Before starting any in-depth research, list the music sources you want to be able to use… read more >>>
2. How do I decide what's right for me?
Only you can decide whether the equipment you're listening to is 'right' for you... read more >>>
3. Where to place your speakers?
It is vital that you plan where you propose to put your speakers before you buy… read more >>>
4. How to fine-tune speaker positioning?
For good stereo imaging place the speakers equidistant from your listening position… read more >>>
5. What cables should you buy?
Better-quality audio cables simply relay more of the musical signal… read more >>>
6. Can I get better results with a little more outlay?
A useful and comparatively inexpensive upgrade path to consider is called bi-wiring… read more >>>
1. Choosing the right hi-fi system
So, how should you go about building a hi-fi system? The first and most crucial element is deciding on a budget. That is essentially a personal issue but be aware that certain other factors should be considered when deciding how much you should spend and what you should spend it on. For example, your room has a fundamental impact on the type of system you should get. Larger rooms tend to require larger loudspeakers, which in turn merit better amplification to deliver satisfactory results. Similarly, if your listening space is small, you could find that our largest speakers are simply inappropriate for your needs. Specialist audio magazines and independent hi-fi dealers can be an invaluable source of advice here, but you should also try to be as realistic as possible about your needs.
Before you begin any in-depth research, the first step is to list the music sources you would like to listen to. This will fundamentally impact on the performance and balance of the hi-fi system you plan to build. If you opt for fewer source components, you'll be able to spend more of your available budget on each element, thus ensuring better performance for your money. Opting for a system that includes a record player, a CD player and a radio inevitably means splitting your total source component budget three ways, which in turn means less chance of high-quality results. Unless, of course, you can afford to lavish equal sums on premium components straight away. If, on the other hand, you're prepared to build your system in gradual stages you stand a better chance of creating a set-up that has solid sonic foundations. To that end, consider investing about one-third of your budget on your principal source, which for most music lovers will probably be a CD player.
The next key element in your system is amplification and this also involves some forethought. If you plan to listen at high volumes in a large room, possibly via some of our larger floorstanding speakers, it's sensible to budget for an amplifier with ample reserves of power. Unfortunately, power is one of the most commonly misunderstood measures of quality in hi-fi, and watts while important do not dictate performance alone. For example, Marantz's PM5003, one of the finest budget hi-fi amplifiers on the market, has a mere 40 watts of output per channel, yet it's easily capable of very substantial volume levels with most of our more affordable speakers. If, however, you want to use some of our larger designs, such as the acclaimed 800-series range, you'll have to plan for better-quality hence, more expensive, amplification. Again, for recommendations, you can consult the specialist press or your dealer, but as a guideline, around one-third of your available budget should be invested in amplification.
That leaves loudspeakers, again a broad one third rule of budgeting applies. You've more choice over design in this category than in any other, loudspeakers are available in sizes both large and small, with aesthetics both traditional and modern. In general, larger speakers produce bigger, deeper sounds than their smaller siblings. But if you opt for high-performance compact designs like our 805 standmounts, that delineation is less clear-cut. Speakers of this quality can produce bass levels that equal many larger, lesser alternatives, making them an ideal option for rooms where space is at a premium. However, you must remember that standmount speakers will only perform at their best when mounted on dedicated loudspeaker stands, which are an additional cost over and above the price of the speakers themselves. We manufacture suitable designs to optimise the performance of our products but other types of stand are also available.
With your budget decided, the next step is to book a series of demonstrations with a specialist hi-fi dealer. We'll cover that in more depth in our Buying Advice section, but the basic points are these: while judging a product on its brand name the quality of your dealer's demonstration or even on the strengths of its magazine reviews can be a useful way to narrow down your options, in the end, only you can decide whether the equipment is right for you. That's partially because personal preferences have a huge part to play in the listening experience, but it's also because hi-fi components interact with each other in a remarkably organic way. Combine three well-reviewed components in a system that should, in theory, be fantastic and you could well find that the results disappoint. Ancillary components, such as cables, supports and stands, can make a difference in this regard, but it's the intrinsic sonic properties of each core component that have the biggest impact. This is where an experienced dealer can be of most help.
While the best way to judge if a system will meet your needs is to hear it correctly set-up in a dedicated listening environment, always be mindful of the size of your own listening space before signing on the dotted line. And always insist on being able to listen using your own music at the sort of volume you are likely to use at home. Great hi-fi is tailor-made, not off-the-peg.
We've already mentioned that a room's size can have a fundamental impact on the size and type of loudspeaker you should buy now we'll explain why.
The moving components in a loudspeaker are called drive units, because they work to drive the air in your room. The bigger the loudspeaker and the bigger its drive units, or in some cases the more drive units it employs, then the more air it can move. This is relevant, because the larger your room, the more air your speakers will be asked to move and as a result the harder they'll have to work. To use the most extreme example, the tiny drive units fitted to most desktop speaker systems would sound lost in a large concert hall. By the same token, a massive pair of floorstanders will excite too much air in a small space, sounding both sonically and to a surprisingly real extent, physically intimidating.
For that reason, choosing speakers of an appropriate size to fit your available space is a significant step towards better hi-fi. That means being realistic not only about the room you have available, but also about where you can actually position your speakers within that space. If you have to place your speakers close to a wall, or a corner, you might find your buying choices are more limited than you'd first hoped.
Why? Simply because every loudspeaker will interact with its environment and especially with nearby walls. Place your speakers close up to a back wall and in almost all cases you'll find the level of bass on offer increases, but this can be at the expense of openness, stereo imaging and 'speed'. Bigger speakers will simply exacerbate this effect, sounding bigger and more bass heavy than ever. Conversely, place small speakers too far out into the room, and they can sound lost, again because they're being asked to drive too much air. For that reason its vital you plan where you propose to put your speakers before you buy, taking account of the specific space requirements of each model relative to your room. The precise science of positioning can vary from speaker to speaker, often being influenced by cabinet design, but most manufacturers and dealers will be able to give you guidelines. One hard-and-fast rule almost everyone will agree on is that corners are a definite no-no, as they cause significant amounts of boom that no amount of high-quality amplification and source kit can overcome.
The acoustics of your room can also influence sound in other ways. Place your speakers on a hard, polished floor, and you'll find the sound takes on a significantly different character to the results you'd get from a warmer, softer, carpeted room. This is caused by sonic reflections, a minimalist modern room is more acoustically live than one awash with soft furnishings. Its immensely difficult for your dealer to compensate for this effect in a typical demonstration area, but its worth mentioning the particular properties of your living room to him just the same, he may be able to recommend kit that can compensate for its acoustics.
The ideal set-up for optimum stereo imaging is to place your speakers equidistant from your listening position, at the same relative height (using stands if appropriate) and slightly angled inwards, or 'toed-in', towards your listening position. Imagine an equilateral triangle, with the top point of the triangle being your listening position, and the flat base representing the plane occupied by the speakers simply angle each speaker in so that it follows the triangle back towards its apex, at your seat. Alternatively, you can use a tape measure (and a friend) to achieve the same result use the measure as a 'sight-line', and have your friend angle in each speaker until you're looking directly at its drive units.
This effort will generate a superior 'soundstage' where the speakers all-but-disappear from the room. Instead, the sound should appear to be hanging in space between your speakers, as if it were being generated by a third, invisible speaker. This is the goal of stereo imaging. A true soundstage has both depth (reaching away beyond your speakers to your wall) and height (up towards your ceiling), giving you the sonic scale to cope with anything from the most intimate of acoustic tracks to a full orchestral work.
Whichever system you buy, at whatever price point, the appropriate cables will help it to perform at its best. There's no black magic or 'weird science' to this phenomenon, by the way, whatever you might read to the contrary. Better-quality audio cables simply relay more of the musical signal than cheaper or 'freebie' wires.
So, how much should you spend? Most specialist magazines advocate spending a total of 10% of your available system budget on cabling to optimise its performance - so, around R2,000 in a R20,000 hi-fi. This should cover speaker cabling, to link your amplifier to your speakers, and interconnects, to hook your source component (or components) into your amp. Choosing interconnects is a relatively straightforward process - the shortest possible length of an appropriately priced link will give optimum results - although some electronics manufacturers recommend specific brands, as they believe they give better results with their kit, so it can pay to do your homework.
Speaker cabling, meanwhile, should be of equal length wherever possible, since this ensures an even 'load' is presented to the amplifier. You should also aim to use the shortest possible lengths you can, taking the most direct path possible from amplifier to speakers, and avoiding any kinks, coils or other undesirable twisting in the cable itself.
That aside, you can find that speaker cables have a specific tonal character, which can help to fine-tune the balance of your system. Cables with a high silver content, for example, tend to sound tonally sweet, while substantial solid-core cables often provide a more powerful sound. However, there's no hard-and-fast rule here: the best option is to ask to audition some suitable cables with your proposed hi-fi system, and judge the effects (or lack of them!) for yourself.
6. Can I get better results with a little more outlay?
One useful and comparatively inexpensive upgrade path to consider is called bi-wiring. In some speakers the connectors for the low-frequency (bass) driver and the high-frequency (treble) tweeter are separated out, being linked only by short metal plates that can be easily removed. By using twin runs of speaker cable from amplifier to speaker, it's possible to address each set of drive units independently of the other. Typically the cables are joined together at the amplifier end, to simplify wiring, although some hi-fi amps now provide for independent output connectors, one pair for treble, the other for bass, to simplify wiring. This will mean you have a total of four sets of speaker cables running from your amp to your speakers.
What benefits can you expect? Bi-wiring doesn't influence volume, bass depth or even midrange punch typically, it improves stereo imaging and focus, detail retrieval and timing, although the effects aren't always uniform. Some speakers are designed specifically to do without bi-wire speaker terminals, our XT4 floorstanders for example, and are none the worse for it.
One last element to consider it's worth getting any speaker cables you buy properly terminated rather than trying to fit bare wire into speaker connectors. Quality 4mm plugs (sometimes called banana plugs) will ensure your cable retains its performance over time by protecting the bare copper from moisture which could lead to corrosion.