Tag Archives: affordable audio

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 noiseaddicts.com

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.

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 1)

an mp3 player made out of a grenade casing
Image source: geekologie.com

In my very first blog post I briefly bashed MP3 as an inferior format for tone deaf plebes. I soon realized that was an extremely hypocritical thing to do, as the majority of my music collection resides on my laptop and iPod in either AAC or MP3. But whenever I listen to these formats, I’m usually doing something else at the same time: riding the bus or subway, walking to class, fidgeting in an uncomfortable airline seat, or hunched over my laptop surfing the internet. I reserve my “critical listening” sessions for vinyl, CD and SACD and so I had never sat down and really listened to MP3s. As far as I know, MP3 sounds pretty damn good when piped into a hi-fi setup but I was just going off the standard snobbery and assuming that it sucks.

So, I decided to plug my laptop into my amplifier and give some tracks a good analysis. I had done this before in my previous apartment, but again I never had a chance to critically regard it since it was usually done during parties. To do this, I bought a cheap 3.5mm to L+R RCA adapter much like this one which Amazon is selling for an unbelievable penny, not including shipping. The red and white plugs go into the amp and the other end goes into the laptop or other MP3 device. Some newer amps have a port in the front that you can plug a player straight into using a cable like this.

It’s important to first briefly summarize bitrate: basically, higher bitrates translate to better sound quality. The most common bitrate seems to be 128 kbit/s ; this is what you’ll likely find on filesharing networks unless otherwise specified. By default, iTunes rips CDs to 256 kbit/s AAC format, and the same goes for stuff downloaded from the iTunes Store.

Now that i’m plugged in, I try a few selections:

The Chameleons – What Does Anything Mean? Basically (224 kbit/s MP3) : This layered, atmospheric post-punk/goth really suffers from the MP3 encoding. It sounds as though the music is struggling to escape the speakers, and this tires out my ears because I have to force myself to focus and interpolate what i’m supposed to be hearing. Turning up the bass knob on my amp filled out the bottom end a bit, but I really don’t like to play with the tone controls if I can help it.

Catherine Wheel – Chrome (160 kbit/s MP3) : A slight improvement, but the music still lacks any sort of punch or edge. This might be blamed on the album’s production; shoegaze bands liked to go for the muddy, distant sound.

J.S. Bach – Brandenburg Concertos, Benjamin Britten: English Chamber Orchestra (256 kbit/s AAC) : This is one of the better selections so far. The music actually has life and presence, although the violins lack attack/decay. Could this improvement be a property of the AAC encoding?

Dave Brubeck Quartet – Jazz Goes to College (141 kbit/s MP3) : First off, this is a live concert recording, so the overall acoustics will differ from something taped in studio. Nevertheless, this actually sounds fairly musical and I would say is the best set of MP3s i’ve sampled so far. The sax and piano are smooth and feel as though they are in a concert hall like they should. However, like all the tracks i’ve tested, the bass is disappointing and there is still that lack of thrust and definition that I like to hear (Additionally, a minor gripe: the applause and whistles of the audience don’t feel “live” either).

Now there are some flaws in this experiment that I’ll readily admit:

1. This is an entirely subjective test. I didn’t take any actual measurements of the sound output (such as level or frequencies), although I kept the volume the same.

2. The output level of my MacBook is probably less powerful than other sources, thus giving the amplifier less to work with. An MP3 player might give different results.

3. I didn’t do any sort of A/B comparison between the same recording on a different source like CD or vinyl. This is why in Part 2 of this article I intend to listen to Van Cliburn performing Beethovens Emperor Concerto , a recording that I have on both vinyl and CD, so I can compare the two to an MP3 rip I made.

In the meantime, I can say this about MP3s : They clearly have a lot of advantages, in that they’re , uh, “free” and they take up very little space on your hard drive. And despite that they aren’t a hi-fi medium, i’m willing to bet that most of my readers have a substantial amount of their music in this format. To take advantage of this, and to get the best sound possible, hook your MP3 player into an amplifier + speaker combo. By simple virtue of playing through actual speakers and not earbuds or a cheap docking station, you will reveal details that you wouldn’t have noticed before. For example, Kitchens of Distinction’s Love is Hell was an album that I had only listened to on my iPod, so when tried it through my system it revealed details like fuller chorus guitar effects.

