The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Michael Kummer.
Listening to music, podcasts and other recordings has long been a ubiquitous part of our routine, everyday life. We use audio input to enhance our mood, lift our spirits when we feel down, evoke happy memories, and get the party started.
So, it seems logical to put a great deal of thought into how we listen to our favorite tunes, and the type of player, speakers, setting, and technology to invest in, to get the best possible sound.
Hi-fi stereo systems (or ‘high fidelity’ as it is formally known) have significantly evolved since their early days in the 1950s of playing back LP records and cassette tapes or the limited choice of radio stations that were broadcast.
More than half a century later, thanks to huge steps in online technology and digital streaming, hi-fi system owners have an unlimited selection of tunes and recordings, available at the touch of a button, that can be played with incredible levels of clarity and sound quality.
In fact, the only real thing that remains unchanged about hi-fi systems since the 1950s is their popularity. We all enjoy music in our lives, whether we are at home, work, in a restaurant or at the gym.
So, having the right hi-fi system and speaker, or speakers, is crucial.
In this guide, we will explore the different reasons why you might need a hi-fi-system, the questions you should ask when putting your wish list together, as well as the various components and qualities that you need to buy to make your system the very best it can be.
Why Do You Need A Hi-Fi System?
The first thing to think about is what you are going to do with your shiny new hi-fi system once you take ownership of it.
Apparent questions include where you are going to set it up – is it going to be a home system for leisure time, or did you buy it for a business, such as a restaurant or a café, gym or events-based concern?
This will affect not only the size and look of the system but the level of performance you will require – especially when it comes to volume.
For gyms, party venues, etc., the balance of treble and bass will be critical, as is the placement of studio monitors and players so that your customers and guests can feel the beat without losing track of the tune.
Once you have worked out why you need it, it’s time to think about what you will be playing on it. Again, this key factor will inform many purchasing decisions.
For example, if you envisage yourself listening solely to classical music, you will need a system that picks out individual instruments and musical themes very well.
Heavy metal or rock will call for excellent bass speakers and subwoofers. If you are a fan of radio and spoken podcasts, clarity of voice will be vital so that you can pick up every word.
Finally, will your hi-fi stereo sit in one single room, or be part of a multi-room audio setup? Will you need a portable speaker to take your entertainment with you on when out and about?
This will help you work out what kind of speakers and listening devices you will need and how many of them.
Likewise, if your single-room setup is, in fact, more of a high-end home theater arrangement, this will inform whether you need more than one speaker for optimal surround sound, as well as soundbars, amps, receivers and so forth.
If you plan to allocate one room, or part of a room, to home fitness purposes, will your speakers need to be able to pump out a strong beat for you to work out to? Don’t forget to think about the acoustics of the space too.
A home fitness area may well have wooden or laminate flooring, which will offer a different acoustic to carpeted flooring or lino.
What Do You Want It To Look Like And Do?
There is such a wide range of variables to choose from when it comes to designing your hi-fi system that it can seem overwhelming at first.
Again, making a list of areas to be considered and having a rough idea of your preferences before you even start looking will help cut down the options to a more manageable number. Here are some areas to prioritize.
It may seem very obvious, but the main factor to think about when it comes to choosing your hi-fi-system is how much space will it take up, and how much space do you have to accommodate it in the first place?
If you prefer something that is too small, the music quality may be compromised, leaving you feeling frustrated whenever you switch it on. Too big or bulky a size and you will trip over it, knock into it and put it in danger of being damaged or compromised by overheating.
The trusty tape measure is your friend here. Measure the space, or spaces where you intend to install your stereo and its accompanying speakers, including shelf depths, heights and oddly shaped areas, such as bay windows, alcoves or slanting ceilings.
Another thing that many people overlook is to make sure it can actually fit through the main front door and the inner door of the room where it is going to live.
Also, weight – can your allocated shelf or surface take the combined weight of the stereo, speakers, turntable, streaming devices, etc. without collapsing?
As with any element of interior design, the right materials can make or break a ‘look.’ Solid metals and smooth plastics offer a modern, minimalistic vibe, while precious woods and heavy fabrics add warmth and depth to a room.
While there obviously isn’t an endless choice of materials that hi-fi system components, such as players, can be made out of, there is still plenty of choice in their finishes, such as ultra-modern plastics, sleek metals or wood-grain veneers.
Colors too can vary, with popular options including steel-grey, silver, black, and white. You can even go further with bolder color choices like reds, greens, blues and even neon colors for added impact.
Think about the details. What kinds of knobs and dials you would like on your player, speakers, receivers, amplifiers, etc.?
The tactile nature of pressing buttons and adjusting dials should not be underestimated as a vital part of the listening experience.
