All-in-one stereos have their place, but linking together "hi-fi separates" has long been the choice of aficionados, says Stuart Watkins. Here are some tips from the specialists.
Building your own hi-fi system rather than buying an integrated all-in-one stereo may give you better sound and a more rewarding listening experience, but give it careful thought before rushing in, says What Hi-Fi?. You'll need to consider the balance as much as the quality of any individual item, for example, and getting that balance right is much easier said than done. Don't, for example, dismiss a product based simply on its star rating in a review. Certain products may not be flawless all-rounders, but they could well have the "particular blend of talents you're looking for".
Set a budget and think carefully about what specifically you want the system for and the space you have available. If you play all your music from a smartphone, for example, you'll need different kit than if you play mostly vinyl. Put aside money for quality cables, stands and supports too you won't get your money's worth if you don't. And the golden rule: never buy anything without having heard it first. What Hi-Fi? has some specific suggestions for combinations of kit for a range of budgets on its website.
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Unless you're knowledgeable yourself, your best bet is probably to go to a dealer and ask for help. Matching speakers to an amplifier, for example, is "something of a dark art", best left to the experts, as Jasper Hamill puts it the Daily Mirror. "Find a dealer who will listen and understand what you are looking for and willing and experienced enough to offer you sound advice," says Yannis Poutous, founder of the Moving Sounds showroom in Birmingham, interviewed in Hi-Fi+ magazine. A decent adviser should be happy to "visit your listening environment to check speaker positioning and amp/source placement" and so on, and to "work for a good result" with you, not just hand over some goods.
Once you're all set up, don't rush to judge the result, advises Simon Lucas in Stuff. "Box-fresh electronics can take hours to reach their full potential, and speakers can sometimes take days or even weeks." All the bits and bobs will need tweaking and adjusting for best results. Lucas recommends the ClarityAlliance.co.uk website for tips and expert guidance and advice on every aspect of researching, buying and maintaining your kit. Richer Sounds, a Which?-recommended provider, also has a clear and helpful series of guides and jargon-busters on its website at RicherSounds.com. Below, we present a selection of some of the best kit money can buy.
A digital-to-analogue converter, or DAC, is a must for a modern hi-fi, says What Hi-Fi?. Just about every piece of digital kit features one, but buy a poor DAC and it can introduce unwanted noise during playback or add distortion due to "jitter". One of the best is the Chord Mojo(pictured above), which gives you most of the performance you'd get from DACs nearly three times the price. The "best money can buy" is also from Chord: the DAVE. "The sound is very special."
Price: £399/£7,995.Contact: ChordElectronics.co.uk.
The trend in hi-fi right now is for "active speakers" those that have built-in amplifiers, says Jon Myles in Hi-Fi World. Wharfedale's new Diamond A2 floorstanders (left) add something new to this equation: they're not just active but wireless too. They have digital and analogue inputs as well as Bluetooth capability, and "you'd be hard pressed to assemble a selection of separates' that can match it in terms of sonic ability or ease of use at anywhere near the price". The speakers are "outstanding", with a "large, authoritative sound", and they're "keenly priced" too.
Price: £999. Contact: 01480-447700, Wharfedale.co.uk.
The amplifier is the "beating heart" of any hi-fi system, says What Hi-Fi?, and if you love "the tactile fluidity of vinyl records", this is the one to try. The Rega Elicit-R might be one of the priciest amps, "but one listen to it will show you why" it's a price worth paying. Price: £1,600. Contact: Rega.co.uk.
The audio world is full of bold characters making products touched by genius, says Alan Sircom in Hi-Fi+. Any list of them would have to include Geoffrey Owen of Helius Designs, and the Alexia vinyl player is a distillation of his years of technical expertise. It excels even in those areas of pitch precision where CDs usually trump vinyl. "It might be a bit of an odd-looking thing, but the design pays dividends in terms of performance."
Price: £1,465. Contact: 01386-830083, HeliusDesigns.co.uk.
More and more of us are listening to music not from the comfort of our living rooms but on the daily commute, says Ed Selley in Hi-Fi Choice. If that's the case, it makes sense to buy the highest-quality, in-ear headphones you can. The best all-rounders are the Noble Trident. They are comfortable to wear for long periods and deliver superb performance, "balancing accuracy and fun almost perfectly". The sound quality is "deeply impressive".
Price: £350. Contact: 0208-942 9124, NobleAudio.co.uk.
If cost is no object, the Sonja XVs from YG Acoustics(right) are the speakers for you, says Chris Martens in Hi-Fi+. The sound is "breathtaking". Musical details are "simply present and available to enjoy, but without unpleasant artefacts" as if you're listening to a live performance. The speakers are "by far the most accomplished I have yet heard, and by no small margin at that". They perform best in large listening spaces rooms bigger than you may possess so Sonja XJ Juniors can be made on a special-order-only basis.
The Opus#2 from TheBit is "big, powerful and exciting" and one of the best portable digital audio players I have heard, says Noel Keywood in Hi-Fi World. Portable audio players these days all do a good job and it is difficult for any one of them to stand out, but the Opus#2 does just that. The sound is "organically rich and smooth" and better textured than that of rivals. It's a bit chunky and solid and it is expensive, but the "final sonic result" justifies the price.
Price: £1,249. Contact: 0343-289 6880, AdvancedMP3Players.co.uk.
Purists love vinyl, but get the right player and CDs can shine too, says What Hi-Fi?. The Burmester 069 is perhaps the best that money can buy. "We haven't heard anything better". It has a "sweet, refined yet still exciting sound, and exceptional build and finish".
Price: £35,840. Contact: Burmester.de/en.
The B&O name is associated with opulence as much as the quality of its sound, says What Hi-Fi?. Odd as it may seem, that can be something of a drawback when it comes to headphones. That's because high-grade materials may look and feel good but not actually be the best choice with respect to "sound for pound" considerations. But the Play H6 Generation 2 headphones are a "solid choice". The pads are made of lambskin leather and the padding is of memory foam, so they look luxurious and are comfortable to wear, and the sound is "smooth" and "breezy" too, making them "among the better premium portable headphones around".
Price: £235. Contact: BEOPlay.com.
Stuart graduated from the University of Leeds with an honours degree in biochemistry and molecular biology, and from Bath Spa University College with a postgraduate diploma in creative writing.
He started his career in journalism working on newspapers and magazines for the medical profession before joining MoneyWeek shortly after its first issue appeared in November 2000. He has worked for the magazine ever since, and is now the comment editor.
He has long had an interest in political economy and philosophy and writes occasional think pieces on this theme for the magazine, as well as a weekly round up of the best blogs in finance.
His work has appeared in The Lancet and The Idler and in numerous other small-press and online publications.
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