System Hierarchy: How To Allocate Your HiFi Budget

I had a conversation with a customer yesterday during which I was asked a question that comes up periodically with other customers too - it's a question about system balance, or system hierarchy. The context was that the customer was planning to buy a new amplifier, and that amplifier was considerably more expensive than his current speakers. His question was whether he was going to "outclass" his speakers by using an amplifier of much higher quality and value than his speakers. Might he be better advised to split the budget and get new speakers and a new amplifier of similar value.

There are broadly four schools of thought here - source first, speakers first, amplification first, and balance.

Source First

The idea that the source component is the most important piece of the system, and the one that should attract the most investment, and be the first to be upgraded has been an industry mainstay since it was evangelised by Linn in the 1980s. It has an elegant simplicity to it - you only get out what you put in. A poor cartridge will sound poor, regardless of how good the amplifier or speaker is, and in some cases a neutral, revealing amplifier and speaker setup can sometimes expose a weak source. The other way to look at it is that by prioritising the source, you're giving the rest of the system the very best opportunity to shine.

 

Speakers First

The opposite approach is heard less-frequently, but still has vocal advocates.  This line of reasoning goes like this: cheap speakers are coloured, and will pollute the good source you provide them. Designing a truly excellent speaker is not easy, and while a generic pair of (probably computer-designed) speakers will do a tolerable job, you really do get what you're paying for when you invest in a genuinely superb set of speakers. Another angle is that given the popularity of the source-first approach, it's not uncommon for customers to begin their upgrade process at the source and then maybe progress to the amplification, and then either run out of money, time, or appetite, and end up with a system with weak speakers holding them back from realising the full potential of the upgrades they've invested so much in making.

 

Amplification First

The amplification-first approach tends to be seen in people with a crush on a particular "big name" hifi manufacturer, or with a determination to build a system "around" a statement amplifier, or perhaps a passion for a valve-based setup. Note that this situation can arise as much from people being sold-to by dealers with a pet manufacturer, or their own firmly held opinions on amplification as by headstrong views from the customer themselves. This might manifest itself with a decision to buy, for example, a Naim System, and then fit the speakers and source into the budget almost as after thoughts. It too has a certain attractiveness - maybe the customer has always aspired to own something they once heard as a student, or that a family member had. Maybe they have always longed for a single-ended class A valve amplifier, so that's their priority, and the speakers and source are less emotive for them.

 

Balance

The most common approach espoused by the hifi press, and taught to keen young salespeople in the industry is "balance". Given a budget, lop off 10% for the cables, and split the remainder in 3 for your source, amplification, and speakers. You can't fault the reasoning - moderation in everything, especially moderation. You're guaranteed to get a decent system, you won't have anything one-sided, and the customer is then in a position either to decide which part of the system they want to improve next (taking us back into the something-first debate again), or simply wait for a number of years before upgrading the whole lot at once. It's a logical, well-reasoned approach, and probably the one that most people will gravitate towards, whether dealers or customers.

 

The Expressive Audio Approach

I was lucky to be mentored by someone who taught be to question everything, and to try whacky combinations. Never to accept "handed-down-truth", but to trust my ears. It's an approach which permeates Expressive Audio. We'll probably start with the balanced approach, because it's safe and sensible, and customers will feel comfortable, and not feel like we're pushing an agenda. But depending on how a demo is going, and depending on the customer's willingness to explore, we might well try biassing the system one way or the other. Sometimes a customer will form an attachment to a speaker brand or style, or maybe they'll want to hear what the next turntable up in the range costs, and then decide to compromise elsewhere to achieve it.

We also tend to try to encourage people to think systemically - building a hifi system is a complex endeavour - there are more variables than source, amplifier, speakers. Sometimes investing in mains conditioning / filtering / cables can yield big rewards, and justify spending less on the components themselves. Sometimes a tweak to interconnects or speaker cables is needed. Let's not also forget that isolation is often an important factor - investing in good quality speaker stands, or a hifi rack could be an important first step. There are many many things to be considered, which is why we feel it's so important to build a relationship with a dealer you trust, a dealer who won't hurry you, and is prepared to "think outside the box".

It would be terribly boring to end this article with the predictable conclusion: it depends. Unfortunately, it really does! So instead I'll present four systems for a given budget, from each of the schools of thought, and I'll give you my personal opinion on which one I would pick, and why.

The budget is £4000, and our imaginary customer wants a turntable, amplifier and speakers.

 

Option One: Balanced

The balanced approach takes £400 for cables (probably Chord Shawline), giving us £3500 to split three ways, or £1200 per component.

The Rega Planar 6 is the obvious choice of turntable - with the Exact MM cartridge, it's £1385, leaving us £2115 for amplifier and speakers. The newly released Rega Elex mk4 is a contender for the amplifier, although the Arcam SA20 is in the mix. We'd probably demo both, but the Rega would probably be my recommendation, leaving us £916 for the speakers. The Dali Oberon 5s are great at £859, but we might consider pushing the boat out a bit on the speakers and cutting back on the cable budget to accommodate the KEF LS50 Metas at £1199.