If you want to get your feet wet with hi-fi, get yourself a setup like the one I recommend and plug in your computer or MP3 player. You’ll get a taste of good sound while keeping your current collection, and I have no doubt that it will inspire you to do more with your system.

For further reading, Stereophile has a good article about the difference between various audio compression formats.

Check out Part 2 of this article for more analysis

An affordable hifi stereo system for vinyl

One of the major topics of this blog is affordable audio, so i’ve decided to put together a reasonable priced system for playing vinyl records. These recommendations are just starting points, and I would encourage you to substitute components for any vintage or used stuff you might find. You can always upgrade later, the point now is to start spinning records as soon as possible.

Basically, a hifi stereo setup involves three parts: the source(s), amplifier and speakers. There are a variety of other sources possible (CD/SACD players, iPods, computers, etc) but for now we’ll stick to a turntable. You probably already own a MP3 or CD player anyway.

Pro-ject Debut III

Turntable – Pro-ject Debut III

This is the table I currently use, and I highly recommend it. Professional reviewers agree that it is a perfect entry level turntable for those curious about vinyl. Unlike other, more expensive turntables, it’s pretty much ready to go right out of the box and comes complete with a cartridge (the needle), tonearm, dust cover, felt record mat and attached L+R and grounding cables. The MSRP is currently $349, and there is a $499 version that includes a USB output so you can rip your records to your computer and convert them to MP3. Amazon has it, and they can also be found at Magnolia outlets (which are often located in Best Buy stores).

Topaz AM10

Amplifier – Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10

The signal from a turntable must go through a preliminary stage of amplification before it can go to the main amp. This might be accomplished with a “phono stage” like the NAD PP-2 , which I use, but it is an additional expense, takes up more space and uses more resources. The solution is to use an amplifier that has an integrated phono stage, like the Topaz AM10. I haven’t listened to this particular amp, but Stereophile’s Stephen Mejias recommends this and it is the cheapest one of the four he lists in the linked article. In addition to the phono stage, it’s small, light, looks cool, and has a front input to plug in your iPod. Amazon’s got it for 349 dollars , and it’s probably your cheapest, easiest bet for beginner hifi amplification.

Polk Audio TSi 200 - cherry finish

Speakers –

For beginners, floorstanders might not be the best idea, simply due to their size and expense (although you wouldn’t need to buy speaker stands). Bookshelf speakers are the optimal entry level solution. The problem with speakers is that they are the most subjective in terms of sound quality; what sounds good to me might sound awful to you. This is why it’s kind of difficult to recommend a good speaker without listening first, but sticking with established brands that specialize in making speakers is a good start. This means avoiding crap from Sony or Yamaha, which might be cheap but are of poor quality. Bose speakers have an undeserved reputation for quality thanks to aggressive marketing, but they are the laughing stock of the audiophile world. The Polk Audio TSi200 is available for about $300 a pair, or if you need to go cheaper then the Klipsch B-2 Synergy is only a bit over $180. Either of these would work fine for a hi-fi-curious individual. A set of speaker stands can be found at most any big box store for 20-30 bucks, or you could DIY up some of your own.


Turntable – $349

Amp – $349

Speakers- $180

Cables and other accessories – $50

Total: +- $928

I hear ya, that’s hardly pocket change. But as I mentioned in the beginning, this is only a suggestion. The best deal and the most important purchase is the Pro-ject turntable, I can’t really think of a better value for the money. The speakers can vary, if you already have a cheapo pair then use them to begin with. The amplifier is optional as well, in fact, if you browse vintage or thrift stores you shouldn’t have a problem finding a decent integrated amp. Most older (pre-1990s) amps that you’ll likely encounter have a phono stage; if it has an input on the back labeled “PHONO” then you’re good to go.

Every system has humble origins, and once you get into vinyl you’ll be hooked.