I'm what you call an audiophile. I had my first stereo system at age 11, and bought and sold stereo equipment for longer than many noders have been alive. I'm not rich, but my system sounds better than yours. The thing is, you can have marvelous sound too, and music now without Ed McMahon's intervention. And I'm going to show you how.
High end audio equipment is about reproducing sound as accurately as possible. The goal is accuracy, not deafness-- though I have heard systems capable of blowing your eardrums clear to Las Vegas. Everything in high end system should serve that purpose first, and the owner's convenience second. The choices you make will affect this.
The Midrange is not simply a speaker, but the part of the sonic frequency information that reproduces almost all musical information. When you are looking for equipment, it must get this right first of all, because errors or omissions here will sound the worst. Fortunately, the midrange is fairly inexpensive to do right, it doesn't have some of the problems inherent to higher and lower frequencies. The midrange really takes place from 1,000 to 8,000 cycles.
The High frequencies extend from about 8,000 to 20,000 cycles or higher. Instruments that inhabit this range are few, mostly in drum cymbals, but are very important. All musical instruments derive their basic sound from a root tone and a characteristic set of harmonics that occur in a predictable pattern to the root tone. Harmonics can happen at very high frequencies, and problems there can lead to other instruments sounding "hollow" or wrong in some other way. High frequencies don't require a lot of energy to make them happen, so they can be readily reproduced at low energy levels-- in other words, with a smaller amp. But because the wavelengths are small, the sounds tend to project in a straight line. This is what audiophiles call "beaminess", jargon for directionality. A beamy speaker might sound great in one location, but move a bit off-axis and the highs will just drop off.
The issue of beaminess is why tweeters, or loudspeakers optimized for producing high frequencies are small, often one inch (25mm) or less in diameter. This is because the smaller the speaker cone the less directional the frequencies will be, thanks to the physics principle known as slit effect. Forcing a high frequency signal through a narrow gate increases the signals dispersion. All things being equal, a speaker system that has excellent dispersion is less picky about its location. That's important if you can't afford a dedicated listening area, or don't want to confine your listening. But the trade off for these small cones is that a tweeter cannot cover low frequencies well, because the size of the cone is much less than the wavelength. This means that a midrange speaker or woofer must be small enough to cover the frequencies the tweeter cannot. That limits the speaker's bass extension.
Bass costs money. The region below 1,000 cycles has the virtue of being omnidirectional, but at such low frequencies that the energy requirements of moving all that air at such long wavelengths is formidable, particularly when the sound goes below 100 cycles. The bass speakers need to approximate the wavelengths are much larger than ideal for the midrange. Bigger magnets, more money. A third driver to cover what the midrange cannot. More money. The amplifiers required to drive low frequencies need to have enormous current capabilities, and the ability to cope with odd impedances. More on that later, but for now it's safe to say that you can go to 100Hz quite affordably, for every ten additional cycles double the budget. Or more.
Impedance is a term that is generally applied to speakers, and measured in ohms, usually four or eight. That number is basic bullshit. Speakers don't fall into the neat 4Ω or 8Ω categories. For one thing, impedance varies with frequency, often in unpredictable ways. It may even change with power levels. An "eight ohm" speaker may have its impedance vary from one to twenty ohms, depending on frequency. The number can go very low, particularly in the bass regions. Really, impedance needs to be graphed, and not simplified to a single integer.
An amplifier must have a lower impedance than the speaker it is driving. But inexpensive amplifiers, the kind you find at Best Buy or other mid-fi mainstream consumer electronics stores often rely on the speakers' load to help control voltages. It allows the engineer to design a much less expensive power supply. But if the speaker being driven has an odd impedance curve and/or impedance goes too low you can induce a current drain where the power supply keeps trying to feed in voltage until the whole system melts.
If you want to know why most audiophile grade amplifiers are really heavy and expensive that's the reason. Big, powerful, carefully regulated power supplies allow them to drive anything with aplomb.
