When reviewing equipment I try to be consistent, taking the same approach each time. Much of the devil is in the detail, and whilst some of that gets mentioned in reviews much doesn’t. Largely because at the tenth telling you’d lose the will to live. It also helps keep articles punchy and to the point.
But, some of it is important, making a notable difference to sound quality. So why not capture it in one article, updating as appropriate when things change.
The basic approach is to…
- Test equipment in a representative setting, with price appropriate kit. Just like you will use it.
- Compare equipment to equivalent stuff. Such as reviewing four active speakers back to back recently, which gave more insight than doing them disparately.
- Try a device with better partnering equipment to see if it’s capable of more. Does it have longevity, able to withstand the rest of the system being upgraded around it?
After the room itself, speakers make the most difference to a HiFi system. So pamper them to get the best out of them.
Where you place them is important. Too close to a wall can give boomy bass and shrink the soundstage (particularly depth). But, some speakers need a little wall reinforcement, sounding thin without it. The best position varies room by room, speaker by speaker. So experimentation is the order of the day.
In my lounge, speakers generally sound the best with their backs 50-60cm out from the wall, sitting 180 cm apart and toed in slightly. Moving them to around 30 cm out doesn’t impact sound quality too much though and usually looks better.
When reviewing standmount speakers I sit them on Atacama Nexxus Essentials stands (review here). Three different top plates means most speakers can be accommodated. And at £150 (before extras) they’re cost effective for speakers up to £1,000. Atacama’s Atabites add mass and are effective, if a little costly. Try dried sand as an alternative.
I’m also a huge fan of Isoacoustics isolation products – sonically they make more difference than any other accessory I use. With standmount speakers I use ISO-Puck Minis between the stand and speakers. I also have Aperta 200 stands, standard ISO-Pucks, and Gaia II feet if needed. Aesthetically it can sometimes be a challenge, the products’ pro-sector roots shining through. I wouldn’t be without them though.
Cables do make a difference, the question is how far you go. I focus on speaker cables and interconnects more than mains or digital. Specifically: –
- Speaker cables are Tellurium Q Black II – they’re expensive at £280 for a 2.5m pair but I know them well so it removes a variable.
- RCA interconnects are Audioquest Golden Gate at £65.
- If needed – they rarely are as starter equipment doesn’t often use balanced connection – then I borrow the Audioquest’s Yukon XLR cables (£400!) from the reference system.
- For mains and USB cables I use bog-standard cables. Likewise mains extension blocks.
I don’t use specialist stands, most equipment sitting on a sturdy coffee table between the speakers. With turntables I have the option of IKEA’s Kallax and Besta units, both of which are loaded with LPs. Meaning they’re heavy, so less prone to vibration.
I may experiment soon – my Garrad 401 turntable may benefit from better support. But overall whilst a stand from Atacama, HiFi Racks or similar might help with sound quality even the low cost options are expensive in the context of a starter system. For me the money is better spent elsewhere.
A contentious area, some people dismiss the impact of external power supplies. True, some are extremely expensive. In the real world though, plugging a £69 iFi iPower 2 into a Raspberry Pi or a WiiM streamer can elevate sound quality. The difference isn’t night and day but is usually worthwhile. Expect a more open, refined sound with slightly firmer bass.
For equipment needing 5V I have the original iPower, an Allo Nirvana ($59) and an Allo Shanti ($159 for two 5V outputs). For different voltages shop around, you can get good power supplies for sensible money (iFi has 9V, 12V and 15V options.) And if in doubt see if you can try before you buy. You might be surprised at the difference it makes. I always use one where possible.
Our reference system
The focus is on sensibly-priced equipment here at HiFi Starters. That doesn’t mean I’m not an enthusiast though, as the ‘big rig’ shows. It currently comprises: –
- Graham LS6 standmount speakers, £2,450 + £600 for the stands
- REL T7/x subwoofer, £999
- Prima Luna EVO 300H amplifier, £6,500 (indulgent, but oh my!)
- Mytek Liberty II DAC, £1,295
- Pro-ject Stream Box S2 Ultra streamer, £599
- Refurbished Garrard 401 turntable & SME 3009 arm, £1,200. Acoustand plinth, £500, Ortofon Quintet Blue cartridge, £450, Pro-ject Phono Box S2 Ultra, £220.
The turntable is a work in progress (plus ca change). Elsewhere the system is pretty settled. Come the inevitable upgrade itch I’ll probably look at mains conditioning to ensure everything is powered from high octane fuel.
The equipment ‘library’
I have a fair few items to call upon in reviews. First and foremost a Marantz PM6006 amplifier and Elac Debut B6.2 speakers, which make for a good review system.
Numerous DACs are available: all three Audioquest Dragonflies (Black, Red, Cobalt). An iFi ZEN DAC V2 and an Allo Boss2 (which I’ll review once you can get hold of RPis again). And an original Mytek Liberty.
Streamers include both the WiiM Mini & Pro, Allo’s USBridge Sig, DigiOne and DigiOne Sig. Plus a bog-standard Raspberry Pi4 (great with one of the 5V power supplies mentioned above).
On the amplifier front there’s an Ayre AX-7e integrated amplifier and a pair of Gold Note PA-10 power amplifiers, but all three will be going soon. And for CD replay there’s a Pro-ject CD Box DS2T – a transport that needs an external DAC to act as a complete CD player.
Finally there are several sets of headphones; Grado SR80X, Sennheiser Drop 6XX (a badged 650), Audioquest Nighthawk Carbons, Meze 99 Classics, and Koss Porta Pros. With a lovely Schiit Jotunheim headphone amp to play them through.
Software / music
Music software is often dictated by the equipment being reviewed. WiiM’s streamers use the Linkplay app from its parent company for example. Where not, I use Roon if possible as it’s head and shoulders above anything else. It’s also expensive and complicated, so unfortunately not that relevant to the HiFi Starter.
Audirvana plays from my laptop and provides excellent sound quality. When using a smartphone as a source I use USB Audio Player Pro (UAPP), the best £10 you’ll spend on audio. Or I can fire up the native Tidal, Qobuz and Spotify apps from smartphone, tablet or laptop – I subscribe to all three.
When it comes to the music, streaming services account for 2,000 of the albums in my library. In addition, 4,000 ripped CDs sit on an attached hard drive, with 600 more waiting to be ripped. And the vinyl collection stretches to around 1,000 LPs.
Finally records get cleaned by a Vevor Ultrasonic cleaner and dried by a Pro-ject VCS-E. A very clunky process, but a Degritter or similar costs five times as much (even if I do crave one.)
And that’s about it. Much of the above is common (audio) sense. And you may feel some of it isn’t for you. If so maybe try two of the suggestions that may surprise you.
Firstly the Isoacoustics products. When Neil Truckell of Acoustic Energy came to pick up the AE1 Actives I’d just reviewed I demonstrated the ISO-Puck Minis to him. It took all of a minute (literally) for him to be converted, the improvement far greater than he anticipated. I’m confident you’ll find the same benefits (I have no vested interest).
External power supplies are also worth trying. The improvement won’t be as significant, but you will relish the extra refinement they provide.
With which I’ll sign off; that REL TZero III subwoofer review isn’t going to write itself. Hopefully I’ve given you a few pointers for your own system. And when things change I’ll update the article as promised to keep it current. Happy listening.