£300 - best amp and speakers?
July 12, 2006 8:28 PM   Subscribe

I have £200 to £300 to spend on an amp and speakers - what should I get?

I've never been the sort who can go to a hi-fi shop and listen to hours of my own music collection in order decide what speakers I want. I require something that will sound ok with all of my inputs (tv, dvd, 360), go loud without distorting, and have a bit of bass.

In other words, I want one up from an Argos-bought mini-system, but several steps down from a base-level professional system.

I listened to a £2000 system vs a £500 system a while ago, and whilst I could tell the differece, slightly, it wasn't a £1500 difference for me. I very much doubt I'll be able to notice a £500 to £200 difference.
posted by toby\flat2 to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (16 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If you're looking for a pair of bookshelf-type speakers, I am very very happy with my B&W DM602 S3 speakers. I bought them about two and a half years ago for $500 which is about 270 pounds (I think, I used a currency converter). I listened to a few of their speakers, slightly higher and slightly lower end, and found that while you get what you pay for there isn't much difference.
posted by crashlanding at 8:45 PM on July 12, 2006

The B&Ws are excellent speakers for the price, but that doesn't leave you much for an amp. In that price range, I think the best value is amplified speakers, such as the Aleses M1 Active MKii, which
goes for about $350 (&#163 200) in the US.
posted by spasm at 9:20 PM on July 12, 2006

You get the most bang for your buck early in speakers... in US$, the difference between a $300 pair and a $500 pair can be really substantial. After $1k/pair, the improvements slow down a great deal... you can get really dynamite speakers for $1k.

Most humans don't use that many neurons when hearing... a few hundred thousand, as opposed to millions for vision. And it appears that most of us learn to hear just a little differently. All speaker-based sound reproduction is an illusion, and they all make tradeoffs... the less money you spend, the larger those tradeoffs are. The thing is, because we all use different strategies for hearing, you won't know which tradeoffs are right for you without listening.

If you want to really be happy with speakers, you _need_ to go listen to some. If you buy without spending time learning what you need, you may end up with something you don't like. Try things out of your price range to see if there's any real difference for you. Try speakers with different sounds. Two or three hours spent listening will improve the chances DRAMATICALLY of being happy with your purchase.

You should be able to find pretty comfortable speakers in the 250 pound range, I'd think, which wouldn't leave you much for an amp. Have you thought about buying used? You can usually stretch your dollars quite a bit further, especially on amps. A 5-year old high quality receiver will often be marked down pretty heavily, because it won't have the latest technologies.... but will still sound as good as when it was new. (Onkyo makes good cheap receivers, so that's one brand you could look at. ) And speakers, if properly treated, last for many, many years without degrading.

As far as specific speakers go, I have no idea what's available in your area. If you think you'll ever expand the system, I'd recommend against self-powered speakers, because you'll have trouble integrating them with the rest of a larger system. If you're sure you'll stay with a stereo pair, then they'd be a good option.
posted by Malor at 9:52 PM on July 12, 2006

Response by poster: Money isn't really an issue - I picked £300 because any higher and I know the difference doesn't bother me. I could spend a k, but I know I wont use the speakers enough, or appreciate them enough when I'm using them, to warrant paying that much.

I've always felt my hearing was very good and like I said I can appreciate the difference in varying setups, but when it comes down to it I want something cheap-ish but good. I want to be told what to buy, I don't want to have to decide.

(I bought a mini hi-fi, more like a ghetto blaster, when I was younger for maybe £50, and I kept the speakers from it for 10 years. They weighed nothing but produced sounds that I liked and didn't hate, or at least couldn't be bothered to replace. As long as the new ones don't distort, they 'go loud' and sound sort of nice, I'm a happy man.)

Malor: There's a Richer Sounds near me - probably where I'll get the stuff from.

