What receiver and speakers should I purchase for under $400?
September 22, 2009 11:58 AM   Subscribe

I'm on a budget and want to upgrade my audio system. What receiver/speakers I should purchase to get the most for my money?

I currently own a mini-hifi system from Sony (Specifically the MHC-GX45). I wouldn't mind reusing the receiver/amp from that system though I have a feeling to get the most out of the system, I'll be looking for a new receiver as the input options are very limited on the device.

The entire system will be used for stereo sources so surround isn't a priority though a dedicated subwoofer would be nice.

After a quick look online, I found a set of speakers from Sony (SS-F5000) that seem to fit my budget and have overall good reviews. If there is a better pair of speakers (floor standing would be nice, but not necessary) at about that price, what are they and where can I get them?

As for a receiver, I'm totally lost. I've never been in the market and I'm not sure what I need. Auto-switching sources would be nice though I don't know what other features I should be looking for. Recommendations?

My budget for the whole system would preferably be less than $400. If you point out a sub I could add later, bonus points to you. I know the budget will force me to make sacrifices to the sound quality and I'm ok with that, but I really want a system that sounds good. In other words, if I have to step up the price, I can do that, but my purchase will be a little delayed.
posted by vmrob to Technology (24 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The big question that you need to answer is whether you're going to want to use this for home theater applications. Nearly all of the consumer stuff is geared towards home theater these days. If you don't want something that can support home theater, I'd actually suggest looking on eBay for something older, like this Marantz setup.

You shouldn't need a subwoofer if you get quality floor standing stereo speakers.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:49 PM on September 22, 2009

The Audiophiliac says that a certain PSB Speaker sounds great for $299. As a writer for Stereophile, I tend to trust his golden ears. As far as the receiver goes, all you need is a good stereo speaker that can switch between a few sources - the simpler the better. You can get better quality and less price by ignoring fancy lights and LED screens. Personally, I would search Craigslist or AudiogoN for anything used by NAD.
posted by spoons at 12:55 PM on September 22, 2009

The t-amp gives unbeatable low power fidelity for the price. If you are OK with a lower amplitude but higher quality system, the price is amazingly low for what you get.
posted by idiopath at 12:55 PM on September 22, 2009

Response by poster: I may eventually use it with my TV, though for now, it will be used exclusively for audio. Home theater capabilities are certainly welcome.
posted by vmrob at 1:06 PM on September 22, 2009

I've always been partial to Onkyo receivers for the mid to low price range. This is their stereo receiver, well reviewed and under $200 on Amazon. Honestly though, if I was getting into a nice system right now, I would probably go for a receiver that at least supported 5.1 sound, even you only plan to buy a nice set of floor standing speakers and maybe a subwoofer right now, it is nice to know that you can add additional speakers later down the road for a full home theater system. That being said, you generally lose some power and fidelity to each channel for the same price when compared to a stereo receiver.
posted by sophist at 1:39 PM on September 22, 2009

I second a search for something used by NAD.
As far as speakers go I would reach a little bit higher
for the Magnepan MMGs. They are the best bargain
out there, and totally worth their price:
posted by digividal at 1:43 PM on September 22, 2009

My advice would be to look at second hand on something like Craiglist.

If you look at models from a year or two ago you'll make decent savings and get a better quality of sound. My first surround sound system was a 3 year old Sony 5.1 (cant remember the model number, sorry) second hand for $200. Sounded great.

Mordaunt-Short is a brand to look out for. Great sound, prices not too big. The reviews are always very positive.

The only other thing I will say is that spending a bit of money on cables can make a huge difference too.
posted by mjlondon at 1:43 PM on September 22, 2009

I'm sitting at my shop right now, which is in the atrium of a hi-fi shop. They've got all sorts of super high end speakers, we're talking $20,000 speakers here, but one of the products they sell the most of are some powered speakers by Audio Engine. The things go for a couple hundred bucks and listening to the demos from up here they sound awesome. Also saves you from having to buy a separate amp or reciever.

(I'm not affiliated with either company, besides for the former being my landlord.)
posted by Jawn at 3:41 PM on September 22, 2009

Best answer: Buying used can be a great option -- maybe look for used hi-fi shops in your aeea As we all know, Craigslist and eBay can yield super deals but there's always the lemon risk.

