Help me rock out with the minimum possible financial outlay.
December 5, 2012 10:20 PM   Subscribe

I'm looking to assemble a home stereo for dirt cheap. What do I need to know and how can I get the most ♪ for the least $?

OK, my total budget from start to finish is maybe $200 at the most. Yes, I realize that that's a laughably small amount of money for a good sound setup, but that's what I've got to work with. $200 is a hard limit, less money would be a lot better but I know that one can only do so much.

Anyway, I'm trying to put together a decent home stereo system. You know: receiver, subwoofer, a couple of towers, that kind of thing. I am definitely looking to go used here since that seems like the best way to get something decent for cheap. I mean, speaker technology hasn't *really* advanced that much in the last 30 years, right? Surely not.

What I am looking for is advice on what to, well, look for. And where to look for it. I already have a receiver lined up I think, a Pioneer SX-6 which is supposed to be a really nice (and durable) unit from the early 80's. It's running $45. So I have $150 left to work with, basically.

What should I do? Craigslist doesn't seem to be much help in my area, it's pretty much nothing but car audio stuff there. Should I start cruising thrift stores? eBay? What am I looking for in terms of making sure that I get something of reasonable quality, and how should I distribute my money? What are the signs of good vintage audio gear, and what are some of the considerations and pitfalls that I need to keep in mind?

Help me out MetaFilter, I'm tired of listening to everything through this crappy iPod dock thing.
posted by Scientist to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (17 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
I'd drop the subwoofer from the mix and get the best bookshelf speakers you can afford, that's where I'd spend the most money as that is what will affect the sound the most. What will you use for source, an IPod? You could get a cheap Discman to play cds and it would sound surprisingly good.
posted by PaulBGoode at 10:40 PM on December 5, 2012 [1 favorite]

Figuring out a budget starts with figuring out what you need it to do.what are your input sources? cassettes? 8-track, LPs? CDs? Do you have a DVD player that can play audio CDs? Those are usually inexpensive and also play DVDs.

If you don't listen to records, skip that input. If you don't listen the radio, consider an amplifier instead of a receiver. If you're not going to tune the frequencies with a pink noise generator, you may not need an equalizer.

I've never found an inexpensive subwoofer system that I liked that wasn't an all-in-one multimedia setup. It's not a sub-$200 component, to my mind.

How much space do you have for speakers? Are you looking for bookshelf speakers or something that needs to be mounted?

Are you handy? You can build speaker enclosures, put in speakers, etc. That's probably more if you're into doing those kinds of projects. It's the kind of thing you would've bought the gear to do at Radio Shack, before they became CellPhones-R-Us.
posted by Mad_Carew at 10:41 PM on December 5, 2012

I'd also dump the subwoofer and focus on good bookshelf speakers. Thrift stores are... tricky, unless you really know what you're looking for, and often you'll be beaten to the punch by people who do, but if you're prepared to trawl with a smartphone in your pocket and do some searches on model names and numbers, you certainly have a chance of picking up something decent.
posted by holgate at 10:58 PM on December 5, 2012 [2 favorites]

Yeah the source will be basically an aux in from an iPod or laptop or the like, sometimes the radio, maybe eventually a television. I'd like something that I could grow into. I have as much space as necessary, this is going in my living room. It will be playing music and movies.

I am not married to the idea of having a woofer, I care more about clarity than range and anything is likely to have more bass than a damn iPod dock, but good balance would be nice. I am quite handy enough to build speakers from a kit or whatever, but my understanding is that those kits, while a good value, are out of my price range.

I am basically looking for something that is a step up from your typical all-in-one multimedia speaker kit and something that I can add equipment to as I acquire it, something that would be nice to watch movies with and that will fill our (small) house with nice-sounding music. (We're talking 320kbps mp3s and FLAC files there, basically.)
posted by Scientist at 11:00 PM on December 5, 2012

Yeah, get rid of the subwoofer. It's going to be expensive and worst of all it's going to require a fairly hefty amp to drive, and the amp I'd use to drive a sub isn't the same amp that I'd use to drive a really nice stereo pair.

If you are really wed to the idea of a subwoofer, one option is to build a box yourself out of MDF and put some sort of cheap car-audio sub into it. I know several guys who have setups like that, and they thump-thump with the best commercial subwoofers. Which is to say: not really well, but just fine for video game SFX and movies, which is probably when you care.

