Just before Christmas last year I decided to buy a decent sound system, for both music and movie use. After much reading, talking and a bit of listening (more would have been good) I went for some B&W 600 s3 series speakers, a Velodyne sub, a Pioneer receiver, a budget Marantz CD player, a mid-range Toshiba DVD player and basic, inexpensive cables. A year later Im giving serious thought to buying some B&W 700 series speakers, a stereo amp and a mid-range CD player (and also wondering where I am going to find the money). This upgrade fever snuck up on me, I wasnt expecting it at all. The plan was to stick with my current system for at least 3 years by which time my career will have progressed to the point where by income becomes better than average and I can consider something really nice, the KEF reference range perhaps, after a bit of saving. Circumstances have conspired against my plans however and having moved house to begin my new career I dont have the space for my HT system and so am listening to music through my VideoLogic Sirocco Crossfire system connected to my PC and my Acoustic Energy Aego2 in the living room. I went home for Christmas and realised how much I miss having good sound. I also began thinking that the jump from my current ~£3,000 system to around £20,000 for the system I envisaged around the KEF reference range was somewhat large. Yesterday I noticed a hi-fi shop not 100m from my place of work and after a lunch time visit have set-up a demo of the Monitor Audio GR20s, B&W 703s and 704s with suitable amp and CD player, about £2500 ($4200 with the 704s, the 703s add an extra £600) worth of equipment! I began to ponder what all my reading and listening had taught me over the past year and why it is that prices in all areas from amplifiers to cables can range from a few hundred pounds to many thousands. So what opinions have I arrived at? Note these are not conclusions and I cant even say this is what I have learned as that implies I have at least a degree of certainty that I am correct. Starting with amplifiers, I hold a weak opinion that an amp is an amp. As long as it has enough power to drive a speaker to the desired level and has a reasonably flat frequency response it will sounds very similar to another amplifier. The thing is that while this is true of a power amp and so a part of an integrated amp, this isnt quite the case for pre-amps which tend to add their own colour (read not neutral frequency response) to the sound. In my case however I dont think this should cause me too many problems. I believe that neutral is good, if the original recording is not warm and lush, then I dont want to hear that coming out of my sound system! I dont care if it sounds better, I want to hear what was originally recorded. If the artist wanted it to sound warm (or whatever), then between their own performance and the sound engineer they would have recorded it that way. Ill see how well this opinion holds up if I do buy the intended stereo system mentioned above then compare it to the same speakers driven by my receiver. Although I will have heard both after the demo, they wont have been in the same room so any kind of comparison will begin on a flawed base. CD players I am even less sure about. If you use a digital connection between the source and amp then to me as long as the CD player does the job its supposed to the sound should be the same. You can argue all day with me about how jitter can be introduced and buffers cant deal with the problem but as someone with a background in computer science and some physics I have yet to see an argument that stands up to scrutiny. With an analogue connection, as you are sure to use with a good CD player (unless you have an external DAC of course) it all comes down to the DAC. Again, if a DAC does its job Im not convinced how much difference another one should make, maybe its the small amount of amplification that is done within the CD player that causes the difference. However I have seen too many opinions from people I respect on DACs making big differences to form a strong opinion in this until Ive had extensive experience myself. Again, the demo I will be attending shortly will allow my to compare a couple of mid-range CD players (probably the Roksan Kandy Mk III and the Rotel RCD-02) so lets see how much difference I can hear. Speakers are the one area Im not going to present any sort of they are all very similar argument. This is what actually turns electricity into sound and where I feel most of my money should go. The biggest problem though is that no matter how good my speakers, I have to get them to work in whatever room I choose to place them. At my parents house I get a big dip between 50 and 60 Hz which is highly annoying. I have been advising people for some time to always demo before they buy rather than relying on what other people say but although it is obviously a good idea, unless the demo is in the place you intend to have the speakers, they are going to sound substantially different when you get them home . Speaker wire is speaker wire and this is the stuff Im most confident that putting lots of money into does not pay off. To me, speaker wire should transport the signal coming from your source to your speakers with as little change as possible. Given all the difference nuances that people seem to hear with different wiring I have attributed the apparent differences to two sources. First, some people convince themselves that the differences are there when they cant actually hear any difference at all. A double blind test should be mandatory for anyone claiming to hear a difference. Secondly, I think some speaker wire in made to intentionally alter the sound. As my aim is for neutrality, this is not something I want in my system. Given suitably thick cable I cant imagine it takes $100 per foot of shielding and other such features to get a signal a few feet across a room. Any differences that are introduced over the journey that are not intentional should be masked by the vastly larger changes that will be introduced by the speaker and the room. Please note Im talking about speaker wire here and to a lesser extent interconnects between CD player and amp. If we move into video cables my opinion changes. It is worth mentioning that the best sound quality I have heard so far has come from my Sennheiser HD580s hooked up to my receiver. The sound is very nicely balanced, punchy and oh so clear. Unfortunately I dont like the sound stage created, it just isnt nearly as nice as even my B&W 602s3s can come produce. I think that the audio industry gets away selling with some hugely expensive items simply because sound is such a personal thing and what you are hearing is exceedingly hard to measure. Its not like saying material x is stronger than y or even CPU A, on a given application, is faster than CPU B. This uncertainty together with good marketing and design are more than enough to part people from their money. Just look at Bose! (sorry couldnt resist) Ok, Ive written somewhat more than expected. I did this to clarify my thinking on this area and try to decide if my pending upgrade is really necessary or if I am simply being sucked in by the marketing I would like to think does not affect me. I have no doubt that some of my opinions will change and I hope that this will generate some interesting discussion. I am not looking for an argument though, so if you violently disagree with something Ive said, please remember that many of my opinions are weakly backed up and that finding an absolute right or wrong in any this is nigh on impossible.