And For Those Still into Stereos

Should I buy components and hook them up or buy a system?

Buying Decision A Matter of Choice

Believe it or not, buying a home stereo is one of the biggest investments you might make. While its monetary value might not approach that of your home, car or education, the value and usefulness that it should bring you is surely very high. Your home stereo will certainly influence how you perceive your musical choices, and impact how you relax, recreate and entertain.

 

 

 

With that as the case, there are many things that come into play with regard to choosing the piece or pieces that compose this system. The first and most often asked question by persons new to home audio is: “Should I buy components and hook them up or buy a system?” Well, this buying decision is dependent solely on your personal tastes and situation. If you goal is quick and easy sound on a budget, an all-in-one or pre-packaged solution is the best one. However, ff you have special needs (for example maybe you inherited a collection of 33-, 45-, or 78-rpm records) the component-based stereo system is likely to be your only solution. But with the recent arrival of truly excellent all-in-one systems, the case for buying components, which used to be quite compelling, is no longer as strong as it once was. Granted, most separates will outperform many all-in-one solutions, but as technology moves ahead, particularly digital, the race is certainly tightening up.

All-In-One Systems

Decisions, Decisions

The first path, and usually the one that most people start with, is the all-in-one or pre-packaged home stereo. This category of stereos is characterized by little or no “hook up” of the various pieces in the system. It most likely will come in one enclosure, usually containing a small amplifier, receiver, CD player, tape deck and equalizer. It will also have two (or more) cables for connection to the speakers, and AM and FM radio antennas to receive radio broadcasts.

There are many choices in this category of products:   The first path, and usually the one that most people start with, is the all-in-one or pre-packaged home stereo. This category of stereos is characterized by little or no “hook up” of the various pieces in the system. It most likely will come in one enclosure, usually containing a small amplifier, receiver, CD player, tape deck and equalizer. It will also have two (or more) cables for connection to the speakers, and AM and FM radio antennas to receive radio broadcasts.

There are many choices in this category of products:

  1. Stereo Shelf Systems – All-in-one music systems perfect for a dorm room, den, small apartment or study.
  2. Micro Systems – Ultra compact, elegantly styled systems usually for desks or other limited-space areas.
  3. Home Theater Shelf Systems – The convergence of shelf system ease-of-use and multi-speaker surround sound.

Prices range from about $100 for the
Panasonic SC-EN5 AM/FM/CD Micro system designed for intimate listening, up to $999 for the Denon S-101 Shelf-system, with iPod support, and surround sound from two speakers and a subwoofer! Talk about packing a punch on a budget! Some of these all-in-one systems have reached a level of sophistication such that they no longer sound like oversized transistor radios. The performance offered by some of the smaller units can now be qualified as acceptable. They make a good start, but are by no means the final word in quality sound. As long as your expectations are reasonable, you can expect to have a decent listening experience with many of the better units.

What to Look For in your mini-system

Features You Must Have

When you go looking for a great shelf- or mini-system, there are some basic features that will come in handy such as a remote control, and ease of use. Also, your system should include the following:  

Tuner

At a minimum you should be able to receive AM and FM stereo broadcasts. Look for the ability to have memory presets for frequently listened-to stations. You should also look for an AM and FM antenna, in order to clearly receive the stations in your area.

CD player

If the mini-system lacks a CD player, walk away from it. Your CD player should be able to play MP3 tracks, CD-Rs that you record on your computer (and as a bonus CD-RWs as well).

Speakers

Your speakers should feature at least two drivers: one tweeter for the high-frequency sounds, and a woofer/mid-range driver to provide the bass and mid-frequency sounds. Make sure the supplied speakers (and speaker wire) can be mounted a distance away from the main unit, as proper speaker placement has an influence even on mini- and shelf-systems. If you opt for a Home theater type mini-system, this feature is mandatory. Also, make sure the speaker wire detaches from both the main unit and the individual speaker. Thus, you can easily add longer wires when and if the need arises.

Amplification

Many of the mini systems will advertise high-output amplification. It’s not uncommon for a mini-system to produce 100-300 total watts per channel. In my opinion, this is overkill. What you need most is clear sound and sufficient power to play your music at a comfortable volume. Don’t be misled by the numbers! If your mini-system produces twenty clean and clear watts of sound, you’ll enjoy it much more than the 300-watt “mega-mini” that sounds distorted and obnoxious. As a famous pioneer in high-end sound once said “If the first watt of power sounds horrible, why would you want 99 more just like it?”

Auxiliary Inputs

Your mini-system should at least have “line-in” and “line-out” jacks at the rear of the unit. These connectors will allow you to add other components at a later date, increasing the long-range usefulness of your new system. For example, if you’re interested in new services such as XM Radio and Sirius they offer removable/ portable receivers for their satellite radio subscribers. In order to take advantage of listening to them at home, you’ll need the ability to add extra sources to your mini-system in order to make your investment worthwhile.

Components

The Ultimate In Performance Comes in Separate Boxes

The other path is the component-based (or “separates”) stereo system. If you have specific desires or needs that your equipment must meet, you are not afraid of electronics and connecting various pieces doesn’t worry you, your best option is to buy a components-based system and hook them up yourself. This piece-by-piece approach is characterized by the following options:

 

 

 

  1. Building an entire system made of the finest available components.
  2. Creating a system of separates, but on a limited budget.
  3. Purchasing a system of separates from the same manufacturer all at one time.
  4. Buying a few basic pieces now and add later as finances or desire permits.

Prices for components vary widely. Performance will vary just as much. For example, you can easily find many CD players, some with surprisingly good real-world performance for $100-$250, or you can spend as much as $7500 (or more) for the ultimate in digital playback.

Look at your budget to determine what you can spend without messing with mortgage money, or raiding the 401k.

 

STICK TO YOUR BUDGET!

 

Trust me; you can easily spend MUCH more than you’d planned. (To help you do this, I have included a Microsoft Excel budget spreadsheet with several price points, and recommended maximum expenditures for each of the most-popular components you’ll want to consider.)

What to Look For

Shopping for components requires a lot more diligence on your part. It’s going to entail more research on your part, and generally a much larger budget. You have to be prepared to listen to and evaluate products. It can be an enjoyable, albeit time-consuming search. To get you started, first take a look at the Component Guide. You’ll find in-depth information on what to look for when evaluating and/or purchasing individual components. Then, once you’re ready to evaluate products read the Guide on Training Your Ear. You’ll be on your way to creating a wonderful home sound system.

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