The world of hifi can be a daunting and confusing place at first, especially when looking at different models of speakers and amps and CD players and streamers and the mighty list of technical terms they come with. Hopefully, we can help bust some of that jargon here. Are we missing a word or term you’d like to know the meaning of? Leave us a comment below.
A two-way loudspeaker is a speaker that has two driver units, usually a combined midrange/bass woofer and a separate tweeter. Most modern bookshelf/standmount loudspeakers use a two-way design.
A three-way loudspeaker is a speaker that has three driver units, usually a separate midrange woofer, separate bass woofer and a separate tweeter. A four-way or five-way, etc speaker follows this same principle by separating the frequency spectrum to individual drivers.
Stands for ‘Advanced Audio Coding’. A lossy compression format in digital music files, used by Apple as standard in place of MP3. More information on files and formats can be read here: HiFiGear’s Guide to Files & Formats.
‘ADC’ stands for ‘Analogue to Digital Converter’. This is a piece of technology that takes an analogue signal, a vinyl record for example, and converts it into digital information. Most ADCs are used to put vinyl records onto a computer.
The term ‘active’, when used in the context of loudspeakers and subwoofers, is usually to determine a unit that his built-in internal amplification and does not require power from a dedicated stereo amplifier.
AirPlay is Apple’s wireless streaming technology. It uses your WiFi to take music and video from your Apple device or program to another Apple product in a high quality fashion.
An amplifier is the heart and brawn of your hifi system. There are two elements of hifi amplifier; the power amp and the pre-amp. The power amplifier is the unit that drives and powers a pair of passive loudspeakers, while the preamplifier is the unit that controls the volume and inputs. An integrated amplifier is a single box with the preamplifier and power amplifier built into the same chassis. This can be translated to home cinema too, with an ‘AV Processor’ being the pre-amp, and ‘AV Power amp’ being a multichannel power amplifier. An ‘AV Receiver’ is the ‘integrated amplifier’ of the AV/home theatre world.
When talking about music, ‘analogue’ is the physical element of the waveform. The actual sound your ear picks up from the moving air particles between you and your speaker is an analogue experience. Amplifiers and loudspeakers can only work with analogue signals and analogue formats are those that use the original audio signal’s waveform etched/moulded into a physical media – for example, the groove of a vinyl record.
aptX is the lossless codec used to transfer digital music files wirelessly via Bluetooth. Usually, the Bluetooth file transfer process is lossy and compressed – but aptX allows you to wirelessly stream music as close to CD quality as possible.
Bi-wiring is a means of connecting a loudspeaker to an audio amplifier, primarily used in hi-fi systems. Normally, bi-wiring a system would take a two conductor cable (normal cable) from the amplifier that splits to four conductors to the speaker end. This allows the amp to send signal individually to the high frequency and low frequency drivers. Bi-wiring is mostly beneficial when bi-amping, whereby you have four conductors at both ends of the cable and have a dedicated amplifier for the low frequency driver and another one for the high frequency driver.
‘Bit-rate’ is a measurement used in digital music, and essentially measures the quality of the file. Bitrate is measured in kbps or mbps (kilobits for sec, megabits per sec [megabit = 1024 kilobits]) ‘Bits’ are like tiny snapshots of the original analogue waveform, so the more bits/higher the bit-rate, the more snapshots there are of the original sound and the closer to that sound you experience. More information on files and formats can be read here: HiFiGear’s Guide to Files & Formats.
Bluetooth Is a wireless media standard, used back in the day to send files between phones and devices. It’s more commonly used now though as a quick and simple way to stream music from one device to another – for example, from a smartphone to a Bluetooth receiving speaker.
The cantilever when discussing phono cartridges is the tube/bar within a cartridge that holds the stylus. This is the bit that vibrates between magnets or coils depending on the type of cartridge it is.
A phono cartridge sits at the end of a turntable tonearm and is the housing of the stylus. There are many types of phono cartridge, but the most popular types are Moving Magnet and Moving Coil. More information on MM and MC cartridges can be found here: What Are MM and MC Phono Cartridges?
‘Compression’ in file formats, is the term given to the process of shrinking the size of a digital file in order for it to take up less digital memory storage or for it to stream more easily. More information on audio compression can be found here: HiFiGear’s Guide to Files & Formats.
DAB stands for ‘Digital Audio Broadcasting’ and offers an alternative over analogue FM and AM signals. DAB is able to pick up more stations and display track information such as artist, song name, station/DJ, etc. Another alternative is internet radio, which offers a similar experience but uses WiFi for playback.
DAB+ offers the same features and experience as standard DAB, but does so to a higher quality format and so offers a superior level of sound quality.
DAC stands for ‘Digital Analogue Converter’. Physical sound-waves are large, constantly changing streams of energy that we call ‘analogue’, while a digital signal is a series of snapshots of this original waveform. This digital signal has to be converted back into a waveform in order for your amplifier to understand it and in turn, give it to the loudspeakers. A DAC is a technology that’s designed to retain the best possible level of quality during this process. Any device that plays digital music out loud will have an integrated DAC, for example in the soundcard of your laptop or phone – but these are extremely basic and are not designed with fidelity in mind. This is why people tend to purchase external DACs when wanting to listen to their digital files in high quality.
DLNA, also known as UPnP, stands for Digital Living Network Alliance (and Universal Plug ‘n’ Play). This technology allows for networked devices to talk easily to each other over a WiFi internet connection.
DSD stands for ‘Direct-Stream Digital’ and is the standard audio file format for SACD.
Decibel or ‘dB’ is the measurement of sound pressure level. This usually reflects the volume of sound but is not always the case.
‘Digital’ in a hifi sense usually represents a replica of an original, analogue waveform as can be found on physical media like vinyl records. Digital music has the benefit of no surface noise or interruption and is also far easier to store than physical entities.
EP stands for ‘Extended Play’ and is the name given for a collection of recordings that are smaller than an album (or LP), but comprise of more songs than would usually be used in a ‘single’. Usually between 7 and 5 tracks.
In terms of electronics, earthing (also known as grounding) is a system designed to protect the componentry within an electronic device (such as an amplifier) from damage that may be caused by a sudden power surge. The main purpose of earthing is to reduce the potential risk of electric shock from touching the uninsulated metal parts of the system.
FLAC is a lossless digital audio format and stands for Free Lossless Audio Codec. More information on lossless formats can be found at HiFiGear’s Guide to Files & Formats.
The frequency response of a hifi component is the size of the sound frequency spectrum that it can reproduce. The frequency response of the human ear is between 20Hz and 20,000Hz, with anything below 20Hz being sub-sonic (think subwoofers) and ultra-sonic (think dog whistles). A wide frequency spectrum is important, but as a specification doesn’t really tell you how a system sounds. Because a speaker is able to go below a certain frequency scientifically, doesn’t mean it’s going to sound more bassy than a speaker that doesn’t boast the same spec.
Hard Disk Drive HDD
A hard-disk drive or HDD is a digital data storage device. This is the component that saves and reads music, video, picture files etc.
Hertz is the unit of measurement for the frequency of a soundwave. The higher the number of ‘Hertz’, the higher pitch a sound is. Humans can hear between 20Hz and 20,000Hz – anything below this is called ‘subsonic’ and anything higher than 20kHz is called ultrasounds.
Impedance is the unit for resistance within an electric circuit. In hifi/home cinema, the impedance indicates how compatible a loudspeaker is to an amplifier. Most loudspeakers are 8ohm and 4ohm in impedance and most amplifiers today are designed to handle this level of resistance.
A true separates system requires a power amplifier, to drive loudspeakers and a pre-amplifier, to take the inputs and control the volume that the power amp will work at. An integrated amplifier sees the power amp and the preamp integrated within a single box.
Jitter is the term given for timing errors/unsteadiness within an electrical signal. Jitter is a negative aspect of digital music and a good DAC will seek to try and reduce jitter as much as possible.
LP stands for ‘Long Play’ and is the term given to a full size 12” vinyl record with around 10 songs or more.
‘Lossless’ refers to a form of digital music compression. Lossless compression is a process where the file is in a simple sense broken down into a smaller form for storage or transmission and is then put back together at the other end. More information on lossless formats can be found at HiFiGear’s Guide to Files & Formats.
‘Lossy’ refers to a form of digital music compression. Lossy compression takes an original uncompressed file and cuts out the lower and higher frequency information in order to save digital space. More information on lossy formats can be found at HiFiGear’s Guide to Files & Formats.
Metadata in terms of digital music files are the fields of information given to display the specifics of the song on your device. For example; ‘Artist’, ‘Album’, ‘Track Title’, etc.
Moving Coil (MC)
‘Moving Coil’ is the term given to a type of phono cartridge construction that makes use of a tiny coil on the cantilever, moving between near to a large magnet to form the electrical current that your system then turns into sound. More information on the different types of phono cartridge can be read here: What Are MM and MC Phono Cartridges?
Moving Magnet (MM)
‘Moving Magnet’ is the term given to a type of phono cartridge construction that makes use of a tiny magnet on the end of the cantilever. This moves between two coils to form the electrical current that your system then turns into sound. More information on the different types of phono cartridge can be read here: What Are MM and MC Phono Cartridges?
NAS stands for ‘Network Access Storage’. A NAS Drive is effectively a hard-drive storage unit with network capability. The major benefit of a NAS drive is being able to put your songs and files onto the network for sharing between devices and systems without the need to turn your computer on.
NFC stands for ‘Near Field Communication’ and is a set of protocols that allow for information to be passed between two devices. NFC is used for things like contactless payments in a shop, to quickly pairing a phone to a different device.
Output – audio signalling coming out of a component
The ‘output’ on a hifi component is the end of the connection that the information is coming out from. At the other end of this connection would be an input. An example of this would be that you would put an interconnect cable from the output of your CD player and into the input on your amplifier.
A ‘passive’ speaker is one that doesn’t have internal amplification. Passive speakers need to be connected to an amplifier in order to be driven.
A turntable and it’s dedicated cartridge does not pick up the analogue signal at ‘line level’ (the same volume as CD players, streamers, etc). Because of this, a phono stage is needed to raise that signal to line level before feeding it to the amplifier. Many integrated amps have phono-stages built in, as do some turntables, while the best choice for sound quality is an external dedicated phono stage.
RCA is the industry standard connection for carrying an audio signal, whether this be analogue stereo (red/white – left/right) or a single digital coaxial cable. RCA actually stands for ‘Radio Corporation of America’ who were the early adopters of this connection.
RF stands from ‘Radio Frequency’, this is the term given to a signal transmitted via radio waves.
RFI in hifi stands for Radio Frequency Interference, this is prevented by quality shielding in components and cables.
Resonance in its literal meaning is the term given to the process of vibrations travelling through an object. Resonance is generally a bad word in hifi, as this vibration can travel through components, hifi stands, counters, etc and can be picked up at various points before presenting itself as distortion.
Super Audio CD is a high resolution CD format. SACD offers 5.1 sound as well as a higher bit-rate than standard CD.
Now a bit obsolete, SCART was a 12-pin connection designed to connect audio/visual equipment. It was superseded largely by the introduction of HDMI.
The ‘sample rate’ of a file measures how many ‘samples’ of audio are carried per second. Sample rate is measured in Hertz (Hz) or kHz.
Signal to Noise Ratio
The signal to noise ratio is how much of wanted, pure quality signal there is compared to how much unwanted noise/distortion/interference might also be present.
‘Stereo’ is short for stereophonic sound. This is sound that’s directed out of two or more speakers. Stereo offers a more realistic sound than mono, as you’re able to hear things across a dimensional soundfield, as opposed to all the sounds coming from the centre.
The stereofield is the term given to the experience of hearing different instruments and elements within a mix at different points. Perhaps a guitar riff is coming mainly from the lift, with the drums from the front and a different riff towards the right. The placement of these instruments is across what we call the ‘stereofield’. The clarity of being able to pinpoint which direction these elements are coming from is what determines how clear the ‘stereo imaging’ is.
Streaming is when you listen to a piece of music or watch a video in real time, as opposed to downloading it. When talking about hifi streamers, these boxes are always ‘streaming’ as many do not have storage capabilities and so play music from Spotify, Deezer, TIDAL, your computer, etc in real time. In hifi, streaming is commonly used as the term for playing music wirelessly from one Network source to another.
The stylus is the delicate needle located at the end of the cantilever of a phono cartridge.
Treble is the high frequency output of an audio system.
In hifi, a triode relates to a valve amplifier. Triode means there are three electrodes within the glass tube.
The tweeter is the smaller driver on a loudspeaker, responsible for emitting high frequency sounds.
UPnP stands for ‘Universal Plug ‘n’ Play’ and is a different term for ‘DLNA’
‘Unbalanced’ is usually used when talking about interconnects. RCA/phono is an unbalanced connection, while XLR for example is a balanced connection. A balanced connection has greater immunity to external signals that may interfere or degrade the signal being passed through the cable.
Wattage is the standardised measurement of power in electrics. When discussing amplifiers, the wattage is an indication of how powerful the amplifier is and. However, this is not an indication of how ‘good’ an amplifier is. A common misconception is that Watts is like miles per hour on a car, which is not the case. When purchasing an amplifier, the wattage should not be the main deciding factor and one should also consider the class of amplification, circuitry design, efficiency and compatibility with the speaker you plan to match with it.
A woofer is a name given to the dedicated loudspeaker driver responsible for low/midrange frequencies. A midrange/bass woofer usually works in conjunction with the tweeter. Sometimes the bass woofer and midrange woofer are separated, with the implementation of additional woofers also an option.
XLR is an alternative connection to RCA/Phono. XLR is a balanced connection comprising usually of three pins, but can have up to seven. Often used in studio/live equipment such as microphones.