System Building Guide
Building your first proper hi-fi system should be easy but often it is made incredibly complicated. Taking advice from a friend will inevitably involve them trying to sell you the same system they have bought. Experts and hi-fi magazines often talk in an arcane language that is hard to grasp. Forums even make experts sweat. So who should you trust?
First find a good shop and then trust your ears!
A good shop will want to help you. They’ll listen to your requirements and suggest products that they think will meet them. They will then play music you know on those components or systems. If they don’t then you really need to try another shop. Beware of shops that are “too busy” to help you or won’t make the time to talk to you, to listen to you and to play you equipment. You would never buy a car without driving it and you should never buy a stereo component or system without listening to it.
I’ve worked with hi-fi equipment for 35 years and I know a lot about how to make good sound but I know less than you about what you like. In fact until I spend some time with you I know NOTHING about what you like. That’s why it is important for me to listen to you.
I need to know on which format your music is stored. I need to know how big your room is and I need to discover how good a sound you actually need to enable you to enjoy listening to music. There is little point in me demonstrating massive speakers if you have a small room, or an expensive record player if your music is stored on your i-Phone.
That’s one of our demo rooms. We can play music to you and you can listen in an environment like your home. There is no pressure to hurry and no pressure to buy. Our experience helps us suggest products until we find the sound that is right for you.
Separates or all-in-ones?
Five years ago we would have said separates every time! But more recently manufacturers like Naim Audio, Cyrus and Quad have been making some rather fantastic one-box solutions.
These units offer similar performance to separates but are much smaller and more convenient. They take up a lot less room and many of them can even be hidden out of sight. They’re at home in a large room or a small one and they have an appealing simplicity.
The ears have it
You can determine how good something is by listening to it. If it doesn’t sound right to you it isn’t. That sounds like an oversimplification but it is the truth. Nobody is better qualified than you to determine what you like. If the shop or the salesperson makes you feel like you can’t voice your opinion; especially if it a negative one – then you are in the wrong shop. Experts can have a habit of being know it alls. It isn’t at all helpful. You don’t want the system you like; you need to find out the best one for you.
Start at the beginning
If you are buying a component system then bear in mind that the most important component is the source. That would usually be a record player or a CD player or even a streamer. If you start with a poor signal then even the best amplifier and speakers can’t recover it. Garbage in garbage out. So get it right here and it will save you a load of money and grief in the long run.
An example of this might help. If you were buying a record playing system with a budget of £1500 we’d suggest that half the budget would go to the record player and the balance get split between amplifier and speakers. Our experience has shown us the sonic benefits of this.
In a digital system it can be different but we tend to still follow the old rule of source first, amplifier next and speakers last. Many people are surprised by this because their mind tells them that the speaker (the thing that makes the noise) is the most important component. In fact speakers can only reproduce what they are given. A good signal into a moderate speaker will sound better than the reverse.
Take your time and compare
You’ll only realise how good something is by comparing it with something else. You need to hear a good CD player compared with a better one. Or a pair of good budget speakers compared with some mid-priced ones. You will be shocked at how big the differences are.
Getting in the demo room to listen isn’t a trap. It’s the best way of choosing a stereo. But don’t be pushed, rushed or pressured. If you don’t feel comfortable or relaxed; head for the door. I would go as far as to say one of your most important choices is the right shop.
Simple is almost always best
Good stereo equipment is simple. It might have remarkable complexity in the technology or extremely high tolerance engineering in it’s design and manufacture but good equipment is almost always simple.
Take Rega for example; a small British engineering firm who make fantastic sounding (and exceptional value) audio equipment. Often there is the barest of minimum of controls on the equipment and yet the sound is sublime. Rega set a very high bar for performance and value for money. Put simply their equipment is good at reproducing music.
What more does an amplifier need but an on/off switch, an input selector and a volume control?
Speakers are the last thing to consider. That isn’t to say they are unimportant. They need to be good enough to do the job and to fit into your lounge. Massive speakers don’t work in small rooms and small speakers sound lost in immense rooms. Common sense needs to prevail. Speakers work by moving air. Our ear works by reading the movements in air as pressure. It’s physics. A small speaker will have to work flat out to fill a large room. Making a speaker work very hard tends to make the sound distort and become hard on the ear.
We’ll help of course and we can advise on what will work best. We also appreciate that sometimes it is extremely important that the speakers are discreet. We know a few products which break the rules a little and offer surprising results, even from a small box.
Cables and wires
Think minefield. There is more rubbish talked about cables and wires than we can believe possible. Even worse is the fact that some of it has no basis on physics! We don’t involve ourselves with products like this because we value your time and don’t want to waste it.
When you have a stereo system it is important that the cables you use to connect it up are good enough to do the job properly. After that it can quickly descend into silly money and we do not entertain selling cables that cost more than the equipment it is connecting together. Common sense prevails!
We will gladly install any system we sell. We do this because we care that you get the sound you heard in our listening room. We don’t charge for this unless you want carpets lifting and cables burying in the walls. We can still do that but we use an installation expert who is capable of anything without damaging your décor.
Find the right shop, take your time and walk if you don’t feel comfortable. And trust your ears! Always trust your ears!
I hope you’ve enjoyed this. We will be adding more on his topic soon.