By Jack Sharkey, February 5, 2014.

To most of us, music has become like Facebook: We've got a lot of friends, but not a lot of close relationships. Technology has made it possible to easily and cheaply own more music than ever before, but it has also separated us from our enjoyment of the art of music. We have become hoarders, which isn't a bad thing, but along the way, we've lost our relationship with music.


Technology has made a lot of things possible, but it has also put up a barrier to simple enjoyment. Like a good book or painting, a song is best enjoyed when the listener has a relationship with it. Technology shouldn't be anything more than a means to an end: If you need music in every room of the house and 6,000 songs on your computer, excellent. If you'd rather enjoy your music 20 minutes at a time before getting up to turn the LP over, equally excellent. While there is good and better, there is no right or wrong.


With all of this in mind, I thought I'd offer up a few questions you should ask yourself before you start assembling your music system.  


When it comes to sound, is "okay" good enough?

To me, the answer is 'no.' When I'm in my car or casually listening, I suppose 'okay' works, but when I want to listen to art, then 'okay' isn't worthy of my time. I don't know that I need 'awesome' all the time but I don't turn it down when I have access to it.


Do I listen to music for entertainment or just to keep all of that nasty 'quietness' out of my head?

If you're a casual listener, you may be satisifed with a minimal system that covers your basic needs (mobility, ease of use, access). But most people start out as casual listeners and then as their experiences within the music grows they become interested in improving their listening experience. The bottom line is, music appreciation is a journey best enjoyed outside of elevators.


There is not a right or wrong way to listen to music, but there are better ways to listen to music. If your music is important to you, then the way you listen to it should be too. In terms of quality, here are some common sources of music and how they stack up against each other:

* Vinyl has a different sound than the RedBook CD format commonly used today while .WAV files are equivalent to CD. While the appreciation of the differences is completely subjective, vinyl typically sounds smoother and fatter than do CDs. Obviously the CD format offers greater portability and durability than vinyl does, so the trade-off is about equal based on how you listen. Digital files are the most durable and portable but there is a significant loss of fidelity with all but the most highly defined (and expensive) digital formats. 


Is it possible to have a great sounding system without completely re-modeling my house and spending more money than I have? 

You should spend exactly what you can afford and nothing less. Your time spent with your music is worth it. Too often when it comes to music we let the perfect be the enemy of the good – if we can't have perfect then we don't necessarily concern ourselves with having the best we can get. I live in a house with other people, a telephone, and a dog so I don't often get perfect listening experiences, but I very often get excellent listening experiences.


I only listen to one kind of music, and it sounds okay to me in my car or on my computer.

What you think sounds good because it's what you're used to will become embarassingly weak sounding when you get used to listening on a higher quality system. And once you treat your ears to great sound, they won't ever be satisfied with 'okay' again. 


1. How can I tell the difference between components (and speakers)?

Listen to music you are familiar with in as close an environment as possible to the one you'll be using your new components in. You'll be surprised at how many subtle differences you'll pick up once you start listening. Most important: Listen to your ears and nothing, or no one, else. Your ears aren't going to change when you get home, so if they don't like the way something sounds in the showroom – even if your salesman is making a face at you like you are the King of Dummies – they're not going to like the way it sounds when you get home.

2. How much should I spend on each component?

There is no formula to tell us how much to spend on speakers based on how much we spent on an amplifier, and vice-versa. A dealer you can trust is your best ally in this part of the buying process. Unfortunately, if you spend $1000 on a receiver and $200 on a pair of speakers, no matter how you slice it, you just bought yourself a $200 stereo system that unfortunately cost you $1200. Better to take that $1200 and split it wisely. Because of the finish and material involved, quality speakers will generally cost more than a quality amp they are well-matched to. 

3. What is the most important component in a system?

All of them. An audio system is like a chain and it will only be as good as the weakest link in that chain. Some people will tell you that great speakers with a crappy amp will sound worse than crappy speakers with a great amp, but you shouldn't listen to those people. Crappy speakers with a great amp will sound...crappy. Match your components as best as you can.

4. But I only have so much money at one time and I can't buy it all at once. How do I start?

With an eye to eventually building a complete system, start with the source (CD player, turntable, etc.), then move to the preamp/amp or receiver (contains both) then on to the speakers. Good speakers can be harmed more by a bad amp than a good amp can be harmed by bad speakers.

5. Is a separate pre-amp/amp combination better than an intergrated amp or receiver?

In theory, yes, because separates are often of higher quality (and cost) then integrated amps or receivers. But, you can do very, very well either way you go.

6. Is a surround receiver necessary?

If you want to listen to movies and television programs the answer is 'yes,' however, two speakers or two speakers and a subwoofer can provide you with a very enjoyable experience as well. To that end, a quality 5.1 receiver (two fronts, a center and two rear speakers – the 'five' and one subwoofer – the 'one') can be had at a very agreeable price. Unless you have a dedicated room, a 7.1 system may not be necessary.

7. Is a subwoofer necessary?

If you like really extended and prominent bass then probably yes. Movies are better with a sub because the soundtracks are mixed with subwoofers in mind, but music (even hip-hop and electronica) can be very enjoyable with a pair of speakers and amp that are able to handle the source music. It's really a matter of choice, but the sub is probably the last link in the chain.

8. Do cables make a difference?

Yes. Sometimes. Maybe, but maybe not as much as you would think. The cheap cables that come with your components will work but there is a difference (sometimes) with higher quality cables. With that in mind, I use very pedestrian cables (not the cheap ones though) in my main system and I'm quite happy with how the system sounds. (Let's Talk About Cables, KEF Blog June 18, 2014)


So the whole point is, huge technological leaps over the past ten years or so have made it increasingly difficult for the music fan who is not an avid technologist to keep up: With multiple playback formats and a plethora of dark-art audio gimmicks and cheap imitations readily available it's difficult to feel confident in your ability to make a wise choice when it comes to assembling a music or home theater system. But, all is not lost! You can still pick out a good component system and a couple of speakers and go home and just be thrilled by the music you are listening to without first earning a degree in engineering. 


Rediscover your relationship with music – and some idealists might say the universe in general – with quality components that are worthy of your time.


A visit to our main site will give you some further insight into the technology of speakers and the different levels of speaker available to fit your needs. 


The opinions expressed in this piece are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect those of KEF or its employees.