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What is hi-fi audio, and how to get started on any budget

There’s a lot of confusion as to what “high fidelity” means nowadays. The streaming industry has changed the game once and for all, but also the technologies used to reproduce audio faithfully keep evolving, transcending what we know about accuracy and immersiveness in sonic reproduction.

Today, there are many paths a music enthusiast can take to upgrade their listening experience, which is why I feel it’s time to shed some light on the concept of hi-fi audio, what defines it, and how you can create your first setup, whether fully analog or digital.

About me

Marco Sebastiano Alessi, writer at Higher Hz

I’m a musician, music producer, and audiophile with over a decade of experience in the world of audio engineering and the science of sound.

I’m passionate about how each component of a hi-fi system can affect the soundstage and how crafting our unique sound signature can make us fall in love with music all over again.

For the last few years, I’ve been writing about high-quality gear that can elevate audio reproduction, hopefully helping many new music enthusiasts enter the world of high-fidelity, knowing they can revolutionize their approach to audio without spending a fortune.


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What is hi-fi audio?

Hi-fi stands for high-fidelity and is essentially audio that’s as faithful to the original as possible when reproduced through a sound system.

Many factors contribute to such “faithfulness,” including low distortion levels, high signal-to-noise ratio, and realistic channel separation.

The result is audio that’s accurately and transparently reproduced without any unwanted noise or changes.

To make things clearer, let’s compare hi-fi to its opposite, lo-fi.

Lo-fi music is a genre with a distinctive low-quality sound, featuring crackling and warping sounds from a vinyl record or broken-sounding instruments.

Hi-fi audio is diametrically the opposite, with a clean and crisp audio reproduction, free from distortion or unwanted sonic artifacts.

Hedd headphones and SPL amplifier
Hi-fi setup | Image: Higher Hz

From a more technical perspective, high-fidelity audio is defined as music files that have a higher sample rate and/or bit depth than CDs, which have a sample rate of 44.1 KHz and a 16-bit bit depth.

So long as at least one of these numbers is higher than those of a CD, the audio is considered to be hi-fi and can also be called “lossless” audio.

Now, you should ask: what the heck are sample rate and bit depth?

Sample rate and bit depth

Both sample rate and bit depth are fundamental to the way the digital-to-analog conversion process works.

When audio information is sent into a digital-to-analog converter, the DAC takes snapshots or samples of the digital information to convert it into an analog waveform.

The frequency at which the DAC takes these samples is called the sample rate. For instance, a CD has a sample rate of 44.1 kHz, which means that 44,100 samples are taken per second.

The bit depth is responsible for the resolution of each sample and defines how many amplitude values can be recorded each time the audio is sampled.

The higher the bit depth, the more amplitude values can be recorded, which gives a more accurate audio reproduction. The most common bit depths are 16-bit, 24-bit, and 32-bit.

Hi-fi audio can have a sample rate of anywhere between 96 kHz and 192 kHz at 24-bit depth or even higher. It’s commonly accepted that the higher the bit depth and sample rate, the more precise the audio reproduction is.

The essential components

Now, let’s focus on what it takes to create a hi-fi sound system.

For the sake of clarity, I divided this section into two parts: one for the analog-oriented audiophiles who want a playback system for their physical music collection and the other for those looking for more portable solutions, including digital audio players, headphones, portable DACs, and the streaming services where you can listen to music in its highest quality.

Analog sound system

There are four items that are absolutely necessary when setting up a hi-fi system to enjoy your physical music collection: the turntable (or CD or tape player), the phono preamp, the power amp, and the speakers.

Turntables and speakers are undoubtedly the essential elements of your setup, and a big part of your budget (around 60%) should cover these two items.

Turntable + phono preamp + power amp + speakers


I’m sure we all know what a turntable looks like. It comprises a circular platform called a platter, a tonearm holding the needle (stylus), which is encapsulated into the cartridge, and the motor that spins the platter.

Fluance RT85 turntable
Fluance RT85 turntable | Image: Fluance

Each element of the turntable is crucial to deliver the timeless analog sound reproduction we’re all familiar with.

