Last Updated: 02.08.2011
Very often I’ve been asked by non-audiophile friends, “What can I buy that has great sound AND doesn’t require a 2nd mortgage on my house?” If this sounds like you, than this is the guide to read. “Buying Guide for Regular People” is your pass for getting great sound at home while at the same time being smart with your money. Our goal is to get you the sound that is pleasing to your ears and friendly to your bank account so that you can truly enjoy the music and movies in your home.
These days it is possible to spend a couple hundred dollars, or even a couple thousand dollars, on a home audio system and not be very happy with it. Audio isn’t easy like digital cameras, smart phones or laptop computers. What makes building a home audio system so difficult? Well, people are much more sensitive to bad sound than to an annoying feature on a smart phone. Hearing is so a primal an ability in humans such that some believe we developed it before seeing. Our ears are extremely sensitive and our brains are very good at analyzing sound. So if you end up with a system that doesn’t please you – it almost certainly will ruin what should be a fun and relaxing experienced. Where you are re-living the Pink Floyd haze or watching Pirates of the Caribbean. Bad sound repels your senses at a primal level.
First – What Kind of Sound Pleases You?
This really is the hardest question to answer. Because if you don’t know, than you may end up with a system you don’t want to listen to. So lets figure this out.
Do you like the warm smooth purr of a cat? How about the brash sound of a live trumpet? Do crystal clear chimes thrill you? Or what about bomb-blasting, knock your fillings out deep bass? Do all these types of sounds describe you, or just some? Or maybe you aren’t sure.
There are three general categories to describe sound, bright, neutral and warm.
All three of these generalizations of a system’s character are valid. Very upper level stuff, but valid to quickly get the point across.
Some people like bright while others prefer warm. Some times you have to get a warm system in a bright room to sound balanced. We will explain in better detail later. If you don’t know what type of sound you like, here is a good suggestion for you to quickly learn what kind of sound system you’d prefer to listen to over a long period of time. Next time you are out to dinner, listen to the sound around you. Do the hi pitched frequencies, the clang of pots and the sizzle of oil in a hot pan stir excitement in you? Do you love it? As everything gets louder around you, does this correlate to more fun for you? Or does the thought of that ruckus repulse you? Would you rather dine in rugged French den, where the air is thick, movement slower, and though there is a speed to the evening, none of it is in your face? If this is the case, you’ve just figured out if you prefer a brighter more exciting sounding system or a warmer more relaxed system. Now remember, these are just generalizations.
Think about this the next time you go out. Why would you want to eat in an environment you can’t stand to listen to, and why would you want to replicate that at home. You wouldn’t. If you don’t know what type of sound you like – and you don’t have the ability to find a local stereo store (something small – not a big box monstrosity) – use the world around you to figure it out.
But remember, sound is much more complex than these three categories, and sound systems can sound good or bad irrelevant of the category they are in. Bright can be thin, tinny, artificial and straining if done poorly. Warm can be disengaging and blurry if done wrong. Neutral can be in balance, but the highs can be thin, mids could be blurry, etc. You can go on and on. These subset of descriptions help to clarify if a system is worth your dime or not.
So with this in mind, start to think about the sounds around you.
Second – Keep It Simple Stupid or Some Assembly Required
Today it is possible to have a very simple audio system. Something small, easy to set up, sound pretty dang good, and won’t break your bank. Conversely, it is also possible to have a complex audio system. Digital to Analog converts, special power cables for CD players vs Amplifiers, external speaker cross-overs, different line stages, etc. So you need to know how deeply you want to dive down this rabbit hole. Keep in mind, if you dive too deep, you’ll no longer be in the ‘regular’ folks category.
All-in-One: So what’s the simplest way to go?
The simplest audio you can have at this point is an All-In-One unit. Something that has a CD Player, tuner, amplifier, iPod dock, and speakers all built in. Something like the Bowers & Wilkens Zeppelin. Literally, all in one. If that is what you are after, there are many great options for you. See our suggested All-In-One components. (to come)
Complex systems: How far does the rabbit hole go?
If it isn’t, if decide to choose the path of assembly required, the world is your oyster. But, you still aren’t sure where to start or what to buy first. Please continue reading here. (to come)
Third – Your Listening Space
So you’ve got a kick ass system but I bet you still aren’t getting 100% of its potential. At least 30% or more of the sound you fear from your system is altered and adjusted by the listening space you are in. There are many tricks to improving your listening space that will be covered in a separate article, but for now, lets keep a couple rules in mind. Small speakers and system get lost in large open spaces. While large speakers can overwhelm a small space, they can also be uncomfortable to listen to because of the air pressure build up. So the size of your listening room plays a large part in what size speakers or system you’ll want to aim for. Secondly, hard shiny surfaces cause echoes and reflections. A bright system, meaning the high frequencies are louder than the rest of the frequencies in the music, will sound even brighter in a room with a lot of hard shiny surfaces. This will cause the sound to loose focus, sound thinner, and probably irritate you beyond belief. A darker more laid back system, meaning the high frequencies are rolled off, can sound even darker and elusive in a room with thick carpets, huge soft leather sofas, wood or bookshelf covered walls. All that stuff sucks up high frequencies. So pairing your system with your room style is important.
Even though there is a lot more to room conditioning than just figuring out if the room is bright or dark sounding, there are a couple easy tricks to get more out of your system. Here are three examples, and if you want to learn more please click here. (to come)
Fourth – Price Points
There are a lot of good components to build a system around in the less than $500 price range. As well most All-In-One systems can be had at under that price. But like cars, food, watches, clothes, and pretty much everything else, the more you are willing to spend the more likely you’ll end up with a system that will not only sound better, but will better fit your needs and taste.
You don’t have to spend $20,000 to get a great system, but unless you are happy with an All-In-One boom box or iPod and headphones, you probably aren’t going to get a whole heck of a lot if you aren’t willing to spend more than $300. A good system for that much can be achieved if you spend a lot of time in thrift stores and really do your research. So figure out what you are willing to spend now and what you are willing to spend in the future. You may choose too buy a fair system and be done with it, or you may want to buy one out standing thing and build a system around that as time goes by and more money becomes available.
In my opinion, if you are looking for the best bang for the buck, and have about a grand or so to spend, a headphone system is the way to go. The quality of sound you’ll get out of good set of cans, DAC, and headphone amplifier, can rival some of the ultra expensive main systems in the world. If headphones don’t bother you than I absolutely suggest this approach. See our Headphone Guide.
So figure out your taste, needs, room and budget. AudioReview has helpful product suggestions and set up tips and tricks.
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