Assembling a budget stereo.
October 13, 2008 11:05 AM   Subscribe

I am confused about assembling a relatively budget, quality home stereo system. (long)

Some thirteen years ago, I received a Panasonic stereo minisystem (radio/CD/tape) as a gift. It served me well over the years. More recently I added a powered (AudioTechnica) turntable, which I play through the stereo on the AUX setting.

A couple of weeks ago, the Panasonic CD player died. Although the amp is still okay (ie, vinyl works fine), the CD's the thing I use most often.

I have decided I want to buy a new system. I am an adult now, after all. I also work as a music critic, so this seems to make sense. Unfortunately my budget's not very large - for this reason I've mostly invested in quality headphones (Grado HF-1s, Senns) over the past several years. Now, though, I'd like to make a few careful purchases and hopefully have the stereo problem "solved" for a decade or two.

What I am looking for is a system with good sound, that will fill my living-room well. Should include CD player and allow me to bring in my turntable (which has a pre-amp) and plug in my iPod/computer if I like (preferably without swapping out the turntable). Do not need cassettes, radio, home-theatre set-up, fancy iPod dock, etc.

I'm inclined to buy separate components, not one big set at Futureshop or Best Buy. Vintage is also presumably good. I'm a bit confused about what exactly I need, though.

I am particularly confused by all the mixed-up talk of "tuners", "amplifiers" and "receivers". Aren't tuners radios? Can I just forego a tuner? If my receive has two "phono" slots, can I use one of those for a CD player?

I would really appreciate it if someone could suggest what type of components I need to find, and then what kinds (brands, styles, price-ranges, and also tech specs I need) I should try to obtain.

I have found a good price for lovely PSB Model 40 mk II speakers (freq range-39Hz-21KHz, impedence 6 ohm, sensitivity 1 watt-90db, power-100 watts program), but I have no idea what else I need to fill this system out. Presumably some kind of amp? With what specs? Can I then just use a dirt-cheap CD player? I'm sorta lost.

I'm looking to spend $400-$700, all-in, which I realise is not very much but I think should be able to take me somewhere if I'm able to make patient, prudent purchases.

Thanks for your time!
posted by Marquis to Home & Garden (14 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
If you don't care about remote control or home theater features, vintage is definitely your friend. A quick search for "Marantz" at eBay will reveal some good deals.

The dedicated 'phono' inputs, especially on older systems, send the signal through an extra amplifier stage. This is because, traditionally, turntables produced a very low-power signal. Your "powered" turntable, however, produces a standard line-level signal, as does any CD player you might get. DO NOT plug these into a dedicated phono input.
posted by mr_roboto at 11:20 AM on October 13, 2008

At your price range, you probably want a 2 channel receiver, speakers (i'd go with a higher end bookshelf size), and a CD player.

I would go audition some speakers and see which brand you like, then try to find used. You can probably find a decent 2 channel receiver to power them for less than $200.
posted by wongcorgi at 11:35 AM on October 13, 2008

Receiver = input-switch + tuner + amplifier. Since you do want the input-switch and the amplifier, you should just ignore that you don't need a tuner and buy a 2-channel receiver. Even new, they are generally inexpensive although the major brands don't have many options (because everyone has moved on to home theater).
posted by smackfu at 11:45 AM on October 13, 2008

Oops, I meant they didn't have many different models, not that they didn't have many options.
posted by smackfu at 11:45 AM on October 13, 2008

You need a receiver. All of your components (like CD player and turntable) plug into that, and it powers the speakers.

You can buy an old 70's receiver for about $30, but you won't have a remote, many inputs (you'll get two. which leaves no room for the ipod).

I would recommend just buying one of the home theatre in a box deals, for around $150 to $200, and replacing the front speakers with something better if you feel the need to. A lot of them come with a built in CD/DVD player.
posted by andrewzipp at 11:52 AM on October 13, 2008

Best answer: You need speakers and an integrated amplifier to power them and select among different signal sources. In your price range I highly recommend the NAD 325BEE integrated amplifier for about $300; it has plenty of inputs for your turntable and CD player and whatever else you want to plug in, including a jack for your MP3 player.

And yes, pretty much any inexpensive CD player will meet your needs.
posted by nicwolff at 12:37 PM on October 13, 2008

Best answer: I think used is good advice and old Marantz stuff is great, but you might save some money in the long run by going with cheaper new mid-grade stuff. Used components might be fine in the long run, but I'd be really careful buying speakers on ebay because you can't listen to them to make sure they sound decent and dont have tears, etc. I've also had older, used equipment die on me, which (for me) meant buying another receiver. But, you might find some great deals.

Anyway, this is what I would do with 700 bucks - I would go with this integrated amplifier - an all-in-one preamp/amp (no tuner). I have heard good things about this Cambridge, which runs 350 bucks (I like audio advisor and have had great experiences with them, but you could probably find elsewhere - It has enough inputs for CD, iPod, and Phono (no phono amp here, but if you have one not required.) Then I would buy low-end Energy speakers. These are 150 bucks. The next model up are 200 a pair. So then I would cheap out on the CD player and either go with Sony or whatever. Cambridge also makes a CD player in the 300 dollar range, but that would take you over-budget considering you'll need cables.

On preview: the NAD is great too!
posted by drobot at 12:50 PM on October 13, 2008

Another thought - if you already have a DVD player, check to see if it plays audio CDs. I rarely play CDs anymore (instead either playing from computer or vinyl) so when I had to replace a CD player, I just started using my DVD player (it is already on the same shelf as my stereo, though.)
posted by drobot at 1:01 PM on October 13, 2008

When you figure out what components you want, Audiogon is the place to pick it up used. You'd probably want to buy speakers locally though, to cut down on freight charges.
posted by hwyengr at 1:29 PM on October 13, 2008

Best answer: One way to go would be to get a separate amplifier and preamp. A receiver will combine these two elements, usually including a built-in tuner (i.e. radio) and video section (sounds like you don't need that). An integrated amplifier is similar (amp + preamp) but they don't usually have a tuner or video section.

I'd look for used Marantz, NAD, Parasound & Adcom. All generally have excellent sound, well built and good prices on the used market.

I wouldn't get anything less than Sony for a CD player. Cheapo no-name players will break on you not far down the road. Look for the same brands mentioned above. I'm more squeamish about buying used CD players -- they don't seem to stand the test of time like amps and speakers.

PSB is generally well thought of for speakers. Their newer Alpha series is good bang for your buck. You could also check out Energy, and Monitor Audio has some very affordable speakers on their low end.

As far as specs to look for, maybe check out here and here.

If you're in a city with an active craigslist, you might find some good used gear for sale there. Also check out Audiogon and accessories4less (some cheap refurb gear) and Audio Advisor.
posted by Ultra Laser at 1:48 PM on October 13, 2008

Best answer: Hey Marquis, I can't recommend specific components, but I suggest you take the 80 down to Coup de foudre Audio on Bleury just south of Rene Levesque. Yes, the do have $15,000 components, but they also have excellent stuff in the $300-500 range. Talk to some of the younger guys who are there, explain what you do and your budget and they'll be really helpful. I went in there expecting to be kicked out in the first few minutes but they were really inviting and helpful, they'll also let you listen to some vinyl on the $15,000 gear.
posted by furtive at 3:15 PM on October 13, 2008

General advice - the most important element of your system's sound is the speakers. The least important is the cables. Get a well-made pair of two- or three-way speakers and you are well on your way. The last time I looked (10+ years ago), Boston Acoustics and Cambridge Soundworks did a good job of speakers in your price range.
posted by zippy at 4:42 PM on October 13, 2008

I forgot to mention that one of the nice things about CDFaudio is that they don't carry entire lines of products, but just select components that are considered best in class.
posted by furtive at 7:32 AM on October 14, 2008

Response by poster: These answers were terrifically helpful - thank you! I have found a well-priced NAD 325BEE and will supplement this with some great speakers and a cheaper CD player. Better yet - I understand all the terms!

Am feeling really confident and happy with what's to come.
posted by Marquis at 2:20 PM on October 15, 2008

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