Phono preamp

A phono preamp is a device that amplifies and equalizes the delicate audio signal produced by the vinyl player.

It’s a vital element that defines the reproduction quality of your sound system and can be found as a standalone unit or integrated with amplifiers or receivers.

Essentially, a phono preamp amplifies the signal to the level when a power amp can take the sound and amplify it to a higher power level so that the sound can reach the speakers and your ears.

Furthermore, a power amp plays an important role in impedance matching and preventing overloads and short circuits.


Finally, the speakers, or, to be precise, the passive speakers.

Contrary to their active counterparts, passive speakers do not have the built-in electronics necessary to amplify the audio signal on their own, so they require the aforementioned preamp and power amp to function.

Elac Debut 2.0 B5.2 with speaker stand
Stand-mounted bookshelf speaker | Image: Elac

Speakers generally feature multiple drivers: woofers for low frequencies, tweeters for high frequencies, and mid-range drivers.

Passive speakers are the final step in the process of bringing audio to life through a hi-fi system, and their role is to reproduce frequencies perfectly across the whole spectrum.

Modern audiophile system

Whether you want to enjoy high-quality music on the go or at your office, you might want to explore more compact and versatile solutions than a traditional hi-fi system.

Luckily, there are endless solutions for the music enthusiast who wants portability without sacrificing quality.

There are clear benefits in opting for a more minute hi-fi system, mainly simplicity, versatility, and a more accessible price.

In a nutshell, here’s what you need to create your portable high-quality sound system:

Hi-res audio source + DAC + headphones

In terms of quality, the weakest link in this chain will ultimately define the quality of your listening experience. For instance, a great pair of headphones, combined with a high-end DAC, won’t improve the quality of a poorly encoded MP3 file.

Let’s take a look at each element and see how you can get the best sonic results.

Audio source

As I mentioned earlier, the sound quality of an audio file is defined by its sample rate and bit depth, and you get the highest quality with the so-called lossless files (FLAC, ALAC, MQA, etc.) and uncompressed formats (WAV, AIFF).

Due to the detailed sound representation, these files take up a lot of disk space and are harder to stream due to their higher bandwidth demands. For instance, most Bluetooth headphones are not able to accurately reproduce hi-res audio.

Therefore, you need high-quality formats if you want to enjoy music at its best. To do so, you’ll either need to get audio files in lossless or uncompressed files and save them on a device you can connect to your headphones.

You can also stream music in hi-res. Spotify or YouTube Music do not support hi-res audio streaming, but platforms like Tidal, Qobuz, Amazon Music, and Apple Music do.


Digital-to-analog converters (DACs) are all around us: they’re in your smartphone, laptop, car stereo, and so on. Basically, it’s what allows you to hear digitalized audio.

While all these devices offer DACs, the quality of the conversion varies significantly and is usually quite bad since there aren’t many manufacturers interested in delivering premium-quality audio reproduction on everyday-use devices.

Enter dedicated DACs. These are portable digital-to-analog converters whose sole purpose is to improve the audio quality of the music reproduced.

They come in many sizes and shapes, from USB DACs to DAC/amp combos (many of them come with amplifiers included), Bluetooth DACs, and so on.

iFi Zen DAC V2 DAC/amp combo
Compact desktop DAC/amp combo | Image: iFi

In the following section, I’ll name a few DACs I think can greatly boost your sound, but for now, let me just say these devices can revolutionize your listening sessions in ways you never thought possible.

They can improve the clarity and spatiality of your digital collection, making you hear things you didn’t realize were there in the first place, especially if you’re new to hi-fi audio.

Digital audio player

The ultimate portable solution for audiophiles is modern digital audio players or DAPs. Imagine your good old MP3 player, but on steroids, and you’ll get the idea of what these powerful devices are.

DAPs are designed to provide you with an extremely accurate sound, thanks to high-quality DACs and built-in amplifiers to make your music sound better.

