Audiophile 101, Part 1: Your First Audio System
UPDATED: February 15, 2022
Most new audiophiles look to the Internet for advice about how to build their first system. Unfortunately, they are quickly overwhelmed by the, oftentimes, conflicting opinions and pieces of advice offered by audiophiles. This series of articles offers yet another perspective on how to create a good sound reproduction system. It differs from most others in that it combines elements from the world of Pro Audio with consumer grade components. Our proposed system focuses on technical accuracy instead of subjective perceptions. We aim to provide the beginning audiophile with studio quality sound at an affordable price.
Before proceeding it’s important to understand the reasoning behind this particular system configuration. Most modern music is recorded, mixed, and mastered at a studio designed specifically for this purpose. Other types of recordings include orchestral and live performances. While these are recorded outside of the studio, they are most always remixed, equalized, and mastered at a studio. It then follows that providing the audiophile with the same quality of sound available in the studio will provide excellent results.
There is another perspective that needs to be examined. Many audiophiles, including the famous J. Gordon Holt of Stereophile magazine, argue that the aim of an audiophile system is the life-like reproduction of an original sound. A good example of this would be a piano playing and being recorded in the same room as the reproduction system. If the system were good enough, then the playback through the reproduction system would be indistinguishable from the real piano. While this is indeed an admirable goal, it is unrealistic for many reasons, beginning with the acoustic differences in rooms. A recording made in a concert hall, and then reproduced in an average living room, can never (with existing technologies) be indistinguishable from the original. Perhaps the best means available today for reproducing various acoustic environments lies with DSP systems such as Dirac or the J River Media Center Convolver. This, however, is beyond the scope of the present article.
Holt’s definition of a good sound reproduction system has led many audiophiles on a never-ending quest for the unobtainable. It has also led to the development of many of the most unique and bizarre speaker systems ever made available to consumers. According to Glen Ballou, editor of the Handbook for Sound Engineers: “Since many of the buyers consider loudspeakers the product of a magical art, sometimes hilarious advertising schemes are used to make the products seem desirable. Consumer high-fidelity loudspeakers tend to be lower in power-handling capacity and lower in sensitivity than pro loudspeakers….”
We would argue that the best possible sound reproduction system for home use should, as accurately as possible, reproduce what the engineer heard in the studio during mastering. The process through which every recording arrived in its consumable form should also be taken into consideration. It has undergone mixing, equalization, compression, and perhaps many dozens of other processes before you can purchase it for playback through your system. The recording was mastered in a way where it would sound good on a home stereo, car radio, and portable devices. It was not mastered specifically for audiophile quality playback. Thus, even the best recordings are the result of compromises.
- Speakers: JBL 4410 (not the 4410A) Monitors (available used on eBay, Audiogon, etc.)
- RCA Interconnects: Blue Jeans Cable LC-1 Low Capacitance Audio Cable
- Speaker Cables: Belden 10-gauge 5T00UP (also available from Blue Jeans Cable)
- Integrated Amplifier/DAC: Emotiva BasX TA1
- Panasonic DVD-RP91 CD/DVD player (available used on eBay, Audiogon, etc.)
The CD player can be replaced with a PC running J River Media Center software and connected to the Emotiva BasX TA1 via USB.
These components have been carefully chosen, not only for their accuracy, but for flexibility. Your first system will not only create beautiful music, it will act as a learning tool for everything to come. The components were also chosen for value. They can either be re-used in another setup, or sold for what you paid for them. When properly setup many will discover that this system is all they will ever need.
What if you already have your own equipment? Don’t worry, everything you will learn here works no matter which components are used. We provided a components list only to give you an idea of what is needed.
You will need speaker stands too, but not yet. Your first job will be to setup and test the system. This will be covered in Pt. 2.
Music for Testing
You will need some good recordings to evaluate your system. We recommend that you select some tracks from our Reference Recording List.
The Audio Expert: Everything You Need to Know About Audio, 2nd Edition by Ethan Winer.