Budget Audiophile: Save Money and Improve Your Sound
If you have dipped your toe into the world of HiFi audio, you might have realized that achieving superior sound comes at a price. While having a high-end setup is optimal for achieving the best sound, many people often overlook the fact that these high-end setups have thought and technicalities that go beyond the characteristics of the equipment itself. A number of you have better audio systems in your home than you think, and without spending much money, and with a bit of planning, you can improve the quality of your sound drastically.
If you’re thinking of starting your journey to an audio nirvana, our recommendations will help you improve your setup along the way. If you haven’t already checked out our in-depth buyer’s guides, they serve as a valuable resource to help you get the most out of your vinyl experience.
The placement of audio equipment in your home is one of the most important elements in achieving better sound. Poorly placed expensive equipment can be out-performed by lower cost systems that have been positioned optimally for the room. Every room is different. Room size, ceiling height, acoustics, and room symmetry are all factors to take into account that can impact your system's sound. There is not a universally ideal room for all speakers, but typically, a larger room is better. For floor speakers, the best room is enclosed by four walls, symmetrical, and around 17’ (width) x 23’ (length) x 10’ (ceiling height) in order to minimize sound reflection and low-frequency pressure. However, not many of us have rooms with those exact dimensions, and great sound can come from a variety of rooms.
We’ll start with the placement of your speaker. To get the full performance out of your speakers, they must be placed correctly. The size of your room and speaker type can vary depending on the distance you place the speakers apart. The best sound quality is achieved when you and your two front speakers form an equilateral triangle; this means that you are positioned between the two speakers, and each speaker has the same distance between them as you do to each one. The tip of the triangle forms a “sweet spot,” which is the place where you hear the highest range of sounds. Ultimately, that’s where you want your chair to be to maximize your listening experience. With correct placement, the phenomenon of “stereo imaging” will occur. Stereo imaging is accurately recreating the position and size of each instrument and voice inside of a recording...you should be able to close your eyes and point to every instrument in the room.
Next, get your speakers away from the wall. One of the most common problems people have with their setup is that their speakers are either in corners or too close to the wall, which lowers their sound quality. Placement too close to a wall makes the sound bottom heavy, and creates a problem called “room gain”. An appropriate distance from the wall is one-third of your room’s length, so if your room is 12 feet long, place your speakers 4 feet from the wall. This isn’t always convenient, so placement at one-fifth of the room length will work well also.
As for the height of your speakers, the first thing you will want to look at is the size and height dimensions of your speakers. Most speakers are designed for the tweeter to be at ear level. At ear level, you hear the most trebles, but some speakers, such as bookshelf speakers, require a stand to be placed at the best height and location in the room. Typically, the best height for your speaker is to be level with your ear while sitting in your listening chair.
A good tip to help with stereo imaging the angle of your speakers towards the "sweet spot". If your speakers are rotated towards the sweet spot (toe-in) you'll hear a more defined soundstage, meaning the location of the voice and instruments will be easier to point out but can also create a lack of depth. The other option is "toe-out," when there is no angle on the speakers. The benefit of toe-out is that you get a wider soundstage and depth, but it can sometimes reduce overall stereo imaging...this is mostly a matter of preference.
Toe-Out Speaker Placement.
Toe-in Speaker Placement.
Your system is only as good as the weakest link, and a common mistake people make is placing their turntable in a spot where it receives unwanted vibrations. This subsequently feeds poor sound to the entirety of the system.
Vibration to your turntable can come from various sources, but the most common are:
1) Acoustic Resonance
Resonance can travel to your turntable from the sound alone. This causes a loud hum sound that progressively gets louder, and is referred to as “turntable feedback”. This can be reduced by isolating your turntable and distancing it away from your speakers. Also, taking the dust cover off can sometimes make a tremendous difference.
2) Structural Vibrations.
This is caused by placing your turntable on the same surface as your speakers, or furniture that carries vibrations easily. Your best bet for selecting furniture for your turntable is to make sure it’s decently heavy and has smaller legs without sacrificing structure (furniture grade MDF is a common and effective material).
3) Turntable mechanics.
If you have a high-end turntable, something as simple as adding a platter mat or getting a heavier platter can fix your problem, but if you have a low-quality turntable then there’s not much you can really do to improve further. Low-end turntables have vibration in the platter bearings, the motor, the poor tonearm, and don’t have enough weight to be stable. We recommend investing in a turntable that can grow as your system does.
Another part of getting better sound is upkeep and on your turntable and records. Cleaning your stylus and records is a vital part of being a good audiophile. Dust on a record is mud on the speakers. We have detailed articles on cleaning your record and stylus!
If proper maintenance and upkeep hasn't been done on your stylus or you haven’t replaced it in a while, then there’s a good chance it should be replaced. The stylus’ job is to pick up the detail in every modulation on the record, moving up and down and left to right. The stylus should have a fine point, giving it the ability to detect as many details in the groove as possible. If your stylus has been dulled from wear, the stylus will ride the outer edges, produce less sound and damage your record. If your cartridge is worn, you wouldn’t believe the sound difference achieved from a cartridge upgrade.
New stylus vs worn stylus in a record groove.
Buying the Right Vinyl
If you don’t want to spend the money on a first press album or spend the time typing in numbers, a safe bet is finding a record that’s either 180 grams or 200 grams. While these usually do sound better than most reissues, beware of albums that don’t use a master recording. There is some controversy behind albums that have been pressed using a digital format, and while most inherently sound better than a standard CD (vinyl:96kHz and 24 or 32-bit vs CD:44kHz and 16-bit) much of the quality is ripped away.
Vinyl records vary so much that it’s impossible to set a universal standard, but the most important thing to keep in mind when buying used records is to check the condition of the vinyl. A record that is scratched is a record that will pop, skip, or crack and wasn’t properly taken care of. The last thing you want is your great sounding system playing a low-quality track.
Part of being an audiophile is experimenting, testing, and evolving your system; analyzing each component to recreate sound that pleases your ear. Audio Advice knows every ear, preference, and budget is different. Whether you’ve been working on your setup for years or you’re planning to build a system, we want to help every step along the way.