High-End Sound, Low-Priced Systems


Serious audio connoisseurs usually settle for nothing less than top-shelf audio gear in their home stereo setups. Audiophile-grade systems such as those made by Denon, McIntosh, Snell Acoustics and others certainly produce high-fidelity sound that most listeners will appreciate and enjoy. Unfortunately, the price tag of high-end audio gear often runs into the tens of thousands of dollars. If you are on a budget, audiophile-grade gear is probably not an option, but this doesn’t mean that you have to settle for listening to music on a portable AM/FM radio. If you take into consideration your listening space, musical tastes and do a bit of research, you can put together a great-sounding audio system for a lot less than you might think.

Your Listening Space

  • The first step in selecting a low-cost sound system that provides great hi-fi sound is to evaluate your listening space. Many shoppers look for an amplifier or receiver with the highest wattage output they can find, but if you live in a small apartment or dorm room, a system with an amplifier that delivers 100 watts per channel is simply overkill – unless you want your neighbors to complain about loud music. Prices for amplifiers and receivers vary considerably, but models with modest output of 40 to 60 watts per channel can cost hundreds of dollars less than those that produce 100 to 150 watts. Well-known receiver companies such as Denon, Pioneer, Onkyo and Sony all sell mid-range receivers that cost well over $500 and pump out really loud music; however, these same companies also sell budget receivers that produce more modest volume levels and are more than adequate for smaller listening spaces. Model names and numbers for the budget receivers vary from year to year, but they generally sell for less than $300.

Just the Basics

  • As with any other type of electronics gear, the more options you want for your audio system, the more it will usually cost. If your primary desire is to listen to CDs and watch an occasional DVD movie, you don’t need a high-end A/V receiver with dozens of input and output ports, Wi-Fi connectivity and multi-room control options. In fact, if you want a great sounding yet low-cost music system, consider a basic stereo receiver that supports only two-channel sound. Such receivers from JVC, Sherwood and Teac often sell for under $200 and amply drive two speakers to provide surprisingly acceptable sound fidelity.

Choosing Speakers

  • If you enjoy immersing yourself in sound while watching your favorite DVD or Blu-ray movies, you will need a surround sound speaker system. A 7.1 system includes seven satellite speakers and one subwoofer, while a 9.1 system includes nine satellite speakers. Both can provide an almost larger-than-life listening experience and can fill large rooms with sound – but they usually cost much more than surround sound systems based on older 5.1 technology. Again, if you use your system in a smaller listening space, the difference you’ll notice between a 5.1 and 7.1 system will be minimal. If you don’t watch a lot of movies, or you are more of a music lover, a standard pair of two-channel speakers is ideal. Standard left- and right-channel stereo speakers usually provide much better frequency response and power handling than surround sound speakers produce. Infinity, KEF and Boston Acoustics manufacture stereo speakers that sell for well under $500 a pair and provide good to excellent sound quality. When paired with just about any budget-priced active subwoofer, these two-piece speaker systems sound better than many 5.1 or 7.1 systems costing hundreds of dollars more.

Low-Cost Upgrades

  • You can make even a modest audio system sound better with a few low-cost upgrades. Some companies sell high-end speaker wire for as much as $10 per foot – but you can use cheap RJ-45 Ethernet cable to construct your own high-quality (and shielded) speaker wire. By simply twisting pairs of wire in the Ethernet cable together, you can make a cable that provides a much better path for sound from your amp to your speakers. Ethernet cable can be purchased cheaply at any computer store. Another option for improving the sound produced by a low-cost stereo is to add an equalizer component to the system. Basic 10- and 12-band equalizers from Pyle, Sherwood and GLI sell for under $100 and help make even speakers with frequency response problems sound considerably better.

Save With Used Equipment

  • If you simply must have top-shelf audiophile equipment, you have two choices: spend thousands of dollars on new components or buy your equipment used. Fortunately, many audiophiles change out their equipment frequently and they’re often willing to part with equipment that costs thousands of dollars at a substantial discount. By searching on websites such as Audiogon.com and HawthroneStereo.com, you can often find Auidionote, Hafler, Marantz, McIntosh and other top-shelf equipment that originally sold for thousands of dollars for just a few hundred bucks. Yes, the equipment is used, but it’s probably fully functional because most audiophiles take great care of their gear. Even 10-year-old audiophile-grade equipment will usually produce sound that is superior to what you’ll get from new, lower-end consumer audio products.

Media Considerations

  • Once your dream sound system is installed and your music fills the air, it’s worth mentioning that no matter how fabulous your sound system is, it won’t make low-quality input, such as low-bitrate MP3s or scratched CDs, sound better. Take care of your media and always store discs in protective cases to ensure years of listening enjoyment. Remove smudges and dust from your optical discs with a CD cleaning solution or regular rubbing alcohol. Regularly cleaning your discs helps to keep the laser in your player clean, which leads to higher quality sound from your discs.

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