One option to consider for the main pair is to look around at thrift stores and get a nice pair of old 60s/70s "hifi" speakers, which will probably be really nice wood boxes, but likely with blown-out drivers and torn up grille fabric. That's OK, if you can get them for a few bucks each. (If you're patient and drive around on bulk garbage day in the suburbs, you may be able to get some for free.) You can then pull out the old drivers and insulating material, and basically start over yourself. You can put together a really sweet set of speakers for under $100 this way (or you could, years back; maybe it's a bit more now). There are online calculators that will help you calculate the sizes of any extra baffles or ports you might want, although you'll do best if you avoid modifying the boxes much.

I set out on a project much like that in college, starting from a set of 1966 Scott speakers that I found in the basement. However, I had the pleasant discovery of plugging them in just for the heck of it, and discovering they sounded great. I didn't touch them after that, and I've hauled them around with me ever since. Sometimes you'll find a diamond in the rough; worst case scenario, you'll probably get the cabinets for less than you could build them yourself.

Spend your time and money on the speakers, then upgrade the amp later if it's not giving you the performance you want. Most people do the opposite — spend on the amp and scrimp on the speakers — and that's just silly. The speakers make more of a difference than any other part of your system, so it's where 80% of your time and effort ought to go, IMO.
posted by Kadin2048 at 11:35 PM on December 5, 2012

speaker technology hasn't *really* advanced that much in the last 30 years, right?

Well, it has, actually, in a lot of ways - and besides that, speakers are the element of a hi-fi system most likely to suffer the ravages of time & use. Every time sound goes through a speaker, things are moving and shaking and vibrating, so all speakers have a finite life. Even if stored unused, paper cones get brittle and crack or rot, the insulation rots or disintegrates, the coils of copper wire break, the components in the crossover die of old age, the input connections get corroded, etc etc etc.

You're looking for a plug-n-play solution, don't bother with used, especially ebay, thrift store or craigslist finds. Unless there's somebody left in New Orleans that actually does home stereo repair - and I mean actually does it on the premises. Then you might find a good deal on a pair of used/repaired speakers.

Otherwise, nthing everyone else to just get the best pair of bookshelf speakers you can afford. Polk Audio and Sony stuff seems to regularly get good reviews for "budget" speakers. I've heard the JBL Control Ones in a not-home-stereo context, and I liked 'em.

Amazon actually isn't the worst place to get good prices, or try or the old standby Crutchfield.
posted by soundguy99 at 12:45 AM on December 6, 2012

a Pioneer SX-6 which is supposed to be a really nice (and durable) unit from the early 80's.

As a general rule, speakers should be matched to your amp. The Pioneer is a decent unit. Pioneer licensed one of Nelson Pass' amplifier designs to emulate Class A (i.e., tube) operation. It has a nice, rich sound for a solid-state amp. On the other hand, it's only got 45Watts per channel so the advice about dropping the subwoofer is certainly appropriate.

A good set of bookshelf speakers - rated to 45 W or more - will do the trick.
posted by three blind mice at 2:48 AM on December 6, 2012

Is there a reason more people don't just buy pro-audio-engineer studio monitors, assuming you're going to be using an ipod/computer for playback? JBL, Mackie, and Fostex all have models for $200 or less. And they probably have great fidelity, and low end for their size.
posted by victory_laser at 4:09 AM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

I would really like to 2nd victory_laser's idea. I think a pair of self-powered nearfield control room monitors (this is just the professional term for bookshelf speaker) would be the most bang for your buck. The self-powered thing is key: you avoid the cost of an amp AND you get a built-in amp that is precisely matched to the specs of the loudspeaker. I think you'd be really pleased by the clarity and imaging of studio monitors. It will take a bit of legwork to find something in your budget...make sure your seeing the price for a pair!
posted by werkzeuger at 4:45 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

There are a bunch of good suggestions upthread, but if you have the time, energy and live in an area conductive to such things, I suggest thrifting your amp.

I've found 3-4 different amps (settling on a Harmon/Kardon 330c, which is delightful, and only cost $8 and sells routinely on ebay for $100 or so) while thrifting. 90% of the time, the only thing wrong with an amp is that the fuses are blown, and this is really easy to check, just unscrew them and look at them. Do some basic testing, (plug it in, turn it on, if you have headphones with you try picking up some radio signals...I used to keep an RCA-3.5mm cord in my bag to test amps out with, just plugged them into my iPod) and take the $10 gamble.

