Computer Audio Buyers' Guide
A Practical Path to the Best Music System for You
By Joseph Riden, Author of iHi-Fi Audio Setup Guide
You live richly and fully, in a state of inspiration. You power up your audio system, select some great music and hit "Play." Your music is the sound track for your life. . .
Creating a wonderful music system from components is all "blue sky," given modern computer audio technology. You can set up a fabulous-sounding, genuine Hi-Fi audio system for an affordable sum. You don't need to spend years as an apprentice in the arcane world of audio, and eventually become a master, before you can enjoy great music in your spaces.
You may be wondering something like, "What computer audio stuff should I get?" This Guide helps you understand how to decide. You simply need to grasp a few basic principles and then apply them as you select and integrate your audio system. Then sit back and admire what you created as you listen to more and better music than was ever possible at any previous time in history. This Guide was written to help you take advantage of the latest and best audio technologies.
At iHi-Fi, we make deciding what you should get easy, fast, and risk-free. Prepare to have a smooth buying experience leading to simple setup followed by years of pleasurable and hassle-free music listening -- all for a price that fits a modest budget. A main role iHi-Fi fulfills in the audio industry is to be your personal price/performance advisor.
Think of iHi-Fi.com as your online "audio boutique without walls" where you shop from anywhere in the US without leaving home and you receive all the expert advice you need. You can audition any of our products in your own home or workspace with return and refund privileges and a 3-year factory warranty.
This Guide gives you simple, but powerful, tools and concepts you will use to quickly achieve highly pleasurable listening to the music you love -- whatever music type that may be, from any sources, whether digital or analog audio. The key to Hi-Fi ease and comfort is to understand your wants and translate them into needs, and then fulfill those needs with a specific selection of audio components that makes up an integrated music system perfectly tailored to your purposes.
I assume you're actively shopping for high-value Hi-Fi gear and you seriously want the right stuff for your specific tastes, preferences, and budget. High-value means you get a lot of fantastic music for your money. If you're looking for a great musical experience for a modest amount, you can definitely fill your wants right here on iHi-Fi.com with Audioengine products. Or you can take your new insights and understanding from reading this Guide anywhere you may want to shop and they will serve you well to either upgrade a system you have or create a whole new one.
It can be a struggle to sort out confusing details and neutralize the influence of marketing hype when you're after high value for modest cost. Ahead, you'll find a structured approach that helps you focus on what matters, narrow things down, and make selections you can trust to please and satisfy you for years to come. Although I'm focused on Audioengine, the brand I know best, trust completely, and offer for high value, the process I'm documenting in this Guide will work with any brand, or across multiple brands.
This is the first of two sections in this Guide -- including your general orientation to the selection process and what's available. A forthcoming section will drill deeper into details of audio systems that deliver solid value and fit specific purposes -- from personal stereos, to headphone lovers' delights, to party-time specials, or my personal favorite -- do-everything setups.
LET VALUE BE YOUR NORTH STAR
Consider the field: some audio products provide useful features and great performance but the cost is outrageous. Some brands offer high cosmetic finish and forward, modern styling that adds cost but looks alone are useless to help musical performance. Some gear is loaded with features but sounds disappointing in spite of decorative packaging, fancy words, and major ad campaigns. In yet other cases, audio gear designs serve the motives of the manufacturer far more than the needs and wants of the customers.
In the audio environment, it pays to be armed with ideas that help you sort the sheep from the goats and make great selections in spite of all the noise in the information channels. Truth be told, you can get your audio game on for a couple hundred bucks and the most expensive high-value Audioengine core system iHi-Fi offers retails for just under $1500.
Value is an over-arching concept for good audio purchases. In your quest for audio satisfaction, let value be your main guide. Value (V) is a simple proposition. It’s the highest musical realism (R) plus the most worthwhile features (F) for the lowest cost (C):
V = R+F/ C
This simple formula expresses how Value gets bigger whenever Realism plus Features increases or Cost drops. If either R or F increases alone, their sum increases. The opposite is also true. Clearly, the lower the cost and higher the audio performance and the more and better the useful features, the greater the value. That's audio system cost optimization in a nutshell.
