A Starter Guide to Buying a Home Stereo System

In many ways, the digitization of music has changed the listening experience for the better: you can take a road trip’s worth of music with you in your pocket, buy songs on the fly and instantly access virtually every song ever published. But it also has isolated us. Listening to music has gone from a communal experience to a personal one, as many people’s default listening experience is through a chintzy pair of earbuds.

The truth is that music was meant to be shared. And with just a little bit effort — and for less money than you might think — you can build a home audio system, featuring a turntable, and share that listening experience with your friends. And neighbors.

But where to start? Here’s a look at the considerations and the range of options available to music fans who want to create a home audio system and start listening to vinyl.

Set a Budget

Before diving back into home audio, shoppers should decide how much they want to spend, and whether they are willing to buy used gear.

“Prices are all over the map,” says Dudley Chicoine, who restores and sells vintage audio equipment as the owner of Tech 1 Electronics in Missoula, Mont. The good news is a new home audio system doesn’t have to be expensive. For as little as $500 to $800, a smart shopper can build a decent home stereo system that leverages their digital music sources, such as CD players and iPods, and includes:

  • amplifier/receiver
  • speakers
  • turntable

“An $800 to $1,000 home system is going to sound incredibly good compared to streaming from your phone, computer speakers and stuff like that,” says Rocco Marra, general manager at Music Direct, a Chicago seller of high-end audio equipment.

Vintage or New

Vintage and used gear can be a great option for buyers on a budget, as most high-quality home-audio equipment was built like a tank and designed to last for decades, says Geoffrey Bennett, sales manager at Decibel Audio in Chicago.

“In lower price brackets, vintage will usually give you better quality,” Bennett says. But buyers should consider the cost and viability of getting their vintage gear serviced and cleaned. “A receiver that’s been sitting in someone’s garage for 30 years is going to need some sprucing up,” he adds. Other considerations include the availability of parts and the cost and effort of having the gear serviced in the future.

In lower price brackets, vintage will usually give you better quality, but buyers should consider the cost and viability of getting their vintage gear serviced and cleaned."

New gear will offer fewer choices, especially if you’re shopping at local big box stores, which tend to feature surround-sound home theater systems that aren’t optimal for two-channel audio playback. It does, however, offer some distinct advantages, Marra says.

New equipment likely will come with a warranty and user support, Marra says. It also is likely to be more compact and offer more contemporary features, such as remote control and more inputs for computers, iPhones and other digital devices.

The beauty of home stereo equipment is that you can mix and match vintage and new components. So if Grandpa gives you a sweet vintage turntable, you can connect it to a modern amplifier. Both vintage and new equipment are cool in their own right, Marra says.

Whether shopping for vintage, modern or new gear, the key to success is to buy from a reputable dealer. Many used and vintage sellers, like Chicoine, restore vintage gear and put their reputations behind delivering a quality product. New or used, buying from an unknown eBay seller may be a crap shoot.

Stereo Amplifiers and Receivers

Marantz SR4023 Stereo Receiver

In most cases, you’ll need some sort of an amplifier. A stereo amplifier takes the signal from an iOS device, turntable, CD player, cassette deck or AM/FM receiver, amplifies it and sends it to the speakers. An amplifier with an integrated AM/FM receiver is frequently called an integrated amplifier or a stereo receiver. We’re using the terms interchangeably here, as they will in the shop. Used-but-dependable stereo amplifiers are going to start at about $75.

Phono Pre Amps

Thorens MM-008 Phono Preamp

If you’re pairing a turntable with a new or used receiver or amplifier, look for a phono input. Without a phono input, a receiver won’t have enough amplification for the weak signal coming off a turntable, but don’t let that be a deal killer. All you need to do is purchase a separate phono pre-amplifier, and they are inexpensive with some models selling for less than $30.

Speakers

Music Hall Marimba Bookshelf Speakers

Speaker size is a balancing act between sound quality, cosmetics, available space, and the size of speaker your roommate or spouse will put up with. Music fans with discerning ears may want to look for speakers with 12- to 18-inch woofers, to let those bass frequencies ring out.

High end bookshelf speakers from quality brands can offer comparable performance in a smaller package and can be supplemented with subwoofers, which are specialized speakers designed to handle very low frequency sounds.

Satellite speakers, typically found in surround sound systems, are essentially the same as bookshelf speakers.

Powered speakers are another option and can enable you to play a turntable or other device without a receiver or amplifier.

Turntables

Sony TTS-3000 Belt Drive Turntable

A decent budget turntable can cost less than $200 and go up from there. They come in two primary constructions: belt or direct drive.

Newer designs typically are direct drive. They include fewer moving parts and, while potentially more noisy than belt-driven tables, they can be more reliable over time. However, a well-maintained vintage or belt-drive turntable can be a perfectly good option, Chicoine says. Belt-drive turntables eventually will need replacement belts, as they will stretch over time.

Cartridges, Styluses and Needles

Audio Technica AT120EB Cartridge

The cartridge is a micro-manufactured electromechanical device that contains the needle, also called the stylus, which is the only part of the phonograph to touch the vinyl. Your new or used turntable may not include the cartridge, so make certain you ask. While sold separately, they are not optional and will need to be replaced every year or so, depending on how often they are used.

There are two main types of phono cartridges: moving magnet (or MM) and moving coil (MC), and the type of cartridge you choose will be limited to those compatible with your turntable. Prices for a new cartridge — unless it’s included you most likely wouldn’t buy a used one — start from as low as $30, depending on compatibility.

Replacement needles may not be available for your cartridge depending on the brand and its construction, but this is not a deal killer. If the needle, which is a diamond, is worn the cartridge is soon to follow.

Another option is a low-cost all-in-one record player, which most audio enthusiasts would frown upon. “We consider all-in-ones a purchase of last resort,” Bennett says. “The volume is barely enough to fill a small room, and you lose almost all the sonic benefits of listening to vinyl in the first place.”

Buyers should be proportionate in their home stereo spending, Chicoine recommends, and not spend their entire budget on speakers, for example and then cheap out on the amplifier and turntable. “It’s like buying a Porsche, and putting the cheapest gas you can find into it, because you don’t have any more money,” Chicoine says.

Connectors and Cables

Monoprice 5347 Premium RCA Cable

For devices with analog headphone outputs, like iPods and iPhones, it may be as simple as connecting a ⅛-inch-to-RCA cable between your digital devices and your home audio amplifier/receiver.

Some other music-playing devices, like Apple TV and Roku boxes, don’t have analog outputs, so you’ll need a Digital to Analog Converter, or DAC. DACs tend to be far superior to the sound cards in computers and other digital products, Bennett says. They also are readily available and inexpensive, with lower end models starting at less than $20.

The most important thing to know about connectors is that it’s better to over buy than under buy. There are few things as frustrating as having to race the clock to the hardware store or RadioShack with your project half done. If you’re an audio enthusiast, that is.

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