Thanks for the ideas so far!
posted by toby\flat2 at 10:14 PM on July 12, 2006

I have an ancient Pioneer 40 watts / channel receiver (as in, no digital display, the tuner uses a mechanical arm inside the case, etc) going to a couple of speakers I picked up on freecycle. The receiver horribly underdrives the speakers (the speakers are 140 RMS I think, beastly things) but even at a quarter volume and flat bass/treble the thing will shake my room. Zero distortion. Free. Can't beat it.

Old stereo equipment works just fine. Analog equipment may even sound better, depending on who you believe. In any case, the less DAC/ADC conversions you do, the better.

The big question, for you, is whether you want surround sound or not. I use my stereo for, well, stereo music, so this setup works fine for me. If I wanted 5.1, I'd have a significantly different setup. Personally, I've never wanted 5.1. Its not worth the drop in quality for music for me, and movies still sound great when I play them through my computer.

In terms of actual recommendations, Axiom is a name I hear a lot among my friends who are into very, very good audio. But they're the 'sit in the hi-fi store for 8 hours listening to every CD they own' type. Boston Acoustics is another name I hear now & then, although it tends to be more in the "they sold out, the bastards." These are $700USD a pair and look like they'd blow the socks off of my 4 foot tall floorstanding speakers.
posted by devilsbrigade at 11:41 PM on July 12, 2006

go and buy a copy of What Hi-Fi, every month at the back they list most ranges of equipment along with their rating.

at just above your price range, B&Ws are definitely the way to go - my DM303s (which cost about £250 about four years ago) were, as I recall, so far ahead of the competition that people were perplexed as to how they managed to keep the price down.

Amp-wise I still use a Technics amp which cost me £100 in 1987. Nearly twenty years!

Re:Richer sounds, while good value they have lots of tricks up their sleeves and you won't necessarily be able to get what you want since they only (or only used to) stock some lines, those they had got ridiculously cheap.
posted by criticalbill at 1:43 AM on July 13, 2006

Best answer: toby, I went and looked at that website, and it doesn't have enough info to help me much. I don't know anything about your local brands, and that site isn't helping a bit.

Given that you're not looking for super high quality, but you DO have a 360, which has multichannel sound... have you thought about a home theater in a box? (they're usually called HTIBs). Onkyo apparently makes some decent ones in your price range. They're a good brand in the low end.

You'd be trading off music quality for general use. If you want really high quality music reproduction and money is tight, generally you want to start with a stereo pair and expand out. But it sounds like you don't, you just want something that doesn't suck too badly, so a HTIB might be a good solution. With movies and the 360, they'll fill your room with sound, and they'll sound okay with music. Nothing special... it's not like Sarah McLachlan is going to show up and give you live concerts every night ... but passable.

Given what you're saying about what you want, that might suit you really well.

You say you just want to be told what to buy without thinking about it, so I will tell you: Count your outputs, both video and audio. Your 360, for instance, might be composite out for video and fiber S/PDIF for audio, so you'd need one of each port. Possibly, at your option, add 1 to each total so you have some room for expansion. Find a store that sells Onkyo HTIBs, and buy the most expensive one that fits your budget and has all the inputs you need. Unpack and enjoy. It should be acceptable.
posted by Malor at 3:51 AM on July 13, 2006

Best answer: Not only do you get more bang for the buck from speakers, the low end ones are really crap, and they're not capable of delvering the sound than even cheap amps can. While audio snobs sneer at MOSFETs, in comparison to any other cheap way of amplifying signals, they're quite good, and even a $100 amp will sound markedly better with better speakers -- provided the amp isn't fundamentally broken (mains hum, etc.)

So, bias your spending on the Speakers. Adding power to an electrical signal is something we've gotten very good at. Transducing an electrical signal into motion to move air to move your eardrum is harder, and we're still learning tricks.