Cosmetic aspects recede into the background but they don’t disappear. Looks matter because you display the gear that plays your music in your home. But your audio hardware doesn't have to resemble museum-quality art. How it sounds matters most. No need to get ugly gear, but remember, audio fashion bling contributes zero to sound.
Assuming it's consistent, peak musical experiences you seek, over the long haul, higher musical fidelity inevitably beats how impressed folks might be temporarily with your system's appearance. Please your ears and your heart first and let your eyes give your choices the nod. This is the path to true audio-induced happiness, unless you're an musical Philistine or you suffer from seriously compromised hearing. In those cases, just buy cheap stuff because music quality can't matter to you.
PERFORMANCE & FEATURES vs. COST
To decide on audio gear selection, first consider how you want to use your system. Then choose components that create the functionality you seek at the price/performance level you like. Everything available on iHi-Fi.com serves rewarding listening in a range from excellent, true-CD quality (16-bit) to stunning, audio-lover music quality (24-bit).
The iHi-Fi computer audio-based Music Systems deliver this range of musical performance at value prices because advanced technologies make real high fidelity possible at affordable costs. Also, I am only comfortable with offering gear I enjoy myself. I'm particular about audio and also frugal. Nothing less is acceptable.
~ Musical Performance – In music playback, quality means genuine high fidelity, that is, how much the music you hear is faithful to the original, recorded performance. Personal ability to listen and enjoy music varies wildly from one person to another.
Do you invest time, cash, attention, and thought in selecting and collecting music you love? Have you worked on developing listening skills you trust? Then the highest fidelity you can afford matters a lot.
If you only want some pop tunes playing while you putter around, your selections may sag toward low-cost gear and a quick decision without creating future regrets. However, if you soon hear stunning music for the first time, the whole game can change for you, and for the better, when you discover more pleasure, excitement, and inspiration in music.
What level of music quality excites you? Are you satisfied with true CD quality sound (16-bit/44.1 KHz files?) Or do you need superb, audio-lover performance (24-bit/96 KHz files or beyond?) Are you willing to add one special component (a tube buffer) simply to erase typical digital faults like harsh or lost timbres and digital noise?
Total cost for highest quality sound is still quite affordable at iHi-Fi compared to many old-school, geezer systems, or even compared to used high-end gear, or compared to the general present Hi-Fi market, generally. Audioengine gear is the good stuff at good prices so I love it and listen to it myself. After years of this music, I am not constantly disappointed by little details and always seeking the Holy Grail of audio like a butterfly.
~ Pricing and Discounts -- We don't inflate prices so we can offer you a discount. New Audioengine gear is simply not permitted to be discounted, so don't bother to search for discounts online. The company strictly protects their modest margins with a MAP policy. That sets minimum pricing in the marketplace and iHi-Fi willingly complies. If you want to save a buck, look for refurbished items or customer returns on an authorized dealer site. It's very doubtful you'll ever get brand new Audioengine components for less than retail.
Given the MAP policy, pricing for Audioengine products is essentially uniform throughout the US. At iHi-Fi, we appreciate it very much when you purchasing here on our website where you get the same products and the same deal with all the same benefits as if you bought directly from Audioengine. Please reward us for our service to you. It doesn't cost you anything above MAP when you buy here on iHi-Fi.com.
~ Mobility and Convenience – Will you listen in mostly in one place or be mobile? Do you want a room audio system, a take-along setup for headphone listening, or something that works for both? Are you thinking maybe small powered speakers to make your computer or a mobile device into a personal Hi-Fi? You can have both great sound and good mobility together. You can get Bluetooth for convenience and also dedicated Wi-Fi wireless for the best musical realism. Pick either one to save money if you're willing to settle for the limitations. Or get both types of wireless if you want to have the choice between connection convenience and excellent musical realism.
~ Personal, Room, or Multi-zone Listening – Are you happy with quality headphones? Or do you prefer to play music that fills a space? Or both, each at different times? Is a "near-field" desktop system or personal stereo good enough? Or do you want some distance between where you sit and the speakers? Maybe you want to sit near the middle of the room with the speakers facing you from over by a wall. Or you might even want to set up multiple audio zones in your home or business. All these setups are possible, and more.
~ Home Theatre -- You may be looking for a multi-channel home theatre setup that also has superb fidelity when music matters most, rather than clear dialog and sound effects. If so, be advised -- a multi-channel home theatre system that is just right for movie soundtracks is just wrong for music listening.