Don’t forget, too, that you can have bespoke covers made to hide your stereo, speakers and turntables away when not in use, and to help keep the dust and sunlight off them as well. Good options for these include fabrics, woods, and even glass or transparent plastic.
While this may not be part of the central hi-fi system choosing process, it can come at the very end as a fun way to round off the feel and style of your new acquisition.
Music streaming is big news right now, with physical media becoming more and more ‘old school.’
From the early days of Spotify and its wide musical choice, but the lower sound quality, streaming tech is now delivering superb quality audio, which is made even better when the streaming device is linked to high-quality speakers for the ultimate listening experience.
Different streaming services operate in different ways, from the online shop model where users choose and pay individually for the tracks that they want to the more recent trend for music subscription setups that offer limitless access to tunes for a fixed, regular fee.
Additionally, there are specialist providers for different genres, types of the podcast, etc., and that’s before we take into consideration streamed podcasts, radio channels, and audiobooks.
On the other hand, there is still a lot of love around for the more traditional vinyl, born from nostalgic memories of building music collections by rifling through the records in your local high street store.
Happily, today’s hi-fi systems have room for both approaches, so this is a crucial area to decide upon when designing your perfect system.
Whatever you choose will affect the aesthetics, as you will need to invest in a turntable, tape deck or CD player for physical media, or a streaming device, such as an iPod or iPhone, smart speaker, amp or dedicated music streamer box, for downloadable tracks.
Wireless vs. Wired
Increasing numbers of modern hi-fi systems and speakers are turning to wireless technology to enhance the aesthetics in the room, as well as increase versatility by doing away with irritating wires that tether the devices to the wall.
Many amps, speakers and receivers are now compatible with Bluetooth wireless technology with easy-to-install capabilities that are easy to pair with your existing kit.
Depending on your streaming and Wi-Fi network providers, you can control your Bluetooth enabled hi-fi system remotely via a tablet or phone app, allowing you even greater freedom of choice and easy use.
This is especially convenient for multi-room audio, as you can control the music from any room, at any time.
If you wish to change a wired system to a wireless one, this is perfectly easy to achieve, through the use of a special analog-to-digital converter.
Making things even more accessible is the arrival of hi-fi components such as smart speakers that have network music services incorporated, thus doing away with the need for separate streaming equipment.
These can link into your smart speaker’s other functions, allowing you to control your choices via voice command if this is set up for your system.
The Bottom Line
Finally, how much you can afford to spend is probably the most critical question of all when it comes to working out what you would like your hi-fi system to look like and how you want it to work for you.
It may well be that you need to compromise in one area to get what you want in another. That’s where your list comes back into play. Which points are most important to you?
Most likely, it will be the sound quality and balance, closely followed by physical size and functionality, so wired or wireless, chunky, or portable.
Do bear in mind that some hi-fi sellers can be open to deals, and it is also possible to take a little longer to create your perfect stereo system.
If you have any existing components, use these until you can save up for upgrades and build your system piece by piece as the funds allow.
Talk to hi-fi experts and read up on consumer reviews about speakers online and in the trade media to see what other people have done.
It is generally wiser to take a bit longer to buy what you really want and to go for higher quality products over a more extended period of time instead of opting for the instant gratification of merely going for what’s cheapest in a bid to get it all done at once.
## What Do I Need To Include In My Hi-Fi System?
As you build up your list of components for your hi-fi system, bear in mind that each choice will have a knock-on effect, so the design process will not be quick.
It will, however, offer a lot of satisfaction as you can create exactly what you want and what you need for your individual circumstances.
Amplifier, or Amp
The amplifier acts as the main ‘muscle’ of your hi-fi system, doing a large share of the work to translate the music source into superb hi-fi audio output.
Essentially, it receives the electronic signal from whatever you are playing your music from and adds power so that it can be heard over the speakers. It also controls the volume – an important consideration if you wish to remain friends with your neighbors…
A power amplifier takes this to the next level, creating sound powerful enough for a loudspeaker.
Amplifiers are also vital if you want to use a subwoofer as they really help enhance the bass notes.
They can also help clean up sound quality, eliminating crackles and distortion often found in lower quality speakers when these are cranked up to a high volume.
Whether you choose to install an amplifier or a receiver depends on what you like to listen to, as the receiver does everything an amplifier does, but also has AM/FM radio tuners built in to receive broadcast signals (hence the name) and allow easy radio listening via your hi-fi system.
Many modern receivers also have inbuilt Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, AirPlay and Chromecast capabilities for even greater versatility when it comes to selecting your favorite tune or channel.
The other great advantage of having a separate receiver is that they normally come with multiple inputs and outputs, along with a single interface to control the various devices connected to it.
They can also provide additional functions, such as surround sound, loudspeakers and the ability to switch between audio and visual components so that you can hook up your TV to the same system for consistently excellent sound quality across all your home entertainment channels.
