Hi-End Analog Audio Guide
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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 sound!

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 the music!