Audio Lessons Learned - post your best advice for the newer members!

I thought it would be great to have our longtime audiophiles post their "lessons learned" along the way.

This is not a thread to start arguments, so please do not do that.
Just a repository where newer members can go to get a few good tidbits of knowledge.

I'll start - I have been an audiophile for 50 years now.

1. Learn about how humans hear sound, and what frequencies SHOULD NOT be flat in their response.. This should be the basis for your system. "Neutral" sounding systems DO NOT sound good to the human ear. You will be unsatified for years (like I was) until you realize this.

2. I do not "chase" DACS anymore.. (I went up to 30K Dacs before realizing the newest Dac chips are now within a few % of the high end Dacs.) Do your research and get yourself a good Dac using the best new dac chips. (about 1000.00 will get you a good one) and save yourself a fortune. - This was one of the best lessons I learned (and just recently) . It allowed me to put more of the budget into room treatment, clean power, and cables which are much more important.

3. Do you want a pleasant or unpleasant sounding system?
I had many very high end systems with NO real satisfaction, until I realized
why a certain company aimed for a particular sound..

4. McIntosh:
As a high end audiophile, I regarded McIntosh as just a little above Bose for about 40 years.-- (not good)
I thought I was an elite audiophile who knew way too much about our hobby to buy equipment that was well made, but never state of the art and colored in its own way.

This was TOTALLY WRONG, as I realize now.
McIntosh goes for a beautiful sound for HUMAN ears, not for specification charts. This is not a flat response, and uses autoformers to get this gorgeous sound. If you know enough about all the other things in our hobby, such as room treatments, very clean power, and very good cables, you can bring a gorgeous sounding McIntosh system to unheard of levels. I have done this now, and I have never enjoyed my music more!


Lots of really important lessons. A few of the biggies:

At the top of the list: Ignore specs. Only two specs matter: speaker sensitivity, and cartridge output. Buy speakers with sensitivity of at least 92dB, and cartridges with at least 0.5mV, and your life will be so much easier you won’t believe.

Next would be: Ignore specs. Ignore amplifier power. Since you used the first lesson your speakers will be easy to drive with only a handful of watts and so you can safely ignore power ratings. Ignore frequency response. This goes out the window the minute they go in your room, where they go and where you sit overwhelms any measurement made in an anechoic chamber, which is the way they do it, measuring in a place no one ever in the history of audio actually uses.

Finally we get to our last one, which really is Number One, which is Go and Listen! Learn to listen. It is a skill, you can learn, and you can always improve. Trust your ears! All kinds of things people will irrefutably prove, with thousands of WORDS to back it up, that something cannot possibly work, if you try then you will hear for yourself and find out if they do in fact work. So ignore the blather. Go and listen! 

But seriously, ignore specs.
I have found in my 50+ years of audio, I have learned a lot, but I still have a lot to learn.  
Looks like an advertisement for McIntosh. Nothing wrong with their equipment but you should have learned SS amps are like DACs. If you like the meters and bling that's fine but you can get a good amp a lot cheaper.
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Biggest thing I have learned is how important speaker positioning is to the sound. I have been trying to figure out my speaker positioning in this house ever since we moved in. 5 years!! I might not even have it. There may be a better set up! Less than two feet can make an ENORMOUS difference. And you might spend thousands chasing gear or accessories that do not solve the fundamental problem of bad speaker placement.

p.s. my friend has a system running McIntosh that sounds SUBLIME. Really wonderful system. He recently upgraded to Dali epicon 8 and I really look forward to hearing the new set up.

p.p.s. @OP. The Wilson/McIntosh combo is legendary. I bet yours sounds great! Congratulations!  
1. Do not expect too much from your set-up, even at the highest level, or you will be disappointed. Recording and room will put limits.
2. Nothing sounds quite like tape. Get into this if you can.
3. Many speakers are better than they may seem. Give them good electronics. Preamp/amp cost should not be less than speakers cost, at least.
4. Stable clean power, cables and power cords are important. They are all components as well not accessories.
5. Research and think long, upgrade rarely.
6. Do not spend less than needed, within reason.
7. If you want acceptable vinyl playback you will want best turntable and phono stage you can afford. Save on tonearm and cartridge, maybe upgrade later. Tonearm cable is the most important cable in the entire chain, choose wisely and don't underspend.
8. Tubes still sound best if done right.
Research and think long, upgrade rarely.  
If you want vinyl playback - and you do! - you will want best turntable and phono stage you can afford.  
Tubes still sound best.