I don't think you're looking for Magnepan. Not every amp is going to be suitable to drive these, especially lower cost ones.

Sony can make decent TVs but not speakers. You could check out Polk/Klipsch at Best Buy.

Maybe check out Kef speakers at accessories4less or perhaps Energy C-300s.

Klipsch, Kef, Monitor Audio. I have not found any really cheap subs that are worth a damn.

Hard to beat Onkyo for inexpensive receivers.
posted by Ultra Laser at 4:20 PM on September 22, 2009

NAD receiver/CD player
Acoustic Energy speakers


posted by Joseph Gurl at 6:14 PM on September 22, 2009

I'm on a budget and want to upgrade my audio system. What receiver/speakers I should purchase to get the most for my money?

Don't buy new.

$400? There are a pair of 300Ti's on ebay right now that would be perfect.

Then, get a PlayStation 1.

Finally, you do need to upgrade that reciever, but don't worry about it for now. After all, I've blown your budget.
posted by Chuckles at 7:33 PM on September 22, 2009

Best answer: I spent less than this on a stereo system I am ecstatic with. One caveat: I started with a G4 iBook. But used ones are very cheap these days.

My system:

* iBook G4 w/iTunes, sending MP3s via AirTunes to
* Airport Express base station, then via cord to
* Sonic T-Amp, which outputs to
* 2 Bic America bookshelf speakers (search on Amazon) and
* An infinity sub I picked up for <>
So ultimately, I don't even *have* a receiver cluttering up my living room. Just two speakers on the mantle, and the T-amp and sub sitting unobtrusively under an end table.

Highly recommended.

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 8:28 PM on September 22, 2009

I hate to bicker with Alaska Jack, but if you want a good stereo experience, it may not be a good idea to start with MP3s.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 1:27 AM on September 23, 2009

Response by poster: These are all great suggestions. Something I don't think I really thought about before was the possibility of just using an amp with some nice speakers. In all of my prior experiences, speakers were paired with a receiver so it just seemed necessary.

I've marked Alaska Jack's answer because it's most similar to the current setup I have and what I'm striving for. As for the mp3 argument, AirTunes will accept any audio format that iTunes will play including their lossless formats and higher quality mp3s.

I really like the speakers suggested by Ultra Laser. The Energy C-300s look really nice. I'll definitely keep those in mind and try to give them a test listen.
posted by vmrob at 1:13 PM on September 23, 2009


I haven't seen any reviews of the DAC in an AirPort Express, but odds are it sucks bad.

A quality DAC is far more important than the format you choose to use. Now, the mastering and recording quality of the sound file you play is more important than the DAC, but those are only weakly related to the file format. I'd still avoid mp3, because you might as well go lossless, but it is way down the list of critical issues:
  1. Source recording (production quality, like mastering and proper recording technique)
  2. Playback source (the DAC, or turntable)
  3. Speakers
  4. Room treatment (perhaps tied with 3. Speakers)
  5. Amplifier (reciever, T-amp, whatever)
Hell, it didn't even make the list :P
posted by Chuckles at 3:07 PM on September 23, 2009

Also, for under $500 you really can't possibly do better than a pair of 300 Ti's. I know they are old, and I know you won't be able to afford that subwoofer you want, but.. Well, notice how subwoofer didn't even make the list? :)

Here's a pair for $300.
posted by Chuckles at 3:12 PM on September 23, 2009

Also, you can keep throwing nicer and nicer amplifiers at 300 Ti's, and they just sound better and better. A friend has a Citation II hooked up to a pair and you can't believe how great they sound. Almost like they are actual high end speakers or something.
posted by Chuckles at 3:26 PM on September 23, 2009

Just a followup.

(1) As far as sound quality goes, what can I say -- the setup I have sounds fine to me. "Fine" as in, I enjoy the music and never think, "man, this sound quality sucks." Note that I have a semi-decent sub to gently "round out" the sound. Also, all my MP3s are high-quality (encoded with LAME using the V0 setting), so that probably helps. I'm very picky about my music collection!

(2) My first-choice speakers were these, but they charge an arm and a leg for shipping to Alaska. You may have better luck.

(3) Re the AudioEngine speakers mentioned by Jawn, with the built-in amps -- Those were also on my short list of choices. Everyone seems to love them. I think they even have an electrical outlet on the back, so depending on your setup and how much space you have behind them, you could actually plug the AirPort Express unit right into them!

