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First published in 2013
Updated occasionally for new or discontinued models


Just a few years ago, it seemed the traditional home stereo was on its way to obsolescence, thanks to digital music players.  Then a peculiar thing happened.  Something-- maybe the limitations of digital music-- prompted a whole new generation to seek vinyl, CD's, and even old cassettes.  I'm therefore happy to say the home stereo system is alive and well in 2015.  If anything, digital music has caused a revival in vinyl LP sales as people seek something more genuine, tangible, and connected with our musical heritage.

The idea for this article really crystallized after I had been listening to mp3's for several years.  Then one day I decided to drag out the old turntable and listen to some vinyl again.  The difference was amazing.  

We're going to look at some audio components, as well as the music itself.  The focus here is on affordable and mid-range equipment.   I'm all about getting the best sound quality without spending thousands.  My goal is to help you be a smart shopper and get more out of your music, no matter what format you use.


A Quick Note


Articles like this one are possible only with the support of readers like you, when you use the links on here to purchase your gear.  Your help is much appreciated.


In This Guide


Stereo Receiver / Integrated Amplifier

CD Player

Graphic Equalizer

Cassette Deck


Turntable (Phonograph)


Speakers

For the Computer & iPhone

Remastering & The Loudness War

Records & CD's

Conclusion




1.  The Hardware



Stereo Receiver / Integrated Amplifier

A receiver is like an audio hub for analog (and sometimes digital) signals, but it's more than just that.  It can receive AM/FM radio (with an antenna), and it has RCA jacks that that allow you to plug in various auxiliary devices such as CD players.  The stereo receiver takes these signals and boosts them to a level you can hear on your speakers.  Therefore, the receiver is actually the most important piece of audio equipment. 

Even forty-odd years ago, most stereo receivers were already "solid state".  In other words, they used transistors instead of vacuum tubes.  Solid-state devices are less expensive to manufacture, but even here, there is varying quality.  Not all components and circuits are created equal.  There are better ones for certain applications.  Naturally, the better amps utilize better-quality parts and are designed to have lower distortion and noise. 

If you're after high wattage without spending a ton of money, solid-state equipment is the realistic choice over vacuum tubes, because high-wattage tube amps get expensive quickly.   However, it's important to realize that wattage is overrated in more ways than one.  Just for example, my powered computer speakers have only eight watts total RMS (root mean square).  I can hear the music loudly, two rooms away!  Be aware that manufacturers often use inflated numbers.  That "300-watt" stereo receiver you bought might be putting only ten or twenty watts to the speakers.  Experienced listeners know enough to see past wattage ratings. 

You don't need to spend upwards of $2,000 on a stereo receiver, but figure on spending $300 to $400 for a good one (2015 prices).  It's hard to go wrong with a Yamaha R-S500BL (here).

Even at $250 you can still get a fairly good receiver, but I would stay away from anything under $200 new.  The reason is quality control.  This is simply a law of economics that applies whether we're talking about stereo amps, photography, or anything else.  Sometimes you can get great stuff on sale, but look at the usual price to get an idea.  (Then again I'm kind of partial to low-priced Sherwood receivers.)

With most stereo receivers, you're not getting "surround sound".  They're strictly music, not home theater.  One thing many beginners do not understand about surround sound is that you can't go walking around the house and still have the effect.  Surround sound was designed for a listener who is always sitting in the same place... as you'd be doing when watching a DVD.  Furthermore, the recording itself has to support it.  If the music was recorded on two stereo channels, and most of it still is, you're not going to get the effect!  I am quite sure a lot of people have been sold "surround sound" units when they didn't really need them.   We're going to stay with traditional, two-channel audio here. 

A "receiver" without an AM/FM tuner is called an integrated amplifier.  The integrated amp has all the usual functions (amplifier with RCA inputs & outputs) without the AM/FM capability.  That's one less thing to add cost and complexity.  In this group, I like the Marantz PM5004 (here) and the Yamaha A-S300BL (here). 

(Update: Marantz now makes the PM5005 instead of the PM5004.)

Both these units have "Moving Magnet" phono stages, which means you'll need a special pre-amp if you use a low-output Moving Coil cartridge.  (Most do not use these.)  We'll talk more about this in the "Turntables" section.

A great choice in the $1,000 range is the Marantz PM8004 (available here).  One useful feature of the Marantz amplifiers is the ability to route the audio signal directly to the speakers without going through un-needed circuitry.  This has the potential to yield the cleanest sound.  The Marantz PM8004, like the Yamaha and the other Marantz units, has a phono stage suitable for moving magnet cartridges.   The PM8004 uses discrete circuits for maximum sound quality.

