Your hi-fi system is never complete. Just don't tell that to your bank manager when asking for a loan.
But upgrading your system doesn't have to mean racking up a big bill. In fact, some upgrades are completely free. That's right, they cost nada, zilch, nothing at all.
So, if you’ve a way to go before you can afford that new pair of speakers or an amplifier capable of powering Ally Pally, give these suggestions a whirl. You may be surprised at just how much extra performance you can eke out of your existing kit.
Adjust placement and positioning
Hopefully you spent some time positioning your speakers when you got them – at the very least, you've got them facing the right way. Placing them close to any wall will reinforce their low-frequency output; an idea which may initially appeal but, on most models, doing so 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 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. Ideally, 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.
Maximise your power supply
There are varying lengths to which you can stretch in the pursuit of better powering 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 afterwards) and all the components are connected as close together as possible. This means not plugging your preamp in on one side of the room and your power amp on the other. This improves system grounding and so helps sound quality.
You could go even further and give your hi-fi a dedicated feed from your fuse box (with the help of a qualified electrician of course). This will bypass everything else plugged into the mains that'll be adding noise to the signal – from your TV to the fridge. Again, it probably isn’t a length worth going to for your Marantz Melody X or Denon micro system, but there are greater gains to be made the higher up the food chain you go.
Remove the grilles
Speaker grilles are great for keeping dust, pets and sticky young fingers away from 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 have the energy to remove and replace the grilles each time you use your speakers, you needn’t really compromise either on the protection or performance of your speakers.
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 into the base of your speakers. If you have 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.
...and the rest of your kit
If you’ve gone to great 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, or you can indulge in a spot of home DIY.
If you go the latter route, just remember that 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, although a record player on the same support on a suspended floor will be affected by footfall. If that’s what you have, we recommend investing in a dedicated wall shelf.
Add a DAC
If you’ve not already invested in a designated outboard digital-to-analogue converter (DAC), 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.
Upgrade your phono stage
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 to 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.
Add a Bluetooth receiver
This one speaks for itself: adding Bluetooth connectivity to your hi-fi system opens up a whole world of possibilities. While Bluetooth has its limitations – and you wouldn’t want solely to drive £20k's worth of speakers with albums streamed from 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.
Upgrade your cabling
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.
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.