More speakers in a system doesn't necessarily make the sound better. Usually, all that processing for multi-channel degrades music quality some, but it can make the vampires, dinosaurs, explosions and gunfire sound multi-directional.
In the real world, music comes to your ears from a particular direction. If you hear it coming from surrounding speakers it doesn't sound like the musicians and composers intended. Hyped-up ads may lead you to think home theatre setups are best for all possible uses. If you can put your multi-channel setup into a 2-channel stereo mode, a home theatre setup has at least a possibly for good music listening. Otherwise, you need 2 systems, one for TV audio and another for music.
Television sound tracks often arrive with deplorable sound quality and nothing you can do on your end can make that better and also improve music. The sound is terminally wretched when you get it and even a very good, expensive music system can't fix a bad source. Garbage in, garbage out. Let me know if you want to really clear up the mostly-crappy quality of broadcast TV sound. I have a hot tip for you. But what it does is very bad for music even though murky dialog becomes crystal clear.
That said, sometimes the music served on TV is decent and iHi-Fi supports great musical fidelity with all the speakers you need for home theatre. You can use our speakers connected to any standard home theatre setup. And we can do the rear channels wirelessly so you don't have 5 or more speaker wire runs to install with long runs to the back.
~ Multi-zone Music -- If you want to hear the same music selection in up to 3 places in your home or workplace, pick a wireless technology from the Master Table below to transmit your music to these zones. In theory, the range can be up to 100 feet from the point of origin though that may become less depending on your local conditions. Both Bluetooth and dedicated Wi-Fi that won't affect your home Wi-Fi network are supported. I have personally tested the Wi-Fi setup and as long as your connection is not blocked by a large metal object like a fridge, it is as good as a wired connection. Mine works perfectly through 3 layers of steel-reinforced, concrete walls.
If you want each audio zone to have separate music selection control, that's a far more complex proposition that requires a system like Sonos for music tuning and distribution, but do yourself a favor -- use our powered speakers to make the music come alive in each audio zone. If you tend to buy anything Apple offers, be sure to use better speakers than they have on your distributed music system. Apple has been completely cavalier about sound quality for so long it's hard to trust them to reproduce music. Though I love and use their computers.
~ How Long To Shop -- Relax and take your time. I spent 6 enjoyable months researching and auditioning before I got my first true high fidelity, audio-lover system many years ago. This Guide should streamline that process but there is no substitute for training your ears to hear music well and developing the sensibility to respond to excellence and reject mediocrity or less. Read through the iHi-Fi blog and send in comments and questions. The answers will help your understanding, and the more you know, the better you will choose.
If you live in an urban area where you can experience a lot of live music, the more the better. Visit jazz clubs. Get a season pass to the Symphony Orchestra. Attend concerts and hang out at coffee houses but avoid excessively loud performances because they will damage your hearing forever. Also, make the rounds of various high-end audio boutiques. Not Best Buy or Target. Stop believing TV commercials. Develop some discernment of your own. Read a book about how to listen to music. Get smarter about what you're doing.
Most importantly, listen somewhere real high-end sound is accessible. Investigate locally-owned boutique Hi-Fi audio shops. Hang out and listen to their demos or whatever they are playing. Be sure to tell them you're training your ears so you're not ready to make an immediate purchase. Most shops will welcome you and encourage you to hang out. Find out what real high-end components and systems sound like. Learn some audio lingo.
Listen to the Staff's observations and keep all this up until you know how to listen well. You need to trust your own ears and your own judgment. It's not wise to rely on Facebook-type advice because you get a lot of conflicting opinions from wannabe's who are there to sound off, rather than credible facts from true experts. Don't default to blindly accepting someone else's tastes. Develop, know, and honor your own preferences. Question everything people say to you about music. When you have your values clear, mature discernment makes it easy to make good choices.
Keep your intended usage in mind as you consider features and listen to demos. Soon, the forthcoming, second segment of this guide will be posted. It's the continuation about about specific computer audio systems optimized for different purposes. In that discussion, I'll describe the most important features and the typical performance for several systems in the Master Table below. For now, it's important to get a feel for this kind of thinking.
