- Important starting points for the further description of the experiences
- The most important component of a Hi-Fi installation
- The core of the Hi-Fi installation
- Playback equipment
- Cables and power supply
My audiophile experiences really started in 2013. Before that, it was limited to listening to my Hi-Fi installation. In 2013 I started building a PC to play music as an alternative to the CD player. The software in particular proved to be a difficult point. But the efforts yielded results. The music PC eventually had a better sound quality than the CD player.
A few years later, a bigger challenge awaited me. Moved to my new home, set up the Hi-Fi installation and …… .. a thumping bass. Such that you could not enjoy the music. What now? Purchased a measuring microphone and software and started working on the position of the speakers and the setup of the sub(woofer). The result no more thumping bass and more than acceptable sound quality. In retrospect, this appears to have been a very important step. This step has provided a solid foundation for the sound quality of my Hi-Fi installation.
In the same period, I also met a colleague (whom I can now call a friend) at work who is also an audiophile and was busy improving his installation. You start listening to each other’s installation and you hear that the other installation is better at some points. This led to a healthy competition in which many things have been tried and tested and a great deal of experience was gained. As a current result two Hi-Fi installations that can be placed next to much more expensive Hi-Fi installations without being ashamed. We have often said to each other recently that a few years ago we never thought we could achieve this result. And we still have many ideas for further improvements.
For the sake of completeness or clarification, below I have described my (/our) experiences to obtain a Hi-Fi installation with a sound quality that approaches that of much more expensive Hi-Fi installations. Definitely this is the not the only way to achieve this. Without a doubt there are other ways to achieve a comparable result. Take advantage of the experiences described below and in the future you may also have a Hi-Fi installation with a sound quality that approaches that of much more expensive installations without spending a small fortune on it.
Important starting points for the further description of the experiences
Three important principles have been applied, the first being a neutral sound of the entire installation and of the individual components. In the longer term, this is the nicest thing to listen to. In addition components in the installation can more easily be exchanged to experiment, and of course to improve the installation, without having to change other components.
The second principle is a more difficult one: high sound quality at reasonable costs. Anyone who has been seriously involved with Hi-Fi knows that to achieve the highest sound quality everything counts. With an infinite budget you should bring all parts in the Hi-Fi chain to the highest level. If you belong to this group, I do not expect you to read my experiences. Most likely you have already engaged someone to do all this for you. I address that large remaining group who have to make do with a (more) limited budget.
And last but not least, you can only begin to talk of a good sound quality from an installation when at least the requirement is met that the music fascinates you and you do not want to stop listening.
The most important component of a Hi-Fi installation
The listening room! You may not have expected this, but the listening room has a major impact on the sound quality. Take for example a new home with a living room without furniture and curtains. Clap your hands and you will hear a hollow sound with an echo. These are the resonances of the mid and high tones. Dressing the listening room with furniture, curtains/wall coverings and a carpet ensures a damping of these tones. With the handclap test you will get a good impression of whether the dressing of the listening room is sufficient or not. Exaggeration is also not needed, the space will then sound “dead”. Sometimes it is more favourable for aesthetic and/or practical reasons to work with special acoustic elements in a living room or a special listening room that diffuses and/or absorbs the middle and high frequencies.
The above approach to the mid and high frequencies is sufficient in most cases. Remain the lower frequencies, the bass. Almost every listening room has, to a greater or lesser extent, a problem with resonance frequencies of the bass, often experienced as “thumping of the bass”. This is due to the limited dimensions of our listening rooms. As soon as the smallest size of the listening room is larger than give or take 10 meters, the bass problems are no longer perceptible to our human ear. This is one of the reasons that the music in a concert hall sounds so good.
A bass that does not sound as good as it might is expressed in one bass frequency that dominates, the bass is “mudded” and the different bass frequencies cannot be distinguished. But the multiples of these bass frequencies also influence the mid and high frequencies. When improving the bass frequencies, people also experience an improvement in the mid and high frequencies. That is why good bass is so important, it is the foundation for the sound quality of the Hi-Fi installation.
