Home Audio 101
November 20, 2007 6:49 AM   Subscribe

What components do I need to buy to have a solid stereo system for my home?

I know nothing about home audio and I want to buy a quality turntable for playing records (including 78s) as a gift for my one and only.

I took a look at other mefi questions about turntables and found some good resources, but I quickly realized that there's a lot of vocabulary and hip-bone-connected-to-the-assumptions going on that leave me clueless. I need someone that isn't trying to sell me something to help me figure out what I need.

Fer'instance... am I better going with separate parts (and if so, what are those parts specifically) or with a "home system" (I want to avoid crappy parts just to get the 78 feature, for example).

Here are the things I'd like the system to do, in priority:

- Cost around $500
- Sound good
- Play records (78s, 33s and 45s)
- Play cds
- Play cassettes
- Play FM/AM radio
- BONUS, BUT NOT REQUIRED: Record across the above (ideally on CD)
- BONUS, BUT NOT REQUIRED: Be aesthetically pleasing

Speak jargon as long as you provide clarification (parenthetically). Links and specific make/model recommendations are appreciated. I'll be happy to converse in thread if I'm leaving details out. Thanks for your help.
posted by 10ch to Shopping (19 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
Do you have speakers already?
posted by smackfu at 7:02 AM on November 20, 2007

You are not going to get particularly high quality for that complete of a system with that budget. You might want to consider scaling it back to just a turntable, a receiver with a phone preamp (not all of these have one anymore and it is expensive to buy a standalone one) and a pair of speakers. You could probably accomplish this in that price range. Adding a cassette deck adds about $100, and same for an entry level cd player (a recorder would be even more if they still make them). I would budget about $100 for a turntable, $225 for the speakers and the rest for a receiver. Of course there is always this Teac unit. It won't really be hi-fidelity but I bet it still sounds nice and otherwise meets most of your needs.
posted by caddis at 7:29 AM on November 20, 2007

Response by poster: Smackfu -- In short, yes... there are speakers at the house, but they're nothing to write home about.
posted by 10ch at 7:29 AM on November 20, 2007

Response by poster: Caddis - Agreed. Is $500 ridiculously low? Again, I know so little about this stuff.

And funny you mention it, we have a Teac unit now... it plays 78s, too. But I want something nicer (it's got a lot of annoyances, mostly mechanical -- no auto return on the turntable, cd player messes up more than it plays).

I would rather go with your approach of bare minimums that can be built upon than a whole system that does everything in a restrictive price range. (Thus a prioritized list.) Make sense?

Thanks for the recommendations. I'll take a look.
posted by 10ch at 7:34 AM on November 20, 2007

In the long run, you are better off with "separates," the individual components. Most all-in-ones don't include a turntable any more, and even the ones that do don't usually play 78s. Is that an essential feature? Many >$500 turntables don't play 78s either.

smackfu's question is the most relevant bit of information you can give- it'll affect your component budget dramatically.
I like Sony's home components. They're decent, though not amazing, and the interfaces are very consistent. You can often find a decent receiver for about $200 that can drive almost any normal home-stereo speaker, and can do surround for movies as well. The big difference here is going to be between the stereo (2-channel) and surround (5-7.1 channel) receivers. Any receiver will get you the am/fm tuner built-in.

My recommendations:
Receiver: cheap-ish Sony, about $175-200.
Turntable: you're in for some trouble by wanting to play 78s. I would buy an old turntable from a garage sale or some such in order to get this feature, and put an "ok" inexpensive needle on it. $150
CD player: why not get a dvd player? They can do both DVD and CD, sometimes MP3-CD or DiVX video too, and are dirt cheap. Anything will do, I'd get the same brand as your receiver. $50
Tape Deck: used from Craigslist, maybe? It's a rotten deal buying one new these days. Budget $50-75 and you might get a sweet NAD or Nakamichi unit from the early 90s.

Now, we're up to $400-450 already, and we have no speakers, and can't record to CD. So add a cable to your computer for recording, then you can burn CDs. $6.

Speakers are going to be tough, as good new ones are pricey. This is another item I'd shop for used, since they don't deteriorate quickly, and it's usually obvious when they're broken. Something will sound very, very wrong. Budget at least $150.
posted by wzcx at 7:34 AM on November 20, 2007

Please keep in mind that you can't play 78s and 45/33s with the same needle (or at least you really shouldn't).

