Good home music system?
February 8, 2012 5:53 AM   Subscribe

What's the best set-up to listen to music at home?

It's time for us to revamp our home music system.  Right now we have a1980's "hi fi" deck & speakers gathering cobwebs in the corner while we listen to music on an iPod plugged into a portable Bose stereo unit or an iPad bluetoothing to a small Logic3 speaker.  Both are pretty good.  But neither play CDs, and we miss the oompah stereo of real speakers.  It's been a long time since we've bought a "real" home music system, and I need some guidance on what to look for.  You tell me what works but my ideal would be a high quality multi-function system as wireless as possible. For example:
- A small base unit which plays CDs, iPods, streaming from a PC or Mac with input for older technology such as cassette tapes
- Two or more excellent bluetooth speakers
- Clear and simple user instructions and controls
- Robust.  Does what it says on the tin.
- Elegant design

posted by mono blanco to Shopping (17 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
What is your budget?
posted by Jairus at 6:11 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

These are very dated, but could be useful in terms of considering how to budget for a system:
posted by grateful at 6:20 AM on February 8, 2012

Wireless speakers are rarely if ever good (or "real") speakers. If I were in your shoes, I would be a stereo receiver that has a native iPod input, a separate multi-disc CD player, and a good 2.1 speaker system.
posted by ellF at 6:37 AM on February 8, 2012

Err, I would buy. It would be best not to have me wearing your shoes and playing your music.
posted by ellF at 6:38 AM on February 8, 2012

A few thoughts:
We really need some hint as to your budget if this is going to be specific :-)
I'll assume a stereo setup, not surround.
That said:
I'd say about 50% of your budget. Speakers are by a long shot the weakest link in any normal audio setup in terms of the percentage of introduced nonlinearity & distortion.
Forget Bose. Forget Bluetooth. Large speakers tend to reproduce bass better.
Amplifier and CD player:
Have a look at some of the stuff from NAD or Cambridge Audio. Simple and affordable.
But consider dropping the CD's altogether. You could rip them to your computer in FLAC format and be done with the inconvenience of physical media.
posted by Thug at 6:49 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: your budget?
(ellF, if you can wear my shoes, play my music, and fit my budget, you're hired.)
posted by mono blanco at 6:50 AM on February 8, 2012

Response by poster: Budget...let me revise that in light of the above. Let's say US$5000. Can't go above that.
posted by mono blanco at 6:56 AM on February 8, 2012

I've been thinking about buying a Marantz PM5004 amplifier lately.
posted by box at 7:52 AM on February 8, 2012

For $5K you will have a lot of decisions ahead, but can come up with something really great.

Job 1 is to gather a few of CDs you know really well and go to a high-end store (in Minneapolis I'd do this at Hi-Fi Sound). Mix it up between styles - classical, acoustic, rock. (You cannot possibly do this at a BestBuy except maybe in their high-end listening room, if you can get it to yourself).

Bring some pix and dimensions of your intended listening room... speaker placement is critical, followed closely by the sonic characteristics of the room. A good shop will let you try something at home for a week or so.

Explain your situation, then do some critical listening. Listen to the top-of-the-line (which you will not be able to afford). Listen to the bottom-of-the-line. Compare, contrast. A good salesperson will help you figure out what speakers sound good to you.

Once you have settled on the speakers and subwoofer, then you can sort out the other components from there within your budget. Don't rule out used high-end gear. Adding some wireless capability can help get the sound into other rooms of the house.

And have fun!
posted by omnidrew at 8:26 AM on February 8, 2012

Let's try an example:
Cambridge Audio Azur 651A Integrated Amplifier with USB Input, $800.
It streams music from your computer essentially becoming a second soundcard for it.
NAD IPD 2 Dock for iPod, $99.
Cambridge Audio Azur 651C Compact Disc Player, $800
If you insist on a CD player.

Omen Standard from Zu Audio. $1900.
Loud and gets good reviews.


A few words on cables:
(for witch I might draw some flak...)
"Audiophile grade" cables are a waste of money.
Do not under any circumstances buy Monster cables. They are massively overpriced. In fact, for digital cables, most any cable will do.
For analog sources, buy cheap, nice ones with gold plated connectors for corrosion protection.
Speaker cables: They need to be thick enough to transmit the necessary current. Have a look at the table in this wikipedia entry to gauge the thickness you need. Go for the values in the 2 Ohms column. Get the cheapest cable of the specified gauge you can lay hands on.

To summarize:
Amplifier: $800
CD player: $800
Ipod Dock: $100
Speakers: $1900
Cables: $50.

Total: $3650.

