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Beginner’s Guide

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by Josh Ray on October 27 '07

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Music lovers, your life is about to change forever.  The hottest electronics market in the world is one you’ve probably never even heard of: high-performance audio.

A super hi-fi system is, simply, a sports car for your living room.  Instead of horse power and 0-60mph times, hi-fi will give you the most intense and amazing sonic experience possible.  In three easy steps, you’ll be rocking a system that’ll amaze your friends and impress the ladies.  Here’s how:

Step 1:  See the Supermodels
Check out the SonicFlare System Page for certified hot-rod audio rigs.  Like sports cars, hi-fi systems range from reasonably priced to wildly expensive.  Think of a $1000 system as a BMW 3-series and a $100k system as a Lambo.  The $1000 BMW system will smoke your plastic mini-van-like speakers, but if your latest collabo with Kanye went platinum, then the $100k Lamborghini super hi-fi system is for you.

Step 2:  Looks Are Everything
Any system you pick from the SonicFlare Systems Page is going to blow you away, so buy the system that catches your eye and matches your personal style.  With automotive finishes, hand-crafted woods and wild designs, there’s a system out there for everyone.

Step 3:  Drive Off The Lot
Buying a hi-fi system is easy.  Simply visit the manufacturer's website for locations of hi-fi dealers in your area.  Like exotic sports cars, some speakers are very exclusive and only available in a few locations.  Call the manufacturer who will be able to help you.  And unlike Best Buy, dealers offer in-home optimization and servicing.  A good dealer will be your best buddy in hi-fi by helping tweak your system, loan you demo equipment and turning you on to the hottest gear the moment it comes out.

That’s it!  Follows these steps, and you'll have one of the most amazing audio systems in the world. 

QUESTIONS YOU WERE AFRAID TO ASK:

BASIC TERMS:  INTEGRATED, PRE AND POWER AMPS, RECEIVER
Let’s get basic: A power amplifier simply provides the juice to your speakers.  No volume knob, just a single input and a single output right to your speakers.  A pre-amplifier, on the other hand, provides no wattage but contains the volume knob and multiple inputs for your iPod, CD player and so forth.  An integrated amp is both a pre and power amp combined and is all you need (along with your speakers and an iPod) to get going.  A receiver is an integrated amp with a good ol’ radio thrown in for kicks (today, receivers are a rarity in stereo but form the bulk of home theater components).

TRUTH IN NUMBERS:  FREQUENCY RESPONSE
When you see a number like 50Hz-20kHz, it’s referring to a loudspeaker’s frequency response.  Human hearing is technically rated as 20Hz to 20kHz, but our upper hearing limit is, typically, around 18kHz, and we can feel bass down to 1Hz.  Speakers usually have tweeters rated above 20Hz, but this upper limit is sonically undetectable.  An average bookshelf speaker will have bass down to 50Hz, while a floorstander may be rated in the hgh 20’s or 30’s.  Only a subwoofer is able to dig all the way down to 20Hz and below.

The truth is, however, that measurements mean jack.  A manufacturer may say their speaker goes down to 20Hz, but when you listen, the bass is thin and lifeless.  Likewise, another manufacturer may rate their speaker upwards of 60Hz, but the bass is a lot more full and powerful.  The reason this happens is due, in part, to different methods for measuring frequency response as well as appealing to certain audiophiles who crave numbers.

That said, super low bass is fun but isn’t a prerequisite to amazing hi-fi.  The vast majority of music happens above 100Hz.  Great 100Hz to 150kHz performance is what separates the men from the boys.

SPEAKER SENSITIVITY AND POWER HANDLING
Numbers like “85dB 1w/1m” refer to how much wattage is needed to make a speaker dance.  A speaker with, say, a super low rating of 82db will need hundreds of watts while a speaker with a sensitivity 95 or above needs as little as 5 watts to shake the walls.  Sensitivity has no bearing on overall speaker quality, just the required juice.

