7 Mistakes to Avoid When Using a Stereo Amplifier

7 Mistakes to Avoid When Using a Stereo Amplifier - Image source:
7 Mistakes to Avoid When Using a Stereo Amplifier - Image source:

We all make mistakes when working with hi-fi equipment – from minor ones, like placing speakers too far apart, to catastrophic ones, like dropping a speaker and damaging the tweeter dome.

In an effort to get your system up and running as soon as possible, you may accidentally lose sight of important factors for ideal stereo amplifier setup or function – or not consider optimal compatibility with the rest of your system.

The following is a short list of simple things to avoid when using an amplifier; for many, it will serve only as a reminder, but some readers will find useful advice in it.

Copland makes awesome amplifiers
Copland makes awesome amplifiers

1. Don’t use digital jacks just because they are

Integrated amplifiers and preamps are increasingly being equipped with digital inputs due to the growing prevalence and popularity of digital sources. However, their digital-to-analog conversion (DAC) circuits are not always as elaborate as the analog sections. Therefore, we would recommend that the owner of a CD player or other device with analog and digital outputs try both methods of connecting to an amplifier in order to understand which one gives the best sound – and therefore which component in the chain has a better DAC.

Likewise, if you want to upgrade your stereo amplifier, don’t buy a model with digital connections or Bluetooth if you don’t need them. Part of the cost of developing and manufacturing the device – which, of course, is always shifted to the buyer to one degree or another – in this case will be wasted. You will have to pay for amenities you don’t need; choosing an all-analog model will give you the best value for money. You can always buy an external DAC if you change your mind – and in any case, they are usually better than the built-in ones.

If you still want to use a digital connector, consider whether to choose coaxial or optical if your source and amplifier support both connection options. A coaxial digital connection uses electricity to transmit an audio signal, while an optical connection uses laser light. In our experience, the former usually produces a better sound than the latter. It has higher bandwidth to support higher-sampled file formats up to 24-bit/192kHz. The optical channel is usually limited to 96 kHz.

2. Don’t Forget About Digital Filters

If your stereo amplifier supports digital technology, it may offer a number of switchable digital filters – usually steep, flat, linear phase, or minimum phase. Roughly speaking, they represent the final stage of digital-to-analog conversion and provide the restoration of the waveform of the original signal using various methods of removing “false frequencies” – side components that inevitably arise in this process.

In our experience, the difference in sound when switching between filters is not particularly great, but subtle sonic nuances caused by one or another option may better suit your taste or the nature of the system, so it’s worth experimenting with them.

3. Don’t Neglect System Consistency

The synergy of the amplifier with the speakers connected to it is vital. The electrical compatibility of an amplifier and a pair of speakers depends on three components: the output power of the amplifier (how many watts it can deliver to the speakers), the impedance of the speakers (how difficult it is for the amplifier to control them; this indicator is measured in ohms) and the sensitivity of the speakers (how loud they will play at specified input level; measured in decibels).

You are unlikely to like the situation when the amplifier does not have enough power to fully pump the speakers; at best, this can lead to a lack of dynamics and energy in the sound, and at worst, damage to the tweeters. This may seem counterintuitive, but a pair of speakers is more likely to be damaged by a weaker amplifier that is forced to work with distortion than a really powerful device that seriously loads the speakers. It is distortion that damages speakers, especially high-frequency ones.

If you want your system to sound louder, choose a pair of more sensitive speakers rather than a more powerful amplifier. The fact is that an increase in this indicator by 3 dB is equivalent to doubling the power of the amplifier.

The tonal characteristics of all system components must also be considered; for example, if one of them sounds too dry, then ideally you should not connect a component with a similar property to it.

Also read:

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4. Don’t think that a balanced connection is always better

All stereo amplifiers have line level analog inputs with RCA connectors; but many models, especially the more expensive ones, are also equipped with 3-pin analog XLR inputs that carry balanced audio signals.

The main advantage of a balanced connection is that it helps to suppress electrical noise, making it suitable for applications with high noise levels or very long cables. However, it does not always provide the best sound, especially in sub-High End systems; it all depends on how well the balanced circuitry of the amplifier is designed.

If your machine is equipped with XLR and RCA connectors, try both and choose the one you prefer.

5. Do not put the amplifier anywhere

The surface on which the amplifier is mounted can radically change its sound. Say, glass shelves give it an excess of straightness; wooden, as a rule, form a warmer and more even character. However, other properties of the surface material are even more important: it must be rigid, strictly horizontal and low-resonant – and therefore capable of minimizing vibrations transmitted to the device and reducing sound quality.

Amplifiers tend to get very hot, so be sure to leave space between the cabinet and the wall or stand to avoid trouble.

6. Don’t keep the display on all the time

This factor may seem insignificant, but it is not uncommon for any audio device equipped with an electric display to sound better when it is turned off. The fact is that during operation, this element can create electrical noise that can distort the sound.

If the display is not really needed (which is very likely in the case of a stereo amplifier, since it often only shows the selected input and volume level), turn it off if possible.

7. Don’t skimp on cables

As a rule, we recommend laying 10 to 15 percent of the total cost of a Hi-Fi system on cables – interconnects, connecting sources and amplifier, and acoustic cables, going from the latter to speakers.

Even budget components will sound better with good interconnects, although the audible difference usually increases as the price of the system (and thus its sonic transparency) increases. In addition, you should think about replacing the stereo amplifier’s power cord.

After all devices are connected, avoid placing network and signal cables too close to each other, as this may reduce the quality of their work.

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