Whether you’re planning a modern wireless streaming system or a more traditional “wired” stereo set-up, setting up a home audio system can be a simple and rewarding process that will give you years of listening enjoyment if you understand what will best suit your lifestyle and listening requirements.
To choose the right system and the right products for your needs and budget, we’ve pulled together a few helpful pointers to help you decide what’s going to work best for you, and to understand what products and accessories you’ll need to start enjoying better music at home.
What Is A Home Audio System?
You might have come across a few different phrases like “stereo”, “hifi system” or “home theatre” thrown around while researching how to get better sound into your home, but there’s no hard and fast rule as to what comprises a “Home Audio System”.
Your next Home Audio System could be a simple single bluetooth speaker, a traditional pair of stereo speakers, a multi-channel or even multi-room system - the right system for you is the one that is going to help you enjoy music more often, and more conveniently.
What Is Your Listening Environment Like?
First off, it’s important to think about where in your home you’ll be doing the majority of your listening. If you’ll be listening in you living room where your TV/AV is, then you might want to think about whether a multi-channel home theatre set-up will give you the added enjoyment of immersive cinematic audio with your favourite movies and TV shows.
On the other hand, if you plan on spending more time doing some dedicated music listening, then a two-channel, stereo setup might be just the ticket.
If you’re the kind of person who likes to have music on in the background while moving about the house or while entertaining guests, then a wireless speaker can provide a convenient way to provide high-quality ambient audio in your home. Plus, you can easily move them from room to room with you!
How Much Space Do You Have?
You’ll need to consider how much space you have to play with. Where will you be positioning your speakers and associated equipment? If you have a bit more real-estate in your listening room, then you may be able to house a pair of floor-standing speakers on either side of your central “sweet spot” listening position.
Or if you want to keep a more minimal, streamlined look in your listening room, a pair of bookshelf speakers might be a more appropriate space-saving solution for you.
How Are You Going To Play Music? Choosing The Right “Source”
Now that you’ve thought about the size and number of speakers that you’ll need, you’ll need to think about your “source”, or how you’ll be feeding music into your speakers. Are you planning on enjoying your collection of vinyl or compact discs? Well, unsurprisingly, you’ll need to find a turntable or CD player to handle the playback of your physical audio formats.
If you are using a streaming service or a collection of digital audio files saved on a computer or mobile device, a digital to analogue converter (or “DAC”) can provide a much higher level of resolution compared to the built-in chip inside your device. A good DAC can also provide connectivity for multiple digital source devices such as your CD player, streamer, your Smart TV, and even your gaming console.
Do I Need An Amplifier?
If you’re using traditional “passive” speakers - i.e. unpowered ones - you’ll need an amplifier to give them the appropriate power they need to play music. An integrated amplifier provides the convenience of volume control, multiple input options as well as amplification for your speakers in a convenient “one box” solution, and is a common choice for many home audio enthusiasts who prefer to keep things streamlined.
A home theatre setup with multiple speakers arranged for surround sound compatibility will need a surround sound processor/receiver with the appropriate facilities for connecting to your screen/video source, and enough speaker terminals to drive each speaker according to where they are laid-out in your home theatre setup.
Do I Need A Flexible Setup/Separate Components?
If you want to have the flexibility of changing around your sound, connectivity options and power requirements to suit later changes in your listening setup, then choosing separate pre amplifier and power amplifier components may be a better option for you as you plan your Home Audio System.
A pre amplifier acts as the control unit or “brains” of your hifi system, managing the the selection of multiple inputs as well as controlling volume, EQ, and other adjustments (depending on the device). A power amplifier, on the other hand, does one thing only - it amplifies! Power amplifiers do not provide any input or volume control, and need to be paired with an appropriately matched pre-amplifier to function.
Active Or Powered Speakers?
Choosing a pair of active or powered speakers can be a convenient solution if you’re looking to minimise the amount of components in your Home Audio System. These speakers don’t require an external amplifier to drive them, and are often equipped with a range of wired and wireless connectivity options for you to connect your source components, or to stream music via bluetooth or wifi.
While all active speakers are technically “powered”, not all powered speakers are active. In speakers which have more than one transducer (such as a “tweeter” for higher frequencies and a “woofer” for lower frequencies), a device called a crossover is used to take the unfiltered audio signal and divide the correct frequency band into the appropriate transducer. In a “powered” speaker (and is also the case for traditional passive speakers), the crossover happens after the amplification stage. On the other hand, the crossover is placed before the amplification stage in an “active” speaker, which also often employs separate amplification stages for each transducer.