So if you want to reproduce midrange and high frequencies cheaply, that is very possible. PSB, B&W, NHT and others have produced speakers for $2-300 for the pair that are very accurate reproducers, shockingly so for the money. They sacrifice deep bass, and in the case of the NHT super zero they sacrifice all bass. But they get the stuff above 100hz right and they're small, which gives them a high wife acceptance factor.
If you want to go deeper the money comes in. There are several routes you can go. You can couple drivers, which is the way Bose went with the 901's but more drivers means more money. You can go to a three way design, adding a woofer to go deep. That adds another, and expensive driver which costs money. And now you definitely need a crossover.
Crossovers manage how much amplifier power at what frequencies go to what drivers. Each and every speaker driver has its own frequency response and efficiency curve, and part of the designer's art is in matching them so the overall frequency response is flat and time coherent. Crossovers do this. They can be simple, the classic EPI 100 speaker used only a capacitor. My old Bozak's used an induction coil. Or shockingly complex.
But crossovers introduce their own problems. The basic voltage drop of a single diode is about .7 volts. Each component may induce some form of distortion. So a careful designer strives for simplicity, which grows exponentially more difficult with each additional driver. You must use the best parts which, of course, cost more. Crossovers may be adjustable, and use active electronics, meaning they need their own power supply. Some designs, like the Dunlavy SC-IV use servo controlled electronics with integral amplifiers to control bass. That speaker lists for $20K per pair. And they need a big amp besides that to handle the rest of the frequencies.
When shopping speakers don't worry too much if it has a port or is an acoustic suspension or reflective what not. That matters to the designers, who have their preferences, and the marketing department. Remember, the Devil is in the details. A well-executed design is what you're looking for. Not a particular gizmo.
Amplifiers come in several varieties.
An amplifier increases device level signals to current levels sufficient to drive the speakers. They are generally rated for power in watts per channel, usually RMS which is a fairly robust watt. Two hundred watts is a lot of power. There are two basic types of amplifiers, solid state and tube amplifiers.
Solid state amplifiers use transistors, usually FETs or MOSFETs to amplify the signal. They measure very well compared to tube amps, are generally more reliable and less expensive, particularly at high power levels. They reproduce notes with a greater authority. Which means they generally are less fussy about what speaker they drive. For these reasons I strongly prefer them, particularly at my price levels.
Other audiophiles will argue passionately for vacuum tube amplification. They argue that tubes sound more natural, or liquid, that they're just right. The basis for this is that the overtone series of an overdriven tube is more natural, and as a one time guitarist they are right on that point. But as a guitar player I sought to drive my amp into distortion, something I abhor in a stereo. The most extreme tubaholics are the devotees of single ended triode amplifiers, where a single vacuum tube does all the amplification. They are devotees of purity. While I don't agree, some of these guys have fabulous sounding systems. The choice is yours. But you don't get good tube equipment until you have some money to spend.
One school holds that simpler is better, and the lower powered the better. They have a point in that the more components in the chain, the greater the possibility of problems. Complexity and quality cost money. If you have efficient speakers with a tolerant impedance curve I have no argument. The problems arise when you don't. My old Kevek ES-8's were power eaters. A big Conrad-Johnson tube amp would have mastered them, and my Adcom didn't care. But a single ended triode would have shrivelled up and died.
Pre-amplifiers came about because of the phonograph record. Early magnetic phono cartridges produced voltages too small for the amplifier to reproduce. So a 'pre-amplifier' was added to bring the current level up to useful levels. Today, with most people going digital the phono section is often omitted. But pre-amps persist, partly because of vinyl devotees, but mostly because they became the control center for the entire stereo, with tape decks, CD players, tuners and so on selected via the pre-amp. An effects loop may be included. Pre-amps that simply select and perhaps limit voltage via a high quality potentiometer are called line level pre-amps. Because of their simplicity their praises are highly sung. Pre-amps of all types can be expensive. But anything can be built into, or connected to, a pre-amp, including remote controls, digital sections, dolby decoders and the like.
