The world of high-end audio can be a pretty confusing place for the uninitiated, so we thought we’d created a super simple guide with some of the basics…
People who enjoy high-end audio are called ‘audiophiles’ i.e. someone who likes sound … but I prefer ‘audio enthusiast’!
I’m one and my name is Ceri Thomas. I run a small, independent Hifi company in Woking, England called Code Acoustics.
If you want to check us out our website can be found here:
We make sound-systems like the one you see below:
So what’s high-end audio all about?
Well it’s pretty simple really. It’s about sitting on your sofa, forgetting about the crazy hectic world we live in and just listening and enjoying music.
And that’s it?!
Well some people will buy a sound-system and keep it for decades. In which case it’s more about finding and exploring new music.
Others want to get the best possible sound in their living room. They’ll experiment with different pieces of equipment and do seemingly strange things like put their CD-Player on squash balls (to reduce vibration), or run their speaker cable on top of pizza box spacers (no idea!).
So it’s just something I do in the living room?
Not quite. If you get a taste for the hobby, you may find yourself attending a Hifi show, or as my girlfriend likes to call them, ‘Hifi Conventions’!
This is possibly the best one, held once a year in Munich, Germany.
At such a show you can see (and hear!) set-ups like the one below, some of which cost in excess of hundreds of thousands of pounds:
But high end audio isn’t just for the rich. You can pick up a decent second-hand system for just a couple of hundred pounds from a good dealer, such as Hifi Hangar or on ebay.
Some of the old stuff still puts a lot of modern kit to shame!
Why are there so many boxes?!
When you look at a picture like the one below, it can seem a little crazy that all of those boxes do something different, when a SONOS speaker for instance can do the whole lot in one!
Well it’s partly that there are a lot of compromises when you cram everything into a small box, or a cynic might say that it’s good business for the hifi companies!
If we break a standard system down into it’s main building blocks, it starts to make sense:
A source is anything that creates a musical signal. This can be a turntable (below), CD-Player, computer or streamer for example.
A source usually outputs a signal at what we call ‘line level’, which is fairly low and too low to power a pair of speakers. So we need a piece of equipment that can take this small signal and make it bigger, which is essentially what an amplifier does.
What you see above is called a valve amplifier. People say it has a ‘warm’ sound and vocals do sound lovely through them. Though bass heads should avoid as they are usually low on power!
Of course everyone know’s what these are; they’re the boxes that make the sound. However, in high end Hifi this is where the designers really push the boat out with rather unusual designs, such as the one below:
I swear there are more boxes than that?
Yes, things can be broken down even further! An amplifier can be split into three sections; a ‘pre-amplifier’ (top) with the inputs and volume control, then ‘mono-block’ power amplifiers to control each speaker (bottom two):
A speaker can also be split into a number of sections. The below ‘pair’ have dedicated tweeter, mid-range, upper bass and lower bass sections:
The same goes for a source. If it’s digital where you have your music stored on a streamer like the unit below:
You may also need a box to take this digital signal of zero’s and one’s and make it into an ‘analogue’ signal for the amplifier. In which case you’ll need something called a Digital to Analogue Converter, or DAC:
So now we’ve cleared that up, onto a question I get asked a lot…
Is SONOS any good?
Yes, for the money it’s extremely good. The equipment is very well designed and they use technology you won’t find in many speakers costing thousands of pounds.
But they are built to a price, so there are limits to what can be achieved. One thing they won’t do is accept high resolution audio files, which are now commonly available at 24 bit / 192kHz resolution.
However, if you stream your music using Spotify (or similar), which is low resolution mp3, or even Tidal, which can stream at CD quality 16 bit / 44kHz resolution, you’re not missing out on anything.
What about my bluetooth speaker?
SONOS and similar products receive the audio signal via Wi-Fi, which can support anything from mp3 to high res files. Bluetooth is limited to mp3 and the transmitter (likely your phone) needs to be pretty close.
Unfortunately music sent using the original bluetooth ‘codec’* doesn’t sound very good. An upgraded codec was released called ‘apt-x’ and this sounds quite reasonable, so if you are buying a bluetooth speaker, check it’s to this standard. It’s a hardware thing, so either your bluetooth speaker is apt-x or it isn’t.
*A codec is a method for compressing and decompressing data.
But if you are in the market for this type of speaker, I’d say try and go for the entry level SONOS PLAY:1 for £180. That little step in price will give you a big step in sound quality.
What about this law of diminishing returns?
There is a theory that a sound system costing £10,000 is only a little better than one costing £1,000, and a system costing £100,000 is only a fraction better than one costing £10,000.
Whilst frighteningly you can spend tens of thousands of pound and just get ‘good’ sound, there are some companies out there that are really pushing the boundaries.
I recently heard a Magico / Constellation system similar to the one above, which must have cost £200,000. That is crazy money but reassuringly it did sound incredible; take your breath away sort of stuff!
Audio is all in that last 1%, where the magic happens and that doesn’t come cheap. Like myself, you’ll probably never own a system like this, but you can hear one at a hifi show.
After you have, I doubt you’ll listen to that little bluetooth speaker in the same way again, no matter how cool it looks!
Thanks for reading and if you have any comments or suggestions, please get in touch: