Though you might struggle convincing the bank manager when asking for that loan, the fact remains: your hi-fi system is never complete.
Thankfully, though, for most of us there are ways to upgrade the performance of our existing kit and still put food on the table. Even better, some of them are free.
So if you’ve still some way to go before you can afford that new pair of speakers or an amplifier capable of powering Ally Pally, give some of these suggestions a whirl and you may be surprised with just how much you can eke out of what you already have.
1. Adjust placement and positioning
These Neat Iota Alphas like being placed close to a wall, but are flexible with which way the tweeters face
Hopefully you spent some time positioning your speakers when you got them, at least to have them facing the right way. Placing them close to any wall will reinforce their low-frequency output. The idea of this may appeal but, on most models, doing this also spoils bass agility and precision. Most are designed to be at least 30cm clear of a rear wall and a minimum of a metre or so from any side walls. Pointing the speakers inwards towards the listening position will help to firm-up the stereo imaging, but go too far and the soundstage width will suffer.
It's not just speakers that benefit from careful placement. Essentially, you want the rest of your kit placed away from your speakers (as far as the room allows) in order to restrict any vibrations that can tamper with the sound.
Especially, you ought to avoid positioning your system between your speakers: though it might look tidier, and the symmetry more attractive, it’ll spoil the stereo imaging.
2. Maximise your power supply
There are varying lengths to which you can go in order to better power your system. The simplest is merely to ensure the mains plugs you’re using are clean (best done by treating the pins with a cleaning solution - and ensuring they're dry...) and all the components are connected as close together as possible: this means not plugging in your preamp on one side of the room and your power amp on the other. This improves system grounding, and so helps sound quality.
You can go even further and give your hi-fi a dedicated feed from your fuse box. This will bypass everything else plugged into the mains that will be adding noise to the signal - from your TV to the fridge. Again, it probably isn’t a length worth going to for your Denon micro system, but there can be greater gains to be made the higher up the food chain you go.
3. Remove the grilles
These Totem Sky speakers sound better with the grilles off
Speaker grilles are great for keeping dust and pets off the drivers, but they do get in the way a bit. For the most part engineers tune speakers with the grilles off, so leaving them in place effectively places a barrier between you and the sound being emitted.
Knowing this, said grilles are made to be as thin and unobtrusive as possible, but if you take them off and have a look at the frame and material you can imagine how sound will still be affected. If you’ve the energy to remove and replace the grilles each time you use your speakers, you needn’t really compromise either on the protection or optimum performance of your speakers.
More after the break
4. Support your speakers...
If your standmounters are still propped up on the box they came in, now is the time to invest in some proper stands before we call the cops. Simply, you want your speakers to be as rigid as possible, so any movement of the drive-unit diaphragm goes into moving air rather than the speaker cabinet.
For owners of floorstanders, make sure those spikes are screwed in to the base of your speakers. If you have a suspended wooden floorboards a decent trick is to drill a few screws into the ground for the spikes to sit in - that way your speakers will stay rigidly in place.
Stability isn’t exclusively to do with support, however: your drivers will also be bolted into place, and making sure every so often that those fixings are tight – while being sure not to overtighten – is decent practice.
5. ...and the rest of your kit
Atacama Evoque 60-40 SE - stable and stylish support for your hi-fi
If you’ve gone to those lengths to support and isolate your speakers, you owe the same courtesy to the rest of your system as well. The simplest way to get your kit singing is to invest in a designated hi-fi rack, though there’s no shame in frugality if you’re an able craftsperson.
If you go the DIY route, just remember the ideal support is perfectly level, low-resonance and placed as far away from sources of vibration as possible.
A floorstanding support will work fine on a hard concrete floor, though with a record player the same support will emphasise footfall on a suspended wooden floor. If that’s what you have, we recommend investing in a dedicated wall shelf.
6. Add a DAC
The £400 Chord Mojo is a fine upgrade over most built-in DACs
If you’ve not already invested in a designated outboard digital-to-analogue converter, doing so will bring noticeable benefits.
Simply put, the burden of converting a digital signal, those ones and zeros, into an analogue one will be lifted from the rest of your kit and taken on by a component specially designed to do the job. A bit like having someone do your tax return for you so you can focus on more important things like going to the pub.
While it won’t make bad hi-fi sound great, your system’s performance can benefit in every regard when paired with a capable, separate DAC.
MORE: Best DACs 2017
7. Upgrade your phono stage
The £85 Rega Fono Mini A2D is one of our favourite phono preamps
This one is restricted to those who have a turntable in their system, of course, but even if your record player or amplifier has a phono stage built in, as with an outboard DAC, you could improve performance by upgrading with a dedicated one.
A phono stage provides extra amplification – the output of your cartridge can be in the order of a thousand times less than a typical CD player – and equalises the tonal balance, which, because of vinyl’s physical limitations, is skewed heavily toward the higher frequencies.
It’s an intricate process, so having a separate component devoted to the task really makes sense.
MORE: Best phono preamps 2017
8. Add a Bluetooth receiver
This one speaks for itself: adding Bluetooth connectivity to your hi-fi system opens a whole world of possibilities. While Bluetooth has its limitations – and you wouldn’t want solely to drive £20-grand’s worth of speakers with albums uploaded to YouTube – its convenience is unarguable.
We have also reviewed a number of DACs that will add wireless connectivity to your system at the same time as performing their primary objective.
9. Upgrade your cabling
Chord Company Clearway speaker cables - £10/m
When it comes to cables, there are those who believe using anything more conductive than string will do the job and that spending money on speaker cables and/or interconnects is a waste. All we can tell you is that the differences in performance between certain cables are clear to our ears.
That isn’t to say spending more means you’ll necessarily get a better sound, and those gains will again be dependent on the capabilities of the rest of your kit, but the relationship between the various elements of your system can be as much to do with what’s connecting them as the aptitude of each component.
10. Get your system serviced
There are all sorts of things a dealer is able to do when servicing your kit, from giving it a once-over to making sure it’s all working as it should to replacing small parts that may need it and suggesting specific system upgrades that will offer you the greatest sonic returns.
As you’ll read in our reviews, the best product for one person may not be the best for the next, and with dealers knowing the products they stock as well as anyone, you can at least be guided in the right direction before wading through reams of reviews and testing every product on the market for yourself.