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Streaming has made it easier than ever to listen to music. If you have a smartphone or computer, you quite literally have access to tens of millions of tracks. All you have to do is open an app, pick a song and press play. Boom, magic.
But there’s a difference between listening to music, and listening to music well. The details of a home audio setup are a big deal when it comes to hi-fi, and especially so today: Vinyl sales have risen for the last 15 years. Sales of CDs and cassette tapes are up. And more and more lossless streaming services are launching. In short, it’s a damn good time to get into hi-fi.
For anybody looking to dive into the world of hi-fi, and potentially build an analog, digital or hybrid system, it’s first important to know the crucial audio components — what they are, why they’re important and how they all work together.
Conversion from analog to digital and back requires special technology to do the job well, and in order to accommodate both analog and digital formats into a home audio setup, you’re going to need to have a basic understanding of some of these components.
However, don’t think you need to spend a fortune in order to attain audiophile bliss: for each component, we present different tiers of product priced according to different budgets, though even the budget system will provide you with a setup worlds better than simply plugging a pair of earbuds into your computer.
On that note, godspeed, and happy listening!
Speakers (or loudspeakers) are the most important components in any audio system because they have the biggest impact on the sound you actually hear. In simplest terms, they take the electrical signal that’s fed from your playback device (whether a turntable, CD player or digital streamer) and then vibrate their innards to produce sound. There are many internal components within a speaker that will drastically affect the end sound, such as the crossovers — which direct the signal to the correct drivers — the size and material of the cabinet, and the quality and number of speaker drivers.
At the root of it, there are two main types of loudspeakers you should know about: passive and active. Passive speakers require external amplification from a receiver or amplifier to work — they need the signal from the playback device to be amplified for them by another device. Active speakers have their own built-in amplification that’s optimized for that specific speaker. There are tradeoffs to each, of course. Passive speakers are more affordable and way more flexible (as you can experiment with different external components to do the amplification part), while active speakers are more expensive but don’t require multiple components to work.
Oh, and you may have heard people talk about the quality of the cables that send that signal, but that doesn’t actually matter that much.
The Wharfedale EVO4.2 are our favorite all-around bookshelf speakers that cost under $1,000. They deliver an accurate yet punchy sound. Plus, since they’re easy to drive, they’ll work with most amplifiers.
KEF LS50 Meta
The KEF LS50 Meta is simply one of the best sounding bookshelf speakers you can buy. Released in late 2020, they’re vastly upgraded versions of the company’s already well-lauded LS50 passive loudspeakers. If you can afford them, we highly recommend them.
PSB Alpha P5
The PSB Alpha P5 is our pick for the best pair of bookshelf speakers under $500. They look great and sound just as good as speakers that are significantly more expensive.
Headphones are tiny speakers that sit on your ears. The left earcup of the headphones does the same job as the left-sided speaker in a stereo pair, and the same is true for the right earcup and the right-sided speaker. The main difference is that headphones obviously go on your head, which also creates a controlled environment for sound, while the sound quality of speakers can be largely affected by the room that they’re in.
There’s a wide variety of different types of headphones, from open-back to closed-back as well as headphones made with various kinds of drivers (dynamic, electrostatic or planar magnetic), but the biggest news lately has been the growth of wireless headphones. These headphones accept a radio signal over the air instead of through cables and then use their on-board DSP (digital-signal processing) and amplification to turn it into sound.
The Sony WH-1000XM5 are our pick for the best all-around noise-canceling headphones for most people. They’re the perfect combination of great sound, noise cancellation, comfort and features. And they’re a good chunk more affordable than Apple’s AirPods Max.
Apple AirPods Max
The AirPods Max are the best noise-canceling headphones for iPhone owners. They deliver top-grade sound quality and noise cancellation, as well as the best features from AirPods Pro (like easy iPhone pairing and support for spatial audio). The only downside: they’re expensive.
Sennheiser HD 450BT
The Sennheiser HD 450BT are our pick for the best noise-canceling headphones under $200. They sound similar and have many of the same features as the company’s flagship Momentum Wireless 3, but they’re less than half the price.
