Category Archives: Essays

A starter Hi-Fi system under $1000

Way back in 2010 I wrote up a little buyers guide to an affordable Hi-Fi system . Some of what I wrote still stands but I think now is a good time to revisit this topic and come up with something for 2017.

Your audio system will need the following things at minimum:

– A source. In this guide I will focus on a turntable; digital sources I plan to cover another time.
– An amplifier. This is the spine of your system. We could go in to a rabbit hole of preamplifiers & power amps but for now all you will need is an integrated amp that combines both of these in to single box.
– Speakers. I believe that the speakers have the most immediate and noticeable affect on the sound, but are also the choice most subject to personal taste.

You will also need speaker wire and interconnects, but these are the least important purchase and I will cover them near the end.


For playing vinyl records, I recommend that you go with the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC , which comes in at just under $390. This is the successor to the Pro-Ject Debut II that I bought back in 2005 and are still using to this day. Both Amazon purchasers and professional reviewers give it high marks. For me, the draw is that it already comes with a Ortofon 2M Red cartridge pre-installed (for the uninitiated, the cartridge holds the stylus, the bit that reads the records grooves) and is further upgradable to a wide variety of cartridges should yours wear out or you want an improved sound.


In my last review, I specifically recommended an integrated amplifier that has a built-in “phono stage”, that is, a circuit that boosts the relatively weak signal from a turntable up to something the rest of the amplifier can handle. Remarkably few amplifiers at the lower end of the price scale offer this option, so as before, I will again recommend the Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 to build your system on. In addition to the phono stage, it has 4 other inputs on the rear to connect your TV, an old tape deck, or a CD player. There is also a 3.5MM jack on the front to connect a smartphone or iPod (do people still use these) with a so-called “AUX cord”. Finally, it’s capped off with a headphone jack so you can listen to shameful 90s radio-friendly alt rock and keep it a secret. The Topaz AM10 comes in at $299.


We still have nearly $700 to work with on speakers, and this is a place we definitely don’t want to cheap out on. The issue with speakers is that I generally wouldn’t recommend buying them online, instead encouraging you to visit your local hi-fi dealer (they are still around), listen for yourself, and buy them there. But if you are reading this and just want to get listening, there are a couple choices. The Polk Audio TSi200 from my last guide are still a solid option. The KEF Q300B bookshelf speakers are loved by online purchasers and pro reviewers alike. These come in at $399 and are excellent value for the money. To keep the total under $1k, you can go for the Polks ,but if you don’t mind going a bit over then go for the KEFs.

The term “Bookshelf speaker” is a misnomer; any speaker of this size should not be crammed on a shelf and instead should be placed on a pair of decent stands, such as these ones for $40.

Speaker wire and interconnects

As long as you aren’t using the cheapest, pack-in connections available, cables don’t really matter. There is an entire industry of high-end speaker wire and interconnects which only exists to defraud the ultra rich and ultra deluded. Fifty feet of speaker wire for $8.49 will more than suffice . As for interconnects (RCA cables), these will do just fine.


-A digital stylus force gauge is handy for re-calibrating the amount of pressure that the stylus applies to your precious records. It is best to set this to whatever the stylus manufacturer recommends; both settings that are too light or too heavy can damage the vinyl and/or disrupt the sound. I use this one and is a bargain at $13 .
– Record cleaner: I’ve had bad luck with wet cleaners that use fluids, for that sort of deep cleaning you really need a dedicated machine which generally costs over 500 bucks. Instead, I now use the In The Groove record roller , which is a simple, sticky roller that picks up all the dust and hair easily. Just give it a pass over your record right before play.

Final Total

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon DC : $390
Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 : $299
Polk Audio TSi200 : $249
Stands : $40
Speaker wire and interconnects: $16
Total : $978

Right below my target goal! Of course, this doesn’t include shipping & taxes, but this should give you an idea of what to spend when you are building out your first hi-fi system. This setup will give you listening enjoyment right out the box and give you room to expand and upgrade.

Think I’m crazy? You can do better with a $1000 budget? I would like to see other takes on a budget setup, so I challenge you to put a list together and leave it in the comments.

On Singles

45 RPM singles collection
Image courtesy of

Singles are often overlooked by hi-fi enthusiasts, disregarded as junk in favor of limited edition 180g boxsets and the like. In some ways they were the MP3s of the vinyl era: cheap, tradeable, compact, and expendable. So expendable that they are a dime a dozen these days and often in very poor shape (people used to stack them up on their turntable, removing one after each track to create a primitive playlist). But despite the difficulty of finding singles in good condition, they are a good way to get some easy wax into your collection. In addition to affordability, they have a supposed sound benefit because the 45 RPM speed allows greater spacing between the grooves which in turn permits better dynamics.

