To first understand why people spend small fortunes on audio equipment one must understand that not all sound is delivered equally. In the same manner that a high definition TV provides an improved degree of picture resolution, contrast and clarity, a premium audio set-up will cover a broader range of frequencies, enhance the level of sonic detail, and deliver smooth, undistorted fidelity directly to those eardrums.
Secondly, one must also understand that recorded sound can be a fickle, moody beast. It can get fuzzy. It can get muddy. It can get so loud that it loses a sense of depth, or so quiet you might think there’s something wrong with your speakers. The aim of the experienced listener is to find a set-up that can handle sonic mood swings without compromising their integrity. Sometimes a band meant for their album to sound like it was recorded in a dank garage–you want a system that brings out the best aspects of that intent, not a system that massages out the warts and kinks to the point of rendering the music sterile.
A true discussion of “audiophiles” really has as much to do with mastering as it does audio equipment, but for the sake of economy we will focus on the one essential component that represents a perfect starting point for the young aural explorer: speakers.
Whether you’re putting records on a turntable or streaming songs on Spotify, speakers are the bridges connecting your ears with the music. Speakers achieve such a task through the process of amplification, meaning they take a signal and amplify it to a volume your ears can detect and savour.
If the speaker is connected to a computer or mobile device, a DAC (digital to analogue converter) is required so that all those 1s and 0s can be deciphered into sweet vocal melodies and blistering guitar solos. Computers and mobile devices come equipped with DACs but most built-in DACs are not well made. Those who want superior fidelity usually upgrade by getting a separate DAC, a stereo cable, a receiver or a streaming device with the DAC built in.
In the case of a turntable, the signal goes from the source (i.e. the record) through a receiver or a separate pre-amplifier, which prepares the audio and gives it a little boost before the big boost of amplification provided by the speakers. Since records are an analogue medium, the original sound is actually right there in the groove. In fact, if you drop a needle on a record and put your ear close to the groove you can faintly hear the music in its un-amplified state. Very cool!
So you went out and bought a top of the line DAC as well as the best receiver and even a premium pre-amp just to be safe. Now you have no money left for a decent pair of speakers. Sadly, you’re screwed.
The truth is that pre-amplification and digital-to-analogue conversion is really just a means of delivering optimal signal quality to the speakers, but if the speakers themselves aren’t of a certain tier than that premium pre-amplification was in vain. Think of it like rolling up to an amusement park in a Ferrari–the car looks great but the experience will still suck if all the rides are closed for repairs. Cheap, standard speakers will inevitably yield distortion, sibilance, lack of detail, a narrow soundstage and limited frequency range.
For the modern audio enthusiast, a good starting point would be to look into two-way speakers, which utilise a woofer and a tweeter to provide better frequency coverage. If you’re shopping at the lower end of the spectrum, check out some reliable bookshelf speakers like the Audioengine P4s. If you’re big on streaming, Sonos is killing it right now so, by all means, consider the Sonos Play 5 for an excellent multi-room experience. If you want to shoot for the stars, you can do no wrong perusing the speaker section at Audio Note though now you’re in some serious audiophile territory.
When setting up your speakers, you should keep them at least 4-5 feet apart (some people say at least 6 feet apart). They should also be just under 2 feet away from the wall, sitting flat and not tipped at an upward or downward angle. For optimal playback, the listener should be sitting at a 45-degree angle between both speakers (think equilateral triangle formation). If you’re spinning LPs, definitely create some distance between the speakers and the turntable to avoid feedback.
Audio delivery is frequently a matter of taste so naturally, you should feel free to experiment in order to determine what works best for you. For instance, some people prefer a pleasant mid-range while others love a bass so deep it gets the floor vibrating. Likewise, some people prefer their music compressed while others opt for a broader soundstage that relishes the dynamic between the highs and lows. What’s important is that you find the set-up that’s makes you happy and leave it be for a while to focus purely on the music, which after all is what this whole thing is really all about.