Guide to the Next Generation of Hi-Fi Stereo Systems
Through the late 1980s and 1990s, while hip-hop and grunge music took over the airwaves, another revolution affected nearly every listener, manifested in the way they consumed their favorite songs. The home stereo system, once a modular system of silver-plated and vacuum-tube-driven components devoted to high fidelity, or Hi-Fi, was replaced by “mini-systems” and “boom boxes;” all-in-one solutions that were more cost effective and took up less space in the home. The compact disc was exploding in the retail world and reeling in customers to repurchase their music collections in digital formats, and the smaller, consumer-market home audio equipment that was available to play this new digital content was rapidly overshadowing the larger, higher-quality components, to conserve that space.
During the rise of home theater and DVDs, bringing surround sound into the living room did give consumers a path to continue purchasing modular stereo equipment (known as component equipment). Consumer demand for “home theater in a box,” with complete packages at low pricing, marginalized a majority of consumer audio component products on the market. Many manufacturers who made a variety of separate CD players, cassette players, turntables, and equalizers discontinued several of their models based on low consumer demand. If you were an audiophile, your options seemed to diminish as time went on.
Listening to music, from the artist's creativity to the depths of the sound recording itself, can be a passion for some listeners, and smaller computer speakers or a soundbar just won’t cut it for some people’s personal listening standards. Fortunately, in the past few years, this niche of audiophiles has grown and manufacturers have noticed—and are offering solutions. The timing couldn’t be better, as on-demand, high-resolution music downloads are available from several popular artists, online, for your convenience. And beat this: if you have vinyl records, it’s time to pull those out, because they’re making something of a comeback.
Where can you find high-resolution music?
With the days of CDs and cassettes long past, audiophiles generally turn to digital audio file formats to listen to their music. As music services like Google Play and Spotify only broadcast in MP3 or AAC file formats, which are lossy codecs (even at 320 Kbps), there are smaller and more niche services that cater to Hi-Fi enthusiasts to download their records. These smaller and niche websites offer compressed formats like FLAC and ALAC and sometimes uncompressed formats like WAV and AIFF, when available. These high-definition (HD) tracks can come at a premium price and have smaller availability, but what these files don’t do is sacrifice audio quality for a smaller file size. With Neil Young’s PONO service and a few others slated to come to market, the options will hopefully expand tremendously over the next few years.
For more information on file types and other related information on Hi-Fi, please see the B&H article, "Introduction to Portable Hi-Fi."
How do you store and play your music library?
Digital Analog Converters
Storage of audio files and their method of playback can vary from listener to listener, contingent on one's setup. Many choose the plug-in from their Digital Analog Converter interface (DAC) to their computer or mobile device via a USB connection. While this setup is relatively simple, it poses some questions for each user.
- Do you need to connect an additional external hard drive to house your library and also connect that to your setup?
- Is your computer or hard drive adding noise to your listening environment?
- As sometimes aesthetics are important, does this setup look “disorganized?”
The term DAC generally refers to the entire device housing the prime conversion chip, similar to the way we sometimes call computers “CPUs,” even though a computer houses RAM, hard drives, and other parts besides the processor. So what does a DAC do? In simple terms, the DAC converts the 1’s and 0’s from the digital source into analog electric current so it can be sent to an amplifier. The DAC is the primary bridge between the digital and analog worlds for your music, so its job is critical—the more accurate detail in the signal it can convert, the more clarity and stereo depth your system can achieve.
As opposed to portable DACs, home Hi-Fi DACs generally require AC electrical outlets for power and can feature more of a variety of connectivity as well. Unlike network players, component DACs generally require a software media player to play the music file from your library. While Apple iTunes software works for some, there are several options on the market for Windows, Mac, and Linux, and depending on your platform, you may want to research the software choice that will be compatible with your own library.
Several manufacturers make component DACs, with their own take on how their company history and commitment make them the lead option. Generally, you’ll find all DACs have USB connectivity to, and analog RCA output options for, your amplifier or pre-amp (or pre-amplifier component like an equalizer). Beyond that, you can find digital connections like optical cable if you're using other digital equipment like computer sound cards. The frequency response and bit-rate of the conversion does vary from product to product, and is also one of the lead selling points in the range that's available on the market.
