Goodwin's High End

 

2-Channel Stereo High End Audio Systems

There is a lot to know about choosing a stereo system in which each component is well-matched to the others in the chain, as well as matching both the room and your listening preferences. What follows is a brief introduction to get you pointed in the right direction.

 

Speakers

When selecting a new high performance stereo system, we usually suggest that you start with the speakers. Speaker preference is highly individual. No speaker is perfect in all respects for all rooms, no matter how expensive or how good—and different speakers excel in different performance areas. By thinking about your priorities, you can choose the speaker that performs best in the areas most important to you. You might consider:

  • tonal balance — how evenly the speakers reproduce the audible frequencies. Often this is very important to our clients.
  • bass extension — how well the speaker reproduces very deep bass (pipe organ foot pedals, big drum whacks, and the like).
  • resolution — how much musical detail the speaker reproduces.
  • transparency — how much the speaker "disappears," or how lifelike the sound is. Also, the illusion that the instruments are right there in the room with you.
  • soundstaging — how the speaker presents the images of the instruments, including image width, image depth, image size, and image height.
  • dynamics — how well the speaker plays loud passages appropriately loudly, and soft passages appropriately softly.
  • width of seating area — some speakers have wider or narrower "sweet spots" where the imaging is best.
  • optimal position within the room — some speakers excel only when placed farther out into the room, either from the rear walls, from the side walls, or both.
  • efficiency — how much amplifier power the speakers need.
  • visual appeal — how attractive the speakers will look in your home, including:
    • size — how dominant the speakers will look (can be good or bad, depending upon your perspective), and how easy the speakers are to move.
    • shape — how appealing the speaker's shape is to you.
    • style — some speakers are more contemporary; others are more traditional.
    • finish — the available wood veneers and/or colors for the speakers.
  • and of course price range.

When choosing a speaker, we suggest that you do your speaker auditioning in an acoustically neutral room, such as we have in our Waltham listening facility. In-home listening evaluations can be very helpful too, particularly if you have either a good sounding room or a room that you won't be changing for a while. If you might be moving or improving the room, be careful that you don't choose a speaker which minimizes the problems in your room, rather than maximizes the speaker's potential—as you might regret your choice later.

Tip: When listening critically to a 2-channel system, choose a seat centered between and equidistant from the speakers in order to hear the best imaging.

 

Amplification

With the speakers chosen, you can next turn your attention to matching a power amplifier to them. The type of music that you listen to, how loud you listen, the distance from you to the speakers, and the size of the room will influence the power requirement that the speaker will impose on the amplifier. For many situations, 50 to 100 watts / channel (RMS, 8 ohms, both channels driven, low distortion) will suffice—although often larger, more expensive amplifiers may have more heft, control, and refinement to the sound. When comparing them, you may find that amplifiers sound remarkably different from each other. Often the matching preamplifier from the same manufacturer will complement the power amplifier best.

And of course, you might choose an integrated amplifier that combines a power amplifier and a preamplifier in a single chassis. At lower price levels, a high-end integrated amplifier may provide the best sound because of the cost efficiencies of combining the enclosure, power supply, and so forth. However, you may find it somewhat more difficult to upgrade your system later with an integrated amp. And beyond a certain point separates are the preferred way to go.

 

Sources

Next, consider your source components. Most music lovers today own a high-quality CD player, as many new recordings are available only on CD. However, many wonderful old recordings (and even some new ones) are available only on LP. We suggest that you buy sources for whatever recordings you love to listen to.

Tip: If you have an LP collection that you treasure, make sure that you clean your records before their first use with a wet-vacuum record cleaning machine. This will protect your investment in your collection. Also use a dry carbon-fiber brush to remove surface dust from the record before each playing, and use stylus fluid periodically to keep your stylus clean. We recommend the VPI record cleaning machines, as they are reliable, fast, convenient, and even fun to use. We also recommend the Hunt carbon fiber brush and Clearaudio stylus cleaning fluid.

