Speaker Grill

The Entry Level Audiophile Setup

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Audio components, setup, and configuration can be incredibly complicated. There is a vast array of opinions and options. Here is our entry-level guide to understanding how and where to start as a budding audiophile.

Digital Media Players

These are the players that everyone uses. iPhones, Android phones, computers, etc.

It is essential to understand that if you have a significant amount of music, or are planning to gather a substantial amount, consider using a computer as your primary tool to play music. The drawback to this is you will have to turn it on every time you want to listen, which can become a hassle over time. Nevertheless, it will be critical to have lots of storage capacity.

The purpose is to save lossless records in a device that has a lot of cheap storage. Lossless albums take up space and PCs excel in providing the space for that. 

Phones/Portable Devices

By far one of the best phones that you can get touting Hi-Fi capabilities is the LG V50. With the built in Quad-DAC you get lost in your movies, music, games and more with full, clear, authentic audio. When tested against other phones their technology has provided the the clearest audio in the mainstream market. This offers the convenience of not needing a separate devices for your music and phone. Plus with the option to add storage through the microSD slot you can add as much storage as you need.

 

Audio Formats

The general attitude is to avoid AAC and the typical mp3 codec. Use ALAC, FLAC, or 24/96 files. The term 24/96 refers to The sampling rates used in the recording. The better the sample rate, the more subtle detail you’ll be able to hear. This is the reason the files will be significantly larger than the lossy codecs. However, hard disk storage is so inexpensive that this can still be reasonably done without breaking the bank.

Technically, AAC has a decent collection of improvements over mp3 and shows transparency at lower bitrates than mp3.

Getting Audio from Your Player to the Amplifier

Digital music can be sent wirelessly streamed to a device, or the more traditional way involving cables. The player has a device called a DAC. The DAC is a digital to analog converter translating signals that can be transmitted. These signals can then travel over the air or wire depending on the transmission you use. The receiver/amplifier “amplifies” these signals that are then sent to your speakers. 

The connections will depend on what is available on your player and amplifier. The most common connection a device has is the 3.5mm jack. This jack is dying out very slowly, particularly in the world of phones. Most refer to it as the headphone jack. 

Almost all computers have this connection. However, not all amplifiers and receivers have this connection. Most do have a connection type called RCA. It is a straightforward process to obtain cables that are 3.5mm to RCA. The quality of the cable will be stressed here. From my personal experience, I’ve bought a handful of cheap cables that either broke quickly or at the slightest move would create annoying pop sounds. It’s not necessary to get the most expensive cables, but quality does matter.

Another cable option is the called the digital optical cable. Where this is an available option, this is actually preferred over the RCA option. This is because it can transfer a bit-perfect transmission of audio. This is because it transmits using light instead of electrical pulses over copper wire. Electrical impulses are vulnerable to electromagnetic interferences which can distort or “color” the audio while in transit.

While many receivers have this connection, it is not as common on computers, and even less common in portable devices. If you can buy a USB DAC or sound card with an optical connection, this will keep the signal “pure.” As an audiophile keeping the signal clean is much preferred. 

Typically speaking using wired methods is cheaper than streaming, but if you don’t want to lose the clean look that wireless can bring, some devices will make this possible. These solutions tend to use Bluetooth, which is a lossy transmission. There are speaker solutions that allow for using wifi to transmit lossless audio. You will end up being “locked-in” to whatever technology invested in such as AirPlay 2, or app-specific solutions to interface with the speaker.

More On Digital to Analog Converters (DACs)

With a player and digital media, it is important to determin how to get the audio to your speakers. This is the role DACs fulfill.

Receivers and the portable devices and computers all have DAC chips that convert your music from digital to analog so you can hear it. Built-in DACs tend to be okay to mediocre. But it is better to use a dedicated DAC component or the DAC on your receiver as they tend to be better in quality.

Quality ranges widely in DAC chips, and it is always better to use one that is designed for high-end audio. Some DACs are designed for headphones, and some are intended to be used on a home system.

Here are some often recommended budget DACs

Whatever hardware you choose, be sure to research it out for your liking. Sound cards, DACs amplifiers, and speakers range widely in price and quality. A great place to research and ask questions about what others think is good is Reddit. You will get a lot of opinions, but somewhere in there could be a nugget that helps.


You know those hidden gems where you know you are getting the absolute best deal for quality. One of the DACs we found that indisputably gets you the value for HiFi quality is the HiFiBerry DAC+ Pro. For those who have a raspberry pi this device by far gives you amazing value to start out your audiophile setup. It achieves that silky smooth sound and doesn’t lose detail. It’s just simply a great option. Don’t just take my word for it either. What got me one was the overwhelmingly positive reviews this device has. If you don’t have a raspberry pi we have listed here the basic items you’ll need to get yourself a HiFiBerry.

 

HiFiBerry – RCA Version
HiFiBerry – Digital Optical Version
HiFiBerry 3.5mm Version

If you need the raspberry pi kit, I’d recommend these items.