Improving the quality of the bass is a tricky one. What is possible with the medium and high frequencies with limited means, you quickly need large means in terms of size for the bass. Not practical in our listening rooms, certainly not in a living room that needs to be shared with the rest of the family. A compromise is the use of relatively small speakers that cannot “input” so much energy into the listening room. This does however detract from the sound experience. The placement of the speakers further from corners and the rear wall also helps. A reasonable compromise can be achieved if the speakers can be placed 1 to 1.5 meters into the listening room. In a living room this is often a problem. Or you must have a very accommodating wife (for the sake of convenience I assume that you belong to the male and aging part of the population). A suggestion I came across on another website: another wife? You will understand that I cannot make any further suggestions or statements about this.
If the above described steps to improve the quality of the bass are not possible or give insufficient results, the remaining step is: DSP (“digital sound processing”). Simply stated, this is adjusting the amplitude of the different (bass) frequencies, such that the resonances are eliminated. If properly addressed, and I repeat if properly addressed, this can produce very good results.
DSP can be applied in several ways. The best known and obvious way is to do this with the playback equipment by using an equalizer or “room correction” software depending on the type of playback equipment. This is also the most detested method for audiophiles, because the entire frequency range is “processed” and a sound quality loss occurs. But if you have a serious bass problem and if this is the only possible solution, then the benefits clearly outweigh the disadvantages.
A correct method to apply DSP is to only do this for the bass frequencies, this is up to a frequency of approximately 200 Hz. This has to do with certain characteristics of the human ear, as a result of which we do not properly perceive certain characteristics of the sound up to approximately 200 Hz and therefore we can adjust the sound without experiencing loss of sound quality. This means that we pass on the original signal to the part of the loudspeaker that reproduces the mid and treble and to process the signal to the part of the loudspeaker that reproduces the bass using DSP. This includes a DSP module and separate amplifier for the bass part of the speaker. This DSP module and separate amplifier are often built into the speaker.
If you already have speakers or have a preference for speakers for which this DSP method is not possible, then there is also an indirect method that can produce almost as good results. A good quality sub(woofer) is used for this. This is then setup so that resonances of the bass frequencies are removed. Depending on the setting options of the sub, this can be more or less accurate.
The core of the Hi-Fi installation
The core of the Hi-Fi installation is the combination of the loudspeaker and the amplifier. The loudspeaker is the most decisive here, because it must “fit” into the listening room. Not too small to give a good sound experience and not too big to give insoluble bass problems. Should the speakers have to be small due to the dimensions of the room and/or aesthetic considerations, the addition of a sub(woofer) may be the solution. If the speakers are relatively large for the room, the placement of the speakers is very important and DSP should almost certainly be applied in one of the ways discussed above.
Furthermore, the loudspeaker and the amplifier must be a technical match. Put simply, the amplifier must be able to provide the required current that a loudspeaker requires. Or vice versa, if a certain amplifier, for example a tube amplifier, is preferred, then the loudspeaker must not demand more current than the amplifier can supply.
The choice of speakers and amplifiers is big. There is often a personal preference for a certain type and/or brand of speaker and/or amplifier. Being well advised and listening to the (combination) of the desired speaker and amplifier is important. When choosing the amplifier, it is also important that it can easily control the loudspeaker, the amplifier must not be “overloaded”. The signal that the amplifier sends to the speaker can distort and this may cause damage to the speaker. Depending on which playback equipment you want to connect to the amplifier, you must also pay attention to sufficient and the correct connections on the amplifier.
With regard to the playback equipment, the aim is to ensure that it is of the same sound quality level as the core of the Hi-Fi installation, the speaker-amplifier combination. Less and one does not achieve the full potential from the speaker and amplifier. More and you hardly hear the better sound of the playback equipment, because the loudspeaker-amplifier combination is the limiting factor.
For a Hi-Fi installation, the playback equipment can in general be divided into two groups, analogue and digital. An analogue playback device is, for example, a record player, and digital playback device is, for example, a CD player. My experiences are limited to digital playback equipment. With digital playback equipment it is (almost) always a digital file in a certain format that must be read, transported to the digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) and converted by the digital-to-analogue converter to an analogue signal that is presented to an amplifier. The overview below shows the main digital playback options in a simplified form.