Cambridge Audio, a British company, offers the DacMagic 100 and the DacMagic Plus. Both of these products are related and are capable of up to 192 kHz of conversion. At first, the Plus would seem to simply offer more connectivity with XLR inputs, a headphone amp, and digital audio output options. However, under the hood, the DacMagic Plus features twin Wolfson WM8740 24-bit DAC converter chips to encode each channel separately for a wider stereo field with less crosstalk between the channels.
The Zodiac and Zodiac+ from Antelope audio both use clocking and conversion technology developed for recording studios in a home-sized package for the Hi-Fi application. The Zodiac can convert up to 192 kHz and pays special attention to its internal clock. The Zodiac’s clock has a temperature-controlled housing so it can operate efficiently, as building heat would reduce its efficiency. Beyond the temperature control, this clock is also driven by a 64-bit algorithm to aid it in its timing adjustments to reduce jitter (distortion as a result of timing issues). The Zodiac+ expands upon these features by offering mute and mono settings, re-clocking on the digital outputs to reduce jitter even further, and also precise trim controls on the analog output controls.
Antelope isn’t the only professional audio company to transition to the audiophile market. Fostex has been making waves of its own with the HP-A8C, a 32-bit 192 kHz DAC that features quite a few choices for input options, including an SDHC card from which to play DSD media directly. This precision Asahi Kasei DAC’s all-discrete analog circuitry is paired with a temperature-controlled clock for precise conversion. Also, this model touts a high-end operational amplifier (op-amp) for the built-in, high-grade headphone amplifier, if you choose not to pair with a speaker amplifier.
Benchmark, a New York company that builds its products in the USA, touts the DAC2 Digital to Analog Converter. The unit features USB connectivity, a 0-Ohm reference-grade headphone amplifier, XLR and RCA inputs, and 24-bit 192 kHz conversion via a quad-balanced Sabre32 32-bit chip, native DSD playback, a built-in HPA2 (a separate Benchmark headphone amplifier product), and UltraLock2 Jitter attenuation.
Network Media Players
Besides the component DAC, some audiophiles choose a network media player or network receiver to play from a source. The advantage here is that you can use your local area network (LAN) wired or wirelessly to have your stereo set up in a different location than your computer setup. The network media player option raises questions for the listener.
- What will be your network server and do you know how to configure it? Would you use a Network Attached Storage (NAS) drive?
- Is the network media player or receiver compatible with the files in your library?
- If it’s an all-in-one network media player, are you willing to forgo the customization with separate components for the convenience of one product?
Network media players start from a component-type product, with a DAC included, to a stereo receiver that is a network player as well. As some of these products can be equipped with Apple AirPlay and Bluetooth, keep in mind it’s really the DLNA certification that allows the connectivity to play your high-resolution files across your network. The range of these products can be vast, but here are a few examples.
A product with a small footprint, the Yamaha CRX-N560BL Network CD Receiver is an all-in-one network media player that includes Internet radio streaming options, a CD player with FLAC support, and Apple AirPlay support. It also includes a DAC and a built-in amplifier with 64 Watts (at 4 Ohms) per side of output for you to connect speakers directly.
A newly released option that also has a small footprint is the Cambridge Audio Minx XI Digital Music System. It can stream 24-bit 96 kHz of compressed or uncompressed files wirelessly from your computer music library via the companion iOS or Android App over DLNA. With its built-in speakers, or connecting to your own amplifier, it can also play from services like Spotify and Rhapsody, though those services don’t offer high-definition file streaming.
As mentioned above, you can also take the network receiver route, and purchase something like the Yamaha AVENTAGE RX-A740 7.2 Channel Network AV Receiver or Pioneer VSX-1130-K 7.2-Channel Network AV Receiver. The up side to these options is that they get you into the Hi-Fi game with fewer components, as the receiver houses the DAC and an amplifier. It also enables you to connect to your home theater setup if a separate audio setup isn’t possible. However, as with any network player, you still always need to check compatibility with your files, as each brand and model has different compatibility, and you want to ensure your library will play correctly.
