The key components of a hifi stereo system
The key components of a hifi stereo system
This short guide should leave you feeling confident about what it is you need to get the basics sorted for terrific sound at home. Use it as a sort of checklist, but remember it’s only a rough starting point. If it's more detailed information you need, you should take a look at some of our other blogs.
This is a pretty awesome leap you’re about to take, one that’s going to have your favourite songs and albums sounding more lifelike, more engaging, and sweeter than ever before.
Maybe you’ve got your parent's old amplifier and you’re wondering how to plug your turntable in, perhaps you’ve bought your first turntable and are stumped on where to go next, or maybe you’re a fledgling buyer who’s about to part with their first (though we bet not last) wad of hard-earned. In any case, read on…
What’s your source?
Where's your music coming from? Unless you’re planning daily scheduled a cappella performances in your lounge room, you’re going to need something that plays music.
This could be a turntable or a CD player, or in the past you might’ve used your smartphone with a Bluetooth speaker. Given that we’re all about analog, we’re going to build this system around a turntable.
The Pro-Ject Primary E, a very capable analog source
What do I plug my turntable into? - Phono stage / preamp
The signal from a turntable is very weak. Before you can feed it into an amplifier, it needs what’s called a phono stage to boost it so it’s strong enough for your amplifier to do its work and get you vibing to those tunes. Think of the phono stage as a type of amplifier that has only one job, to boost that turntable signal.
There’s a few options to meet this need. First off, you could purchase a turntable with a phono stage on board. Or you could even get one into your lounge room on subscription from us, like the Primary E Phono. Making sure your onboard phono stage is switched on, you’d just plug straight in to an auxiliary input on an amplifier.
An onboard phono stage. If your amplifier has a phono input, you’d select ‘phono out’. If not, ‘line out’. A signal that doesn’t require extra amplification is called a line level signal.
Your second option is to grab an amplifier that has a phono input. If you see the word ‘phono’ above one of the inputs on the rear of your amp, just plug your turntable straight in and it’ll do the work. If you’re using an older amplifier from the 70s or 80s there’s a decent chance it’ll have one of these.
The third option is to purchase an outboard phono stage, an external box that isn’t built into your turntable or amplifier. This is generally a more expensive option because it’s an extra piece of equipment to purchase. Conversely, it'll sound better than an inbuilt phono stage.
Consider it a possible upgrade path down the line when you’d like to improve your sound, or splash out now if you have the cash. Your cat can go without worming tablets for a few months, right?
A phono stage from Pro-Ject, the Tube Box S2. This unit's signal path runs through vacuum tubes to give your records a relaxed, warm sound.
What drives my system? - The amplifier
The amplifier is the central component of your system. It’s the powerhouse. It takes the audio signal from your chosen source and sends it to your speakers. There’s loads of options where amplifiers are concerned. Different brands offer different options for inputs, how much power they provide to your speakers, and heaps more.
If you head over to our phono stages and amplifiers section, you’ll find more information. It’s all about matching your needs with the product’s specs. For example, you might want an optical input to plug your TV in or that must-have phono stage for your turntable.
And whilst we’re all about throwing on some vinyl while you chill, sometimes you want the ease of just pressing a button on your phone, so you might want to consider an amplifier with Bluetooth capabilities too.
The other vital piece of info you ought to be checking for is power ratings. Every amplifier provides you with information about how many watts per channel it can provide. The accuracy of these ratings can vary; a brand like Rotel provides their ratings with ‘both channels driven’, meaning the number of watts given is a measure of the power provided with two speakers playing at once.
The Rotel A12 amplifier. This very solid performer is rated at 60 watts per channel, which will happily drive a large range of bookshelf and floorstanding speakers.
Some manufacturers can be a bit devious with these ratings, giving a measure of power based on power output with only one channel driven for example. Just as you would before any purchase, make sure you read the fine print.
More demanding speakers need more power to get the best sound (and sufficient volume) out of them so be sure to check your speaker and amplifier manuals before making a final decision. Manufacturers will let you know how much power is needed, and also what’s too much.
A lawnmower engine won’t get a car very far, and an unpowered amplifier will leave you wanting for volume, responsiveness, clarity and control. Thirsting for more info? Check out our amplifier blog for the nitty-gritty.
What should I look for in a pair of speakers?
Assessing broadly, there’s two different types of speakers. Passive, which need an amplifier (see above) to power them, and active, which have an amplifier on board one or both of the speakers. There’s positives and negatives to both, but for the sake of thorough explanation we’re going passive in this case.
The main consideration when purchasing speakers (and most hifi gear) is that you should try to avoid putting all of your money towards one single component. Buying a $3,000 pair of speakers and feeding them with a $300 turntable and budget amplifier is going to give you a significantly worse sound than allocating your dollars commensurately.
It’d be like putting a set of gold-plated rims on your ’92 Mazda 121. The wheels look nice, but the rest of the car just doesn’t do them justice. So if you’re purchasing your first system, aim to divide your money as evenly as you can and as we mentioned, you’ll have the opportunity to upgrade your components individually later on.
Another choice you’ll need to make regards the size of your speakers, and how you plan to use them into the future. There’s two key designs in terms of dimensions; bookshelf and floorstander.
Bookshelf speakers, often referred to as standmounts, (they sit much more comfortably on a stand than on an actual bookshelf) are a smaller box that are a little more versatile with placement, whereas floorstanders feature a much larger cabinet and work well in larger rooms.
How do you know which style is right for you? A lot of this comes down to personal preference. Have a read of our speaker blog for more detailed info if you think you’re ready.
Also, it’s worth bearing in mind that if you buy through Instant Classic and decide in the end that you’ve made the wrong choice, you’ve got 50 days to assess your purchase. Check out the shipping and returns policy in the help centre.
Floorstanders on the left, bookshelves to the right. Unless you’re placing your bookshelf speakers on a cabinet or other furniture, you may want to consider stands. The sound won’t fill the room or fulfil the speaker’s potential sitting on the floor.
You’re going to need to hook all of this stuff up; chain it together. If you’re buying a turntable from us, it’ll come packaged with the cables required to plug it into your amplifier. The one thing you will need to buy (if you purchase your components separately) is speaker cable.
Speaker cable is relatively inexpensive, and until you reach the level of deified audiophile, (you may never get there, we certainly haven’t) fairly basic speaker cable will do just fine.
Factory-terminated speaker cable. This type of cable plugs straight into your speakers, whereas with cheaper cable you might need to remove the plastic shielding and gently thread it through the terminals.
There are potentially other cables you’ll need along the way. For example, some of our Rotel amplifiers include USB inputs so you can listen from your phone and charge it at the same time. Handy!
The road to audio nirvana
We’ve covered the basics here, but it’s possible you’ll find yourself addicted to this pursuit once you get your feet on the ground. Keep an eye on our website for more blogs, guides, and savvy information in the coming weeks and months. Happy listening!