If you combine and amplifier and a pre-amplifier into one box, it is known as an integrated amplifier. They tend to cost less than 'separates' for the same sound quality, but are less flexible, particularly if high power levels are desired.
A Tuner is simply a device that takes Radio frequency (RF) energy and converts it to a useful signal for the amplifier to drive. And of course selects the station you desire. They are usually measured by sensitivity which is given in microvolts or dbf at a given signal to noise ratio. Raw sensitivity is usually at 30db S/N, enough to listen to Cleveland Indians baseball. For music the real issue is in stereo at 50db S/N or greater. One interesting thing is that the analog tuners of the seventies were actually more sensitive than all but the most expensive modern digital tuners. This is because in order to tune digitally, a control frequency has to be synthesized inside the tuner, and it will leak some, causing interference.
It is more cost effective to spend a little money on a good antennae than to spend a lot of more money for a more sensitive tuner. A lot more cost effective, so noders listen up! Buy a good antennae, like a Fanfare FM-5G, and save some on the tuner.
That's all you need to know if you live on the plains of Kansas, out in the country. If you live in the city you need to be concerned with Image Rejection and multipath distortion. That's because radio waves reflect off things like the water tower down the street. This means that the same signal will arrive at your antennae at different times, because of the multiple paths the signal has taken. A good city tuner is better at locking on to one signal, and rejecting all the others. A good country tuner is sensitive, and too much sensitivity to a raw signal may make it more vulnerable to multipath. Like many other things, it's a trade off.
If you put a tuner, amplifier and pre-amplifier in one box we call this a receiver. If you put a tuner and a pre amp together in one box we call that a tuner-pre-amp! Most of you will own receivers, and unless you have a healthy budget I recommend starting there. With one caveat. Your receiver should have a set of 'Pre-Amp out' and 'Main in' jacks that can be bridged together. For one thing that's one place to hook in an external dolby decoder. For another, it allows you to purchase separate components later and use the receiver to drive them and vice-versa. But you will have to look for this feature, it is NOT standard on most receivers.
Digital audio has it's own can of worms. First of all there is the famed Red Book CD that belongs to a standard developed by Phillips. Lately in the interest of copy protection record manufacturers have begun shipping disks that do not meet that standard. Boycott them! There are lots of basic CD players out there, and some play up to 100 disks. Which is convenient if you are throwing a party.
Most inexpensive CD players are just that-- cheap. They are poorly constructed compared to audiophile grade gear, which is much more expensive but built to last. I prefer single play CD players because of their mechanical simplicity. Remember the principle, complexity with quality costs money. Single players are more reliable in the long run, but you do have to change CDs more often. With mechanical items build quality really matters if you're buying something to keep. If you change components often by all means go complex.
Then you have SACD and DVD Audio which use a 192KHz standard rather than the 44.1 of a red book CD. This has been discussed elsewhere, but both formats sound noticeably better than a standard CD, In fact, they may finally put the last nail in the LP's coffin. Both SACD players and DVD-A players have become quite affordable lately-- about $250 to start. DVD-A players have the additional advantage of being able to run movies. All will also play standard CDs, though perhaps not as well as pure players.
No, all CD players do not sound alike. There are issues of the quality of the D/A conversion, and also of jitter, which is time-frequency errors passed on through the system clock and into the D/A conversion process. Separate transports and digital-to-analog converter sections are available. Fiber-optic toslink, coaxial and I2S busses are available to link them, though most systems only support coaxial and toslink, despite the technical advantages of I2S (it is nearly jitter free). An all in one player with a good digital out is a good first purchase because better aftermarket D/A converters can be quite affordable down the road.
Tape decks are another issue, and perhaps the point is moot with digital recording being the rage. However, they are still used, and some record digitally. Generally, the more motors the better, because it reduces mechanical complexity by getting rid of a number of pulleys and such. Three head decks are desirable because you can monitor your recording as you do it. Tape bias and level controls are really nice because you can optimize your deck to the tape you choose, rather than the tape the manufacturer chooses for you. I usually record white noise and play with the bias and level, flipping back and forth between source and recording until the sound is best.