They can integrate with most streaming services, give you access to your digital music library, and offer a plethora of options to customize sound reproduction.

You can get one for $100 or spend thousands of dollars, their price depending on the quality of components and faithfulness in audio reproduction.

Perhaps the easiest, and most cost-effective way, of entering the audiophile world is by playing hi-res music through high-quality DAP and headphones. This leads me to the final component of modern, portable sound systems.


I could go on for days talking about headphones, but I promise I’ll try to be brief.

Headphones can be open-back, closed-back, over-ear, on-ear, or in-ear (in-ear monitors are a popular choice among audiophiles these days). That’s just to say that high-quality headphones can come in countless shapes and sizes.

What’s important is that they all provide a level of accuracy, detail, and fidelity that makes you hear the music you love in a whole new way.

Sennheiser HD 600
Sennheiser HD 600 headphones | Image: Higher Hz

If you want headphones that can enhance your listening experience, chances are you’ll need to spend, at the very least, a hundred dollars (a notable exception is the AKG K72).

In my experience, the 300-dollar mark is the sweet spot for the best value for money. Below, I’ll recommend a few options for the best sound experience on the go.

Compatibility and customization

As in many things involving audio technology, options to customize your hi-fi system are endless.

For instance, you can combine a preamp and power amp into a single unit (integrated amplifier) or get a turntable with an analog-to-digital converter to digitize your vinyl collection.

As you’re creating your own sound system, you need to ensure each element is not only compatible with the others but also that it doesn’t negatively affect the final sound.

For instance, even with a high-end turntable, music won’t sound pristine if you pair it with subpar loudspeakers. Therefore, I suggest buying components of similar quality to achieve a balanced sound.

Portable audio systems can’t be customized as much as their cumbersome counterparts, but minor adjustments can be made to ensure a smoother sound.

Portable audio players offer EQ options that can help you customize audio reproduction, and careful calibration can help you make the most of your headphones.

Each pair of headphones might require dedicated EQ adjustments if you want them to truly shine.

Hi-fi setup examples

If you’re feeling overwhelmed and don’t know where to start, here are some beginner setups that can help you enter the world of high-fidelity audio.

All items below are interchangeable, so if you feel you want to mix my recommendations, you can do so without issues.

$770 analog sound system

Audio-Technica LP60XBT + Yamaha A-S301 + Sony SS-CS5

An affordable setup that delivers a pristine sound without breaking the bank.

The Sony SS-CS5 is a formidable speaker that excels in small to medium environments, bringing to life a high-fidelity sound that will upgrade your listening experience.

Yamaha budget hi-fi setup
A-S301 in a budget hi-fi setup | Image: Yamaha

Similarly, the turntable AT-LP60XBT and the integrated amplifier A-S301 perform admirably for their price, with enough power and sonic accuracy to breathe new life into your record collection.

$1200 analog sound system

Pro-Ject E1 + Denon PMA-600NE + Elac B5.2

Slightly more expensive than the previous trio, this is definitely the setup I’d go for if I were a beginner audiophile.

The PMA-600NE is legendary among music listeners on a budget. With its Pure Analog technology, this is the perfect integrated amplifier to enhance the warmth of your records.

A pair of Elac Debut 2.0 B5.2 will give you the sonic transparency and sense of spatiality typical of passive speakers two or three times its price.

Finally, the Pro-Ject E1: aesthetically stunning, solidly built, and with a captivating sound, this is a record player that you might keep for a lifetime.

$5000 analog sound system

Fluance RT85 + Marantz Model 30 + KEF LS50 Meta

Here’s my final recommendation for those who are willing to spend more to get perfect sound accuracy from day one.

To me, the KEF LS50 Meta is the speaker for audiophiles. Reasonably priced and with an enveloping and transparent sound that’ll leave you speechless, the LS50 Meta exudes sonic clarity and elegance, whichever genre you play.

KEF LS50 Meta in turntable setup
LS50 Meta speaker in a record player setup | Image: KEF

To make the most of such an astounding speaker, you want a turntable and integrated amplifier that is just as performing.

