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Speaker System.....Professional Speakers.....Amplifier.....Valve Amplifiers.....Minimalism.....Inputs.....Getting the Best from your HiFi.....Hifi Home.....HiFi Technical terms

Basic HiFi

The test of a good hifi system is when you stop worrying about it and stop making excuses for it. In other words, when you reach the point where all you hear is the music and never give the equipment a thought - it becomes a transparent tool. Few reach this goal and many spend a lifetime not to mention a wheelbarrow full of money chasing a fleeting illusion. Personally the test is very simple - does the system add anything audible that I can hear to the original source music - any hum, noise, distortion, crackles when the fridge switches off? If the system is totally inert, producing just the sound that was originally recorded then you have achieved HiFi paradise, the music sounds wonderful and your system becomes a source of great relaxation and enjoyment....and now for the adaggio....

What makes a good HiFi?

A combination of good quality, well matched parts where no single item is substantially worse than any of the others. In other words, there is no point spending a small fortune on a superb CD player with 0.002% distortion if you play the music through a pair of cheap speakers with 2% distortion and a limited frequency response. The speakers here are by far the weakest link producing 1000 times more distortion than the input source and will of course destroy the original qualities of the music. On the other hand, there is no point having a superbly sensitive, accurate speaker system if your amplifier is noisy - you will only here hiss and noise all the time. However, there IS an argument to buy the best of each type of part if you are building up your system over time as finances allow it. In this case, it makes sense to buy from the output backwards on the basis that the speakers are used all the time, the mixer amplifier all the time (but only parts of it) and the inputs last as these may / may not be used at all.

Speaker System - The Output Side - Do this first.....Back to Top

So how do we define a good speaker system? Endless pages appear in the technical press many times apparantly contradictory statements appear - how DO you find the right speaker system and how much will it cost?

The traditional way has been to: Read all the press and pick a pair, perhaps go to the local hifi shop and have a demo, get them home and insist they sound wonderful despite what you really think! Or buy them because Fred has some down the road and he's a hifi "expert". Rot!

There may be some validity to reading and comparing specifications, but you MUST understand what you are being told and be able to sift out the rubbish and hype (sales talk) - Speaker comparisons and terms. Fred's speakers might sound OK. The real test is how they perform sat in your home. Short of trying all the speakers at home, how can you do this?
The answer is that you can't and so a purchase made on full facts and logic has to be made rather than an emotional "That's what he's got" or "They look nice" or "It says they are wonderful in this magazine".

Question - Can the sound in your pad be better than in the original studio where the music was made and recorded? Unlikely - so no. Is your aim to get as close as possible to the original sound? Yes- that is the definition of hifi. So think laterally - How can I get as close as possible to the original? The answer is as simple as it is revolutionary. Why not use as much of the same equipment at home as is used to make the music in the first place? Surely it's far too expensive and refined and... The answer is of course that unless you are "In the trade" you never even see the same quality of equipment as used by the professionals. Why is this?

Rocket Scientists - please skip this section. Money - more specifically your money - everyone is after it! The hifi press write copy that sells magazines even if this pursues trivialities. The hifi trade is driven by the press and manufacturers supply what the trade demands - not a good recipe for the best hifi - is it? Wheras the professional audio industry is driven by quality of product ie number of CD's bought and that means serious research into sound delivery. Quantities are small, costs can be astronomical and performance delivery is king.

Professional Speaker Systems.....Back to Top

So the question is - what kinds of speakers are used at source to produce the music in the first place and why are they chosen?
Selection is based on accuracy of sound and quality of delivery (all the things you want at home). Looks are not too important in this scenario. What is important is that the recording engineer, sat in front of a multitude of controls, hears a precisely defined image wherever he is on the desk, hears it at realistic (real) levels with no discernable distortion, and has the confidence that any tonal changes he makes to a voice or instrument, are accurately reproduced by the monitor speakers. Very demanding. Indeed, levels much higher than real life are routinely used to pull out any rattles, squeeks or other unwanted noises from ending up recorded on the track. Lastly, He/She does this for a living - all day every day and hence listener fatigue (absence of) is crucial. What better guarantee of sound quality could you ask for?

