When deciding upon a new system or upgrading a piece of equipment, the first step is to figure out which items of equipment deserve more of your hard-earned cash than others. The priority you give to different components is determined by your view of System hierarchy. If this is good then you will apportion funds correctly and should benefit from the best possible sound potential.

Although every detail makes a difference there are some things that will influence your system much more than others. Going back 30 years or so everyone believed that speakers made all the difference and nothing else mattered too much except technical specifications. Speakers do matter, but it came as a shock to many that the turntable mattered more. It was revolutionary in those days to do system comparisons by subjective listening and it was easy to prove that a better turntable with cheap speakers outperformed an a lesser turntable with very expensive speakers. This was exemplified at one of the largest international shows when a Goldmund turntable costing around £40,000 was played through a £100 pair of Wharfdale Diamond speakers – the sound was one of the best in the show – stunning!

The philosophy of “front-end” priority was characterised by the phrase “rubbish in rubbish out” . In other words the speakers can only be as good as the source material they are fed with. We live with an upcoming generation which is largely unaware of this important principle . The vast reduction in specialist Hi-Fi shops also means that few will be exposed to hearing the transformative effects that better sources bring.

There are many misconceptions that surround system hierarchy and formats. Around 80% of those who don’t read Hi-Fi magazines are under the impression that CD sounds better than vinyl records. Going deeper, when it comes to vinyl replay, many think a better cartridge is the route to better sound with the turntable not being so important. In reality a better deck and tonearm will enable a cheap cartridge to perform at the same level as an expensive cartridge costing up to 70 times as much.

Defining Questions

Before you invest in upgrading or renewing items it is helpful to ask a few questions.

  • What is your aspiration? It is better to work in stages if you have a restricted budget (e.g. acquire your chosen “best” turntable and then later order your “best” choice of arm). This is better than compromising with an “all-in-one package”
  • Which components will yield the greatest rewards in performance?
  • If saving is going to take a while, would a temporary budget component be a good solution?

Common questions on upgrade paths

  • “How much should I spend on a cartridge?”
  • “Is it worth rewiring a tonearm for a budget turntable?”
  • “Should I upgrade my current deck or change it entirely?”
  • “What level of performance does the dc drive upgrade add to my deck?”

Assessing upgrade priorities is not always easy. If you are using a vinyl front end, accepted wisdom is that you should split your total system value (in financial terms) roughly as follows.

Breakdown Examples of System components relative importance

The approximate contribution to performance of components within the source or “front-end” of a system is shown below. Contribution does not necessarily equal price. For simplicity, we have not included accessories such as Mains Conditioners, Cables and Equipment supports which all contribute a surprisingly to overall sound quality.

Estimating system contribution is extremely general and full of exceptions depending on the quality of each component.

Apportion budget: Vinyl-based replay

  • Turntable 23%
  • Tonearm 20% (the importance of the arm is explained in tonearm overview)
  • Cartridge 7%
  • Phono Stage 20% (the phono stage accounts for up to 95% of the total amplification in Vinyl based systems)
  • Amplifiers 15%
  • Speakers 15%

The only way to sensibly quantify contribution is to do comparison tests. Magazines used to highlight the importance of front-end hierarchy by setting up two identical Linn turntables – one with a £400 Ittok tonearm and £20 AT95E cartridge. The other with a £150 Basik tonearm and £500 cartridge. Which sounded better? It may be a surprise, but the £20 cartridge in the better arm outperformed the expensive £500 cartridge in the lesser arm.

Phono stage

The phono stage is much more significant than the amplifier. It contributes over 80% of the amplification of low output moving coil signal and 95% when you get to bass frequencies. For moving magnet outputs, this figure is approx. 60%. Would you trust 95% of amplification to a £1 chip in an expensive integrated amplifier? So called “Good” phono stages in integrated amps are only “good” relative to other integrated amps and rarely, if ever come close to a decent external phono stage – the reason is not just lack of advanced design. A phono stage in an integrated amp or pre-amplifier is severely degraded by sharing it’s vital power supply with other amplification stages. Having said this there are some atrocious stand alone phono stages at the £100 mark that will absolutely cripple any vinyl system – we refuse to advertise these even though they are in demand and recommended by unscrupulous or uninformed sales people.

DC motor upgrade/arm upgrade/or new turntable?

The DC power supply system will add around £700 of worth in performance terms to most turntables. This makes it a very good investment and far more cost-effective than upgrading a cartridge due to system hierarchy. The DC motor upgrade is worth putting on any deck costing more than £300, unless you plan to spend around £1000 on a new deck. If your deck is around the £300 mark and you do not plan to spend more than around £250 on an upgrade, you should go for the DC motor kit and/or a Rega arm upgrade.

Apportion budget: CD-based Replay

  • CD Player 20%
  • Amplifiers 40%
  • Speakers 40%

CD based replay

The performance of CD players does not vary nearly as much as that of turntables, so the split is quite different. For example, if you have a £200 CD player you could easily apportion up to £1,000 on the amp and £1,000 on the speakers – the complete reverse of thinking for vinyl.

The relatively low cost apportioned to a CD player does not mean vinyl is expensive by comparison. Recent turntable/arm combos at just £200 are reviewed as out-performing £400 CD players – properly set up vinyl replay is capable of going so much further than CD.