The rich and detailed sound amplified by the Marantz Model 30 provides an immersive experience with perfect stereo imaging, even in big environments, enhanced by the precision and musical accuracy of the Fluance RT85.

$280 portable sound system

Lossless files/hi-res streaming + iFi Zen DAC V2 + AKG K72

This is the cheapest combination I can think of that allows you to experience a detailed soundstage.

Do you want to find out whether high-fidelity audio is for you without spending a fortune? With less than $300, you can get everything you need to get started, and most of all, you’ll have an audio system in place that you won’t feel the need to upgrade anytime soon.

The iFi Zen DAC V2 is an exceptional DAC that outperforms gear three times its price. It’s a powerful digital-to-analog converter with a plethora of connectivity options and a compatible with most formats widely available. I used it for a long time for my office sound system, and it’s a gem.

The AKG K72 headphones provide an impressive soundstage for their price, with a subtly enhanced low end that makes the music more enjoyable without sacrificing neutrality.

They’re not audiophile-grade headphones, but for $50, or even $100, you won’t find anything that sounds nearly as good.

Subscriptions to streaming services that offer hi-res audio are around $10-15 per month.

$2100 portable sound system

FiiO M17 + HiFiMan Sundara

This is where I think you get the best value for money.

The HiFiMan Sundara are outstanding open-back headphones with dynamism and airiness that’ll enhance the beauty of your collection. At $300, they offer an exceptional soundstage you won’t get bored of easily.

FiiO M17 portable hi-res audio player
M17 portable hi-res audio player | Image: FiiO

The FiiO M17 is by far my favorite DAP. Powerful and stable, with Bluetooth connectivity, upgradeable storage capacity, and plenty of sound customization options, the M17 can be the perfect home for your lossless audio collection.

$4500 portable sound system

Astell&Kern A&ultima SP3000 + Beyerdynamic T1

If your budget goes beyond $5000, what about getting la crème de la crème?

The A&ultima SP3000 is rightfully considered the ultimate DAP in terms of sound reproduction and durability, a luxurious item that combines impeccable design with cutting-edge audio technology.

Similarly, the Beyerdynamic T1 can completely change the way you appreciate music, with a wide and hyper-accurate soundstage that adds realism to every composition. You’ll hardly find headphones to compare with this beauty.

Hi-Fi disposition

The way your hi-fi system sounds will also depend largely on the room where it’s placed. Without getting too technical, large rooms will require more powerful speakers and higher volumes to faithfully reproduce the entire audio spectrum.

When it comes to speakers’ disposition, you should place them at least two feet away from the wall to give room to get a more balanced sound. Speakers should be placed between 4 to 8 feet apart, depending, again, on the room’s size.

Sony SS-CS5 used as rear surround speakers
Sony SS-CS5 used as rear surround speakers | Image: Sony

If you want to get the most out of your sound system, the tweeter (the smallest cone of the speaker, reproducing the higher frequencies) should be at your ear height. Getting a couple of stands will help you explore more options to find the perfect sound.

All in all, your biggest enemy is vibration, which occurs when different elements of your hi-fi system affect each other.

For instance, if you listen to loud music on vinyl and your turntable is on the same table as your speakers, chances are vibrations from the speakers will have an impact on the music.

There’ll be a lot of trial and error involved, but in the end, you’ll get a hi-fi system that satisfies your needs and perfectly aligns with your environment.

Digital or analog: Which is right for you?

In this article, I indistinctively talked about digital and analog audio because both systems can offer valuable solutions to audiophiles.

However, it’s worth discussing the differences between these two technologies in hi-fi audio so you can see (and hear) for yourself which one is right for you.

Simply put, digital audio converts sound waves into digital data through a process called sampling, which allows it to be stored, manipulated, and transmitted as code.

When the sample rate and bit depth offer high performance, digital audio can be extremely precise and recreate the analog sound waves with absolute transparency. If you’re into music production, I’m sure you’re already familiar with the concept.

