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.
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.