"It's no good having an orchestra with the ten best guitarists if I don't have a pianist." So said former Real Madrid manager Manuel Pellegrini, voicing his frustrations at the challenge of building a squad at the Bernabéu.
It’s an elegant metaphor, whether it’s describing a musical ensemble, a football team or a hi-fi system. In essence, building the perfect hi-fi system is about balance as much as individual quality. The whole should amount to more than, or at the very least equal, the sum of its parts.
But balance is one of those concepts that can be hard to define, let alone to achieve. While a lot of it boils down to trial and error, there are certain guidelines that will aid and, hopefully, ease your path to sonic enlightenment.
Read on and we'll explain how to assemble the right components and build the perfect hi-fi...
Set a budget
The first two questions you need to ask yourself are: what will you be using your system for, and how much are you willing to spend?
The latter relates to the former. It’d perhaps be easiest to begin at the start of the chain – what will you be using as your source?
Each decision will have a knock-on effect: if you play all your music from your smartphone or tablet but still want a traditional hi-fi system, you’ll likely want something with Bluetooth, wi-fi or Apple AirPlay 2 built in.
If you play mostly vinyl, you’ll need to think about whether you want a turntable or stereo amplifier with a phono stage, or will buy the latter separately – a stand-alone phono stage will ensure greater versatility when upgrading in the future.
Make a list
It’s probably worth making a check-list of the features you want – such as a headphone output or Bluetooth – and then prioritising the things you need most and those you can do without. That way, your money will go further.
And start with a realistic budget – it'll help you spread your money more evenly. After all, there's no point buying your dream amplifier only to match it with a budget turntable (the flaws of which it’ll emphasise) and a pair of speakers you found by your neighbour’s bin.
There’s more to building the perfect hi-fi system than than simply buying components that retail at a similar price, of course, but budgeting properly ought to set you on the right path.
You might also have space restrictions. If you haven’t room for multiple components, you’ll need to consider if you can pool certain functions (such as a turntable with built-in phono stage, a ready-made system with amplifier and CD player combined, or active speakers) to reduce the number of boxes in your set-up.
This needn’t affect the quality of your system, and it isn’t a decision that needs be made solely on space, but think carefully about which parts you’re most likely to upgrade – it'll help to future-proof your system.
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- How to get the best sound from your CD player
- Best CD players for every budget
Choose the right speakers
Stereo speakers react differently depending on their position in a room, and on how close they are to each other and to any walls – so the best-sounding pair when listening at a dealership might not be the best-sounding pair when you get them home.
We always recommend measuring the dimensions of your room when it comes to choosing the right speakers. Don’t be blasé when it comes to positioning – they’re likely to come with a manual with the manufacturer’s suggestions for placement. That said, there’s nothing like experimenting with a keen ear so go with your gut. To help, here's 10 of the best songs to test your speakers.
- How to choose the right speakers, part one: research
- How to choose the right speakers, part two: buying
- How to choose the right speakers, part three: set-up
Consider all options
Of course, you may not be building the perfect hi-fi system from scratch. Perhaps you already have one or more elements?
We often make the point that you shouldn’t dismiss a product simply on its What Hi-Fi star rating, but this is a particularly pertinent point if you’re looking to add to something you already own. Certain products may not be flawless all-rounders, but they could well have the blend of talents you’re looking for.
So often in life it’s the little things that can have the biggest influence, and that’s the case with system building.
Budget for any extras
Set aside funds for quality cables, speaker stands and AV racks – or you simply won’t get your money’s-worth out of your system. The golden rule, as always, is: never buy anything without having heard it first.
A good support lets your kit perform optimally. Turntables in particular are sensitive and respond well to a rigid, low-resonance platform, so steer clear of those wobbly floorboards or uneven bits of carpet.
And if you can use a dedicated mains outlet, that would be ideal – and avoid placing mains cables and signal cables too close to each other, as performance can suffer.
So there you have it. A few tips and tricks to building the perfect hi-fi system. And to help you on your way and provide a few sparks of inspiration, we've put together a few systems over the years that we know work together.
We've covered various bases here: using different sources and system components, setting various budgets, selecting the best products of their time, and reflecting changing listening habits – along with some helpful alternatives.
Have a look to see what tickles your fancy, and start brainstorming your dream hi-fi system. We'll be adding more systems to this list as and when we've tested them.
2021's best systems:
- Best hi-fi systems 2021: micro, hi-fi, vinyl
- Best multi-room music systems 2021
- Best surround sound systems 2021
- Best speaker packages 2021: budget to premium
- Best budget hi-fi speakers 2021
- Best music streamers 2021: upgrade to a wireless system
- Best stereo amplifiers 2021: budget and premium
2020's best systems:
- Here's an excellent hi-fi system combining vinyl and streaming
- Here's a superb-sounding hi-fi system with streaming skills
- Here's a brilliant turntable, tablet and wireless speaker system
- Get killer on-the-go sound quality with this portable phone package
- Enjoy CDs and streaming with this complete digital hi-fi system
2019's best systems:
- Best systems 2019
- Best turntable systems 2019
- 3 of the best turntable, amp and speaker systems
- Best multi-room speakers 2019
2018's best systems:
- Best premium turntable system 2018
- Best premium music streaming system 2018
- Best budget turntable system 2018
- Best budget music streaming system 2018
- Best portable music system 2018
- 3 of the best 21st century turntable systems
- 3 of the best hi-res audio systems
2017's best systems:
- Best music streaming system under £1000
- Best portable music system under £1500
- Best turntable system under £2000
- Best premium music streaming system under £4000
- 3 of the best turntable systems
2016's best systems:
- Best portable music system under £500
- Best CD hi-fi system under £1000
- Best turntable hi-fi system under £1500
- Best laptop hi-fi system for £2000
- Best music streaming hi-fi system for £3300
- Best music streaming hi-fi system for £8000
2015's best systems: