The grown-up guide to hi-fi

At 50, we need a quality soundsystem, not some piddly portable device. Simon Byles of Infidelity (who provides the kit for our vinyl listening clubs) gives us the inside scoop

It’s a common story among our age group: you discover music in your teens, you collect a ton of it in your twenties and thirties, you go to a lot of concerts… Then family life hits and, one way or another, music takes a back seat.

But once we’re in our fifties, there’s an opportunity to rediscover music, because a lot of those stresses have passed to one side and hopefully there’s a little bit of money in the bank.

Investing in a new hi-fi makes you think: “I’d forgotten how much fun it was to listen to music!”

You go through all your old records, with all the memories attached to them – which is partly what high50’s vinyl listening clubs are about – and you think: “This is a riot!”

The arrival of a new hi-fi in your sitting-room can lead to quite a change in your leisure time. It’s not just a hi-fi, it’s a reinvestment in the fun of music.

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There’s no point in spending thousands on a pair of gorgeous speakers if you’ve got a 50 quid amp

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So our generation are a rewarding group of customers for me. But the group we don’t have much joy with are those in their twenties, who were the stock-in-trade of the hi-fi industry in the Eighties and Nineties.

They are still going to see live music, of course, and consuming music in vast quantities; it’s simply the black boxes that make music sound its best don’t fit into their concept of how you go about playing it.

But there’s no substitute for a decent pair of speakers, some brutish-looking thing with a knob on the front of it, and something stuffed into it.

Reboot your stereo: the basics

Where do you start then, if you’re looking to ‘reboot’ your stereo? I would first ask the question: where does your music reside? What have you already got in the way of stored music: vinyl? iTunes? CDs?

I imagine most of us, at our age, have digital music stored on computer; probably the result of a lifestyle decision to ditch your vinyl 20 years ago – or ditch your CDs ten years ago – and rip them all into iTunes in some form or other.

For the past three decades or more, it has generally been the case that the emphasis – when constructing a really good, effective hi-fi system –has been on the ‘front end’. The thing that actually retrieves the music from whatever form of storage it’s on (vinyl, CD, etc).

That still applies today. So trying to get a great device to recover the music – to replay it so that it can then be fed to an amplifier and speakers – is critical.

With the plethora of different formats now, that becomes even more interesting. So that’s where I’d start, the front end.

After that it’s a trickle-down system. The priority is recovering the music; it’s then passed through an amplifier and turned into a signal that can be reproduced accurately by the speakers. Finally, it’s down to the speakers, which are the passive servants of what they’re fed.

They cannot improve on what’s fed to them. There is no point in spending thousands and thousands on a pair of gorgeous looking loudspeakers if you’ve got a 50 quid amplifier.

All-in-one amp units

There are fantastic pieces of equipment that will do those jobs, with different values attached to them. Some of them look gorgeous but don’t sound as great as they might; others look absolutely awful, like pieces of military hardware, and are difficult to use, but sound incredible.

We tend to recommend products that come from well-established companies that produce reliable, well-made equipment that is properly supported (i.e. if something goes wrong, it can be fixed relatively quickly).

They should last ten, 15, 20 years, and can readily be sent back to manufacturers to restore their original performance levels.

Naim is one such company, making a very nice single box device called a Uniti 2, which will allow you to stream music, radio, all sorts. There’s an inbuilt CD player, and it’ll allow you to plug other things into it too. But it’s still a simple, single box with an amplifier in it.

I would couple that with a pair of smallish floor-standing speakers from a company such as Kudos. They have a great reputation and produce nicely finished speakers that sound great, are easy to live with, and not spectacularly expensive (less than £5,000).

Another option might be a unit (without the CD player) from another British company called Linn. It’ll do all the things as above (plug-in iPhones, etc) but I’d probably twin it with a different set of speakers, from Linn. There is, you see, always a relationship between the speakers and the amplifier; some work better with others.

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Clockwise from top left: Rega’s RP6 turntable; Naim’s Audio Ovator s600; the Naim Uniti 2

Turntables

You could then add a turntable. As we know, there are a great many people who are now more interested in vinyl than they have been in the past 15 years. A good turntable might come – if we’re talking about something not too crazily expensive – from Rega Research.

It’s another British company, part of this group who operate almost as a family, and whose products work very well together. They mostly started life when they were set up by enthusiasts in the Seventies and are now in really good health, here and in export markets.

There are some high-end devices that can be joyless, as they need to be treated like museum artefacts, but these are definitely intended to be used, and used exhaustively. They are workable systems that the whole family can use and really get a kick out of.

Wiring

Wiring is important, but tread carefully. It can sometimes be regarded as kind of hi-fi jewellery. There are enthusiasts who spend extraordinary amounts of money on wire.

Put simply, it’s a practical necessity that needs to be appropriate to the system. That doesn’t mean you use cheap, nasty wire, but it also doesn’t mean you need to spend thousands on diamond-lined wiring or anything. It has to be taken into consideration – it is part of the system, so it has an influence on the system – but you don’t need to go crazy.

Infidelity_shop interior 200x144Today’s best buy

The default settings when you rip your CDs are MP3 files, which are great as they are on a phone or a mobile device. But once you reveal them, with a quality hi-fi system, they have evident limitations. So arguably, the one key component these days is the Digital-Analogue-Converter (DAC).

Simply changing that and keeping your existing amplifier and speakers might surprise you with just how much really high-quality music your system can produce. You might even plug your Sky box in, to get better sound quality from broadcast.

Most established companies now make DACs, and there are some great ones around. Many of them have several inputs, so you can plug a USB or laptop in and play music directly.

There’s also a great little DAC made by the same people who make the turntables, Rega Research, which is about £550, has a number of inputs and will do exactly as described.

When we were little, the only people who wanted a serious hi-fi were pipe-smoking, beslippered nerds who wanted to listen to classical music. But as we grew up we changed all that. Now we’re properly grown-up, it’s time to make the most of our music once more.