Fundamentals vs foundationals

No woman no cry; no hifi no sound. For music playback, YouTube and a smartphone with earbuds constitute the entry point. As for an exit point, there might be none other than death or bankrupcy. High-End audio is notorious for ever more outrageous stickers. Opting out will always be predicated upon a personal decision of enough, not having reached any actual ends of what's possible. Call it a slippery slope. To minimize its grease, let's talk fundamentals versus foundationals. Fundamentals constitute the minimum requirement to make actual sound. Past the entry point, an obvious next step tethers a pair of compact active speakers to an existing laptop on the local area network. It entails two power cords to the speakers, WiFi or USB and most likely one cable connecting master speaker to slave. Active speakers stretch the gamut from Audioengine to Kii and B&O. One needn't ever leave this lane to enjoy endless potential upgrades. As long as those limit themselves to actual sound makers rather than add-on sound improvers, we remain in the realm of fundamentals. If we're the less-is-more type, we've hit our groove. Shake it, baby!

The classic path entails passive speakers so external electronics. From all-in-one modern super integrateds—what the previous generation might have called a CD receiver—to separates of ever more boxes, this is for the more-is-more types. Whilst box tally could mushroom with outboard power supplies and dual-mono everythings, we still needn't leave the res of fundamental sound makers. We're only breaking out the combined functionalities of a super integrated into separates to do ever less with ever more.

Beyond the sound-making fundamentals comes the realm of foundationals. Unlike fundamentals, foundationals can be removed whilst our sound continues. At worst we must change over a few cables. Foundationals include room treatments; power delivery items beyond the basic outlet multipliers needed to get all our components on AC; resonance control; and virtual grounds. Between the two f-words of fundamentals and foundationals sits the realm of sound improvers. Think USB decrapifiers, reclockers, upsamplers, series or parallel noise filters on the AC, noise filters for low and high-level music signal, DSP code for room and/or speaker correction, player software like Audirvana or Roon and more.

In my experience, clawing our way up the purely fundamental path without considering foundationals is like upgrading camera bodies and lenses for ever bigger sensors and higher pixel count without ever considering a proper tripod, fill flash, lens filters and lighting kit. When it comes to taking better pictures—let's skip the artistic eye which is a colossal contributor but not for sale—we can all agree that a lesser camera and plainer lens on a tripod, with ceiling flash and appropriate lighting, always outdoes a fancy hand-held camera and its pop-up flash. It's once we've attended picture-taking's foundationals that investing into finer lenses or larger sensors makes sense again.

In my experience, hifi is no different. We must obviously start out with basic sound-making hardware to hear anything. After that we can argue endlessly about exactly when attending to the foundationals of superior power delivery (better power cords, AC filters/distributors, UHF noise traps), resonance control (performance racks, isolation footers), external ground boxes etc outperforms us allocating more funds to better main hardware. There simply should be no argument that sooner than later, we best sort our foundationals to hear what our existing hardware can actually do. Sorting our room acoustics in fact should come right after our first serious hifi. In actuality, most of us renting even owning are allergic to the kind of wall, ceiling and floor-based absorbers, diffusors and traps that are physically large enough to really work. Having to skip that step to maintain domestic peace, proper power delivery and resonance control should come next. I'm not sold on virtual ground boxes, their efficacy and the unavoidable tangle of extra ground wires. Other listeners in perhaps more challenged environs than ours consider that area vital indeed. So it's fair to mention it.

After 20+ years on a renting reviewer's beat across four different countries and far more soundrooms, I've concluded a few things. One, active adjustable bass outperforms passive bass. I now find that a stereo 2.1 split of duties between main speakers and subwoofer via smart active analog crossover creates the best results. It gives control over relative bass balance and phase-consistent amplitude-correct handover at user-settable frequencies to best suit a given room. Ripol/cardioid subwoofers even include very effective acoustic room treatment. Two, resonance control makes more of a difference than most listeners ever acknowledge simply because it's more fun to spend on the next speaker or amp than an industrial performance rack or sets of purpose-engineered isolation footers. Three, with the music signal being modulated AC power—it's the virtual clay from which our sonic bricks are made—clean low-impedance power delivery can't be overlooked. It's why I call this the foundational lot. It builds a strong foundation upon which our main hardware gets to really come into its own. Even more modest kit will perform well past its presumed station if it sits on a stable foundation whilst flashware won't sparkle nearly as bright if those aspects have not been sorted first. Sequence really is a thing.

If you canvas my reviews over the past few years, you see a lot of coverage of foundationals. Many write that sector off as tweaks for geeks. Within reason I obviously disagree. But there's many ways to Rome. As long as you enjoy your journey, happy travels. Today's brief overview is for those who want to be far more strategic about arriving; who want the best results for their budget now to get on with their lives, hifi sorted and a fully integral part which no longer warrants any attention other than hitting 'play'. True, the above was very general. That's because there are already so many reviews getting very specific on this stuff in our archives. If you've not paid attention yet, take a look. Those larders are quite stocked. Bon appetit!