to assemble a system from these same components, with an eye to synergy rather than peace-keeping, I suspect you would emerge much happier.

For example, while one could mate Audio Note electronics with Reynaud speakers satisfactorily, it soon becomes apparent that whereas the Audio Note gear is working toward grace, eloquence, and refinement, the Reynaud speakers want to break out, kick up the dust. They feel unnaturally tamed, held back. You are hearing a workable marriage but not a particularly happy or peaceful one. Then you hook up a Gilbert Yeung or Crimson amp and everything changes: the Reynauds break free and commence to dance, and the whole room rocks joyfully. Even string quartets through a Yeung/Reynaud combination have a more robust quality that feels like a shared point of view about music rather than a compromise or decision by committee.

A comparable ‘situation’ arises when you (as I did) put a splendidly eloquent Audio Note M6 preamp on powerful, incisive Blue Circle AG8000 hybrid monoblock amps. Initially everything sounds terrific: we have both grace and power – all of that iron fist in the velvet glove baloney. And then, gradually, sure enough you can hear the dissension. The two components are working against each other, producing a dramatic but not a natural result. We have sonic not musical drama, an artificial construct. The initial excitement pales before an instinct to call in a referee. Some may prefer an Audio Note M6 preamp to a Blue Circle AG3000 preamp or vice versa, just as some prefer Apollo, some Dionysus. But making the god dance with the faun does not enable either to perform to its advantage.

Audio synergy is achieved when a system is made up of components informed by the same view of what reproduced music ought to sound like, components that are the result of the same design philosophy, such that neither iron nor velvet is required. The supreme example of this phenomenon in my experience is Audio Note, primarily because the same design team controls every link in the audio chain. Every component, beginning with both analogue and digital front ends, through cabling to electronics, and on to the speakers flows from a single approach to musical reproduction. The approach or philosophy if you prefer, is a belief that the simplicity and purity of the signal path so as to maintain the integrity of the information, is the best route to whole musical truth. The DAC’s do not alter the signal they receive: neither do they up-sample nor filter. The turntables use several strong motors driving light platters because heavy platters store energy thereby restricting dynamic energy and clarity. The electronics are single-ended, run in Class A, use directly heated triodes, use tube rectifiers, and use no feedback – in a coordinated effort to keep the signal whole and unaltered. There is no wave reconstruction involved, as there is in push-pull designs. The speakers are two-ways with broad front baffles, which, the designer of the Snell speaker on which they are based discovered, offer the truest reinforcement of speaker output. Setting a modest-sized Audio Note two-way speaker in a corner, so that both the walls of the room and the speakers own front baffle naturally reinforce the bass, results in astonishingly deep and clear bass.

Improvement (upgrading) very simply involves better parts and more pure materials, namely silver and better materials used as windings in the transformers, not new design wrinkles. The most expensive Audio Note E speaker is visually indistinguishable from the least expensive E. The only differences are inside. From the M3 to the M6 preamp, the cabinets and controls are identical. Again, as Emily Dickinson tells us, the inside is where the meaning is. One can put an Audio Note front end into a non-Audio Note system and also use Audio Note cable judiciously in such systems. But when you insert Audio Note gear farther down the chain of a system composed of other gear, something fundamental is lost. The synergistic chain is broken. Unanimity is gone and debate begins.

Gilbert Yeung understands that controlling the entire audio chain is the only sure route to synergy and so, among other ventures, he designs several DACs to complement his electronics and is hard at work dreaming up an even more ambitious one as I write. It will be interesting to hear what happens when that young genius perfects this move.  Jean Marie Reynaud seems content making speakers. So for the moment achieving synergy with Blue Circle and Reynaud, is up to you all. It is worth the effort, especially if the Audio Note presentation is too civilized for you!



The Hyperbola

The key to improving a synergistic audio system that has ‘your sound,’ the presentation of music that seems most real and most satisfying to you, is not changing it but making it better at what it already does well. This route will not produce dramatic alteration but incremental improvement. That is because the direction of improvement in audio is not up so much as over: you are trying to get closer and closer to the sound of live music, which you are already approximating. You are, to borrow an apt image from mathematics, moving closer to the y-axis. Your trajectory is a hyperbola. This truth is disappointing to the kind of audiophile who is in it for sonic thrills, who wants to hear something startlingly new for every new dollar spent. But it will ultimately be more satisfying to those of you in it for the sound of music. Getting ever closer to the real thing can be musically thrilling. Getting 15% closer to the real sound of a violin – more of the resonance of the instrument’s wooden body, of the almost physical sensation of the bow on the strings – gets up into our sinuses with pleasure. Getting more thwack of the bow on the strings of an acoustic bass rather than a slightly vague thrum can seem like all the world when the musical passage depends on it for impact. This is what genuine upgrades give us: more violin, more bass, more sax. And more Anita O’Day!

System Balance I

Another valuable piece of the synergy and upgrading puzzle is that one needs to maintain balance across a system to make genuine progress. Upgrading electronics to the extent that they get ahead of your source (turntable, digital transport, dac) will not improve the system. It will generally not sound better. The new amplifier will simply give you a clearer view into the relative shortcomings of your source. It will be doing its proper job. Likewise, improving your speakers beyond the capability of your amplifier to drive them effectively and without distortion will almost invariably make your system sound worse. If you can’t upgrade your system as a whole at one time, it is generally best to begin with the source, so that the improvements can be passed down the chain. And the same holds for upgrading cable: begin at the source. You’d be amazed at what a little bit of Sogon silver  or Crimson interconnect between a transport and dac can do; and appalled at what it will do if introduced farther down the chain first.

This makes perfect sense but it is not generally how audiophiles proceed. They tend to favor speaker upgrades first, which are admittedly sexier. But if the speakers are truly better rather than just different, starting with them will likely prove a disappointment. They can, after all, only reproduce what they’re fed.

System Balance II

Another kind of balance is achieved by keeping the treble, midrange, and bass levels of a system from getting ahead of one another. An economical system that is in sonic balance will outperform one that has extraordinary treble but an overly solicitous midrange or punchy but unclear bass. The best demonstration of this I know is listening to a very good FM station playing classical music. If the equipment in use is sonically balanced, the results can be surprisingly satisfying, more so than from an expensive home music system that’s out of balance. ‘Live’ music, unless the hall is screwed up, has perfect sonic balance: that is our standard. It is neither bright nor dark, cool nor warm, standoffish nor cloyingly charming. If your music system has something approaching perfect balance, you’re halfway there, maybe more than halfway. If you can apply adjectives of color, relative temperature, or emotion to your system, it’s likely out of balance. You may well like it out of balance: most systems lean one (or two) ways because we are drawn to their resultant personalities. We are, after all, human beings with our human preferences. But it’s probably a good idea to know what they are. The unexamined life and all that.