The job of an amplifier, also referred to as a power amplifier or a stereo amplifier, is to take a weak electrical signal from a playback device and, well, amplify it so that your speakers or headphones can actually play it. Without an amplifier, you wouldn’t be able to hear your music very loudly, if at all. This is especially true of high-fidelity open-back headphones, which require a very amplified signal.
In this age of modern hi-fi, “integrated” amplifiers have kind of taken the place of a traditional power amplifier. Integrated amps combine the traditionally separate components of a power amplifier, a phono preamp (more on that in a second) and a number of wireless and wired connectivity options, so they can act as the central hub of both a digital and an analog hi-fi system.
Oh, and if you have any kind of wireless headphones or wireless speakers, they have a built-in amplifier.
Schiit Audio Ragnarok 2
The Ragnarok 2 is the one of the best integrated amplifiers you can buy, but make sure to get the fully-loaded version, which includes a MM phono stage and a high-resolution (24-bit/192kHz) DAC.
Cambridge Audio Evo 150
Cambridge Audio’s Evo 15o is a high-end integrated amplifier that can deliver 150 watts per channel. It also supports both Wi-Fi (AirPlay 2, Chromecast, Spotify Connect and Tidal Connect) and Bluetooth aptX HD streaming, making it fit for this modern streaming age.
Cambridge Audio AXA35
If you have a turntable and bookshelf speakers, the AXA35 is a perfect entry-level integrated amp. Its built-in phono stage will work with most MM turntables.
Traditionally, a receiver is just an amplifier with a built-in radio, which allows you to play music on your hi-fi system without needing an analog source like a CD player, cassette tape player or a turntable. These days most receivers perform a similar function as a hub for wireless signals, but have a number of other connectivity options, allowing you to stream music from your smartphone or computer directly to your system.
There are two main types of receivers: stereo receivers and AV (audio/video) receivers. A stereo receiver is only capable of powering a two-channel system (generally a set of passive speakers), while an AV receiver, also known as a home theater receiver, is designed to connect to your TV and power multiple channels, ideally for a surround sound system with many different speakers. Essentially, an AV receiver is just a way more capable and versatile stereo receiver.
Cambridge Audio AXR85
The AXR85 is a gorgeous stereo receiver with a beautiful brushed aluminum front pane. It’s unique because its front-panel A/B switching allows you to connect two pairs of bookshelf speakers and switch between them. It also has built-in Bluetooth for easy streaming.
The Onkyo TX-8220 is a great combination of sound and affordability. Like the AXR85 (above), it also has A/B speaker connections allowing you to add a second pair of bookshelf speakers and switch between them.
This Yamaha R-S202BL is a great budget option for anybody with bookshelf speakers looking to listen to great stereo audio. It supports Bluetooth streaming and has a built-in FM/AM tuner, too.
Digital-to-Analog Converter (DAC)
(Note: You can buy separate DAC and amplifier components, but a combined component — like the above integrated DAC/Amp combos — are very popular and your best bet for a small space, like a desktop setup.)
The digital-to-analog converter, or DAC, is a vital component that’s usually built into most amplifiers. It converts a digital signal sent from your smartphone or computer into an analog signal that an amplifier can actually amplify. A DAC is only necessary when you have a digital source like a computer or smartphone, as opposed to an analog source like a turntable or CD player.
The only time you really need to consider buying an external DAC is if your source, be it your smartphone or computer, is introducing a lot of noise (graininess or static) to your music; you’re more likely to hear this noise if you’re listening to a nicer pair of headphones or speakers. Every smartphone and laptop has its own built-in DAC (and amplifier), but they’re usually not particularly good. Buying an external DAC or a DAC/amp combo is an easy way to upgrade your desktop or smartphone’s audio quality if it’s bad enough that you’re noticing its flaws.
Schiit Audio Fulla E
The Fulla E is a simple-yet-beautiful headphone DAC/amp that plugs directly into your laptop or desktop via USB-C. It can be used as a DAC/amp with wired headphones or as a DAC/preamp with powered monitors.