If you approach selection thoughtfully and follow my guidance, you'll end up with gear that sounds good to fabulous because that's all that's offered here.
What gear do you get if you want a high value system and you're on a budget? Be practical -- start with your budget. Then find the performance and features that best create the listening experience you want at a cost you consider affordable. Adopt a long-term perspective that you may well add to, or upgrade, your system in the future.
If digital audio is a new direction for you, you might start smaller to get your feet wet and build up. Then you’ll invest wisely in a progression that will not bump you outside your comfort zone. However, you may under-buy at first, given your real needs, and later wish you had gone bigger. Not a tragedy. Nobody I know still relies solely on their first system. A superseded setup can always go to the kids, or in the kitchen.
ESSENTIAL AUDIO DEFINITIONS
~ Digital vs. Analog -- audio technology originated long before the digital computer. At the very beginning, it was entirely mechanical. Sound made waves in the air that pushed a needle on a metal film and that movement was captured as markings on a spinning drum. Then, a needle could track the groove the sound made in the drum and transmit the movement to a diaphragm in a primitive, mechanical speaker and something like the original sound would become audible. Shazam! Thomas Edison invented this phonograph almost 140 years ago.
Later, the historic inventors of electronic sound recording captured a tiny waveform that was an exact analogy of the sonically-induced movement of a microphone diaphragm. This waveform is the the much smaller origin of a larger copy -- the power wave required to drive a speaker to reproduce the original sound. All 3 waves (physical sonic impulses, microphone signal, and speaker drive waveform) are exactly the same shape but at different magnifications called amplitudes. They are analogies of the original sound that creates them. So we call these variable waves "analog."
On a device that makes them visual, they look like a wiggly line. That data can be impressed into a mechanical medium such as a vinyl disc or into a magnetic medium like iron-coated tape or recorded on foil-coated plastic with a laser. These physical versions can be read again as electrical signals by player devices. The signals are then amplified electronically and used to drive transducers that make sound in air again, called speakers.
As computers became prevalent, it was possible to transform analog sound data into digital values represented by "bits" and "bytes" that computers can store and process. This revolutionary change grew into many new possibilities for sound technology and processing. Digital recording and playback were developed.
To convert analog data into a digital format, a special encoding circuit was invented, called an ADC, which stands for "analog to digital converter." On one side of an ADC chip, the analog wave's wiggles go in. On the other side, digital codes emerge that represent the amplitude changes of the wave over time.
When these digitized data are fed into an opposite decoding chip called a DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) what comes out is that original analog waveform. That analog signal can then be amplified in circuitry that drives a speaker that pushes air, to reproduce the original sound, opposite of the microphone that recorded it. That part of the process works the same as it would without digital conversion in the middle.
Note that digital transduction is more direct and simpler, not including the more distortion-prone processes required to store and retrieve analog data mechanically or magnetically. Hence, it is inherently more accurate by using the converter chips' abilities to transduce data back and forth across the analog and digital domains.
Many advantages accrue from the translation to the digital domain. The data becomes impervious to electromagnetic distortion when it's small and weak. Possibilities for storage, retrieval, processing, and distribution are greatly enhanced in digital format. For one recent example, high fidelity music can be distributed via the internet without loss or distortion. Remember FM radio? That's as close as analog tech ever came to this remarkable accomplishment.
Perhaps you can appreciate the beauty of this technological achievement and how it empowers us to record, store, transmit, and play back music. In the end, the relevant upshot is that, in a digital audio record, data is stored in bits that are re-converted into analog power waves as they become sound again.
Therefore, every computer audio system relies on a component called a DAC to convert the music that is stored digitally on your computer or digital device back into a wave your speakers then make into music. The more bits that are used to represent the analog wave, the smoother that wave is when reconstituted, and the more faithful the sound becomes to the original musical notes. Standard granularities are at 16-bit and 24-bit depths. The difference is clearly audible and significant.
~ Digital vs. Analog Sources -- It follows logically that devices and systems for audio playback vary considerably depending on whether they are digital or analog. Analog playback always involves majestic-looking mechanics to track the time domain and create impulses. So you see spinning motors, belts, reels, arms, gears, lasers, and so on. Also, physical media like plastic discs or magnetic tape. You can see and feel all that stuff and the movement. Digital bits, by comparison, are entirely abstract.