If you’ve ticked “yes” for vinyl, then you’ll need to consider whether you need a phono preamp if there isn’t one built into your turntable. Many integrated amplifiers and preamplifiers have a phono preamp that help to boost the low voltage of a turntable cartridge into a “line level” signal that is appropriately loud for your amplifier to play. If your devices don’t have a phono preamp built in, then a separate phono preamp can be a simple solution to integrate vinyl listening into your home audio setup. Dedicated phono preamps can provide audible benefits over the simpler components built-into other devices, as well as the flexibility to work with multiple types of phono cartridges.
As for your turntable itself, there are a number of things to consider when choosing the right device to spin your record collection with. An automatic turntable will start playing with the press of a button, and will also stop when each side of the record has finished. On the other hand, a manual turntable is a much more “purist” device which means you’ll getting more “hands on” and involved in the listening process. Make sure your turntable is able to play 45 or the rarer 78-RPM format if you have any of these records in your collection in addition to the more traditional 33 & ⅓ RPM (a.k.a “LP”) format. It’s even possible to stream your vinyl wirelessly thanks to bluetooth equipped turntables such as the Audio Technica AT-LP60XBT.
Streaming Music - playing Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music & Qobuz.
If you like the added convenience and vast library of modern streaming services like Tidal, Spotify, Apple Music or Qobuz, then you’ll want to seamlessly add wireless connectivity into your home listening setup via a network audio streamer. Some all-in-one integrated amplifiers like the Naim Uniti Atom All-In-One Integrated Amplifier with HDMI ARC offer multiple streaming options in then one streamlined, talented device, while a standalone streaming device such as the iFi audio ZEN Stream Wireless Network Streamer can add wireless connectivity to an existing system.
Digital To Analog Converters (DACs)
Digital-to-analogue converters, or DACs, are an essential part of any home audio setup if you plan on using a digital music source and have no facilities in your integrated amplifier or preamplifier to convert those 1’s and 0’s into an analogue signal. Many stereo amplifiers have DACs built-in, however a dedicated standalone DAC can yield substantial audible benefits over these less comprehensive devices thanks to upgraded components, circuitry, and power supplies.
Many DACs provide the ability to plug into a Mac, PC or smart device via USB, meaning you can play your local library of stored files through an appropriate playback program; and connection options like optical/TOSLINK and coaxial mean that you can set a bit-perfect signal from your CD player, TV or other source device and let your DAC handle the conversion of the audio signal.
Cabling and Connecting Everything Together
Ok, so you’ve decided on your speaker and source components, but don’t forget that you’ll need to connect them all together to make your home audio system work! If you’re using passive speakers, then make sure you grab yourself a pair of appropriate-length speaker cables to allow your integrated or power amplifier give them the power they need.
Look at the speaker connections on the back of your speakers and amplifier, and make sure you have the right style of termination, e.g. banana plugs, spades, or bare wire, to properly connect to both.
If you have multiple devices such as a preamplifier and power amplifier, a pair of interconnecting analogue audio cables essentially allows them to “speak” to one another and pass along an analogue audio signal. Most devices use traditional single-ended RCA cables, so having a couple of pairs of high-quality RCA cables will be essential for any home audio system and will allow you to change things up and add other components down the track.
Some higher performance systems employ “balanced” topology, and use three-pin XLR cables to allow a balanced differential signal to pass from one device to another. Balanced cables are better at rejecting noise, especially in longer cable runs. So, if you’re planning on having your devices a few meters apart from one another, consider using components with balanced XLR inputs and outputs.
Having a few quality digital cables in your collection is important if you're planning on connecting digital sources to your DAC, integrated amplifier or active speakers. USB, coaxial and optical cables are the most commonly-used formats for carrying a digital audio signal, and having a few adapters is also handy to make sure you're able to connect to different components together if you update your devices down the track.
A couple of HDMI cables will be critical for ensuring a proper connection between your TV and home theatre system, and make sure to grab an ethernet cable as well if your streamer, DAC or integrated amplifier accepts a wired network cable.
Enjoying Your Sound
The last thing to do, of course, is to simply kick-back and enjoy your music! Your new home audio setup should provide you with years of enjoyable home listening, and while it can take a bit of patience and trial and error to research what you need and to set it all up, it’s definitely worth taking the time to get the right system in place for your home, and the way that you prefer to listen.
Your local Addicted to Audio store is there to help provide you with support and advice for the all the components you decide on, so if you have any questions or are struggling with anything don’t hesitate to give them a call.