People frequently use the term "Stereo" to refer to a sound
reproduction system. To be more accurate, we will use the term
High Fidelity System to refer to a pile of equipment including
at least one source, at least one amplifier, and at least one
speaker. Common sources are turntables, CD players, tape
players, tuners, and receivers.
A receiver is a tuner, power amplifier, and preamp combined. A
common receiver has inputs for a turntable, a CD player, a tape
deck, and perhaps one or two other sources. It has selector
switch(s), tone controls, and a volume control. A receiver may
have outputs for two speakers, or for more.
A tuner is a radio receiver which can not directly connect to
speakers. Sometimes, the radio in a tuner is higher quality
than the radio in a receiver. A tuner may or may not receive
the AM broadcast band, but 99.999% will receive the FM broadcast
band. Some also receive short wave bands, frequencies used
for long-distance rather than for local commercial broadcasts.
If you're looking to buy something, the first step is to figure
out what you can spend. If you're looking for a whole system,
this gets tricky, because you have to allocate amounts for the
different components. The most popular current rule-of-thumb
for a single source system (speakers, amp, 1 something-player)
is to divide the money about equally among the three parts. If
you want several players, you'll have to decide whether they are
all equally important, and so deserve the same amount of money;
or whether some are less important, in which case you can spend
less on them and put the savings elsewhere.
This rule isn't hard-and-fast. It's just meant as a starting
point so you don't have to listen to every possible combination
of equipment. If you are building around a CD player, you might
spend a bit less on the player and a bit more on the speakers.
If you are buying turntable (or something else which plays by
physical contact) on the other hand, it might be good idea to
put a bit extra into the player. The reason for this is that if
you skimp on the turntable, then when you come to buy a better
one you may find that your records have been worn out by the
cheap player. If you skimp on the speakers, on the other hand,
then when you can afford better speakers the music will still be
there on your records.
Another perspective says that you should spend the most you
can on your source, as the sound can never be better than
what you get off of the record/CD.
The cheapest improvement you can make, and perhaps the most
effective, is to position your speakers carefully and correctly.
This will improve the frequency response
flatness, making it easier to hear every instrument and voice.
Setting speaker position correctly can also improve the
three-dimensional recreation of a stereo image.
Combo systems used to be cheap jokes; that's not always true
now. Some sound very nice; there are even some made by
"audiophile" companies, and they sound even nicer. They've got
lots of advantages. They take up less space. The controls tend
to be well-integrated, especially if they are remote-controlled.
Therefore, they are easy to operate; this can be a major plus if
some of the people who'll use it are afraid of, or not very good
at, technology. Also easy to set up, and don't leave millions
of wires dangling all over everywhere.
If you do go for a combo, get a brand name; either an audiophile
company, or a good "consumer electronics" company. Brand-X
combos are generally overpriced and unpleasant. If possible,
buy it where you can listen to it first, such as a "real" hi-fi
shop. Mid-range hi-fi shops sell combos, as a way of
introducing beginners to quality sound.
In most good combos, the speakers are the weak link. If you do
go for a combo, you can almost always improve the sound
drastically by buying a set of better speakers. Better speakers
start in the $400-$600 price range. Some of the best combos
come without speakers, forcing you to do this. A good combo
with replacement speakers will give you very pleasant music.
Sounds good, you say, so why do people bother with components?
Well, you can get better sound with a component system -- but
usually at the expense of convenience and size. A good
component system will normally require a mixture of boxes from
different makers to get the best results, so you've got to spend
more time listening to things. However, if you listen to your
music seriously, then the performance of a component system is
the reward for that extra work.
Components are harder to set up and operate. However, as noted,
you can get better sound. You also get more flexibility. If,
for example, you decide you want a better CD player, you just
replace the CD player. With a combo system, you've got to
replace the whole system. If your component tape deck breaks,
you can remove it from the system and take it in for repair or
replacement. With a combo, the whole system has to go in for
repair or be replaced.
When you want to add some new recording medium to your system
(laserdisc, VCR, DAT, DCC, MD, ...), if you've got components
you just go buy the appropriate box. Many combo systems do not
have places (or many places) to attach extra bits, so again you
could be looking at replacing the whole thing. With a component
system, you can add a turntable; most modern combos can't cope
with turntables any more. Do you have a record collection?
If you're really not sure, components are the safer bet; if
you're going to make a mistake, that's probably the better way
to be wrong. But, if you're sure that a combo would be best
for your needs, it can be a totally reasonable choice.
Now, some people may be tempted by one-maker 'component sets',
particularly the modern, miniature ones. They tend to be
equivalent to combos. Most use non-standard connections, rather
than the normal twin phono plug, so that it's likely you can't
swap or add components anyway. Even where they use standard
interconnects, they may rely on non-standard interconnections
for control purposes. In a few cases, they also rely on sharing
power, with a power supply in only one of the boxes and the rest
taking low-voltage connections from that. And, no one maker
makes the best everything. By default, assume that they will
have the same disadvantages (and most of the same advantages) as
combos. If it's important for it to work with "standard"
components from other makers, be sure to ask before you buy.
And, if you're in doubt, go for separate components.
A. Use a (better) antenna.
B. Use a (more) directional antenna.
C. Aim your directional antenna. Rhombics are ungainly to move,
but Yagis and dipoles are small enough to point right at
the station. With the dipole, to tune in a station to
the East, run the antenna North-South. With a Yagi,
point the individual elements North-South with the
smallest element on the East end.
