Setting up a quality two channel audio system for a beginner is an exciting prospect. There are many different options and directions a budding audiophile can choose to follow. It can be a very rewarding experience, and something that can be enjoyed for a lifetime. This guide will offer the newcomer to the audio hobby some food for thought and present a myriad of choices that are available. It should also prove useful to the seasoned audiophile.
Set a budget, but be prepared to go over it. Setting a budget will provide a general idea of what class of gear you should be looking at. Of course, when looking online or visiting your local dealer, it’s very easy to start lusting over the really high end stuff and justify spending more money. This may not be a bad thing. If you outlay more cash in the beginning, it can help mitigate the disappointment factor in the future, as well as the compulsive desire to upgrade that afflicts almost all audiophiles. Buying quality also helps ensure, but does not guarantee, that your investment will not malfunction or come to an early or untimely demise. In the end, the most important thing is, how does it sound to you? Conversely, more money does not necessarily equate to better sound. I have spent a lot of money to realize you don’t need to spend a lot of money.
IDENTIFY YOUR PRIORITIES
A good friend of mine, who sold audio gear for over twenty years once offered me a piece of advice that has always stuck with me: Identify your audio priorities before buying. There are certain adjectives that come to mind with HiFi. “Bright”, “warm”, “laid-back”. There are also attributes that can be used to describe how a system sounds. Words such as “soundstage”, “image”, “deep bass”, “glorious midrange”, etc. No system is going to deliver every adjective and attribute perfectly. Decide which of these matter to you most and design your system around that. For example, some listeners value resolution and precision over all else, but this results in a bright, eventually fatiguing listen for some. Other listeners prefer a more rolled off, less precise sound that can provide many hours of listening. Different genres of music naturally lend themselves to certain priorities. For those into “heavier” music such as Iron Maiden, Black Sabbath or Metallica, a wall of sound approach is usually preferred. A system that can throw a huge soundstage would be ideal for this type of music. For those who prefer lighter fare, such as Jazz, different priorities come into play. For example, a Jazz aficionado may prefer a system that emphasizes the mid-range. This could explain why a lot of Jazz systems feature low wattage tube amps and single driver, full range speakers, which are known for their mid-range.
COMPONENT TO COST RATIO
Decide how to divide your budget between components (speakers, amplifier, sources, cables, power conditioner and component stand). There is no absolute formula for this, but the general consensus seems to be that spending money on speakers will offer you the biggest bang for your buck since they have the most influence on how the system will sound.
The internet is a good resource for researching new gear, but consider it as just a starting point. There is no replacement for actually hearing a piece of gear for yourself. But as a starting point, internet forums are a good place to ask for advice. It’s a good idea to take advantage of the knowledge and experience of seasoned audiophiles. Reviews are also a very good resource.
RELATIONSHIP WITH A DEALER
These days it very easy to do all of your research and subsequent purchases online but you will lose out on the advantages of having a good relationship with a local dealer. This is advantageous to you four-fold. First of all, once you have a established a relationship with a dealer, they generally won’t mind taking time to let you audition gear in-store that you are interested in (with your own music!). Secondly, a good dealer will allow you to borrow gear to take home and try in your own environment. Third, you gain the vast experience and knowledge that your dealer has of their product line. Fourth, and perhaps most advantageous, is that once you establish a good relationship (i.e. spend enough money at their store), you will generally be given preferred pricing on future purchases.
NEW OR USED?
There are advantages to both. Buying used allows you to purchase gear that may normally be beyond your reach budget-wise, but if something goes wrong with the component, you are generally out of luck. A risk is that sometimes people decide to sell a piece of gear once they experience problems with it. If you do decide to buy used, there are certain components that are less risky to buy. Amplifiers and digital to analog converters are pretty safe bets, but anything mechanical such as speakers and CD players are a riskier proposition, due to moving parts wearing out. There are several online communities that focus on buying and selling used audio gear, that makes buying and selling a less risky proposition. Buying new gives you the peace of mind that a warranty buys, and also affords you the opportunity to establish a relationship with a dealer, as mentioned above.
DEDICATED MUSIC ROOM
Understandably, this is not always possible, but if you have a room in your house (spare bedroom, office, basement) where the sole function of the room is listening to music, you are at an immediate advantage. This allows you the freedom to move your speakers around and find the ideal position for them, where they sound best. It also allows for room treatments, such as absorption panels and diffusers, which can make a dramatic improvement on the sound of your HiFi system. There are actually various recommended dimensions for a music room. If you google “listening room optimal dimensions”, you will find a wealth of information. One recommendation I like is the following formula: room width = 1.14 x height, room length = 1.39 x height. It is important to avoid “multiples”, that being the length being a multiple of the width. An example of this would be a 12’ x 22’ room, but the most important thing is to avoid a perfectly square room. If a dedicated room is not an option, the good news is that there is huge selection of gear available that has a high “WAF” (wife acceptance factor), that is acceptable for a shared space, and still sounds great. Sometimes in life compromise is the key.