Winner winner chicken dinner!
1) getting the room right for good sound (including allowing proper speaker placement) is as or is more important than all the gear in the system

2) when seeking advice, understand in detail who the person is giving it, figure out if they are qualified, and if they are serving you or themselves

3) listen to as many purported 'good' systems as possible - then decide and note which ones you agree to sound really good, and try to understand why that is (the room, the setup, the gear, the source materials being used)
What kind/kinds of music do you like?  Name a few artists/composers/tunes at random.

Are you a detail freak? Or a go-with-the-flow, body-swaying toe-tapper type?

Do you like it loud?  Or just loud enough?

Do you already have a lot of recorded material?  LPs? CDs? Cassettes?  If not, are you willing to invest in satisfying your musical fix via cyberspace?

Do you have a good room where you can set up your stuff and not drive your live-in companions nuts?

At what price point will you go from Yeah(!) to Yikes?  
Two cheap, overlooked factors:

1.  Portable sweet spot chair.

Get a small chair and move it around to find the sweet spot for each recording.  The idea of setting up a system with a single, large, fixed sweet spot (and comfortable chair to match) is a myth.  I wind up moving my chair around for each recording.  Try it - you'll get it.

2.  Head angle.

Learn which vertical position of your head puts your ears at the best angle.  You want your complex ear structure in the position where they capture the musical information in the most pleasing way.  Do this by raising or lowering your head so the angle of the music information arriving at your complex ear structure results in the most natural sound.  For me, this usually means lowering my head to a position 20 to 30 degrees from level.  Your job is to figure out what head/ear position you prefer.  Try it - you'll get it.
+1 @tvad 

I still consider myself somewhat of a beginner audiophile but one of the things I fell for early on was, what is being advertised the most is not necessarily the best.  Seek advice from folks who aren't trying to sell you stuff (like on this forum).  I've made many good choices based on the advice I've received here.  Most of my bad choices were due to advertising hype
Don’t accept advice from audiophiles unless you’ve confirmed that what THEY like to hear is what YOU like to hear. Everyone’s perception of sound is different. 
After 45 years I say Make up our own mind!  Only you know what sounds good to you.
1) I learned this just recently, when you burn in new gear don’t just do it when you get home from work, on the weekends or when you have time, let the new gear run in 24/7 for 3 to 4 days or so from the jump, as soon as you can. Do not put this off.

Then you’ll have more time (and peace of mind) to make an informative decision if you want to keep the new gear or not.

2) Make darn sure you read and ask what the return policy of the manufacture, dealer or seller is. Make sure if there is even a return policy cause (surprise) sometimes there is no return policy!

And you’re stuck with the gear you can’t return! Or if there is a return policy you only get store credit!

I don’t care what it is - from fuses, turntables, speakers, interconnects, integrateds, separates, kits, and even custom you need to know.
Do lots of research before you open your wallet.  Take what others say with a grain of salt.  Speakers will drive your amplifier choice in many ways.  Synergy is important.

I like Maggie’s and they need lots of current.  You may like K-horn that are far more efficient.

Find good source material for your testing / auditioning of equipment.

Streaming is now the big new thing in audio.  Remember what you get is from an unseen source as opposed to vinyl, CD, etc.  

Find the sound you like and match your new gear to that, again research.  A road trip or two is very worth your while before you commit your budget, at whatever level.