I built a pretty decent stereo setup that cost way less than $200 (except the turntable, which is much harder to thrift cheaply) and it sounds great. Don't skimp on the speakers, just make sure they will play nice with your amp.
posted by furnace.heart at 5:32 AM on December 6, 2012

Is there a reason more people don't just buy pro-audio-engineer studio monitors

Sure; near-field monitors are accurate, which is very different from sounding good. My old H.H. Scott speakers are — if I were to pump pink noise through them and use a measurement mic — probably nowhere near perfectly linear. But they sound great, even when the source material is sub-par, e.g. old vinyl or AAD mastered CDs. Listened to through very accurate NFMs or high-end headphones, I just end up hearing the recording, rather than the music.

Accurate sound reproduction and pleasant / non-fatiguing sound reproduction are different goals, IMO. Also: "if it sounds good, it is good."
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:39 AM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah, what Kadin2048 said. I've got a lot of stuff that sounds absolutely miserable on my monitors (orchestral recordings in particular really suffer) but sounds lovely and warm on my little living room setup. As for what might work well for you, Scientist, these little Topping TP21 amps are a really good bang for the buck in tandem with a solid pair of bookshelf speakers. It's the latter item that's going to make it difficult to stay under budget. I just don't know of any decent speakers that run less than ~$100 each, like the JBL Control Ones mentioned above. If you can stretch your budget a little bit, I think you'd certainly be satisfied with the sound of that setup.
posted by invitapriore at 8:35 AM on December 6, 2012

Would a used *insert something by BOSE here* dock fit your description or are you set on multiple components? My musician uncle has an above average ear and is picky and he loves his BOSE dock. He goes outside on the deck, the dock is picked up and goes with him.

I'm not saying that OMFG BOSE HAS THE BEST SOUNDS EVAR THEY ARE LIKE HEROIN TO MY EARS. I'm just saying that you shouldn't assume that all docks are created equal.
posted by RolandOfEld at 8:55 AM on December 6, 2012

If you want to look at new speakers, the Datyon B652 is a cheap speaker that some members of the audiophile community seem to think is really good.

Looks like they're a bit more than $25 now, but you can get them on Amazon. Also, with bookshelf speakers, if you don't already have a shelf or a table to place them on, you'll also need to budget to buy/make some stands.
posted by teriyaki_tornado at 9:11 AM on December 6, 2012

My recommendations:

1) a cheap ebay T-amp for less than $30. I've had a few, and with an efficient driver in the right enclosure and a better power brick, they easily beat my nice vintage solid state NAD amps.

2) Find a nice, simple, "efficient" full-range design over on that comes in on budget and build it. Something like a "mass loaded transmission line" can get a lot of oomph out of a relatively small driver. There are some nice designs here for most any budget. The cheapest I've built were the "delsol" one w/ $15 drivers and they sound pretty damn good. Not LOUD but damn nice for the kitchen. With the right design, you can get most of the cutting done for free at Lowes/Home Depot and then just screw/glue them together and cut some holes.

3) Build some nice cables out of ethernet cord (google "diy cat 5 speaker cables")

Do it that way and you can pretty easily get something very nice for a couple hundred bucks.
posted by pjaust at 9:51 AM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

Monoprice has a 5.1 set including sub for $84. They get good reviews considering how cheap they are.
posted by cnc at 12:13 PM on December 6, 2012

I picked up a very, very good deal on some speakers and an amp by spending several months hanging out on a dedicated stereos forum (audiophiles get upgradeitis like nobody's business), and perhaps giving the impression that I was more interested in stereos as an ongoing hobby and lifestyle choice than I actually was (I just wanted some good speakers. It was not a "journey" for me).

Someone was selling something that they thought was pretty crappy (and old), I made an offer. It was a smallish forum so there weren't any others, and the community-based nature of it meant that for small fry stuff like this no one was trying to make a profit, and I got it for $250 - very close to your target. He threw in a tonne of other stuff, too, because audiophiles always have tonnes of shit and always want the latest and greatest.

Forget Ebay, Craigslist etc. Those people generally are either a) trying to make a profit cause it's a business, b) have no idea the actual value/market rate for their decades old equipment and think they can sell it for what they paid, and c) will have any real bargains picked over by people who on-sell.

You need to find places where people either don't care/know about the value of their equipment, or know and are reasonable, and aren't frequented by second hand flippers. Also, ask around on Facebook, through work etc. A lot of people will be happy to get rid of stuff sitting around in the garage, and if you're a "friend" won't care too much about price.
posted by smoke at 3:43 PM on December 6, 2012 [1 favorite]

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