A Technical Explanation of Hi-Fi Audio Components
by Connon Price
The most important audio components in your stereo are the source components (i.e. cd player, tuner or record player). The quality of the musical signal coming out of this first component defines the ultimate ability of any stereo system.
Every other audio component in the system merely passes on this signal with greater or less accuracy. None can enhance or improve it. Many people believe that cd players are all essentially the same because they are digital and somehow perfect as a result. The same is often thought of MP3 sound files. Nothing could be farther from the truth, and people are quite impressed when they can easily discern the differences for themselves. A poor CD player can distort the very fabric of music. Turntables have their own set of requirements to accurately do their transcribing, and tuners must have a quality antenna to make proper music.
The next piece is the pre-amplifier. This audio component is responsible for volume adjustment, input switching and a gain stage.
The importance of this audio component is often overlooked because its duties seem so mundane, but because the signal it passes is so small, any distortions it introduces are then amplified again by the main amplifier which drives the speakers. The result is a number of musical distortions which are usually blamed on the power amp or the speakers, or the room. A higher quality pre-amp will allow its partnered power amp and speakers to perform much closer to their capabilities.
Often a client will come looking for more bass or better resolution and will intuitively want bigger, better speakers or a higher quality power amplifier. The demonstration of a higher quality preamp will almost always give them the musical remedy they are looking for. The system will sound clearer, it will image better, the bass will be fuller and tighter, more nuances will be heard in the performance, harmonics will be more faithfully rendered, and leading edges of notes will be more realistically portrayed. All of these improvements from the little box in the middle. Who knew?
Following faithfully behind the pre-amp is the power amp. Its job is to move the speakers back and forth with control and accuracy while not introducing any noise or distortions to the musical signal it receives from the pre-amp.
This audio component must amplify the full bandwidth of 10 octaves with complete linearity. It must not shift phase at any frequency and it must not amplify any harmonics more than others. To do so would distort musicality and leave you with speakers moving back and forth and a room full of sound, but not music.
The last bit of kit is the speakers. Many people believe that the speaker is the most important link in the hi-fi chain.
Intuitively this makes sense because it is where the sound comes from. And true enough, if you change in a nicer pair of speakers a very different sound will come forth, but remember that the CD player is the most important component and they can’t share that honor. In fact, because the speaker is the only passive device in the chain, in ways it is the least important. That said, speakers are probably the hardest to get right. The speaker’s job is to turn that beautifully musical signal coming down the speaker wire into an acoustic event in your room. And there is the rub, in your room.
Speakers are extraordinarily room dependent and since every room is different, a speaker simply cannot be designed to work predictably in every room. The larger your listening room, the more bass your speaker will need to produce to properly load that space and keep the bass in balance with the higher frequencies. The tonal balance of the speaker will be affected by things such as furnishings; window treatments; floor, ceiling and wall surfaces; the room shape; building construction methods and materials: and of course the speakers own dispersion pattern.
Add to these complications the trend for speakers to become smaller and “invisible” and problems start to really add up for the stereo company who wishes to provide a product that makes music in the home. Tune works with a balanced compliment of speaker manufacturers to provide musical solutions for different budgets and situations.
Let me expand on the trend for speakers to become smaller and smaller because it is a trend that is bad for the music. Our job is to convince you, and the people most concerned with the visual aesthetics of your dwelling, that speakers are good and necessary. To reproduce the full spectrum of recorded music including realistic dynamics, speakers cannot be reduced to the size of ring boxes and coffee cups.
There are physics at work and trying to cheat them only cheats your musical satisfaction. It is confounding that people can find room for a host of items to provide utility, such as seating, lighting, storage and even space for visual art, but can’t make two square feet available for recorded art. People need to sit and so they expect to devote a fair amount of space to chairs. And to have music in the home a relatively small amount of space needs to be devoted to speakers. It is that simple.
Remember that the modest pair of speakers in your room must replicate the sound of every instrument and person on all of your recordings. They become space saving devices in that light. Having miniature speakers tucked out of the way is akin to buying a painting and then bathing it in monochromatic light or hanging it around a corner where it is seldom seen. My advice is to put speakers in the most comfortable, social room of your house and then revel in the music that they make. They don’t have to be intrusive, just present.
The speakers we sell are designed to work in normal domestic settings and not rarified audio only rooms. They sit right up against a wall and are visually understated. You will see. It’s not so bad. Better yet, you will hear, it is quite wonderful. Should boundary placement be impossible, We have models designed to sit away from walls as well.
Lastly, the word system is used a lot throughout this website for a good reason. Tune sells music systems. The advantage of this may not, at first, be obvious. But it is one of our greatest strengths. Having a system comprised of components from a single company has many advantages:
- Each piece is designed to the same high standard and with the same technical design goals as the next.
- Should any piece have a problem in the future, you only have to take it to one place and deal with one person.
- All the components match visually. The products we represent sport clean lines and simple interfaces. Some components have nothing more than their glowing logo on them. Many companies try to wow you with their cool looks, but they usually end up clashing with the even cooler looking component sitting next to them.
- It is designed to work as a high performance whole. A person may assemble a group of electronics from different manufacturers that are each great pieces in their own right, but do they work together? Often hi-fi reviewers will say “This bright sounding CD player is best partnered with a mellow pre-amplifier,” but do two weaknesses really make a strength?