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Tyre-kicker's guide

Music systems

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Music systems

recommended stereo music systems

A hi-fi system is...?

In the world of audio, the phrase 'hi-fi system' invariably means a 'separates' stereo system, meaning that the hi-fi set-up comprises a number of individual components. So, in its simplest form, a pair of stereo loudspeakers, a stereo amplifier, and a source. 

Separates are often better than other stuff

A separate system doesn't always sound better against a similarly priced all-in-one outfit.

But it very often does. Mixing and matching gear allows you to create a sound that is just right for your tastes. And you're not stuck to the 'one size fits all' approach of many all-in-one offerings. You can also select the kit that (1) perfectly fits your décor and space and (2) offers upgradeability. And with a separates system, you can upgrade bit by bit. Go for an all-in-one, and in the main, you're stuck with it until you can afford a complete upgrade.

Let's start at the very beginning

A source is the component right at the beginning of the system chain. It is the 'thing' that provides the music. In the 1970s, sources tended to be a cassette player, a turntable, or a tuner (radio). The 1980s saw the CD player join the fray. The noughties welcomed MP3 players and iPods. These days, sources also include computers, laptops, tablets, music streamers, and – of course – smartphones. 

The heart, the amplifier

The source brings the music, and the amplifier provides the muscle. A stereo amplifier takes the signal from your source and boosts its level so you can hear it through your speakers. Read about the various types of amplifiers on offer and what we recommend

System building

Happily, manufacturers don't expect us to actually build the kit. That would likely go one of two ways. But done correctly, system building is hugely satisfying.

The system-building process is where you make a shortlist of likely components – using our handy lists – and then get your ears in front of the candidates. Find a local dealer who stocks as many as possible of your potential models.

Book an appointment, make sure that you'll have access to familiar music, and take your time listening. And don't forget to also listen to the dealer – they can add invaluable hands-on experience.

And book a slot with one of our reviewers for some tailor-made advice before you set out on your building journey – we can save you a lot of time and legwork

System matching 

Today's system matching is more about sound than spec. For example, most amplifiers will drive (power) most speakers these days. Back in the day, this was more of an issue. And check that your components can 'talk' to each other, be that by cable or wireless. Your components shouldn't compensate for each other's weaknesses – say, buying a warm-sounding amp to try to ease bright-sounding speakers – but should be blended to create the overall sound you love. You are building your system, nobody else's, so if you love heaps of bass, go for it and choose a bass-heavy system. Just don't move in next to us…

Budget? Split the bill

There are many opinions on dividing your budget between separate components. If in doubt, split the bill. So, divide your budget in three if you are buying three components. But don't forget to cost accessories, such as cables and speaker stands – in this case, find some extra budget or subtract the cost of accessories from your total and then divide the remainder by three. 

Music streamer

Lots of us source our music from music streaming services. Which is fine and dandy. But a music streamer can better your phone's audio performance. A dedicated music streamer offers the potential of far better sound, including the slick delivery of hi-resolution music files from the likes of TIDAL and Qobuz. A standalone streamer also means that your phone is freed-up from music duties. For the most reliable performance, consider connecting your streamer to your router, easing the potential of wi-fi misfires. 

Cable management

If you think a more expensive cable sounds better than a cheaper one, that's fine. But don't be pressured into spending extra budget on fancy wires. Make sure that you buy the right cables, terminated correctly in the case of speaker cables, and measure your requirements before your splurge. 

Your space, your design

One beauty of a separates system is the ability to choose gear that perfectly fits your space. Plan and even sketch out where you think the kit may go. Will the speakers be close to the rear wall? Where can you sit the amplifier and source? How far away is the Mains? Gather as much of this information, and it'll help quickly create a shortlist. And mention any quirks – such as speaker location or room environment – to the reviewer when you speak to them or the dealer.

Use us

It's a mysterious world this separates malarky and often a tad intimidating. so use our resources. We can help whittle your choices to a short list through our free helpline