So what is an audiophile anyway? Well from Wikipedia an audiophile is a person who is enthusiastic about high-fidelity sound reproduction. An audiophile seeks to reproduce the sound of a live musical performance and reaching that goal is very difficult since even the best-regarded recording and playback systems rarely achieve it.
I know from personal experience that getting the acoustic sound I want from my instrument is nearly impossible when recording in a studio much less when it is played back through a stereo or other sound system. So to me, the actual goal is to get the recorded sound from the playback medium to sound its best and most like when it was recorded.
Many people think that to be a true audiophile you’ll need a lot of money but that’s not necessarily true. Below we’ll discuss how to listen to recorded music and also how to get great sound without going broke.
What To Listen For
When you listen to music whether it’s on a stereo, headphones, or in the car, what should you listen for? Some of the main things to listen for is dynamic range, space, and instrumental timbre or tone. Specifically with space or spatiality, a well set up system will convey the space and the sound images within that space as when the recording was made.
A lot if this comes with listening to a lot of music and in many genres. Doing this you will start to notice the differences in sound properties with different vocals and instruments. Over time your ears will be “trained” to recognize different aspects of music like pitch, tonality, and the location of different instruments within your listening space also known as the soundstage.
What you might want to try is get a cheap set of headphones or speakers and listen to music trying to pick out the instruments. Switch to a better set of speakers and see if you notice more details in the sound and more separation of the instruments. You should notice a deeper and richer sound.
Listening to jazz or classical music is probably best for this exercise due to the number of instruments used and the differences between them. You’ll also want to identify what sounds fit into the different ranges between lows, mids, and highs.
So how do you create this soundstage and try to get your stereo to reproduce the sound as it was recorded?
Setup and Equipment
Many audiophiles’ stereo setup consists of a system of many knobs and stacks of components. So how much of this do you really need? Let’s start with the basics.
Speakers – The speakers are the most important component in your stereo setup. A good or great set of speakers will instantly improve the sound of your stereo. If you are going to spend some money, this is where most of it needs to go.
Music Player – The quality of the equipment playing the music is also important. Now days most CD and DVD players will provide a good sound. Older turntables may take a little work like buying a new or better needle.
Receiver – The receiver is where you connect all your components. You players will connect to the receiver and the receiver sends the sound to your speakers. The money you spend on this depends on what players you are connecting to it and what kind of connections you need. Don’t pay extra for HDMI if you don’t have that type of connection.
Preamp – The purpose of a preamp is to make the sound louder without adding noise. The need for a preamp may come down to personal choice. Many audiophiles add a preamp to create a warmer sound while others don’t want to add another component between the source of the music and the speakers. Overall, most modern receivers will drive the speakers enough to not need a preamp so for just starting out you can probably skip this piece.
Cables – When it comes to cables make sure they are good quality. You don’t need expensive cables since they don’t have an impact on sound quality. At the same time you don’t want overly cheap ones either. You may want to try out nice cables and see if they improve the sound. If not, you can return them.
Overall, when you are starting out you really only need three items. A good set of speakers, a player such as a CD/DVD or turntable, and a receiver.
Fixing Your Setup
Before you go out and buy a bunch of new equipment, it might be worth seeing how you can improve your current setup. An important aspect of the sound you hear is the room where it is playing. Check out Speaker Size vs Room Size for more information.
You can have a great set of speakers but they will not sound good if they are not set up correctly. For more detailed information check out this article for specifics on setting up a listening room.
Briefly though, you’ll need to know that the direction and placement of your speakers is really important. Your goal is to optimize the low frequency response and avoid the deep bass null that exists at the halfway point between the front and rear walls. The worst place to sit is halfway back in the room where your ears are halfway between the floor and ceiling.
If you have loudspeakers, the tweeters should be at ear level and the cabinets should be angled to face the listener. This will give you the flattest response. If you have rear surround speakers, its tweeters should also be at ear level which is different from what is done in the past but now we have 5.1 channel soundtracks so ear level is the correct placement.
There is also a free program available that will analyze your speaker placement and the room’s sound quality called Room EQ Wizard. Try this if you’re questioning your own judgment.
To test your setup properly you’ll want to use a good recording of acoustic music or if you’re strictly a rocker, find a good recording that has both acoustic and electric instruments.
Spending the Money
So your ready to get some equipment. Good audio equipment can be expensive and can actually reach ridiculous prices. As far as upgrading your equipment, you do have options. One option may be to upgrade the speakers in your current cabinets or find a pair of vintage speaker cabinets and buy and install new speakers. You can order just the speakers from places like Simply Speakers or Parts Express.
If you have a speaker where the foam lining is blown out, you can replace this yourself and it will only cost a few dollars. A speaker with a tear can be repaired with glue and a paper towel.
Improve the Source’s Sound Quality
You probably listen to a lot of MP3 files. MP3s are low-bitrate files and won’t have the same sound properties as a CD. If you want a true high quality sound you’ll want to listen to lossless audio files. Unlike MP3s, lossless digital files have the exact sound properties of a CD. Examples of lossless digital files are FLAC, WAV, and AIFF. It is possible to import the CDs you own in a lossless format using an audio program.
If you talk to a lot of audiophiles, they’ll tell you to listen to vinyl records to get the best sound. You don’t necessarily have to buy a new turntable if you already have one. You can dramatically improve the sound of your turntable by getting a new needle and by cleaning your records. For ways to clean your vinyl check this out: Best Way to Clean Vinyl Records.
If you don’t own a turntable and wish to buy one, maybe this will help you decide: Best Turntables for the Money.
A lot of audiophiles never stop tweaking their system and like to swap out components and try different things. Kind of like a lot of guitar players I know. If you start with the basics as described above you can get a great sound from your equipment and be on your way to being an audiophile. As you get more money you can upgrade or add pieces to your system and see what you like. You may get the audiophile bug and overtime end up spending a ton of money. It definitely is easy to do. But who doesn’t want great sound right?
Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and then go out there and build your system!