Which part do you think makes the most difference in your system? Conventional wisdom on that question has varied over time. In the early days of hi-fi, it was thought to be the loudspeakers. And that is completely understandable.
After all, it’s the things that actually convert the electronic music signal into the sound waves we hear, so that has to be the most important part of a system, right? Well, not if you asked the exact same question back in the 1980s and 1990s.
At that time, the “source first” dogma dominated. This is the idea that the rest of the system can’t reproduce anything that the source overlooked in the first place, which led to the recommendation of some pretty skewed systems.
Usually that included a high-quality turntable in combination with budget amplifiers and speakers. The classic system of this type was a fully specified Linn LP12 (which took up about 75 percent of the total budget) feeding a NAD 3020 amplifier with perhaps Acoustic Research AR18 loudspeakers. Such a combination still sounded good, but only really made sense if you saw it as a springboard to better things.
So what *is* the most important aspect?
The advent of the compact disc changed things again and brought with it the idea that all parts of the system are equally important and that the balance between the source, amplification and loudspeakers should be broadly equal. That’s probably where we are for the most part today, but I’m also not sure that’s quite the right approach.
I think the most important part of any system – the only part that defines the ceiling for the rest of the setup – is not the source, speakers or amplification; it is the room in which the system is placed. Get this right and the system, regardless of caliber, is more likely to perform at its best. Get it wrong and even the very best high-end products won’t shine.
While this is something I believed in for a while, it was building it Which Hi-Fi?‘s latest two-channel test room that made me think about it again. During my decades with the brand, I have been involved in the design and development of a dozen test rooms. And every time we work on a new one, it’s an opportunity to learn more. Over the years we have worked with several acoustics experts and it has become clear to me that each prioritizes different aspects of the sound, and so the types of acoustic treatments have varied.
But in the end, whether it is for Which Hi-Fi? or a typical hi-fi consumer, we all just want a balanced sounding room that doesn’t emphasize any part of the frequency range, but instead strikes a natural balance between liveliness and being dampened enough to avoid unwanted reverberation. Buy a room like that and the system just sounds better, and even more important than that Which Hi-Fi?assessing individual products becomes easier.
My ideal hi-fi test room
So what would my ideal be a hi-fi listening room? It would be a decent size – big enough to fit our reference ATC SCM50 speakers without issue – and the room dimensions wouldn’t be direct multiples of each other. By the way, our main hi-fi test room (pictured above) now measures 3m x 7m x 5m (hwd), which is pretty close to my ideal.
Then we enter the realm of construction. The floor should be solid, just like the walls, but in the real world such things are usually not within our power, are they? Our houses are built the way they are and there’s not much we can do about that. You can, however, set up your speakers with care. We’ve written plenty of advice articles that go into more detail on how best to place your speakers and set up your turntable and stereo amp, but in short…
Unless the speakers are specifically designed to be placed there, don’t place them close to walls or – even worse – in a corner of a room. Start with the manufacturer’s recommendations and adjust from there. You’re looking for balanced tonality, a good amount of bass, and a wide, layered stereo image. Stand mounters must be placed on special supports and use spikes to ensure that your speakers are stable.
Make the immediate surroundings of the speakers as symmetrical as possible between the left and right channels. This will help with the stereo image, as well as positioning the speakers so that they and you (sitting in the listening position) are at the points of an equilateral triangle. If this is not possible, try to still sit an equal distance from each speaker.
Also, do not place anything between the speakers. I see a lot of pictures where the system electronics (or worse, a flat screen TV) are placed there. This looks neat and is undeniably practical, but doing this is another thing that wreaks havoc on the stereo image.
In addition, a dedicated rack for the system maximizes performance, while good quality cables ensure that your system reaches its full potential. Provided your system has been chosen with care, all you need to do is provide a nice comfortable place to sit and plenty of great music to tap into.
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