How To Spec a System

I’m an engineer by training and trade who spends his work days on hydraulic systems and components that aren’t meeting performance or reliability requirements. Each component, including interconnects (hoses, tubes, etc) play a role in performance. Their relative contribution depends on what aspect or where in the performance envelope the system is operating. The environment the system is operating in is an important consideration. Systems are designed to maximize performance in a small range of the overall performance envelope. Compromised or less than optimal component performance is acceptable outside that maximum performance range so long as basic system requirements are met. The closer the system is operated to its optimized requirements the more sensitive performance is to individual component sensitivities.
The largest contributor to my job security is failure to accurately define system and therefor component requirements. Is this sounding at all familiar?
Leaning on my professional experience, I’m realizing that I’m trying to build a new system with a pretty piss poor set of requirements. I’d be surprised if my experience is uncommon among the relatively inexperienced. Where is the audiophile neophyte to go to build a comprehensive system requirement doc?


Great question.
I think a budget needs to be established first. Then there is a good progression of budget use in Paul’s book. It’s a good place to start at least.
I think a good place to start is with the least amount of boxes. Maybe just a streaming DAC and integrated amplifier to start. Spend as much as you can on speakers but that’s a whole other discussion.
Maybe a set of active streaming speakers would be a good place to start? My simplest system is just a pair of KEF LS50 Wireless 2’s with a set of SVS micro subs. I stream from my phone using the KEF software. It gives great satisfaction with a minimum of boxes and choices.


Interesting concept but the flaw maybe that a system is half spec and half “art” and they do not always correlate. I see your point though. At work, I always would start with a PRD (Product Requirements Doc) and why not if you are building a new stereo system. Good idea actually.

However in my field if a telecom radio was at the right power, range, data rate, foot print and lets not forget price, I had a hit. I think in audio all specs could line up perfect and the sound be way to sharp, dry etc or just less than desirable. Easy to spec tolerance and stack up but hard to spec synergy, or end result vs listener expectations.

There is a lot of science in audio. There is also a lot of personal preference having nothing to do with measurements it seems. Fun exercise though.


In the end, audio is subjective. I too am an engineer by trade (scientist by training). In my field, positioning and timing (well, as of today), the system requirements are objective. For example, a receiver either can or cannot correlate on the signal my system is transmitting. I could cite many other examples. If you’d like to take a shot at a comprehensive system requirements document, I certainly wouldn’t be the one to discourage you from doing so. Just here to let you know, as a scientist and engineer, the correlation in audio between objective performance requirements and subjective satisfaction with a system is … not very compelling. My own system is what it is because after staring at all the spec sheets for the hardware, I’ve chosen what checks the emotional satisfaction box for me reqardless of the numbers. My two cents.


I also think you need a budget and you should read Paul’s book.

It would also be good to know info about your room, your vision, and any specific needs.

Room - dimensions, do you have a peice of furniture to house gear?

Vision - Mixed two channel and Home Theater? Turntable, CD, Streaming (local files and/or streaming services)?

Specific needs - Family members who won’t tolerate multiple remotes.

There’s more, but it’s early here in the NW and I need more coffee.

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Great question and, I hope, should lead to a great thread with a wealth of information.

Continuing in the vein of your initial inquiry, I think the first step is for you to carefully define your system objectives and budget.

What do you want to accomplish with your system?

What is its purpose?

What must it be able to do?

How much can you spend on your system?

If you are going to take a design/build approach, then you have to start with a project budget and performance specifications.

Only then, will you need to start worrying about the specifications of the components of the system.

If I were starting from scratch, I would take stock of my room and my overall desire for the system’s capabilities (a system and can evolve and be built out over time if you have a plan, by the way).

Here is a start at a punch list to prime the planning pump (hope I am not being too presumptuous):

  1. Assess room size (HxWxL) and general acoustic properties
  2. Research best configuration for laying out your room from an acoustics perspective
  3. Figure out where equipment will go, where speakers will go and where you will sit, generally speaking, based on items 1 and 2.
  4. Identify basic capabilities you want the system to have (stereo, multi-channel, home theater, how many channels, etc.
  5. Assess and make plans to optimize power supply as much as you can, given your budget.

Off the top of my head, it seems like you could start to pencil in the rest of your plans and specifications after giving these fundamental factors some thought.

I can’t emphasize the idea of having a system plan enough. If you have a general idea about where you are going, you can save some time and money by minimizing some missteps and backtracking with equipment purchases.

Most importantly, remain somewhat flexible and enjoy the journey. The subjective nature of this hobby is incredibly important and best laid plans will often be dashed by the reality of what your ears ultimately tell you.



similar experience in my previous life as IT tech architect - define the requirements first, which customers almost never did!


Engineer here:
How do you build a hifi system to a spec when the outcome you’re (most likely) hoping to achieve is subjective—pleasing to your ears, your taste?
If I were to build to a spec, I would build a system from one manufacturer. There are plenty of mfrs out there that provide the entire system, e.g. PS Audio, Linn, Naim; all great stuff that sounds quite different.

