Are you dreaming of a hi-fi separates system? You wouldn’t be the only one – fragmenting hi-fi into its basic components is the dream of many-an-audiophile. But it can be a complicated process, especially when you consider just how many pieces of the puzzle there are. Even the most hardened hi-fi aficionado will stumble at a few hurdles in their bid to assemble their perfect hi-fi. The analogue enthusiasts might draw a blank when it comes to network streamers and DACs and the digitally-minded might struggle when faced with the broad array of valve amp options.
And where the heck do you put the tuner?!
We like to make things as simple as possible in a bid to get as many folk interested in hi-fi as possible, so here is our no frills guide to what makes up a separates system, and what each unit actually does.
Right, let’s start from the top!
An amplifier sits between the source (i.e. the source of the music: the CD player, the steamer etc.) and the speakers. It converts the signal passed from the source and translates it, ready to be driven by the speakers. It also controls the likes of volume, tone and other such things, all customisable by the user.
When it comes to amplification, you have two major choices: valve or transistor? And then: to separate or not to separate?
It’s important to remember, with both styles, is that you will only ever need:
An integrated amplifier
A pre amplifier and power amplifier
You can add an additional power amp to most integrated amps for a little extra oomph, but always remember: you can’t have the power without the pre. Even if that pre happens to be integrated!
Isolating the components of amplification, as opposed to integrating them, has several benefits, the most prominent of which involves the removal of background noise. Isolating the amplifiers from each other – and most importantly their noisy power supplies – is essential to cutting down on background noise, which will have a detrimental effect on sound quality.
If you’re not quite convinced that valves are the way to go, then it’s worth looking into the extremely popular and highly efficient transistor method. These are usually single untis which will drive both speakers as one. The power amp will work in the same way as its valve equivalent, taking the signal provided by the pre-amp and driving it to the speakers.
We shan’t go into the intricate and complex nature of the ‘valve’ here as we already have a perfectly good blog here to do that for us! So let’s keep it simple. A valve is a type of amplification, separate from the more common ‘transistor’ style. The Mono Block valve amp is the equivalent one half of a power amp. It will only function as a pair, and is normally sold as so. Each mono block will drive a each speaker – which means this is perfect for a two channel stereo sound. There are stereo valve power amplifiers available, but if you want to make the most out of those lovely lush valves (and keeping that system separate), it’s always worth going mono.
The pre amp is integral to the hi-fi system. It takes the signal from the source and passes it on to the power amp which in turn drives it to the speakers. It is via the pre-amp that you are able to directly influence the sound and volume of the music. It works as the a control ‘hub’ for your system, where you can tweak the sound until it is perfect for your discerning ears.
The valve pre amp works in exactly the same way as the transistor-style pre, but with the added benefit of warm, lush valves. Join a valve pre with a pair of mono blocks and you will be on your way to audiophile heaven!
While there are some distinct benefits to separating your pre and power amps, sometimes space or budget don’t allow for that luxury. When that’s the case, it’s time to go integrated. And integrated amplifier is essentially a combined pre and power amp. It functions – as the pre and power do – as the go-between for the source and the speakers – driving the signal to the speakers and allowing for volume (etc.) to be controlled. Thanks to the pre-amp worked into the design, it will offer numerous input and output options. Some are even able to drive more than a two channel stereo system!
If you want that distinct valve sound, but don’t quite feel ready for the commitment of separation, there are also integrated valve amp options. Much like their transistor sisters, the valve integrateds combine a pre amp with a stereo power amp and squeeze it into one efficient unit. Fantastic value for money, and with the option of adding on additional mono blocks for that crucial extra power.
Many integrated amps will include a headphone socket, but if getting the best possible sound is key to the enjoyment of your headphones, then it’s worth investing in a dedicated headphone amplifier, as the ones built into integrateds are often last minute additions that don’t quite fulfil the needs of the head-fi fanatic. One of these will sit between the source and the headphones – much like any other amp – and provide tailor-designed amplification designed specifically for headphone use.
A phono stage is essentially a pre-amplifier for a turntable (or record player). Anyone that has ever tried to run a turntable through a regular amp will tell you that it simply doesn’t work. This is due to the output level being much lower than that of a CD player, cassette or streamer, or anything else ‘line level’. Some turntables will have their phono stages built in, but a separate phono stage is always the ideal. The phono stage will sit between the turntable and the amplifiier, bringing up the output signal to line level, preparing it for amplification.
From the humble tuner to the extravagant streamer, which source you chose defines your hi-fi experience. But, of course, you can chose to use all of them if that is your wish! The source is, as the names suggests, the unit that receives the music. Be that in the format of a CD, a record, a signal or a digital file. It also provides a platform for track selection and other such functions.
Does a turntable need an introduction? Probably not, but we’ll give it one anyway! This is the ultimate form of analogue sound reproduction. The turntable plays vinyl records by running a cartridge (which contains the stylus i.e. the ‘needle’) over the unique grooves in the vinyl, creating a signal which is then transmitted through the tonearm and away to the phono stage – which it requires for clear signal reproduction. As sources go, you won’t get much more iconic than a good old fashioned turntable, and a hearty collection of records.
Radio isn’t dead – in fact, it’s bigger, better and more popular than ever! And yes, there is a place for it in the world of hi-fi too. A good radio tuner will provide excellent sound reception and top sound quality, sitting between your amplifiers and speakers nicely. Some will also feature DAB and DAB+ on top of the usual FM/AM, which means a whole world of possibility is opened up. And you’d be surprised at how good a hi-fi separate can make the radio-realm sound.
It doesn’t matter how popular the other sources become, the CD player is still the King of the Hi-fi Jungle, owed to its convenience, its sturdiness and the all encompassing popularity of the CD format. A CD player doesn’t require any extras to work, it will sit between you amplifier(s) and speakers quite happily, but the output is a digital one, which means it will need the addition of a DAC in order to sound its absolute best.
Streamers come in many shapes and sizes, with an abundance of features. It’s a frequent feature in many high-end all-in-one systems, but there are also plenty of streaming separates (also known as ‘hi-fi streamers’, ‘digital streamers’ and ‘network players’) available which break the art of streaming down to its basic form. The streamer will sit between your ampflier(s) and speakers, and will connect to the internet via either an ethernet cable, or wirelessly so it can stream from a streaming service such as Tidal or Spotify, all the while acting as a player for the files stored on your PC, NAS Drive/Server or mobile device. The output is a digital one, so it’s always recommended a separate DAC is used to better the sound pre-amplification.
When your output is a digital one, i.e it’s coming from a CD or some sort of computer, the use of an effective DAC will make a big impact on the quality of the sound. DAC stands for Digital to Analogue Converter, which means it takes a digital signal and converts it to analogue, improving the sound quality and adding a level of depth and richness that is usually missing from digital music. A DAC is the final piece of your hi-fi separates puzzle, sitting between the source and the amp, it will take something that sounds good and make it sound great.
Now all you need are some speakers worthy of driving what that system provides! And compared to the rest, that’s the easy part.