If you ditch the CD player (you really should), you could go for the Omen Def speakers at $3875.

Just an example, mind you :-)
posted by Thug at 8:29 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Don't be me. I spent the money, got a good system, and can't pick it up. The speakers weigh about 95 lbs each, and the amp/receiver weighs a good 120. Of course, I can blow the paint off the walls, but really?
posted by halfbuckaroo at 8:35 AM on February 8, 2012

Holy crap, $5k is a lot of music-listening-stereo. I have a Polk Monitor setup run into a Denon 1910, and it's amazing, and it cost all of $2500.

Are you looking for room to expand into home theater, or will this always be a dedicated music setup? What kind of environment are you putting this into -- a giant living room, or a smaller apartment/condo?
posted by ellF at 8:58 AM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've always been impressed with Axiom speakers, but I have no idea how they compare to other brands.
posted by grateful at 10:59 AM on February 8, 2012

The Teac reference series are small form factor and look great. I would keep the speakers wired and use something like Airplay/Airport Express to stream your music. Audio over bluetooth is suboptimal.
posted by wongcorgi at 11:00 AM on February 8, 2012

You sound like a perfect candidate for a Sonos system. Depending how much you want to spend you can either buy a proper HiFi amplifier and speakers and plug a 'Sonos connect' into the aux input, or the cheaper option is one of the all-in-one Sonos systems.

The type of speakers to buy will depend on the kind of music you like, if you like reggae or dance with thumping beats that make the walls shake then you will want some big (probably expensive) speakers. If your tastes are more light classical then you can get away with something much smaller. Also if your house has big rooms then you'll need more powerful Amplifiers & speakers.

Lastly I think its a good idea to buy one component at a time, spread the purchases out over a few months. That gives you time to appreciate the differences that each upgrade will make.
posted by Lanark at 1:47 PM on February 8, 2012 [1 favorite]

Some questions:
    How many rooms do you want to use this with?
  • Do you really need a CD player? (And if so, an $800 one, really?)
  • Does your home have networking cable?
  • Do you need 5.1 or just stereo.
  • You have a $5k max budget, but what would you like to spend?
  • How big is your room or rooms?
  • How close are your neighbors?
I've got Sonos and I love it and it's awesome. It'll work nicely in a single room, but I think that it's benefits are really quite clear when you have multiple rooms. I've got a Play5, which is their larger unit with built in speakers and some Connects that I have hooked up to my stereos around the house.

I also feel that over a certain amount, even for speakers, and you reach the "audiophile" zone where sure you can just keep dumping money into things, but really, how much better are they going to sound? How good are your ears?

For speakers, I really like Audio Engine USA, which sound fantastic for the money. They're large bookshelf size. They also sell a sub-woofer. They do a 30 day at home trial w/ free shipping, which is awesome.

For my home theater, I've got an older Cambridge Soundworks 5.1 system with their last line of larger floorstanding speakers as the mains and their matching center channel and surrounds. They sound fantastic and weren't too expensive at the time. I'm not sure that I'd look at Cambridge Soundworks nowadays; their product mix has changed, and I think not for the better. But, it's worth a listen if there's a store near you.

I agree with the advice to pick some favorite music that you're super familiar with and go to a hi-fi store and audition stuff. Then see if you can arrange some in home auditions, as the acoustics in your home will be different from in the store and so things will sound different.

Also, the boards AVS forum is a great resource and you can get some good help there.

The big speaker brands that have really great reputations are:
  • Axiom
  • Boston Acoustics
  • Polk
  • Klipsch
  • Ascend
The receivers that have great reputations:
  • Denon
  • Marantz
  • Onkyo (I've bought Onkyo exclusively, but will likely go with Denon when it's time to upgrade.)
I bet that you could get a great sounding system for $2k for your main room. I do highly recommend adding Sonos into the mix.
posted by reddot at 3:23 PM on February 8, 2012 [2 favorites]

I spent a fraction of this on a stereo system I use all the time, and couldn't be happier with.

(1) Used iBook G4 running iTunes (~$150). This sends music via wireless to

(2) Airport Extreme unit (~$100). This receives the music from the iBook and pipes in into a simple Sonic T-Amp (given to me, but let's say another $150).

This generates all the music I could ever want -- including not only my MP3 library but a CD player and any streaming services (Pandora, Spotify, etc) you care to run.

If you've budgeted $5,000, you now have $4,600 left over to blow on speakers and a subwoofer :^).

(Personally, I spent $100 on two Bic America bookshelf speakers from Amazon, and $35 on an Infinity subwoofer I got off Craigslist. Sounds fine to me!)
posted by Alaska Jack at 5:21 PM on February 8, 2012

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