Are you just starting out in hifi? Or do you have an audio system, but feel that there’s something more that a better system will deliver for you? Perhaps your ears and tastes have just outgrown a soundbar or a home theatre system.
We’ve all been there. In this article we’ll walk through how to build a high-fidelity music system that will suit your tastes … and your budget.
Why Set Up a Hifi System At All?
Good question. Hey, if all you want to do is nod along to a bit of background music, then a $90 Bluetooth speaker connected to your phone is probably all you need. No, a high-fidelity system is for the person who loves to listen to music – actually listen, not just have it as an accompaniment to their everyday activities – and wants to hear all the music that’s there. It’s for the person who is genuinely moved and stirred by music and would like to enhance those feelings.
There are other pleasing aspects to high quality audio systems. Many are objects of physical beauty. And well-designed gear works smoothly and easily.
But, in the end, it’s all about sound.
What sort of sound? Well fidelity means “truth”. So, on one reading, high fidelity means very truthful, or accurate. That’s why a lot of the time we seek things like an even frequency response, low noise, low distortion and so on. Many reviews actually measure some of these characteristics. As we do for some equipment.
Most high-fidelity enthusiasts will agree that not everything about the sound of a high-fidelity system can be defined simply by measurements. Indeed, some equipment and equipment designs are highly sought despite known inaccuracies because of a certain, almost intangible, sense of magic in the sound that they deliver. This is one of those things that’s hard to define, but when you hear it, you know it.
In other words, selecting your equipment isn’t just a matter of reading off the specification sheets and deciding on that basis. It’s vital that you listen at every step along the way.
Now, there’s a very good chance that even after you’ve put together a fine hifi system you’ll find, as your tastes become more refined and your ears better educated, that you’ll want to further improve it. So one thing to keep in mind in your equipment selection is upgradability.
What Makes a Hifi System?
In one way high-fidelity sound systems have not much changed since at least the early 1970s. They tend to be composed of several separate components, each of which is dedicated to a relatively small number of tasks. Yes, there are glorious devices which combine several functions into one. But there are also plenty of terrible ones. And even the great ones are hard to upgrade. So, we’re going to focus on traditional separate components.
These fall into three categories: sources, amplifiers and loudspeakers. Of course, there are all kinds of caveats and variations. For example, some people prefer to listen primarily using headphones rather than loudspeakers. And some very fine amplifiers have some sources built-in, such as radio tuners (these are called stereo receivers) or network streaming capabilities. Still, these categories help us navigate our way through building a hifi system.
Let’s dive into these categories.
Sources for a Hifi System
As the name suggests, a source for your high-fidelity system is the device which reads the music from some form of media. Traditionally, that media would be a vinyl disc which would be played on a turntable. And after a near death experience, the turntable is again today a not uncommon source. But it’s unlikely to be your only one.
We can ignore cassette and reel-to-reel tape players as sources. They are still available, but only the nichiest of vintage music technology enthusiasts use those. (Nothing wrong that, either. After all, I’m presently working through a couple of hundred 78s!)
For quarter century the turntable was the principal source in the high-fidelity sound system was supplanted by the CD player. Like the turntable, the complete demise of the CD is frequently predicted. But I for one doubt that it will ever disappear. There are thousands of works on CD that will never make it to a streaming service, especially in classical genres.
And now, increasingly, the main sources are increasingly network audio players or streamers, and network audio servers. A network server may be regular computer-style Network Attached Storage running server software, typically compatible with UPnP/DLNA standards. Or it may be a high-end dedicated device optimised for performance with digital audio.
A network audio player or streamer can play music from the server and from various audio streaming services on the Internet, such as Spotify, TIDAL and Internet radio stations from all over the world. Some dedicated network audio servers include a streamer, while some don’t.
Many people use a computer as a network audio streamer. It could be Mac, Windows or Linux. A lot of people even use tiny computers such as the something from the Raspberry Pi line (which run a form of Linux). These can be used to serve music from their internal or plugged-in storage, or stream from other network storage or various Internet sources using either their web browser or a dedicated app for the streaming service.
