The parts of a high fidelity reproduction system are usually referred to as audio components. For audiophiles and studios, audio components have pretty much been the rule. They refer to discrete parts of a high fidelity audio system, such as the speakers, the amplifier, preamplifier, tuner, turntable, tape deck, and CD Player.
Prior to the 1970's, most people who brought a hi-fi purchased a package in a large attractive piece of furniture called a stereo console that packaged the turntable, speakers, receiver, and tape deck into one large package. Sometimes they even included a 25 inch TV as well. My parents had one of these monstrosities that was made by Packard Bell. It was seven feet long and took 4 people to move, and boasted a garrard turntable, 12 inch three-way speakers, and an AM-FM Stereo tuner and amplifier that boasted 300 watts Peak Music Power. It sounded pretty good to my unsophisticated ears and could only be played loud when my parents weren't home. A cheaper solution was a compact stereo, which had the record player and tuner in a central unit, with detachable speakers.
Returning veterans from Viet Nam made audio components popular by bringing back from Asia quality and reasonably priced high fidelity components made by Panasonic, Pioneer, and Kenwood which could outgun the typical stereo console at less than half the price by eliminating all of that fine cabinetry in a console, and stacking the components in an inexpensive rack cabinet, or just stacking them on top of the TV. Audio components also had the advantage that if any one single item proved inadequate, only that item needed to be repaired or replaced. A cheap turntable could be replaced with a better model at a later date, and the newest innovations, such as cassette decks or CD Players could be easily added to the mix. By the mid 1970s, console stereos were pretty much a thing of the past.
Building up a good System on a Budget
The first step in building a good audio system is to evaluate what components you have already, and if they can find a home in your new rack. Perhaps you have a good receiver, but crappy speakers. Perhaps you have a good set of speakers, a mediocre receiver, and want to integrate your setup with your TV and DVD Player, or you have a huge collection of LP records, rather than CD's. All of these factors will figure into what you want to buy. For all practical purposes, I will not discuss audiophile type high-dollar components. If you are serious about audiophile hardware, you either probably have money to burn, or already pretty much know what you want anyway. For this reason, I will stick with the basics. These include:
The Receiver is the electronic heart of the audio system. Nowadays, most receivers are not just a tuner built into the same cabinet as the amplifier, but are called Surround Receivers today, since most have inputs for DVD Players, and can decode Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound, and provide outputs to as many as 7 or more speakers. Most modern receivers also have built-in graphic equalizers, and thanks to switching power supplies can produce large amounts of power without costing an arm and a leg or weighing a ton. Most systems are rated at at least 100 watts rms per channel, for at least the subwoofer and the front channels. More expensive receivers will not necessarily have much higher rated power, but will have better tuners, more robust heatsinks and power supplies, and more inputs and outputs for accessories. Unless money is really tight, I would stay away from the bottom of the line stuff, and get a receiver in the $300 -$400 USD range. Anything much more than that gets into the law of diminishing returns. If you have a good receiver from the mid 70's or later, and don't mind not having a remote control or surround sound, then consider just using your old receiver for a while. Newer receivers don't really sound any better with recorded music, and if properly taken care of an old receiver can probably outlast the cheaper stuff being produced today. The money you save can be more profitably invested in better speakers.
One final consideration when purchasing the receiver is to consider if you will be using a turntable with the older RIAA equalization curve which was used with turntables with a magnetic cartridge. If the receiver does not have Phono inputs, then an equalization adapter will be necessary. Most modestly priced Surround Receivers will not have this feature anymore, so be aware when you buy.
If LP records are an important element in your system, you may actually want to seek out one of the better 70's or 80's vintage receivers, such as the the Pioneer SX-1050, Pioneer SX-1250, or a number of good receivers made by Onkyo, Yamaha,Harmon-Kardon or Marantz.
Even more important than the receiver is a good set of speakers. Even driven with a mediocre amplifier, great speakers will still sound good, while the finest amplifier will not make crappy speakers sound any better. Most decent amplifiers can produce their rated power at less than 0.1% THD while even the best speakers add many times this figure, plus speakers are usually somewhat nonlinear in frequency response. Speakers also tend to suffer from the ravages of age due to deterioration of the foam surrounds around the speaker cone, and cummulative damage from overloading and damage to the speaker cone. Plan to spend more on your speakers than you would on your receiver, perhaps as much as twice as much.
Deciding which speakers to buy is a personal decision. A lot depends on the amount of room available, the acoustics of the listening room, and the type of music you want to listen to. Huge cabinets do not necessarily mean a good sounding speaker. Particleboard is cheap, but good crossover networks, quality materials and workmanship in the voice coil, frames, and speaker cones are not. Neither are good high-dispersion tweeters. All things being equal, it is harder to design a speaker than can be driven with little power that sounds good into a small package than into a larger one, the bass response tends to suffer the most. One major innovation in the last 10 years or so is the subwoofer which allows smaller speakers to be used for midrange and high frequencies.
