Optimal Speaker / Amp Combinations in History

[I’ve been thinking about a series of posts about how few audiophiles actually care about good sound.

It is certainly an ephemeral concept – and it is certainly hard to use written or spoken language to talk about in any kind of precise manner. So it is not too much of a surprise to find most of what passes for discussion, albeit coached in audiophile-ese, is not about the sound.

And it is not a surprise, that given the dearth and inability to talk about good sound – that the gear and systems people buy have little relation to what they would be buying if it was generally known what good sound actually was and how a person could go about getting it.

Finally, I think this is a real problem for the industry if it ever wants to make inroads to selling to the General Public. Unless the GP can be convinced that geeking out buying extremely expensive gear just because it is oh my gee whiz cool, or incessant arguing about nothings on forums which takes the place of pride and passion in our little hobby, is worth the price of admission i.e. dedicating a few years of all your spare time learning ill-defined audiophile-ese – then our little slice of heaven is just going to get smaller and smaller.

This is if you agree that M. and J. Q. Public generally just want good sound in their living room – and why wouldn’t they? – without a lot of fuss and bother.]

By some strange, wonderful and curious happenstance certain speakers work much better with certain amps than with other amps. This fact is largely, almost entirely, ignored by pundit and audiophile alike.

People pretty much pick amps for their speakers and speakers for their amps at, what is for all intents and purposes, random. They certainly do not pick them, these marriages of amp and speaker, these trysts, based on the quality of the resulting sound.

[Some manufacturers, to get around people putting random amplifiers on their speakers, often to horrific effect, offer their own line of amplifiers. Makes it easier for everyone. Although these are rarely optimal with respect to the actual sound quality they can set the bar tolerably high.]

This is not like human marriages where the couple has a chance to actually fall in love later in their marriage. This marriage of amp and speaker, if they do not love each other at first listen, they ain’t ever going to get the deed done. It is unchanging and final: it is like playing Russian Roulette with $10K bills and the gun is pointed at your ears.

In this game, people typically pick a cool lookin’ or hot or well-reviewed speaker and pair it with a cool lookin’ or hot or well-reviewed amp. Has to sound good, too, right?

Anyway it certainly is fun to experiment. Krell on Quad anyone?

It is awesomely fun, especially if you have a lot of time and money [and who doesn’t? ;-}]. But don’t kid yourself that it is about the sound.

Who cares if it is not about the sound? About how good it sounds? Does it really matter? Not everybody has to be a purist, right?

I think not many audiophiles really, truly care at all… but that the General Public does! The one thing high-end audio is supposed to do, Sound Good, is what the General Public may, if they so dare, poke around our neighborhood looking for.

But instead it is like going to an auto dealership and all you can find is people putting old Chevy engines in Toyota Camrys and talking about how cool it all is.


Cool. Fun. But not about the sound [ala Performance].

OK. Best speaker amp combos in History [these are somewhat limited by what we are familiar with here at the Fed as well as what exhibitors like to bring to shows. We used to tour dealerships to hear different systems, but most of the systems kind of sucked a bit and misrepresented what we now know was possible with the gear].

Shows and exhibitor’s tendency to just pair this thing with that – much more random even than audiophiles, allows one to hear a lot of strange and not so strange combinations of gear.

* Kharma speakers on Tenor amps [yes, Tenor amps had a tendency to blow up their tubes and take a speaker driver with them. But otherwise the combo was… awesome]

* Wilson speakers on Lamm amps [no, we do not include the other ‘marketing-driven’ marriages that Wilson has set up on this list].

* Magico speakers on Luxman amps [has real potential. Need to hear this again in a different system to confirm. But exhibitors are too clueless about magical pairings like this that we are unlikely to hear it again].

* SoundLab speakers on Wavac amps [Need to hear this again in a different system and/or room to confirm. No, this does not mean that SoundLab speakers will sound amazing with any random tube amp you care to put on them. They might – but you can’t tell until it is heard a few times and in the context of other similar systems].

And in the Wayback Machine….

* Acapella Violon speakers on discontinued Edge amps [with discontinued Jorma Design No. 1 cables. Hey, this worked. As much as I try and pull apart the sound it is still really good in so many aspects.]

* Crosby modified Quad 63’s driven by Richard Lee’s modified Spectral DMC10/ mono DMA50’s ( that is the original marginally stable DMA50 not the later more stable version).

* Jadis JA30 driving the smaller Magnepans

* Levinson HQD driven by ML2

Others? I know I am missing some. Feel free to post your comments about others – but please don’t just post some system you liked when you haven’t heard a bunch of other systems that are quite similar to your choice but which sound very inferior to your choice. When you hear a system with the same speaker and cables but lots of different amps – and that one amp stood out head and shoulders above the others? That system just kicked rear end up and down the frequency spectrum? Then you got something special!