The iFi Uno is an entry-level DAC/amp that easily connects to your workstation via USB-C. It supports high-resolution audio up to 32-bit/384kHz (including DSD256 and MQA audio files). And it’s compatible with both Mac and Windows computers.
Fosi Audio Q4
The Fosi Audio Q4 is a gaming headphone DAC/amp that punches well above its price tag. Its audio control knobs allow you to customize your audio in more ways than other desktop amps.
A phono preamplifier, also known as a phono stage, is a necessary component in any turntable hi-fi system. Its job is twofold. First, it takes the extremely weak signal from the turntable’s phono cartridge and pre-amplifies on the way to the amplifier, so your speakers can play it at a reasonable volume. Second, it equalizes the signal so that the record sounds as true as possible to the original recording.
These days a lot of turntables come with a built-in phono preamplifier — we call these “integrated” turntables — which allows you to connect them directly to an amplifier or powered speaker. It’s a simple and convenient system. However a dedicated external phono preamplifier connected to a turntable will almost always sound better because moving the preamp further away from the moving bits of the turntable reduces the amount of excess noise introduced to your signal.
Pro-Ject Phono Box DC
The Phono Box DC is a higher-end version of the company’s Phono Box E. It’s compatible with both MM and MC cartridges, meaning it’ll work with basically any turntable.
Schiit Audio Mani 2
The Mani 2 is our upgrade pick because it is bespoke yet versatile. It’s compatible with MM and MC cartridges, has four switchable gain modes, and is designed and built in California.
The Rolls VP29 is a popular entry-level phono preamp. It’s a small, easy-to-use, a bold red color — and it’s made in the USA. It has a 3.5mm jack, too, so you can easily connect it to any pair of powered speakers.
A turntable, or record player, is an analog device used for playing vinyl. There are a number of key components working in tandem that are required for the turntable to work, but in a nutshell the turntable’s stylus (or needle) gets dropped on a spinning record, it picks up the vibrations from the record’s grooves and it then converts them into an electrical signal. That signal is then sent to the phono preamplifier and then amplifier, where it’s amplified so that the speakers or headphones can actually play it.
Pro-Ject T1 Phono SB
The T1 Phono SB is an excellent and beautiful turntable that’s made of high-quality components (such as a resonance-absorbing MDF platter and a high-quality Ortofon cartridge) and still comes in at less than $500.
Rega Planar 1 Plus
Rega’s Planar series of turntables are considered a benchmark for affordable high-end design. The Planar 1 Plus includes a Rega Carbon cartridge, an internal phono pre-amplifier based on their excellent phono stage and RB-110 tonearm. It’s one of the best-integrated turntables you can buy for under $1,000.
The Fluance RT81 is our favorite turntable with a built-in preamp that you can get for under $300. It’s essentially an upgraded version of the company’s RT80, with a solid plinth and an improved cartridge.
A phono cartridge is a complex electro-mechanical device that sits on the end of a turntable’s tonearm and holds the stylus in place. It’s also responsible for converting the vibrations that the stylus picks up into an analog signal. The best phono cartridges are the ones that are the most accurate at this process. An easy and fun way to improve your turntable’s audio quality is to buy a better phono cartridge. There’s a wide variety of phono cartridges out there, ranging from $100 to well over $1,000.
There are two main types of phono cartridges, moving magnet (MM) or moving coil (MC), which use different mechanisms to convert vibrations into an audio signal. The gist is that MM cartridges are significantly easier to make, but they’re less sensitive and deliver a less accurate signal. If you own an entry-level turntable, there’s a good chance it has an MM cartridge. Not all turntables are compatible with all phono cartridges. Before upgrading to a different phono cartridge, you first need to make sure it’s compatible with your existing turntable.
The DL-103 is still one of the best and most popular phono cartridges ever produced. It requires a moving coil phono stage with 60dB or more of gain, but when set up properly it reproduces music with a level of fidelity that few can touch.
The Hana SL is one of those rare, affordable high-end moving coil cartridges that works well on a wide range of turntable arms. If you have the deep pockets, this cartridge will show you just how good vinyl can really sound.
The Nagaoka MP-110 is our best budget pick. It tracks pristine and worn out grooves with authority, and is compatible with a wide range of moving magnet phono stages.