Whilst there are a number of speaker types available for this purpose - this site concentrates exclusively on one manufacturer who has been producing such speakers for decades and is based in Scotland. This simplifies to an extreme your speaker selection process whilst guaranteeing the highest quality of sound production currently available. Or at least it DID when I first wrote this article! Now, apparently, Tannoy (what have you done!) have moved their manufacturing overseas to China. Whilst I have nothing against the Chinese per say, they are unlikely to produce the same quality, the same meticulous attention to detail that the original speaker makers did. For this reason, modern speakers are probably a worse choice than selected older ones.

So, having made that point, in fact all you need to decide is:
Do I want stereo, stereo + bass fill or a full surround system? This only affects the number and perhaps size of speaker, making selection very easy and also easy to upgrade in the future ie stereo to full surround. The next section helps you to select your speakers to suit your location.....Show me the Speakers

The Amplifier and signal Selection.....Back to Top

I bought a Quad 44 system (at great expense) many years ago and was aghast to find the pre-amp had a design fault on it - Turning the tilt tone control after switching on produced an annoying click/bang sound (no discharge path for the tone capacitors). Four high value resistors soon cured this but really it should have been sorted prior to release - it was noisy too but replacing the op-amps resolved that one (it still works very well). The point is that even the best manufacturers can produce equipment that proves to be a disapointment. With equipment like amplifiers, specifications are more vital and the ability to decide what is important to you is critical. For example: Signal / Noise specifications for a CD type line input should be 90dB+ or better. Now that is really quiet - inaudible for all normal use and hence an acceptable criterion. A similar product (even if dearer) with a specification for the same input of say 85dB would be rejected - On the grounds that who wants to hear an annoying hiss from the speakers all the time if sat next to one? With the hifi turned on and set to a normal listening level but with no input playing - you should hear NOTHING from the speakers at all.

So with amplifiers, study the specification carefully and make sure that it will meet your requirements. Differences between professional kit and top flight hifi are not so great here though they do vary enormously in functionality. Preamps should be quiet (high SNR figures), as distortion free as possible (lowest %THD) and have a quality mechanical feel. They should be immune from any hum or interference and have a complete absence of switching clicks when swopping program sources, even at high volume levels. Power amplifiers follow the same criterion as preamps but in addition should have ample power reserves, high damping factor and the ability to drive any loudspeaker without instability.

Valve Amplifiers - Which speaker to use?.....Back to Top

Valve amplifiers produce wonderful sounds but with relatively small amounts of output power. Contrary as it may seem, to make full use of this power you need the LARGEST speakers! The reason is speaker efficiency - check the Sensitivity parameter on speaker specifications. The higher the value (in dB / 1W @ 1m), the more volume your speaker will produce for any given power input. A System 1200 speaker will for example produce 95dB (loud) of volume if you were sat 1m in front of the speaker and your amplifier was delivering just 1 Watt!

Minimalism.....Back to Top

Yes it is true that the less electronics you go through the better generally is the sound - BUT - remember that your signal has already gone through dozens of opamps, filters and goodness knows what else digitally at the original mastering studio so don't get carried away with the concept of minimalism. Good quality, well designed electronic circuits can process your hifi with no audible degradation and in fact extra stages to give ultra low impedance outputs (especially at low signal levels), or balanced in/out stages are a positive advantage.

Inputs.....Back to Top

Tend to deal with very small signals and so hum / noise are critical parameters. Go for the same quality specifications as in your amplifier but in addition, check out the mechanical noise as well. Some newer CD players have all plastic drive components and are prone to vibration and rattling.

Getting the Best from your HiFi Good engineering - Geek free!.....Back to Top

  • Gold Plated Everything - Yes gold plating DOES make a difference on connectors - you get a more consistent and crucially more reliable (long term) connection. Gold does not tarnish or degrade significantly in the presence of air. Gold is good. Gold plated mains wiring is ..... expensive.

