Become a fan of h2g2
This is intended as a broad introduction to the world of true HI-FI. It does not refer to those little 'Hi-Fi systems' where you get everything in one or two little boxes with two speakers attached. If you have one of those and are happy with it, read no further, it will upset you. True HI-FI is the equipment required to bring to your ears, in your home, as faithful a reproduction of the original music as is possible (or affordable). Here our concern is stereo or, more accurately, in the USA, 'two channel' sound. The delights of 'surround sound', 'multi-channel sound', 'home cinema' and 'multi-room systems' are ignored. Don't imagine that the more channels you have the better, you can get a very, some would say more, accurate picture of the music with just two. Check how many ears you have. Minidisc and MPEG systems are also ignored, as the quality of signal is not yet ready for the full HI-FI treatment.
If you are used to a small 'mini' hi-fi system, the first time that you hear a true HI-FI set up, you will be amazed. Truly. The bass will hit your stomach, the strings make you weep and the singer will be there with you. You will hear the music as it was played (or recorded). Even at the 'budget' end of true HI-FI, for the same money as the better mini or 'lifestyle' systems, the experience is quite different.
But, and it is a big but, only you can decide how much that true HI-FI experience is worth to you. Very few can afford the tens of thousands of dollars or pounds that the very best can cost, so you have to be ready to compromise. Once you have made the initial quantum jump from the mass-produced systems to the basic HI-FI set-up, you will never be satisfied, you can always improve it incrementally, but you will never, after the first few honeymoon months, think you have the perfect system. It is an expensive hobby. Be warned!
Lets look at the components.
Yes, really. If you hear a clean LP1 played on a very good turntable, you will be amazed. No hiss, crackle and pop! And the sound is rich and full of detail. There are many who contend that they can hear a real difference between the same music from an LP as from a CD, and that the LP is better. All the components can be bought separately (Motor, turntable, arm, cartridge) and the total can be well over $15,000/£10,000 should you be so inclined. You can also buy decent complete turntable systems from $300/£200. The trouble (or joy) of turntables is that they require constant attention to put LP's on, take them off, find the right track etc. The advantage is that the source material (i.e. Secondhand LP's) is very cheap, once you have a good cleaning system (and there's another thing to buy!).
The output signal from a turntable is even smaller than from other sources, and requires a separate 'boost' amplifier to bring it up to 'line' level. Beware, if you want to use a turntable, not all amplifiers have this PHONO STAGE, and have line inputs2 only. The Phono Stage is available separately if required. (Yet another thing to buy!)
The workhorse of recorded music these days. Information is stored on a CD in digital form, and you may think that there can be little difference between one player and another in extracting these discrete bits of information. Wrong. You need a good solid tray thats not going to wobble, an accurate laser and electronics that sample the 'bits' as often as possible. Many CD Players incorporate within them a DAC. This Digital to Analogue convertor takes the digital signal and turns it into an analogue signal. This 'smooths' out the discrete bits of digital information into a warmer and more listenable (to the most sensitive ear) sound. More expensive CD Players are just that, players only, referred to as CD transports These read the disc, and are intended to be connected to a separate, top quality, DAC. DAC's are available as a separate box but the CD Players that would benefit most from a DAC, i.e. cheap ones, don't often have the digital or optical output to connect to a DAC, whereas those that do have the connections are likely to be of reasonable quality anyway. A separate DAC can also be usefully used to improve digital signals from other sources (PC, DVD, TV etc.)
Early reports of the new SACD (Super Audio CD) system are very good and manufacturers are beginning to produce the necessary players and software.
Some CD players can hold 3 or more discs on a tray, and others have stacking systems for up to 300 discs. Most DVD players have the capacity to play CD's, but rarely at a standard equivalent to a dedicated CD Player. As in HI-FI generally, the simpler the better, less is more.
If you wish, for example, to record tracks from CD's to play on a tape in your car/walkman, you need a cassette tape deck of a quality equal to your other components. These are becoming hard to find as minidiscs and MPEG files are increasingly in vogue, and new cars come with CD players fitted. Minidisc recorders are improving. CD recorders are on the market, but good quality ones have yet to descend to reasonable prices. You may decide to wait awhile and purchase a CD or Minidisc recorder later instead. Remember copyright issues: such recordings should be for personal use only.
The Tuner collects the signal from a radio station (via an aerial) and turns it into an electrical signal. FM broadcasts are generally of good quality, and many stations now offer digital broadcasts. You may like to postpone a purchase for a year or two until tuners for DAB (Digital Audio Broadcast) are widely available. TV Satellites and Cable services broadcast many FM radio stations. More are available via the internet, and you can use your decoder and/or PC as a source instead of, or as well as, a separate Tuner. In America, Tuners are often combined with an Integrated Amplifier, and the two together called a RECEIVER.
This is the bit with all the knobs on the front, for volume, source, maybe tone3 etc. and all the wires in the back. In American equipment it is sometimes called the 'Control Centre', a sensible name. In addition to connections for your CD Player, Tuner, Tape Deck etc., you will also have inputs available for use with your TV, VCR, PC etc., so that you can listen to these through your sound system, should you so desire. Often, especially at the 'budget' end of the market, the Pre-Amp is combined with the Power Amp(s) (see below) in an INTEGRATED AMPLIFIER. There may also be a socket for HEADPHONES to be plugged into.
This is the engine. The Power Amp turns the tiny signal from the source equipment into a much more powerful signal to power the loudspeakers. In more sophisticated systems you can have a Power Amplifier for each channel, left and right, or even for each separate speaker within the loudspeakers. The Power Amp is controlled by the Pre-Amplifier.
