System Building 101
A Quick Guide to Building a HiFi Sound System
Whether you have $2k or $200k to spend, buying a new stereo system can be a little daunting. Seemingly endless acronyms, formats, and connections separate you from your original goal of great sound. While The Sound Organisation encourages you to work with an experienced local partner, your first inclination might be online research. This article is meant to help you weed through the ridiculous amount of (dis)information available on the Internet.
We’ve offered you basic information on component selection and a method for wading through the muck and the mire. (Check back for more detailed posts about individual components, system assembly and optimization.)
Seriously, though. Find a good partner. They will be worth their weight in gold.
What is a sound system?
Traditionally, a sound system is comprised of three basic components: source, amplification, and speakers. These can be broken into more elemental pieces, but if you have some version of these three, you can make sound at home. Source components include turntables, computers, optical disk players like CD or BluRay, and *gasp* the Internet via streaming components like Sonos and services like Tidal and Spotify. Amplifiers take the electrical signal produced by the source, and ready it for powering your speakers. Speakers take the electrical energy put out by your source and amplifier and convert it to acoustical energy. Each component has an important role, and one cannot function without the other.
There are sound systems that integrate these three components into one box, but we won’t cover those in this article.
How do you go about choosing these components? First, answer the question how do you listen to music? Have a huge vinyl, CD, or iTunes collection? Do you mostly use the internet for music via Tidal? Each of these formats typically have a component associated with them. Vinyl has the turntable, iTunes or Spotify has a streamer, etc. Once you’ve determined how you listen, then you’re ready to select the source component.
Here is where “source first” gets really interesting. The quality of component you choose to playback the source material will have an increasing effect on the final sound as it passes through amplifiers and then speakers. If from your overall system budget you slice out just a little extra for that great turntable and DAC, you will get more satisfaction from what your amp and speakers are capable of doing. Balance it the other way, and your amp and speakers will likely never achieve full potential.
Below is a list of common source components and what they do. Also, some of these sources are available in combination, and offer a great way to save space and money.
Turntable : plays vinyl records of many sizes, typically 33 3/3 or 45 RPM
CD Player : plays CDs (told you this was basic)
DAC : the digital to analog convertor, used to connect various digital components
Streamer : plays music from the internet or local computer, often used with DACs
Computer : same as streamer, but less convenient and typically lower in performance
Portable Device : think iPhone or iPod etc., usually connected wirelessly to a DAC
Don’t feel that you need all of these things. Some may be irrelevant to you. Pick the one that is most important and invest there. A word on digital sources: things change. Buying components the are feature rich may seem like a great idea up front, but often end up in the scrap heap in short order. This is called “planned obsolescence”, and you don’t need to participate. Invest in higher quality, not features. You will be happier in the long run.
Wait, what? What happened to amplifiers? Don’t worry, we’ll get there.
In order of importance, speakers come next. Selecting the right set is critical to ensuring that your system works correctly in your room. Too big, and the sound will overwhelm your room and become bloated. Too small, and the sound will never develop into its full richness and life. This is where a good store can be very helpful. They can make recommendations based on experience and even visit your home to see what works best.
Specifications almost never tell the full story. Frequency response, sensitivity and power handling are simply guides and even speakers of equal spec can sound entirely different. Instead, focus on how you will use them:
- How much physical space do you have, and how much are you willing to give up?
- On the floor, on stands or in bookcases?
- Are you the ‘sit still and listen’ type or do you float around the room while music is
- Do you like lots of power and bass, or do you prefer quieter, gentler listening?
A great speaker manufacturer has products that fit all these scenarios.
Floorstanding speakers usually offer a richer experience, with better bass and more life sized sound. Bookshelf speakers, while not as powerful, can offer an equally satisfying sound for smaller spaces or rooms where floor space is a premium.
Rooms under a 10’ dimension should be fitted with smaller speakers, like a nice bookshelf or compact floorstanding model. Rooms between 10-15' should consider midsize floorstanding models, or possibly augmenting with a subwoofer. While adding a sub offers a great compromise, it will be hard pressed to recreate the sound of a larger speaker. Rooms over a 15’ dimension qualify for larger speakers, where they have enough room to breathe.
For those that prefer good sound while standing or moving around, as opposed to sweet spot listening, you should look for speakers with broad ‘dispersion.’ This kind of speaker spreads its sound around the room, without emphasizing and losing output in any particular range. If you want to check this out, sit down in the sweet spot for a few minutes, listening intently, and then begin to slowly move from left to right, and then up and down. If the sound gains or loses highs or lows in any direction, you are likely listening to a speaker that has poor dispersion. This sound might offer a wonderful experience while seated directly in between, but you lose everywhere else.
The average speaker is comprised of three major components drivers, crossovers and cabinet.
- Drivers (the cones, domes or ribbons you see on the front of speaker) certainly have a major impact on the sound of a speaker. Arguably, this is where the rubber meets the road. A great driver has low distortion within its range.
- The crossover is responsible for dividing the signal so that the appropriate frequencies go to the right drivers, and ensure that the drivers operate together as a team.
- The cabinet is the structure that supports the drivers and places them in the right acoustic environment, allowing them to perform their duties as required.
So why is the amplifier last? Simple. You need to know what you are connecting to it, and what you are connecting it to in order to select amps that have sufficient power and control, high enough resolving capability and low enough distortion to satisfy the speaker.
It’s been said that amplifiers are sold by the pound. Not a bad saying, but it doesn’t tell the whole truth. There is definitely a ratio of quality vs. quantity. TSO prefers a really sweet sounding amp with low power than a barnstormer that glosses over all the details. But that’s just us. To get both power and finesse, cost will go up, yet you may be surprised at the capabilities of a properly designed budget amp.
Like everything else in your HiFi system, simple is often better. Unlike some digital components which seem to go out of date almost as soon as the box is opened, amplifiers can last a long time. For this reason we don’t recommend you purchase an amp that has digital processing onboard.
Not only are they usually lower in performance, they are more expensive to repair should something go wrong. So just like with sources, focus on quality and not features. You’ll be happier with your purchase.
In three steps, you’ve selected the core components of your sound system. By carefully matching your needs, personality and taste, this system will last you for years with room to grow. You’ll need cables and furniture to finish your system, and these can have just as profound an impact on the performance of your system. Once you’ve picked your components, selecting these last pieces should be easy and enjoyable.
Remember, a quality partner can help you with selection and give you great advice on optimization. And, unlike an online purchase, they’ll be around long after your purchase to advise and help.