Power handling is another spec you will often see that is almost meaningless in real world situations.  A speaker with a 50 watt power handling rating can easily be run with 1000 watt amps.  Likewise, a speaker with a 200 watt limit can sing with only 50 watts.  Simply match the wattage to the sensitivity and you’re good to go.

BIG OR LITTLE SPEAKERS?
One of the secrets of hi-fi is that bigger isn’t always better.  A 2-way speaker (tweeter and woofer) will always be easier to setup and tweak than a massive speaker with 3+ drivers.  It’s easy to get seduced by the goliaths of audio, but the truth is those monster speakers are made for monster rooms and aren’t ideal for typical spaces.
While the big speakers sound fantastic, do yourself a favor and buy a 2-way speaker and add a sub.  You’ll thank me later.

CD PLAYER VS TRANSPORT/DAC
Occasionally, you’ll see people talking about transports and DACs instead of CD players.  What gives?  A CD player takes the little digits on your shiny silver discs and turns them into the analog signal required by your preamp or integrated amp.  A transport will look like a CD player, but instead of sending an analog signal, it sends a digital signal requiring a separate Digital to Analog Converter (DAC).  General hi-fi convention holds that a transport and DAC will sound better than a CD player, and most separate DACs these days offer USB input for direct computer connection.

TRUTH ABOUT BIG WATTS
Spend ten minutes in Best Buy and you’d be convinced that wattage is the only thing that matters.  In hi-fi, however, the number of watts is a meaningless measure of quality.  Think about it like this: turbocharged Honda hatchback with 500hp may have far more power than a Porsche with 300hp, but is the Honda a better car?  No way.  Same with the marketing hype surrounding big watt systems.  In fact, some of the best amps in the world have under 50 watts and can drive speakers to ear-bleeding levels.

TRUTH ABOUT CABLES
When starting out, cables should be the last piece to spend money on.  Each cable, no matter what the manufacturer says, has a specific sound.  For under a $100, you can find a cable with the right sound for your system (or better yet, just ask the speaker manufacturer which cheap cables they like).  That said, if you start out with a company’s least expensive wire and move up to a more expensive model, you will hear a difference.  Whether it’s worth the big jump in price is up to you, but starting out, don’t get caught up in the cable hype.  

TUBES, SOLID STATE, CLASS-D
There are probably more flavors of amps than there are of speakers.  Push-pull tubes, SETs, pentodes, solid state, digital and more.  While different people will have different tastes, all amp types will sound fantastic.  Simply match the right amps to your speakers and you’re good to go.  If you're confused about an amp choice, consult your dealer or the speaker manufacturer.

TRUTH ABOUT SUBWOOFERS
Some audiophiles thumb their noses at subwoofers.  Well, these audiophiles are fools.  Subwoofers are fantastic and many sub manufacturers make killer boxes with bass that sounds nothing like the flubbing car audio stuff.  In fact, subwoofers with digital EQ and room correction are quickly becoming the only method for obtaining accurate, super low bass.

DO TWEAKS WORK?
In some audiophile hangouts you’ll see weird devices and tweaks that supposedly make your system sound lightyears better.  Don’t believe the hype.  The devices that do indeed improve the sound do it on the scale of 1%.  Nice speakers and amps are where the magic is at.

TAKING IT TO ELEVEN
If you’re the kinda guy who doesn’t just want a BMW M5, but a tricked out M5 with a carbon fiber body kit, sports suspension and aftermarket supercharger taking it right up to the legal limit, here’s a few more tips to help you trick out your hi-fi rig:

Discover Your Style
Which is better, a Porche 911, Mercedes S-Class or Range Rover?  It’s a meaningless question because, like audio, there is no “best of the best,” only different styles.  The SonicFlare Circle is the best way to understand the different groups in hi-fi.  While any system will rock your sonic world, once you become a little experienced with audio, you’ll find yourself gravitating towards a specific sound.  Whenever you see a new SonicFlare feature or review, look for the Sonic Circle to get an idea how the component sounds.

