Building the perfect hi-fi system is as much about balance as it is about individual quality. The components need to be good, of course, but just as crucially they need to work well together. Indeed, in the best hi-fi systems, the whole will amount to more than (or at the very least equal) the sum of its parts.
But balance is one of those concepts that can be hard to define let alone achieve. While a lot of it boils down to trial and error, there are certain guidelines that will aid and, hopefully, ease your path to balance and consequent sonic enlightenment.
So, let's get started. Here's how to go about assembling the right components and building the perfect hi-fi system for stereo listening.
Points To Consider
The first two questions you need to ask yourself are: what will you be using your system for, and how much are you willing to spend? The latter relates to the former, and each decision you make on components will have a knock-on effect.
It would perhaps be easiest to begin at the start of the chain – what will you be using as your source? If you play all your music from your smartphone or tablet but still want a traditional hi-fi system, you will want something (a standalone streamer or streaming amplifier) that supports Bluetooth and/or wi-fi – and if you're nodding your head at the latter, perhaps something compatible with Airplay 2 or Google Cast too.
If you play mostly records, however, you will need to think about whether you want the necessary phono stage part of vinyl playback built into your turntable or your stereo amplifier, or if you plan to buy one separately instead – a standalone phono stage will ensure greater versatility when upgrading in the future, and often better sound.
And if you have taken on the task of ripping your entire music collection, maybe it's time to retire that CD player and invest in a well-featured music streamer instead?
It’s probably worth making a checklist of the features you want – such as a headphone output or Bluetooth if they're must-haves – and then prioritizing the things you need most and those you can do without. That way, your money will go further.
Starting with a realistic budget will help you spread your money more evenly. After all, there's no point buying your dream amplifier only to match it with a budget turntable (the flaws of which it will emphasize) and a pair of speakers you found by your neighbor's bin.
Generally, it doesn't typically make sense to overspend in one area. All parts of a system – source, amplification and speakers – are equally important and the balance between them should be broadly even. If anything, the weighting might lean more heavily towards your source and amplifier than your speakers.
There’s more to building the perfect hi-fi system than simply buying components that retail at a similar price, of course, but budgeting properly ought to set you on the right path.
You might also have space restrictions. If you don't have room for multiple components, you will need to consider if you can pool certain functions to reduce the number of boxes in your set-up. This could be buying a turntable with a built-in phono stage; or a multi-talented system with, say, an amplifier and CD player combined or a streamer and amplifier combined; or a pair of active speakers that integrates amplification into the speaker cabinets.
While separate components are ultimately the way to go for outright sound quality and upgradeability, this bundled route needn’t affect the quality of your system. This isn’t a decision that needs to be made solely on space either – perhaps you would simply prefer fewer boxes! – but think carefully about which parts you are most likely going to upgrade down the line. It will help to future-proof your system.
A system's most important component is actually the room it's placed in. "Get this right and then the system, whatever its caliber, has more chance of performing optimally. "Get it wrong and even the very best high-end products will fail to shine.
"We all just want a balanced-sounding room that doesn’t emphasize any particular part of the frequency range, but instead strikes a natural balance between liveliness and being damped enough to avoid any unwanted reverb."
Choose The Right Speakers
Stereo speakers react differently depending not only on the size and characteristics of the room they are placed in but also their position in it, and on how close they are to each other and to any walls. Therefore, the best-sounding pair when listening at a dealer place might not be the best-sounding pair when you get them home.
Don’t be blasé when it comes to positioning. We always recommend measuring the dimensions of your room when it comes to choosing the right speakers. Speakers are likely to come with a manual with the manufacturer’s suggestions for placement. That said, there’s nothing like experimenting with a keen ear, so go with your gut.
Check Out All Options
Of course, you may not be building the perfect hi-fi system from scratch. Perhaps you already have one or more elements?
We often make the point that you shouldn’t dismiss a product simply because it doesn't have a maximum star rating – lesser star kid is good too, and may be even better for you and your system than five-star kit. This is a particularly pertinent point if you are looking to add to something you already own. Certain products may not be flawless all-rounders, but they could well have the blend of talents you’re looking for.
So often in life, it’s the little things that can have the biggest influence, and that’s the case with system building.
Set Aside for Add-On
Budget for quality audio cables, speaker cables, an AV or hi-fi rack and, if necessary if you're buying stand mount speakers, speaker stands. Scrimp here and you simply won’t get your money’s worth out of your system. The golden rule, as always, is: never buy anything without having heard it first.
A good support lets your kit perform optimally. Turntables in particular are sensitive and respond well to a rigid, low-resonance platform, so steer clear of those wobbly floorboards or uneven bits of carpet.
Cabling is one of the most critical elements of a system and something you should spend around 10 per cent of your system total on, as a rough guide.
If you can use a dedicated mains outlet too, that would be ideal. And avoid placing mains cables and signal cables too close to each other, as performance can suffer.