Most of all, listen to your own ears as it will be you in the chair most of the time (plus SO hopefully).  Yes, remember the WAF!
Don't build your system with the goal of impressing your friends. Everyone hears things differently and those differences determine what THEY think a great system should sound like. Determine the sound signature that you like, and build your system for YOU. Read all the reviews you can find for the equipment you are interested in. Learn to weed out the whiney butt audiophool BS and concentrate on the reviews that give an honest uncolored description of it's sound signature strengths and weaknesses. Live demonstrations aren't that important because the equipment will never sound the same in your home as it does in the showroom. Last of all, never make the mistake of thinking your dream system will make everything sound perfect. Crap recordings sound like crap no matter what they are played on.
WPC ratings ,as well as , ratings in  Loudspeakers
many Amplifiers may say 150wpc for example but at  full 20 hz to 20 kHz , many start distorting way before, as well as suck at low impedance levels, many Highquality amplifiers like Hegel for instance play clearer and with more dynamics then  many much higher advertised specs,  the power supplies,transformers  have a lot to do with it  as well as output devises like Mosfets just for example.
with Loudspeakers many may have a so called efficient rating ,and say a 8 ohm rating ,but have crossovers and drivers that are very hard loads way down to even 3 ohms at  certain frequencies , and there is no standards as to Bass specification standards ,it may say 35 hz  for a book shelf loudspeaker,which should be a red flag  it  may hit That for a fraction of a second ,Not constant, but still stretch the rated  specs ,
do your home work read as many reviews as possible , and listen to it if possible  and a home audition period.
Understand that all recordings sound different. They run the gamut and sound they way the producers intended them to not the way you want them to or think they should.

So no hifi will make them all sound the way you think they should. If you can hear how each is produced differently and the ones you care about draw you in you are in a pretty good place.

This is the key to satisfaction and staying off the upgrade merry go round. If you are also a true music lover you will learn to appreciate the ability to hear whatever is there well and be satisfied.

Expectations must be tempered by reality.
Fun topic! Mine are:
1. Do the research--it will pay off in the end
2. Check out audio shows if possible
3. Try new things---something you wouldn't normally try like cables or power cords
4. Try to purchase where you can get a 30-60 day trial period
5. Most of all-----HAVE FUN!
Keep it as simple as possible regardless of your budget and once it sounds right, quit messing with it.  You will keep your sanity and enjoyment of music. Don't sweat EVERYTHING for the perfect sound which does not exist. That obsessive type of behavior will have you listening to sound specifics instead of music. That's when you've gone too far. Just my advice.
Oh and hifi satisfaction is a very personal thing. Never pay retail on expensive items without some kind of verified money back satisfaction guarantee. There should be a trial period within which you can return for money back.
If you like your speakers, keep them. If you sell them, you’ll regret it. 
I thought I was getting pretty basic with the sweet spot chair and ear angle.

The more posts I see, the more I need to urge would-be audiophiles to GO LISTEN TO LIVE MUSIC.  To have a satisfying home reproduction system, you  to understand what you're trying to reproduce, and why.  You want to recreate what you hear at live performances.  Not an easy road, but it's possible.
Here's one...spending tons of money on this crap does not necessarily guarantee a great result. Proper integration, no matter the price, is the real deal. 
DO NOT start chasing the dragon unless you are paying a mortgage.
Have your life-priorities straight: Food, shelter, clothing and a secure job.
Don't throw piles of cash at audio equipment until you are relatively secure.
If you are paying for the basics, you'll know what you can afford for equipment.
Also, no matter how much you spend on your system, all it will do is play music. Be sure to ask yourself "how much do I like music?". It's easy to get caught up in the race thinking an expensive system will COMPEL you to listen more often. 
DIY. IF Carter can make his own furniture, then why not learn from his inspiration?
Ignore the advice of audiophiles who took almost 50 years to make the right decisions.
Excellent thread and lots of great advice so far.

I'm pretty new to this , I've had music systems for years but to actually get into getting great sound and being an audiophile it's only been the last 2 to 3 years, but forums like this (If you can save through the nay sayers and those with something to promote) can serve you very well. 

Do your research, swapping out good components will burn your cash. It's not just about components the details really matter and you should budget for that if you want a great sounding system.

What are the details? these 3 top 2  most important for most people but it will depend on your system and home.

In room response of your system, so speaker set up including the right speakers for your room, room treatments or effective use of home furnishings and Digital sound processing. DSP works for me , I don't have a dedicated listening room so high WAF and room utility.

Power management , including ground. This is a very localised issue to you but is critical to some homes. If you are in your home for the long term well worth the effort of infrastructure investment. 

Resonance and vibration control,  this can make a surprising difference once you have the other stuff sorted so that your system can resolve these effects. I think decoupling is superior method and this applies to solid state digital as well as valves and turntables. There are lots of well engineered pieces at very high prices but some good stuff too on the cheaper side and lots of scope to DIY cheaper options.

