What is a Hi-Fi System?
High fidelity is a description of sound reproduction that is as faithful to the original as it is possible for technology to achieve.
Sound Technology Then and Now
Since the earliest days of recorded sound, technicians and innovators have strived for an elusive standard of perfection. In 1877, when Thomas Edison recorded "Mary Had a Little Lamb" on his phonograph, we can imagine an engineer sitting nearby already planning how to improve the quality.
In the quest for perfect sound reproduction, the hi-fi industry never rests. The options for the serious hi-fi user can be as baffling as they are diverse. Today, serious lovers of music - whether it's jazz, blues, classical, rock, dance or even ambient music - can have more sophisticated technology in their homes than legends of record production like Brian Eno, Tony Visconti or George Martin ever dreamed of when they were busy breaking new ground.
Walk Before We Run
‘The world of hi-fi specialists, enthusiasts and evangelists can be as volatile and divided as any other community built from passions that border on obsession. So, before arguing about the best hi-fi system, let’s start with our easier question.
The All-in-One Option
A hi-fi system is not a thing in itself. Think of it more as a concept that you turn into a construct. It’s simple enough to walk into any electronics store and hand over serious money for a really good-sounding stereo system with an integrated amplifier, powerful speakers, turntable for vinyl, and state-of-the-art CD player, all in one package. You make one choice and then you’re all set. An all-in-one system is a great piece of equipment designed for you to buy off the shelf. An even simpler option is the wireless speaker, which can do everything, virtually on its own.
But serious enthusiasts won’t be satisfied with this. What if you really want to take ownership? Why not put together your own sound system from different pieces of equipment that you’ve chosen to meet your very specific and demanding expectations? Neil Young famously claimed that listening to digital means we only hear 5% of the music compared to analogue. Whether that’s true or not, there are certainly ways to ensure you get the very best out of whatever format you choose to listen to. That is the essence of hi-fi.
Build Your Own Solution
If you’re starting down this road, it’s important to consider the music sources you’re going to use. Maybe you have a lot of music stored as AIFF, FLAC or WAV files, or perhaps you are an avid user of streaming services. If so, you’ll need to include a network player. If you still maintain a CD collection alongside your archive of lossless digital files, you’ll want to add a high-performance CD player. And now that vinyl is making a serious comeback, there’s a wide choice of superb quality record players on the market with tonearms of breathtaking sensitivity, such as the Rega Intro.
That’s at least three separates already. Then, of course, there is the amplifier. Whether you choose a power amp, a pre-amp or an integrated amp that will do the job of both, like this NAD Model, without it you have nothing. It is the powerhouse and the control room of your system.
Finally, you need to select the right speakers. Size matters. If you’re setting up your hi-fi system in a large space, floor-standing speakers with large acoustic chambers could be ideal. They produce a big, natural sound with solid bass. If your space is more limited, the answer may be bookshelf speakers like the Martin Logan Motion. They’ll use a similar tweeter and mid-bass driver as the larger speakers in the same series but they may not have comparable bass performance, so it’s worth investing in a powered subwoofer to boost the lower end.
You’ve identified your requirements and fixed your budget (it’s worth allowing a little flexibility for when you come across that must-have item). You’ve done your research, compared models, made your choices, sourced the best cables and put your hi-fi system together. Welcome to the world of truly superior sound.
But the benefits of building a hi-fi system out of separates don’t end there. When you buy an all-in-one, the journey is over. Until you decide to replace it with another model, your options are closed. With a hi-fi system you’ve built yourself, any and every component is upgradable. Just as your music collection keeps growing, your hi-fi system can adapt, expand and develop along with it.