Buying an Amp With Emotion

So I definitely consider myself a big audiophile, apparently other people know this about me too.

My friend came to me this week asking for audio purchasing advice. OK, maybe he came to the wrong guy. So I shared with him my philosophies and opinions on this subject. The first duty of an true audiophile is to have lots of opinions. So here we go. You really have two main things to think about: speakers and amps. Now many audiophiles would tell you it’s important for the speakers and amp to be “matched”. I never really thought this was a helpful way to think about the situation though. Balance, now that is what I like to think about.

I feel there is this balancing act between an amp and his speaker. I promise I will get to emotion soon. Now, both the speaker and the amp have the ability to contribute something interesting, or nothing at all. When a piece of audio equipment contributes nothing, neither adds nor subtracts we call it a reference system. When a speaker or amplifier contributes too much we feel cheated or tricked, if it is too warm, or too bright or too colored (see Sounds Like? An Audio Glossary – at stereophile). But if your setup contributes nothing you probably won’t be satisfied either. You will find reference equipment from the likes of Crown Audio, Marantz, Behringer, Mackie and JBL in sound recording studios, radio stations and concert halls, but you won’t typically find this equipment in people’s homes. Why is that? A concert hall already has character, it already has interest. The vaulted ceilings add echo, richness and warmth. If you used a colored amplifier in a concert hall you would hear some very loud mud. But the home is different.

The sound setup in the home needs something else. If you use a reference system in your square living room with your flat roof, its going to sound like you are sitting in a square room, not a wonderful concert hall. You want to be sitting in a concert hall right? So this is where the whole industry of high fidelity home audio comes in. You want “affordable” equipment that contributes just enough character to your room. In this market you find brands like McIntosh, B&W, MISSION, NAD and Harmon Kardon (for an exhaustive resource on high fidelity equipment checkout stereophile equipment reviews). OK, right, emotion, getting there. Now the way we typically describe the qualities of home audio equipment are a bit human and emotional. Listening to a product review of the Marantz PM6004 on whathhifi the reviewers describe it as “smooth”, “likable character”, “confident”, “solid”, “meaty”, “fluid”, “subtle and revealing”. You could use those same words to describe a talented football player, or a tasty filet mignon. They say nothing of noise, or sound reproduction quality.

OK, quick aside, I previously mentioned Marantz as building reference equipment yes, they do that too, as well as home audio, fine? Don’t worry I’ll come back to reference equipment.

OK, back to emotion. Confident you say? This amp is confident? Think about that for a moment. Lets get back to balance though.

Balance. Now you could imagine taking a nice McIntosh amplifer and pairing it with some nice McIntosh speakers and it would sound awesome. At the same time though, you could take any NAD amplifier and pair that with some Behringer studio monitors (or even some neutral Sonys) and fill up your study with some great sound. One great system I had the opportunity of setting up had a Krell Amp (typically known as a work horse reference amplifier) with a wonderful pair of Wilson speakers. Now the Wilsons ($25,000/pair) add a lot of interest to the sound. The Krell is a high-end reference amplifier which reproduces sound faithfully. The balance is a thing of beauty. It sounds wonderful. One becomes transported to another place, listening to this system. Which brings me to another point, it’s fine to include reference equipment (like the Krell) in your home setup, but somewhere, some piece of equipment needs to contribute that concert hall (in this case it was the Wilsons). In fact you can purchase all reference equipment and digitally add interest with an amazing digital sound pre-processor like the Meridian, that’s OK too (if you have $3,000).

I keep thinking about this Marantz review, “likable character”, “fluid”, “subtle and revealing”. I wonder, are they describing the amplifier or how they feel listening to it?

I try to think of my most fond memories of music, of listening to music. I can honestly say listening to the wonderful Wilsons wasn’t at the top of that list. No, my most truly wonderful experiences listening to music were with friends, and I can’t say I remember thinking about the audio quality at the time. I recall a few months ago I was visiting my sister Alyssa in Brooklyn. After going out to the bars in town we came back to the apartment and opened a bottle of wine with Alyssa’s roommate and a friend. Someone put on the stereo, hooked up to an iPod of course. Everyone took turns as DJ, putting on their favorite songs, swapping in their iPhone, or another iPod, or yet another iPhone. Alyssa’s roommate had just moved in so they were still discovering each-other’s tastes in music. Some songs would get a bit of flack, MMMBop comes to mind. The listening was a shared experience, something interesting and revealing about each-other. I can’t ever remember thinking about the amp though, or the speakers. Just the music and the people around me.

I have fond memories of Alyssa’s old apartment in Colorado. Her roommate had a record player in the kitchen and someone had strung wires all through-out the house with a single speaker in almost every room. Alyssa’s roommate must have had hundreds of records new and old. Every-time I would walk into that house it would be filled with the full, but quaint sound of a record playing. On a cold day the records made the house feel just a bit warmer, I think. I cannot recall for the life of me the brand of those speakers or record player, but I assure you there were bad. It never occurred to me though, that there should be better speakers, or a better amp, or a better record player. Everything felt just right. The records filled that house so fully, it was almost alive, as if there was someone else there with you.

Now if you want my advice. Find some music you like listening to. Go get your friends. Buy a nice bottle of red wine. Turn on your stereo and crank it up. I am confident you’ll have a good time. I am listening to Kids by MGMT, and I am doing just fine.