Audio System Simplified

Though of setting up a sound system? Here, you will find basic ideas and setup of Hi-Fi (High-fidelity) Stereo (2 speakers) system.

Audio system started as we want to hear something, maybe music, speech, sound of any kind. But we are not at the place and time when it happened. So, we wanted to record it and play it in another place or at whatever time and place that we choose to hear. So, it got started, recording of sound and playback of recorded sound.

Both plays an important part, and can get very complicated at times. We try to record true to source sound and we also try to playback true to source sound. Technology helps and complicate things too.

Recording of sound are mostly done by recording studio’s technicians and engineers. However, as technology advances, we can now produce reasonably good recordings without being an expert. We can store all it without expensive equipment.

However, very high quality recordings that can reproduce very close to source ‘live’ sound can only be done by an expert. There are still a bunch of stuffs and processes to be carried out before storing the recorded sound. However, the expert sound engineer can manipulate the sound into whatever they intended it to be. So, the recordings that we hear, can be a true to source ‘live’ sound or a ‘processed’ sound that the recording engineers wanted the listener to hear.

Most of the time, this is out of listener’s control. However, the listener can too change the way how the playback sounds. This is through a sound processor. A simplified version of what the sound engineer used to change the recorded sound. Both the recording and playback of the sound can be changed in this way.

Each of us hear differently, the sensitivity of our ears and brain are unique to each one of us. There is no one sound system that can pleased everyone who hears it. It is alright that someone loves the sound produced from one system while the other just dislike it. Hear what is like for each person. Not what is like for the other person.   

This article talks about the system that playback recorded sound. It is not about how the sound is recorded, but it is about the system that sound is reproduced to the listener. Hopefully, you can find it useful when you want to set up a sound system. It is all basic stuffs. The internet is full of expert, in-depth discussion that you can search for. Many can provide detailed information. It is beyond the knowledge and usefulness of this article.

The basics of sound system are input, process and output.

Input are the recordings, the storage media, example, tape, vinyl, disc, digital storage (USB, hard disk, optical disk etc.)

Process are the equipment that process the recordings. It transform the recording to make it suitable for use by the output equipment. Example, it can change the volume, select different sources from the input or change the ‘sound’ of the sound from input to the output, etc.

Output are the results that the listener want. Most probably are speakers or headphones. The equipment that produce the sound that we hear.

In the diagrams,
Media player are input source and equipment. Example, radio receiver, CD player, vinyl record player, etc.
Amplifier is the process equipment. It receive the small signal that comes out from the media player. Enlarge the signal so that the speakers can produce sound that we can hear. Also, listener can adjust to their liking how loud they what the sound to be.
Speakers are output equipment. Items that transform the signal from the amplifier to sound that we hear.

Let’s start with the simplest setup. An all-in-one sound system with one speaker. This gets the job done, reproduction of recorded sound to the listener.  This is a mono (one speaker) sound system. Usually, when we bought it, it comes with everything, including the power cable. If it is portable, we just need batteries to power it up without plugging into the wall.

Panasonic RF-2400 (picture from www.panasonic.com,2020)

When we look for ‘live’ sound, we look for a 3 dimension of sound. With only 1 speaker, the listener cannot distinguish whether the sound comes from left or right. Most of us have 2 ears that can hear, we can hear sounds from different direction. Therefore, in comes 2 speakers. Main purpose is for our 2 ears. With 2 speakers, the listener can hear sound that are close to 3 dimension. The listener is able to distinguish sound that are from left or right, far or near from the listener. This is a stereo sound system. This serves most of the listener’s need for close to live sound. Usually, when we bought it, it comes with everything, including the power cable. If it is portable, we just need batteries to power it up without plugging into the wall.

Sony ZS-RS60BT (picture from www.sony.com, 2020)
Klipsch The One II (picture from www.klipsch.com, 2020)

However, it was not too useful to put 2 speakers so close to each other. If we were seated far away from the speakers, it will sound like a mono system. By moving the speakers away from each other, the sound will improve, making it sound more ‘live’ or real.

Onkyo CS-265B (picture form www.onkyousa.com, 2020)

It is no longer an all-in-one sound system. Components get separated. Player-amplifier gets separated from the speakers, connected by a pair of speaker cables. Listener can start experimenting the sound system for different ‘sound’ too. Listener can change the cables or speakers or player-amplifier. This layout is the same for the portable music device.

Cayin N3+EN700PRO (picture from en.cayin.cn, 2020)

With the play-amplifier as one unit. Listener is confined to the limitation of what the player can play. Example, if it is a CD player-amplifier, then it can only play CD. Listener may want to play some recorder sound in a USB drive, or any other format. The CD player-amplifier may not be able to do so. Alternatively, listener has to choose a unit that can play the different formats.

The listener need to decide what audio formats are needed and get one that can play all the formats that the listener may have. Alternatively, the get a system that has a separated player and amplifier. So, new or additional player can be connected to the amplifier, whenever is needed.

This way, another component is separated from the sound system. Additional cables, called interconnect cable, are needed to connect the player to the amplifier. Interconnect cable comes with a pair, for left and right signal, is used to connect different equipment together.

Wireless connection can be achieved using WiFi or bluetooth. Which type of bluetooth signal provides better audio connection can be found here.

Denon PMA-800NE (picture from usa.denon.com, 2020)

Compared to an all-in-one system, the sound of it will generally improve. Cost and space required will also increase. Listener will has more freedom to change each component for different sound. Cost control becomes important, as each component’s costs will add up.

Listener can choose literally every single component to make up of the whole system. Each one of it can be bought separately.

Triangle speaker BOREA BR03 (picture from www.trianglehifi.com, 2020)

Digital technology improves and complicate audio reproduction. Turning audio analogue sound to digital bits means that the bits can be stored and manipulated in many ways. This brings to the many digital formats available for audio signal. The more popular digital audio formats can be found here.

It is important to know or decide which digital format we use. The sound system must be able to playback the format.

Budgeting a complete system

These are the essential component that are required to setup a complete system.

  1. Power distributor
  2. Power cables
  3. Amplifier
    (mono, stereo, pre-amplifier, phono pre-amplifier, power amplifier, integrated amplifier etc.) Make sure that the amplifier is capable to connect as many player as you intended to.
  4. Interconnection cables
    1 pair for each interconnection between components (Left + Right)
  5. Media player
    (CD/DVD/Blu-Ray player, digital media player, digital transport + DAC, turntable etc.)
  6. Speakers
    (Front left, front right, sub-woofer, etc) Depending on the setup.
  7. Speaker cables
    Depending on the number of speakers, each speakers need a pair of cable (+ & -).
  8. Equipment stands
    A sturdy stand that does not vibrate and allow air ventilation. Equipment can get hot.
  9. Price of each component can differ. Careful budgeting and allocation of cost for each component is important.

Placement of speakers are important, if you want to enjoy the 3 dimensional sound in front of you. These websites offer great advice on the placement of the speakers.

Some great video from YouTube.

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