Things to look for when buying an amplifier
A/B speaker switching enables you to run a second pair of speakers into another room in the house.
Line inputs work with CD players, tape decks, tuners – but not turntables. A tape loop allows a recorder to be connected.
Phono inputs are required for connect-ing a turntable. Moving coil (MC) phono cartridges produce an even smaller signal than moving magnet (MM) ones, so make sure your amp’s phono stage is suitable for your turntable.
More power gives extra volume – it usually buys more dynamic ability, too. It takes a huge increase in amplifier output to make the maximum level twice as loud. A 30-100W output is usually fine.
Tone controls can degrade the sound. If you must have them, look for a source direct button to bypass them.
Preout sockets are volume-controlled phono outputs – handy for adding power amplifiers if you want to upgrade your system at a later date, or for biamping.
Things to look for when buying a CD player
Check the player can handle CD-R/W discs if you have a standalone CD recorder or PC with a CD-R drive.
A remote control is usually standard these days, but check it has programming so you can set tracks to play in the order you want, and A/B repeat, which allows you to loop a section of music.
You’ll need a digital output to record onto MiniDisc or CD-RW. There are two types: electrical (coaxial) and optical: the former offers the best sound quality.
A headphone socket is handy for listening at night, but make sure it has a volume control.
Display off lets you kill the track/time readout, which can cause interference. Some players sound better with it off.
CD multiplayers can take more than one disc; makes them great for parties.
Variable output allows you to adjust the volume without using the amplifier – useful if your amp doesn’t have its own remote control.
Things to look for when buying speakers
Decide on size first. Do you want small standmount speakers or big floorstanders? Huge speakers in a small room sound awful, while small speakers will struggle to fill a big room with sound.
Match your amp to the speakers. First, look at the speakers’ power handling, for instance, 20-100W. Make sure your amp’s power rating fits in that range. Also speakers with a high sensitivity are generally easier for an amplifier to drive than those with a low one. Most modern speakers have a sensitivity of between 87 and 92dB/W/m, which should be fine.
A low impedance draws a high current flow from the amp, while a high impedance draws less. Most speakers have an impedance of 6-8ohms, but some dip to 4ohms.
Look for good binding posts – twin sets of sockets allow biwiring or biamping to boost performance. Not all speakers have twin binding posts.
The step-by-step guide to the wonders of interconnects
Three-pin type which locks on to the socket. Used for balanced connections.
German DIN standard multipin connectors are usually used for connecting pre and power amps; they’re rarely found elsewhere these days. Naim still uses a locking version on its components, and cable companies can provide DIN-to-phono cables for older kit.
Phono leads are the normal connection used between a source (CD player/cassette deck/tuner) and an amp. Free wires with red and white plugs are often supplied with a player, but it pays to buy bet-ter interconnects to improve the sound quality.
There are two types of digital cable for linking a CD player to a MiniDisc or CD-R recorder, or a DVD player to an AV amp. The coaxial (electrical) type is our preferred option. If necessary, you can purchase an optical-to-coaxial socket converter box.
The second type of digital connection uses pulses of light rather than electricity to transfer data. Some recorders only accept the optical connector, which is characterised by a special slot-in connector socket called a Toslink, shown above.
Push and twist connector which is normally used for digital connections.
Speaker cables come in all shapes and sizes, ranging in price. If your speakers have a single set of binding posts, then running a single strand of cable from the outputs on the amp to each speaker will suffice.
If you want to biwire, your speakers will each need twin sets of terminals. You’ll then need to run two sets of cables from the amp to each speaker, or buy a biwire cable with four plugs at the speaker end.
How to biwire your speakers
Biwirable speakers have separate sets of inputs for treble and mid/bass, and a split cross-over (or filter) to prevent the bass swamping the delicate treble signals. Run two sets of speaker cable from the left channel terminals on the amp to the separate inputs on the back of the speaker, and the same on the right channel (see diagram above).
The next step up is to biamplify your speakers, for which you need two amps, one to drive the treble frequencies and the other, the mid/bass frequencies. The usual configuration is an integrated amp with a matching power amp, or a preamp with two stereo power amps. It’s important that the gain of the two amps is the same, or you’ll get a tonal imbalance. Generally this method gives you a cleaner, more dynamic sound.
What to put your system on
Ensure your ‘bookshelf’ or stand-mounting speakers sound their very best by investing in a pair of sturdy speaker stands. These work by keeping the speakers static, so all the energy of the drivers is used to shift air, not move the cabinets. There are models to suit all pockets.
Used beneath CD players, amplifiers and record players, isolation platforms will shield kit from external vibrations that can affect the sound quality. Squash balls, cut in half and placed under your equipment, are a cost-effective alternative. See our November issue, page 71, for more on isolation platforms.
Placing your kit on a hi-fi rack will bring improvements in soundstaging, bass extension and treble clarity. They come in all shapes and sizes.
Where to position your speakers
The right height
When you’re sitting in your favourite listening position, the tweeters – the little treble drive units – should be at about the same height as your ears.
With standmount-ers, get a stand that brings the speakers up to the right height. You’ll probably find you get a much clearer image and a much sharper tone this way.
Rear & side walls
Some speakers give their best response when close to a solid rear wall, which acts as a sounding-board and boosts bass.
By angling your speakers towards the listening posi-tion, you can often improve the stereo image. Imagine lines drawn out from the speakers, and angle them so they cross in front of your normal listening spot.
Recorders: the pros and the cons
Plenty of music available on the Internet; no tapes or discs; easy to rip your CDs onto a portable.
Heavy use of compression means sound quality can be impaired; you may have to pay for downloads.
A lot of playback devices are now MP3-capable and many can store up to 1000 songs in their memory.
Digital (no hiss); easy to edit; light and robust; sound won’t deteriorate over time.
Can sound compressed; blank discs are slightly more expensive than cassettes.
Perfect for editing your own recordings; can move tracks around, delete them or splice them together.
Recordings virtually identical to the original; blank CD-R discs are getting cheaper.
CD-RW discs won’t play in many older CD players; mistakes are permanent on write-once discs.
CD recordings offer the best sound quality, and the format is well proven worldwide.
Cheap; plenty of pre-recorded tapes available; most cars have cassette players; small and light, so ideal for portable use.
Can suffer from back-ground hiss; tape tends to wear out with use; can’t edit recordings.
lf you want a cheap and easy way of making your own compilations, cassette is ideal.
SACD & DVD-A
The battle is now on to develop the next generation of ‘super CD’ formats, which will offer better quality sound than conventional CDs, and multi-channel capability too.
There are two contenders: Super Audio CD (SACD) devel-oped by Sony and Philips, and DVD-Audio (DVD-A), an exten-sion of the DVD-Video format.
SACD abandons the Pulse Code Modulation (PCM) storage method of CD and replaces it with Direct Stream Digital (DSD), which represents the audio signal in single-bit form sampled at 2.8224MHz. This extends the signal frequency response to 100kHz compared to CD’s 20kHz.
DVD-A retains the PCM coding method of CD, but improves performance by extending word length to 24-bit from CD’s 16-bit, while the sampling rate can more than quadruple to a maximum of 192kHz.