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How To Be An Audiophile On The Cheap

You love music, but even if you consider yourself a true audiophile, the cost of high-end sound can be, frankly, a little absurd. We talked with a handful of audio experts to find out how to get audiophile-calibre sound without emptying your savings account. Here’s what they had to say.

Simply put, an audiophile is a person obsessed with sound. Most often, they’re people interested in a stereo system that sounds as close to a live performance as possible. Audiophiles are a picky bunch, and while a number of the tweaks we look at here will increase the sound quality and listening experience on your system, you still may not get a full-blown audio-nerd seal of approval. But that’s OK, because you’ll have a great-sounding stereo and won’t have to blow your life savings.

Before we move on to how you can tweak and upgrade your stereo, let’s get a better understanding of what an audiophile is listening for and what components they often use.

What Does an Audiophile Listen For?

To understand how to upgrade a stereo system, you have to know what to listen for. I talked with experts to see what they tune their ear to. For home audio, I asked Michael Fremer, Senior Contributing Editor for Stereophile and Editor at Music Angle what he listens for in a good home stereo:

You should be listening for accurate instrumental timbre, dynamic range (squashed out of too many modern recordings), spatially — the ability of a recording to convey the space in which the recording was made and the placement of the images within the space. A good recording played back on a properly set up system will produce focused images placed in a definable space. Such a recording and setup should have any music lover saying to him or herself “Who needs video?”

For headphones, Jude Mansalla, founder of Head-Fi.org, offers a similar opinion for what matters for headphone sound:

As for sound, I don’t have just one sound signature preference. The sound signature I want at any given moment may vary with mood, or with the music I’m listening to. If I’m listening to well-recorded music (regardless of genre), I tend to reach for my most revealing, most accurate gear. However, a lot of poorly, harshly, recorded 80′s pop and rock might have me seeking a more forgiving (usually warmer) sound signature. When I don’t know what I’m going to be listening to (or when I know I’m having a day where my music preferences are all over the map), I’ll generally reach for my rigs with sound signatures somewhere between the two.

The key similarity between both of these ideas is the sound emulation. To get the most accurate sound from your stereo, you want to reproduce the situation it was recorded in. Let’s look at the ways hardcore audiophiles do it.

Photo by Kevin B 3.

The Main Components of an Audiophile’s Stereo

An audiophile’s stereo rig is often a towering system of knobs and components. We’ll get to what you really need below, but let’s start by getting an understanding of what audiophiles use and why they use it.

  • Speakers: The one thing you need to know about being an audiophile is that the most important gear is the speakers. A good set of speakers can make almost anything sound like the golden voice of an angel. Most audiophiles will tell you that you need to drop big bucks on a set of speakers, but it’s possible to get around spending a lot with a few clever hacks we’ll detail below. Photo by Joseph Francis.
  • Media Player (CD/DVD/Vinyl): Nearly just as important as the speaker quality is the player quality. Thankfully, most CD and DVD players supply a good sound, but turntables might require a little tinkering if you have an old one. It’s an easy and cheap upgrade we’ll detail below. Photo by Bygone.
  • Receiver: The receiver is the central hub that the audio flows through. This is the component you connect your media players into that send the sound to the speakers. It’s an important facet in connecting everything, but the price point you need to spend depends on what you’re running through it. If you want to upgrade your vinyl rig, for instance, the new digital receivers aren’t worth the cost because you don’t need modern inputs like HDMI. Photo by evilhayama.
  • Preamp: On a fundamental level, a preamp makes sound louder without adding noise. Plug a smartphone into a stereo with the volume maxed out and you’ll likely get a lot of distortion. A preamp adds that volume without the noise. The need for a preamp bounces back and forth between audiophiles. Some prefer not to introduce an extra step between the music’s source and the speakers, but others find it helps create a “warmer” sound. What does this mean for your cheap setup? You can skip it from the outset because most modern receivers handle this fine.
  • Cables: It can be tempting to try justifying the purchase of expensive Monster cables for speakers or other components, but when it comes down to true sound quality, it doesn’t matter. As a general rule of thumb, don’t buy cables that look like junk and have cheap-looking insulation. Even speaker wire purchased at home hardware stores work fine. Michael Fremer is an advocate for quality cables but suggests, “A good audio store will let you use a credit card to take home cables to try. If you don’t hear an improvement, you can just return them.” Photo by MIKI Yoshihito.

So what does this mean for your stereo? I talked with Ethan Winer, audiophile and author of the upcoming book The Audio Expert, about what components matter. He had this to say:

The most important components to own are the source (CD and Blu-ray player), a receiver of some sort and good speakers. Buying a separate preamp and power amp gains nothing, and is more expensive and more complicated to set up. I would never recommend separates for a normal stereo or home theatre surround system. Likewise for most add-on products, such as “power conditioners”, fancy cables and most accessories. The only “add-on” product I can think of that actually improves sound quality is acoustic treatment.