For receiving, small is ugly. The bigger the antenna (all else
equal) the better. Of course, all else is never equal, but
these fancy, expensive mini antennas tend to be awful. Some
compensate for their small receiving structure with a small
antenna signal amplifier. However, the quality of that
amplifier is often no better than the quality of the amplifier
in your tuner or receiver, so the antenna just gives you a
stronger signal, complete with stronger noise.
All of that said, some compact FM antennas can work better than
a simple dipole in some situations. They tend to have an
internal amplifier, which helps with weak signals. Some are
directional. Some aren't. If possible, be sure that whatever
you buy CAN BE RETURNED for a refund if it doesn't work out well
Although there is no "best" antenna for everyone, one of the
most directional is the "rhombic". Being very directional, this
antenna can select one weak station out of many strong ones, or
one group of stations originating from a general direction.
In addition, very directional antennas are good at reducing
multipath interference, a problem which is more severe in
cities with tall buildings.
This antenna is very long, and made up of four pieces of wire
with feedline at one end for antenna connections and a resistor
at the other for termination. Rhombics for FM broadcast band
use are at least 15 feet (4.5 meters) long, but can be made
fairly narrow, less than 3 feet (1 meter) wide. A more narrow
antenna will be more directional. A longer antenna will give a
Another very directional antenna is the "yagi", which looks just
like a common TV antenna. You can even use a common TV antenna
as a very good FM antenna. The FM and TV bands are very close
together. It has the advantages of being cheap, directional,
and easy to rotate.
One of the simplest and easiest to make antennas is the folded
dipole, made from 300 ohm twin lead. It is approx. 58" long.
This antenna is surprisingly good for receiving signals in a
moderately strong signal area. Folded dipoles come with many
tuners and receivers as a standard accessory. They are also
available for approximately $2 at audio and department stores.
Whatever antenna you have, you can often get it to work better
for specific stations by moving it. In the case of the folded
dipole, sometimes it works better vertically, and other times it
works best horizontally. Sometimes, you can get that one
elusive station to come in perfectly if you bend the two ends of
it at funny angles. Don't be afraid to experiment. One
warning. As atmospheric conditions change, the best antenna
placement may also change.
An excellent reference book on antennas is printed by the
American Radio Relay League (ARRL). It is called The ARRL
Antenna Book. Currently in its 16th edition, it is a 736
page large, illustrated paperback. It costs $20 plus s/h.
It has fairly complete antenna theory, practical information
such as charts, drawings, comparisons, and tips on construction
and adjustment. The ARRL is founded and chartered as a
non-profit organization to better amateur radio, and antennas
are a vital part of amateur radio.
American Radio Relay League
225 Main Street
Newington CT 06111 USA
Practical Antenna Handbook by Joseph J. Carr
Tab Books #3270/McGraw Hill - ISBN 0-8306-3270-3
Each home and each outlet has slightly different power line
impedance and power line noise. Each amplifier is affected by
power line impedance and power line noise differently. Power
line conditioners try to reduce this line noise. Some also
change the power line impedance in a way which is supposed to be
better. We will leave it to your ears to decide if these
devices help the sound of your system enough to justify their
Some complain that heavy foot falls will cause skipping or more
subtle sonic problems with CD players or turntables. If you
have these problems, there are a few different things which you
can try to reduce the problem. One is to add weight to the rack
which holds the equipment. Heavier things move slower. If you
can get the motion slow enough, it won't cause sonic or tracking
Another solution is to add rubber or elastomer (Sorbothane)
cushions under the CD player or turntable. This might make it
better, but might also make it worse. Experiment.
A third solution is to increase the coupling between the rack
and the floor using spikes, which concentrate the weight on
a very small area. Another way to increase the coupling between
the rack and the floor is to use a plastic adhesive like HoldIt,
sold under the UHU trade name in office supply stores.
There are many lines of equipment that are carefully hand
crafted in the USA. Unfortunately, these systems are usually
the high-end ones. Some US companies also make gear in the
far east. When in doubt, ask. Some US audio manufacturers are:
Adcom (some made in Japan)
Audio by Van Alstine
California Audio Labs (CAL)
Carver (some made in Japan)
We can provide facts and opinions (and you get to decide which
is which :-), but we can't recommend if, or which way, you
should jump, because we don't know what your priorities are.
(That won't stop us from trying, though!) For example, if you
are considering a used item at a low price vs. a new one at a
higher price, one of us might say "go for the new one because
of the warranty", when another would say that you can fix it
yourself if it breaks. They're both right.
This also applies to speakers. One may have very good, flat
bass, but only go so low, where the other may go lower, but
have less flat frequency response. Which is better? Depends
on the buyer. Good speakers are carefully designed to
achieve a balance of performance that matches the priorities
of the designer. Some designers put much of their budget into
appearance. Some designers put their budget into very high
efficiency. Others strive for the smallest box which can
deliver an acceptable low frequency performance. Do you
really want people on the network making that decision for you?
In an effort to make movie soundtracks more dramatic and
engaging, Dolby Labs created a signal encoding which encodes
more than just two channels of audio onto the stereo signal.
Many popular receivers and home-theater systems include the
required circuitry to decode these signals. These components
are referred to as Pro Logic, Dolby Pro Logic, or Surround
Sound components. Very few audio recordings contain this
encoding, but it is very common with movie soundtracks and
some network TV programs.
Best Surround Sound reproduction requires five separate
speaker systems, but some improvement is claimed from a
surround sound receiver and three speakers over two speakers.
In its best implementation, surround sound will give a fuller
sense of being in the middle of the action. The quality of the
image is a function of the recording, the broadcast quality,
and the choice of reproduction components.