Audiophile-Grade Hi-Fi On A Budget
Here are some sonic goodies that you can’t go wrong with.
While compact Bluetooth speakers are handy, most can’t hold a candle to the wide soundstage and immersive listening experience offered by a classic component stereo setup. A simple stereo setup consists of three components – a pair of speakers, an amplifier and a source. A source can range from a smartphone to a CD player or a turntable — essentially, anything that feeds tunes to the amplifier. The benefit here is that each of these components can be individually upgraded or replaced. Ideally, listen to as many speakers and amplifiers as you can before buying them. If you can’t, don’t fret – here are some sonic goodies that you can’t go wrong with.
These are the key component in your audio system, and thus where a fair share of your budget should go. Depending on how large your room is, you can get either “bookshelf” or floor standing speakers. Owing to their compact dimensions and their comparatively lower (they can still get scarily loud) output, a pair of bookshelf speakers lend themselves nicely to smaller rooms. Since they are rarely over a foot in height, you’ll have to buy speaker stands to mount them.
WHARFEDALE DIAMOND 220
Q ACOUSTICS 2020i
SONODYNE SONUS 1501 V3
Floor Standing Speakers
Floor standing speakers, on the other hand, are tall, and like the name suggests, can be placed directly on the floor. These have significantly larger cabinets and speaker cones, which typically produce deeper bass and a fuller sound. The tradeoff is that they take up more real estate, and are generally more expensive. Additionally, they need a more powerful (and usually more expensive) amplifier to sing at their best.
SONODYNE SONUS 2504 V3
BOSTON ACOUSTICS A250
Q ACOUSTICS 2050i
An amplifier is the heart of your Hi-Fi system. It receives an audio signal from the source, magnifies it and sends it to the speakers. Usually, amps used for a surround sound setup are called receivers and pack a host of electronics and functions. While you could use a receiver here, a simpler, ‘integrated amplifier’ does a better job for a classic, two-speaker stereo system. Don’t confuse simple with quality, though. Integrated amplifiers tend to focus more on audio quality than fancy features, and thus often sound much cleaner. We recommend getting an integrated amplifier with a power rating of at least 25 Watt RMS per channel (at 8 ohms). Floor standing speakers will generally require more juice, so look at an amp that packs more than 45 Watt RMS of power. If you plan to pair a turntable as a source, spring for an amp that has a built-in phono input.
SONODYNE DSA 320
CAMBRIDGE AUDIO TOPAZ AM10
The most common source for a stereo setup is a CD player. A good quality CD player will breathe new life into your CDs and some get a USB input too. If you find CDs too archaic, we recommend getting a dedicated DAC (digital to analogue convertor) or a high-res music player. Sure, you can plug a smartphone or an iPod into the amplifier, but the DAC chips typically found on such mass-market consumer electronics do a poor job of converting those 0’s and 1’s into a sound signal. Instead, dedicated DAC units employ some pretty sophisticated electronics for the job. They also let you play uncompressed, high-resolution (24bit/192khz) audio files that are significantly more detailed than the mp3s you’ve been listening to. Some DACs also feature an inbuilt Bluetooth receiver, making streaming music from your phone quite convenient.
ARCAM MINIBLINK BLUETOOTH DAC
FIIO X3-II MUSIC PLAYER
FIIO ALPEN 2 E17K DAC
First and foremost, vinyl records, on a decent turntable, sound far better than CDs. We won’t get into all the technicalities here, but one of the main reasons vinyl records sound more pleasing is because they have a higher ‘dynamic range’. Sound engineers have been pushing albums to be as loud as possible, so they have more impact over tiny iPod earbuds (and the radio, before that). This kind of album mastering damages overall sound quality. Vinyl records, on the other hand, don’t suffer from the “loudness wars”. That said, getting your hands on quality records can be quite expensive, setting up can be arduous and cleaning them before and after each play isn’t up everyone’s alley. However, the overall experience can be quite rewarding. We recommend scouting for a used turntable first. Look out for brands such as Technics, Audio Technica and Project.
- Buy high quality speaker cables and RCA interconnects. Cheap, low-grade cables can drastically degrade overall sound quality. While some cables can be ridiculously expensive (read lakhs of rupees), you don’t need to go overboard. Brands such as Sommer, QED, DAC and MX (at its higher end) do a great job
- See if you can get your hands on a vintage integrated amplifier. If some DIY and refurbishing doesn’t sound too bad, you could end up with a fantastic, reference grade vintage amp for under Rs 20,000
- If you buy a dedicated DAC, invest in some high-res audio. As for mp3s, make sure you buy or encode them at 320kbps, never lower
- Place your speakers a few inches away from the wall behind them and point them at your listening spot