 

Option Two: Speakers

Our best-selling speaker this year has been the Fyne Audio F700, and with good reason. They're absolutely spectacular - they look gorgeous, and continue the Tannoy tradition of building efficient, dynamic, accurate speakers with exceptional imaging. The trouble is they're £3500. We can't possibly fit them into our budget, can we? Well - maybe we can. We currently have in our stock room an early 2000s vintage Rega Brio that we took in part exchange. This was a great amplifier back in the day, and will compete today - we can do this for £150. The Blue Aura PG1 is £249 - it's the cheapest turntable we do. It doesn't have the cache of the Rega name, but a cheap turntable is a cheap turntable, and it will do a creditable job. We're left with £100 for cables. Chord C-Screen will fit into the budget. If the cable run isn't long, we could probably save the £50 needed to upgrade the Blue Aura to the Rega Planar 1.

 

Option Three: Amplifier

One of the distinguishing features of Expressive Audio is that we specialise in valve equipment as well as the more common solid-state offerings from Cyrus, Arcam and Rega. I run a valve system myself, and I don't think I'd ever go back to the transistor sound. Can we build a valve-based system that will warm our hearts as well as our rooms, within our budget?

Front of mind the the wonderful Ming Da Piccolo MM. Not only is this a strikingly beautiful piece of engineering, with its brushed copper faceplate and curvaceous KT90 valves, it also includes a very high quality moving magnet phono stage, far better than the on-board offering on any integrated amps I've heard.  

The Piccolo MM is £2249, and I'd pair this with the Rega Planar 3 with the Exact MM cartridge, since the phono stage justifies an improvement over the Elys 2, which sets us back a further £880, leaving us £840 for speakers and cables.

The speakers are an easy one - the Fyne F300i are exceptional value at £650, and are also pretty efficient at 90dB, so perfect for use with a class A amplifier.

Again, Chord Company will provide the cables, depending on length needed, and we'll comfortably fit inside £4000.

 

Option Four: Source

How would we approach this budget with a source-first approach? I would immediately reach for the Rega Planar 8. This was a revelation to me, when I sold one to a customer this summer. It's not a turntable I had used or heard much, but I was staggered by the build quality, and even in stock form I was blown away by how well it extracted detail from the grooves. I also think it looks fabulous.

This is £1870 without a cartridge. The source first approach would want to get a decent cartridge next, and I'd start with the Hana MH for a further £1039. This is a high-output moving coil, which means we can use an integrated amplifier with a MM phonostage.  We have about £1100 left for our speakers and amplifier. The Rega Brio, recently slashed in price from £700 to £549 has no competitors at this price point, leaving us £650 for speakers and cables. I'm a huge fan of the Rega Kytes - the  first Rega speakers I've ever loved. I'd pop these on Atacama Nexxus 600 stands, and round out the system with Chord C-Screen again.

 

Which would I go for?

I hope it's been apparent from this discussion quite how wide a customer's options are for a given budget, if you're prepared to use a little imagination. Any one of these systems would be great, but I think there are very few places where a customer with a £4000 budget would ever dream of being able to walk away with a pair of statement Fyne Audio F700, or a Rega Planar 8 with a £1000 moving coil cartridge. There are equally few places where a customer could listen to an affordable class A valve amplifier, and compare it to an Arcam. It's being able to offer these options to customers that makes me so proud of what we've achieved at Expressive Audio.

What would I go for? Well, I wouldn't go for the balanced system. It'll be great - but I'm a risk taker, and I'd rather go for something a bit special at the cost of a different component, and save up to bring the rest of the system up to the same level over time.

Much as I adore the F700s, personally I wouldn't compromise on the source - a Planar 1 or the Blue Aura is a great starter turntable, but I feel the balance is the wrong way round, and that the amazing speakers would simply reveal the shortcomings of a basic cartridge, arm, and turntable.

As an advocate of valve amplification, I'm drawn to the Ming Da system, and the F301s deliver tremendous bang for buck, but for me I'd go for the source approach.

The Planar 8 is a staggeringly good turntable in every way, and with a good quality cartridge, it forms the basis of a brilliant system. The Brio / Kyte combo punches well above its weight, and with the price drop, the Brio is one of the best bargains in the industry right now. The Kytes really are superb - and it's brilliant to see Rega making a speaker with a fresh perspective - I think it looks great, and its timing and imaging are very impressive. I'd feel comfortable that I could upgrade either the Brio or the Kytes in the future, or add a better phono stage to get even more out of the superb front-end.

So, in the end, I've shown my true colours - ultimately I still personally gravitate to the source-first approach. Especially if a customer has an intention to grow the system over time.

But most of all, I believe in opening people's eyes to different ways of thinking. Most people will probably take the safe approach, and walk away with a Planar 6, Elex and Dali system, and be delighted, but I love that across the UK there are customers who have trusted us to do things a bit differently, and have systems with components they never thought they could own, and truly adore. Maybe you'll be the next one?

 

Hopefully this has given you some food for thought, but if you'd like to discuss this further please send us an email to humans@expressiveaudio.com or call us on 01507 499047 and we'll be happy to give you some more personalised advice!

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