Many dedicated streamers include a DAC – that’s a Digital to Analogue Converter – but some don’t. Just about all computers have a DAC built in, but should never use the analogue audio output from a computer. The insides of computers are cesspools of electromagnetic energy which will inevitably corrupt the quality of the audio.
An external DAC is the solution here. Many of these can be used to decode digital audio from other sources as well, such as a CD transport.
There are two primary jobs for the amplifier. One is to allow you to select which of the different sources you want to listen to. The other is to take the low-ish level analogue signal from the source and turn it into an electrical signal powerful enough to drive a set of loudspeakers.
In some, but by no means all, higher end systems these jobs are performed by two separate components. A preamplifier – or preamp – has a bunch of inputs for connecting various sources, along with buttons or a knob for selecting amongst them. It may have a phono amplifier built in – the output of most turntables has to be boosted considerably and equalised to be usable. It also has, at the very least, a volume control. Some preamps may have more adjustments available for the signal – such as the traditional bass and treble controls.
A preamp has one main set of outputs, and these are to feed the signal at the correct volume level to a power amplifier. That amplifier looks after the job of turning a very low current, lowish voltage signal, into a high current signal of potentially of tens of volts, which is what is required to drive a loudspeaker. To get a better sense of that, the input required to make a power amplifier run extremely loudly will be around one volt and just twenty or so microamps, while at 100 watts, the output into eight ohms would be 28 volts and 3.5 amps. That’s why power amplifiers are big and heavy.
Most commonly, though, the preamp and the power amplifier are combined in one unit. That’s called an integrated amplifier.
We all know what loudspeakers are. High fidelity loudspeakers are marked by certain characteristics, mostly to do with their design being focused on delivering high quality sound.
Now, there are active loudspeaker systems around, but the traditional high fidelity system employed passive loudspeakers. Passive just means that they don’t have an amplifier built in.
These can be divided into several different types of categories, but the main ones are related to placement, and that in turn is related to size. The main three categories are floorstanding loudspeakers, stand mount loudspeakers and desktop or bookshelf speakers.
Which is better? That’s a very complicated subject which we will dig into another time. For the moment, keep in mind that bigger is not necessarily better. Very often it is better to choose a stand mount speaker over a floorstanding model of the same price. Why? Because the stand mount of the same price would typically be from a higher quality range.
There will be a lot more to it than just that. And in the end, you should use your ears and judgement to guide you as to which is best for you.
I won’t be covering headphones here because we’ve already had a quite in-depth look at them here.
Digital versus Analog
The whole “which is better, digital or analog” question gets raised a lot. Most of the chatter on this question is by extreme partisans, so it tends to get heated.
For the rest of us, may I just say: what’s wrong with both?
A story: when I was very young, I worked part time at a grocery store. My eight hours of work paid, in total, about the cost of one new LP. So, of course, I had only a small selection of music. These days for $20 a month paid to TIDAL, I have an unbelievable range – some sixty million tracks! Hoorah for digital!
I love the 1982 album Cha by Jo Jo Zep & The Falcons. It isn’t available on either Spotify or TIDAL. But I have it on vinyl. Hoorah for analog!
Get the best amplifier you can manage with a good range of inputs, and then plug in as many analogue or digital sources as you want.
Analogue versus digital amplifiers? Audiophiles lean analogue. But there are decent digital (or, more correctly, Class D) amps about. They do have the advantage of typically being lighter and hugely more efficient. If a low environmental impact is an important value for you, try Class D. Just have a listen first to make sure you like what you’re hearing.
But, then, you should do that with analogue amplifiers too. Or, indeed, before any purchase of any component for your system.
Setting Up Your Home hifi system
This is a huge topic, but we’ll just hit some high points.
First, you may not have total freedom to put your components where they may work best. I can’t help you there and you may have to do the best you can. But keep that in mind when you’re buying. For example, some loudspeakers built on bass-reflex principles are supplied with a foam rubber plug to stuff into their port. This helps control their bass if you have to place them closer to the wall than you’d prefer.