In digital circuitry, a clock chip serves the time function rather than physical machines and their movement. Data pulses are invisible. In the end, the digital devices are metal boxes with wires going in and coming out. They get warm and may emit some light but otherwise, they are really boring to look at compared to analog playback devices. Maybe we should still put those equalizer displays on the front panels of digital components to remind us of a bygone era.
I think perhaps people tend to trust analog players more, and digital boxes less, and they feel somewhat entertained and comforted by all the visible gyrations of analog media. They see stuff happening and feel better about the situation. Sound without motion seems abstract. It eerily appears as if from nowhere. Computers looked more credible back in the '60's when they had those spinning reels on the tape drives.
Me? I'm all about the music and don't care much what happens between recording and playback as long as it sounds fabulous and is good to work with. Also, I literally grew up professionally with the digital computer so I have bits and bytes in my blood. In the end, it's hard to ignore how simply and reliably bits become music.
~ Core System -- An audio core system is an integrated assemblage of components that starts at receiving music data and ends with projecting audible music into your space through speakers. A specific example would be the components including a preamp, a stereo amplifier, and a set of speakers. An audio core system operates entirely in the analog realm. It's where music data becomes reborn as music once again. If the music data is digital, it must be converted to analog through a DAC before reaching the core system's input. The territorial division between the digital and analog domains is right in the middle of the ADC and DAC chips that convert the data.
The section of gear before the pre-amp stage I call the "audio data source" or simply "source." This section may be entirely analog in nature, such as older turntables or CD players or it may be digital, such as a laptop computer running a streaming audio app with USB output to a DAC. The DAC transforms the digitized music back into analog waveforms that the system core then amplifies to audible levels.
The computer audio systems I offer are also analog systems. They will take any music a source has, whether digital or analog, and play it, though you may need to use different routing for the different domains. This is simply details.
So music sources can be whatever the listener decides will deliver a slice of musical enjoyment they value. That could be ancient, plastic discs (LPs or CDs) along with either the required turntable or CD player. Both of those could also be an option. Or your source may be a digital device that streams on-board, stored music or music that originates from an online library or local network.
~ Powered Speakers -- It used to be that amplifiers were in one box and speakers in another. Then the electronics shrank and some wag decided to stuff the amps inside the speakers. This eliminated a whole audio component box from the core system. We call these powered speakers because the power (from the internal amps) to push the driver cones is inside. I often wonder what all that vibration that is wiggling the circuitry does to the music and I can't quite understand how they can sound so wonderful. I'm tempted to open them up and install anti-vibration on the circuit boards.
~ Subwoofer -- Human hearing covers a range from a low of about 20Hz (20 cycles per second) to about 20KHz (20,000 cycles per second.) Speaker drivers have rated cut-off points beyond which they can't reach, given limits for how fast or slowly the driver cones can wiggle and how much air they can push and still make music well. The audible frequency band is usually covered by 2 or 3 speakers that hand off to each other as the sound requires.
Speaker drivers of different sizes and constructions can reach frequencies within a characteristic range. Hence we have little ones that go fast (tweeters,) big ones that go very slowly (woofers,) and medium sized ones that work in the middle area (midrange drivers.) A subwoofer covers the very lowest-pitched sounds where the smaller ones can't go. A midrange speaker can't reach that low.
You need one of these "subs" in your audio system if you want to hear the lowest-pitched part of the music. They usually cover from about 50 to 60 Hz down to maybe 16 Hz at the lowest. Typically they have built-in, specialized amplifiers that make them powered speakers. Serious listeners need to hear this part of the music from bass fiddles, drums, and even voices. And here's the rub -- the different frequencies of music all have harmonic components that affect each other. If you amputate the low bass, all those harmonics it has that would interact with all the rest of the music are gone so that influence is lost and the music becomes somehow less than pure. This is the real reason you need a sub, not only to actually hear the kettle drums, etc. Even chamber music needs a sub.
~ The Master Table -- What if you had all the component prices together in one place where you could compare them side by side and in combinations? Then wouldn't it be a lot easier to evaluate and select possible component choices?
Copious documentation on all Audioengine gear is available in the blog posts and especially in the catalog sections of iHi-Fi.com. For each component, you will find Features, Technical Specifications, Frequently Asked Questions, a Gallery of photos, and Reviews by various industry raters.
