Audio Technology | How To's | Tips

A Non-Technical Guide to Buying Audio Equipment (Discussing What Really Matters)

By Jack Sharkey, May 14, 2019.

Music has become like Social Media: We've got a lot of friends, but not a lot of close relationships. Technology has made it possible to access more music than ever before, but it has also separated us from our enjoyment of the art of music. Along the way, we've lost our relationship with music.

Technology has made a lot of things possible, but it’s also put up a barrier to simple enjoyment. Like a good book or painting, a song is best enjoyed when we have a relationship with it. Technology shouldn't be anything more than a means to an end: If you want music in every room of the house and 6,000 songs on your computer, excellent. If you'd rather enjoy your music 20 minutes at a time before getting up to turn the LP over, equally excellent. While there is good and better, there is no right or wrong.

With all of this in mind, here are a few questions you should ask yourself before you start assembling your music system.  

When it comes to sound, is "okay" good enough?

That depends on where you are in your relationship with music. When you’re in your car or casually listening, 'okay' works, but when you want to listen to art, then 'okay' isn't worthy of your time. I don't need 'awesome' all the time, but I don't turn it down when I have access to it.

Do I listen to music for entertainment or just to keep all of that nasty noise in my head at bay?

If you're a casual listener, you may be satisfied with a system that covers your basic needs (mobility, ease of use, access). But fair warning: Most of us start out as casual listeners and as our experience with music grows we become interested in improving our listening experience. The bottom line is, music appreciation is a journey best enjoyed outside of elevators and free of earbuds and computer speakers.

There is no right or wrong way, but there are better ways to listen to music. If your music is important to you, then the way you listen to it should be too. 

Is it possible to have a great sounding system without completely re-modeling my house and spending more money than I have? 

You should spend exactly what you can afford and nothing less. Time spent with music is worth it. When it comes to music, too often we let the perfect be the enemy of the good – if we can't have perfect then we don't concern ourselves with having the best we can get. If you are getting an emotional rush from the music you are listening to, then you can’t argue that your system is working just fine, but here’s the rub: The higher the quality, the greater the emotional rush. Truly, ‘okay’ is only okay until you know better.

I only listen to one kind of music, and it sounds okay to me in my car or on my computer.

What you think sounds good because it's what you're used to will become embarrassingly weak sounding when you listen on a higher quality system. Once you treat your ears to great sound, they won't ever be satisfied with 'okay' again. 

How can I tell the difference between components (and speakers)?

Listen to music you are familiar with in as close an environment as possible to the one you'll be using your new components in. You'll be surprised at how many subtle differences you'll pick up once you start listening. Most important: Listen to what your ears tell you and nothing – or no one – else. Your ears aren't going to change when you get home, so if they don't like the way something sounds in the showroom – even if your salesman is making a face at you like you are the King of Dummies – you're not going to like the way it sounds when you get home.


How much should I spend on each component?

This is where a qualified and experience audio dealer you trust is your best ally. If you spend $1000 on a receiver and $200 on a pair of speakers, no matter how you slice it, you just bought yourself a $200 stereo system for $1200. Better to take that $1200 and split it wisely. Because of the finish and material involved, quality speakers will generally cost more than a quality amp they are well-matched to. 

What is the most important component in a system?

All of them. An audio system is like a chain and will only be as good as the weakest link. Some people will tell you that great speakers with a crappy amp will sound worse than crappy speakers with a great amp, but you shouldn't listen to those people. Crappy speakers with a great amp will sound...crappy, and vice-versa. Match your components as best as you can.

But I only have so much money at one time and I can't buy it all at once. How do I start?

With an eye to eventually building a complete system, start with the source (streaming device or software, CD player, turntable, etc.), then move to the preamp/amp or receiver (contains both), then on to the speakers. Good speakers can be harmed more by a bad amp than a good amp can be harmed by bad speakers. Speakers can be expensive; it’s okay to start small (and within your budget) and upgrade as your ears require better sound. It’s a life-long journey – enjoy the ride!

Is a surround system necessary?

If you want to listen to movies and television programs in all their full-blown audio glory, the answer is yes,' however, two speakers (2.0) or two speakers and a subwoofer (2.1) can provide an enjoyable experience as well. A simply two-channel setup connected to your television, like our LSX Music System, can make your television viewing experience exponentially better. On the other hand, a quality 5.1 receiver (two fronts, a center and two rear speakers – the 'five' and one subwoofer – the 'one') can be had at a very agreeable price.

Is a subwoofer necessary?

If you like extended and prominent bass, then probably yes. Movies are better with a sub because the soundtracks are mixed with subwoofers in mind, but music (even hip-hop and electronica) can be very enjoyable with a good pair of speakers and a quality amp. It's really a matter of taste, but the sub is probably the last link in the chain.

Do cables make a difference?

Yes. Sometimes. Maybe. The cheap cables that come with your components will work but there is often an audible difference with higher quality cables. I use very pedestrian cables (not the cheap ones though) in my main system, and **gasp** **horrors** regular old 12AWG (gauge) pure copper stranded cables for my short and equal length speaker runs and I'm quite happy with how the system sounds. (An Audio Cable Deep Dive - KEF Blog November 29, 2018)

Many times, improper subwoofer placement is the biggest challenge you’ll face when building your audio system. We must often compromise between where a subwoofer sounds best and where it looks best. Aesthetics often take priority over acoustics which can frustrate a new subwoofer owner when the placement of the subwoofer doesn’t let the subwoofer operate at its best. Low notes are affected by the walls, corners, and furnishings in a room in ways that can seriously diminish sound quality. KEF subwoofers use an ingenious equaliser that compensates for room placement issues by adjusting the low frequency output based on placement near a wall, in a corner, or even in a cabinet. KEF subwoofers can even adjust for apartment living, allowing you to have great bass response while still being a good neighbour! Because of these innovative features, the compromise between acoustics and aesthetics is no longer an issue.

So the whole point is, huge technological leaps over the past ten years or so have made it increasingly difficult for the music fan who is not an avid technologist to keep up: With multiple playback formats and a plethora of dark-art audio gimmicks and cheap imitations readily available it's difficult to confidently make a wise choice when it comes to assembling a music or home theater system. But all is not lost! You can still pick out a good component system and a couple of speakers and go home and just be thrilled by the music you are listening to without first earning a degree in engineering. Or you can get an LS50 Wireless system where our engineers have done all the leg work for you and save yourself a bunch of time and money.

Rediscover your relationship with music – and some idealists might say the universe in general – with quality components that are worthy of your time.

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