In this blog post, I’m planning on introducing those who want to get into audio how what kind of components you need to get the sound you want, based on your budget, which you will decide from knowledge of the components. I’ll be introducing the necessary parts to get some serious sound and what are alternatives you can go to as well. Basically I’m going to go from the top of the stream where you’re getting the data to your speakers. If you’re really new to audio, here is the crash course to get started on the separate audio components a serious “separate” system will have, and what a receiver will generally contain as well.
I’m also playing around with the Pixabay free images resource from WordPress, which you will see being used below, as a kind of filler image. Hope you guys will like how good they look! Without further ado, let us get on to the different separate components of an audio system.
Component 1: Playback devices
Here, it’s a broad spectrum of something which you can output data from, to your other components that will convert it to sound coming out of your speakers. But there is a very specific component for stereo playback called a transporter, which is something that is the very fundamental of output of data to your other components which can affect the sound, provided that the components are really good. But other playback devices you normally see such as laptops, smartphones, CD players, DVD players, Vinyl players, and even MP3s (old, I know), have other components such as those I will talk about below as well.
Component 2: DACs
So predominantly in audio the data for the audio is stored digitally. So in order to convert it to sound you’ll need a DAC, short for a Digital-to-Analog Converter. This is like the processor to the computer, but this is a fundamental part to anything that can produce sound. Everything from CD players, DVD players, Computers, smartphones, wireless speakers, anything else that have a 3.5mm jack or something you can immediately play sound out of has. Because it is the fundamentals, spending even a few more dollars on these can have a tremendous effect on the sound quality that comes out of the playback device. However, like say computer internals, even if your processor is really good and your graphics isn’t, there are limitations for when you want to do anything graphics intensive, so other downstream components like pre-amplifiers, amplifiers, and even the speakers themselves play a role in the quality of music that you get.
Component 3: Pre-amplifiers/surround sound processors
Pre-amplifiers and surround sound processors are in the same category, but play a different role. They are components that come right before sound amplification from said amplifiers and even then, they can dictate the quality of sound you get out of the system, but not change them as drastically as DACs do. Pre-amplifiers’ sole purpose is to split the signal coming in from a playback device with a DAC, or straight from a DAC itself, and directs it where you want it. This is especially needed if you’re really serious into audio and have dedicated Stereo components and dedicated Home Theater components. This will alleviated the need change cables to direct the source of audio to a specific downstream component and or want to direct more than one source of audio. A good pre-amplifier is crucial to allow as much pure, minimally altered signal through, that won’t hinder your whole sistem.
A surround sound processor is exactly how it sounds. It processes the input signals and converts it to multiple speakers to create a surround sound effect, like you’re in the middle of the action. This can be a dedicated component, which will have processing of sound from companies like Dolby, DTS, etc., and their ways of processing sound to match a system with a specific number of speakers. This is where you normally see numbers such as 5.1 or 5.2 or 7.1 or 7.2 or 9.1 or even 11.1, etc. If you don’t get what those numbers are, they are speaker configurations. the first number, is the number of speakers. I shall use a 5.1 configuration as an example. In this configuration there are 5 speakers, one for the center, two for the front main stereo left and right, and 2 for the back left and right, hence the number 5. The .1 is what I call the not legitimate speaker, as it denotes a subwoofer, which generates specifically only low frequencies. That means .2 will mean it has 2 subwoofers in the configuration. A typical 7.1 will have an additional 2 speakers for the middle left and right. A 9.1 or 11.1 however, can mean the addition of ceiling reflecting speakers, to make it seem like there is sound coming from above the listener. The quality of the surround processor only affects home theater performance.
Component 4: Amplifiers
This is a rather crucial component which amplifies the sound from your audio source which has gone through the DAC, and maybe preamplifiers, which as you can tell amplifies the signal from those sources, which is not a lot at all. These are definitely needed as other components only minimally amplify the analog signal, because amplification is a rather taste-dependent thing. Also because to amplify an signal, many other large components are needed, and there isn’t one specific way to amplify an analog signal. This diversity can affect the sound quality and characteristics greatly, and this is why we “mix-and-match” our components, especially with amplifiers. Naturally as well, the more expensive amplifiers will implement hardware that are actually proven to sound better in terms of details, transparency, and give you the company’s idea of the sound for that price.
There are 2 types of amplifiers that people generally use, called a tube amplifier and a solid state amplifier. A tube amplifier has bulb-like vacuum tubes that contain materials to allow for sound amplification. These eventually will fuse and you will have to replace them each time, and even then each tube you buy will present a different sound characteristic than the previous ones. Solid state are more recent and modern type of amplifiers that do not require any tubes, and you do not need to replace anything inside as often as tubes amplifiers do. Both have their pros and cons and I suggest looking into them further because this subject can take a whole lot longer to explain. Also note that higher wattage for amplifiers don’t necessarily mean they are better. I would take a quality 100 watt amplifier over a mediocre 500 watt one any day if it suits my needs. Also take note of the speakers’ ability to handle those watts, because you can fry the internals of the speakers if you put too much power into them. I will explain more in the speaker section below.
Component 5: Speakers
This is where we now hear the sound frequencies that have passed through those previous components. As a basic view into a typical 2-way bookshelf speaker, there is the tweeter and the woofer. The tweeter will handle all the sharp sounds, such as your ‘s’ and the woofer will handle the middle-lower end of the sound such as the rest of your voice. Naturally they are made to handle specific sound frequencies, so anything that they cannot handle will damage the parts, and that’s where the crossover comes in. They split the frequencies that go into the speaker into 2 in this case, and that’s how prevent damage to the parts, and only give them what they are meant to handle. In a 3 way bookshelf, there is a third split for the mid-range. For a typical “full-range” tower speaker, sometimes they are typically split into 3, and the pre-amplifier/surround sound processor will split the sound below about 100Hz as well to direct it into the subwoofer to deliver a truly full sound. In other cases, if your tower speakers have a subwoofer in the configuration (examples can be the NHT 3.3, NHT Evolution T6, GoldenEar Triton series, NHT Classic four [older versions]), the split can be four ways: high, mid, mid-low, and finally low end. This is the component that will be fried if you are not careful and supply the speaker with more power than it can handle.