The following comprehensive master pricing table compares costs for nearly everything Audioengine offers. In this array, example iHi-Fi Music System prices range from the lowest cost up through increasing performance levels to highest costs for the brand. Decide what level works for you. Select a cost you like for the best performance and features that fit your budget.
The Master Table is organized to reveal system costs for all DAC-plus-speaker combinations, called "core systems." Costs for all possible system cores appear in green and adding the S8 Subwoofer (a very significant enhancement) is in gray. And no, you shouldn't leave out the Sub. If you have cost pain, add it in later. I'm convinced you'll be glad you got it even though the A5+ and HD6 have very good bass for what they are.
With this comparison tool, you can easily see differences in costs for 16-bit versus 24-bit DACs, and how much built-in Bluetooth costs compared to a separate Bluetooth receiver. You can scope the cost of having both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi wireless channels in one system so you have the choice between convenience or highest musical fidelity in all listening situations. You can see the cost a Subwoofer adds to your dream system. You can compare everything and make rational, cost-informed choices.
The Master Table
NOTE WELL -- Keep in mind that all the crossing points between speakers and DAC's in the table don't necessarily make the most sense functionally. Take care to match the capabilities of a DAC you like to Speakers you are considering before making a purchase. The table reveals possibilities. It doesn't make recommendations. If you would like assistance in making a selection, simply shoot me an email using the "Contact" button in the blue Navigation Bar above and I will gladly help you sort things out. -- Joseph Riden, Owner, iHi-Fi.com
Master Table Notes
1. All prices are in US dollars and current as of 6/13/2017.
2. The A5+ and P4 have show prices. These are higher for the Bamboo models only, shown in italics.
3. The N22 Amp is bundled with the P4 Speakers but the Speakers are available separately if your existing system already has an amplifier.
4. These are the MAP prices at which, or above which, any Audioengine Authorized Dealer is allowed to sell. Any lower price means something is unusual about the offer. Maybe lower-priced items are returns, refurbished, or used.
5. A DAC is a converter that makes digital music files playable through speakers. A computer audio system comprises your music source device, plus a "core system" of DAC plus speakers. You need the following in addition to a source device:
- A DAC (wireless or wired)
- OR powered speakers
- OR passive speakers and an amplifier
- AND a subwoofer to hear the low-pitched sound accurately
- AND possibly headphones (with a tube headphone amp for best music) if you want to listen privately
6. Often a DAC chip is built into another component rather than being implemented in a separate DAC audio component box. This is the case with the B1, B2, and HD6. However, in these, the internal DAC only works with the Bluetooth input. For non-Bluetooth input you need a DAC outside the Speakers.
7. These are core audio systems. You provide the music sources.
8. Connections are possible through digital USB, PCM optical (toslink,) or analog audio via 3.5 mm or RCA.
9. N22 amp can be replaced if you have an amp you prefer. The N22 Amplifier has an excellent headphone amp built-in.
11. The D1, D2, and D3 will drive most headphones directly. An additional headphone amp is not required except with hard-to-drive headphones. Adding a tube headphone amp will most likely give you the best sound.
12. An analog audio source such as a turntable or CD player can be easily introduced at the dual audio inputs of powered speakers or the N22. Whatever input is active will be heard.
EXAMPLES -- HOW TO USE THE TABLE
Have a look at the table. To consider a core system, pick a green price at row/column intersections that works for you, and evaluate the gear called out at the row and column headings for that price by clicking on "Audioengine Store" in the blue navigation bar.
For example, at $169 total it's the D1 DAC with your USB device and headphones. For $568 total you could add the A5+ speakers. For $917 total you could add the S8 Subwoofer and for $987 total those speakers could be Bamboo. Etcetera. Try it for stuff that interests you.
Another example -- The P4 Passive Speakers with the N22 Amplifier make a core system with any DAC. Listen with speakers when you work at your desk or throughout the room. Use headphones for private listening or for the musical benefits. The speakers also fill even a larger room with stunning sound when the recordings have what it takes. Add the S8 to fill in the lower bass. Total cost is apparent at $966 for Black and for $1062 your speakers could be Bamboo, which looks great and sounds a bit better because the cabinet is stiffer.