If you're looking for something with a digital to analog converter (DAC) so you can connect an mp3 player to it, try the Teac NP-H750 (available through this link.) 



Most integrated amps, especially the older ones, do not have DAC's;  that's mainly because the only digital audio that anyone used was a CD player, and those have their own DAC's.   I have some reservations about MP3's in the first place, but we'll get to that subject later.


Hybrid Tube Amps

I said before that vacuum tube equipment costs more.  All-tube, integrated amps are typically $1,000 or more, but there are some hybrid units that can be had for as little as $200.  The Qinpu A3 (available here) uses a tube preamp stage with solid-state main stage.  The output wattage is fairly small, but with the right set of speakers you can get nice, full sound out of them.   The key is to match not only the impedance, but also the speaker sensitivity.  The Qinpu A3 tube amp puts out 8.5 watts RMS per channel, which requires quite a bit of sensitivity for best results (maybe 92 dB, at least).  In the bookshelf speaker category, the Klipsch RB-51 II (sold by the pair, here) would be a passable choice at 92 dB.   Most of the other bookshelf speakers I've seen do not have this level of sensitivity.

No audio guide would be complete without mentioning the Peachtree Audio NOVA (available through this link).  It's also a hybrid tube / solid-state unit, but it's optimized for digital conversion.  They've put a lot into correcting the jitter that's normally associated with computer-based audio.  The result is that if you run your iPod through this amp, it will sound like a good CD player instead of a pocket mp3 player.  The Peachtree is of course useful for amplifying your CD player, but if you use it with a turntable, you'll need to pick up a separate phono stage.  (Check out this review for a good one).


All- or Mostly-Tube Amps

Yaqin makes the MC 10L / 10T tube amp in the $600 price range.  It's available here and ships from China.  You can also find the Yaqin amps on Ebay.  There's a seller in Canada that offers pre-tested ones with a warranty.  If you want to use a turntable with these amps, search his store for "phono stage" to get a pre-amp to go with it.

In the $1,200 range there's the 35-watts-per-channel Dared I30, which has a DAC and allows USB connection to a computer.  The unit has standard RCA line inputs, but no RCA outputs.  It has speaker-out, USB-out, and a headphone jack (which could be converted to RCA with an adapter).   The Dared has a great reputation and of course looks beautiful.  Again, you will need a phono pre-amp stage, such as a Yaquin MS22B (here), if using a turntable.

(You may wonder why there's a Playstation 3 pictured below... keep reading...)


                 



CD Player

As long as you buy one from a major manufacturer and run it through a good stereo amp, there's no need to spend a lot on a CD player.  However, keep in mind that some CD players really are junk.   Also keep in mind that higher-priced players tend to have better DAC's and thus better audio quality.  They also have better features.

One key feature is how well the player deals with homemade ("burned") audio CD's.   Some players cannot handle them, others are flaky, and some seem to play whatever they're fed.  A few players can handle MP3 CD's, but most will work only with discs that were burned as regular audio.

My top choice in a "pure" CD player would be the Marantz CD5005 (get it here) because it has great sound quality and can handle MP3 discs.  If MP3 playback is not important, there's the basic Onkyo C-7030 (available for a low price here).

I haven't tried any USB-stick capable CD players, but as of 2015, Numark makes this one, which is a rackmount unit. 

There is also the Teac NP-H750, which is not a CD player but an amplifier. However, it still lets you play music from a USB drive.  This adds a whole new dimension of playability:  just plug in a USB stick full of songs and you can hear them on your good stereo, no extra cabling required.  I still prefer the vinyl and CD's, but this is a cool feature.  Supposing you just got done making some high-quality MP3's from your vinyl, this is a great way to test them on your "real" stereo.

I've never been that picky about CD players, but that's mainly because the affordable CD players made two decades ago were generally more reliable.  Today, just to get the same durability, I'd highly recommend sticking with the premium brands and models.  Digital-to-analog conversion does require some advanced engineering.  There really is a difference between a good standalone unit and a cheap "boombox" player.  I've also noticed that really cheap players have poor laser tracking and error handling, meaning they hiccup more easily on minor scuffs or scratches in the CD.  

Just a quick update here.  It's worth mentioning that you can play audio CD's on most any Blu Ray or DVD player, or even a Playstation 3.  (Knowing me, I would get a Blu-Ray player and then never watch movies on it.  I'd want it for listening to music.)  The reason I didn't mention this option earlier is that my experience with DVD players has been pretty dismal;  the cheap ones fail much too easily.  Even some of the pricier ones from big makers like Sony are failing too easily. 