You may wish to consider other sources such as a high resolution music server coupled with an outboard D-A converter. You should know that currently there are only a limited number  of high resolution titles and it may be awhile before there is any real library of high resolution recordings available. However all of your present library of CD's and DVD-A's can be ported to a high resolution music server so it is a viable option for many people at this time.

Tip: If you would like to have your collection of CD's and DVD-A's ported to a music server you can do it yourself—or we offer the service of having it done for you. It can be done at various levels of quality and the metadata can be hand-culled if you wish. For instance with classical music Tchaikovsky may be spelled any number of ways—and customizing the metadata will ensure that all of your recordings have only a single spelling of each composer. Or for example with The Beatles, many people prefer to have that under B for Beatles rather than T for The Beatles. If you rip your collection yourself you might consider using Exact Audio Copy for superior results.

You may also wish to integrate your desktop or laptop computer as a source. This can be accomplished by using the DAC of your existing CD player (if it has an input) or one of the fine DAC's designed with this in mind such as the Alpha DAC from Berkeley Audio Design or the Linn DS.

Tip: Rather than use an analog output from your computer or music server you should definitely use an outboard DAC (digital to analog converter) in order to get high quality sound. If you would like to use your computer as a source we recommend setting it up for the highest quality digital output possible as it will make a marked difference in the sound quality when played through a high quality stereo system. There are several aspects to getting high quality digital output. First, make sure that the sample and bit rates that go in are the same ones that go out—you don't want your computer to be doing Sample Rate Conversion (SRC). Second, make sure that you have the lowest jitter output possible—as this is critical to getting high quality sound. Third, use a high quality digital output—we normally recommend AES-EBU which is used in many professional recording studios.

Another potential source is an SACD player, which are available for either stereo or surround music systems. SACD is viable as a niche format, but will only ever have a limited number of recordings available. However we can recommend an SACD player if you are comfortable with the array of titles already available—and of course more titles may continue to be released but the selection will still be limited.

Tip: Many people today own an iPod or some other MP3 playback device—and many have a library of lossy compressed files. One way to play them over a stereo system is to get an iPod or MP3 docking station. But today most all music servers and computers can also play these files. However you should keep in mind that lossy compressed files have the lowest fidelity. We recommend that when you purchase files that you obtain ones with the highest sound quality available. There are several ways that to do this. One way is you can buy CD's and rip them to your iPod or MP3 player in either lossy or lossless files depending upon your storage capacity. That way you also have a high quality source for your home music server for WAV files or lossless compressed files like FLAC, etc. Alternatively in many cases you can download lossless files, some of which may be files that are even higher in resolution than CD files.

 

Cables

Your system will need cabling to connect the components together. Cables influence the final sound of your system, often to a surprising degree. We suggest that you choose your cables to complement the sonics of the rest of your components. The best-matched cables may make the difference between good performance and stunning performance. With our familiarity with the products that we carry, we can recommend well-matched cables to simplify your search. Even if your system contains components that we don't sell, we might have experience with your components and be able to help.

 

Stands

Your system will need a home—an audio stand of some sort. The furniture must accommodate the width, depth, and height of each of your components and perhaps possible future additions. Some components require open space around them (or forced air ventilation) to keep cool. Overheating will shorten the life of your components. Also, some components can benefit from a stable, anti-resonate surface thus allowing them to function optimally. Turntables and tube equipment are usually quite sensitive to mechanical vibration, however you may find sensitivity in CD transports and solid state electronics as well. Some types of audio furniture incorporate extensive anti-vibrational design elements.

 

Listening Room

And last, the acoustics of your listening room will strongly influence your system's performance. Think of the air in the room as the final interconnect between the speakers and your ears. To get the best possible sound, you'll need acoustic room treatment. We can even help you build a dedicated listening room, if you'd like.

 

In Conclusion

Whether you are searching for a new system or upgrading an existing system, our suggestion is to carefully consider what you would like to achieve and then to talk to us. No matter how much expertise you have, or don't have, we can be of great assistance to you in assembling the system of your dreams!

A well-designed, carefully set up two-channel high end audio system will recreate a remarkably lifelike musical experience. To those who love music, it will provide countless hours of sublime pleasure—and on occasion can be a truly transcendent experience!


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