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The home is a special place to connect with family and friends. A great way to share this special place and time is by listening to music and watching your favorite films together. These shared experiences can be the basis for the kind of lifelong memories that hold friendships together, so it makes sense and is well worthwhile to invest in quality equipment that delivers those experiences with the best possible fidelity.
"The creative process of designing, assembling, and realizing your own personal hi-fi audio system is itself a great deal of fun."
The creative process of designing, assembling, and realizing your own personal hi-fi audio system is itself a great deal of fun. Building a home high-fidelity (hi-fi) audio system is a balancing act of budget, system performance, user friendliness, aesthetics, and ultimately, the flexibility to refine and evolve the system over time. Fortunately, B&H offers a diverse and ever-growing selection of audiophile-grade products from a variety of innovative manufacturers around the world. Whether you are outfitting a home entertainment system, building a bedside or office headphone listening rig, installing speakers in your kitchen, or realizing your dream flagship stereo system, there is a wealth of excellent and exciting options from which to choose. This guide will offer a few insights on the process of putting a system together, as well as some ideas for specific products to explore further.
The first and most fundamental concept to appreciate in regard to building a hi-fi system is that the signal path of your system is, ultimately, and always will be, a flow of electrons. The quality of your electricity and the purity of its path can play a significant part in the overall way your music sounds. For this reason, there are two components that deserve special attention, because their value is sometimes overlooked.
The Wall Outlet
The first stage in the path of your signal chain is when the electricity leaves your wall outlet and enters your power conditioner. Most residential and commercial constructions utilize electrical outlets that, while sufficient for the vast majority of consumer electronics, are not optimized for the intricacies, nuances, and demands of presenting audiophile-grade sound.
A first step you might want to consider, which can have a profound impact on the overall quality and character of your sound, is to upgrade the electrical outlet in your house that will feed the power conditioner. A good product for this purpose is the Furman MIW 2-Outlet Faceplate, and the installation of this outlet should be completed by a licensed electrician.
The act of simply upgrading a generic wall outlet to something like the Furman MIW-Surge In-Wall Surge Protection System can have a considerable and lasting effect on the performance of the rest of the equipment in your system.
When investing in a Hi-Fi system, it is imperative to recognize two points about the behavior of electricity. The first is that sudden voltage spikes or power outages in the grid can potentially damage components in your system. For this reason it is essential to invest in some measure of surge protection, to keep your equipment safe. The second observation is that no matter how rare and precious the components, or sophisticated the circuit design of your system may be, the system is fundamentally a flow of electrons and the quality and stability of that electricity is paramount to achieving the full potential of your sound. For this reason, I recommend investing in a surge protector that also serves to filter and regulate the electricity before it enters the signal path.
The APC H10 and H15 Home Theater Power Conditioners provide a great balance of surge protection, power filtration, and noise reduction, all in a form factor that can rest tastefully on a table or mantle. APC also makes conditioners that include backup batteries called UPS (Uninterrupted Power Supplies), which will instantaneously switch on in the event of a power drop in the mains. This ensures that your signal path enjoys a steady and stable flow of well-conditioned power. You can find the models with backup batteries at the B&H SuperStore in Manhattan.
Just as is the case in the first two stages, the quality of the overall sound will depend upon the integrity of the overall signal chain. This is especially true of the power and interconnecting cables, which play as important a role in preserving and presenting the fidelity of the music as the components they connect.
I know, at first it may not seem like cables could be this important, but you might be surprised by the improvement upgrading from a generic power cord to one from Audioquest can have on your system. Available in 3' and 6' lengths in two- and three-prong variants, the Audioquest NRG1, NRG2, and NRG-X3 vary by the way the cables are wound. For the purposes of this article, I won’t go into too much detail on the intricacies of cable construction, but if you are curious (and it really is quite interesting), the Audioquest home page features a series of insightful white papers on this subject, showing the science behind the magic. For example, Audioquest uses a process called cold welding, wherein high pressure, as opposed to heat, is used to join metals together, and details like these ultimately influence the sound in appreciable ways.
The same is true of the interconnecting cables (XLR, RCA, S/PDIF, USB) that connect the components of your system. The purity of the copper used and the complexity or rarity of the insulation and jacket construction all contribute to the performance and price of the cable. Since all systems are unique and have different needs in terms of the type of connector, length, etc., I generally recommend that some consideration and a decent percentage of the overall system budget be dedicated to high-quality cables. An added benefit of spending a bit more on cables is that they can be used in future iterations of your system as your ear and taste in equipment develops. The sound system will ultimately sound like the weakest link in the signal chain, so it's important to build a system that is well balanced, with high-quality components, power, and interconnecting cable.