  • Mains Wiring - If you want to ensure a noise and distortion free mains supply - buy a generator and do it yourself. Assuming you have to use the national grid - A few pointers:

    • Your hifi converts the incoming mains to a pure dc (like your car) power source. If it does this well, the incoming mains can be almost any size and shape, contain massive distortion and keep dipping or surging briefly without any effect whatsoever on your hifi. The inbuilt convertor will smooth out all disturbances, have sufficient reserves of stored charge to cope with brief mains dips or loud bursts of music and will eliminate all interference. Most equipment fails to meet this standard - so what can we do to help?
    • Isolated mains feeds - A seperate mains feed just for the hifi wired back to the distribution point will help reduce interference from the fridge. Keep wires physically seperated (8"+) ie the ring main (+fridge) wiring away from the hifi wiring.
    • Gold plated mains plug? - No thanks - use an ordinary one but make sure the pins are clean and don't forget the mains socket itself - that will have tarnished and even burnt connections over time. Get a reliable electrician to check it out.
    • Gold plated mains lead - You would achieve FAR FAR more by adding your investment to upgrading your speakers! Gold plated mains leads achieve nothing concrete BUT - As explained above - connections do tarnish over time and especially plated copper ones. If you must, buy a new set of good quality mains plug to IEC (equipment connection) leads every three years or so and make sure they use good quality cable that is heavy enough for the job.
    • Earth - You need a good earth connection. Earth wiring should be bonded to the gas + water + electricity supplies where they enter the property (not if they are plastic!). This is usually good enough but some properties require an additional "technical" earth consisting of a long (3 - 4 feet) steel rod (or even series of rods) hammered into the ground ideally at a moist point. A thick 6mm + earth cable is bonded to the rod(s) (make sure it is clean BEFORE bonding) and run to the hifi earth connection point. Run ALL your hifi kit from a SINGLE mains socket and extend this using multiple connection blocks.

  • Speaker Wiring - The aim is to connect the power amplifier directly to the speaker. By doing this we eliminate cable losses and effects and get maximum power transfer. In the real world we connect the amplifier to the speaker by a length of cable which can do funny things to the sound. For example, if you connect your speaker to the amplifier using some standard gauge bell wire, you will lose almost as much power through the cable itself as you get from the speaker. The lower the resistance of the wire in relation to the speaker resistance (impedance at ac) the better is the power transfer and the louder the sound. So size or more specifically Cross Sectional Area (CSA) in mm does matter, but cable resistance matters MORE and if you can supercool the cable (liquid nitrogen) so much the better as you will get maximum power transfer! So the ideal speaker cable is: short, and has low resistance usually obtained through an adequately large CSA and may be plated - remember low resistance is king here. Other parameters such as inductance and capacitance can also have an effect but are reduced by following the previous advice. More detail see.....Technical

  • Speaker Stands - Do make a difference. If your stand wobbles then when the cannon goes off in the 1812 overture, your speaker will wobble too (action and reaction law) and you will lose the effect. Speakers need to be firmly anchored so they cannot move about and this becomes more important as the frequency reduces (the deeper parts of the music) and the loudness increases. Heavier speakers wobble less.

  • Crossovers - The flatest frequency response is obtained by using an electronic crossover unit to precisely tailor the speaker performance to your power amplifier. This is getting beyond straight hifi and more into studio performance. Equipment exists that will flatten out your speaker frequency response even more, and give a precise changeover point between main speaker and sub bass unit. Please enquire if really interested though be aware the kit is expensive. To be honest, a standard graphic equaliser is more likely to ruin your sound than improve it with the level of equipment presented on this website and the best policy is to use little if any equalisation at all. In fact all the speakers shown on this site are so good that no equalisation is recommended for normal use except for a high frequency roll off on sub bass units.
  • HiFi Home.....Back to Top


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