Basic Audio Guide
Hi-end audio is my hobby and the purpose of this article is to
steer you through the many falacies and mis-conceptions that plague the
world of sound reproduction. To begin with, one obviously does not need
tube pre-amps, powered sub-woofers, electrostatic tweeters, and
gold-plated interconnects to enjoy someone's voice over a cheap
telephone speaker. While there is a slight element of snob appeal in hi-end
audio, most audiophiles are essentially looking for a good sound that
brings them closer to the actual performance. Achieving that "good sound"
on a tight budget is what makes hi-end audio so interesting.
Unfortunetely, hi-end audio does not begin with those all in one
piece of garbage (a.i.o.p.o.g) mini-systems. While such set-ups may score
points in the aesthetics category, the actual sound quality is very poor.
The problem with mini-systems is that they tend to focus on quantity not
quality. They are loaded with useless features that in reality make it
sound worse. The build is also poor as various parts begin to fail and
break down after limited use.
For these reasons, separate components is the first step towards
a good sound. Separate mean buying the SOURCE, AMPLIFICATION, and
SPEAKERS separetely. Hair splitting improvements in sound can be achieved
buy further seperating each separate into more seperates, which is fine
if you are in the money is no object reference frame, but for us that will
have to wait.
There are two main advantages of going for separate component
systems instead of mini-systems. The first being far superior sound
quality and the second is durability. With separate components, you pay a
little extra, $500-700 instead of $300-500 but what you get far
surpasses the added investment. A well chosen and properly cared for system
should easily last for many years without ever giving any problems. This
durability makes seperates extremely cost-effective since you will always
have considerable equity in your equipment should you consider to sell
and upgrade. Furthermore the quality of the sound is superb, far more
controlled, cleaner and accurate than the distorted and boomy sound
characteristic of mini-systems. Last but not least, seperates offer
plenty of clean power. This means they can be blasted at much high
volumes without any audible distortions.
The three components of any system, SOURCE, AMPLIFICATION, and
SPEAKERS now need further explanation. By source I mean such equipment as
the CD player, Turntable (record player), tape decks, and Tuners (radio).
You would be surprised to learn that most truly hi-end systems are
entirely analog based with a turntable as the only source. CD's or
digital is generally criticized by audiophiles as sounding too harsh,
mechanical, bland, and fake. The music that a good turntable brings out
of a well recorded and mastered LP record, is absolutely stunning.
Records sound natural, warm and real, thus providing a far more involving
and satisfying listening experience than that from CD's. A preference of
LP's over CD's has nothing to do with being quaint; it's all about a good
Unfortunetely tape decks and tuners are not considered
hi-fidelity sources, though quality reel to reel decks are indeed hi-end.
Please note that these sources have no amplificaton of their own,
meaning you can't just buy a cd player and a pair of speakers and hook the two
up. The output from the source is a very weak signal that needs
amplification from an external amplifier. For turntables, a
dedicated phono-input is required in the amplifier owing to the
low-level output of the stylus and the unique frequency response
of the vinyl medium. Therefore, the first component to buy is the
amplifier or the receiver. A receiver is an amplifier with a built in
radio or tuner.
The best way to buy an amplifier is not by power ratings but by price
and quality. The power ratings measured in watts is a very misleading
figure. For one thing, the difference in terms of loudness between a 200 W
amplifier and a 20 W amplifier is the 200 W amplifier is only twice as
loud. Furthermore the main problem with amplifiers is clipping or
distortion. When an an amplifier starts to distort, it sends out square
waves that are especially damaging to the speakers. This means that so
long as a speaker is receiving clean, undistorted sound, regardless of
the loudness, it will perform perfectly. A cheap 100 Watt Pioneer
receiver is probably not capable of more than 25 watts before it starts
to clip and damage speakers. On the other hand a more expensive 40 watt
NAD amplifier is capable of putting out 40 watts of clean power.
Unless you can remember all that, the best way to select is by the quality.
Speakers are not judged by how many watts they are capable of
handling nor by how wide the frequency range they cover. They are
measured by how accurately they cover the frequency range they are
designed for. For example, small bookshelf speakers are capable of some
highly accurate sound with superb imaging, however, they will have no bass
whatsoever. Such speakers may also cost $2000.
The general word of advice in selecting components, be it the
amplification, source, or speakers is to avoid mass market
names such as Sony, Pioneer, JVC, Technics, Bose, etc. These
companies specialize in producing inexpensive, lower quality components for the
common consumer. This is probably the most important maxim in
audio. These household names concentrate on features and marketing, not on
sound quality. I recommend better quality budget components by Onkyo,
Harman-Kardon, NAD, Marantz, Denon, Yamaha, Nakamichi, Rotel, Marantz,
Linn, Rega Planar, NHT, Paradigm, B&W, etc.
In reality there are literally hundreds of manufacturers, most of whose
names you have probably never heard of. The best way to begin research
is by following the discussions in the audio related internet newsgroups.
As far as magazines go, I recomend Stereophile but by all means stay away
from Consumer Report!! With regards to buying the equipment, mail-order
offers a large selection at good prices, though you should be very
careful where you mail-order from. To sum it up, stay away from anything
cheap, exercise good judgement and let your ears be your ultimate guide.
It is possible to put a good sounding system together for as much as
$500,000 or as little $500. I'll leave the rest to you. Good luck and enjoy