Introduction to stereo music systems
Speakers, receivers, amps, headphones, and other gear for people who crave good sound
Jim Richardson is the managing editor for home audio/video and pro audio learning content on Crutchfield.com.
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Are you an avid music lover? Then you should have a special space and the gear you need to properly indulge your passion.
Sure, you can listen to music on your home theater system, but rooms with TVs tend to attract a TV-watching crowd. And even if you’ve got the room to yourself, you might not be thrilled with the sound. Gear designed for music, set up with music in mind, usually sounds better playing music than a system designed and set up for TV and movie sound. Go figure.
This article will help you put together a high-fidelity stereo music system that suits your lifestyle and the space you have in mind. Let’s start with the simplest approach – a headphone hi-fi system. If you think of headphones only as an accessory to a larger system, think again.
Why you might think headphones first
- Small budget? Good headphones are the least expensive way to experience high-end sound.
- Does your career require frequent travel or moves? Headphones go with you.
- Don’t want to disturb others? Headphones won’t. Speakers will.
- Don’t want others to disturb you? Wearing headphones signals others that you’re out of service. They let you shut out the world, close your eyes, and find an oasis of calm.
What's in a headphone hi-fi system?
Add simplicity and instant gratification to the list of reasons you might consider a headphone hi-fi system. All you have to do to get started is plug your new headphones into a computer, iPhone®, CD player, receiver, or any other component having a headphone jack. No matter what your music source may be, good headphones are a terrific way to enjoy it.
If you want to take your headphone enjoyment to a higher level, add a headphone amplifier, a device that provides a stronger, cleaner audio signal to your headphones. Headphone jacks are an afterthought on many audio components. Computers and iPods are the worst offenders. Their headphone sound quality is mediocre at best. Headphone amps offer superior audio output circuitry, and many newer models include a high-quality digital-to-analog converter (DAC), which connects to your computer via USB and extracts better sound from your digital music files.
Speaking of digital music files, the other key to better sound is to care about what you play. If you’re still playing MP3s compressed to 128 kilobytes per second, your upside is limited. Learn how to create high-quality music files or where you can buy them. A computer or iPhone can sound as good as (or even better than) a high-end CD player, if you have the right gear and the right kind of music files.
To fill a room with sound
A basic stereo system starts with three main ingredients – a two-channel amplifier or receiver, a pair of speakers, and one or more music sources.
Amplifier or receiver?
Traditional stereo receivers combine an AM/FM radio tuner with a power amplifier and a preamp section. The preamp section gives you control over source selection, volume, tone and balance.
For years, stereo receivers were all about the same size: 17” wide by 5” high and about a foot deep. They came with five or six analog audio inputs. Traditional stereo receivers are still available, and some are surprisingly inexpensive. If you want to keep the cost of your system as low as possible, they’re a good choice.
Recently, stereo receivers have come along in smaller sizes, which fit better on a bookshelf or desktop. New-generation receivers are more versatile, too. You'll find models with ports for iPod® docks and satellite radio, USB inputs, and Wi-Fi® or a wired network connection. Instead of being limited to a few AM or FM stations, you can tune in thousands of Internet radio stations. DLNA and Apple AirPlay® technology lets you play music stored on your computer or smartphone.
An integrated amplifier has no tuner, but does include a preamp section. If you can live without a built-in AM/FM tuner, you’ll find a lot to like in today’s integrated amplifiers. Connect an iPhone, a computer, a network music player, or any other device that can play Internet radio and you may find you have no need for an AM/FM radio. Some integrated amps now come with digital audio inputs and sophisticated digital-to-analog converters built in. Models with these features are better suited to today’s digital audio music sources than traditional stereo receivers.
An option for those in search of the ultimate in audio performance is to pair a separate power amp with a matching preamp. By separating the amplifier and the preamp, manufacturers can minimize noise and deliver the massive wattage that many high-end speakers require.
Alternatives to old-school components
For decades, people who were serious about sound quality had little choice but to buy a stack of components and a pair of boxy speakers. Not so these days. If you’re looking for a system that’s more compact and décor-friendly, or one that’s easier to set up and operate, you’ll find a wide selection of products that fit the bill. Say hello to an exciting new paradigm in which there are no discs, no machines to play them, and no need for a knob-filled preamp or a clunky infrared remote control. You control source and track selection, volume, and tone with your smartphone or tablet.
Consider the Sonos® CONNECT:AMP, a very compact network music player with a surprisingly stout 55-watts-per-channel amplifier built in. You can plug a CD player into it, but with easy access to your computer’s music library and a wealth of Internet music streaming options, you probably won’t want to. You can control the ZonePlayer with an ultra-cool app for your iPhone®, iPad® or Android™ device.
