Buying Your First Component Music System
By Chuck Hawks
A compact music system has program sources with drive motors, such as a CD player, tape deck or turntable, crammed into a common chassis with an AM/FM radio and amplifier circuitry. Compact music systems are typically sold as a package with the cheapest possible separate speakers. Sometimes the whole mess, including tiny speakers, is built together. The infamous Bose Wave Radio/CD player and its clones would be an example of this approach. (They are really just fancy clock radios and that is how they sound.)
Besides speakers that are incapable of reproducing the dynamic range and frequency response required for high-fidelity music reproduction, the transport motors of the program source raise hob with the sensitive electronic circuitry of the tuner and amplifier sections in a compact music system. Consequently, these electronic circuits are inferior. Compact music systems, most of which are made in Red China, are the mainstay of "big box" department store electronics departments, not specialty audio stores. That should tell you something.
For about the price of one of the "better" compact music systems, you could buy a component stereo system that is superior in every way. That is the reality of the situation. A compact system might make sense in a small boat or travel trailer, where space is extremely limited, but that is about the extent of its usefulness. For use in almost any home or apartment, buy components. Simply stated, any "music system" sold at a big box store is not a bargain at any price. These never play music as accurately as even a modest component system.
What constitutes a beginning component stereo system? Two loudspeakers, program sources (usually a CD player and an AM/FM tuner) and an amplifier system to power the speakers. The latter usually takes the form of an integrated amplifier (pre-amp and power amp on a common chassis) or a receiver. A receiver is simply an integrated amplifier on a common chassis with a tuner. Note that these are all electronic circuits without a motor in their midst.
Most beginners will choose a receiver to power their component system, because it is generally cheaper than buying two separate components, although not quite as good. However, a receiver's electronics are typically MUCH better than a compact music system's amplifier and tuner circuits.
Needless anxiety about hooking-up a stereo system keeps some music lovers from ever purchasing components, so I will briefly explain how it is done. The right and left channel outputs from the CD player are plugged into the right and left CD input jacks on the back of the receiver or integrated amplifier. (If there are no inputs labeled "CD" on the back of your amplifier, use the "Aux" or "Line" inputs, which are electrically identical.) If you are using a separate tuner and integrated amplifier, the tuner's outputs are connected to the amplifier in exactly the same way to the "Tuner," "Aux" or "Line" inputs. Use three-foot-long connecting cords with RCA plugs on both ends for these connections. These are inexpensive and can be purchased at Radio Shack. You do not need expensive "audiophile" interconnects, so don't be suckered into buying them.
Use 12 or 16 gauge zip (or lamp) cord to connect the speakers to the output terminals on the amplifier or receiver. You can buy this two-conductor, stranded wire in whatever lengths you need at a hardware store, electrical supply store or, in spools, at Radio Shack. You do not need expensive "speaker cables." Use the same length of speaker wire on both speakers and keep your wire runs as short as practical. Ensure that the "+" terminal on the amplifier is connected to the "+" terminal on the speaker and ditto for the "-" terminals. That is all there is to hooking-up a component stereo system.
Understandably, most consumers are not going to spend a small fortune on their first home music system. One of the nice things about starting with components, besides their superior sound, is that they can be upgraded individually, should your interest in music and accurate sound reproduction increase over time.
A typical basic component stereo system purchased new might look something like this (all prices MSRP):
For a total of about $1150, you can buy this brand new component stereo system. You can pay less, particularly for the speakers, but this is a representative system with relatively small, but good quality, speakers. Note that you can mix and match brands; components of all brands are designed to work with each other.
Connect the audio output of your TV to one of the Aux (or Line) inputs of your receiver and you will be surprised by the improvement in the TV sound. You do not need a multi-channel home theater system for lifelike movie sound from your TV; your two channel stereo system will do very well.
BUT WAIT! Buy your components used from a reputable dealer and you can cut the price nearly in half! The same or equivalent quality components can be had for about the price of a semi-decent compact music system. For example:
With about 30 minutes online research I found the same system used (in like new to excellent condition), guaranteed, for only $644. There is nothing magical about these particular components, although they are all reputable brands. I chose them for comparison simply because I was able to find used and new examples online without much effort. Many other brands and models deserve consideration; see the "Brands and Manufacturers" articles for the different types of components on the Audio Online page.
If you are looking to assemble your first home stereo music system, you should visit your local audio dealers and see what used components they have in stock. They will probably be able to put together a system of equivalent quality for about the same price. "Cherry pick" the best used components from two or three dealers and you will probably be able to build a better system. Do not overlook the possibility of upgrading to a separate integrated amplifier and tuner instead of a receiver. Sometimes these are overlooked on a dealer's shelves by receiver buyers. You may be able to get better components for a similar price.
The loudspeakers are where the sound comes from. They are the most important components of all and should therefore represent your biggest monetary investment. The CD player incorporates a motor and transport mechanism, so it is wise to get a recent model with (presumably) less wear. Integrated amplifiers, tuners and receivers are "all electronic" components and older models in good condition are functionally as good as the latest models. Sometimes classic audio components from highly rated manufacturers like Marantz, Luxman and Harmon-Kardon can be had used for surprisingly economical prices. They often sound better and are better made than new components from lesser manufacturers.
Buying a component music system is easy and fun. Take along a few of your own CD's that you particularly like when you visit your local specialty Hi-Fi dealer. Audition plenty of components before you buy and you will quickly learn to hear the differences. As the old saying goes, "Quality will out."
Copyright 2012 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.