Speakers for a Dolby 5.1 Surround System.
If you already have a good set of stereo speakers with good bass response, you can probably eliminate the subwooofer, and buy only a center channel
speaker, along with the small surround speakers
which typicaly mount high on the wall behind the listener. If your current speakers are junk
, or you are starting from scratch, then I would look at some of the surround packages the major speaker manufacturers have packaged together. These packages tend to work well together as a unit and most of the components are pretty compact and easily placed. You tend to get what you pay for, but try to audition several different makes and models to determine what sounds best for you.
A word about Speaker Wire. Most audio stores will try very hard to sell you their super duper oxygen-free gold plated lace braided Monster Cable speaker wire that sells for an obscenely high price. Don't fall for it! Unless you are making very long runs of very high power audio, regular old #16 zipcord that you can get at Home Depot or Lowes for a few cents a foot is more than adequate. If you have to make a run of more than 50 feet or so, then just get #14 wire. Anything more is a waste of money. That being said, I did buy some 16 gauge Monster Cable a few years ago to hook my KEF Q50 speakers to my rescued Pioneer SX-1250 receiver. It had nice flexible braid was easy to work with, and looked nicer than the zip cord I had left over from a car stereo installation I did to my Honda Accord. I also had a pair of expensive Monster patch cables that didn't work out of the package.
Source Components: Cassette Decks, DVD Players and More
If your old source components are ailing, it is about futile to repair them unless they say Nachamichi or some equivalent fancy name on the front panel. It is usually better to just replace an ailing component rather than repair it, even if it is only a couple of years old. Sad, but True, I recently wasted over $150.00 trying to repair a 4 year old 27 inch Trinitron, and they had the set in limbo for 2 months and 3 repair attempts. Most consumer electronics are designed to be disposable, and the cost of service labor alone often approaches the cost of buying an equivalent replacement. Brand name alone is no guarantee of quality either, Sony and some of the other premium names of the past seem to have cheapened some of their products, while some of the stuff coming out of China and Korea isn't all that bad anymore. Often the major Japanese makers have farmed out their manufacturing to these low labor cost countries. Just figure that whatever you buy today, you will probably have to replace within five years or so,either through breakage or obsolescence.
So, how do you choose a good DVD player, Cassette deck, or whatever? Compare price and features, and make sure the component has the features you want, such as dubbing, auto-reverse, advanced noise reduction or whatever in a Cassette Deck. I would not really recommend a dedicated CD player anymore,unless it gets really heavy use, but I would look for a DVD Changer that plays CDs (which most of them do anyway), and also can play MP3 files on the CD's. This will give you maximum flexibily with your choice of media, and save room in your rack. Another neat item that has come along in the last couple of years that is a real space-saver and hookup-saver is the DVD-VCR Combo, which you might want to check out if your DVD/VCR needs are basic, and space is limited.
To the RIAA and most of the Consumer Electronics industry, the LP and the turntable are a relic of the past. If you are over the age of 35,(and you know who you are), then you probably still have a substantial record collection. If you have a good belt-drive or direct-drive turntable from the 1970's through mid 1980's, hang onto it, even if you have to spend over $100 USD to repair it. Best Buy, Circuit City et.al will have a very limited selection (1 or 2 models at most) they will either be fairly expensive and very crappy, or very expensive and moderately crappy, like the old BSR turntables seen on cheap compact stereos of the 1970's. If your old turntable is beyond rescue, rather than ditching all of your old classic LPs and replacing them with CDs, consider finding another used turntable. Scan the yard sales, E-Bay, and hamfests and you should come up with a decent used turntable for less than $100 USD or so. Perhaps you can even score a nice piece of professional gear, but be prepared to pay the price. Make sure you can test it, or get a money-back guarantee if it does not work right. When my old Technics SL-23 (circa 1976) belt-drive turntable died a couple of years ago, I found a nice Pioneer Direct Drive at a hamfest for about $25 USD, but it died a day after I got it home. I brought a new Pioneer turntable at Best Buy, and found it weighed half what my old Technics did. Lightweight plastic and thin aluminum did little to dampen noise, and the wow and flutter specs were inferior to a cheap BSR. This turntable cost me $130 USD, and I took it back the next day. I finally scored on a nice Marantz 6170 Direct Drive model. It weighs almost 10KG, versus less than 2 for the new Pioneer. Its speed is rock-steady and can track an LP at less than 1.5 grams of force. It was missing the plastic lid and had no cartridge, but it was well worth the $65 USD I paid for it.
I should have read the excellent writeup by Transitional Man before elaborating on what started as a simple node to supplement another node I wrote. He explains things better than I could, and I could learn a few pointers from him.