On the other hand, analog audio creates a representation of sound waves using electrical voltage, which copies their amplitude. In this way, a sound system captures and reproduces audio signals in a form that’s similar to the original sound wave, providing the warm and natural sound you hear on records.

Both digital and analog audio have their pros and cons.

Digital audio is more reliable in terms of clear reproduction, less susceptible to external noises and distortions, and more space efficient, making it easier to edit and manipulate. However, it tends to sound colder and more analytical than its analog counterpart.

Analog audio has a natural and warm sound quality that audiophiles love, but it can easily add noise and distortion to the sound, it’s very reliant on the quality of their physical medium and difficult to edit and manipulate.

Which one you should go for depends on many factors. If you value portability, ease of use, and a more analytical sound, digital audio is the best option.

On the other hand, if you’re looking to recreate the warm vibe of analog audio and want to make the most of your record collection, an analog sound system is the obvious solution.

A few words on budget

You can spend thousands of dollars on a hi-fi system and be unsatisfied with the quality of music reproduced simply because you don’t know how to make the most of it or because it’s not the best system for the designated room.

You can get a great turntable and speakers for a few hundred dollars, and in the right environment, they can reproduce a clear, detailed soundscape. All you have to do is plan in advance, understand what you need, and how much you’re willing to spend.

If you already have an idea of the turntable you want, go ahead and buy speakers that are within the same price range. In this way, you’ll enhance the possibilities of your sound system and make the most of your budget.

Aside from the four essential items, you’ll have to consider other expenses such as cables, stands, headphones, and anything else you think might upgrade the sound.

Frequently asked questions

Here are some of the most frequently asked questions about high-fidelity audio and audiophile system setup.

Should I buy new hi-fi gear or go used?

New hi-fi gear is the best option if you want the latest technology and the warranty that comes with new items. Second-hand hi-fi gear is the best if you’re into vintage audio, want to make the best bang for your buck, and are knowledgeable enough to know how to find and eventually fix your gear.

Will I hear the difference between hi-fi and normal audio?

With the right equipment, the difference between hi-fi and normal audio is quite evident. However, it does take practice and the appropriate equipment to truly appreciate it.

Where can I listen to hi-fi audio and test my setup?

Streaming services that offer hi-res streaming, like Qobuz or Tidal, are a great starting point. Or get an album on Bandcamp and download it in a lossless format.

How much should I spend on my first system?

There’s no golden rule here, but I think spending about $1000 on an analog sound system (turntable, amp, preamp, and speakers) and $500 on a digital sound system (DAP or DAC + headphones) is enough to get started.

How do I balance my system for optimal sound?

First off, speaker placement: they should be evenly spaced and not obstructed by anything. Make sure there are no resonant elements in your listening room, like big glass windows, and remove excessive reverb with carpets and curtains. Finally, make sure every element of your gear works seamlessly.

If you tick all these boxes, your audio system will work normally.

Do quality cables really matter at the early stages?

Absolutely. Cables can cause distortion, add artifacts, and disrupt the natural connection between every component of your sound system.

I’d recommend you invest in sturdy cables, keep them clean, and check them regularly to ensure your hi-fi system works as it should.

Can I mix and match different brands for my components?

That’s the beauty of hi-fi audio: the possibility to customize your sound system by mixing different brands together to create your distinctive sound signature.

But before you purchase a new item, do your research, or contact the manufacturer, to double-check it works well with the rest of your system.

Do room acoustics matter?

Yes, room acoustics matter a lot! They’re a crucial component of your system’s sound signature.

Audio frequencies interact with the environment, bouncing on walls and being absorbed by elements in the room. The same hi-fi system will sound differently in a smaller or bigger room.

Final thoughts

Setting up your first hi-fi system is an enjoyable and rewarding experience: your listening sessions will become moments of focus and relaxation, and each album you place on your turntable will feel unique.

Your music collection will be tangible proof of your passion and dedication to music, and songs you have listened to a thousand times will sound more complex and deeper than ever before.

Your journey to become an audiophile starts today. Good luck!