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Alpha Audio Academy – Episode 2 – Piecing together a system

A common question on Alpha Audio is, “Where should I start when putting together a new system?” And in slightly different form, “Which component has the most influence on the reproduction”.

Now these questions are similar in a way – both actually ask where to start and both are asked in similar contexts – yet they have different answers.

Indeed, where to start depends on other things. And that doesn’t always result in replacing the component with the most influence: that is, in fact, either you yourself or the acoustics of your space. Depending on your perspective.

Now we’ve already given a bit of an answer. The component with the most influence is primarily you. Your ears.

Everyone hears differently. One person hears better, another is sensitive to time behavior. And yet another is hypersensitive to bass. In short: you yourself are the biggest factor.

Then there are the acoustics. Your listening room – the space where your hi-fi system is located – also has a sound. The size and materials of the room magnify certain frequencies and extinguish others. It also depends on where the system is placed and where you sit.

We’re going to make another episode about acoustics – or there already is.

The hierarchy

Outside yourself and the acoustics are of course the actual devices that we can purchase. The order of influence we do have an opinion about:

  • Speaker
  • Amplifier (pre / power)
  • Source
  • Power handling
  • Wiring
    • Network cabling
    • Analog interlinks
    • Digital Interconnects
  • Other accessories
    • Furniture
    • Pucks
    • Etc..

The idea behind this is that the speaker and amplifier and room and speaker are in fact one whole. These must play well together, otherwise you sacrifice playback quality. And then you can have a great source, but well: it all goes to waste.

We will try to explain how the speaker and amplifier work together. The amplifier supplies power to the loudspeaker. The speaker then converts – with the help of a vibrating object – that energy into pressure differences in space. Those pressure differences hit the eardrum. And that results in music. But to accurately produce those pressure differences, the speaker and amplifier must work together well.

Two factors play a major role in this. The speaker also gives back energy (by oscillating, among other things). And a loudspeaker has a certain – often not constant – impedance which the amplifier has to be able to deal with. This is partly due to the type of design – closed, bipolar, bass reflex – and the filter.

Then to the room and the speaker.

The speaker converts an electrical signal into pressure differences. These pressure differences interact with the room. In short, the speaker and room work together; they are, in a sense, a single unit. To give an extreme example, it doesn’t make much sense to put a two-meter-high floorstander in a 10 m2 room. The bass won’t fit in the room – the wavelength is too long – and as soon as the volume is turned up even a little, overpressure occurs. There is just too much energy.

The other way around doesn’t work either: a very compact monitor speaker in a 100m2 room doesn’t work either: no low pressure is built and under no circumstances can the speaker fill the room with music; there is too little energy. Then timbre is also a matter to consider. If the room has a very fresh sound, then it is not very wise to place a fresh-sounding speaker: then that element will be reinforced.

The rest – Matching

Okay than: amplifier, speaker and room are in fact one whole. But that trio doesn’t do much without a source. That source – which can be anything from a cassette deck to bluetooth or vinyl, for example – should feel at home in the whole.

Ideally, a source doesn’t add anything. But of course that is virtually impossible: every component has an influence. A manufacturer tries – within financial limits – to get a component as good as possible. Or in other words: it tries to process the music with as little loss as possible.

Rounding out

We have now had the main elements: speakers, amplifier, source. In between these, there are cables to be added. The rule of thumb is to set aside 10% of the budget for cabling. Which cables fit and what you like is a matter of taste and budget. In the next episode: many forgotten tweaks

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