QUALITY OF MUSIC SOURCE
CDs are still a viable option for many people, but more and more these days, listeners are moving to the convenience of computer based systems. If you decide to go the computer based route, ensure that your source files are lossless (an identical copy of the original music file). It makes little sense to spend money on a highly resolving HiFi system, only to feed it compressed, lossy source files such as MP3s. MP3 is a relic from a different era, when computer storage was expensive and bandwidth was an issue. These days storage is extremely cheap, and most people have broadband connections at home. Lossless formats such as FLAC and WAV files are the way to go. Another option that is becoming increasingly popular are the various streaming services such as Tidal, which offer lossless, CD quality streaming. Paradoxically, vinyl is making a significant resurgence, and many audio enthusiasts swear by the perceived superior sound quality of vinyl. If you have a large record collection from your youth, this may be a good option.
Floorstanding or bookshelf? Floorstanding speakers will have deeper bass and greater scale than bookshelf speakers. The advantage of bookshelf speakers is that many listeners generally feel that the bass, while not as deep, is more accurate and less boomy. Bookshelf speakers are also generally better suited to smaller rooms since the bass can be overwhelming with a floorstander. Bookshelf speakers also tend to image better than floorstanding speakers, meaning they disappear in the room, due to their smaller dimensions. As far as cost is concerned, first, you have to make sure you are not comparing apples to oranges. Floorstanding speakers of the same product line will always be more expensive than their bookshelf counterparts. If not comparing speakers from the same product line, the quality of the speakers can vary wildly, the result being that small bookshelf speakers of superior quality will be more expensive than floorstanding speakers from a different product line or manufacturer. Floorstanding speakers generally (although not always) tend to have a larger footprint than bookshelf speakers, and their associated speaker stands, making them unsuitable for smaller rooms. The major disadvantages of bookshelf speakers is the lack of deep bass as well as the need for quality speaker stands, which will obviously add to the overall cost of the speakers. A solution for the lack of bass with bookshelf speakers that is becoming increasingly popular is running them with one or more subwoofers to fill in the lowest octaves of bass. As a side-note, if you do opt for bookshelf speakers, please don’t place them on a bookshelf, despite their name. All speakers perform better when they have room to breathe and are positioned away from surfaces such as walls and shelves. There is an excellent article on www.novo.press entitled “Bookshelf or Floorstanding Speakers: Which Should You Choose?” that goes into further detail on this topic (you can find it in the Buyer Guides / Audio Components section).
CHOICE OF COMPONENTS
Separate components or an integrated amplifier? Like many things in audio, there are advantages and disadvantages to both. Separate components usually means having a dedicated preamplifier and a separate power amplifier. The preamplifier is used for controlling volume as well as switching input sources (CD, digital, phono, etc.), while the amplifier simply amplifies the audio signal. The major advantage of this approach is that it physically separates the preamplifier and power amp sections in different chassis, eliminating noise and interference between the two. This also allows each component to have its own power supply. Many audio enthusiasts believe this results in superior sound quality. Another advantage of this approach is that it creates a highly modular system where either the preamp or power amp can be upgraded as funds allow. The obvious disadvantages are the increased cost of having to purchase two components and good quality cables used to connect them. Of course using separates also requires more physical space. Using an integrated amplifier addresses both of these disadvantages, since it contains a preamplifier and power amplifier in one chassis. They are generally cheaper than purchasing separate components and don’t require extra interconnect cables. Many modern integrated amps come outfitted with high quality DACs and sound just as good, if not better, than separate components.
SOLID STATE OR VACUUM TUBES?
Before the introduction of transistors to the consumer market in the 1950’s, audio amplification was done with vacuum tube circuits. Transistors, also known as solid state, became increasingly popular due to smaller size, lighter weight, lower heat production and increased reliability. However, to this day, vacuum tube designs remain incredibly popular among audiophiles. There is still the argument that tube amplifiers “sound better”. This is in part in the difference of how amplifiers distort audio signals. All amplifiers have distortion to some degree (although modern amplifier designs have vanishingly low distortion levels), but tube amplifiers are said to distort in such a way that is more pleasing to the ear than how a solid state design distorts. For those just starting out in audio, solid state is usually the way to go. Tube amplifiers are seen as more difficult to maintain that solid state amplifiers, which basically require zero maintenance. Other disadvantages to vacuum tube amplifiers are that tubes can be expensive to replace, they run hot, and are less energy efficient than solid state designs.
Room Acoustics is most often overlooked however, it is very important to the overall performance of a system. There are many solutions to choose such as drapes, carpets or even Acoustical Panels that can be purchased online or from a local reseller. But, please don’t miss this very important consideration.
Setting up a quality two channel HiFi system need not be complicated, or even prohibitively expensive. This guide is by no means comprehensive. But hopefully it will provide some ideas that will help you put together a system that sounds great and brings you many hours of listening pleasure and satisfaction.