Hi-Fi Hierarchy

Many people do not comprehend the very obvious logic of how to assemble a hi-fi or home theater system. That is, most people will actually start by looking at speakers first instead of the electronics or more importantly, the sources (CD players, turntables, etc...) when initially shopping for a new system. This is easy to understand, given each manufacturer's claims that the particular component that they produce is the most important in any system. Speaker manufacturers far outnumber all other manufacturers combined, so it is only natural that the hi-fi industry as a whole places the most emphasis on speakers. We think that is a serious mistake.

Hawthorne Stereo carries a broad range of products that cover the entire hi-fi and home theater chain from beginning to end. And while we would very much like to see a customer purchase a pair of "expensive, high-end" speakers, we would strongly discourage that person from doing so if the rest of that person's system does not provide a signal of adequate quality for the particular speaker. We are prepared to admit the obvious truth that a new loudspeaker can change the character of a hi-fi system. It is, nonetheless, unlikely to offer any real improvement to a system, unless the current speaker is already the weakest link in the system (which it rarely is).

The place to start anything is at the beginning, and the beginning of a hi-fi or home theater system is the source. That is, the CD player, the turntable, the tuner or the cassette deck is the start of the system. In a CD playback system, the source is the CD and the hi-fi components occur in the following hierarchy:

cd player or turntable > preamplifier > power amplifier > loudspeakers

If you do a poor job of getting information off the CD at the beginning of the system, it is impossible for any component further down the chain to improve upon that signal. It is not possible for an amplifier to improve upon the signal that is put into it. It is not even a matter of how good the amplifier is; it simply cannot improve the signal that is fed into it. The same is true of speakers. In fact, improving the speaker when there is a fault earlier in the system will only serve to more clearly reveal the fault. Once the CD player, the preamplifier and the power amplifier are optimized, it becomes possible to use a pair of budget loudspeakers at the end of such a system with extremely good results. Indeed, it will be impossible to surpass the result obtained with such a system than by using the best available speakers with a lesser CD player or an inferior amplifier. Only when all these components have been optimized does it make sense to use the best speaker available. If you think about this proposition for a moment, it is self-evident, logical, sensible, and obviously correct. Unfortunately, hi-fi magazines and uneducated retailers have for many years attributed most improvements to loudspeakers. They apparently believe that because the loudspeaker is where the music comes out, it must be the most important part of the hi-fi system.

We hope that this brief discussion of the hierarchy of a hi-fi system has provided some insight into the proper assembly of, or improvement to, a hi-fi system. It is still critical, however, that any change you plan to make in your system be carefully evaluated by actually listening to the component in question. Any competent dealer will have demonstration facilities which are sufficiently good to clearly and quickly demonstrate the hierarchy of a system and to allow the necessary comparisons to be made. Confusion will only arise if the dealer's facilities are inadequate (for example, if he has more than one pair of speakers in the room at one time; not counting home theater), or if some other fundamental error is being made. Your best safeguard against that is a basic understanding of the hierarchy of a hi-fi system and system set-up. Armed with this knowledge, you can quickly evaluate a dealer's understanding of the basics of hi-fi. If he doesn't understand the basics, that dealer isn't likely to be of much help when it comes time to make decisions concerning the improvement of your particular system.