A Beginner’s Guide to Home Audio Equipment

Streaming has made listening to music easy — and that’s great. If you have a smartphone or computer, you quite literally have access tens of millions of tracks at your fingertips. All you have to do is open an app, pick a song and press play. Boom, magic.

But there’s a difference between listening to music, and listening to music well, with good fidelity. The details of a home audio setup are big deal when it comes hi-fi, and especially so now that people are back to caring the quality and the medium of the audio they’re listening to. Vinyl sales have risen for the last 15 years. Sales of CDs and cassette tapes are up. And more and more lossless streaming services are launching. In short: It’s a damn good time to get into hi-fi.

For anybody looking to dive into the world of hi-fi, and potentially build an analog, digital or hybrid system, it’s first important to know the crucial audio components — what they are, why they’re important and how they all work together. Conversion from analog to digital and back requires special technology to do the job well, and in order to accommodate both analog and digital formats into a home audio setup, you’re going to need to have a basic understanding of some of these components.

But don’t think you need to spend a fortune in order to attain audiophile bliss: For each component, we present different tiers of product priced according to different budgets, though even the budget system will provide you with a setup worlds better than simply plugging a pair of earbuds into your computer.

So on that note, godspeed, and happy listening!

guide to hifi audio

Speakers (or loudspeakers) are the most important components in any audio system because they have the biggest impact on the sound you actually hear. In simplest terms, they take the electrical signal that’s fed from your playback device (whether a turntable, CD player or digital streamer) and then vibrate their innards to produce sound. There are many internal components within a speaker that will drastically affect the end sound, such as the crossovers — which divvy the signal into reproduction in different drivers — the size and material of the cabinet, and the quality and number of speaker drivers.

At the root of it, there are two main types of loudspeakers you should know about: passive and active. Passive speakers require external amplification from a receiver or amplifier to work — they need the signal from the playback device to be amplified for them by another device. Active speakers have their own built-in amplification that’s optimized for that specific speaker. There are tradeoffs to each, of course. Passive speakers are more affordable and way more flexible (as you can experiment with different external components to do the amplification part), while active speakers are more expensive but don’t require multiple components to work.

Oh, and you may have heard people talk about the quality of the cables that send that signal, but that doesn’t actually matter that much.

guide to hifi audio

Headphones are tiny speakers that sit on your ears. The left earcup of the headphones does the same job as the left-sided speaker in a stereo pair, and the same is true for the right earcup and the right-sided speaker. The main difference is that headphones obviously go on your head, which also creates a controlled environment for sound, while the sound quality of speakers can be largely affected by the room that they’re in.

There’s a wide variety of different types of headphones, from open-back to closed-back as well as headphones made with various kinds of drivers (dynamic, electrostatic or planar magnetic), but the biggest news lately has been the growth of wireless headphones. These headphones accept a radio signal over the air instead of through cables and then use their on-board DSP (digital-signal processing) and amplification to turn it into sound.

how to hifi audio equipment guide

The job of an amplifier, also referred to as a power amplifier or a stereo amplifier, is to take a weak electrical signal from a playback device and, well, amplify it so that your speakers or headphones can actually play it. Without an amplifier, you wouldn’t be able to hear your music very loudly, if at all. This is especially true of high-fidelity open-back headphones, which require a very amplified signal.

In this age of modern hi-fi, “integrated” amplifiers have kind of taken the place of a traditional power amplifier. Integrated amps combine the traditionally seperate components of power amplifier, a phono preamp (more on that in a second) and a number of wireless and wired connectivity options, so they can act as the central hub of both a digital and an analog hi-fi system.

Oh, and if you have any kind of wireless headphones or wireless speakers, they have a built-in amplifier.

how to hifi audio equipment guide

Gear Patrol

Traditionally, a receiver is just an amplifier with a built-in radio, which allows you to play music on your hi-fi system without needing an analog source like a CD player, cassette tape player or a turntable. These days most receivers perform a similar function as a hub for wireless signals, but have a number of other connectivity options, allowing you to stream music from your smartphone or computer directly to your system.

There are two main types of receivers: stereo…

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