Stereos, Music, and Hi-Fi

by Mike Shea on 2 June 2007

A few years ago I was into home theater systems in a big way. I subscribed to Stereophile and Home Theater Magazines, glossy rags that spent more time showing you six figure home theater systems than they did telling you anything useful. I built so I could write about my experiences, review DVDs, and help others enjoy movies at home.

I haven't been into it in a while. I still have my Yamaha DSP-A1 receiver, my B&W 600 series speakers, and my Mitsubishi HDTV. I did buy a new Martin Logan subwoofer that I like a lot.

Hearing something about the Steinway Lyngdorf Model-D stereo system caught my interest. Surely it's a ridiculous system built for some strange breed of human being who has no concept of value at all. You could live your whole life in another country in the lap of luxury for $!50,000 but these snobs will sell you a nice hi-fi stereo for that instead.

Hi-fi is a much debated term. Since my home theater days, I have relaxed a lot on my concerns for accuracy and balance across the full audio spectrum. For every day folks, getting the speakers hooked up right is enough of a challenge. If the right sound comes from the right part of the room, that's good enough.

Still, I like the idea of a well balanced audiophile quality stereo setup. There are a lot of problems, though. Frequency ranges are very hard to keep accurate from 20hz to 20khz. Speakers need to be large and have lots of power. Then there's the problem with room acoustics, which can matter as much to sound as the speakers and amps themselves.

One easy way around this is to go for a headphone based system. I've had a pair of Sennheiser 580s for about five years now. They're my favorite way to listen to music, accurate across most of the spectrum, and not affected at all by room acoustics.

Every day folks who want a good musical hi-fi system should consider a good set of headphones instead of or in addition to a stereo. Headroom, a company that sells only headphones and related devices, is an excellent website that can help you pick out exactly what you'd want in an audiophile quality headphone setup.

From my poking around last night, if I had to buy a new setup, I'd probably go for a set of Sennheiser 595s at $290ish or Sennheiser 555s at $170ish which probably sound just as good for most people. Adding a [Headroom Micro Amp] with the desktop configuration would remove any need for an external amplifier. With larger headphones, a portable device alone rarely has enough power to drive the headphones. I tried the old Headroom Little amplifier and realized last night that it was adding noticeable interference to my left earphone. Removing it and running directly from my Macbook Pro sounded a lot better. A headphone amp isn't required but it adds a bit of "hi-fi" to that headphone setup. If you're plugging into any powered device like a PC or a receiver, you probably don't need it.

So for $500 to $600, anyone can have a hi-fi that will sound as good as any system worth ten times as much. It's no $150,000 Steinway Lyngdorf, but it will sound damn good.

As for a good living room audio system, that's something I'm still hunting down.