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?
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?
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:
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