Signal to noise ratio is often critical, but manufacturers specs aren't to be strictly trusted. Dolby C is better than Dolby B -- the dolby noise reduction that is most common-- and Dolby S better still, but not compatible. Dolby HX Pro is to be sought after because it reduces overload distortion.
Do not use Type I tape for music. Period. Shell out the extra sixty cents for a chrome or metal tape. The sound is worth it! Look on the tape to see what type it is before you buy.
Analog is another fetish in audio, with many audiophiles arguing that nothing whatsoever sounds better than a vinyl LP with a great turntable/phono cartridge combo. They might just be right. Certainly vinyl recordings have 'more there there'. They sound great. If you have records you love, no turntable and little money, buy used, as many people continue to get rid of perfectly good record players. Of course they also scratch, require anal retentive care, needles need frequent replacement and so on. Such is the price of purity. Modern turntables can cost as little as $300 with cartridge and go up to $15,000 without a cartridge, or even a tone arm. I'm keeping my old Thorens with Shure V15-VxMR.
If you don't have records skip this one for now and get into it when you run across a bunch of cool old records.
On to the buying process
I once read on a Goth decorating site that you could have cheap, fast and good, but only two out of three. The same thing is true in audio. If you want it good and now, bring a large line of credit. If you want it cheap and good, be prepared to spend time. As you will be living with this system for a long time, take your time even if you do have money to burn.
First of all, trust your ears. After all, you are buying to please you. Not me. Not the magazine reviewer.
Second, bring your own music. Stuff you like and enjoy. Stuff that you think you know how it sounds. If this is your first time with a true audiophile system don't be surprised to hear things you have never, ever heard before. Audiophile gear is better.
But it isn't enough to pick music you like. You are auditioning a piece of equipment and one of your goals is to expose its warts. If you're new to this you may be blown away in the first showroom, but keep at it. No piece of gear, however expensive, is perfect. The stuff most entry level people can afford has lots of warts. The key is that they be small warts that you can live with. No major faux-pas.
Second, you can't listen at Best Buy where fifteen car stereos and a DVD of Godzilla are all playing at the same time. You need a quiet listening room where the only sounds are the components you are auditioning. Keep your buddy's mouth shut. You're there to listen and you can't listen in a mob.
You pick music that reveals different parts of the system. Everything matters. First go to FM radio and find an adult man speaking. Adult male speaking voice should be natural, and it can be difficult to reproduce. Then I recommend something with piano and acoustic bass as both can prove quite challenging. Then you want to test deep bass. A nice Camille St. Saens pipe organ piece is a good way to go, but there is a 32 cycle pedal note in the song 'Firth of Fifth' on the Genesis album Selling England by the Pound. Notes like that you more feel than hear. You are looking for distortion. Bass should not boom, or sound like a discotheque. Next some chamber music, because it is so open. Does the viola seem a little indistinct when you listen to BangAudio's new MegaBlaster 2000? Could be the MegaBlaster isn't so good.
In auditioning, you aren't really listening for enjoyment, though a good system will have you tapping your toes. Pick out individual instruments at different points of each piece, and analyze them. Music as a whole can be too overwhelming, which is why in an audition you want to break things down some. That's the way to compare systems that are good, to decide which is best for you.
Get up and move around. Normally the salesman will drop you into a comfy chair right in the sweet spot between the speakers. That's as good as it gets. But if you remember the beaminess problem from earlier in this writeup, you won't hear it in that chair. Move from left to right and back across the room and compare the sound. If the variation is small, you have speakers that will sound good when you're doing your daily business, or having a party.
Make sure the associated equipment is of similar quality to what you can afford, or plan to purchase next. My big Adcom amplifier can drive anything. With ease. Organ pedal notes bore it unless you've cranked the volume to instant deaf. The receiver you have at home is probably not so well endowed. You want it to sound good with what you have at home.
