Introduction to Home Audio

Audiophile or Audio-Phool?  I don’t claim to have golden ears with magical properties.  Nor do I tout any ability to create music.  But I have a deep appreciation for music, founded at a young age, and added to over the years.  I’m also unapologetically a bit of a gear head and love lights, buttons, meters, switches and big metal boxes that plug into the wall.  I’ve owned quite a bit, listened a whole lot, and always been part of the audio hobby to some extent.  With a new son, I thought it couldn’t hurt to share what I’ve learned.  As with everything, take it for what it is:  this is one person’s opinion.

Cables

Monster Cable vs Coat Hangers

Super Expensive vs Super Cheap

This is one of the most contentious discussions in the audio hobby (which always tends to dissolve into name calling online).  Do cables make a difference?  I think the answer is probably, but for most people and most systems, very little.  Buy something that you like the look/feel of and have confidence in (the placebo effect is very much in play here).  Don’t buy the cheapest, poorly constructed junk available and on the other side, personally, I wouldn’t ever spend a fortune on cables.  Keep it within reason as a small percentage of your whole system’s cost – that is likely the same percentage they make in the overall sound.

There is only conflicting information available.  Anything from blind tests “proving” Monster Cables are sonically indistinguishable from coat hangers to the coating on the individual strands of wire making dramatic audible improvements.  On the very best, most revealing equipment, different wires may well make audible (if ever so slight) differences (a bit like a subtle non-adjustable equalizer).  Which is better?  That is in the ear of the beholder.

Want my simple recommendation for audio interconnects?  Component Video Cables.  Low capacitance (required for video) makes them perfect for turntables (and every other connection).  I use surplus Monster Cable THX component video cables for all my audio connections between components.  Each set comes with 3 cables (red, green, blue) so 2 sets yields 3 stereo pairs.  Purchased for less than $10 from Princess Auto electronic surplus, they are attractive (thick and nicely covered), well shielded from interference, and have solid, gold plated (useful for anti-oxidization properties) connections that grip (perhaps a bit too) tightly.  Many in the hobby will sneer at the brand and logo (typically considered overpriced for the performance with circumspect data and claims) but purchased this way, the price to performance can’t be beat IMO.

How about digital cables such as HDMI or Optical (SPDIF)?  In short runs, there is no discernible difference in sound or picture quality between the most expensive and the least (that functions properly).  I use Dollar Store cables and have never experienced an issue.  More expensive cables *may* survive more abuse or plugs/unplugs but even a $3 Dollar Store HDMI cable is thick, has gold-plated connections and has proven quite robust.

Speaker cables are the final part of the analog audio chain.  Within reason, bigger diameter wire (smaller gauge number) is better.  Thinner wire works fine for short connections (<10 feet), but since it is so inexpensive, plain old flexible 12 or 14 gauge copper wire made up of many tiny strands for flexibility (whether from an extension cord or actual ‘audio’ grade wire) will work just fine for most reasonable runs (say less than 100 feet). Don’t cheap out and buy 18 or 22 gauge wire, when 14 gauge is just going to cost a few dollars more.  When the speaker and amplifier allows, I like to terminate the cables with gold plated banana plugs for plugging and un-plugging convenience (inexpensively sourced from Ebay).

In general, it is difficult to go wrong if you purchase all your cables from the excellent online retailer:  www.monoprice.com.  Their house brand cables for everything from speakers to iPhone chargers are often mentioned online as the best bang for the buck option.  I’ve been impressed with every product I’ve ever purchased from them.  The other oft recommended ‘good’ but ‘inexpensive’ brand is Blue Jeans cable (your definition of good and inexpensive may likely vary).

Source

Analog vs Digital

Turntable (records) vs CD / DVD / MP3 / FLAC / ALAC

DACs and Computers

Traditional thinking here is:  garbage in = garbage out.  In other words, your stereo can only sound as good as the music you are playing on it.  If something is recorded poorly, or played back poorly, it doesn’t matter how expensive or great the rest of your gear is, it is not going to sound good.  Fair enough; hard to argue with that logic.