If you do have freedom, here are some tips:
- Perhaps the most important is that your listening position is at the apex of a triangle with an equal distance to the two stereo loudspeakers. If you’re closer to one than the other, the stereo image is going to suffer, and be dragged mostly into the closer speaker.
- Experiment with the direction the speakers are pointing. Some sound best “toed in” so that they’re pointing directly towards you. Some are better firing straight into the room without any angle placed on them. Often the best angle is somewhere in between.
- Your ears should be on the same level as the tweeters.
- Ensure your speakers are seated firmly. If they’re on stands, make sure they are sturdy and stable.
- Your other equipment should also be on level, stable surfaces. Make sure devices which can be operated by IR remote are pointed such that you can operate them from your seat.
- Try to keep cable lengths as short as reasonably possible.
- Choose good quality, but not over-the-top, cables for your analogue and digital interconnects and for your speaker cables. There’s always controversy about whether expensive audiophile cables can improve the sound of a system. But one thing I would suggest is that you defer experimenting with extremely expensive cables until you’re satisfied with the rest of the system. When you’ve settled on your “keeper” speakers, amplifier and sources, then start checking out the more expensive cables. Up until that point, employ your available funds achieving that “keeper” system.
Growing your system
Something to keep in mind when buying any item of equipment for your hifi system, and especially the core components, is the future. This is the case whether you’re buying a series of high end, multi-thousand-dollar components, or if you’re just starting out with a total budget of $1,500.
As an example, let’s say you’re thinking of buying an integrated amplifier. If you expect this to be the last amp you ever intend to buy, or you’re wealthy enough to be able to replace it entirely at a whim, well you can skip this whole section.
But for the rest of us, some extra sockets on the back of the amp could be rather valuable. Those sockets might be a subwoofer output, or stereo pre-amp output. If you’re at entry level, then you’re unlikely to have loudspeakers with extended or powerful bass. Indeed, as we’ve already suggested, you’d be wise to spend your limited budget on smaller speakers with excellent midrange and treble performance, and only relatively modest bass. Because your next step – should your amplifier have a subwoofer output – could be to purchase a good compact subwoofer. It would be powered and do a fine job from where your speakers finish off, at say 80 or 90 hertz, and provide the bass down to 40 hertz, or perhaps 30 hertz. Your compact main speakers will suddenly sound more authoritative, while retaining the midrange and treble virtues you bought them for in the first place.
If your integrated amplifier has pre-amp outputs, then you can simply add high quality power amplifiers to increase performance. Let’s say you have your eye on some mighty fine loudspeakers, but speakers which would be a stretch for your integrated amplifier. So you could first save for a suitable stereo power amplifier, and then for the new speakers, while still getting value from your integrated amplifier. Then, at some point in the future – not so much of a rush now – replace the integrated amp with a higher quality preamplifier.
Home Hifi System FAQ
Can’t I just add great speakers to an existing system for great sound?
If only it were so. Loudspeakers make the most obvious difference in sound to a system, but a quality high fidelity system really must be balanced. That is, the loudspeakers, amplifiers and sources should be of more or less equivalent quality. Any weak link in the component chain limits the whole system.
Chances are, if you add great loudspeakers to an existing system, they will either reveal other weaknesses in the system – noise or distortion you hadn’t previously noticed – or they may not even be able to be properly driven by the amplifier.
Why does my new hifi system sound different to how it did in the shop?
What I haven’t talked much about in this article is the listening room. It has a simply enormous impact on how a system sounds. Often the listening room in the shop will be much larger than your room, or have certain treatments which adjust the sound – soft furnishings can dampen and reduce excessive brightness – and so on. If possible, try to audition your potential purchases in a room with similar dimensions to yours, and with the speakers in particular placed in the same position they will be at your home.
Should I stick to one brand for all my components?
Intuitively this makes sense. After all, you’d think that they’d be designed to work better together. And there can be practical advantages when a brand has a control system where the different components can talk to each other. But it’s rare that any one brand can offer the best component for a given price across the entire range. And so long as special care is taken that the power amplifier is suitable for use with the chosen loudspeakers, just about all components regardless of brand will work well together.