Speakers are an area in hi-fi technology that offers a vast range of choice, so it is worth spending plenty of time considering your options here.
To start with, think about whether you want floor-standing speakers or bookshelf versions, or in other words, the size and power of your speaker system. The smaller speakers are easier to place in a room, and they won’t take up so much space or be quite so obvious in the room.
They will, typically have two or three drivers, however technological advances mean that they can still pack quite the audiological punch. You may need to boost the bass notes of a smaller speaker with a separate subwoofer.
Then, there are floor-standing speakers which are larger, louder, and more powerful. They dominate the space they are in and require greater airflow and ventilation around them to allow the air to move around and prevent overheating.
They tend to have upwards of three drivers to enhance the treble and mid-range notes. However, these types of speakers produce a richer, fuller sound than their smaller counterparts. You can probably also do away with the need for a separate subwoofer.
A popular option these days is the smart speaker, with its wireless function and multiple options for audio playback using various types of connectivity.
They also offer voice recognition functionality, allowing the user to do away with separate control panels or remote controls and instead say out loud what they want the speaker to do.
Popular smart speakers include Amazon Echo, Sonos One, and Google Home.
Soundbars can really change the sound quality of a TV or stereo system for very little effort.
They are slim devices, often oblong in shape, that sit under your TV or hi-fi to offer improved audio sound capacity, including surround sound, without the need for adding multiple extra speakers.
While you can get away without a soundbar in a brand-new hi-fi-system, they are great devices for enhancing the sound quality of an existing system while you save up to upgrade your speakers or amplifier.
A single wire connects them to the TV or stereo, thus avoiding an unattractive gaggle of wires around your devices.
You can add a subwoofer to a soundbar for realty effective, cinematic surround sound effects.
When choosing your model, look for one that offers Bluetooth connectivity for maximum flexibility and multi-room audio capabilities to get the most benefit from it.
Music Streamer, Record Turntable or CD Player
Clearly, there’s no use investing in speakers, amps and the like without actually having the means to play music in the first place.
As covered above, the choice of embracing digital technology and modern streaming methods, or staying faithful to the old-style record turntable, CD player and cassette tape deck is up to you, but you will need to make sure that what you choose is compatible with the rest of your hi-fi system.
A decent music streaming device will work especially well with multi-room audio systems, as it will allow the tune to be sent all around the house, so you don’t have to miss a single sound as you move about.
You can add in extra speakers to extend the setup as you can afford, or are able to buy them.
For advice on physical music media player devices such as a turntable, these are still on sale in many electrical shops, plus you can find vintage experts online who can help you connect them up to the rest of your system.
Cables and Connectors
Segueing neatly from connecting elements of your hi-fi system up into the connectors themselves, a key element that many people overlook is the cables, wires, and connectors needed to make the electricity flow and the system burst into sound and song.
Again, there is a high choice out there, and it is advisable to speak to an electronics expert to find out the best options for your individual requirements. Even a wireless system will need some HDMI cables if only to connect the various elements to the wall socket.
Don’t be tempted to scrimp and save here, as this can at best compromise sound quality and, at the very worst, represent a safety risk.
Follow all fire safety advice and never overload an electric socket with too many cables, plugs, and power packs. Always measure what length of cable you will need to achieve your desired set up and then purchase slightly longer cables than you need so that you don’t have to have any cables overstretched or any wires put under pressure.
Equally, loosely coil up any excess cable length and tie it up safely to stop anyone from tripping over it or yanking on it as they pass by.
Headphones allow the stereo user to enjoy their very own world of music, radio, and listening pleasure, without having to impose their audio choices on others.
Headphones are popular for linking to portable devices, such as smartphones, iPods, and portable speakers that connect to other mobile devices to allow music on the go.
The main choice nowadays when it comes to headphones is whether to go wireless or wired.
Wireless headphones have rocketed in popularity in recent months, not least thanks to advances in the codec, wireless audio sound. Many smartphones and mobile devices are doing away with the headphone jack too, making the switch to wireless inevitable as a result.
Battery life is improving all the time, and the headphones themselves are more comfortable to wear over our ears, making more of us invest in them than ever before.
Leading the way are Apple’s AirPods, with the launch of AirPods 2 on the cards for later on this year.
This, along with eagerness from Apple’s competitors to keep up, will propel wireless audio technology even further into the spotlight.
It is certainly worth investing in a decent set of headphones as part of your hi-fi system to allow total versatility of how, when, and with whom you choose to listen to your favorite tracks.
Stands and Dust Covers
Finally, your hi-fi system inventory should contain sturdy, suitable stands to put your speakers on to raise them up from the floor, where the dirt might get into them, and to help the airflow right around them for ventilation purposes.