CanaKit Raspberry Pi 3 B+

HiFiBerry Case

Overall this build will be a little over $100 if you needed to get everything. However, that price for this level of quality is definitely worth it. I bought a Fiio for $150 several years back and wasn’t too impressed with the noise that it made.  

 

If building a DAC it just not for you consider other options such as Dragonfly DACs

 
AudioQuest Dragonfly DAC

CD Players

An inherent part of the entry-level setup has a good cd player. This isn’t so much of how well a CD can be played. All CD players will spin CDs the same obviously. But again these players have DACs that vary in quality. The higher quality players will output better analog signal that the cheaper ones.

Additionally, it might seem a bit vain, but the aesthetics of the player should be considered. CD players vary widely in style and size. For your build be sure you select one that is pleasing to your intended build.

One setup I have is the Music Hall 15.3 CD player and amp. Pairing these two together isn’t necessarily needed but create a uniform and clean view.

Including Vinyl

If you are looking to add a record player to the system, it will be important not to get the cheapest player that you find. Unlike CD players, an inexpensive record player can output some terrible sound.

Again, unlike CD players, the RCA output from a phonograph can’t be plugged into any available RCA input on an amplifier or receiver. Turntables output weaker signals than other devices. They have to be pre-amplified before they get to the actual amplifier. If your receiver, preamp, or amp has an input called “phono,” that is meant to work with a record player specifically.

There is a general rule of thumb in the world of audiophilia. If it’s heavy, it is an indicator that it’s likely higher quality. That’s not a guarantee but has helped in picking out more top quality items.

Part 4: Receivers and Amplifiers

There are two primary methods for getting audio to your speakers. A receiver is the easiest and plausibly the most affordable method. Receivers typically have a radio tuner, a DAC, and an integrated amplifier, and sometimes a phono input. They also tend to include video inclusive inputs such as RCA, Component, and HDMI.

There is then using a preamp and amp combo, a preamp prepares the audio before going to the amplifier. A receiver will have a preamp integrated into it as well as a DAC and can be considered an all-in-one component. For an entry-level setup starting out in audio, or budget-oriented system, a receiver is an excellent place to start.

As with the DAC, segregating the segments can allow for higher quality outcomes at each stage. The idea is to get the source audio to the speakers with as little interference as possible. Inferior quality products “color” or distort the audio signal and lowers the quality before reaching the speakers.

Preamp/Amp combos are typically used in higher level setups than entry level systems. A dedicated preamp allows for selecting an audio source such as CD and Phono. It prepares that source to be amplified by a separate amplifier.

The amplifier takes the signal provided by the preamp, amplifies it, and sends the amplified sound to the speakers.

As an entry-level decision, start with a receiver as opposed to a preamp and amplifier. This will be cheaper move and a receiver will power the speakers with comparatively little interference. Even receivers intended for home theater will work to drive your setup speakers to get you started. Do some research on brands, and try to buy used to save money.

But, to simplify, a receiver is often interpreted as a home cinema receiver, which is a device which typically has several power amplifiers, one for each of the channels in a surround sound configuration, and either a line out for a subwoofer or a separate power amplifier for the sub. Which starts to reveal the point of focusing on the stereo. All of the extra components in a receiver cost money to manufacture, and especially in the case of power amplification, isn’t cheaply built. If you end up buying a receiver for the purpose of audio but is capable of other features that is money that could have been spent on higher quality components that focus on the stereo. This mainly applies to buy things new as there are plenty of receivers that are cheaper than amp/preamp combos.

Additionally, don’t be afraid of using vintage devices so long as they don’t have any extreme issues. The quality in components built 30 years ago can still match the quality of significantly more expensive new parts today.

Speakers

This is probably one of the most fun parts of building out an audio system. The speakers are one of the most defining aspects of the system both visually and audibly. The budget and amount of research you will need to put into selecting a pair of speakers will be dependant on how much you already know. 

Size doesn’t necessarily make a good speaker, nor does the number of drivers. These elements do help but don’t necessarily equate to high-quality sound. 

If possible, listen to the speakers you are looking at before you buy them, and consider buying used. I personally have some top-end JBL speakers that were built in the 1970s. They still sound just as amazing as new speakers I’ve heard. You’ll find a lot of specs available on speakers that make them look good on paper, but in practice, they must sound good to you. Just like food, your taste is not the same as someone else’s. Some speakers generally sound good to everyone, but you will find some speakers target what you enjoy more in audio.

When buying speakers, some items to consider are: How much space is available, what genres of music will be played, and what type of receiver or amp do you have or plan on getting. For example, floor-standing speakers take up more room, but also have a larger cabinet and fill the place better. If you have space, these would be a proper consideration.

If you’re lacking in space or budget, consider getting bookshelf speakers. These are smaller speakers with a woofer and a tweeter. These speakers are usually mounted on stands to bring them to ear level.

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