Analog sources include vinyl, 8-track, cassette tape and reel-to-reel tape.  You will find fans of them all, who believe no digital recording, mixing or playback in the chain is audibly superior.  I really have no love for tapes of any sort these days.  I like vinyl.  It is immensely satisfying to purchase, to give as gifts, to open and to play.  It changes music listening from a couple of clicks  on a device or a mouse, to an interactive ritual.  Vinyl has got me back into perusing used record stores – a much loved pastime for my younger self.  In the world of the intangible digital, vinyl is a wonderful archaic magic that you can hold in your hands.  A tiny diamond tipped wand vibrates as it travels along a half-kilometre long spiral groove cut into a piece of plastic, and music comes out?  Shazam.

Are vinyl records inherently better than digital sources (CD, DVD, mp3 or FLAC)?  Even if you completely ignore the crackle and pops of dust and the (almost inevitable) scratches on records, the answer is no.  Poorly recorded or mastered music regardless of format, sounds bad (and vice-versa).  The Civil Wars album on vinyl (even though it is a heavy-weight ‘audiophile’ pressing) is a good example of this.  It sounds bad (muffled with limited range and dynamics) compared to the digital version of the same album.  On first listen, my wife and I were concerned of a hardware failure in the record player because the sound was so immediately noticeably inferior.  On the other hand, I have many well-made records (and CD’s) that sound just fantastic.  The short-lived DVD-Audio and SACD (Super Audio CD) digital formats are (with properly mastered material) fairly jaw-dropping in their improved sound quality over the standard releases (the Barenaked Ladies: Maroon and SEAL: Greatest Hits are great introductions to the potential of this medium – they take pop music you likely are familiar with and surprise the listener with a sound so much better than their CD equivalents). 

Turntables are physical objects.  They rely on a physical interaction between the needle (stylus) and the record (no lasers nor computers here).  Therefore the quality of the needle makes a difference in the quality of the sound.  A mid range stylus sounds better than a cheap one.  I can only assume that a high end stylus continues the trend although my personal experience tops out at around a $200 model (Ortofon 2M Blue) that definitely sounds better than its half price younger brother (which was no slouch).  Expect to spend at least $50+ for something satisfying and keep in mind that they do wear out with use (perhaps lasting 1000 hours when properly treated). I should also mention that they are fragile; misuse will irreparably damage a stylus (and your records).

The digital audio world in computers was originally built on compression.  That is, finding ways of taking less storage space to store an album, and thus the lossy format mp3 was born.  The mp3 has always been much maligned by audiophiles, due to sound quality depreciation inherent in higher compressed (smaller sized) files.  This is less of an issue these days as recording algorithms have greatly improved, and storage space keeps getting less expensive.  Popular thought is that a high quality mp3 (320 kbps) is (virtually?) indistinguishable from the non-compressed version.  My current feeling is that it isn’t worth taking the risk to save a little (inexpensive) storage space.  Store digital files in FLAC (or Apple’s ALAC) and if you really want to put a compressed version on a portable device, it is easy enough to convert the stored perfect uncompressed version to whatever is desired.

Computers tend to be noisy devices more focussed on computing power than in outputting perfect audio.   A decent external DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) connected via USB to the computer and via analog RCA cables to the stereo is the best way to experience excellent quality playback of computerized digital files (equal in sound to a good CD player but with all the convenience inherent in digital music library management – and therefore have essentially replaced the CD in my life).  DACs are computing equipment, and like all tech, advances mean that newer less expensive models can be equal or better than older very expensive options.  In the used market, I’d suggest to shop for one that is only a few years old; newer models support higher resolution file playback and may be more compatible with newer operating systems.

Amplification

Solid State vs Tubes

Wattage vs Volume vs Sensitivity of Speakers

Pre 1970 the standard for amplification was using glass vacuum tubes.  After about that date, solid-state (diodes, transistors, etc) amplification became common.  On paper and in theory, the two approaches should yield similar result, but the difference can be quite noticeable.  Of course mixing and matching tube pre-amplifier stages (the tone, balance and source controls) with solid-state amplifiers (and vice versa) is also possible for creating a final desired sound. 

Tube amps are generally more expensive in initial cost and to operate (because you need to replace the tubes occasionally), and solid-state amps are generally less delicate and more reliable. Many music lovers however, feel that tube amps yield a warmer, more musical tone and more musical-sounding distortion.  Solid-state may be more clinically accurate in sound reproduction, however the distortion inherent in tube design, may create a more pleasing sound to some ears.  As with everything to do with stereo music playback, the determination of ‘better’ is in the ear of the listener. 