I own only a few singles, most of which I took from my father’s collection. The rarest in the collection is probably “Robot Love / For Adolfs Only” by The Valves , an incredibly early punk band from Edinburgh. Unfortunately, my copy was wrecked when a girl I was dating sat on it. I was sorting through my collection and set the single down on the couch next to me, she plopped down without realizing and hairline cracked the damn thing. The whole thing was my fault entirely but I got mad at her regardless, and we broke up like a month later (for other reasons, but the record cracking incident was the start of the downfall). Anyway, I’m going to give some of my singles a good listen and report back on the sonic quality or lack thereof.

Joy Division – “Love Will Tear Us Apart / These Days” : The krautrock-esque drums snap outward (but the hihat sizzles in the distance). Ian Curtis’ robotic murmuring emanates from the dead center, the synths swirl and the guitar just kinda stays there. When I flipped it over to “These Days” I hadn’t noticed that side B was at 33 RPM and briefly wondered why it was some cheesy New Order dance remix…yeah. Curtis sounds even more like an android on this tune, proper speed or not. The percussion is desperately thin but the guitars are at least up to something. Track 2 on side B is some kind of alternate take for “Love Will Tear Us Apart”, and frankly it just sucks.

Nirvana – “Sliver / Dive” : The vinyl is quiet for a used record, ill give it that, but this kind of stuff is hard to judge on audiophile grounds. At the beginning, the bass intro sounds promising but it disappears into mush which I guess is the point. Side A ends with a pointless recording of a hung over / strung out Cobain on the phone with his producer or something. Side B’s “Dive” is a better song and a slightly better recording.

Lou Reed – “Walk on the Wild Side / Perfect Day” : That famous bassline rumbles nicely and the acoustic guitar chills in the right-center channel. The “colored girls” surround Reed on both sides during their bit, but the rest of Reed’s vocals get that irritating sibilance which I pin more on the record wear rather than a flaw in the recording. An unfortunate buzzing quality affects the closing sax solo. “Perfect Day” lacks most of these sonic faults for some reason. The occasional popping and clicking enhances this intensely defeating and ironic tune.

So despite that these singles aren’t shining examples of acoustic brilliance, they are still worthy components of my music library. The only real pain in the ass associated with them that my turntable ( the Pro-ject Debut III) doesn’t have a speed control so I have to remove the platter and physically move the belt to a different part of the motor when I want to switch between 33/45 . Fortunately, there exists a speed box that you plug in between the power source and the table which adjusts the motor speed.

DC radio and WHFS

and old cassette tape recording of 99.1 WHFS
Image courtesy of

If you’re like me and live in the Washington, DC area, you know that flipping through the radio stations is an exercise in frustration. You basically have the choice among no less than three classic rock stations with identical lineups of tired 70s dadrock, some  top 40 channels, a few hip-hop/rnb networks, a couple of bro-rock stations featuring imbecilic Morning Zoo programs, classical and NPR at the bottom of the dial, and the rest is filled out by latin stations or those “mix” channels that are non-stop Cyndi Lauper and Maroon 5 (basically, music for dentist’s waiting rooms).

Before I continue: yes, I do sometimes listen to the radio, unlike most people under the age of thirty. There’s something reassuring and familiar about the FM dial, despite how its rarely a fulfilling experience. And forgetting higher tech stuff like satellite or HD radio, FM is actually a hi-fi format. If you can get a strong signal, you can get high quality stereo audio for free, provided that the commercials and DJs don’t make you tear your hair out. Something cheap and simple like this one from NAD Electronics can get you started off.

The sorry radio offerings around DC are probably the same around most U.S cities, but there was once a great local channel that met a sad demise: WHFS 99.1 . It had been around since the 60s and was eclectic from the get-go: mostly playing prog, art rock and jam bands. In the eighties it took a turn towards indie and “college rock” genres and was the first radio station to play tons of influential groups.

I have many fond memories of listening to this station as a child in the early 90s : rainy Saturdays riding in the back of my dad’s old Pontiac Sunbird to the strains of Soundgarden or The Psychedelic Furs. It was the first place I remember hearing dozens of bands: The Pixies, The Chameleons, Kitchens of Distinction, R.E.M., Nirvana, My Bloody Valentine, The Stone Roses, Depeche Mode, Jesus Jones, Stereo Mcs, Big Audio Dynamite, Catherine Wheel, Violent Femmes, Butthole Surfers, The Cure, I could go on and on. Not to say that all of it was good, but it was all memorable. Every so often I’ll come across a song that sounds vaguely familiar, and I’ll surmise that I must have heard it before on HFS.

By the end of the nineties, the station was starting to go downhill: you were more likely to hear Papa Roach and Eminem rather than Concrete Blonde and The Smiths. This reflected changing demographics and tastes which is entirely understandable, but it just sucked to hear the station losing its focus (but at the time, my middle school-self actually preferred nu-metal and hip hop so it only sucked in retrospect). Finally, WHFS met it’s demise on January 12, 2005 when it suddenly switched to playing some kind of Mexican polka music. I recall riding home from school in my friend’s car, turning it to HFS and laughing, thinking it was all a lame “wacky” joke. Alas, the switch was permanent, and DC lost its only listenable radio station. Others tried to fill the void, e.g 94.7 “The Globe” which was very HFS-esque for a while then switched to bog standard mix format.

We could blame ClearChannel like a lot of people do, but radio’s demise owes a lot to evolving technology and demographics. The only major bit of hope I see is the fact that the latest iPod Nano has an FM tuner feature…but why would anyone under the age of 40 bother with that when there’s podcasts and free MP3 downloads compatible with the same device?

For further listening, I found a blog that features old tape recordings of 1980’s WHFS and other alt/indie stations.

A quick note on the current direction of this site

Regular readers (if I even have any yet) may have noticed that lately I’ve been heavy on the album reviews and essays and not done any new equipment reviews/recommendations. When I started this site, my main idea was to write about affordable hi-fi and review “budget” components. Problem is, I really haven’t had the spare cash to get much new equipment these days, even the affordable stuff. As soon as I’m in a situation when I can, I’ll start picking up some new gadgets (new speakers are going to be my first big addition) and doling out my opinions on them. If you are interested in learning about an affordable stereo setup in the meantime, check out my post with prices and advice on a good beginner’s system. In the coming month I plan to review some audio accessories, such as the Spin Clean Record Washer, a manually operated record cleaner that does a thorough job and only costs 80 bucks. For the time being, I’m happy just typing up record reviews, and I hope my readers are enjoying these reviews too.

(semi-serious) P.S. : If you are an equipment manufacturer or a band, get in touch with me. I’d be happy to review your gear or music…

How bad is MP3? (Part 2)

lego mp3 player
Image courtest of

Last week I wrote up a post about my opinions on the MP3 format which included a few listening reviews of various MP3s in my collection. I admitted the weakness of this experiment, in that I wasn’t comparing these recordings to any other format, so I concluded that I needed to do a review the same recording in both MP3, CD and vinyl forms.

I chose to review Van Cliburn and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra’s 1961 performance of Beethoven’s Piano Concerto No. 5 in E-Flat, Op. 73 “Emperor”. Specifically, the third and final movement. I own this recording both on vinyl as part of the Great Men of Music boxset I reviewed a while back and as an RCA Living Stereo SACD . I ripped an MP3 copy at 160 kbit/s using iTunes, which was sourced from the CD layer of the SACD disc. Before each test, I calibrated the sound level for each source to -25 dB using the trial version of Electroacoustics Toolbox 2.0 , a versatile sound analysis program. To do this, I placed my laptop in my listening position and then played a 1 KHZ test tone from the Stereophile Test CD , test MP3 file in iTunes, and the Cardas Test record . The laptop microphone picks up the test tone and displays the current SPL (sound pressure level) ,and I would adjust the volume knob on my amp until it reached -25 dB. Performing this adjustment for each source reviewed ensured that the music was being pumped out the amplifier at a consistent level so that differences in the sound pressure wouldn’t color my judgment. So, here’s what I came up with:

CD- I made sure to play the CD layer of the disc for this test, as it wouldn’t be fair to compare the MP3 it was sourced from to a hi-rez version of the same recording. Bass frequencies are very present (if not fairly boomy) and Cliburn’s piano is fresh and lively but demonstrates some “smearing”. The strings are dense without sounding excessively stodgy and the soundstaging is good. Everything is in its proper place, and since I have actually attended a concert in that hall before, I could really reimagine it.

MP3 – A marked flatness is apparent right off the bat, the dynamics are severely reduced. Just as I had remarked about some tracks in the previous week’s part of this review, the music just can’t seem to escape or transcend the speakers. The orchestra is trapped in a wood and kevlar prison. In contrast to the CD recording, the piano seems a bit more defined and runs together less. But despite the improved clarity, the piano still suffers from a loss of energy. The soundstage has shifted to the left somewhat…somehow. Overall, the MP3 was not unlistenable but still not ideal.

LP- Well, to start off, hissing, rumble and clicks are apparent in quiet portions (no shit) but it’s not bad enough to be distracting. This recording shows excellent soundstaging and the bass is subdued when compared to the CD and MP3 edition. The piano isn’t as shiny as the other two tests, it lacks in high treble which can be a limitation of vinyl records. This was craploads better than the MP3 and rivaled the CD for clarity, warmth and overall enjoyability.

So to conclude, MP3s still kinda suck. But as I wrote last time, they have their definite advantages if you’re concerned about space and price. I understand that this wasn’t a double-blind ABX test , the gold standard for hi-fi experimentation, but the point of these reviews wasn’t to determine if one could tell a difference between the formats (which ABX does), but instead to assess the subjective qualities of each format. Sound is still always a matter of taste and preference, so you might not mind or even care about the sound of an MP3 if it seems okay to you. But for me, i’ll stick to MP3s cranked out of a portable device for when i’m on my way to work, and i’ll use CD and vinyl for when I really want to sit down and enjoy the music.