BTW, the fast test of speaker quality is weight, and I haven't yet run into anyone just packing lead into the bottom to fool people. In general, better speakers of the same size have larger and heavier magnets, and the cabinets will be made of more dense materials. This is one case where engineered materials, like MDF, are better than solid wood, which is better than molded plastic. You want the cabinent to be sturdy, but you don't want it to be a monolithic ridgid block that transmits vibrations, because it will resonate at certain tones. MDF and particle board, being basically a goop of epoxy with wooden bits, absorbs vibrations.
posted by eriko at 5:07 AM on July 13, 2006

Toby. You can buy mine if you like. You know the setup. MSN me or something.
posted by ed\26h at 5:24 AM on July 13, 2006

What type of speaker you get very much depends on where in the room you want to have them. If you don't have much space, and want them pushed up against the wall (or on a bookcase or whatever) then you won't want back-ported speakers for example.

If you can bear it you should go in a hifi shop (not Richer Sounds if you're unprepared to give the pushy sell a hearty fuck-off), tell them about the space you have available and ask for their recommendation as to appropriate types of speakers. Check the dimensions and characteristics in a magazine, and shop around online for something with a similar spec that is within your budget.

You can pick up bargains by asking about ex-display or end of line products - this is particularly worth doing for the amp, for which I would never, ever want to spend less than about £150 full retail price, and even that would be pushing it. You should easily get your speakers for around £100 - £130.
posted by bifter at 5:49 AM on July 13, 2006

toby, if you're near a Richer Sounds, just pop in and explain what you want. In my experience of a good few different Richer shops, they won't push you to spend more than you want, carry a lot of older stock at a significant discount, and will throw in half-decent speaker cables and interconnects if you ask nicely. Combine their advice with the What HiFi buying guide and you're sweet.

As for specifics, the cheap NAD amps are good value, and I've still got some bloody great Mission speakers from ten years ago that, because they were already a discontinued model when I bought them, only cost £150. (Haven't been shopping for this sort of thing for years, though, so those brands might have been eclipsed by others/gone rubbish...)

And I know you don't want to, but I would suggest at least a quick listening session - a glowingly reviewed amp and some glowingly reviewed speakers can sound like crap together, so it really is best to check.
posted by jack_mo at 2:50 PM on July 13, 2006

not Richer Sounds if you're unprepared to give the pushy sell a hearty fuck-off

Heh, seems my experience of Richer Sounds may not be entirely representative...
posted by jack_mo at 2:52 PM on July 13, 2006

Based on listening to a few friends' systems built on £150-£250 NAD or Cambridge Audio amps, often combined with £100-£150 Mission speakers (and indeed usually from Richer Sounds), I'd say you'll probably be quite happy with such a setup. If you do take this angle, I'd advise not spending less than those prices I mentioned above, as they seem to be a sort of threshold for 'pretty decent' equipment.
posted by MetaMonkey at 7:46 PM on July 13, 2006

If you can afford just a few more bucks check out the Era Design 4 speakers. Simply amazing for the price.
posted by vronsky at 7:58 PM on July 13, 2006

My friend had excellent luck going into a local stereo shop and telling the guy pretty much exactly what you said here, "I have 200$ to spend, and I want to fill a room with sound."

The guy pulled out some Paradigm speakers from the back, and gave him some story about how he couldn't seem to sell them and knocked down the price to 200 on the spot.

They researched the price later and found the speakers went for significantly more - My friend thinks that they were a 'fallen off the back of the truck' hot property special, perhaps?
posted by spatula at 10:02 PM on July 13, 2006

Response by poster: Thanks for the answers. I understand the desire of some of you to make me want to go into a shop to try things out, and I am tempted, especially after being armed with some information from here. Given my lack of knowledge on the subject, my stated appreciation of good audio, and fatness of wallet (at the moment!) makes me hesitant to do so, though. I will, will, end up spending far too much than is required to make me happy.

Who I am buy them from isn't really a concern - if they aren't from Richer they will be purchased over the net, so any brand is ok really. I'm not bothered about 5.1, I have enough cables trailed around my flat as it is. 2 or 2.1 is cool.

I've heard some of the brands mentioned above before - NAD, Mission (M3's?), etc.

I know I've now let this topic go stale. If there is no further responses within the next few days I'll close it and tick some answers. Once again, thanks for the advice.
posted by toby\flat2 at 7:41 PM on July 19, 2006

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