That said, look at some of the older Thorens turntables that will play all three speeds. Most will have a selectable needle, and shouldn't cost you much more than $200 on ebay. They're belt driven and built like tanks. Invest in a new AT cartridge for the vinyl side, because no matter what the seller tells you, it'll need a new one. this will run you about $50-60. The 78 side should still be fine, they're built like bricks and sound quality isn't going to be a real problem with 78s, frankly. (yes, I collect both and I'm sure audiophiles will argue with me, but vintage 78s just don't sound that great unless you have really high end gear and really clean records)

I'd spend the rest of your money on a decent amp with a phono input (very important!). Again, I'd go used on ebay. I've seen Marantz amps go pretty cheap and these sound great for the price, most will have am/fm built in. They should have a tape input & output for recording, this input will work for cd input, not sure about recording to cd though.

As far as the other inputs, go new. Used cd & tape players are too problem prone to be worth it.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:37 AM on November 20, 2007

IANAA (I am not an audiophile) but i have a really nice sounding system, and with some time and effort, $500 isn't an impossible goal, just a difficult one. You can do it, get a decent, usable, nice sounding system, but it would probably make any real audiophile cringe a little bit.

For receivers, check your local thrift store. I picked up a Harmon-Kardon for 20 bucks, replaced the fuses and it worked like new, and sounds really nice, and takes care of your FM/AM desires if you throw a good antenna on it. I love this thing to death, it looks beautiful and it does sound great.

For CDs on a budget, use a disc-man hooked up with a mini-jack-to-RCA cable from your local audio store.

Hit up garage sales, or craigslist for your speakers...I got a pair of nice, wonderful, warm sounding bose speakers for 40 bucks, and that was 6 years ago. Still use them today, and they sound great.

I wouldn't recommend skimping on the turntable, and if you have to play 78's, you probably wont end up doing so...but people can drop well over 500 just on a turntable alone. just keep in mind that a good turntable will help preserve your record collection for much longer than a shitty one.
posted by furnace.heart at 10:09 AM on November 20, 2007

Nowadays, the "popular" thing is a DVD-playing "home theater in a box". Which makes it the cheapest thing. Like this Sony one. $220 for 5 speakers, a subwoofer, a receiver, and a 5-disc CD-DVD player. And you can buy separates for the tape and turntable.
posted by smackfu at 11:39 AM on November 20, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks to all for your responses so far... a lot of it's over my head though. Example, what's the difference between a receiver and an amplifier? I have no clue what a phono input is either.

This ad, for example, has me totally dumbfounded...
Why exactly, does "analog rule?" Would speakers that old work with a newer receiver? OHM? Power handling? 100 watts per channel?

So much jargon to sift though, I feel like I'm pawing around in a dark room.
posted by 10ch at 11:41 AM on November 20, 2007

Response by poster: Smackfu - So funny... we had an RCA home theater system, just like that and it was for crap. The thing broke w/in a year. It's sort of why I'm over buying "systems" and am looking into separates. Thanks for the suggestion.
posted by 10ch at 11:43 AM on November 20, 2007

A phono input is an input on the back specifically tuned for the response curve of a turntable, it IS different than a regular input (tape/cd/video/etc). Not all amps will have it, you want to be sure yours does if you're planning on hooking up a turntable.

Analog generally refers to big expensive tube amplifiers that some people think sound better, but that everyone agrees look way cooler. I'm not even going to get into this argument. You can look it up yourself in pretty much any web forum anywhere.

A receiver generally refers to an AM/FM radio receiver which might (but not always) be part of an amplifier which is what takes all the various inputs and outputs the sound to the speakers.

Feel free to drop me a line if you have any deeper questions.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 12:38 PM on November 20, 2007

Do be aware that old 78 records use a different EQ curve than LPs do. Apparently there was little standardization in those days, so each record company used their own. See the Wikipedia article on RIAA equalization.
posted by neckro23 at 1:22 PM on November 20, 2007

When they say "Analog Rules" in that craigslist ad they are referring to non-digital sources, which usually means vinyl. It's sort of a rah, rah rant, like bragging about a sports team.

Also, no, $500 is not ridiculously low for a basic system similar to what many people might have had in college. Part of the fun is upgrading over the years to better sound.
posted by caddis at 1:40 PM on November 20, 2007

If you buy new systems, bring a favorite record and CD to listen to in the store. You can pretty much ignore the technical stuff with that method. I usually bring a classical CD I like so I can hear the dynamic range, and something rock, pop, or ska that I listen to over and over so I can hear the differences easily.