With the first digital playback option of a CD via a CD player, the CD drive largely determines the sound quality. Good “reading” of a CD appears to be difficult for audio applications. The “read” for audio applications should in principle be right at once, while for computer applications there are more error correction options.
With the second digital playback option, the CD is first ripped, often on a separate computer and sometimes integrated into the playback device. The CD is “read” and checked whether this is done correctly. If this is not the case, certain parts of the CD will be read again until this is done correctly (this is not possible if you want to play the CD directly!). With the right rip software, the digital music file is a qualitatively exact copy of the information on the CD. For the software to rip a CD, the choice is simple if you want quality: dBPoweramp or Exact Audio Copy. The digital music files can be stored locally on for example a hard disk or a NAS (“Network Attached Storage”).
To play your digital music files, you must transport them to the DAC. For this you use playback equipment often referred to as music server and streamer. These are all computers basically. Often with specially selected hardware components, an optimized operating system (based on Windows or Linux) and a program with which you interact to play the digital music files (the “playback program”). What you see on the screen of the “playback program” and the possibilities that this program offers you, often determine which “playback program” you choose. And there are a lot of these “playback programs”, free and not free. You have to realize that this “playback program” with the optimized operating system and the specially selected hardware together determine the sound quality. And to make it even more difficult for you, this playback equipment sometimes does not consist of one physical device, but of several devices in a chain to separate functions and “clean up” the signal in between, all with the aim of achieving an even better sound quality. The sound quality of the digital path has since reached the same level as that of the analogue pad. But you will understand from the above, be well advised!
Playing a digital music file from a streaming service is basically the same as playing a locally stored music file. Your “playback program” should offer this option and you must be subscribed to the relevant streaming service.
Unfortunately for those who expected the digital path to be less critical than the analogue path (“they are just zeros” 0 “and ones” 1 “, what can go wrong with that?”). Here too, everything counts to achieve good sound quality perhaps even more than with the analogue path. Then why choose the digital path? These are in particular the ease of use by operating the installation “from the chair” via, for example, a tablet and the possible availability of a much larger music collection via one or more streaming services.
Cables and power supply
Yes, cables also have an impact on sound quality. Perhaps not or not worth mentioning with a simpler stereo system, but definitely for the level of the Hi-Fi installation that we are aiming for. The task of a cable is to transmit the signal from one component to the other without loss and without change (“coloration” of the sound). Due to the complex composition of the (electrical) sound signal, this appears to be more difficult than often thought. This is influenced by the cable itself (materials, geometry), by the connected components and by external influences (electromagnetic radiation from low to high frequencies).
If we explore a bit more the construction of a cable, the following are important: the conductor, the insulation of the conductor and the layout in which the various conductors are assembled in a cable. Copper, silver or a silver/gold alloy are normally used for the conductor in an increasing material price. The most important thing to note here is that it is better to opt for a (very) good quality of a basically cheaper conductor material than for a lesser quality of a basically more expensive conductor material. The quality of a conductor is determined by the purity of the material, a minimal number of crystal boundaries in the material and the (smooth) finish of the surface of the conductor. The insulation around the conductor is also important, it has (unfortunately) an interaction with the conductor. The most ideal insulation is (sufficient) air, but this makes the construction of the cable very difficult and therefore also expensive. The two other insulation materials that have proven themselves are PTFE and XLPE or a variant thereof. The layout in which the different conductors are assembled in a cable is largely determined by the signal that passes through the cable. The conductors for a loudspeaker cable with a lot of current and with a large variation passing through will have a different layout than for an interconnect with much less current passing through. Furthermore, it is also possible to shield a cable with a metal braid for the high-frequency electromagnetic radiation from outside. Sometimes this has a positive effect on the sound quality, sometimes a negative one.
With a cable, not only the conductors, but also the connectors/plugs are important for a good transmission of the signal. Here too, the materials used and the design are important. For example, the quality of contact with the conductor is important. Poor contact results in signal loss. Yes, I know most of the signal still passes through the contact and that is not a problem for most applications, but for a good Hi-Fi installation we do not want a signal loss! This also means that the contact that the pins make from one connector to the other connector is important. Make sure these pins are clean, free from corrosion/deposits and not damaged. In other words, handle your cables and also connectors/plugs with care. You will notice this in better sound quality.
