Beginning Your Audio Adventure
Absorb all the advice that you can, but take things like “this sounds amazing with that” with a grain of salt. It’s all subjective. Use your ears and eyes. Buy what looks and sounds amazing to you. A big part of the fun of this adventure (affliction) is trying new combinations of components and speakers to find a system that you just can’t stop listening to. Now, let's get on to the nuts and bolts.
What most lay people will usually refer to as a "speaker" is actually called a driver. It is the element in a loudspeaker which produces the sound, properly called a transducer. Drivers are often, but not always round.
“Tube” gear uses vacuum tubes (or “valves”) instead of transistors. A vacuum tube is just that: a glass tube surrounding a vacuum (an area from which all gases have been removed). Vacuum tubes contain electrodes for controlling electron flow and were used in early electronics as a switch or an amplifier. Here’s where the plot thickens: when electrical contacts are put on the ends, you can get a current to flow though that vacuum. Thomas Edison noticed this first in 1883. While fiddling with light bulbs he saw that he could get current to jump from the hot filament to a metal plate at the bottom. What Edison discovered (promptly dubbed “the Edison Effect” from that day forward) was that electrical current doesn’t need a wire to move through. It can travel right through a gas or even a vacuum. The Edison effect, incidentally, is the only piece of scientific work Edison ever did. He wasn't a scientist, but rather a tinkerer and inventor. This kind of thinking would be as important as science for the invention of the transistor.
As opposed to electronics utilizing vacuum tubes, solid-state electronics use semiconductors (transistors, diodes, integrated circuits, etc.)
The biggest difference between the two is that a solid-state amp is driven by current throughout the output devices, but a tube is driven by voltage. Voltage alone can’t drive a speaker, which is why output transformers are needed. You’ll notice most stereo tube amps have 3 large, heavy objects, typically at the rear. They are a power transformer and two output transformers, one for each channel. Together, they convert the voltage from the output tubes to current at the speaker posts.
A solid-state amp typically has a single power transformer and no output transformers. However, a solid-state output transistor and a tube basically do the same thing – one silicon with current, the other in a glass vacuum with voltage.
Put very simply, an amplifier takes the the signal from your source (CD/Record/Radio/Stream) and makes it stronger. “Amplifier” is the generic term used to describe a circuit which produces an increased version of its input signal.
The task of an audio amplifier is to take a small signal and make it bigger without making any other changes in it. This is a demanding task, because a musical sound usually contains several frequencies, all of which must be amplified by the same factor to avoid changing the waveform and hence the quality of the sound. An amplifier which multiplies the amplitudes of all frequencies by the same factor is said to be linear.
Remember, in the audio world, more power doesn’t always equate to better sound. Different speakers require different amounts of power.
In an audio system, the preamplifier boosts the signal from low-output analog sources, like your turntable, so that it's strong enough for your amplifier to do its job. Sorta like first gear. When a signal is amplified, we call that a "gain stage" within the system. Here, the preamp provides voltage gain but no significant current gain. The power amplifier provides the higher current necessary to drive your speakers.
There is some confusion as to whether a "phono stage" and a preamplifier are interchangeable terms. Perhaps. A phono stage is a dedicated preamplifier for a turntable. True preamplifiers can typically accept multiple source signals, such as Tuner, Tape, and Aux. So the preamp also acts as the hub of your system. This "source selector" allows you to quickly switch between your turntable, tuner or digital streaming device (like a Sonos Connect) with the turn of a dial or push of a button. Preamps also typically have fine-tuning adjustments for Balance, Bass and Treble; some have additional nuanced adjustments such as Presence or Loudness.
Sure, your amplifier may be able to drive your speakers from several different sources (one at a time, please), you’re surrendering a lot of control without a preamp. Just because you can, doesn't mean you should.
An Integrated Amplifier (or just an “Integrated”) is simply an Amplifier and a Preamp together in a single piece of gear.
A good record player.
A Tuner is a device that picks up radio signals. That’s it.
A Receiver is an Amp, Preamp, and Tuner all in one.
Your Source is anything that plays audio media.
Standard Sources are:
Digital Streaming Device (Sonos Connect)
Reel to Reel
When a system is “stereo” it’s referring to its ability to play different sounds in the left speaker than it is in the right. Almost all modern recordings are mastered to take advantage of this and is used to create directionality, perspective and space.
Mono systems play the exact same thing out of all speakers. One signal. Many older audio components are mono.
Monoblocks are (typically) two mono amplifiers used in the same system to allow you to play stereo sound. One amplifies the left channel to drive the left speaker, one amplifies the right channel and drives the right speaker. Vintage tube amplifiers are very often used in this configuration. If you have a mono tube amp and want to hear stereo recordings how they were meant to be heard, you’ll need two mono amplifiers.
Interconnects are cables that connect your components together. In most systems, these are RCA cables.
There’s a lot of debate around how your cables effect the sound coming out of your speakers. Some people spend thousands (even tens of thousands) on very high end interconnects and speaker wire and swear they hear an appreciable improvement. We don't.
That's why we recommend starting out with quality cabling that doesn’t break the bank. And if you do have a chance to A/B test your components against higher end cables: do so, and let your own ears be your guide.
Of course, if your connections are visible, there are always points given for style. We believe your listening experience should feed all of your senses.
"Caps" are slang for capacitors. Vintage capacitors couldn't leverage modern technology, and were more prone to failure over time. In "recapping" a unit, the old capacitors are replaced with modern caps, preferably one of audiophile grade.
A crossover is a device used to separate an audio signal based on the frequencies of the sound. The separated signal is then sent to the right driver to reproduce that sound. A "passive" crossover is typically located inside the speaker cabinet, and uses capacitors to filter the signals. An "active" crossover is a separate component that allows a listener to manualy adjust the frequencies.
SPEAKER WIRE (DOES IT MAKE A DIFFERENCE?)
We’d say it does. To a point. Thicker is better. To a point. We recommend 10-14 gauge speaker wire.
There are a few rules to follow:
The longer your speaker wire has to be, the thicker it should be. Your speaker wire should always be the same length for both speakers. If your speaker wire is visible, it should look intentional and elevate the aesthetic, not detract from it.
When you open up nearly any speaker, you’ll find they use a relatively small wire. So, no matter how thick the cable from your amp is, the signal is still going to have to pass through something very thin before it makes any sound.
But like everything else, trust your ears. If it sounds better to you, buy it.
Almost everyone starting out will ask “What’s the best sounding speaker?” or “What speaker sounds best with X amp?”. The answer is: Whatever sounds best to YOU.
Speaker selection is a completely subjective endeavor. Speakers vary wildly in their “voice”. And people, being the unique snowflakes we are, can have vastly differing tastes. It’s always fine to get others' opinions, but at the end of the day… buy what looks and sounds the best to you. Full stop.