Digital music may be the most popular option, but an interesting trend is the growing return of the turntable, also known as the "record player." Record stores are generally long gone, but availability has slowly crept back with old and new manufacturers responding to a newer market demand from consumers of all ages. While they have their own nostalgia, which may be part of the reason for their return, turntables are (by nature) analog and can reproduce frequencies well beyond CD quality, with the proper components.
Turntables comprise several components: a platter, driven by a belt or directly from a motor; a tone arm; and a cartridge, which holds the stylus, or needle. The balance of the platter, the material, and counterweight of the tonearm—even the material of the cartridge with the attached stylus—contribute to the sound reproduction that one can extract from a record. While the selection for turntables is much smaller than it was in the 1970s, several manufacturers have offerings that will meet your needs.
Music Hall Audio is a brand that offers a modern aesthetic in precise and elegant construction for its turntables. The mmf series features several concepts that cater to the Hi-Fi listener. The entry model, the mmf2.2, features a one-piece tonearm, an isolated asynchronous motor, and a two-speed pulley. The mmf5.1 takes this a step further by employing a 2-plinth design to aid in reduction of the operational vibration that affects sound pickups. It also features a Mojo cartridge (which is designed by Ortofon) and a Fritz Gyger FG70 Diamond Stylus for even more optimal pickup of audio. The flagship model mmf-11.1 is a premium choice, which has 4-plinth construction in which the tonearm is mounted on the second level, not the first. It also features magnetic-levitation isolation on the bottom plinth to further reduce vibrations, as well as the tone arm being made of carbon fiber, and a microprocessor-controlled flywheel fly system for optimal speed accuracy.
If you’re looking for more standard design, but great functionality, the Denon DP300f and the Pioneer PL-990 are both fully automatic belt-driven turntables with two speed options for 33 ⅓ and 45 rpm and manual tone-arm lifters. Both are great basic options, though the Denon does feature die-cast aluminum construction, as well as a built-in phono preamplifier.
What are good choices for speakers?
Speakers for Hi-Fi audio fall into one of two categories: active and passive. Passive speakers have been the general standard for speakers for years and require a separate amplifier to drive them. More recently, just like in the professional recording market, amplifiers have reduced in size and could be fit into the housings of the speakers themselves, to make the speakers self-powered, or active. Active speakers allow the manufacturer to control consistency from speaker to speaker so two people with the same speakers will have, generally, the same audio experience. However, most active speakers don’t allow you to bypass the internal amplifier, so you are not able to connect to an integrated amplifier, even if it is of superior quality.
For active models, there is currently a smaller selection on the market. However, there are some notable models to investigate if this is the option for you. The Adam Audio Artist series ranges over several sizes and configurations and even offers a few colors. Adam’s primary specialty in this series is their X-ART ribbon tweeter and carbon fiber woofer combination, which are powered via bi-amplification. Ribbon tweeters, Adam Audio’s trademark, are generally difficult to build, yet have been crafted with such precision that they extend the Artist’s frequency range up to 50 kHz.
AudioEngine offers a few models for the budding audiophile as well, which are the AudioEngine A2+ (which also features a built-in DAC) and the A5+. These models offer Kevlar woofers and silk tweeters and feature 60 Watts peak and 150 Watts peak, respectively. These speakers are magnetically shielded to stop magnetic interference from the driver from affecting adjacent computing equipment.
Finally, there's the Paradigm A2 powered speaker, which is available in several color options. It is bi-amplified, with 50 Watts each being delivered to the woofer and the tweeter. Besides the intricate design, these speakers offer an Airport Express input on the rear as well as BD-1 optional Bluetooth for wireless connections to the speaker.
Passive speakers have been updated with several innovations in engineering and design over the past few decades. In home Hi-Fi, speaker preferences truly cater to the listener and the style of music to which they are listening. Several manufacturers offer models for floor-standing and bookshelf speakers.
JBL continues to make a varied selection of options for the home and this company’s L-Series gives a range of options. From the top L890 model to the bookshelf L830, all the models feature PolyPlas cones with a cast-aluminum chassis for the main drivers, pure titanium domes on the high transducers, and mylar domes on the ultra-high transducers. They increase in frequency response in each model up in the series and are also available in cherry or black on each model.
For more floor-standing options, a good option is the Klipsch Reference series. These speakers feature cerametallic woofers and 1" titanium horn-loaded tweeters with TracTrix Horn Technology, which is designed for a higher output using less energy. The RP-250F offers dual 5.25" woofers, the RP-260F has 6.5" woofers, and the RP-280F sports 8" woofers. These are touted to have less distortion at higher volumes, and they increase in power handling for each model up, with the RP-280F topping out at 150 Watts RMS at 8 Ohms.
Boston Acoustics offers the M series, which features floor and shelf speakers. The M25B is a viable shelf speaker option, featuring a 5.25" woofer and a 1" extended wide-bandwidth dome tweeter with a dimple in the middle to reproduce even higher frequencies. The lo-Q cabinet is built to limit vibrations so it can be put on table, shelf, or stand with fewer coupled vibrations affecting the sound.
What kind of amplifiers do you want to power your speakers?
In the home Hi-Fi market there are two varieties of amplifiers from which listeners can choose. There are headphone amplifiers and integrated stereo amplifiers. Headphone amplifiers are designed for listeners who want to listen to music with their personal monitors, like headphones, in their isolated environment. Unlike portable versions, home stereo headphone amplifiers like the Grado RA1 and the Music Hall ph25.2 have models that require AC current as a power source.
Integrated amplifiers are the primary component that drive a set of speakers. Basically, they’re similar to the traditional “stereo receiver,” except there is no AM/FM radio tuner built in. As opposed to a vacuum-tube-based amp from decades ago, these amplifiers are solid state and have printed circuits on cards inside. When the technology was newer, there was a stigma against solid-state equipment; however, over the last couple of decades, advancements in this solid-state technology allow for very high fidelity in a compact amplifier package and a variety of models are available from several manufacturers.
While Yamaha has paid attention to the audiophile market with its Aventage series of receivers, nothing shows more dedication to this customer than the release of the Yamaha A-S3000. With its analog metering and retro design, it packs 100 Watts per channel at 8 Ohms, designed with a toroidal transformer for zero transmission loss, and is symmetrically laid out to have short runs for signal to ensure less signal-to-noise ratio. It also features a floating and balanced power amplifier with MOSFET design.
It’s you’re looking for a range of integrated amps, TEAC has a variety to fit a range of placements in the audiophile market. As a brand that was involved in the first era of Hi-Fi in the 1970s in the United States and Japan, the company continues to flourish with this new range of Hi-Fi products.
The TEAC AI-3000 is the flagship and it features a whopping 300 Watts per channel at 4 Ohms, to drive even the largest home speakers. It touts a discrete dual mono analog amplifier circuit design, so there is no crosstalk between the left and right channels. This amplifier also features a toroidal core power transformer; in each circuit there is also mono, eliminating any electrical interference. TEAC has two other versions in the series, the AI-1000 and AI-2000, if you’re looking for an entry- or mid-level version of the amplifier.
Onkyo offers the A-9070 and A-9050 integrated amplifiers to drive your speakers with clarity. Both models feature 3-stage inverted Darlington Circuitry, which is a patented design in which one amplifier feeds another and shares a common collector. In short, it can reduce distortion and size simultaneously. Both models do feature a built-in Wolfson DAC if you have a digital source to connect to it via coaxial or optical. The 9050 is rated at 75 watts per channel at 4 Ohms; the 9070 is 140 watts per channel at 4 Ohms.
If you’re a music enthusiast, but you're listening to your laptop in your home or apartment as your music center, you should take a moment to really investigate the options available to you. No matter what genre is your preference, so much attention is put into the creativity and audio engineering behind music—it can only be realized on a true Hi-Fi stereo system. Options and marketing information can scatter one in different directions, as everyone’s ears are different, yet now there’s a good range of options that make it possible for anyone with interest to invest in Hi-Fi stereo equipment for their home. You can build a system to your liking, or simply buy a network player and powered speakers for your living room. The true reward will be music to your ears.