If you love movies and music and want serious quality, consider the Oppo BDP-103 which is priced in the $500 range (get yours here) as a starting point.  It's lower-priced than most of that maker's other offerings (which tend toward the $1200 range).  While the BDP-103's audio playback quality is not as good as that of the pricier units, it's still an Oppo and still offers better audio than you're going to get with a cheap player.  The BDP-103 can handle CD, SACD (Super Audio CD), HDCD, DVD-Audio, regular DVD, Blu-Ray, MP4, AVI, and YouTube (etc.).  

Why get an Oppo?  Great audio fidelity, as well as the ability to handle homemade CD's, CD-RW's, and MP3 CD's solidly.  It also offers better longevity.  The really cheap multi-format players can be luck of the draw, but Oppo makes good stuff.  By the time you get done messing around with $49 DVD players and having them fail after two months, you will wish you had bought the quality from the start.   Like the saying goes, the bitterness of cheap is remembered long after the savings are forgotten.  The flipside is that quality stays with you long after the expense is forgotten.


                   

The Playstation 3 has RCA jacks so you can run the CD signal to your stereo system, like a proper music listener would.  Make sure to set your sound output for RCA analog, not optical.



Graphic Equalizer


The equalizer, or "EQ", allows adjustment of the different frequency ranges that make up an audio signal.  This can be a big help in compensating for your room's acoustics, because chances are they're not perfectly matched to your speakers.     More channels on an EQ are generally better, because they provide more "granularity" (a term that has been overused, outside of all context, by bogon-emitting corporate types).   Sometimes there might be an annoying frequency that was turned up too high in the original recording, making it sound "tinny" or perhaps muffled.  An EQ can do wonders here.

In the Eighties, most people knew that if you wanted the best mix tapes, you'd run the signal through an equalizer first.  Or, at least you would run the output through an EQ when listening to the tapes.

This was analog, so there was no need for software, operating systems, re-encoding, or any of that.    It allowed for manual adjustment of different songs so they would sound right when played back-to-back.  I think what's happened today is that too many listeners expect a smartphone or mp3 player to do everything for them (which it doesn't). 

In tech jargon, the lowest-priced equalizers are less "transparent" to the audio signal.  They introduce unwanted artifacts into the sound.  It's sort of like looking through a window that has smudges you can't remove.  A major aspect of audio circuit design is to use components and assembly methods that won't generate noise.  Cheap stuff doesn't have this level of care or quality. 

Many of the better names in audio have stopped making graphic equalizers for the consumer market.  Driven by the fickle stampede of this mythical "Everyone", they have apparently decided that you can just go ahead and adjust the audio levels on your computer.  (Uh, that's a big facepalm, ten-four...)  This had led to what I see as an across-the-board decrease in the quality of graphic equalizers.  Even some of the more expensive EQ's have noise issues today, but this may be more of a quality-control problem than one of inherent design. 

If you're serious about audio, a graphic EQ is still an essential piece of equipment.  

In the economy price range, I'd consider the Behringer FBQ800 (here) as the lowest-priced one worth getting.  It's a compact unit that runs both stereo channels through one adjustment, meaning whatever you do will happen to both channels.    If you're looking for a dual-channel equalizer and a more full-size footprint, there's the Technical Pro EQ 5101 (available here) which is not that bad for the price. 

For a bit more there's the dual-channel, 15-band ART 341 (get it here).  I would choose this over the AudioSource brand equalizers, which don't seem to have the quality control (it could improve, though).

Next up there's the DBX 215s and the DBX 231s.  The main problem with these for home use is that they have no RCA jacks.  Instead they have 1/4" stereo plug jacks;  you'll need to use an adapter.  The 215s has 15 bands per channel, which is more than enough for most situations.  Get yours here or here

The regular 215 (black version, as opposed to silver) is now discontinued, but for the moment you can still get it here

The DBX 231s has a whopping 31 bands per channel, which may be too fiddly for some home users.   (DBX 231s available here or here.) Just as happened with the 215 series, the black version is no longer being made, but for the time being you can still get it here.

In a somewhat higher price range there's the Yamaha Q2031B (get yours through this link);  they've always been one of the big names, and they're still making very good equipment (unlike some of their former competitors).   Here again we have an equalizer that was really made for professional stage use, not home audio, so again it doesn't have RCA jacks.  Don't forget the 1/4" to RCA adapter to pair it with the rest of your system.