Digital Music Streamers
A digital music streamer (or network streamer) is the ultimate hi-fi component for the home. It’s essentially a specialized computer that can store and stream for your entire digital music collection. It’s a great option for people who want to transfer their CD collection into a digital library, or people who want to get the most out of their lossless streaming service, such as Tidal or Qobuz, and play high-resolution audio at home.
Dedicated digital music streamers can vary a lot in terms of their features, compatibility and streaming support. The best ones, such as the Cambridge Audio CXN V2 or the Naim Audio Uniti Atom, have their own interface, built-in storage and are compatible with high-end services like Roon or BluOs. It’s a rabbit hole.
Naim Uniti Atom
The Uniti Atom is a beautiful all-in-one streamer that’ll serve as the hub of your home hi-fi system. It has a full-color LCD front display (to show album artwork) and a wonderful tactile dial. Plus, it supports most wireless streaming options.
Bluesound’s 3rd-generation Node is the company’s most comprehensive streamer. It supports MQA, all of the major streaming services, AirPlay 2 and Amazon Alexa. It also comes equipped with an improved internal DAC that supports up to 24-bit/192kHz and MQA files.
Cambridge Audio CXN V2
Cambridge Audio’s CXN V2 is a music streamer that has a built-in high-res DAC (supporting up to 24-bit/384kHz files) and supports Tidal, Spotify Connect, AirPlay 2, Bluetooth aptX and your networked music collection. It also retails for significantly less than the Cambridge Audio’s extravagant Edge series.
A CD (or compact disc) player is a digital playback device that uses a tiny laser beam to scan a rotating compact disc, starting from the center and working its way to the outer rim. You might have thought that dedicated home CD players were a thing of the past, but there’s more of a desire for lossless (or CD-quality) music, both streamed and physical, more manufacturers are releasing new CD players. The only difference is that this new breed also has support for wireless services, too, making them way more versatile that older models.
Marantz CD 60
The Marantz CD 60 is a gorgeous and high-end CD player that was really designed to be paired with the company’s Model 40n integrated amplifier. The CD 60 has a couple of neat features, including a high-quality headphone output and a USB port — both on the front panel — for private listening and playing music files from a flash drive, respectively.
The Denon DCD-600NE is a mid-range CD player that’s designed to be paired with the company’s PMA-600NE integrated amplifier. It’s not super feature-packed, but its advanced circuitry and proprietary DAC help to deliver a cleaner sound.
The Yamaha CD-S303 is a high-performing CD player at a relatively affordable price. It boasts a high-end DAC (supports audio up to 24-bit/192kHz) and a USB slot on its front panel in case you want to play hi-fi audio from a flash drive.
Lossless Streaming Services
Audio quality took a big hit after in the 90s in large parts thanks to the iPod, Napster and wide-spread popularity of compressed digital audio files like MP3s. But the resurgence of vinyl and the rise of lossless streaming services, like Tidal, Deezer and Qobuz, have made it easier than ever to listen to higher-quality audio again. And today, more mainstream services like Apple Music and Amazon Music Unlimited offer lossless-quality tracks, too.
The term “lossless audio” is generally defined as audio that’s CD or vinyl quality (16-bit/44.1 kHz). However, several lossless streaming services allow you to listen to higher resolution audio files (such as 24-bit/192kHz or even 32-bit/384 kHz).
Apple Music has offered lossless-quality streaming since mid-2021. You can stream CD quality (16bit / 44.1kHz) or even higher-resolution audio files (up to 24-bit / 192 kHz) if you have the proper hardware. As of early 2023, it costs $11 per month.
Tidal HiFi is the company’s most popular tier of lossless streaming. It costs $10 per month and gives listeners access to more than 80 million tracks in lossless CD quality sound (up to 1,411kbps).
Amazon Music Unlimited
Amazon’s lossless streaming service, Music Unlimited, is also one of the most affordable. If you’re a Prime member, it costs $9 per month. A subscription allows you to listen to CD quality tracks as well as “Ultra HD” tracks (up to 24-bit/192kHz).