How To Get Started in 2-Channel Audio

by Rafe Arnott

Two Channel Tribulations

Of all of the illnesses that besets most audiophiles, upgraditis is probably the most virulent. I’ve seen grown men in a flop sweat trying to decide on a pair of speaker cables.

Upgrading components for an audiophile is part of the hobby, and while it is usually referred to as an affliction by many, I see it as part of our journey to a destination. It’s a path that most travel to reach the promised land of great sound. Because that’s usually the stated goal of all the buying, and selling of gear: to get our systems to the point where our investment is paying sonic dividends. What exactly those dividends are varies for everyone, but it almost always involves a threshold, or bar that must be met, or ideally, exceeded.

In my experience the problem encountered by many on their quest is that they’re unsure of what constitutes great sound. It means so many different things to us all, and usually those that have an idea of what great sound is have spent years learning what to listen for that appeals the most to them, and then figuring out the combination of source (digital, analog), amplification (solid state, tube), and loudspeakers (difficult to drive, high-efficiency) to achieve the sound quality that delivers it.

A digital-source system with a powerful amplifier, and multi-driver transducers that feature complex crossovers is going to sound very different in its presentation than that of a vinyl rig, with a flea-watt tube amp, and 100dB-efficient single-driver speakers. One sound will appeal greatly to one tribe of listeners, and the other sound to another.

Which is right for you?

Obviously that only be answered by the individual, but understanding the differences between those two sounds (just examples of many possibilities), and how to achieve them is where all the upgrading, swapping, buying, and selling comes into play.

How do you figure out which one appeals to you?

You have to hear them, and be able to compare.

How do you do that?

You go to your local bricks & mortar hifi shops, and start demoing gear, and more importantly, you seek out the opinions of what you hope are knowledgable sales staff. You attend audio shows when possible, and listen to the myriad systems set up by manufacturers, and distributors.

Why?

Because most local shops, and presenters at audio shows have taken their years of experience in the hobby to put together systems that feature components that are sympathetic to one another – that work in harmony, or were designed to work together. It is this experience at system-building that many novices to the hobby lack. This generally attributes to them curating a sound system that in all likelihood is not a holistic approach to creating sound, and which leads to the constant equipment-swapping that besets many as they slowly learn what works with what, and the why of what makes it work together.

With that thought in mind, I’ve put together some simple advice to arm yourself with when you decide it’s time to take the plunge and move on from your smartphone, a Sonos, or Beats streamer/amp/speaker set-up, and enter the realm of a true two-channel, high-fidelity sound system.

First off it doesn’t need to cost a lot, nor does it need to be complicated. In fact, I hate complication, and always prefer the simplest set-ups.  For example, start with a laptop and a USB-dongle DAC out. This allows you to stream 16/44 or MQA files from Tidal, which is a significant step-up in sound quality when it comes to computer-based audio. From there add an integrated amplifier, and some speakers.

You’re done.

As I said earlier, talk to your local dealers about which amp, and speakers, and why he/she is recommending them together.

Like to collect CDs? Vinyl?

These are easy additions to the system you already sussed out.

A CD player doesn’t require anything special to connect to your integrated amp, just plug, and play. A record player will require a phono preamplifier.

Many integrated amplifiers have phono preamplifiers built-in, so before you buy one – even if you don’t own a turntable at the moment – source one with the phono preamplifier built-in, and future-proof yourself from having to upgrade. That said, there are a number of budget phono stages to be had for less than $100, so it’s not a terrible imposition should you be bitten by the LP bug down the road.

Used CD players can be found at local dealers in their trade-ins section, or on Craigslist for $50. Ditto for record players. Stick with moving-magnet (MM) cartridges for your turntable to avoid pre-amplfier loading issues that moving coil (MC) cartridges can present to the uninitiated vinylista.

CD players are fantastic in my books, especially with the cost involved for software. Most record shops have huge selections of the silver discs, and on average used ones in perfect shape go for less than $5.Been to a thrift store lately? Tons of CDs for 50 cents, and old players there as well.

Space can be a big issue for the budding two-channel enthusiast. How much or little of it do you have to put a sound system?

Apartment dwellers in the city will most likely need to consider a lower box count for gear, and smaller speakers, while those fortunate enough to have a house can look at larger loudspeakers with a big footprint – and a bigger sound – as well as not having to worry about how many amps, CD players, turntables or laptops they have hooked up.

Remember, book shelf speakers can image beautifully in a smaller space, so while you may not have room in your condo for the vintage Altec horns you lust after, there’s no reason the quality of sound you’re experiencing has to suffer. Bigger doesn’t necessarily mean better, more often than not it just means different.

Hopefully all this will get you started down your path to sonic nirvana with fewer stresses, questions, and mistakes. Discovering the sound you love is not something I, or the most knowledgeable hifi salesperson can equate – that is for you to decide through exposure to different systems, and different playback mediums – but by seeking out, and talking with those who have more experience than yourself, you can certainly hasten your arrival at the audio-playback destination of your choosing.

Happy travels.