Don't put too much faith in measurements,   they can be useful but are only a guide and many things we can hear are not able to be measured. Digital streaming playback is  not just a case of sending 1s and zeros (although many many network and computer guys will call you insane for stating such).

Compressed music formats such as MP3, YouTube and  spotify can sound fantastic if you get your digital system right (hi rez is then the cherry on the top). 

If you can get a subwoofer or subwoofers, getting that last octave or 2 really makes a massive difference but integration is critical. 

1. Learn to listen: compare different recordings of the same music, easiest done on classical music. Watch out for phrasing, room echo, dynamics etc.

2. Listen to learn: change speaker positioning gradually using the same piece of music. Change positioning of isolation feet under equipment (near the power supply, under output transformers, etc.)
Gradually change VTA and azimuth on your cartridge. Change tonearm cable (most important) as well as other interconnects as well as speaker cables. On digital try galvanic isolators for ethernet as well as USB.

3. Enjoy the music. Don‘t overdo the tuning
Remember that the unceasing quest for better sound is just an expensive manifestation of Schopenhauer's observation that "Life swings like a pendulum backward and forward between pain and boredom."

We're striving creatures -- we seek to address a lack with a fix. If the fix works, we're bored and start striving again. If the fix doesn't work, we're frustrated and keep seeking. That's the pendulum. The only solution is the temporary escape of aesthetic bliss ("enjoy the music.") Can you stay in the music forever and stop the striving? Very hard to do for creatures built to strive!
a good system can make less than perfect recordings sound great, but also some reputedly great recordings sound lousy
I loved these posts, some great advice here. My audiophile friend made a good point and it has saved me a lot of stress and money.  He said in 30 years he has probably spent over $75K buying, selling, trading, upgrading, etc. Of course his system sounds terrific but he added that if he could start all over, he could build a system that sounded just as good for $25K.  Lesson learned... as mentioned here...listen, learn, take your time, do it right early. Thanks again guys.

Very Well Said!

I'd add that we all hear differently and have our own unique preferences.  In my search for a new pair of speakers, before setting me up to listen a salesman asked me if I preferred "analytic" or "musical" speakers.  What a great question!  I said "musical" and he let me know that the speakers I'd be listening to first were "exceptional", but might not be pleasing to my ears, and in my opinion, they were highly "resolving" but not ones I could listen to for more than a few minutes.
The more you know about audio, the easier it is to ignore the people that think they know audio but don’t. For example:
If you ignore speakers and cartridges with lower sensitivity than 92 and .5mv respectively, you will be missing out on some of the best equipment made.

If you ignore amplifier power, you are making a huge mistake. The poster that indicated this buys the cheapest audio products. You need speaker/amplifier synergy. If you prefer panel speakers, you will need an amplifier with substantial current. If you prefer horn type speakers, you might get away with a SET amp. 
This next statement is actually true but the poster did the opposite:
“Finally we get to our last one, which really is Number One, which is Go and Listen!”. Before you buy, you should listen to the equipment before making comments, recommendations, and purchasing. The guy who wrote this statement did not do this when he purchased his latest speakers and still doesn’t follow this today. He read people’s comments on these speakers and before he ever heard them, he was telling everybody on agon these speakers were awesome. Even today, this guy recommends this speaker brand models claiming they are the best for the person asking when he hasn’t heard them.

Mcintosh does make excellent sounding equipment, I have owned many Mcintosh pieces and have heard many more through shows, dealers, and friends setups
When you ask advice on which speakers or components to buy on this site and so many chime in with recommendations, make sure they have listened to it and describe what it sounds like or the effect it had in their system. Too many posters seem to shout out brands and nothing else. That still doesn’t really tell you how it’s going to sound in your system or in your listening environment, but at least they have had some real world experience with it. 
When making changes to your system, make one change at a time and allow days or weeks between changes to really evaluate what you hear.
Sound quality vs cost improves dramatically up to the $2500 or so range, then proceeds to level off almost completely.  There will be a greater perceived improvement in SQ with a $1500 piece of equipment vs a $3000 one than a $6000 piece of equipment vs a $7500 one.
John McDonald of Audience once told me that “the power IS the music”. Took me a while to understand what he was talking about. After all I asked him a simple question: “how important is good power to an audio system?” I realize later that everything start with good power and there is no substitute nor correction for that. If you are starting out, get an electrician to run one or two dedicated 20 amp lines for you from the electrical panel and terminate them with good audio grade outlets. The wire gauge should be commensurate with the distance with 12 gauge being the bare minimum. Cost: usually less than $300.  This is a good advice for system costing $500 to $50 millions. 
Once you decide you want to invest in a music-listening system that better reproduces recorded music experience for serious (dedicated) listening, find a dealer who carries a wide range and variety of gear.