If you’re looking for an even more compact system to liven up a dorm room, kitchen, or small apartment, consider a pair of powered speakers, to which you can connect an iPod, a computer, a network music player, or a CD player. How about a high-fidelity iPod speaker system? Or maybe a network music player that has a powered speaker system built in?
The ultimate new-school component – a separate DAC
Digital-to-analog converters, also known as DACs, have been around for a long time. A DAC is simply a device that converts digital music files or streams into analog signals that can be amplified and sent to your speakers or headphones. DACs are built into computers and many other types of audio components. There’s a DAC in your smartphone. Many A/V receivers and some hi-fi amplifiers have DACs built-in. So do some powered computer speakers. And now there’s a growing selection of separate DACs – components that do nothing but convert digital signals to analog.
If you listen to digital music files or streams (such as PANDORA® Internet radio, Rhapsody, Slacker, etc.) and you care about sound quality, then you owe it to yourself to learn more about DACs. The odds are good that you’ll appreciate the difference between the sound you get from a separate DAC to the sound you get from the low-quality DAC built into your computer or other gadget.
Traditional music source components
Do you have a large record or CD collection? Do you prefer the sound or the tactile experience of packaged media? Then check out our buying guides for CD players and turntables.
How much power do you need?
To answer this question, consider several factors: desired volume level, room size, the efficiency of your speakers, and the dynamic range of the music you favor.
A good place to start is to look at the recommended power range and impedance of the speakers you intend to use. Choose an amp that’s a good match. A mismatch will result in poor sound and/or speaker damage.
A speaker's impedance is a measure of the resistance it presents against current flowing from your amplifier or receiver. Most home speakers have a nominal impedance rating of 8 ohms, and any amp or receiver will push an 8-ohm “load” with no problem. Some higher-end amps can drive a 4-ohm load, and will deliver up to twice the power they deliver to an 8-ohm load. But try to drive a 4-ohm load with an amp that’s not designed to handle it, and it may overheat. When that happens, protection circuits will kick in and cut off the amp until it cools off.
If you’re building a system for a small room, you don’t need a lot of power, especially if you have efficient speakers. The efficiency of a speaker is reflected in its sensitivity rating. The higher the number (in decibels or dB), the more efficient the speaker, and the louder the sound it creates with a given amount of power. Believe it or not, a 3 dB increase in speaker sensitivity produces the same audible increase in volume as doubling your amplifier power.
Want more sonic punch? Look for high-current power
The dynamic peaks that help make music so exciting can impose intense short-term demands on an amp. Loud passages can quickly deplete an amp's power reserves, resulting in sound that's flat and uninvolving. Models with high-current power are particularly well-equipped to handle these challenges, reproducing dramatic surges of sound with more punch and greater fluidity than other receivers with similar wattage ratings.
Now’s a great time to buy new speakers
In the preamble to a Stereophile magazine review of the PSB Alpha 1 bookshelf speakers, veteran reviewer John Atkinson contends that, while some vintage amplifiers have stood the test of time, today’s speakers are far superior to most “golden age” models.
“The speakers of today outperform not just those of the 1960s and 1970s but even those of the 1980s and 1990s,” Atkinson writes. “The advent of low-cost, computerized test equipment, high-quality, inexpensive measuring microphones, and persuasive research into what measured parameters matter most to listeners who are listening for a neutral-sounding, uncolored loudspeaker, has led to an almost across-the-board improvement in speaker sound quality. But perhaps even more significant, and aided by the trend toward the offshore manufacture of low-cost speakers, the level of excellence that used to be the preserve of high-priced designs is now available for very much less money than it used to be.”
Listener research during product development is critical to companies like Inifinity, as this video demonstrates. While such research leads to product improvements, it can’t guarantee that a particular speaker will sound good in your space, to your ears. Nor can a showroom demo, for that matter. That’s why it’s important to purchase your speakers from a seller with a liberal return policy. Crutchfield gives you 60 days to decide whether a new set of speakers meets your expectations. If they don’t, you are welcome to return them for an exchange or refund.
Speakers for small spaces
Your library, home office, spare bedroom, or any other small, relatively private room can become your sonic sanctuary. Bookshelf speakers are perfect for small rooms.
Bookshelf speakers are almost always 2-way — unlike large floor-standing models they contain just a tweeter and a woofer or midrange. Some audio fans prefer them because, when placed on stands, they provide tight overall sound and accurate stereo imaging. However, because of their size, they cannot produce the low bass frequencies that floor-standing models can. We recommend adding a powered subwoofer to reinforce the deep bass.
