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If you’re a musician, chances are you take great pride in carefully crafting your music, especially when you’re in the studio. So why are you still listening to your favorite tunes on tiny earbuds or the blown out computer speakers that came with your PC ten years ago? You want your music to be heard properly, so why not practice what you preach?
It’s time for an upgrade, and time to listen to music as it was meant to be heard – on a good stereo system. Now that audio retailers are a fading memory, and specialized stereo stores have gone the way of the 8-track, your best bet on a budget is to piece together quality used components. The golden age of stereo systems was the 1970s, and snatching a great piece of gear from that era is affordable, and will provide you a top-of-the-line listening experience at a rock bottom price. Here’s a quick guide to help you get started on your way to true audiophile heaven.
The receiver is the heart of your system. It combines the switching capabilities and tone controls of a preamplifier, and adds a built in AM/FM tuner and amplifier to drive your speakers. Vintage receivers can be had for under $100, and are typically built like tanks. They should be, considering that they originally went for upwards of $1000, when adjusted for inflation. Ignore misleadingly low power ratings, as receivers in the 1970s and 1980s were rated differently, meaning an older 15-30 watt receiver have plenty of power to drive most speakers and fill a room with clean, crisp audio. Look for receivers that have enough inputs for your components – typically this will be at least TAPE IN, AUX, and PHONO (needed for a turntable). Lighted dials and brushed metal knobs on these old units complete the package and add a great aesthetic touch. When buying used gear, a little DeoxIT will clean up any scratchy or noisy pots, switches and knobs.
Recommended Brands: Harman/Kardon, Pioneer, Marantz, Yamaha, Kenwood, Realistic, Rotel, Sansui.
The most important link in the chain, your speakers will obviously be what shapes the sound you’re hearing. With receivers, vintage is the best way to go as far as value is concerned. With speakers, you might want to go new, or at least more recent to avoid having to refoam old, crumbling woofers and blown tweeters. If you were going to splurge on any aspect of your system, this would be the place to do it. You’ll need to decide whether you have the room for floor standing speakers, or if bookshelf models are the way to go. A nice pair of high-efficiency bookshelf speakers can deliver surprisingly good sound, and tight bass, in a very small enclosure.
Recommended Brands: Axiom Audio, Paradigm, Mirage, Polk Audio, JBL, Boston Acoustics.
When the neighbors start complaining, it’s time to throw on the cans. Headphones are an often-overlooked part of a stereo setup, but can also provide the most rewarding and enveloping experience, allowing you to fully tune out the world and get lost in the music. Over the ear models are recommended for the best quality. Look for headphones that can reproduce the entire audible spectrum from 20Hz~20kHz, and that are terminated with a 1/4” plug.
Recommended Brands: Grado, Audio-Technica, Sennheiser, AKG, Sony.
Spinning vinyl is a time-honored audiophile tradition that’s made a huge comeback in recent years. Used records can be scored on the cheap, and a good turntable will only enhance your listening experience. Look for models with standard mount headshells or tonearms, and not P-mount arms, as these tend to be lower quality, bottom of the barrel decks. Also look for belt drive manual systems, as they tend to be geared more towards true listening, and not DJ applications, like direct drive turntables. They also have fewer parts to break or interfere with vibrations from the stylus. Going vintage can save you some bread, so be on the lookout for older tables in good working order. Just don’t keep the cartridge/stylus that’s on it – who knows how old or worn it may be. As mentioned earlier, since turntables output a lower signal than CD players or cassette decks, a dedicated PHONO input is needed on your receiver to properly hook it up to your stereo. Otherwise, you’ll need to factor in the added cost of a PHONO preamp, which can set you back a pretty penny.
Recommended Brands: Technics, Dual, Rega, Denon, Yamaha, Music Hall, Project, Marantz, Realistic.
