High Fidelity Basics

Home Audio Made Easy
How to Get Better Sound without Breaking the Bank

Whatever you want to call it, this page about getting down to the bare bone basics. A few simple guidelines to save you time and money, easy to remember, easy to apply, and easy to get right without doing years of research. Better-than-good sound at home is achievable with a fairly modest budget. What's better than good? When you stop hearing the system and get lost in the music. When you feel as if you could touch the musicians.

What's a modest budget? That’s harder to answer. When I started out on my pursuit of fidelity in the early years of this century, I thought spending $1500 on a pair of speakers, just the speakers and nothing else, was crazy extravagant. Still, at the time, I knew that only a few hundred wouldn't get me anywhere near good. Where to start, and how much would it take? I went around to the local stereo shops, listened to a few pair here and a few pair there, and after a while, ended up very frustrated. Nothing sounded awful, nothing sounded awesome. And what was I supposed to hear? What should I listen for?

With little accomplished I preceded to the internet to scour the reviews, forums and reports. After several weeks of searching I found a couple of good candidates. Neither one could be auditioned nearby, but one of the two contenders stood out. It had all rave reviews, including the professional ones. Ordered a pair, hooked 'em up, and. . , WOW! I'd never heard anything like it. Ooooh, aaaah, I got dynamics, I got soundstage, I got bass, I got treble. . , I got trouble. Within a few weeks I noticed a disturbing, zingy buzz, just on specific notes, just on specific instruments. And then the troubleshooting, tweaking, twitching, switching, and desperately seeking solution began.

I tried all sorts of tweaks, all to no avail. There was no fixing the problem, because it was the nature of the ribbon tweeter. How is it that no one hears this gross distortion? If you don't listen to solo piano, flute, oboe or vibraphone then you're not likely to hear the buzz in its full glory, nonetheless, it's there no matter what you play, only partially masked by other sounds. They still make those speakers, and the reviews still neglect this serious flaw.

From that experience I learned never to buy speakers without auditioning. But I got something even more valuable out of the bad experience, the impetus to investigate deeper. I spent the next several years listening and learning. Had I bought the other speaker candidate, I may have been perfectly satisfied, never to pursue audio any further. (I have since auditioned the other speaker and it is a rare high value product.)

On to the basics —

Step #1 : Before you start, clear your brain. You need to begin with a clean slate. Forget about what you think you know, forget about the forums, forget about reviews, pro or user. Price is no guarantee of quality, neither is fame. Although you can't count on any of that info, there is one thing you can count on unquestionably; the more a product is advertised, the faster and farther you should run. Heavily advertised products say, "We put more into convincing you it sounds good than in actually making it sound good." You wanna pay for all that advertising? It's a free country.

Step #2 : Steer clear of archaic technology. That means forget valves, a.k.a. vacuum tubes. And forget that other invention from the century before last, the gramophone, a.k.a. vinyl. (Links explaining why below.) Leave tubes and LPs to the hobbyists. Save your money and your time for new music and listening.

Step #3 : The only component you can hear is the speaker. Nothing else makes a sound. Speakers are square one; start here, then work backwards. Be prepared to put the lion's share of your budget towards speakers. (About $2-3k as a base.)

Step #4 : Amps are next in line. Get a good integrated amp or an AV receiver. (For musicophiles separates are not needed and often counterproductive.) Here's where you can do well with a major brand. They have the resources and the sales volume to make high quality products at stupid low prices. Main warning at this step is not to get dazzled by bells and whistles. Pay for quality, not for frills. ($500-$1500 should do it depending on the features you need.)

Step #5 : The source, the real source, is the recording, not the CD player, not the DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter, converts digital code back into an analog waveform), nor the music server. Yes, playback components may sound different, and you may like one more than another, but the better the recording, the better ANY audio system is going to sound, even a cheapo, off-brand, chain-store home-theater-in-a-box will sound better when playing a great recording. Once you move up to the good equipment territory, the tiny variations from one good piece to the next won't make or break your system. You'll hear greater variation between this or that recording than between electronics. If you're not going computer based music server, look for a universal disc player. (Another $500 tops. Basic units start under $200.)

And your number one absolute most important task to keep in mind at every step of the process : listen. . . relax, close your eyes and listen.

Altogether you can get a really good two-channel home audio system for about 3k-5k. If you've got the budget to go higher, you can get excellent sound for about 5k-8k, and still move incrementally better until you hit the 8k-10k range. Beyond that is "trophyville." It won't sound better, but you can brag about how much you spent.

After you've put all that time and effort into thoughtfully and methodically assembling your system, reward yourself with some new music and go make your ears happy.

Of course there's more to it. Here are a few links to get you moving on.

Hi-Fi basics with more specifics : A Brief Guide to Audio

Know what to avoid : Distortion

Learn how to listen : Auditioning

Explore more details : In Depth

References to : Amplifier Measurements & Vinyl Variables

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