As Winer suggests above, you only need speakers, a media player and a receiver. That’s it. These are probably components you already have and we’ll detail how to upgrade their sound in a bit, but first we need to get your room in order. The most important free tweak you can do to increase the quality of your sound is to calibrate your speakers and test your room. Acoustic treatment and stereo calibration require a little work on your part and we’ll start with that in the next section.

Set Up and Calibrate Your Stereo to Find Where You Need Improvement

Before you go out and spend your life savings on a bunch of stereo gear, it’s best to take a look at what you already have and see how much quality you can push out of it. To test your current stereo, calibrate your speakers and look at how the room affects the sound.

You will need a good album to test your setup. How do you pick which recording to start with? Michael Fremer weighs in:

A good recording of acoustic music is the best way to judge a system’s quality, especially if you attend live music performances. That way, you have a known reference. But ultimately it all depends upon your musical tastes. If you like rock mostly, you can’t go wrong using “Nirvana Unplugged” or “Alice in Chains Unplugged”. Both are superbly recorded and feature both acoustic and electric instruments. I promise you the double vinyl issue of Alice in Chains sounds so much better than the CD version, it’s ridiculous!

If you don’t trust your ear and want to take a more analytical approach, Ethan Winer recommends a free program called Room EQ Wizard that can help analyse speaker placement and a room’s sound quality. Let’s walk through both processes to get you current gear up to snuff.

Photo by audiophilia.

Calibrate Your Speakers and Room Condition for a Free Upgrade

A great set of speakers can still sound like junk if you set them up incorrectly. The direction and placement is just as important as everything else. It’s a complicated process we could spend pages talking about, but Wired has an excellent guide to set up speakers that covers everything you can imagine. Ethan Winer adds this:

The key is to optimise the low frequency response, to minimise the peaks and deep nulls that are typical in all home-size rooms. Another goal is to have the speakers and listening position centred left-right in the room, with the left and right sides symmetrical (see the image on the right taken from Winer’s article How to Set Up a Listening Room). If there’s an opening on one side wall, set up so that opening is behind where you listen, to keep the left and right sides the same in the front half of the room. Adding even minimal absorption at the side-wall reflections points will improve audio quality significantly. Same for adding even a few corner bass traps.

What does that actually mean? It means sound reflects off corners of the room and destroys the quality. You can find where some of these traps are with a mirror. To fix these issues you can take simple steps. Place a blanket over a couch or a rug on the wall and you will notice a difference in the sound.

You can also use Room EQ Wizard to get a more technical look at your listening area. You need a computer hooked up to your stereo, a sound card capable of input and output, and a microphone to pick up the sound. Winer has put together tutorial for how to use the software and more importantly, how to read the data you get from it to help optimise your room. The data you collect shows where your room fails acoustically. To correct this, you can rearrange the room using the ideas above. If something isn’t sounding right, you might need to upgrade your speakers. Instead of spending a lot of cash on new speakers, let’s look at what you can do with the ones you have.

Improve the Sound of Speakers and Headphones with DIY Upgrades and Tweaks

Instead of purchasing brand new speaker cabinets, you can upgrade the individual speakers in the ones you already own, or pick up an older, used set and do the same. Used gear is always a great way to get a deal, but a set of nice speaker cabinets with a blown speaker are even cheaper. People ditch old speakers all the time for simple and easy to repair problems, so let’s look at what type of fixes you can do yourself.

Upgrade Cheap Loudspeakers

Speakers are the most important part of your system. You can’t expect to upgrade a pair of new $20 speakers to a $500 sound. But a few clever hacks can turn your current speakers or a second-hand purchase into a great-sounding speaker. If all else fails, we’ll also show you how to build your own speakers.

  • Repair old speakers: This is one of my absolute favourite ways to upgrade a stereo system. It’s easy to find a pair of vintage loudspeakers on Craigslist or eBay. The most common problems you run into with these are a blown out speaker, torn insulation, or a small crack in the speaker itself. To repair most problems it’s as simple as installing a new set of speakers in the cabinet. This only requires a screwdriver and new speaker, which you can order from places like Simply Speakers, Madisound or Parts Express. If the foam lining around the speaker is blown out, it’s simple to replace and only costs a few dollars. Better still, if your find a speaker with just a small tear in the speaker, you can repair it with glue and a paper towel. You can apply the same basic principle to upgrading the speakers you already have by using the cabinet you own and replacing individual speakers.
  • Build your own: Building your own speakers isn’t easy, but it can save you a few hundred dollars. Popular Mechanics has a great guide to doing it for yourself, but if you’re not into woodworking, you can also order cabinets from the same sites you order speakers from.

If you do have to shop for new speakers, don’t pay attention to loudness or think they sound better because they have a high price; pay attention to quality. Listen if instruments sound like they do at a live performance. If you find something you like, remember to ask about the return policy. Just because a speaker sounds great in a store doesn’t mean you will get the same sound at home.