The cartridge is what picks up the sound from the record grooves through the needle, or stylus, and sends that signal through your turntable’s tonearm, out to your receiver. Vintage is not an option here, as many manufacturers have stopped supporting older cartridges and replacement styli. The good news, though, is that new cartridges will last you decades, and you’ll only have to replace the stylus every 1,200 hours or so, as long as you keep it (and your records) clean. You can go nuts on $5,000 cartridges for your turntable, but for the budget-conscious, the Shure M97xe can be had for about $75, and is an absurd value. It offers amazing clarity and tracking ability for such a modest price. Again, look for standard mount cartridges, not P-mount.
Recommended Brands: Shure, Audio-Technica, Grado, Goldring, Ortofon, Sumiko, Stanton.
Avoid first generation players, which have notoriously bad (shrill) digital-to-analog converters, and whose laser assemblies tend to fail more often than second gen units and beyond. A solid audiophile CD player from the late 1980s should still work perfectly, and provide huge value for your buck. High-end decks from this era typically go for less than $40 on Craigslist and auction sites, so you’re sure to score a bargain. Check out thrift stores, as well, for great deals on stereo gear. Stick to single disc players, and not multi-disc or carousel units, which typically feature cheaper transports and are more prone to breakage over the years.
Recommended Brands: Denon, Sony, Technics, Marantz, Kyocera, Dual, NEC, Kenwood, Harman/Kardon, ADC, NAD, Nakamichi, Pioneer.
Tapes, remember tapes? Sure you do, and cassettes have never been cheaper. Just look for the dustiest part of your local used record store, and staring you in the face should be hundreds of great albums for next to nothing. In fact, many people are willing to give away their old tapes, most of which still play just fine, if you have a solid deck to play them on. Plus, there’s nothing like a hand-made mix tape…actually on tape. Dual well decks will allow you to dub one tape to another, and also offer relay play, allowing you to listen to two complete cassettes in order without getting up. Look for 3-head decks if you can find them. You should have no trouble scoring a killer cassette deck for about $30-40, even units that once cost in the neighborhood of $500 and up. Your tape deck will use one of the tape inputs on your receiver. Having a hard time getting any audio? You may just need to press the TAPE MONITOR button the front of your receiver to select that input. Nakamichi is the king of the tape deck, and scooping up even one of their lower end models will allow you listen to your tapes at a higher quality than you ever thought imaginable. While we aren’t covering reel-to-reel in this article, know that true audiophiles still claim it’s the purest format for true listening. That may be, but the investment required to maintain a good r2r machine, not to mention the insane price and rarity of pre-recorded tapes, can be a big turn off, even for big audiophiles.
Recommended Brands: Nakamichi, Denon, Marantz, Technics, Akai, Kyocera, Pioneer.
The redheaded stepchild of the stereo family, the EQ often gets a bad rep as being unnecessary or just something pretty to look at as the display bounces up and down. The truth is, in less-than-ideal room layouts, an EQ can help compensate for frequency problems due to odd walls, furniture or poor acoustics. Do so in moderation, though, as too much EQ can color the music in a way that was not intended by the artist. Lighting up your EQ with the old “rock and roll smile” pattern can be good for small rooms and low volume listening, but might not be ideal for all rooms; so tweak carefully. EQs will use up one of your receiver’s tape inputs, as you’ll be sending audio to it from the receiver after selecting the appropriate input you want to EQ (AUX, PHONO, FM, etc). You’ll then send the EQ’d audio back to the receiver through the tape return or TAPE IN input. Again, remember to engage the TAPE MONITOR button to hear the EQ’d audio. If you only have on tape input, and plan on using a cassette deck and EQ, most equalizers also include a tape in/out section that will allow you to daisy chain your tape deck and EQ.
Recommended Brands: Pioneer, Teac, Technics, ADC.
Music Direct: www.musicdirect.com
Audio Karma Forums: www.audiokarma.org/forums
Jerry Raskin’s Needle Doctor: www.needledoctor.com
Oak Tree Vintage: www.oaktreevintage.com
Vintage Cassette: www.vintagecassette.com