Is ‘Source First’ Still Valid In The World Of Streaming

OK, a bit of housekeeping first. Yes this is Hi-Fi Corner and the word ‘Streaming’ is in the title, but this thread is about system balance. I am also aware that a portion of you out there never believed in ‘source first’ but I would suggest there was a larger proportion who did, certainly in the analogue age.

But we are in the brave new age of streaming our music digitally, via a DAC, to our analogue amplifiers and speakers. This was of course the case with CD. With the availability of high quality streaming front ends at relatively low cost (certainly compared to a fully loaded LP12), do you really need to prioritise the source these days? Yes, you can spend a load of cash on a streamer front end, but you don’t need to, certainly if you consider ‘source first’ is less relevant these days.

If you take a look at my profile you will see I still believe in ‘source first’ and have one Monkfish of a system. With a top notch streamer and pre amp (BTW I see the pre as part of the front end), followed by relatively modest power amp and speakers, I sometimes wonder if this is still the right way to go. But when I hear how my trusty 250DR is faithfully amplifying the music it is being fed, and in turn, how my unfashionable MA speakers are portraying incredible songs, I realise this is still a perfectly valid approach to building a streaming system.

Yes, I know I will get significantly more from upgrading my speakers and power amp, but I have heard a huge uplift in SQ from starting my upgrading at the front end. And a streaming front end starts after the router and includes the link up to the streamer, Servers, NASs, switches and streaming cables, IMHO. Bizarrely throwing money at this extreme of the front end is no guarantee of better SQ I have found, with say streaming cables for example.

So, for me, rubbish in rubbish out, is still as valid today as it ever was, possible more so.

Go on, flame me!

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My 2p worth on this

I had a similar system (monk fish wise) to you

NDS/252/SCdr into 250dr and cheaper priced (but nice) speakers

I liked the system… But ultimately it did not satisfy

Changed system round with a lesser pre amp …a better power amp …and 2 steps up the ladder speakers

Much much better (for me) and now happy again

So yes …keep the good digital source…but make sure the rest of the system balances …I could hear improvement every time I made a positive change…and thought therefore the amp / speakers MUST be good enough
But this proved not to be the case

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This subject is worth visiting for me because I tempted to dip my toe back into vinyl. However, my introduction to streaming involved an upgrade in speakers: from active SBL to Ovator 600. I did not want to make this move, but after an extended home demo I was persuaded.
But I don’t want to spend the equivalent of an NDS on a vinyl source, particularly because back in the day I have owned an LP12 and Roxsan. I have auditioned possible TTs, but I was not satisfied. Thus, for a balanced system I think source first is still important.

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From my point of view I have to ends analogue with a Kilmax level LP12 and 2014 bare NDX Would you say that was balanced sources, well no and I accept that, however Does the NDX still play a very high level of music, yes in short, I don’t stream so only I radio or FLAC files and the NDX is IMO perfect

As you say @NigelB balance in the system is also key as much as source first, but balanced system is 1.5 rather than 2

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Nigel

I agree with japtimscarlet on several fronts. Yes, the front end is incredibly important and I would, like you, include the pre-amp in this group. At the turn of the year I swapped out my much under utilised nds and the improvement was very significant on the digital feed side. Whilst the front end will provide a brilliant feed through to your power amp & speakers; and whilst you can no doubt hear the presence of the improved detail; my perspective is that a similar quality power amp and speakers facilitates all that music and emotion escaping more comprehensively into your listening room and carries you several steps closer to being able to immerse yourself in the music. Not essential perhaps, but an audition with your respected dealer I suspect would demonstrate this to you. Just be careful what you listen to!!

Peter

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Yes, I would be the first to admit my system is unbalanced. But you have to start somewhere if you want to upgrade. As diminishing returns start to kick in, upgrading becomes very expensive and so has to be done in slow stages. So where do you get the biggest bang for the buck in the early stages of this necessarily slow (as costs need to be spread) process?

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Nigel
I am probably the last person you should ask - most of my decisions have been rather spur of the moment. One thing to think about is whether you have any longer-term speaker aspirations. If you do, are they going to need a lot of shove from the power amp to deliver, or are they a very efficient design. If the latter, you might just find that swapping out speakers first may provide best short term value for money. Conversely, if your target speakers are inefficient, your system could sound terribly compromised with a 250 driving them. My last speakers were nbl’s (still have them) and at the time I heard that folks were driving them with a single 250. I often struggled with my 300 on difficult albums - I could hear where they weren’t quite delivering; and this was most apparent when I introduced a 500 amp. Hence to my mind if, as an example, I had an aspiration for nbl’s, I’d have to get the power amp upgraded first to have any chance of enjoying the performance they can offer. Hope this kind of addresses my take on aiming for balance.

Peter

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Wise words indeed Peter.

My long-term ambition (end game) regarding speakers is something of the Kudos 707 or 808 order. Even though the are not inefficient speakers, and the 707 will work with a 250, both benefit greatly with more up ‘em.

So, yes, power amp next, followed by speakers, then I am done! Right?

Just woken up from a lovely dream!

I think you are too much “influenced” by the ethernet cable reviews? :slight_smile:

If you just get back to the basic setup (if you are streaming) with a cat6 cable connecting to a router, running to the streamer, you will be wondering why you spend too much on non-essential things.