If you're building a good stereo system, a graphic equalizer is every bit as useful in 2013 as it was in 1983.  If you pick up a graphic equalizer, don't forget audio cables.  Get short cables for deck-to-deck connections, because they introduce less resistance and are less likely to pick up RF noise.  Contrary to what you may have heard, you don't need super-duper cables, especially on short lengths (but avoid ultra-cheap ones).    Many times when people have problems with hum and noise, it's because they have the cables too close to a power cord.  I use an old set of department store cables with no problems, but if I were looking for replacements I'd want the Monster Advanced Performance series (you can get a one-meter set for about twenty bucks here).  Anything more is really unnecessary, as far as I'm concerned.


Cassette Deck

Cassette tapes?!  Some readers are saying "You must be kidding!"  Nope.  Cassettes, even though they can have some tape hiss, are are a true "analog" medium.  They are easier to carry around than vinyl or CD's, and they don't degrade much from being played many times.  In some parts of the world, cassettes are still the top medium for music.  The players have more mechanical parts, yet I've seen a lot fewer cassette player malfunctions than mp3 player ones.  Even though a cassette player requires moving parts, the technology is well-developed, and there's not a ton of microelectronics or gossamer-thin wire traces as you'd have in an mp3 player. 

Cassettes are not impervious to degradation, but at least they don't evaporate like a bunch of ones and zeroes that get corrupted from a software glitch or a bad compact disc.  Keep them away from magnets and excessive heat, and they'll last for a while.  (And don't use them in sketchy old cassette decks that need repair...)  Actually, cassettes are much more durable than CD's if you live in a hot, humid climate.  Digital media are really not as archival as they're sold to be. 

You can still buy dual-cassette decks for a stereo system, and you can still buy packs of blank cassettes.  However, there are some caveats.

Everday recordings are alright on regular cassettes, which sell new (blank) for about $1 each.  If you're looking for top quality audio, it calls for high-bias or CrO2 cassettes.  These are not cheap.  They used to be only a bit more than regular cassettes, but today the price difference is higher.  As far as I can see, Maxell and TDK are not offering high-bias cassettes new anymore.  This may not seem like a problem to a generation that thinks mp3's are the only way to enjoy music, but when you understand the differences between analog and digital, it really is a shame.   Unopened CrO2 cassettes are out there on the market, but in the future, it may be that cassette enthusiasts will have to use the lower-quality Normal bias tapes. 

Now, the cassette decks.  It's become difficult today to find a deck that can record with anywhere near the fidelity of the older units, although the Teac W-890R-B (available here) is fairly decent.  Quality alert:  TEAC have released an "updated" model, the W890R Mk II, which seems to lack Dolby noise reduction. Pick up an original W-890R (not the Mark II) through this link.

Because so much manufacturing R&D has moved away from analog and into digital, it seems few companies even know how to make a quality cassette deck anymore.  Few people today realize that a good deck with high-bias cassettes can make recordings that rival CD quality.  If you start out with an analog source (vinyl or 4-track), the recording will be 100% analog.   Many of my favorite albums were recorded to four-track tape by the artists, and they still sound better than digital.

That TEAC tape deck will serve most listeners well.  If you want even better quality, go for the TASCAM 202 mkV.  This is a $500+ professional deck that can be had for (usually) quite a bit less than that on Amazon.  TASCAM is actually the professional line made by TEAC. 

If you ever get bitten by the cassette bug, you will soon realize that sketchy old tape decks are your cassettes' worst enemy.  Of all the used audio equipment out there, old cassette decks are probably the least reliable because of the large number of high-precision moving parts.  They are the most likely to have problems after they sit unused for a while.  If you're even semi-serious about cassettes, get a new deck... it's worth it, if for no other reason than to avoid seeing some irreplaceable tapes get broken by a used deck.

         

Cassettes hearken back to the days before the Loudness War destroyed so many classic recordings, and before we had digital-optical media that could go bad at the drop of a hat.  (Cassettes can go bad too, but not usually by just sitting there.)  Cassettes were around way back in the 60's, but only in the Eighties did they become the preferred way to have music.  (In the Seventies and well into the 80's, there were still a lot of people using eight-track tapes as well as vinyl.)  One interesting fact about cassettes is that they can be used to make slightly overmodulated recordings without audio clipping.  In the article "Camera vs. Log" we see that overexposed film looks alright, while overexposed digital looks hideous.  The same thing goes for analog vs. digital recordings.  Tape recordings acquire a slightly different character when they're pushed a little past 0 dB, but there's no actual clipping unless you go way over.  If you pushed a digital recording above 0 dB-- even a smidgen-- it would sound nasty.  Everything above 0 would be clipped.  When recording vinyl to a computer, you can usually adjust the recording levels in software, but as soon as the levels exceed 0 db for even an instant, you've got clipping.  Redlined recordings on a tape can sound overblown and a bit nasty, but it depends on how far into the red zone they were pushed. 

If there could survive only one analog sound format, I would still choose vinyl over cassettes (by far), but an advantage of cassettes is the ease of recording.  My favorite recording method, given the chance, would be from a vinyl record to a CrO2 cassette, but vinyl-to-computer-to-CD yields pretty nice sound.




Hmm, the CD jack is unused.  Must be one of those film camera guys, I bet. 
These are not great connector cables, by the way, but that's an easy upgrade.


Turntable (Phonograph)

Together with magnetic tape, the vinyl LP is one of the two most archival forms of music.   Someone must be realizing it, because vinyl has been making a major comeback.  2012 was the fifth or sixth straight year of double-digit growth, and in 2013 I'm seeing a lot of people buying vinyl LP's.  I'm also seeing a lot of classics being reissued on vinyl for the first time in many years.  We live in a great time for music!

While cassette tapes are in some ways more rugged than LP's, a good vinyl record stored properly will last longer than a cassette.  That's because vinyl records are impervious to magnetic fields. (Store your records in a cool place, because not only can heat warp the vinyl, but it can also cause dust particles to become embedded into it, causing permanent noise.)

One crucial property of turntables is accurate speed.  If an LP does not play at exactly 33 1/3 revolutions per minute, it will sound wrong.  Some cheap turntables do in fact sound wrong.  To make a long story short, the only turntables really worth getting today are at least $200 new.  (Well, actually there are a couple of $100 turntables that are fairly good...).  The serious quality begins at $1,000-plus, although some really high-end enthusiasts spend much more than this.  Whatever you buy, try to get a turntable that has manual operation.  Purely automatic turntables are a major nuisance, because once they get into the mechanical operation they're doing, it's hard to stop them.  You have to wait until the auto-return mechanism goes through its whole routine.  With a manual or professional turntable you can lower the stylus onto the record anywhere and any time you want.  This is great when you want to cue a certain song to record it onto a computer or a cassette deck so you can listen to it in a more portable format.   

Right now I really like the Audio Technica AT-LP120 turntable (get yours here and it helps support my website).  It has some higher-end features at an affordable price, and though it's not going to be as good as the $1,000+ units, it has developed a good reputation.  If you want even higher build quality, albeit in a higher price bracket, consider the Stanton ST-150 (through this link).  This is a heavy-duty unit, built with steel instead of plastic, for better vibration damping.  It's roughly twice the price of the Audio Technica, but at approximately 40 lbs it's also nearly twice the weight, which is a good thing for turntables. 

         

Don't forget the cartridge, which contains the diamond stylus (the "needle").  You don't necessarily have to spend a lot to get a usable one, but on cheaper ones sometimes the cartridge body itself will drag on the record surface.  If this happens, see if your tonearm counterbalance has some adjustment.  If it doesn't, I use some Fun Tack or double-sided tape to stick a penny, dime, or nickel to the counterbalance just far back enough to get it to stop dragging.  This will reduce the effective weight of the business end of the tonearm.  This can make the stylus less sensitive to skips, which is a bit counterintuitive, but it works.  Make sure you verify the amount of tracking force with a gauge like this one or a jeweler's scale like this one.  The best vertical tracking force (VTF) could be anywhere between 1.00 and 2.00 grams (that's one to two grams), but the exact amount will depend on the brand and model of equipment.  Too much or too little tracking force (especially too little) will wear out your vinyl faster. 

If you can't get the VTF data from the manufacturer, it's hard to go wrong with a setting of 1.25 grams.   (Note that some turntables are set up with cartridges designed for VTF well above 3 grams... I try to avoid those, but you could always use a different cartridge.)




Don't play your good vinyl with a damaged or misaligned needle.  You'll mess the vinyl up quickly.
Be sure your tracking force (VTF) is within acceptable limits.


Adjustment can make a big difference, which is why you should avoid turntables with permanently-attached cartridges and no adjustment (except for playing trounced twenty-five-cent yard sale vinyl... we'll look at that in another article).  We're talking about grooves that are only one one-thousandth of an inch wide.  "Overhang", or tracking angle, is an important adjustment.  There's also anti-skate bias, which helps counteract the tendency of a stylus to go in toward the center of the record.  Have you ever seen on a really cheap turntable where there's not enough tracking force and the needle skates right into the center of the record?   Some units allow you to adjust anti-skating bias;  my turntable has it permanently fixed at 1.25 grams, which is also equal to the ideal VTF of many cartridges (1.25 grams).

Not every make and model of stylus yields the same sound quality.  Certain ones may yield muddy bass, or excessive amounts of high-midrange and treble.   The interaction of a stylus with the grooves of a revolving LP involves some complex physics, because there are so many variables. 

Right now I'd highly recommend the Audio Technica AT120E/T Standard Mount Phono Cartridge (currently $115 through this link).   Another really nice one for the money is the Shure M97xE.  Grab yours through this link.  A very economical one that's fairly good is the Audio Technica AT3482P .7 mil Conical Cartridge (available here).   (UPDATE:  I want to clarify that we're talking about two different cartridge mounts here.  The AT120E/T and the Shure M97xE are "Standard" mount, while the AT3482P is a P-mount.  There are a lot of P-mount turntables kicking around on the used market, and this is what you'd need for one of those.  If you have a brand-new turntable, chances are that it takes "Standard Mount".  By the way, you can get adapters to make a P-mount cartridge fit a Standard-mount turntable, but not the other way around.)

I have had good results with Audio Technica cartridges, but one thing that seems to happen is they're not content to keep making a particular model for too long.  When you find one that works well for your turntable, it might be worth it to buy two.  I can't count how many times I've bought something, taken its availability for granted, then a few years later I've found that its replacement model was of vastly inferior quality.  When you find something that works very well, get a backup when it's still available. 

Most cartridges are moving magnet type, which will work with just about any stereo receiver or integrated amplifier as long as it has a phono stage (if not, you'll need a pre-amp).   If you use a moving coil cartridge, on the other hand, you will definitely need a special phono preamp made for moving-coil cartridges.



Speakers

In the "old days", the better speaker enclosures were made with birch plywood.  Yes, even the material used in a speaker housing has an effect on the sound.  We're talking about some complex physics here:  harmonics, resonance, etc.  I'm not a sound engineer, but I do know that a crummy enclosure will affect your sound.  I've seen a lot of people putting big woofers in these shallow boxes for their cars, and the result sounds like garbage.  I tried building my own enclosures once, and they, too, sounded like garbage.  If you don't optimize the enclosure dimensions for the frequencies of sound you're primarily dealing with, you will not get the best sound out of it.  This takes some fairly involved engineering, because you have to deal with things like destructive interference across multiple sound frequencies.   Even the distance at which you primarily sit from the speakers is a consideration.  

For traditional "home stereo" systems, the speakers don't have their own power amp.  Instead, you hook them up to a stereo receiver or one of those integrated amplifiers we talked about earlier.  So-called "bookshelf speakers" are about the smallest kind for this application.  They can be plenty loud, but because they tend to have low sensitivity (~ 85 to 89 dB), they actually require a fairly powerful amplifier.  Figure on spending in the neighborhood of $200 for a pair of good bookshelf speakers.  One very popular choice is the JBL ES-30BK, which are sold by the pair here.  There's also the Cerwin Vega VE-5.  These list for about $269, but you can get a pair for significantly less than that here.  Bookshelf speakers are usually rated to take around 100 watts, but you'll see some that claim 200 or more.  This is unnecessary.  100 watts is a lot of power for small speakers.   20-watt speakers will fill a room with sound.   (Actually, 8-watt speakers will even fill a room with sound.)

Floor-standing speakers are where we get into big sound.  In this price bracket, you're dealing with very heavy speakers that are priced by the piece, not by the pair.  A good pair will cost about $600 to $1,000 new.  If you want to shake the house with rock music, consider a pair of big Cerwin-Vega speakers.  I like the VE-12's ( here), which are 3-way speakers that have 12-inch woofers.  If you want even bigger, louder speakers, go for the VE-15's (available through this link).  If you like the loud stuff, it's tough to beat a pair of big CV's.   I remember back in the 80's, my first pair of Cerwin Vegas said in the instructions to test the bass by listening to Iron Maiden. 

By the way, earlier I had mentioned the materials used to build speaker enclosures.  There is a little bit of contention today about this.  Even Klipsch have gone over to medium-density fiberboard (MDF), which some people don't like, especially in light of the the high price of the speakers.  The thing is, I don't believe Klipsch would have done this if the difference were huge.  In some ways, MDF is actually better-suited to speaker enclosure.  This is a really complex subject, and for some reason it's a great way to spark heated arguments among audio people.  All I can say is that the engineers at Klipsch, Cerwin-Vega, JBL, and the other big makers probably know what they're doing.   There are crummy speakers out there, but your chance of running into them is lower if you stick with the big brands.

One more thing.  Try to match the impedance of your speakers to that of your stereo amplifier.   Lower-impedance speakers will cause more current to flow, heating up the amp's circuitry.  Crummy speakers are often lower in actual impedance than they're rated, which means they can wreck your amplifier in short order if you turn the volume up much.  Any of the top brand speakers should be alright at low to moderate volume, even if you use, say, 6-ohm speakers with 8-ohm amplifier.


For the Computer & iPhone

Today you can get some pretty decent portable speaker systems designed for docking with your iPhone or iPod.  Real speakers will provide better sound than those tiny earbuds or those underpowered micro speakers that many people have been using.  If I cared much for iPhones or iPods, I'd go for the Sony MHCEC709ip Shelf System (available here), which also has a CD player and an external audio input.  These features to me are hugely important, because if you ever decide you're tired of iPhone contracts or iTunes, you still have a useful stereo system.  The only major drawback is the hard-wired speaker design, which limits the speaker placement (unless you're good with solder and shrink tubing).  There's also no headphone jack, which is a bit of an oversight.  I guess Sony decided that if you're buying one of these, the primary motivation isn't headphone listening.  (If you want a pretty good headphone setup for your iPod, turntable, or anything else, pick up one of these, together with this pair of headphones.  Total cost, maybe $160 to $175, but could vary with current pricing.)

There are also powered computer speakers, so you can listen to music from a netbook or whatever you might prefer.   Right now I strongly suggest avoiding ones that have only "USB audio" connections.  It's simply not as versatile as a 3.5mm jack for audio.  Look for a set of so-called "2.1" speakers (2 satellites and 1 subwoofer) that utilize the standard 3.5 mm (1/8") headphone jack that you'd find in the back of a soundcard.  My current favorite is the Genius SW-G2.1 1250 set (available through this link;  full review here).  What's nice about these is that not only do they have the standard 3.5mm jack, but also there's an RCA input so you can hook a CD or DVD player to them.  This speaker set also has a separate control box, which means you don't have to put one of the satellite speakers directly next to you.  At last, a sensible design.  It also has a headphone jack, so you don't have to go to the computer and unplug your speakers to be able to use the headphones.

Computerized devices are really add-ons to a good stereo system, not replacements for it.  For me, the digital gear is for making CD's or MP3's from vinyl, so I can listen to them in the car.  When I really want to hear the music at its best, I want to hear it on a turntable.  




II.  The Music




Remastering and the Loudness War

If you haven't yet heard about the Loudness War, it's a trend that started a couple decades ago.  Instead of being content with a wide range between the louder and quieter instruments, someone decided it would be a good idea to turn them all up until they were pushing 0 dB.  This is the "red line" cutoff point on a sound level meter.  They also call it "brick wall normalization", perhaps because it's like taking all the sound levels and turning them up until they run into the "brick wall" of 0 decibels.   In analog recordings you could easily go past the 0 dB mark and you'd still have the wave peaks, much like overexposed film.  With digital there is nothing retained past the 0 dB mark.  It just gets chopped.  When they start cramming all the sound up against the 0 dB line, that's not a good thing. 

Many classic songs from the 70's or 80's have been ruined by turning up the levels too high during remastering.  As I mentioned before, it's a lot like what happens with digital cameras where the highlights get blown out to 255.  There is tone information lost, and the picture looks terrible.  With audio, the same kind of thing happens:  turn up the recording levels too much, and you lose the peaks.  Clipped highlights look nasty, and clipped audio peaks sound nasty.  It actually sounds a lot worse than the hiss of a magnetic tape or the clicks and pops of an old vinyl LP.  That's because tape hiss and record pops are just noise.  You can remove them with a good piece of software.  Overblown loudness is different.  It's intrinsic to the recording.  Once you build it in there, you can never get the original sound again.  It's toast.  

Actually, the push for ever-higher loudness is partly an outgrowth of smartphones.  They want to make the song sound "louder" when it's played from a dinky set of speakers or earbuds.  The Loudness War was going on even before iPhones, but these devices pushed it to the next level.  Companies with integrity would tell us to buy a better means of audio playback, but instead they've exerted that much more influence to trash the whole pool of recorded music just so they can sell inadequate little pocket computers that play undersampled, overmodulated recordings.