WHAT ABOUT USED AUDIO GEAR?
Searching for used audio gear is an option. You could buy various components from obsolete technologies, and “save money” while you assemble a decent-sounding stereo system. You’ll eventually get great sound if you study up and don’t make egregious mistakes.
However, any used gear would lag behind the latest and best technology unless you add new gear into your mix. The good news is, even if you just “got to have” a turntable or CD player and spin plastic discs, you can still include the latest and best digital technology in the same system. So you can upgrade with digital or build a hybrid system that includes both.
The used-gear strategy is born to lose in today’s rapidly evolving audio tech environment. It has one advantage, though. You don’t have to worry about obsolescence because you are surrendering to it. You’ll probably dead-end at some performance level and with a limited music selection if you stick with analog sources. But if you enjoy this, why not? I need a lot of new music to keep me happy.
With a computer audio system and digital sources, your music library is virtually unlimited. It’s easy to discover and acquire new music you love. One streaming service’s library contains over 16 million songs. These websites offer suggestions for new music you might like and as you follow up your collection continues to grow without practical limits.
Buy a used piece of audio gear and it’s yours. The digital edge empowers you to get new gear with excellent warranties, even on a limited budget. An audition policy reduces risk and allows you greater freedom in your quest for superb audio. When you get a month-long return period, you can check out each component you add, in your own home, and hear it working with the rest of your system. You can return iHi-Fi gear (even a whole system) that doesn’t contribute better performance or that fails to please you.
You might think you can’t afford new gear. Think again. Many new components sound better and cost far less than used, obsolete gear. The Table above lists modest systems starting at $249 because the A2+ is a complete core system with a USB DAC inside. The upper limit is just over $1500 for a complete and high-value system.
Another option that makes sense is to look for a refurbished unit you want from the Refurbished section of the Audioengine website. Dealers are allowed to sell returns under MAP, and Audioengine refurbishes returns and makes them available on their website with the same warranty as brand new gear.
A recent post on iHi-Fi.com discussed the way many audio lovers could actually sell off the systems they already have and buy all new, better-sounding gear for a fraction of the money they invested, making a significant gain. Impossible, you think?
If that sounds radical, know that it’s actually fairly easy to do. I did exactly that with my own expensive tube audio system and I never looked back. I made large performance gains by buying down (in price) to a new computer audio system that’s much smaller and far more versatile. This may be hard for some heavily-invested audio lovers to hear but not so for folks with small investments in systems who are looking to make a good start.
Adventurous non-believers can try a bit at a time. I predict many will become computer audio converts. As I downsized my system to upgraded performance I also stopped ripping and upsampling CDs to get great sounding 24-bit files. The D2 DAC in my updated system automatically upsamples on the fly, saving huge effort. Here is one place where best music and convenience reinforce each other rather than conflict. That makes me smile.
The D2 pads lower bit depths to 24 bits through interpolation. The sound then approximates what derives from the precise waveforms of the original music. It's amazing the improvement this makes in the sound. No more hours of shopping for CDs, ripping them on a computer, storing them and then finding them to play. There's lots of CD quality music available to stream online now and the UI's of the player apps for Spotify, Qobuz, and Tidal make it easy to find what you want to play and to locate new music to love.
This concludes the Introduction section of iHi-Fi's Gear Guide. Please watch for the next section, coming soon.
Please Help Us Help You
Given the MAP policy, pricing for Audioengine products is essentially uniform throughout the US. Naturally, we appreciate it very much when you purchase here on our website where you get the same products and the same deal with all the same benefits as if you bought directly from Audioengine.
iHi-Fi is an Authorized Audioengine Dealer. At iHi-Fi.com, no tax is collected, shipping is always free in the Lower 48 United States, and you get the manufacturer’s standard warranty. Also, you can audition, hear how your new gear sounds in your own home, connected to your own system, for 30 days. If you want to send something back, just do it within 30 days, in new condition, with all the packaging, and we refund the full purchase price. We support you directly and manufacturer's support is available should you ever need it.
Always call or email iHi-Fi before shipping any return.
Please reward us for our service to you and for this free guide by purchasing Audioengine gear from our Catalog HERE. Check back to get the forthcoming next section of this guide soon.