If you're new to home hi-fi audio and want to get started with an integrated solution that includes a digital-to-analog converter, amplifiers, and speakers all in one enclosure, I recommend you consider a pair of KEF X300As. An exciting brand at B&H, KEF is a well-regarded hi-fi audio company because of its innovative and unique approach to driver design. Developed over the course of 50 years by sound engineer and company founder Raymond Cooke, the KEF Uni-Q driver combines concentric aluminum/magnesium mid-woofer and aluminum tweeter elements with a special Tangerine-shaped waveguide assembly into a virtual point source. This makes the music more coherent sounding than in designs that use separate mid-woofer and tweeter elements.
The integrated asynchronous 24-bit 96 kHz USB digital-to-analog converter and built-in, custom-designed class A/B 50/20W amplifiers make it easy for you to connect your computer and enjoy the company’s innovative approach to loudspeaker design. You can also use the back panel 3.5mm analog input to connect the analog output of your smartphone or other mobile device directly, which will, in turn, run through the unit’s A/D and D/A converters. Volume and balance controls, as well as a two-position EQ switch, allow you to customize the system response of the speakers to your room.
For home-theater enthusiasts who also want to experience the company’s Uni-Q driver, B&H also carries the KEF E305, a 5.1 surround system that includes a powered subwoofer, as well as the KEF V700 soundbar, which can be placed above or beneath your television screen.
Focal, Adam, and JBL
The legendary French speaker manufacturer Focal is well known and regarded worldwide for the clarity and precision of its sound signature and loudspeaker design. The company's professional monitors are so clear, in fact, that they can also be used in a dual-purpose setup for mixing and mastering music, as well as audiophile listening.
"...investing in professional mastering-quality studio monitors (speakers designed for accuracy) could lead you to some very interesting creative places down the road."
Selecting professional audio equipment for hi-fi use brings with it at least two unique advantages. The first is that it opens up a gateway for eventually producing your own music. This can be one of life’s greatest joys and it's much easier than you might think. Each year the technology for composing, arranging, recording, mixing, and mastering becomes ever more powerful and approachable for the enthusiast. So even if your initial interest is simply to listen to music on the best possible system you can assemble, investing in professional mastering-quality studio monitors (speakers designed for accuracy) could lead you to some very interesting creative places down the road. The second advantage pertains to the modularity and customization enjoyed by using professional equipment. By separating the steps in your signal chain, such as the digital signal processor, digital-to-analog converter, analog monitor controller, amplifier, and speakers into individual components, you afford yourself the flexibility to upgrade and evolve your system over time. This is a great approach if you imagine becoming more involved in the finer details of your system and wish to experiment with different pieces of equipment, to refine your system’s sound signature as it grows.
Hearing is a comparatively personal experience, because the specific auditory stimuli to which a person responds are directly related to the formative listening experiences early in life. The brain becomes adapted to changes in pitch within the first years of life as a way of developing communication skills. People from around the word respond to different sounds because of the phonetic differences in the languages they speak. As this relates to hi-fi, two people can listen to the same speaker and have different impressions and opinions, not because one is more or less better at hearing the objective quality of the speaker, but because each person comes from different life experiences that have shaped their response to sound. For this reason, it’s important to audition a variety of speakers from different manufacturers as you get to know your ear and develop critical listening skills. Two brands that you might want to consider, in addition to Focal, are Adam and JBL.
Available in black or white finishes, the Adam ARTist 6 speakers use a 150W Class A-B amplifier system to drive dual 4.5" carbon fiber woofers and a single X-ART tweeter. The tower design is definitely beautiful to behold and well suited for free-standing use in a main listening room.
What really makes Adam speakers special is the clarity and detail provided by the X-ART tweeter, which stands for “extended accelerating ribbon technology.” Innovating on the original Air Motion Transformers designed by audio legend Dr. Oskar Heil, the tweeter uses a pleated diaphragm in which the folds compress and expand to draw in and squeeze out air in a way similar to the bellows of an accordion. This approach to tweeter design has a better loading factor than traditional piston designs and also avoids the typical breakups, distortion, and dynamic limiting encountered in dome and cone tweeters. With more than 2.5 times the surface area of a common tweeter, the X-ART diaphragm is incredibly efficient, with a very clear and open sound signature that is well worth a listen.
Another option to consider is the JBL L series. Available in a range of free-standing mains and satellite speakers that can be wall mounted, the L Series delivers studio-grade performance in a form factor that can work well in the home. The L820s are only 5" deep, which makes them great for wall mounting, and the free-standing L880 and L890 models integrate polyglass woofers with high-frequency and ultra-high-frequency dome tweeters with internal waveguides, to deliver an impressive frequency response of 28 to 40,000 Hz. Speakers of this kind take a tremendous amount of design experience and engineering prowess to achieve, which is exactly what the Harman Group has to offer.