Just my 2 cents.

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This thread is supposed to be about streamer-based system balance in relation to black boxes, and I only mentioned the router/streamer link is passing.

I don’t really want to disappear down the ethernet rabbit hole here.

To my mind the question of source first, or something else first, or balance, is irrespective of whether the source is vinyl or streaming, though the cost may vary between them. Also it depends on what you consider the source to be! With vinyl I think of source as TT+arm+cartridge, though these days perhaps that needs to also include the phono stage. With streaming from one’s own store then I think of it as renderer+DAC (which of course are often combined in a streamer)though perhaps it needs to include the file server. With each there is a question as to which of those components is the most critical - to me, with streaming, most definitely the DAC, but I find it harder to pick which is the most critical component with vinyl.

As to the question, whilst source is Indeed very important, not everyone subscribes to the source-first principle: In my experience the speakers have the biggest effect on the character of the sound of any system component, so to really enjoy the music you need speakers that suit you (and work in your room). If the bass end of the spectrum is important to you then inevitably that may dictate relatively expensive speakers Once the source is reasonable I personally think it is much more satisfying to get speakers that really suit you, subject only to having an amp capable of reasonable control over them - then any improvement to source, or amp, will make them sing all the better.

Some people in support of source first say “garbage in, garbage out’ and cite the fact they can hear the improvement in source even through lowly speakers. Very possibly true - but the weakest link in the chain is always the limiting factor, and equally you can also hear improvements in speakers even with a lowly source. To me, for enjoying music getting the overall sound right is more important than maximising detail, for which the speakers are critical - some people have a different view.

But what is best depends a lot on future plans. If someone has no plans to upgrade in the short term then the system needs to be sufficiently balanced, which is less important if planning to upgrade in the short term, when the endpoint goal is the key, with the steps needing to try to keep sufficient balance. That is harder when trying to achieve a goal with more limited resources, dictating fewer big steps rather than lots of small steps.

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Depends on what your refering to as the source. The streamer or the DAC? For the me the source is the transport and I have heard very little differences in these so would say no they are not relevant more so with my latest DAC it’s almost source agnositic. I have found the DAC makes more of difference to the overall system balance than the source feeding it. But more important is the speakers in any system if your ask me, they make the biggest impact on any systems sound and balance in my experience.

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A very reasonable argument, and I certainly agree with your last paragraph.

I actually started out with a ‘speaker first’ approach when I started streaming. I bought my current speakers with a old style Uniti 2. The speakers were way too much for the Uniti 2 but I suspected I was going up the streaming and amplifier ladder once I had ‘cut my teeth’ on streaming and didn’t want to upgrade speakers too often.

I soon realised the Uniti 2 was too feeble to properly drive these rather large floor standers, so a NAP200 promptly arrived. Much better, and the rest is history.

Since that time the speakers have remained with a modest upgrade to a 250 DR but massive upgrades to arrive at ND555 and NAC552. So I have swung from a Mullet to a Monkfish. The speakers have clearly been able to demonstrate the uplift in SQ from each and every upgrade, and I suspect the speakers have yet more to give with a better power amp. This journey has led me to still believe in a ‘source first’ approach, even though I started out with a ‘speaker first’ approach.

Could I have got here quicker, cheaper and in a more balanced manner? I certainly could have got here quicker if I had leap-frogged some pre amp, streamer and power supply upgrades. But that would have taken far bigger steps into the unknown world of diminishing returns.

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I think that the key to getting the most value and sound quality out of system is balance. With that said, source first may be a valid statement in that whatever source you choose will determine the endgame of a well balanced system.

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For me it is source first, though i have come to this in around about fashion having started with a Nova and PMC 25.26. The timing of some of my additions has been more around availability of ex demo or second hand equipment at my dealer.
In your case its a great front end and you are correct amp and speakers next. If a bargain Kudos 707 came up first, i would be sorely tempted if I were you, the 250 dr would do a good job. Not so sure it could handle the Kudos 808.

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To me “source first” means that people should spend the 10 pounds/euros extra per month to get access to 24 bit/96/192K hires recordings. After that I’m not sure spending too much on the streaming hardware is sensible when i) the basic streaming modules are pretty similar throughout the range [ducks for cover] ii) they’ll all be outdated by improvements in generic compute power within 5 years. It’s not like buying a CD player back in 2005 that was going to last the next 10-15 years.

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if I knew then what I know now , probably i would invest the most in the speakers because ( for me) plays the most important part in the “final” signature sound. And because of logístics: its the piece of the puzzle who changes less, over the years.
. Followed by a good source.

Obviously with synergy on mind

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Seems you started in a similar fashion to me with a one-box stremer/amp and a pair of big ol’ speakers. Like you also, the timing and order of several of my upgrades were influenced by the availability of certain pre-loved black boxes from dealers.

I just wish I hadn’t gone through the entire separate pre-amp range, 202, 282, 252, 552, I have owned, and enjoyed, them all. Going pre-loved and trading in all the way saved me some money though.

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Source first was a passing fad. At long last people are realizing it’s better to be overspeakered.

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In style, my friend. Good taste. My dream combo… :muscle::fire: