Simple as stereos might seem, they’ve become complicated in recent years. Not only have new technologies such as high-resolution audio, network-distributed music files and streaming added layers of confusion, but the resurrection of older technologies like vinyl records and vacuum tubes has forced audiophiles onto the web in search of lost knowledge.
This increasing complexity has spawned conflicting opinions, with audio enthusiasts, writers, dealers and manufacturers often disagreeing about the best path for budding audiophiles to take. Of course, my voice is just one more in that crowd, but having advised thousands of readers in the course of my career as an audio journalist, and having tested thousands of audio products, I can at least warn you off some of the big mistakes. Avoid these and you’ll end up with a better system and a fatter wallet.
- Don’t get fixated
Technologies like vacuum tubes and panel speakers may seem sexy, but if you make them a must, you’re likely to compromise on things that are more important. Plus, exotic technologies often need to be partnered with specific types of gear. If you really want them, get them, but only if you can do so without compromising the rest of your system. Even the world’s best tube amp will sound awful through the wrong speakers.
- Don’t spend too much on electronics
The most important part of an audio system is the speakers. The differences among speakers are literally 10 or 20 times greater than the differences among amps, preamps and digital-to-analog converters (DACs). It’s usually a good idea to spend about half your budget on speakers.
- Don’t get fancy with your speakers
For your first good stereo, get a straightforward set of speakers with one tweeter positioned above a woofer or two (and maybe a midrange driver in between). This configuration is the most popular, for good reason. Done right, it gives you a natural, full sound that works well in practically any room, with almost any amp you might choose.
- Don’t buy a mass-market turntable
Everybody wants to get into vinyl these days, but too many people start with a cheap, plasticky turntable. The difference in sound between the cheapies and a good $300 turntable, from an audiophile-focused company such as Pro-Ject or Music Hall, is easy even for non-audiophiles to hear, and the more expensive models will almost certainly be gentler with your records, too.
- Don’t insist on the latest technology in a DAC
DACs are locked in a race to see who can deliver the biggest numbers, such as 32 bits, 384 kilohertz or DSD256. The higher those numbers are, the higher the resolution of the files the DAC can accept, and the more you’ll pay for the DAC. But even dedicated audiophiles typically have few, if any, files with resolution higher than 24-bit/192-kilohertz or DSD64. A DAC or digital preamp that supports 24/192 and DSD64 is fine for starters (and maybe forever).
- Don’t reject receivers
Audiophiles tend to prefer separate components, because separate preamps tend to offer more features and fancier circuitry, while separate amps deliver more power. But a receiver—a device that combines a preamp, an amp and an AM/FM tuner, often with a phono preamp and Bluetooth included—can be the most affordable and efficient way to start a system. Add a decent set of speakers and you’ve got a great-sounding stereo for maybe $500.
- Don’t pay for power you don’t need
How much louder will your system get with double the amplifier power? Only 3 decibels, a just-noticeable difference. And at an average listening level, your amp usually needs to put out less than 5 watts of power. Getting 100 or 200 watts per channel can’t hurt—most speakers can take it, no matter what their power rating—but 30 or 40 watts per channel is usually plenty.
- Don’t spend a lot on a streamer
There are all sorts of high-end devices costing $1,000 or more that stream music from your computers, networked hard drives, tablet or phone. But while they claim to deliver better sound, the difference will likely be subtle at best. You’re better off with a $149 Bose SoundTouch Wireless Link, or even a $35 Google Chromecast Audio. You’ll save money and probably like the user interface better, too.
If you read audio forums, you’ll probably find that some of this advice counters what many audiophiles believe. But if you stick to the guidelines I’ve given above, you’ll probably be shocked at how good the sound of your new system is, even if you spent just $200 on a receiver and another $300 or $400 on speakers. And if you’re stepping up from a wireless speaker or a small set of computer speakers, be prepared for the shock of hearing John Coltrane seemingly there in your living room. In audio, it’s truly amazing what a well-spent $500 can do.
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