Hi-fi priorities – how does the beginner audiophile separate the low from the high? When everything matters, how does the newcomer decide what to tackle first and what to leave for later?
Trial and error guide our first steps. Shortcutting this process is the sharp lesson that the loudspeaker system’s single most component is the room. The loudspeaker should not only be visually copacetic to its surrounding but also a good acoustic. We might be eyeing a beastly floorstander that goes down to 25Hz but if our room is 2m x 2.5m, has a hardwood floor and is sparsely furnished, we might find greater long-term satisfaction with a small standmount and spending the change on a large rug and some heavier furnishing. Conversely, those same standmounts might sound lost in a 10m x 15m carpeted room loaded with furniture.
A lesson on room treatments comes next but aesthetic considerations all too often (and understandably) hold sway.
Furthermore, it’s an iterative learning process that helps us locate our loudspeakers’ optimal in-room position, one that maximises our exposure to the loudspeaker’s direct sound (signal) and minimises first reflections (noise). And if we can’t move our loudspeakers, we might try moving our listening chair. Inches matter. Experience matters more. There is no short cut.
Experienced audiophiles know that the choice of USB cable, that joins streamer to DAC, matters to sound quality. The beginner might not be hip to USB audio’s absence of error correction or that the USB cable not only carries signal, ones and zeroes encoded in analogue form, but also electrical noise that can disturb the DAC’s clock and analogue output stage. No matter our depth of technical understanding, first-hand experience tells us that USB cable choices matter not as much as room acoustics and/or loudspeaker position.
And yet, beginner audiophiles, by definition, don’t have the benefit of extensive first-hand experience.
Similarly, a power cable carries signal and noise from the wall to our electronics: mains power and EMI/RFI. Experts like Garth Powell and Nuno Vitorino tell us that this noise can have a negative impact on sound quality. Switching the power cord over to a different model can reduce the amount of noise that gets into our electronics.
And yet, power cable choices are not as high a priority as understanding the loudspeaker-amplifier interface. For example, a low-powered SET might not be the best match for low-efficiency standmounts, especially if SPLs and dynamics are a priority in all but the nearfield.
Beginner audiophiles, by definition, have yet to tap into the work of experts. Their time spent mixing and matching amplifiers to loudspeakers will be limited.
It might not be obvious to the newcomer staring down a wall of (sometimes incomprehensible) online noise about format choices – oft-heated conversations about hi-res vs. Redbook, vinyl vs CD, CD vs streaming – that the decisions made in the studio by recording and mastering engineers have a far greater impact on what we hear through our hi-fi systems. Hi-res encoding plays second fiddle to mastering quality. If a recording is dynamically compressed (LOUD), a hi-res encode will only let us hear more of its dynamic range compression (its LOUDness).
It takes time for audiophiles to learn how studio decisions, artistic or not, are beyond their control but matter more to what they hear than ’24bit/192kHz’, DSD or MQA. Beginners, by definition, have yet to go through the process of separating the food from the crockery on which it is served.
In the following video, I detail eight things that are best ignored by the beginner (until later) and three things that are more worthy of his/her initial focus: