On the subjective hi-fi quality
Every now and then different people ask me about an opinion on buying hi-fi components. Be it headphones for their portable mp3 players, amplifiers or mini-systems, I'm a local authority (a proud one, I must add). Perhaps it's because I'm a nerd obsessed with sound quality, or perhaps I'm judging people by their hi-fi systems, anyways I thought I'd share a few general advices for everyone.
First of all, let me remind everyone one more time, that buying hi-fi is by no means similar to buying computer hardware. There seldom happens a situation, when one can compare e.g. two amplifiers and say that the former is better than the latter in every aspect. Bad components happen, very bad happen as well, but the majority of hi-fi produced nowadays is at least good. Some of them are very good, and few are exceptionally fantastic, but those devices that occupy the last two categories are amongst most controversial, since not everybody likes the same sound.
The most apparent example is with vinyl vs. laser discs. There is a significant number of people, who claim that a good turntable outperforms (whatever this means) every CD player. These people hold this view even though they know about obvious limitations of a gramophone record, and I respect them the same way I respect insane people. However, I am able to acknowledge that someone may just like a sound of an LP rather than a CD. And that's the way it works.
I'm an insane person too, in a way, i.e. I claim that electrostatic loudspeakers are superior to any other loudspeaker technology. They're expensive, they lack bass, they demand a big room (or rather: they can't stand right next to a wall) and can be dangerous (especially if you have kids or keep animals at home), but the sound they give in return is so amazing that no traditional construction can match them. It's my opinion, though, and I don't intend to force it on anyone. The same goes for transistor vs. valve, integrated vs. separated amplifiers or CD players, and so on. Bear that in mind before you ask me once again what is better, or if you once again try to convince me that gramophones are the best source for a hi-fi system.
Now shortly, a number of tips that I'd give to anyone asking me for advice.
If you're not willing to spend too much money on a hi-fi system, don't expect huge differences amongst different amplifiers or loudspeakers. You might pick a terribly sounding component, but the chances are low.
Keep in mind that among budget hi-fi manufacturers there are some which are usually a safe bet, i.e. their products will sound at least decently, and that includes some European companies (NAD, Creek, Cambridge Audio) and some Japanese (Rotel, Marantz).
Don't be cheap on the loudspeakers, their quality is very important. Also, when it comes to cables, don't use the default ones. You don't have to spend hundreds of euros for Van den Hul, but get an entry-level Monster or Ixos, and you'll certainly hear the difference.
If it's the first time you're buying hi-fi, you might want to read some reviews. British “What Hi-Fi” and “Hi-Fi Choice” are a start, but watch out – they tend to be very enthusiastic about most stuff they review. American “Stereophile” (personal favorite) on the other hand is usually very cautious.
Reading the reviews you will probably end up with choosing the most universally sounding system, which is good for a start. Later, if you upgrade or replace it, you'll know what sound you're looking for, and the reviews will just be a bit of a guide, but nothing more.
Finally, always remember that it's your call as a listener to choose a system. You're your best advisor. Bear in mind that no hi-fi is 100% neutral (perhaps except for some insanely expensive hi-end systems), although theoretically that's the goal. And lastly: remember that once you start searching for The Perfect Hi-Fi System, this search will probably never be over. Good luck!