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How to Build a Hi-Fi System - Separates Vs. All-in-One

Source? Amp? Working out where one ends and the other begins isn’t simple any more.

by Ed Selley May 13, 2018 at 8:21 AM


  • Not too long ago, AVForums undertook its Sound Advice program that covered the assembly of an audio system and then helping you get the best from it.
    The piece on assembling a system was written two years ago and even at the time, there was a degree of flux to what you could do to construct a system. This sense of change has only accelerated in the last few years and the result is that we are revisiting the construction of a system because the methodology that you should apply to doing so is meaningfully different to that which applied only a few years ago.

    So, what’s changed?
    There have been two big changes to the influences on the way you construct a system and we’ll deal with what those are first and what they mean to the choices you have open to you. To be very clear, if you choose certain types of equipment from certain manufacturers, you can technically ignore it. To do so is to potentially miss out on the very best that a given price point has to offer. Why do I say that? Read on.

    Front end finished?
    In the glory years of the seventies and eighties, the mantra that resonated the length and breadth of the UK was ‘front end first’ (or depending on how earthy the dealer was ‘garbage in, garbage out’). The argument followed that any issues in the source could not be corrected further down the audio chain. As a result, it was somewhere between good practise and life or death essential to devote the lion’s share of your budget to your source equipment.

    Front end first has been a curiously durable notion and survived both the arrival of CD and the move to a post CD world. This is curious because the justification behind it applies more cogently to mechanical items like turntables and- to a lesser extent- cassette. Turntables benefit enormously from having more money thrown at them and there remains an argument that if you are looking to assemble a turntable fronted system, you will do well to allocate more money to the turntable than the amplifier.
    In 2018 however, this argument is on thinner ice. Given that despite the best efforts of the vinyl resurgence, most systems are digitally fronted, the argument that the bulk of your resources should be allocated on it don’t make a huge amount of sense. Now, before anyone even thinks about reaching for a pitchfork and a flaming torch, I am not saying and neither do I believe that all digital sources sound the same. My argument follows that the quality available from affordable digital sources is such that there are bigger gains to be had from devoting resources to your amplification and speakers.

    This argument gains further legs when you consider that digital sources as a separate entity are something that is less and less necessary. We have seen a number of integrated amps with digital inputs over the last eighteen months and these cover a huge spread of price points, from the near entry level NAD D3030v2, all the way to the not remotely entry level Chord CPM2800 MkII. These are devices that will take your existing hardware - NAS drives, laptops and the like, and cut out the middleman. This allows you to budget for your system accordingly. Of course, from here, it is a hop, skip and a jump to the other big change in dynamic when looking to build a system.
    These are devices that will take your existing hardware- NAS drives, laptops and the like, and cut out the middleman.
    The one box movement
    For many years, manufacturers produced all-in-one systems (electronics that combined source and amplification to which you added speakers) and they were almost pointedly, not as good as building a system from separate components. The argument for their existence was one of convenience and little more.

    About ten years ago though, that began to change. Equipment started to appear that was rather more than the space saver option. It looked, performed and behaved in a manner that gave it advantages over and above their bulikier brethren. Even early on in my time reviewing for AVForums, when I looked at the recently discontinued Naim Uniti Lite, I conceded (I think for the first time ever in such a review) that I couldn’t easily think of a selection of equipment that did the same amount of things as well as the Naim for the same price. All of sudden there was more than convenience to the argument.
    This has gone on to be repeated with a number of products in recent years and it means that if you are looking to spend less than £4,000 on your electronics (that is to say ‘a lot’) and you have few plans to upgrade further, you really ought to look at all-in-one systems as providing the best and biggest bang for your buck. Their sole remaining tradeoff is that your upgrade options might require you to chop them in to upgrade significantly (although, some can be taken further than others in this regard).

    Even vinyl doesn’t change this view significantly. Every single one of the all in one systems we’ve looked at in recent years has an analogue input that will accept turntable paraphernalia and in the case of some offerings like the Simaudio Moon Neo ACE and Convert Technologies Plato have excellent phono stages built in anyway. In all cases, the argument for splitting this functionality up into different components looks like a fragile one.

    Of course, if you want to build a traditional system, you can and there is plenty of great equipment on the market. If you can’t bring yourself to say you went for an all-in-one, items like the Yamaha RN-803D, Leema Quasar and Moon 340i X are described as integrated amplifiers so you can say you own one of those instead while still realistically owning something that largely functions autonomously.

    If you are looking to spend less than £4,000 on your electronics (that is to say ‘a lot’) and you have few plans to upgrade further, you really ought to look at all-in-one systems as providing the best and biggest bang for your buck
    So what does this mean?
    If we take these two factors and apply them to advice constructing your system in 2018, there are a few takeaways from it and like one of those choose your own adventure books from the eighties, there are some decisions that will need to be made as a result.

    If you wish to assemble a separates system, the first advice is that splitting budget evenly across the components that make it up, let alone prioritising the front end, is fairly unnecessary. It is perfectly possible to create fine sounding digitally fronted systems with ratios as unbalanced as 10% Source, 30% amplifier (or indeed rolling that together for an amp with digital inputs) and 60% speakers. Devices like Chromecast aren’t perfect by a long stretch but they are more than good enough to get a system up and running and the improvement in overall performance from going long on amplification and speakers will be rather greater than going for a higher quality digital source.
    Really though, for the best results at most affordable price points, you should be looking at all in one systems. Recent reviews have shown that this is an area where companies are spending their resources and the results are clearly visible. Unless you are absolutely convinced that this purchase represents the start of a determined upgrade program, you will get the best results from paying for less metalwork. Most of these systems place barely any restriction on the speakers you might choose to go with them. Even the more compact models have not struggled with speakers like my resident Neat floorstanders that are neither easy to drive nor remotely similar in cost terms.

    These are some of the biggest changes to the fundamental ‘order’ of two channel equipment in thirty years and given that as an industry it’s pretty reactionary, it might take a while before it seems ‘right’ to take these ideas and go with them. The results however have been pretty emphatic. Based on equipment that has passed through for review over the last few years, unless you are making use of constructs that are effectively historic (by which I mean vinyl), ideas that are also historic- such as front end first- don’t make any real sense when a system can do without a traditional front end.

    The most important thing to take into account though is that these changes haven’t affected the performance available to you, quite the reverse. There is unquestionably something cool about a sprawling system where every component was chosen on the basis of its relationship to all the others but the efficacy of such methodology is now really the preserve of higher price points. Companies have- for once- spotted that changes are afoot and produced products that have both complemented them and moved them still further. If you are happy with these ideas, you can build systems that might look a little different to what went before but offer the potential for enormous listening pleasure.

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