The process of tube rolling (trying out different tubes, typically from different manufacturers, in the same spot in an amplifier and selecting the one that sounds best) is a flexibility unique to tube amplification.  You can’t just easily swap in a different component in a solid-state amplifier.  The different sounding tubes act as a type of hardware equalizer to further customize the sound of the amp to the owner’s preference.  Of course this can quickly become a very expensive game of trial and error.

For very high power output, solid-state is basically the only way to go; tube amplification is typically quite low wattage.  Using a hybrid model of tube pre-amp with a solid-state amp gets around this problem by giving the desired tube-sound and solid-state power.  Note however, that low power does not necessarily equate to low volume.

Wattage is the number one ‘selling’ point of most amplifiers and speakers.  Somehow wattage has been misunderstood to equate to volume (and the theory that more is better – sort of like megapixels and cameras).  Bigger numbers always seem to cost more and numbers are easy to sell – A has more than B so therefore A must be better.  (Note: I’ve borrowed much of what follows from a really excellent writeup I read this year.)

Volume is a function of SPL (Sound Pressure Level) measured in decibels (dB).  Speakers are typically rated for maximum wattage they can handle and the SPL as something like “87dB @ 1W/1Meter” (87-89dB speaker ratings are fairly common – inefficient speakers like Magnepan planar speakers are 86dB). In other words, the 87dB speaker will produce 87 decibels with just 1 watt of amplifier power at a distance of 1 meter. (Note: this is actually reasonably loud – very loud is 97dB and 107dB would cause most people pain and eventually hearing damage – so the range is fairly narrow).  You may run across the statement that “the first watt is the most important”.  This refers to the fact that most listening is typically done with the amplifier only running at about 1 watt of power, so it would be preferable if the amp sounded the best at this level.

Now consider that it takes double the wattage to get a 3dB increase in volume level. So a 100 watt amplifier will give you a 3dB increase in volume level over a 50 watt amp.  However, 3dB isn’t that noticeable (not very audible). To actually notice a doubling of perceived volume level it takes a 10dB increase.

So let’s use the 87dB speaker:

1 watt = 87dB

2 watts = 90dB (doubled the power to get the 3dB increase)

4W = 93dB

8W = 96dB

16W = 99dB

32W = 101dB

64W = 104dB

128W = 107dB

256W = 110dB  (amplifiers of this wattage power and speakers that can handle this are few and far between)

512W = 113dB

There is another way to achieve dB and it has nothing to do with the a more powerful amplifier, namely: speaker sensitivity.

If you have a 97db sensitive speaker (many Klipsch speaker models are around this) you can redo the chart above with:

1W = 97db

2W = 100dB

4W = 103db

8W = 106dB

16W = 109dB

With the 87dB speaker you would need approximately a 250 watt per channel amplifier to achieve the same volume that a 16 watt amplifier will achieve with the 97dB speaker.

Do it again with a 107dB (uncommonly sensitive) speaker:

1W = 107dB

2W = 110dB (With just 2 watts the 107dB speakers are matching the 97dB speaker with 16 watts and the 87dB speaker with 256 watts.)

So, a 2 watt amp can put out the same volume as a 256 watt amplifier. It all depends on the sensitivity of the connected loudspeakers.  This is where you can see how very low wattage tube amplifiers are actually usable.  Their owners will often pair them with sensitive speakers for the best results.  My daily music system uses a 17.5 WPC tube amplifier driving 96dB speakers and I can attest that high volume is easily achievable with this setup in a medium sized room.  There are many folks out there that use a 2-5 WPC tube amplifier with very sensitive speakers to great success.

There is also a theory of ‘vintage’ amplifier wattage claims vs ‘modern’ wattage claims.  This may be due to misrepresentation (outright lies – I’m looking at you 1000W+ mini systems), misdirection (measurement at distortion at a specific frequency vs the full audible range), or (perhaps) nostalgia.  Don’t get me wrong.  I love good vintage gear.  Is every piece of audio equipment made before 1980 awesome, while everything afterwards is the essence of BPC (Black Plastic Crap)?  Of course not.  There always was good and bad.  Unfortunately the design aesthetic of pre-1980 silver-faced gear got lost when 80’s economic changes forced many smaller companies to be sold to survive, and the design of ‘more buttons are better’, took over.  Digital tuners replaced the old string-driven dials.  Heavy aluminum was often replaced with plastic.  Discrete components were replaced with cheaper (and non user-serviceable) integrated circuits and chips.  There are many very valid reasons that 70’s gear is super collectable and popular right now.