Upgrade or Shop for Headphones

A great-sounding stereo is handy for your own home, but what if you rent a small apartment or share a space and need headphones? You can always convert a pair of $30 headphones into a $300 pair. This hack is essentially the same as upgrading the speakers inside a cabinet, but on a much smaller scale. One thing that bothers me about this hack is the headphone shell (aka the chassis or, the plastic piece with speakers in it) used. I asked Jude Mansilla his opinion on the importance of a good chassis:

The driver (aka the speaker) itself is of immense importance, but the chassis it’s housed in is also absolutely critical. I’ve heard prototypes that contain highly advanced drivers in a less-than-optimal chassis, with poor results. I’ve heard headphone prototypes with legacy drivers in new, specially optimised chassis that blew me away. Both are critically important.

So when you pick the headphones to hack, use a pair that has a reasonable set of cans around it, otherwise your work will be for nothing.

It is possible to get great sounding headphone for a reasonable price. If you’re in the market to purchase a new pair of headphones, we’ve covered everything you need to know to find and purchase a good pair.

Upgrade the Sound Quality on the Player and the Source

A good set of speakers is key, but they won’t sound great unless you push music from a quality player through them. For most people, any old media player will do, but let’s take a look at the ways you can hack and upgrade your current gear to sound better.

Find High-Quality Digital Downloads

If you run music out of your computer, it’s likely you use low-bitrate files like MP3. As we noted when we looked at whether bitrate really matters, the chances of you noticing the quality of a digital source is dependent on the quality of your speakers. Since we have a great set of speakers calibrated and angled perfectly in our stereo system now, it’s time to take a look at high quality digital music files too.

For true high quality sound, you need lossless audio files (FLAC, WAV or AIFF). Lossless means the digital file has the exact same sound properties as a CD. You can import your own CDs in lossless in most audio programs by changing the import settings. If you prefer to shop online you don’t have a lot of options. That said, a few smaller music stores sell lossless files:

  • Beatport: Beatport specialises in electronic music of all types. Integrated into some selections in its store are AIFF formatted lossless files.
  • Bleep: Like Beatport, Bleep also tends to lean more toward the electronic or experimental side. You can downloads lossless WAV or FLAC files.
  • Bandcamp: Bandcamp sells a wide variety of independent music directly from musicians. Downloads for most albums are available in FLAC without added cost.
  • HD Tracks: HD Tracks specialises in a wide variety of music, but it’s the only place you can find a lot of classic albums from the likes of the Rolling Stones or Nina Simone. Downloads are usually $US2.49 per track or $US17-$US18 for an album.

Hack Your CD or DVD Player
Some cheaper players have a power supply that introduces noise into your audio setup, but soldering in a new power supply can fix the problem and give you a clean sound quality on par with $US1k+ players. If you can’t hear any big problems with your current player, then skip this part. But if you think you can hear the difference, it most likely has to do with the power supply on your player picking up noise from the other electronics in your house. Rather than spend $US1500 on a player, you can hack the power supply on relatively cheap Toshiba and Samsung players. You can find the guide to do it yourself here.

Upgrade Your Analogue Source

A lot of audiophiles swear by the quality of sound from vinyl records and if you’re looking to dig into new music, vinyl is a great, cheap place to start. When you use a record player as a source, you might be tempted to ditch the old Sony turntable you found at a thrift store in favour of something with a bit more punch. However, as long as that turntable spins at the correct speed, the only part you need to worry about is the piece that touches the record: the needle.

You can find replacement needles and cartridges (the case that holds the needle and attaches to the arm) for most turntables at sites like Turntable Needles and Needle Doctor. A new needle will dramatically increase the sound quality from a turntable.

A new needle alone can’t save the sound if your records are dirty. You can clean your records with glue or make your own putty cleaning block. A clean record and a new needle will sound terrific, we promise.

Photo by Martijn van Exel.

Decide What You Need From a Receiver

The receiver is the final component in our simplified three-piece setup, but its importance is reliant on what you want from it. A lot of modern receivers feature HDMI inputs for a home theatre setup, but if you plan on only listening to vinyl and CDs, stick with a cheap receiver. Ethan Winer offers this suggestion:

Even a $200 receiver will have a response that’s flat enough to not matter, with distortion too soft to hear at normal power levels.

What does that mean? It means when you power on the receiver you don’t hear distortion. One simple way to test this is to turn up the volume with no source connected to see if you hear a hum. If your current receiver sounds fine, don’t bother looking for a new one. Basically, the main quality to look for in a receiver is how quiet it is and how little it alters the sound of your music.

The most important thing to take away from this is that even cheap gear can sound great, but if you’re looking to upgrade, you can do it without totally breaking the bank. Sound quality is often dependent on your ability to listen more than anything else, so when you get your stereo to a happy place, relax, turn of the lights, and enjoy it. It might not be that $US20,000 stereo you covet, but it can sound nearly as good.

Have some clever tricks to get more out of your stereo or upgrade it on the cheap? Sound off in the comments.