An example of using professional equipment for a home hi-fi setup would be to combine a Dangerous Source Mastering Grade monitor Controller with a pair of Focal Twin 6 Active Studio Monitors with the matching Focal Sub6 11" Active Front-Firing Studio Subwoofer, or alternatively, a pair of the Adam ARTist 6 speakers or JBL L890s.
Designed by mastering electronics genius Chris Muth, the Dangeorus Source can be fed either analog (via balanced XLRs and ⅛" connectors) or digital signals (via AES/EBU or USB 2). The device includes an integrated digital-to-analog converter of Muth’s own creation that is designed to reveal your music exactly the way it was mastered, without hype or coloration, while bringing forth the emotional dynamics.
Like the Adam and JBL speakers, the Focal twin 6 active studio monitors have a nice form factor that can be placed on a mantle or a set of dedicated stands. Their beautiful wood-stained finish most certainly qualifies them as Audiophile grade in regard to aesthetics. Each monitor contains two of the company’s world-renowned polyglass 6.5" woofers and one inverted aluminum dome tweeter. The speaker also comes in a single-woofer variant called the Solo, but I prefer the twin because the double-woofer design helps lower the overall amount of intermodulation distortion in the system. By assigning the bass and mid-bass frequency bands to dedicated drivers, each woofer is able to do a better job of covering the assigned frequency range because the bands themselves are narrower and each woofer, in turn, is required to do less work to cover the band. An analogy would be the strategy of using a zone offense or defense in sports, such as basketball or soccer, wherein each player is assigned a section of the court or field, as opposed to every player chasing the ball.
You can also enjoy the sublime sound of Muth’s converter and circuit design through your favorite pair of headphones, as the Dangerous Source includes an extremely powerful and clean headphone amplifier that can drive up to two pairs at once. The headphone amp alone may be worth the price of admission to experience the Dangerous Sound. On the subject of headphones, I'd like to share a few recommendations.
Headphones are one of the largest grouping markets in audio equipment, with ever-increasing attention given to both sound quality and style. While most of us are probably used to seeing a wide range of in, on, and over-the-ear designs while traveling on a plane or a train, or walking around town—there are also headphones that are designed specifically for hi-fi listening. Continuing with the Focal brand, check out both the Focal Spirit Classic and the Focal Spirit Professional closed-back headphones, depending on your tastes and the degree of your interest in production. The first pair is tuned for more hi-fi listening, and the second for mixing accuracy, although both do a phenomenal job of revealing the details and conveying the feelings embedded in your music.
Ultrasone is also a manufacturer that comes to mind when discussing innovation in headphone technology. This company's recently improved S-Logic design uses an S-Shaped alignment of the drivers within the headphone ear cups to create a more realistic perception of sound in space, as sound waves are able to reflect from the ridges of cartilage that compose the outer ears (auricula) before being funneled into the ear canal.
The flagship Ultrasone Edition 5 are truly a thing of beauty, both in terms of implementing this innovative driver technology, but also in being objects with considerable aesthetic appeal. The Unlimited Edition of the headphones features Ruthenium-coated ear cups and Ethiopian sheepskin ear pads. The Limited Edition version of the headphones features ear cups made from aged Moor oak timber that is several centuries old, which is why only 555 pairs of the headphones exist in the world. Fortunately, some of these pairs are available at B&H, for audiophiles seeking a rather special experience.
In the same league, but with a quite different approach, I strongly encourage you to check out the Audeze Line of Magnetic Planar headphones. I had the pleasure of listening to the LCD-Xs some time ago, and was absolutely floored by their performance. B&H also carries the flagship LCD-3s. If you would like to learn more about magnetic planar technology and the Audeze line, check out this B&H review. Remember—many of these headphones are designed for home or office use, because they're made with an open-back design and often feature higher impedance loads that are too difficult for mobile devices to drive. For optimal performance, a dedicated headphone amplifier is required. B&H offers a fantastic and ever-growing selection of audiophile-grade amps.
Putting together a hi-fi system can involve a number of different pieces, and every person’s needs are specific. For this reason, I want to mention a few products briefly, in several categories that are now at B&H, which I think excel at what they do and may be worth looking into.
Media Players and Storage Solutions
As an alternative or as a backup to storing your music on external analog (vinyl and tape) or digital (optical and flash) media, you might want to consider a dedicated media server such as the Sony HAP-Z1ES Hi-Resolution Audio Player. Equipped with a 1TB internal hard drive and capable of playing back a wide range of formats, including DSD (DSF, DSDFIFF), PCM (Up to 192 kHz), WAV, AIFF, FLAC, ALAC, ATRAC, ATRAC, MP3, AAC, and WMA, this music player includes integrated Wi-Fi for transferring music from your computer, as well as a DSD re-mastering engine using a field-programmable gate array.