There is a lot of really terrific modern stereo equipment.  Most of what you see is multi-channel home theatre gear (that is really designed to do just that and not play a 2 channel stereo source).  Of course to meet a price point, certain compromises are made to included 5, 7, or 9 amplifier circuits and sound fields, video scaling, digital displays, etc.  Once you start looking at dedicated 2 channel music amplifiers, there are many fantastic options, but since they are no longer the norm, tend to be more boutique and expensive.  Since the basics have changed little in the past 4 decades or so, RCA line level connections, speaker specifications, amplifier power etc, the vintage stuff really seems to be a terrific bargain.  Where the video standards seem to change yearly to keep up with TV changes, plain old stereo music amplification equipment standards have been delightfully stagnant (to the great benefit to us listeners). 

Remember that a piece of vintage equipment is just that.  Vintage.  Old.  Used.  Electrolytic capacitors are a solid-state component that does change over time.  Even with regular use, electrolytics fail with age by drying out or leaking electrolyte.  This changes the value and function of the capacitor and the workings and sound of the equipment will change (and possibly fail).  So, newer components may be more reliable over time.  Cost of refurbishment should be factored into any vintage component purchase.

Speakers

Spend your money here!

Bookshelf vs Floor Standing

Where should I spend most of my money when I buy a stereo system?  There really isn’t a definitive rule regarding where percentages should be spent, however if I had my druthers, I’d say you can’t go wrong with about 50% of the total budget spent on speakers.  Speakers are where the rubber meets the road: they are where electrical signals are transformed into moving diaphragms that shape the sound waves that hit your ears.  They simply make the biggest difference in how a given system sounds and performs. 

Admittedly bad recordings, or bad playback can never sound perfect, however with typically decent recordings played on properly functioning components, the choice in speaker is what defines the sound of a stereo system.  Small speakers are unable to create big, deep bass (of course they can be paired with a subwoofer and a full sound can be achieved).  Different woofer sizes (typically 6”-12”) sound different.  Different tweeter types (cloth or metal, domed, horn, piezo, cone, ribbon, etc) all sound different.   The number of drivers (2-way, 3-way or more) also make a difference to the sound. 

Crossovers are the electronic board within the speaker and define what frequencies are sent to each driver.  Complexity, quality and design of crossover make a big difference in the sound of a speaker. Even the quality of the enclosure makes a difference.  Heavy, thick panels tend to make a more solid and less resonant sounding speaker. 

So.  What’s best?   The answer my friend, is not an easy one.  I used to think I didn’t like horn speakers (after Cerwin Vega experiences) but it turns out I really like the sound of some Klipsch models.  Bose has to be the most maligned major speaker brand around; their focus on marketing rather than research has soured many audio fanatics.  Whether common or boutique, brands can make great (and some really not so great) sounding models. 

Some speakers are really good at playback of certain musical styles:  dubstep has different requirements than does folk.  Country vs rap.  Pop vs classical.  Some speakers do some things better than others… big deep bass is more important to some ears than others, huge concert level volume is more important to some than to others.  Some speakers are more fun sounding; some more clinical.  The only way to know for you is to hear and try as many different speakers as possible with the music that you like to listen to.  My current favourites?  Late ’70’s JBL L112’s.  They make me smile every time I listen to them.  Can’t beat that.

So now what?

Remember, like most things electronic, spending money on stereo equipment is an exercise in diminishing returns.  Yes, you do have to make an investment to have a great sounding stereo.  However, pretty quickly after that, good money starts following bad.  Upgrades are more and more subtle and more and more expensive.  It’s exciting and fun to chase the ‘perfect sound’; far be it for me to talk you out of the great pursuit.  Keep an eye on your budget and buy within your means.  The great news is that there are deals aplenty (especially in used gear from other audiophiles climbing the upgrade ladder).  Whether your budget be astronomical or ever so humble, you can have a great sounding stereo system with a little (delightful) work.