You control the volume. It has been repeatedly demonstrated that a system that is only slightly louder will almost always sound better than the quieter system, even it that system is really superior. Also some gear does not sound so good quiet. You need to know this if you don't want your neighbors out buying shotguns. You will use this system as background music for dinner. Take the time to find out if it will do quiet and loud.
Consider your room. Rooms can be described as 'live' ---meaning reflective-- or 'dead'. Wooden walls, floors and ceramic tiles reflect sound. Carpet and drapes absorb sound. What frequencies are absorbed and reflected will vary, and may change when the speakers are moved. Books absorb sound, which gives them yet another virtue. From my perspective dead is better because the stereo is much more in control of the sound. Remember that a good audio store will have already treated their rooms, and they will be better than yours. If you have a hardwood floors and lots of polished oaken cabinets the highs that sounded 'sparkling' in the showroom may give you migraines at home. Best to audition at home, and the better dealers will help you do that, provided they think you're serious and you're spending more than a couple hundred bucks. Also, how big is your room. Some systems need room to 'breathe'. Others are ideal for a college dorm. If your room is little, think small. Klipschorns in your efficiency will likely lead to meeting your local policeman. Plus you won't have any place left to sit. Those PSB alpha's will be ideal.
Please don't jump at the first store you land in. You may buy from them, but listen elsewhere. You are on a Quest.
There are two types of speakers, bookshelf and floor standing. They take up about the same space overall, unless the floor standing speakers are monsters like the Wilson X-1, my old Bozaks or the aforementioned Dunlavy"s. The reason is that you want the speakers at ear level, so you need to get small speakers off the ground. Which means you need good speaker stands, which start at about $150. Do not scrimp here. Remember, sound is vibration. You don't want to introduce new vibrations. Good stands will hold the speaker rigid and solid to the floor. They minimize vibrations, so that the sound you hear will be coming from the drivers.
The leapfrog strategy
Most of us do not have the money to just go buy an audiophile quality system. I have eight grand in my system. My Dad dropped $30K. That's a whole lot of scratch. But you can work up to it, and enjoy music the whole way. The key is to leapfrog components.
In year one you should purchase a good $2-300 pair of speakers with stands, a receiver with pre amp out/main in jacks, and if you can afford it about $300 for a CD player. Or a $100 DVD player. You can do all of that for under a grand. The receiver matters because it at least gives you an FM music source for listening. Adapters are available to plug your diskman or iPod right into the receiver. With CD-capable DVD players available for $100 you have the capabilities of doing movies for under $800-- assuming you have a TV. And it will smoke most cheap home theater setups.
Then each year you buy one component. Say next year you buy that big Rotel amp you've been lusting after and drive it from your receiver. Notice how your speakers got better. The year after that maybe a new D/A converter for the DVD, or dedicated CD player so the DVD can be retired to do movies. Get better speakers and set the first pair aside. Get a dolby digital decoder and use the receiver's amp and the original speakers as back channel speakers. Or get a pre-amp and move the receiver and old speakers to your bedroom or office. Maybe get a sound card and hook them into your computer. Keep it up and by the end of the decade your system will rock!
A word about computer based audio. Unless you are buying pro editing gear, even entry level audiophile stuff is simply better. By a mile. Sound is what it's designed to do. If your computer sounds better than your stereo, your stereo sucks. Besides, your CD-ROM has it's own job, like playing Quake. If you can't afford a dedicated player, then use it as a program source for the receiver and speakers. But as soon as you can separate them. Unless you want to be Moby. Music creation is different.
Note: When I wrote this digital/computer audio was in its infancy. Today there are several high end cards/devices designed for use with your computer. Do remember that downloads are compressed, and there is a huge difference between codecs. On a good system you can hear the difference, so a good red book CD will sound better. Also many albums have been remastered for digital, and are much better then early masterings which were direct conversions from LP. This deserves a longer treatment then I will give here, but computer audio no long automatically sucks.
the exact place where bass, midrange and treble divide is debatable. If you think differently than me, you may be right.