Some amplifiers incorporate the 'old-fashioned' valves that pre-dated transistors. This is thought by many to produce a 'warmer' sound. Whether your ears detect that is a matter for you, but you may find that valve amplifiers offer exquisite detail at low volume, ideal for small scale music, solo singers and instruments, acoustic music etc.
If you prefer Rock or Orchestral/Choral music, as a very general rule, the more power the better, and this means transistors.
It is the speakers that, provided all else is good, will provide the 'tone' of your system. They are also the largest piece of 'furniture', so you will probably be paying some attention to the appearance.
The most basic Loudspeakers contain a TWEETER, a small speaker for the highest sounds, a MID-RANGE speaker which covers most of the range of sounds that the human ear can hear, and a bass speaker, called a WOOFER, which covers the lowest ranges. Some Loudspeakers combine tweeter and midrange in a single 'Concentric' design, others have a multiplicity of speakers. Because high frequency sound travels a little faster and is more directional and focussed than bass frequencies, the tweeter is sometimes mounted a few centimeters back from the plane of the bass speakers. Most speakers require space around them, to 'move the air', so if your only option in a small room is to place them on bookshelves, be sure to get specially designed bookshelf speakers, they have the bass port or vent at the front.
Some, more expensive, Loudspeakers are built with HORN cabinets4 which help to focus the sound from the speaker.
Some Loudspeaker systems have a separate SUB-WOOFER which deals with low bass sounds. Using this with a budget stereo system, you can have much smaller SATELLITE speakers for the mid-range/high frequencies and put the non-directional sub-woofer under a table out of the way. Because the higher range speakers do not need so much air around them, they can be accommodated on shelves, wall brackets etc.
Most speakers are passive, they take their power from the amplifier. Some, however, are ACTIVE, they incorporate an amplifier within the cabinet. This eliminates the need for a power amplifier in the system, but each will need its own power point, and the interconnect cables from the Pre-Amplifier may be more expensive.
There is a type of large, flat loudspeaker, called ELECTROSTATIC. They occupy a considerable space, but the sound nears perfection.
There are also other new types of much smaller flat speakers designed to be unobtrusive and based on a different (NXT) technology. Only your ears can decide the compromise between appearance and sound.
There is a fashion developing for making speakers that cover a wider range of sound than the human ear can hear (as imprinted on SACD's), the reasoning being that sound you cannot hear does actually affect the way you hear the sounds that you do hear. There does seem to be something in the theory.
There are very high quality headphones available that make listening possible without disturbing other members of the household, or they disturbing you. Listening through good headphones with no distractions enables you to get the very finest detail from a performance. Whether the music connects as directly to the emotions as when heard through loudspeakers is another matter. Dedicated amplifiers are available for headphones, if needed.
These are the cables that join the various electronic bits together. The better the cable, the more undistorted signal gets through to the Amplifiers, enabling them to make more of the music.
A different sort of cable takes the sound from the amplifiers to the speakers. This can be several metres long and it is important that no interference from other electrical apparatus in the house affects the sound signal.
In order for them to function properly, it is important that all the equipment, and especially the turntable, CD Player and speakers are held firmly on rigid platforms. Stands are made especially for the purpose, often with spikes on the legs to anchor them firmly to the floor, even through carpets.
The shape and size of your room, and the materials within it, will affect the sound. Some thought, therefore, must go into how you place your speakers within the room. Many speakers need to have some space around them to produce the best sound. They will certainly have to be turned towards a point slightly in front of the most usual listening position to produce the widest 'soundstage'.
It is important also, for the longevity of your equipment, that the electricity supply is constant and not given to wild variation. Attention needs to be paid to this if you live in an area of fluctuating power.
So, having absorbed all the above information, one question remains,
How to get started? The first step might be to take your favourite CD to a good retailer that has a listening room, and ask to hear it played on some different systems. In the UK, these might include better Department Stores (John Lewis are surprisingly good), specialist shops such as Richer Sounds or Sevenoaks Hi-Fi, or a HI-FI dealer, of which there is usually at least one in most major cities. There are many listed in the yellow pages or Hi-Fi magazines. Avoid the specialist magazines' advice columns and reviews until you have begun to form your own opinions of what you want, but when you are ready there are many to help you. 'Stereophile' in the USA, 'Hi-Fi News' and 'What Hi-Fi' in the UK are perhaps the best known, but there are several others on the newsagents racks. All the magazines and every major manufacturer has a web presence.
Before you even start, have a cozy chat with your nice friendly Bank Manager, decide your budget, and make a firm resolution to stick to it. Write it down. Have it witnessed and notarised. Learn it by heart. You are entering a valley of temptation! It is possible, just, to start with $1000 or £700 and put together a simple system (CD, Integrated Amp, Speakers, Stands and Cables). If you can manage twice that, there is an appreciable difference. Double it again and you are beginning to look at serious kit. It is usually worth spending a third of your budget on getting the CD Player right, a quarter each on amplification and speakers, with the balance on cables and stands. Do not get drawn into worries about specifications, trust your ears and your ears only. If it sounds right to you, it is right.
There is a very viable alternative, to buy second-hand. Good Hi-Fi equipment doesn't die, it just goes out of fashion.
Of course if you are a purist in search of your private nirvana of single end triode amplifier and horn speakers, well, you will still have to pay lots and lots of money for your personal slice of heaven, however many hands it has been through. But thats another story....