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  • Josh McDonald

Starting The Hi-Fi Life: Speakers

If you haven't experienced a proper stereo speaker setup, you're missing out.

I was fortunate. I've always grown up with a hi-fi. Two big wooden boxes in the corner and a couple of components on a shelf.

Putting one together for yourself is relatively easy.

Source, amplifier and speakers.

Pretty simple.

Let's start at the fun end, speakers. Bookshelves, floor-standers, active, passive, 2 way, 3 way, ported, sealed, open baffle, dynamic, electrostatic, planar magnetic.

All have their strengths and weaknesses. I’m partial to the open baffle (aka dipole) design with its uncoloured sound and fast, tight bass.

There's no hard or fast rules with loudspeakers. You can have huge 1 way sealed floor-standing units or small 3 way ported bookshelf speakers. Any combination of enclosure design, drivers and crossover points can be part of a speaker system.

You'll want something that's going to physically fit in your place, and can be positioned properly to give you an accurate stereo image. Bookshelf speakers are great in this regard. On a desk or dedicated speaker stands, they are incredibly versatile. Their smaller size means that their SPL (sound pressure levels) output will be lower than larger floor-standing units. However, in a smaller room or in a near-field setup their output will be more than sufficient.

Floor-standing speakers usually have more drivers, bigger cones and cabinets, generally resulting in louder SPL and lower bottom end. A beefier amplifier may be needed to take full advantage of those extra drivers and surface area.

The two major cabinet designs are ported and sealed. At the most basic level, one has a hole in it, one doesn't.

Bass reflex (aka ported) has a port that is tuned to a specific frequency to reinforce the low end, giving a 3dB boost at that frequency. This makes them more efficient, utilising the rear of the wave to bump up output. But ported boxes roll off faster (24dB an octave) after the tuning point, hindering low end extension. Port noise is something to listen for in lower tier units, as poorly built ports "chuff" at higher SPL.

A sealed box bass rolls off at 12dB an octave, giving them a smoother low end, some regarding them as more "musical" than a ported box.

A lot of studio monitors and "lifestyle" audio speakers are active units which puts the amplifier inside the speaker cabinet, just connect your source and enjoy. Most speakers you come across at hi-fi stores are passive though, meaning they require an amplifier to drive them. Speaker cable is all you need to connect them together.

Trial and error is (un)fortunately the only you'll figure out what works for you. Go to a hi-fi store, take some music you know, and have a listen. Unlike headphones though, speakers are highly dependant on the room they're in. Something that sounds great on the showroom floor will probably sound vastly different when you get it home.

You're going to need an amplifier to power your new loudspeakers, and making sure there is synergy between them is important for maximising your results, and something I'll talk about in Part 2 of this hi-fi journey.