Updated: Sep 12, 2020
How best to divide the budget? It is #pragmatic to do it according to longevity, the lifespan of the product.
A stereo comprises 4 components.
Sometimes sources and amplifier are integrated into one - just add speakers and sometimes an entire system is integrated into the speakers - Sonos One for example. Integrated systems are often cheaper and are supposed to ease the buying decision, but are they a good idea?
1: Source: That which supplies the music. Streaming is the future, so let’s explore this. Its computer based so requires wired or wireless connection to the internet, for both music retrieval and regular updates. Sometimes the updates improve operation but more importantly they improve security, protecting you from the prying eyes of the WWW. The software eventually exceeds the hardware, at which time the manufacturer can't support it anymore, rendering your investment unsafe. Otherwise for mechanical sources like NAS - HDD/SSD*, LP, cd, tape players it is wear and tear which causes failure. A source has a short lifespan. FM DAB is the exception.
*SSD is not necessarily mechanical but it has data retention issues.
2: Amplifiers are divided into 3.
Pre-amp - comprises tone, volume and source selection controls
Power amp - provides the power
Integrated amp - a pre & power in one box.
Power amps comprise various technologies. The newer technologies are very efficient but don’t sound as good - I will delve deeper in a future episode. In terms of longevity a decent amplifier, well treated, has a very long lifespan - 20 even 30+ years. It has inputs and outputs for future sources.
3: Loudspeakers Also divided into 3 categories
Passive: Requires power from an amplifier via speaker cable. The audiophiles preference because it allows permutations with amplifiers to introduce more colours (sound). An audiophile's goal is to discover & hopefully realise their ideal and often unique (sound) colour palette.
Active: speakers without passive crossovers, rather they comprise (onboard) power amplifiers and electronic crossovers. Requires a pre-amp. A sound engineers preference because they need an analytical tool. It's the antithessis of an audiophiles requirements.
Powered speakers: Passive speakers with an onboard Integrated Amplifier. Usually integrated into Lo-Fi product like computer speakers, etc. They are finding their way into higher priced hifi products and are often a solution not a preference.
The lifespan of well treated passive speakers are usually higher than active speakers - 20 even 30+ years. Less so with powered speakers.
Cables and accessories have become a component in their own right. Connects everything together and contributes towards an audiophile's ideal (sound) colour. Long lifespan and very reliable.
All in one systems are a compromise. They are a combination of both long (amp & speakers) and short (source) lifespan components in one with one power supply, which reduces fidelity. It's lifespan is effected in 2 ways, either the entire system fails or the source fails first. This typically leaves you with only the amp, speakers (& FM/DAB) operational. You have to purchase again, and again....
Play the long game - its #pragmatic to concentrate your budget towards the amplifier and speakers, the 2 components which are a hifi staple and whose lifespan is measured in decades rather than years. This is your Core, so make a GOOD choice because other than longevity, you will be rewarded with superior sound quality for the duration. Treat sources as modules and upgrade second time around, when you don't have to share the budget. Know from the very beginning that sources are not in it for the long haul.
So instead of a streaming amp - choose a non-amplified streamer and a decent stereo amplifier. Rather than streaming/powered speakers - choose a non-amplified streamer, an amplifier and pair of decent speakers.
When it comes time to replace your streamer, you won't need to pay extra for the amplified version and or speakers. This provides you an opportunity to improve the streamer with a DAC and PSU.
Something to consider: Streaming requires large investments in software which is beyond many brands, so it's pragmatic to buy a popular streamer that offers high resolution, is easy to operate and very well supported security & App wise. We recommend Bluesound
Separate components are easier to disguise than powered speakers, which may not appear so at first glance. For example: the amp, streamer, bluetooth modules, etc can be hidden in a cabinet, together with its power cables. Wireless speakers aren't entirely wireless because they require a power cable which is very visible. Now if you want to play vinyl or the latest bluetooth, it’ll need to be plugged into the speaker which is more unsightly. Lastly it is easier to hide speaker cable so passive speakers appear wireless, than it is hiding a power cord on powered speakers. (stereo speakers need to be seperated to work properly)
life is better with music and best when it's played well