Another thing about speakers as well is that no speaker is created truly equal, and that speakers also have a relatively tremendous effect on the character and the potential of the sound that you get. Good speakers can convey the finesse of the components that you have and tell a story, combining the characters from all the components and the implementing it’s own character as well. Good stereo speakers for example can present you a stage, letting you see and hear instruments presented from 3 basic positions, the middle, the left and the right. Really good (and often more expensive) speakers can take it even further and present you middle-left and middle-right grounds, between the basic positions, if your system permits as well.
Extra 1: Headphones
Headphones are part of the audio world as well. What I’ve talked about above can apply to headphones as well. They are a part of the audio world that are it’s own category as well, but the basis for the components as very similar. The only difference is to the specific amplification it can handle. There are specific amplifiers for headphones so they aren’t going to make your ears bleed and destroy your headphones. Other than that you can use standard DACs, CD players, and other components for headphones. Bluetooth headphones that incorporate the wireless technology also contain said components in a smaller, simplified form in your headphones, and is one reason why going wireless is, still quite impractical, in my opinion. You aren’t going to get the best possible sound out of them considering the limitations, but they do have their conveniences.
Extra 2: Receivers
Receivers are not really a separate component, hence I didn’t put that in the sub-heading, but I want to talk about them because they are the easiest way for one to get good sound and not have to worry about those other components that you might need to “mix-and-match” to get the sound you want. This is the alternative to not getting separate components that specialize in doing one thing such as those I’ve talked about above. In general receivers have everything you need, that I’ve also talked about above to just plug and play what audio you want. Receivers combine everything into one, so if you want something better you’ll need to get a another whole receiver. It might also help you save on space if that is a limiting factor in your room. But in general separates are better for the long-term for when you want to upgrade and get a lot more serious into the audio world.
Extra 3: Power
Another thing I didn’t really talk about is power purifiers. The electricity from your wall is generally untreated and aren’t, in a sense, “even”. For more serious sound systems, you’ll want some source of “purer” power such as a power conditioner as they can tremendously affect the quality of sound you are getting out of your amplifier and system in general. The purer the power you are feeding these components, the less of the “disturbances” from the source of electricity from your wall will affect the sound, and the “cleaner” your sound is. I’m not an electrical expert so this is as much as I can understand about this subject, but I can assure you that changing where you get your electricity from does present an improvement, and is something you can definitely hear right from the get go if you do. It’s a little thing that tremendously affect your sound.
Extra 4: Cables
You’ll definitely need cables to hook your whole system up, but these are some of the little details that you’ll need to pay attention to when you get serious as these can affect the character and the precision of the sound you hear from your speakers. Cable are metaphorically like a canvas to paint with. You’ll need a good canvas to paint with and not say, use paper, as that will limit your expressions with paint. Good power cables are part of the deal in this case we well, as I’ve seen sound improvements with my dad’s really expensive serious system yielding noticeable results from little things such as these. These are a whole additional world into audio, so do your research regarding these are well, as they are worth putting some money into, if you don’t want to limit the ability of your whole system.
Final remarks and tips
Getting into audio can be something a bit costly, if you are striving for the good sound. Honestly you aren’t going to get sound that’s worth $1000 new when they were released 20 years ago for components that cost $200 new now. That’s why sometimes getting used audio can be worth your while if you can look in the right places for the right deals. You can get sound that’s worth $500 for something along the lines of at least half the price in a really good condition. Better deals can go for a quarter or maybe even less than that, depending on age as well. Receivers and surround sound processors are an exception if you want the latest features as well, as you’ll need to buy them new or relatively used for at least almost the full price. But if you are a new audiophile and on a tight budget, getting used items may be your best bet for the best sound you can get out of your wallet for the least cash.
As a final helping hand, audio brands tend to divert funding to production, research, etc., of their products and spend very little to advertisement (with the exception being Beats), so many of these well known brands are through word of the forums and of the mouth. I’ll start by mentioning a few brands (of no particular order) and maybe models that I’d recommend you look into for specific components. There are obviously a lot of other brands out there that you or even I have probably never heard of, so my advice is do your research. You can also check out my current set-up which I’ve gotten mostly by buying used as a reference for a really good budget set-up, at the time of writing.
- NHT SuperZero (speakers) (see review [of originals] from me here)
- NHT ([High end and budget] speakers)
- NAD (components in general, sound good but looks plain)
- Sony (they make all kinds of serious audio products that are high in worth)
- Velodyne (Subwoofers)
- Oppo (media players)
- Bel Canto ([High end] DAC, [High end] CD Transport, [High end] Amplifiers)
- Lexicon (surround sound processors [High end], receivers [high end])
- Monster (power conditioner)
- PSB (speakers)
- B&W ([high end] speakers, [high end] Headphones)
- Paradigm (speakers)
- AudioQuest (PC headphones DAC amplifiers)
- Krell ([High end] non-speaker component)
- SVS (Subwoofer)
- Topping (*Chinese but good* [Desktop], DAC, Amplifier [headphone and speaker]
- Klipsch (Speakers)
- Polk (speakers)
- Kef (speakers)
- Bluesound (wireless audio components)