When you choose ANY item, take it home and listen to it in YOUR ROOM.  YOUR ROOM is the MOST IMPORTANT element of any system, regardless of price.  You may have to modify your room and purchase new equipment for best results.

You may not have to spend a lot of money to achieve what YOU want from a listening system.  Don't let all the hype, etc., get to you.  However, you MAY need some coaching from someone at the shop as to what to listen for and to have that person point out some differences between items in a system as to why they produce different listening experiences.

Don't be discouraged.  Most on this site have years of experience and some, like me, are former dealers who had unlimited hours to listen to various components under various conditions prior to making decisions.

Finally, some really good-sounding products break a lot.  Just like a car, you are also buying a warranty and the support of your dealer.  It is a partnership, and every participant needs to hold up their end of the deal.

Most of all, HAPPY LISTENING!  That is what it is all about.

I always want to hear a combination of amplification components and speakers at a dealer or in my home before purchasing. Advise from others here does not work. We all like different presentations. Listening to other opinions here on this issue is like choosing your favorite color based upon a poll of others.
After puzzling out your budget and much reading and listening buy the best foundation pieces your budget allows (speakers, amp, pre-amp).
Buy them as if you're married to them ('cause you are).  

Purchase a source component(s).  These will undoubtedly be upgraded as your listening skills are refined. 
Don't chase the newest, bestest component.  Go Slow.

With apologies to Occam and his Razor......keep it simple!

It's a journey, not a destination.

OP: Good to see your comments on McIntosh.  

I must say, I have done a bunch of upgrades over the last several years and the most impressive lesson I learned was how a good quality Power Conditioner can influence my sound.  Not just a surge protector, but a conditioner. 

My McIntosh MPC1500 was a phenomenal improvement.  I was using a Niagara 1200 and thought nothing of it.  Then, after the upgrade to the MPC1500 Power Conditioner the change was dramatic!!!  Took me a couple of days to figure out why the system sounded so incredible, then I remembered what I did.  WOW!  Still impressed by that component.

That still remains my biggest Lesson Learned over the past few years.
Understand how sound works. Understand how electronic components function (xraytonyb!). Get a good soundstage reference tool (Stereophile #3, Trk 10 on repeat is my current fav~PS Audio on order) move speakers symmetrically until soundstage goes as left, right, front to back as your system can make it go. Turning up your system doesn't make it louder if there's no bass, but it does blow tweeters (get a sub). Set the phase on a sub by feel, gently touch the sub surround and tower surround at the same time and feel the beat, adjust phase, repeat; fingers are more accurate than eyes. Trust your ears, if something doesn't feel right think about what that feels like and move or adjust; this is an exercise building confidence in your ears. All components from ear lobes inwards are unique to the current owner and cannot be repaired or replaced. Convincing yourself it sounds good and forcing your brain to recalculate stereo image is exhausting and changes if you go away and then come back. If the soundstage is as correct as the system can reproduce it will remain consistent over time. Some days sound is different than other days, don't always expect to feel it and cherish it when you do. It's about resolution. It's for entertainment. When I go to stereo shops and listen to their most expensive gear and don't hear any improvement in comparison to my home system it tells me a few things but I am still not certain what. Vinyl is smoother sounding at higher resolution but comes with a ritualism that borders on insanity, which can be entertaining. I'm trying to think of the best way to wrap this up. So here goes. There is dishonesty, mysticism, including some who have convinced themselves they know the truth and that includes me. At the same time there are accurate observations. It seems the only way to know the difference is to get to know the person making the statements and then make conclusions based upon your own evidence. Stay objective, use empiricism and repeatable experimentation. Be careful chasing rabbits. If it sounds good it is good. This is a list written by a lazy human.