Tag Archives: turntables

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.

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.

My current system and how I got there

I first got into hi-fi in my senior year of high school. I had already been a bit of a video/home theater geek, so the extension came pretty naturally. My first setup was some hulking Aiwa minisystem and a Denon automatic turntable. I soon decided that the Aiwa’s onboard CD player was woefully inadequate so I hooked up some cheap Hitachi DVD player that had a 24/96 upsampling DAC (pardon my jargon so early in a beginner blog!) and used that to play discs. Overall, the sound probably wasn’t that bad, but in my mind it was still nowhere near hi-fi.

I eventually saved up enough to replace the weakest link in my system – the speakers. I went to the area hi-fi store and after laying out my budget and requirements, he left me alone in a listening room to A/B compare two candidates. I settled on the Energy C-1, a neat little pair of bookshelf speakers that I still use to this day. That summer after graduation, I managed to get my first full time job that I held for a few months before I started college. Instead of saving my money wisely, I went kinda nuts and put most of my earnings into building my system. The ugly, cheap minisystem I had used as an amp was replaced by a NAD C320BEE , the Denon was put away for a Pro-Ject Debut II, and the DVD was put back to DVD playing duties to be replaced by a Sony SACD changer.

Save for a few cable changes and vibration isolation tweaks, my system has remained mostly the same since then. And i’m pleased with the sound…mostly. There’s a lot more that can be done. My next big purchase will be speakers, which I feel are always the weakest link in any system. The Energys have served me well over the years, but it’s time to move up to floorstanders, mostly for the better overall frequency response, but also cause they look cooler! I’m thinking of the Polk Audio TSi400 , as it is nearest to my budget right now. When and if I get them, i’ll be sure to post a review.

It’s interesting to note that nearly every piece of equipment in my system is no longer manufactured. For example, the entry level NAD integrated amp is now the NAD C326BEE which is practically the same as mine performance-wise but has additional features like a line-in jack on the front for MP3 player hookup and a subwoofer connector.

Here’s a couple pics of how my system looks now (yes, my listening room is really bare right now, i’ll fix it, I promise!):

Full list of equipment used:

Amplifier – NAD C320BEE

Turntable – Pro-Ject Debut II

Phono Preamp – NAD PP-2

CD/SACD Player – Sony SCD-CE595

Speakers – Energy C-1

Vibration control – Vibrapods (under turntable), Vibrapod Cones (under SACD)