Or: why wasn't this the case in the old KEF/IMF days?
A pair of KEF's or IMF's, wired with bell cable to any old Pioneer, Marantz or Kenwood amp used to sound awesome. Never did we feel the urge to upgrade, unless we wanted more knobs. Or more lamps and indicators, that was always cool. But I digress. Go to a second hand store and get yourself the very same equipment you had in the seventies or eighties. Chances are that it will still sound awesome. So, at what stage did high end come in?
For me, it was when an audiophile friend came over and critizised my speakers for not having good imaging. When I came over at his place, the focus and soundstaging of his Apogee ribbon speakers blew me away. Yet, it wasn't perfect, because these speakers could also be unforgiving. I'm talking almost a decade ago, but I'm not exagerrating if I say that the bigger part of that decade was spent getting the sound just right. Sony amps were changed for Jeff Rowland, a wooden rack was changed for a Spider rack, all regular cables were changed for Transparent Reference and Cardas Hexlink and so on. It took time and effort and quite an investment of money. But in the end it paid off. He has a very nice sound that balances between arrucary and musicality. It is no longer clinical. But it is clear that these speakers need very high quality equipment surrounding them.
More or less the same story applies to my own situation. I started with Wharfedale, then Philips, then Vifa speakers and used amplification I could afford: Yamaha, Akai, even Sherwood. Well, the latter was a mistake, but even Akai sounded pretty good. When I had an all Yamaha system with all regular wiring and huge Vifa Basis 2.0 speakers I was happy for a long time. All was good. Or so I thought, until the friend came along. This triggered me buying B&W Nautilus 804's but they never performed like they did in the shop. I upgraded my Yamaha to Sony ES which in turn led to upgrading everything else until I got frustrated and sold it all again. The rest of the story you can probably guess... You can read all about this proces in my audio history.
My point to this story? While affordable speakers may not be perfect in every way, they may still perform to full satisfaction. Take a pair of old IMF Super Compacts and connect any cheap amp and cd player you have lying around. Chances are that you'll be stunning by how musical the combo sounds. Using a better amp can yield better results in this case, but it doesn't have to be so. Also, it may well be that the cheap Sony cd player and "free thrown in cables" you used in this experiment may be precisely what the brown-sounding speakers needed to sound that tad more open. Perhaps, due to their lack of ultimate accuracy, the speakers allow the rest of the chain to be less perfect, or should I say: less full-sounding?
In my experience, be it intentional or not, but high end equipment of the eighties and nineties tended to sound a lot fuller and creamier than cheaper components. Using a Mark Levinson CD player with the above mentioned speakers proved in fact to be too much. The music became too creamy, too boomy and lost its sparkle. Soundstaging improved but the music lost its sparkle. So, my conclusion must be that these old speakers did not in fact need high end equipment in order to sound good.
The opposite is true for many high end speakers. It started, perhaps, with the Infinity speakers and their ribbon-derivate tweeters as well as the Apogee full-ribbon designs and their much more accurate sound, that was also easily on the edgy side if not matched with the best amplification you could find. Magnapan, Martin Logan and dynamic speakers with ceramic drivers also atributed to this. Don't get me wrong: these speakers can sound awesome, but they do need some TLC, that is tender love and care. And big budgets to buy the best in
Sometimes I feel that manufactureres, in their quest for perfection, go a little too far in the matters of detail retrieval and accuracy, thereby neccesitating you buy the best in amplification, cables and source components. Coming back to what I mentioned earlier, about higher end equipment and cables sounding fuller, this is in my experience true for most items from the eighties and nineties. These days though, it is no longer so clear-cut and the opposite may actually happen.
I probably need to make clear at this stage that this is definitely not a rant, and I am not complaining. This is just part of the audiophile quest and as long as you, dear audiophile on your search for perfection, realise that you may not be done with one purchase and as long as you enjoy the process this takes you through, then all is fine. The end result is well worth it!
IMF Super Compact. Sure they're not exactly highend, and I wouldn't trade my Magnepans for them, but still, they have a certain rightness about them, even when connected with cheap electronics and wire, and even if you shove them in the corners of the room.
Find out all about classic and current Jeff Rowland equipment