Speakers for large rooms
Floor-standing speakers give you excellent performance in large rooms. They reproduce a wide range of frequencies, including deep bass, and are usually more efficient than other types of speakers. They're hard to beat for big, room-filling sound.
For more speaker selection tips, see our in-depth article on choosing stereo speakers.
How you set up your stereo system makes a huge difference in its sound
Choosing the right amp and speakers for your space and your budget is step 1. However, attention to details during setup can make or break the sound of it.
Most speakers don't come with any wire, so you'll need to get some kind of speaker wire to connect them to your receiver or amplifier. The higher the quality of your speakers, the more they'll benefit from high-quality cables. We cover this topic in depth in an article on choosing and installing speaker wire.
Toeing in your speakers can make a dramatic improvement in their sound.
The placement and positioning of your speakers plays a large role in your system's overall sound and performance. Speaker placement can be especially critical in dedicated music systems, because it greatly affects tonal accuracy, staging, and imaging, as well as realistic sound reproduction. And the great thing is that it won’t cost you a thing to experiment with speaker placement (unless you need to get more wire or speaker stands).
A couple rules of thumb: the tweeters in your right and left speakers should be positioned at ear height, and the speakers should form an equilateral triangle with your listening position. This means your speakers are the same distance apart from each other as they are from you. For more tips on how to set up your speakers and “tune your room,” see our articles on speaker placement for stereo music listening and room acoustics.
Poorly made cables can allow noise and interference to compromise the signals coming from your source components, resulting in subpar sound. They generally won't give you the best-quality connection, and often aren't built to last. And of course some free cables may simply be too long or too short for your setup, making them less than ideal.
Replacing free "in-the-box" cables with higher-quality ones, or buying a step or two up from the cheapest quality cable you can find, can really make a difference when you're building a nice audio system. You'll enjoy more realistic sound and a clearer picture when your system isn't hampered by weak links. To learn more, see our article on how to buy cables.
Power line conditioning
Everyday electronic interference from your home's electrical wiring can hurt your system's performance. Electromagnetic and radio frequency interference (EMI and RFI) won't fry your A/V gear, but they can limit its performance.
EMI is caused by an electromagnetic field generated close to your system. Sometimes it can be contained in the current that comes into your home. A washing machine, vacuum cleaner, or blender can add a loud buzzing or a low hum to your audio system.
RFI results from radio waves that can be generated by radio stations, microwaves, cell phones, lawn mowers, and many other sources. These interference patterns often originate a great distance from your home, and can be heard as clicks and pops. Your home's electrical circuitry can actually act as a crude antenna, sending RF signals through your system's power cords and into your gear.
A power protection component with line conditioning can remove most of this interference, allowing your system to perform at its full potential. See our full article on power protection.
Understanding product descriptions and reviews
If you know how to decode lingo writer use in product descriptions and reviews, you’ll have a better chance of choosing gear that sounds good to your ear and brings out the best in your music. Take a look at our article on how to understand the language of good sound.
If you like to do a lot of homework before you invest in gear, we highly recommend that you read The Complete Guide to High-End Audio by Robert Harley, chief editor of The Absolute Sound magazine. It’s a treasure trove of buying advice and setup tips.
Rekindling your passion for music
The experience of listening to music has changed dramatically in a generation or two. When vinyl records were king, music lovers were much more likely to sit and just listen, devoting their undivided attention to the art. Then along came CDs, MTV, PCs, MP3 players and other developments that diluted the listening experience by reducing sound quality and pushing music further and further into the background.
Now some of the same devices that devalued the experience of listening to music can be used to enrich it. As we mentioned earlier, a computer can sound as good as a high end CD player. Smartphones and tablets can be powerful tools for music discovery. It’s harder for a deserving artist to get a big record deal these days, but inexpensive digital recording gear and online music distribution make it easier than ever for an artist to find an audience. These are very exciting trends for a lot of music lovers.
One thing that hasn’t changed is that high-fidelity reproduction starts with a high-fidelity recording. Seek out good recordings. Most music-review websites tend to focus on the artistic aspects of recordings, but a few of our favorites also rate sound quality. Both the print and web versions of Stereophile magazine feature an annual list of "Records to Die For" penned by the magazine's knowledgeable reviewers. And The Absolute Sound offers guides in a similar vein. Whether you like rock, jazz, classical, or all of the above, you'll find intriguing suggestions.