(4) The speakers I eventually ended up with were the Bic America DV62si. I know, there are probably plenty of people saying "Eeuuww, $100 speakers?" Again, what can I say. They are heavy, solidly built, and sound fine to me. Maybe a touch bright, but certainly acceptable, and outstanding for the price. Note that out of 61 reviews, they have one 2-star and four 3-star. The rest are all 4- and 5-star reviews.

(5) Finally, seconding other recommendations to go used. I got the sub off cl for thirty dollars, as I recall (not sure why it didn't show up in my original comment.)

- AJ
posted by Alaska Jack at 5:54 PM on September 23, 2009

I have a pair of those 300 Ti's. Buy them. They are awesome.
posted by vronsky at 8:39 PM on September 23, 2009

Response by poster: Leaning towards the 300 Ti's per Vronsky and Chuckles' suggestions though I'm still very new to building an audio system.

It's looking like the system I'm shooting for would be the audio source + amp + speakers. It sounds like I've got the source and speakers picked out, but what do I look for in a good amp? From what I've heard, I should keep harmonic distortion to a minimum (0.03% is good right?) but what other things do I need to look for/what amp would you recommend?
posted by vmrob at 10:15 PM on September 23, 2009

As a couple of us mentioned, the T-amp competes with amps that cost hundreds of dollars, and sold new for about $40. They are no longer in production, but you can find them if you look hard enough. It may not shake the walls at top volume, but with some high efficiency speakers it will sound great. THD is a nice metric, but as with speakers, every amp has its own color to it. Also worth considering is the ergonomics, many people like a large weighted knob for volume control.

A really good amp will often be standalone, and the only knob on it will be a volume knob, and you buy a separate eq or radio or whatever if you need one.

One rule of thumb is that an amp that consumes more power to output a given amplitude is often higher quality. This can be gamed just like weight of speakers can, of course.
posted by idiopath at 10:29 PM on September 23, 2009

I can't help you there vmrob as I haven't had my speakers hooked up in ages, but I have heard good things about NAD and Onkyo mentioned above.

What chuckles said about the 300s sounding better and better as you can afford to throw better amps etc. at them is true. I have a friend who used to work in hi fi and has all this crazy good gear that he gets for a song through contacts and I plugged them in to his set up once and was just amazed. HUGE soundstage that went way beyond the edges of the speakers, incredible detail and holographic imaging. Every musician is well defined in space almost like an aural diorama. They really are giant killers.

Here is a review.

"This has become a kind of cult classic after having been glowingly praised by famous audio reviewer Harry Pearson, founder of The Absolute Sound. In a very short list of speakers he recommended, it was near the top, equalling or surpassing a $22,000 speaker. He praised it in several issues, despite being out-of-production. At one point, he said it was a speaker he could live with forever."
posted by vronsky at 10:48 PM on September 23, 2009

I'm back again after my first post. $400 is not going to buy you great separates (receiver, speaker, source), so let's start there. It forces you to use the things that you DO have, as you stated above - like a laptop, maybe an iPod, etc. So let's say, for me, I have those things and a room to play them in like a bedroom, a dorm, or average living room. Then all you need to the sound.

Looming purely at a sound point of view, your equipment, and your budget, I would go with Audioengine A5 Powered Speakers. I suggest them because they require no receiver, have built in amps, and only require a source. Use your laptop, or iPod, or the cd player you already have. Don't think of them as dinky Logitech or HK computer desk speakers - these things are REAL speakers. From all the reviews, they sound FANTASTIC, and can be cranked when you want it loud.

What they are not is a home theater system, nor upgradable. They are what they are, but when you have the change for a nice home theater system, throw the A5's into your bedroom or office and you'll be golden (IMO the entry price for a good home theater stereo is $2k). They'll also sell on the second-hand market with minimal depreciation. I would either save until you get there, or you're impatient, do yourself a favor with the A5's.
posted by spoons at 9:21 AM on September 29, 2009

I haven't seen any reviews of the DAC in an AirPort Express, but odds are it sucks bad.

The AirPort Express has an optical digital out, though, so you can use whatever DAC you choose...
posted by mr_roboto at 1:44 PM on September 29, 2009

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