I know most big cities have a specialty store that resells audiophile gear. Once people (usually men) get bit by the audiophile bug, they are constantly upgrading equipment and reselling the perfectly good old equipment. Look for one in Durham, it may be a side business of a store that repairs audio gear. You can also find decent floor model units sometimes.
posted by BrotherCaine at 4:58 PM on November 20, 2007

Also, if you have a decent pair of headphones, bring them. That way you can tell if the component or the speakers are responsible for the sound quality or lack thereof.
posted by BrotherCaine at 5:02 PM on November 20, 2007

Response by poster: I feel like I've learned so much today. Thanks to all who've responded. I found this turntable which seems to be a great price and plays 78s. From the reviews I read, the cartridge (which I assume to be the unit that also contains the needle?) isn't the best for non-DJs, but it'll do until we upgrade. I'm looking at used speakers (maybe those Bose ones, actually) and a used amp/receiver to start. The CD and cassette piece can come later.

You've all helped me come up with a great Christmas gift... I think she'll love it. Thanks again!
posted by 10ch at 7:38 PM on November 20, 2007

That table has a built in phono stage so that means you can use it with any amplifier. Don't plug it into the phono input if the amp has one though, use aux or something else. Used is a great way to go for speakers and amps. They don't tend to go bad very quickly. An amp that has sat unused for more than a few years should be avoided as the capacitors can go bad from this. When buying used speakers check the surround for signs of wear. The surround is the little roll of foam (those are the ones that can go bad with age) or some other material at the outer edges of the woofer cone (the large one). They can be repaired but why buy into that. Not much else goes wrong. Sometimes the volume knob might get scratchy. If that happens then a squirt from a good tuner cleaner will usually fix it. Deoxit D5 is the best of the best, and it is amazingly available at RadioShack now so it is easy to find. Basically, used equipment that isn't ancient is just a steal.

I like Audiogon for used stuff but they tend to serve a tad higher end of the market than you are seeking, but if you find something in your price range here it tends to be more reliable than eBay or Craigslist, the want ads etc. Bose speakers have a horrible reputation among audiophiles as being overpriced, over-hyped junk. The ones you are looking at are probably an exception, but at four ohms make sure the amp can handle that. Most can handle 4 to 8 ohms fine, but lower ohm speakers put more of a load on the amp. Harmon-Kardon and NAD pride themselves in handling low ohm loads and are great buys in used amps. (I personally prefer tube amps but there aren't really any good ones in your price range, especially in the ones with the really sweet sound, single ended triodes.)
posted by caddis at 8:12 PM on November 20, 2007

Cassette decks are cheap and abundant. Do not pay $100 for one. Chances are good that you'll find a reasonable used deck for ~$20 if you keep your eyes open, so you might as well pick one up.

CD players are a real challenge. It is hard to do them well, but they don't have to be expensive to be good. I think the "do this later" suggestion is good. Also, CD playback technology has improved drastically over the years. Don't look at used units from before 1997-98.

Turntables are another kind of challenge.. You might consider throwing up to $100 at a solid but not spectacular used unit, but I'd tend to think not..

And speakers.. Ahh.. Err.. Well, currently on Raleigh craigslist you have a bunch of Boston Acoustics A series speakers, which I don't know anything about personally, but are probably not bad at the low end of your price range. These B&Ws look like they are going for a great price (ebay completed auction at $600-700). Ten years ago a friend was doing listening tests for a serious pair of speakers (think $10,000), and the B&W's he checked were pretty poor, but they are a serious high end manufacturer. These Polks might be a good deal. Totem has a stellar reputation for high quality sound - these are overpriced compared to ebay, but you might get them down by $100-150.. Perhaps someone with a more up to date eye could take a look at what is available, or at least poke holes in my suggestions.

Amplification.. Terminology first: a Power Amplifier is just that, normally doesn't even have a volume control, you would also need a preamp to make it useful; an Integrated Amplifier is like a Power Amplifier and a Pre Amplifier together in one box; a Receiver is like an Integrated Amplifier with a Radio Tuner. I wouldn't be averse to suggesting a modern home theater receiver, if this thing is going to be near your TV. Anyway, nothing on Raleigh craigslist stands out, except you could get this, and substitute a nice $400 pair of speakers. That would leave lots of potential for upgrade while still being functional today.
posted by Chuckles at 10:47 PM on November 20, 2007

If this guy is saying that these RTS-11's plus the centre channel, are $250, it might just be worth going to Austin (I don't really know how far that would be :P). Also, these RTS-P100's might get bid up, but $300 would be a nice price. Ya, I like Sound Dynamics :P
posted by Chuckles at 11:00 PM on November 20, 2007

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