A frequently asked question is what is wise to spend on cables. It is difficult to give a good answer. One component in the Hi-Fi installation is more sensitive to a better quality cable than the other. But as extremes it can be said that a cable from the hardware store will not achieve the sound quality we have in mind and that a cable that is just as expensive as the components to which it is connected is not a wise investment. Another frequently asked question is which cable should be the first to invest in to improve sound quality. Generally speaking, the order is: speaker cable, interconnect and power cables.
One of the cables is the power cable. The quality of the power cables is important, but also the “quality” of the power (current actually!) that flows through it. Unfortunately, the “quality” of the power is often not too good due to other equipment (for example from the industry) that pollutes the power on the electrical grid and other equipment indoors. This pollution can be more than you expect. A joke within the audiophile community is that it is better to listen to the Hi-Fi installation at night, because then the “quality” of the power is better. A joke, but one with some truth. External pollution can be reduced by using a power conditioner suitable for Hi-Fi installations. One has to be careful that this does not limit the current to the amplifier, otherwise the dynamics of the sound decrease.
An improvement to reduce the impact of indoor pollution is to use a separate cable from the fuse box to the Hi-Fi installation to which no devices other than the Hi-Fi components are connected. It is also possible to use a better quality cable with a larger conductor cross section than the standard installation wire in the house. This cable will usually be of a fairly long length and shielding is recommended. This shielding consists of a metal braid and/or foil. The copper material is preferable to steel for this. With the information discussed earlier: conductors of good copper quality, insulation of the conductors of PTFE or XLPE (or a variant thereof), a conductor cross-section of 4 mm2 (or slightly bigger, but more difficult to handle) and shielded (preferably copper). If you take this step, it is advisable to connect this cable to a separate audiophile type of fuse. All small but noticeable steps to improve the sound quality.
I once read in a book that you can compare listening to a Hi-Fi installation to reading a book that is positioned behind a series of glass plates. If one of these glass plates is not completely transparent, reading will be difficult and you will miss details. If several glass plates are of a lesser quality, then for all of these the quality will have to be improved, but it is also very difficult to determine which glass plate is the least transparent and which you therefore want to improve first to get the best results. With the components of a Hi-Fi installation it is the same, which component is the first to improve to achieve the most gains in sound quality? As you will have understood by this time, there is not that one “magic component” which improves the sound quality of your Hi-Fi installation enormously. Instead it is all small improvements added together to make that big improvement in sound quality.
Sometimes you can use common sense to determine which component is the least. But if you want to go one step further, you will need to get to know your installation well. Listen to other, better installations and note at which points the sound of these installations is better than your installation, for example a tighter bass or more detail in the treble. This will give you an indication of which components could be improved. Try out small changes to your installation and listen to the differences (hopefully improvements) in the sound. Experiment with the placement of your speakers, this is free (only takes some effort). Before doing this, mark the original position of the speakers with tape for example, so that you can return the speakers to the original position if this turned out to be the better position. And armed with this information and experiences you can ask for better advice.
If you are using new components in your installation, give them some time before you listen critically. The sound quality of the Hi-Fi installation that we are aiming for is of a high level and small differences are perceptible. New components or even contacts that are disconnected need some playing time to “settle down”. In very general terms, the first hour of playing time the sound balance has to “settle down”. You can even experience this as if there is something wrong with your installation. Up to 10 hours of playing time improves the details. The fine details improve up to 100 hours of playing time, for example the treble becomes smoother. After 100 hours of playing time, the sound quality may improve a little further, but this will be very subtle.
Also realize that the Hi-Fi installation that we are aiming for is a sensitive instrument. Minor changes in, for example, temperature, air humidity, the number of hours of playing time of the components and the electricity from the electrical grid all have an effect on the sound quality and are subtly perceptible. The one time you listen, the sound may sound slightly different (better/worse?) than another time. Our own state of mind also influences how we experience the sound at one time or another. This is normal and not to be worried about. The most important thing is that you can enjoy the installation, listen with pleasure and have the occasional bonus that everything seems to fall into place and you have a fantastic listening experience.