Overdone loudness can also wreck your speakers prematurely.  I can't even count the number of times I've heard car speakers where someone ignorantly drove around with the stereo too loud for the speakers they were using.  Before long, the speakers were trashed.  Speaker elements cannot handle an infinite amount of power.  Smaller speaker elements get ruined more easily.  Red-lined sound makes this problem worse.  When you see people commenting about how the "subwoofer quit on my speakers", there's no doubt some of them were playing redline recordings and didn't even know it.  I would have expected Iron Maiden to destroy the most speakers, but after I heard this, I'm not so sure.  (Just to be sure, I opened the file on my recording software, which has clipping indicators.  Redline city!)

What's happened to audio is much the same as what's happened to photography.  They want to sell more units to what they perceive as a bigger and dumber audience.  If you can use an iPhone, you can sure figure out a pair of speakers and a stereo amp.  Unfortunately, some of the music companies don't think you're smart enough.  They are dumbing everything down, and it's really way past the point where it's become problematic.  It's getting difficult even to find classic recordings that haven't been messed with.  Now that mp3 audio is the big thing, not only do you have to deal with re-mastered versions in many cases, but you're also stuck with whatever poor-quality audio rip someone decided to make.  There could be CD skips and everything, and you're paying money for that.  At least if you have the real CD, you can re-rip the audio with better software later.  MP3's simply do not replace CD's or vinyl.  

Sometimes the bands themselves like music to be loud and overmodulated.  Maybe it's because of where they're used to playing, which is in front of a big stack of Marshall amplifiers on a stage.  When you're around that for a while, it's going to start to sound normal.  It's different when you're in the quiet of your room and you really want to hear the dynamic range of the music.  I don't usually enjoy live music half as much as a studio recording, except that it's a chance to get to see the band on stage, with all their energy.  (Some live recordings are brilliant.  In part, that's because the recording levels were not overblown.)

Even if you do most of your listening on a computerized player, loudness should be controlled by a graphic equalizer (and the volume knob), not by building high levels into the song in the recording studio. 

Some of the longest-standing acts in music have stuck with the same producer and sound engineers for most of their career, which is why they have such a distinctive sound.  The moment somebody new steps in at the mixing panel, you can hear it on the record.

If you want to hear what made a classic song so classic, forget the brickwall-normalized versions.  Try to find the one from the original single or album.  Many times, Amazon has it;  you just have to search.  If it's from the 70's or 80's and you see a release date in the 2000's, that could be sketchy.  Most of the pre-2000 stuff hadn't gotten ridiculous yet, so those are the recordings I'd look for.

Some remasters are actually pretty good, of course, but it's not a foregone conclusion.


Records and CD's

I'm eventually going to write a whole article about these, but for now, I want to emphasize the importance of taking good care of your music.  Don't leave vinyl or CD's in a hot place.  Keep them out of direct sun.   Don't leave them by a window or in a hot car.  Handle them by the edges.  Don't let careless people play them.   Properly cared for, tangible music will last a long time. 

One thing I love about vinyl, which I probably forgot to mention, is that you get more:  bigger album art, bigger lyric sheets. 



Just for the total beginners out there:  AutoRip simply means they have already made the MP3 files which you can download after you buy the vinyl.  If you get really skilled at the process, you might be able to rip better-quality MP3's yourself, but the AutoRip ones are passable in my experience.




3.  Conclusion



Digital music is convenient, but the traditional stereo system is still the king for audio quality and reliability.  Even if you like MP3 music, it's best to have the real, tangible music so that you can rip the audio yourself and avoid CD skips and all that.   The concept of digital music is interesting, but it's really ended up being a reminder of why tangible music is better.

Just as with digital vs. film, my solution to the whole thing is:  use vinyl and CD's, and cassettes when you can get them.  Mp3's are like JPG files... if you're shooting the best sunset you've ever seen, it makes sense to capture it with film or RAW.  Film and vinyl are like great musicians that come back after thirty years and still show everyone how it's done.  There is something incredibly cool about that.

It's possible to build a good stereo system for not too much money, and a great stereo system if your budget is higher.  A good turntable, cartridge, amplifier and speakers are the core components, followed by an equalizer, CD player and perhaps a cassette deck.  For those who are willing to slow down and forego the instant gratification of a portable mp3 player, there is a whole world of great audio out there.  This article has been just a quick look at the subject.

If you shop for music CD's, stereo equipment, cameras, or just about anything else, it really helps me out if you use the links on this site to buy your stuff.  Another way to support my website is to use the button shown below.


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(Don't forget with tower speakers they're sold individually, not by the pair.  With the VE5M's you get a pair, because they're bookshelf speakers.)



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