As with every other component in the hi-fi system, stands come in various shapes and sizes, so it’s important to measure your kit before heading out to purchase a stand to make sure it fits into the space and can take the weight properly.
Make sure, too, that stands are robust enough to withstand young children or pets knocking into them, or to cope with the odd flailing arm from enthusiastic dancing along to lively tunes. Many stands are made from metal or wood for an attractive, sturdy finish.
Look at the feet of your preferred stands, as they can vary between rubber for wooden flooring and spikes for carpets. Make sure they won’t damage your flooring and won’t cause the stand to slide or topple over.
Another useful feature to look out for is a hole, or series of holes, in the back to feed cables through for a neater overall look. Also, a height-adjustable model is a good idea to help you achieve optimum balance for the sound levels being produced by each speaker.
One other useful item to buy that will protect your new kit is a dust cover – crucial for keeping dirt and debris away, but also to help protect your units from sunlight and accidental drink spillages.
Dust covers come in a wide range of materials, from cotton to leather; suede to velvet. You could even make your own if you or someone you know is handy with a needle and thread!
Now I’ve Got It, How Do I Look After It?
Having spent time, money, and effort setting up the perfect hi-fi system, the last thing you want to do is place it in jeopardy.
In this final part of the guide, attention turns to ways to look after your setup, to prevent it from getting dirty, clogged up, damaged by the elements or ruined by mishandling or heavy-handed use.
Keep It Clean
Dust is one of the greatest threats to a hi-fi system in terms of its maintenance. The tiny particles can get right inside the casing and cause irreparable damage.
Keep your system dust-free, wipe it regularly with a lint-free cloth. Or you can use a vacuum cleaner on its gentlest setting to get rid of any dust that may have settled on the surface.
Never expose your hi-fi system to water, as this can be very harmful. If you want to clean away any stains or get rid of more stubborn patches of dirt, wring out a cloth, so it is still damp but not soaking wet and gently wipe the surfaces with that.
Or use a wet wipe or canister of compressed air to avoid the need for water altogether. If in doubt., consult the manufacturer’s manual for advice, or call the shop or outlet where you purchased the equipment to see what they recommend in terms of cleaning products and regimes.
Keep It Covered
The weather can have a surprising effect on stereos, speakers, and other electronics. Keeping your system covered when not in use with a lint-free, lightweight cover is a highly effective way to stop it from becoming damaged by sunlight, UV rays, and airborne dust.
This also helps keep things cool in hotter temperatures that can harm the delicate inner workings of the speakers, amp, soundbar, and cause plastic casings to melt in extreme circumstances.
Open the windows on a humid day to let the damp air escape, as humidity can also be bad news and can even encourage fungal growth inside the electronic components.
Never keep your speakers or other key electronics on the windowsill, as this can lead to greater exposure to the outdoor elements, as well as pose a security risk if would-be burglars take a fancy to what they see through the window.
Keep It Serviced
Get the various components of your hi-fi system regularly serviced by a registered expert so that you can pick up any faults quickly and rectify them, or replace the affected section. Many engineers will also offer an annual clean out too, to get rid of any stored-up dirt inside.
On a related note, hi-fi systems can be especially susceptible to electrical faults, power surges, and electrical storms.
Make sure that your power supply and electricity cables, sockets, etc. are also regularly checked and well maintained as a general way to look after your precious electronics. Never bend or wind cables too tightly as this can cause wear and tear to the plastic covering.
Keep Taking Care
Treat your hi-fi system with respect, by not playing music so loud that it distorts the speakers, and keeping everything clean and away from sunlight, as advised above.
Never place drinks, food, or anything damp on top of any of the components and wipe up any stains or spillages straight away. Wrap up any trailing cables and wires so that they don’t cause anyone to trip and pull the system off its shelf or stand.
Don’t add any stickers or magnets to the surface either, especially in areas that could prevent effective airflow and thus cause the item to overheat.
Another good idea is to take out specialist insurance on your hi-fi system – kit like that doesn’t come cheap, and you will enjoy greater peace of mind knowing you are covered for accidental damage, theft and whatever else your policy covers.
Finally, listen to what your system is telling you and get it repaired as soon as you spot any sound distortion, CD or record skipping, trouble with your streaming device or connectivity disruptions in the cabling or wireless set up.
Leaving problems for too long may cause even further damage to the overall system, which could end up being very expensive to put right.
Final Words – Setting Up The Perfect Hi-Fi System
Have fun with your hi-fi system – it has been designed for entertainment purposes after all!
The associated wireless, Bluetooth, digital audio, and smart technology has enabled modern systems to achieve amazing things, offering sound quality that’s better than ever before, bringing enormous satisfaction to the listening process.
A well-planned hi-fi system that has been carefully chosen, expertly installed and lovingly cared for is a thing of beauty that should bring you and your loved ones many years of listening pleasure.