It also has the ability to improve the sound quality of compressed audio using a Digital Sound Enhancement Engine (DSEE) to restore high-frequency information and reshape waveform transients that are truncated during the compression process. Complete with a remote control, it’s a nice all-around solution for managing and enjoying your digital music.
Perhaps the most important step in a hi-fi signal chain that involves digital audio is the Digital-to-Analog Converter, or DAC. This piece of equipment, whether separate or integrated into another device, converts the string of binary numbers (a series of ones and zeros) that represents the music into a voltage that is then amplified and transformed into changes in air pressure by your speakers. B&H carries a wide variety of DACs with different designs, capabilities, and prices.
The Cambridge Audio DacMagic Plus, in black or silver, provides stereo conversion over asynchronous USB, coaxial S/PDIF, and optical TOSlink connections, as well as the option of connecting the BT100 Bluetooth receiver with support for the apt-X Bluetooh codec so you can pair your stereo with your mobile device. The converter uses twin Wolfson WM8740 24-bit chips and an algorithm by a company called Anagram Technologies to up-sample content to 24-bit 384 kHz and reduce jitter for a smoother, more musical response. It's a great starting point.
The Antelope Audio Zodiac+ Mastering DAC combines a 24-bit 192 kHz converter with a custom-designed USB transport chipset with tailored performance for Mac and PC environments that can feed the converter with data at up to 480 Mbits per second. What makes Antelope special is the company’s 64-bit Acoustically Focused Clocking technology and the use of a shielded, oven-controlled clock for regulating the converter. Better clocking translates into tighter timing and reduced jitter (fewer clocking errors) in the overall audio performance. Additional features that set this DAC apart include separate gold-printed circuit boards for the analog and digital components of the system, which help limit crosstalk interference, as well as a volume-controlled, dual-stage headphone amplifier that helps smooth the response throughout the frequency spectrum.
One converter that deserves special mention is the Lynx Hilo A/D D/A Converter System. Available in black or silver in both USB and Thunderbolt variants, the system is designed to serve as the hub of a mastering facility, but I also think it could function brilliantly as the brain of a home Hi-Fi system.
The feature set and flexibility of the device is incredible in terms of I/O, FPGA-powered digital-signal routing, the touchscreen user interface, the engineering of the analog circuit paths, and the reference-quality headphone amplifier. It is a remarkable piece of technology that, with some setup, could function as the Hub of your home hi-fi system.
For amplification, check out the Texas-bred, now New-York-based manufacturer, Benchmark.
Also available in black or silver, the Benchmark AHB2 High Resolution Power Amplifier uses a bi-polar class-AB output stage with features such as a feed-forward error correction circuit to cancel zero-crossing errors in transient response accurately, as well as a resonant switching power supply with a fast control loop to eliminate mechanical hum in the amplifier and reduce the strength of the magnetic field around it. The unit also boasts a staggering dynamic range of 130 dB and can play back sounds below 0.1 Hz and higher than 200 kHz, which is especially important when playing back super-high-resolution audio such as 24-bit PCM and DSD files. These specifications are among the most impressive that one can find in commercially available amplifiers. Remember that when you're building your system, it’s essential that each component in the signal chain is up to the performance of the other components in the system.
One aspect of the system that requires special attention is the acoustics of the room in which your system will be playing. Most residential constructions are not built with audiophile acoustics in mind, the same way a recording studio is constructed. Most have 90-degree corners that cause low frequencies to sustain longer than other sounds, as well as parallel surfaces that cause flutter echo (soundwaves reflecting back and forth).
To treat your room right, I recommend hiring a qualified acoustician who can help you develop and implement a plan. To get started, you may be able to make some noticeable improvements by installing some pieces of room treatment from companies such as Auralex. The Auralex Bamboo Peak Pyramid Diffusor Panels and Bamboo QuadraTec Diffusor Panels can be attached to walls or suspended from ceilings, and help diffuse the reflections of sound in your listening space, while at the same time offering the warmth, resonance, and aesthetic appeal of bamboo. You could even match the diffuser panels with a pair of Audioengine A5+ Active 2-Way Speakers and the bamboo version of the Audeze LCD-2 Headphones for a system that’s based around one of nature’s most renewable resources.
Whether hi-fi audio is a new interest or a well-loved hobby, B&H has a wide variety of world-class products to help you build your system through every step in the signal chain and every step along the way, in this very exciting and fulfilling pastime.
Learn more online, speak with a product specialist by phone at 1-800-606-6969, through Live Chat, or come into the B&H SuperStore, in Manhattan, to explore the exciting world of hi-fidelity audio.