July 2018 editorial: HiFi for beginners - Part 2

Time to buy some kit...

[Vintage HiFi Shop]

Author: Graeme Budd - TNT France
Published: July, 2018

Back to Part 1

It's show season again which got me thinking and I thought that I ought to follow up my hifi for beginners article which is now 3 (!)years old. I'd left you with some wisdom about helping our hobby by getting people interested in it and some tips for hifi show visits. But I left you in the lurch a bit with no further tips for the actual buying process. So as the second part of this now two part mini - series which I hope will be less depressing than Broadchurch it's time to buy some kit

Now I presume if you are interested in this then you've had permission from your accountant/other half to buy some hifi. I also presume the home brewers among you have moved the trainsets up to the loft and made some space for this new hobby in the sitting room.

So I thought I'd run through some of the options for buying hifi. This is going to concentrate purely on new kit - there are already guides by my colleagues on this very site with suggestions for superb second hand systems so I would refer you to those if classic hifi is your thing (and why not?)

So where can you buy your new system from?

Option 1. The Hifi Dealer

We're starting with the traditional option first - the specialist dealer. There are good and bad dealers and no I'm not going to name and shame but try and find one of the good ones. Before visiting any dealer you need to decide on your budget. Take this number and subtract 10% for the inevitable cables that won't be supplied with the system. Then subtract another 20% to take into account the over budget components the dealer is likely to suggest (crafty they are as Yoda would no doubt say if he were shopping for hifi).

You then have to decide on your dealer. If you have your heart set on a particular component then it makes sense to visit the dealer that stocks them but don't be pig headed about this. A bit of open mindedness can be useful here especially when you first enter the shop. Once inside it's time to listen but not straight away to any music. Your dealer needs to listen to you and you need to listen to him or her. You need to explain what you think you want, the size of your room and the aforementioned adjusted budget. You then need to listen to what they recommend to decide what to listen to. Also check if they do decent tea or coffee (and preferably biscuits). If they are anything like the two in the clip below then I'd suggest finding somewhere else...

Time for a quick tip about deciding what components to listen to - beware of Ivor Mate. I'm not pretending to invent this expression as I first read it in David Mead's excellent book "Chords and Scales for Guitarists". I hope he won't mind me reusing his concept. A lot of people have a friend referred to as Ivor Mate. This gentlemen already has a hifi and has recommended it to you. No one likes to take the risk of having something different which is less good than a mate's so insists on having one or all of the same components rather than listening to the dealer who may well have a better combination at the same price that he'd be more than happy to demonstrate. This means people end up with horrible setups but they mutually reassure each other that they've made the same correct choice!

So assuming you've found a dealer who seems on the same wavelength as you, supplies chocolate digestives (US readers can have Oreos if you want), you've left Ivor Mate at home and you've got some music with you it's time to do the dem....

Tip 2 - don't play horrendous music. By this I mean audiophile recordings which have no musical merit. Take some music you're actually going to listen to and play plenty of it. Don't concentrate on particular crescendos or cymbal crashes. The aim is to get a system that does the essentials right NOT one that is stunning on the electric drums on Phil Collins Against the all Odds but can't follow a tune. And yes I have known people listen just for this when trying components - it's crazy enough that even I couldn't have made it up.

During the process keep the communication going - if something is really wrong for you let the dealer know and no doubt there's an alternative (and that's where the secret 20% reserve comes in) that can be suggested.

So now hopefully you've found something you like in the price range and it's time to part with the cash. I'm not even going to go into price negotiation - it's up to you if you want to try it on - but one thing I will say is that it's extremely rude in my book to then go and buy the stuff on the internet to save some money. We'll come to internet sales later in the article but if you've tested something at a dealer's and found it works for you then the decent thing to do is to buy it from them. I won't say any more on the subject but I hope my position is clear on this one.

Which effectively brings us neatly onto the option of internet sales (it's almost like I planned it and am not making this up as I go along)


Option 2. The Internet (see picture above)

I'd never really looked into this side of things as I have a couple of favourite dealers who I've bought stuff from in the past but my attention was drawn to it by a chap who writes to me when I get excited in a review about something expensive from a high end brand. He points out that excellent stuff is available from internet direct sales brands, that I would pay less for the same (if not better) quality and has sort of challenged me to put a system together this way. I intend to try it later this year assuming I can get appropriate items on loan at the same time. Looking at the brands that were suggested the quality certainly seems good and the prices are even better. You'll still need to budget for the cables but this time as you can see the prices on the screen the 20% secret stash is no longer necessary

So how does it work and what are the pitfalls? Effectively the possibility of the direct sales business model takes out the middlemen (ie distributors and shops)allowing you access to reduced prices for a given quality level as there are less markups. This looks great on paper and is highly tempting. The major problem I can see are that you can't listen to things beforehand making system matching a potential nightmare. So how do you avoid a system that is a potential dog deterrent (if I could find one of these I'd point it at my neighbours but I digress) or that is muddier than a Land Rover in a swamp? The internet itself comes to the rescue to a certain extent here with the proliferation of forums where you can at least get opinions on components and what they sound like (although Ivor Mate lurks on forums as well). And of course TNT Audio is here to help but unfortunately we can't try everything even if we do try to feature lesser known brands.

I'd be tempted to say that internet buying definitely favours those of a digital persuasion who already have a PC based music collection and want to get it out into the open. There is a huge quantity of DACs, preamps, headphone amps from small manufacturers often using highly specced chipsets. I'm not sure I'd buy an expensive turntable unseen and unheard but digital - sure why not?

The other internet related option is buying from online dealers - like I said above I consider this option highly unsporting if you've demoed the kit at a dealers but if you're willing to try direct sales this is similar in that you'll have to do the matching yourself. Obviously most of the components will be be from bigger brands and there are more reviews and information available. Probably an easier option but with lesser savings - you pays yer money.....

I'd suggest that if you have the time for some serious research and want to save some cash this is definitely a viable option and I'd certainly be interested to hear from those of you who've tried it and am looking forward to the results of my direct sales system once I get it together.

Putting it together

Apologies to those who've done this before but this is supposed to be a beginners article so I stand by the next bit even if it may seem obvious to many of us. Assuming you've managed to find the right system you now need to install it. The dealer should be able to do this for you and this should score some extra points for the traditional buying scenario but often this isn't the case so we can assume that however you bought the system you now have a pile of boxes at home. This is a good time to put the kettle on and enlist some help. Make the tea, get the biscuits out and you can start assembling. Firstly take care and don't use knives to cut Sellotape (this goes without saying but in the excitement things get damaged). For the David Guetta fans among you the arrows on the boxes should point upwards before you open anything. Don't destroy the boxes even if they do take up loads of space as they are always useful for servicing, warranty or resale at a later date when the upgrade bug bites and you've seen something on TNT Audio that you just have to have. For installation I'd point you towards the guide here on TNT for speaker placement. There are also numerous guides on the internet - I particularly like the Cardas one but there are others. For vinyl installation take your time and ensure you have the necessary levels and gauges. It isn't rocket science or a particularly black art. Don't be afraid to ask questions on forums, to your dealer you bought the stuff from or even your friendly TNT staff - we don't bite. Then you can sit back and enjoy your new system!

The last bit

I hope this has given you food for thought as to the buying and building of a system and ways of doing it. Of course this is not black or white. You can mix and match the buying models to your heart's content to find what's right for you. That's the fun of it - no one way is the best for everyone which is part of what makes this hobby what it is. Happy Listening!

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Copyright 2018 Graeme Budd - graeme@tnt-audio.com - www.tnt-audio.com