The kinds of marriages we are listing here have gone up against many, many other combinations of similar gear and are far and away the best sounding combination.

It is the fact that everybody is not, each and every one of them, just using these known combinations of gear that really excel in the sounding good department that raised the WTF flag for me and inspired this post.

Why high-fidelity?… its not the music. It's The Music

No doubt if I understood the mathematics of music better, or the history of music better, or knew all the different performances of great classical music, or knew extensive details about musical instrument construction [say how great pianos, or violins, are made and what they sound like as a function of the woods used and year they were made], that these would also given me greater appreciation of the music – beyond just the music itself.

But, I think that the ability to see into the music itself, to see the notes, and harmonics and the spaces created – that this ability can lend itself to something more natural and deeper, more brain expanding and more emotionally relevant than what is provided by the added context of being a card-holding member of these other learned professions.

This something is The Music [capitalized]. Audiophiles can see The Music better than non-audiophiles.

You might think that being a musician would give one an even greater appreciation of music.

But, no. Musicians hear all the mistakes and imperfections – making it potentially even harder for them to experience The Music than non-musicians.

What is The Music? The Music is the quintessentially perfect analog to what we hear as ordinary music. For each note and harmony we hear in the music – the same note or harmony is also found in The Music – but perfect. Every composition can be heard as music… and Music – so wonderful it is [almost?] too beautiful to bear – if you listen ‘just right’.

The Music is what musicians are TRYING to play. It is what we are TRYING to hear.

It is a communication from the souls of the players to the souls of the listeners.

High-end audio makes for a higher bandwidth for that communication. Lo-Fi is like looking at a Michelangelo through mud. Mid-Fi is like looking at a Michelangelo through Oktoberfest beer. Hi-Fi is like looking at a Michelangelo through clear Rocky Mountain spring water. [OK. Stupid analogy. But what is one of our posts here without at least one analogy that is a wee little bit forced].

Even through mud, there is some outline of The Music that people hear when listening to music. This is why we all can listen to and enjoy music. The Music is like sex. Never the same twice, always the best it has ever been and ever can be, and for a while it makes life seem like it just may be worth living after all.

This somewhat isomorphic mapping of the music we hear to an ethereal, idealized The Music is an abstract, perhaps even spiritual , interpretation of the more technical perspective, which we have examined several times, that looks at the various complex patterns found in the music we hear and how these patterns affect our minds in various ways.


A couple of weeks back a couple of comments on the RMAF 2013 show got me to thinking.

The gist of their comments was that although several rooms sounded pretty good – they weren’t exciting. The implication being that… well, there are several implications:

1. That we are much more ready to like and buy systems and components that are exciting sounding

2. That many systems, components and brands go for a more ‘accurate’ sound, or a ‘palatable’ sound, or, to revisit our basic sounds: Impressiveness, Sweetness, Naturalness, Realness and Emotional sounds.

3. That many people hear so many non-exciting systems, that they are not only willing to ‘put up with’ somewhat boring sound – they have come to expect no different.

4. That, although systems with Impressive bass CAN BE exciting, and there were several at this show, they can also be not exciting; like at this show. There needs to be something more than big woofers and a big amp.

So what makes a system sound exciting?

Good question, I think. [thanks, glad I asked it :-)]

For me it is a combination of great midi-dynamics and speaker control and engagedness / emotion / soulfulness. Everything else has to be good, but not great.

It helps make a system sound exciting if I hear ‘my music’ on it – i.e. music I am familiar with, either recently loved or familiar from ages and ages ago [so it seems as I recover from Turkey Day] back in my youth.

At least for me, Realness does not come into it. Nor does [closely related] accuracy, or naturalness or Impressiveness or resolution.

Also, for me, and I can argue for the vast majority of people, mid-bass are the most exciting frequencies. Around 30-40 hz.

If this is true for most people then we can see that:

1. The industry is building and wanting their sound to be a ‘non-exciting’ sound.

2. That one pays the big bucks for things, like 20hz bass and very high-resolution and very high accuracy which are awesomely fun, but which do not make for an exciting sounding music [some people may, however, opine that this is required for just a good ole basic ‘good’ sound]. This means that for many people, an exciting-sounding system can be had for not too much money [inexpensive tube amp and pre on inexpensive horn speakers (good ones of which are hard to find – try high-efficiency speakers like Audio Note) with a cheap turntable as source].

Audio Note sets up an exciting sounding system every so often at the shows, when the room is of a shape and construction that allows the speakers to be happy in the corners. Unfortunately the amp [argh] and most of the gear is often on a table that acts like a vibrating string on a guitar, causing various parts of the midrange and mid-bass to be washed out. However the vast majority of people go out of their way to mention that they really love the sound in these particular rooms at these particular shows.

It have a feeling that Excitedness may trump all other aspects of sound, assuming their is no overt bad behavior in other parts of the sound.