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Before it gets started I didn’t intend to establish another spec war battleground. I very much appreciate the subjective nature of this passion. In my experience hydraulic component interactions and system synergy can’t be gleaned from specs any more than audio.
Like other hobbies a person can’t necessarily know their preferences without first experiencing the differences. Others preferences are irrelevant except where they can be described in “objective” terms for others to evaluate.
Objective is in quotes because some of the things I’m thinking of are generally considered subjective because they are listener dependent; sound stage dimensions, imaging and tonal accuracy, etc, etc. But those who are attuned to these things can provide guidance to the uninitiated, which everyone does willingly, patiently, and enthusiastically.
Maybe what I’m thinking of to start is a template for newbie reference. A list of all these subjective characteristics people find important can provide invaluable help in forming a list of desirable system requirements - maybe call them characteristics instead of requirements.
I recently bought Paul’s book and accompanying disc. They are both highly valued references, but are only a start. For instance I know violins, especially in higher octaves, literally scratch my ears out. I love violins but they can be painful. How many ways are there to avoid or at least minimize this from being reproduced or perceived. I’m guessing numerous component, interconnect, and room tuning can mitigate these things. The most valuable experience is provided by someone who also experiences it.
With just a little bit of experience I know that I highly value sound stage and imaging accuracy and precision. I value it not because I’ve experienced good examples but because I’ve experienced nothing but poor examples, which drives me bonkers. As much as I want tonal accuracy it’ll be lost on me if sounds are coming from the wrong places. So maybe I’ll sacrifice tonal accuracy in favor of imaging. People who love music but know nothing of assembling a system will know some of these things about themselves.


So many of my hifi friends have the same expectations regarding soundstage and imaging. But remember that those illusions are only a product of the recording. Some recordings have it, some don’t. Don’t fall into the trap of trying to achieve maximal imaging when it’s just not there. Some of my buds go nuts moving speakers, listening position, etc, etc chasing ghosts.


A decent place to start w/r/t to one set of specifications:

I think it is fundamental for one to minimize how much one is fighting the room.

Good luck.

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Interesting and important observation…

With some material, the better the system’s capabilities…the crappier the recording sounds at any level above background.

No reason not to optimize the kit and layout for well-recorded material though…get the room and speaker positioning “right” and the overall enjoyment and performance will be exceptional…

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You are correct, everybody has different experiences and expectations. A hifi (or theater) system is a very personal thing. The two most important variables are space and budget. The biggest issue with your idea is a lack of specification and measurement standards.

When planning a system you have many variables you can plan around, what size video screen, maximum SPL desired or subwoofer performance are relatively easy to figure out, they are limited by budget and the space before you reach nirvana, in most cases.

You start running into problems because everyone has preferences and priorities when it comes to the “sound” of the system. There are too many variables with speakers to choose by the specifications that are frequently published. Add to the speaker dilemma by the fact that different amplifiers will make the speaker perform differently, and this is hard to predict because of the lack of adequate measurement standards.

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My advice once you determine you are ready to purchase is to start with a Power Regenerater and the best speakers you can afford.

Without good power you will never realize the full potential of whatever else you purchase.

Without good speakers you will also not realize the full potential of the rest of the gear.

I would rather have good speakers and a P20 with OK cables, vs a pile of awesome cables.

If you want to stick your toe in the pond and keep it “simple” I recommend you look at Integrated amps. Less cables and power cords. Many have Pre out, so if you want to get an outboard amp(s) in the future you can use the integrated as a Preamp. Then down the road you might consider a standalone Pre and sell the integrated. Some integrated come with DAC’s or a Phono Pre as an option.

I personally would focus on the used market.

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Depending on your budget, there’s this: :japanese_ogre:

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Acknowledging the shortcomings, challenges, and pitfalls and there’s a lot of fundamental considerations just in this thread that a person starting out would benefit from.
I’m going to let it simmer for awhile and start compiling something when/if things slow down any.
I have to laugh though as I was thinking about one of the first recommendations - set a budget. Wouldn’t it be more truthful to recommend an initial budget and a monthly budget line item under Quest?


Typically people budget for “hobbies” both in short and long term.

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… Or a budget item labeled “Quiote” or “Cervantes”.

Maybe it’s just me, I can see planning an initial outlay budget and savings every month to fill out the system. But not until it’s way too late to turn back will I come to the realization that the system may never be finished.

That’s my motorcycle obsession in a nut shell. I’m in recovery now - financial and mental health - but I can too easily see the pattern repeating itself here.

Speaking of the motorcycling experience, there’s a saying that goes: If I have to explain it you wouldn’t understand anyway. I don’t get it. Will it help to explain Quiote and Cervantes? Google was no help.

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Good a plan as any…

My system is a journey/work in progress.

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