I know I’ve ranted on topics of deeper import than this, but what the hell.
I like to listen to music – enough to go fairly regularly to live concerts anyway, and to listen to it at home with attention. (I don’t like background music much, on the other hand.) The fidelity of the sound reproduction makes more of a difference to the latter than I thought. Music isn’t just music; it reveals itself more when you can hear it clearly. I get kicks out of hearing things in it that I didn’t hear before.
I’ve steered clear of hi-fi until now. That is, I haven’t attempted to understand what happens in sound reproduction, nor how to make it work at home. I haven’t spent any big bucks on gear – not even now – and I haven’t paid particular attention to how I’ve set it up. The reason is, I think, that there’s something unpleasant about the hi-fi scene. High-end audio is ridiculously expensive. I’m talking Ferrari expensive. There’s a concomitant impression that if you’re not ready to casually drop twenty, fifty, or a hundred and fifty grand on your hi-fi system, you won’t be able to get, well, high fidelity.
I have discovered that all that is bollocks. There’s nothing magical or crazily exclusive, nor even terribly difficult about high-fidelity stereo. Digital recording and playback democratized the bejeezus out of it. The upshot is that the snobs came up with a whole new mythology around it, of cables that cost twenty grand, of amplifiers that “expand the soundstage” and “mellow the sound”; of CD players costing in the thousands or even tens of thousands that make that stream of bits much more musical; of turntables and phono pre-amps that will get better sound out of carefully selected audiophile-grade LP’s than your humble iTunes download or discount-drawer CD.
And it’s all a big load of bollocks!
Unlike any similar scene I’ve looked at, most of those audio upgrades provide no tangible benefit at all.
The sad thing is, I can totally get the appeal of, say, a lovingly hand-crafted tube amplifier. It’s like a lovingly hand-crafted mechanical watch, with the additional benefit that it (probably) doesn’t perform any worse than the hi-fi equivalent of a Casio G-Shock. The difference is that nobody in the watch scene claims that a lovingly hand-crafted mechanical watch – an A. Lange & Söhne, say – will keep the time more accurately than the Casio. Quite the contrary, in fact. But your golden-eared audiophiliacs will claim, contrary to both argument and evidence, that said hand-crafted tube amplifier will sound better than a two hundred buck Yamaha or Sony grabbed from the local electronics superstore.
Similarly, I can totally get the appeal of vinyl. LP’s are wonderful artifacts, with their big sleeves and cover art, and that every one is unique. The sound of an LP is appealing the same way a grainy black-and-white photograph is appealing: the rumble, wow, surface noise, and occasional snap and pop give a sonic overlay that tells you that this is a recording. It’s fun to play records. But they are not higher fidelity – truer to the original recordings – than CD’s or other (uncompressed) digital recordings. They’re lower fidelity. In fact, almost all LP’s made in the past 20 years were recorded, mixed, and mastered digitally; the only difference between the LP and the CD is that you get the LP’s characteristic degradation on top of the digital recording. Conversely, if you digitize your LP collection, it will sound exactly the same when played in the digitized versions (assuming you have decent equipment to do the A/D conversion and don’t screw it up, which are admittedly fairly big ifs).
Yet there’s a whole industry that lives on convincing people that digital is for wannabies and those who want real hi-fi still listen to LP’s.
The whole hi-fi industry is built on this kind of bullshit: on making you feel that your gear is inadequate, and making you upgrade, upgrade, upgrade. Since we’re so incredibly suggestible, every upgrade will sound better – in your mind, that is. But objectively, it won’t. Unless you’re upgrading speakers, and those only up to a certain point, and subject to any number of caveats. It pisses me off.
So what’s the secret of getting high-end sound for cheap, then?
Buy a good pair of speakers. If you have a small room, bookshelf-size ones will do fine. If you shop used, you can get 90% of high-end sound for about a hundred euros, and into high-end sound territory – where the limiting factor will probably be your room, whatever you do it, rather than speakers – for maybe a thousand or so. This is probably the hard part, since it’s hard to tell what the good ones are without making a few mistakes. (On the other hand, speakers from well-respected brands are easy to sell, and if you bought used, you probably won’t even lose any more than the shipping.)
Then buy or scavenge an amp. A cheap A/V receiver will do. I just saw some slightly tatty but relatively new and perfectly functional ones at the local recycling center for about 50-70 €. There was a Sony and a Yamaha if I recall correctly. It will sound exactly as good as a 50,000 dollar Krell.
Then get a source. If the A/V receiver is relatively new, it might have a digital USB audio in port. In this case, your computer will do. If it doesn’t, and your computer doesn’t have a tolerably good sound card, you’ll need a CD player. You can buy a perfectly good one used on eBay for about ten euros, if you can’t scavenge one for free from somewhere.
Then get some cable. Dig through your drawers for an RCA interconnect; they tend to come with things like TV’s and related paraphernalia. If not, buy one. It costs about 10 cents.
You’ll also need speaker wire. Ordinary power cable will do just fine, you can get that at the hardware store by the meter.
Find a room. Put the speakers in the room somehow, so that you and the speakers will form an isosceles triangle with you at the apex, with an angle of between 60 and 70 degrees between you and the speakers, with your chair against the wall. The speakers shouldn’t be against the wall, nor (worse) in a corner. Put a big soft pillow behind your head. If you use the room for other stuff so that it’s cluttered, great – bookshelves and books are especially good, as a rugs, soft cushions, curtains, and anything that breaks up the flat surfaces of the walls, floor, and ceiling.
Then connect everything up, making sure that red goes to red and white (or black) goes to white (or black).
Sit down and listen to some of your favorite records. The thing to listen for is for the music to “snap into focus” so that you can hear where each singer, instrument, or group of instruments is. If you can hear not just left-right but also front-back, awesome.
There is a real difference between speakers in this respect – and in my limited experience, the speakers most likely to give you this kick are studio monitors – that’s what sound engineers use when they record the damn things, and because they’re tools rather than status symbols, they’re also usually less expensive for any given quality point. The twist is that you might have to listen to them for a while before you learn to like them, as “normal” speakers are often tweaked to make the music bassier than it was when recorded, which is often initially more pleasing. I have it on good authority that this initial positive impression usually fades in about an hour, though. Which is one reason listening to speakers at the dealer’s – especially when the dealer is trying to sell you something – isn’t as helpful as you might think.
Then move the speakers a bit. Pull them closer together, or spread them wider apart. Push them towards the wall, or into the room. Move your chair. Furniture permitting, rotate the whole arrangement 90 degrees or so. See if it made a difference.
Decide which one you like best, and you’re done.
Anything you spend on top of this is cosmetic. You can spend a few tens of euros more on nicer-looking cables and connectors; you can buy an amp and CD player that look good and where the knobs feel nice to turn or the remote control isn’t studded with buttons. And if you can afford a beautiful hand-crafted tube amplifier, then hey, there are worse things you could be spending your money on I’m sure. If you feel compelled to upgrade, then try different speakers to see which ones you like best. Again, the used market is great.
But do not buy into the hype that you can’t have “real” hi-fi without spending a fortune or getting an electrical engineering degree. That’s the mythology that the industry lives on, and it’s all lies.