Some people just have a knack for making a great sounding audio system and others don’t. Our goal is to teach you how to be one of the “haves” not the “have nots” when it comes to owning an awesome sounding audiophile system. And don’t worry you don’t need to spend a fortune on gear. You can get the audio promised land on a low budget. We will teach you in our tips.
Audiophile Tip No. 1 – Skip The Vinyl
I can see the hipsters in Brooklyn trying to hang themselves from their messenger bag straps now. No vinyl? Yes. Vinyl is a 100 plus year old format that is now a) expensive to buy records on b) had very low dynamic range performance (think: half of what’s needed to really reproduce say a snare drum crack) and c) physical distortion that comes from the stylist actually vibrating in the groove of the record.
That “warm” sound that you get from vinyl is actually distortion? Why do you want that? Save your money. Stream your music instead. It is in HD. It has less distortion. It takes up less space and it costs you a lot less money.
Audiophile Tip No. 2 – Embrace Your Digital Front-End (But Don’t Spend a Fortune)In the audiophile hobby, there are all sorts of crazy ways to get the best from your digital music and many of the solutions cost a fortune. It is easy to understand considering the build quality of these machines paired with their processing power (think: a lot of $300 plus semi-conductors) and their robust power supplies. But the good news is that you don’t have to spend a fortune to get great sound.
In once recent test, we used a $100 Sony Blu-ray player (not UHD-Blu-ray and without an LED screen on the front of it to save money) paired with one of a few, under-$200 DACs (aka: digital to analog converters) and WOW was the result good. $300 to $500 CD players can sound great but this under-$300 setup did Blu-ray, played SACDs (no DVD-Audio, shame on Sony) and Compact Discs very nicely. You also could use Spotify with this source PLUS pair your music hard drive via Blue-tooth. Not bad for under $300!
Audiophile Tip No. 3 – Prepare for a Preamp
While an integrated amp (meaning an amp and preamp in the same box) combining the two units can have upgrade issues down the road in that “unlocking the value” of your investment in resale when having more than one component in one box can be a bit complicated.
You don’t have to spend a fortune to get a stand-alone audiophile grade preamp that is excellent and for a very fair price. One of the new concepts is the idea of “Chi-Fi” which is audiophile products made in China from companies that you likely haven’t heard of before but at prices you can say “who cares – when the sucker breaks… I will recycle it and call it a day”. Topping, SMSL are some of these brands. They can be had on Amazon and in many of the audiophile catalogs.
Audiophile Tip No. 4 – The Power Comes From Your Amp
If you are going the route of separate audiophile amplifier and preamplifier then you are going to get a lot of benefit. Much of the performance comes from the upgrade in power supplies. As hard as an audiophile amp can draw from the wall, preamps have their own needs. When you separate them, those physical-electrical needs are more easily met. Why do you care? Because the amp gets more of what it needs and has less distortion, more headroom and more ability to drive your speakers. Your preamp gets a clean AC signal and can attenuate the sound very clearly.
There are a number of variety of amps. Picking them has a lot to do with speakers (which we will get to in a minute). Some speakers are more demanding than others in terms of their “load”’ or how hard they are to drive. Horn-driven speakers tend to be easier to drive. Line source speakers tend to be easier to drive. The sound of a speaker has a lot to do with which one you will plunk your card down to buy. Just understand that if you get a say a low-watt tube amp or Class-A operation amp that they don’t drive speakers as easily but sound fantastic! Class-AB (most traditional amps are AB) or Class-D amps are able to drive more varied speakers. Class-D (digital amps) have come a long way since their invention and they are less “cold” sounding today. They represent the best bang-for-the-buck in audiophile amps. Class-A amps (be it solid state or tubes) represent an alluring, warm detailed sound but just don’t kick out the jams at the same volume until you start spending some BIG money on Class-A amps. Think: $10,000 and up.
Audiophile Tip No. 5 –
Small Speakers Plus A Subwoofer Can Out Perform Floorstanding Speakers (Sometimes)
One of the best audiophile value tricks is to buy the BEST small audiophile speakers that you can find and basically punt the low frequency performance thus giving that role in your system to an affordable audiophile subwoofer. This plan gives you the best of both worlds in terms of your investment going into the highs and mids (where most of the music you like is recorded) and then allowing say a $500 to $1,000 subwoofer (perhaps with room correction included in the sub) can cover the lowest frequencies on the cheap. Expect excellent results with this speaker system configuration.
Audiophile Tip No. 5 –
Big Boys Buy Big Speakers
We don’t want to rush the process but the “audiophile journey” is one that seems to always lead the consumer to a nice, big pair of audiophile speakers. It just does and it is natural in that the subwoofer that we were just talking about above can EASILY be reconfigured to work in system with more full-range floorstanding speakers.
Don’t be price shamed. You saved the money. You borrowed the money. You deserve great sound and big speakers are often the way to get there. Also know that with a speaker change – often an amp upgrade could be in order. Not always, but we are giving full disclosure here.
Audiophile Tip No. 6 – Don’t Ignore Audiophile Headphones
It is a fallacy that you can only enjoy your favorite music when you are sitting down in front of your audiophile system? Today’s audiophile headphones, many wireless are pretty damn amazing. The amount of technology that goes into them is incredible and $500 is about the price limit on this category. Having some ANC (automatic noise cancelation) in some comfortable headphones is a really good thing when at the gym, back in the post-COVID office or on a plane. Don’t forget the good audiophile news on this topic.
So do you feel like you’ve got the knack for good audio?
We hope so as these tips have been curated over 30 plus years of audiophile experience and are designed to get you the MOST audiophile enjoyment for the least possible amount of money – out of the gate. Enjoy!