Upgrade, Upgrade, Upgrade
Unlike automotive where it’s madness to shoehorn a Lamborghini engine into a Lexus, in audio, you can easily mate Bugatti amps with your Bimmer speakers.  Hi-fi systems are infinitely upgradeable and can, as budget allows, be transformed into a superstars.  Also, as you get more experienced, you can demo different brands of amps, pre-amps, CD players and cables to make your rig uniquely you.


Comments

Thank You! I have bee saying many of the statements in your article for years! I have owned many Lamborghini's through the years, but I started with a Chevy (in audio terms). I'm in my late 50's and have seen a lot of "Lamborghini's" become "Chevy's" as technology changes. My old "Black Widdow" arm is too massive and has too much drag by today's standards. But it worked great with my Decca London cartridge. When starting out; the key is to "listen" to the sound that is produced. I mean really listen. Don't just take any CD and play it on a system. Know the CD you are playing! (I used to tell people do this with records). Listen for specific items in the music YOU like. If you don't listen to classical music, demoing a system with an Opera might sound great, but listening to Red Hot Chilli Peppers might not. Another point is; your ears will change. When starting out, our ears are untrained. Or at best used to the sound from the 2" speakers that come with your PC. As your ears evolve, you will begin to hear things (or not hear things) that you never noticed previously. That's why most good hi-fi stores have trade-in policies. Next year when those Widget 2000's don't make it any more, you can trade up to Gadget 5's. (Try that at Best Buy!) Listen to the system at home! It may sound great in the store sound room, but in your home sound room, things may be somewhat different. I tell people starting out; to concentrate on the speakers initially. Most good Amps, Preamps, Players have very simillar performance. The speakers are where the differences are most noticable. Once you have good speakers and your ears become accoustom to listening, then the subtle differences in equipment starts to become apparent. Well, enough of this! I think I'll put a Neil Young record on the turntable.
Hi Paul, Glad you like the article and you make great points: use your own music, listen to gear at home and focus on the speakers. And you make a good point about your ears changing, though I don't know if its your ears so much as your taste in equipment. If you've checked out the "Sonic Circle" article, I try and break down the various different hi-fi sounds. I think a number of current gen audiophiles start off listening to Precise or Refined gear and migrate to Emotional and Smooth equipment (or vice versa). The overall audio reviewing culture makes these polar flips from time to time as well. And sometimes I think people just get tired of Coke and want a Pepsi.
Finally -- someone with the cajones to admit that looks are important (Step 2). It's one of the things that makes this hobby more interesting than collecting washing machines. Most writers in this business seem to fear that admitting looks to be (nearly) as important as sound will get their season tickets to the Met revoked. Color me shallow, but I love looking at well-designed audio gear and it's key to keeping me interested in what's new. If that gets me thrown out of the club, so be it.
Yes, while sound rightfully occupies the highest eschelon of importance, I also think that visual appeal is essential. Eye candy counts! Lots of contemporary "high end" components are sooo cosmeticaly challenged, seemingly engineered by stiff lab coats, who seemingly never wandered outside of their temperature controlled habitats or gazed upon vintage 70's gear. What ever happened to the design studios? Lots of Type A audiophiles are just as responsible for having shamelessly enouraged the resulting overpriced ugly tree mono block 200 lb. Edsels. It is almost comical to see present day "box flippers" and "must have Harrys" whose over inflated egos hang onto "X" -magazine's reviewers over-rated critiques. This senario is pathetic, and as a result hi-fi companies are more often than not catering their wares to these over paid white collar types. What about the blue collar masses? As a result, instead of saving a few measly paychecks for a freshly designed and beautiful reciever, or impressive int. amp for a few hundred quid, now almost all complete set ups start at $5000.00 and beyond. Well at least my collectors segment is alive and well on E--y.
Josh, Come over to the store and listen to some stuff with me. I have an adult beverages also.