How Much Should You Spend on a Stereo?

If you follow this blog and my articles on Macworld, you know that I’m a serious music buff. My iTunes library is nearing the 80,000 mark, and I listen to music several hours a day. My musical touchstones include The Grateful Dead, Franz Schubert, The Durutti Column, Johann Sebastian Bach, Bill Evans, progressive rock from the 1970s, post-punk bands such as Joy Division and The Cure, Charles Ives, Brian Eno, Bob Dylan and much more.

A recent article I wrote for Macworld, How to find and play high-resolution audio on the Mac, elicited a number of comments and reader e-mails. Many people suggested that my ambivalence regarding these high-quality files was due to my not having an appropriate stereo. I do have decent equipment in my home-office, where I do most of my music listening: a Cambridge Audio Sonata 30 amplifier, a Cambridge Audio DacMagic digital-to-analog converter, and bookshelf speakers from the same company. Overall, I’m very pleased with this system, which offers what I consider to be good sound at an affordable price. The DAC might be overkill for some, but I find the difference between listening to music with and without the DAC to be very obvious. (See my Macworld review of the DacMagic). I don’t have a CD player, because I rip all my CDs, but I’ve actually been thinking of adding one to my system to listen to some music on CD – I have a lot of CDs I haven’t ripped yet, and I review classical CDs for MusicWeb International, and sometimes it’s easier to listen to CDs on their own without ripping them, if I don’t want to add them to my iTunes library. (My iMac’s optical drive is a bit noisy.)

I also like to listen to music with headphones; I recently wrote about the headphones that I use.

But I’m more interested in music than sound. People have told me that I should spend several thousand dollars for a good stereo system, and, while I appreciate good quality sound – when I added the DacMagic to my system, I was stunned by the difference – I just don’t see the need to spend that much.

It’s difficult for me to shop for stereo equipment: I live in a village in the French Alps, and any city that would have a good store for such equipment is a 3-hour drive. I could buy online, but I don’t plan to spend that kind of money without listening first. I have also been very disappointed by recent changes in stereo amplifiers, at least AV amps. The model I have in the living room – a middle-of-the-line Sony – is becoming quickly obsolete. It doesn’t handle HDMI correctly – I have to plug in audio separately. It doesn’t handle all new audio codecs used on Blu-Ray discs. And it simply doesn’t have enough connectors. (Even my TV set, which only has three HDMI jacks, has one too few for my needs.)

Audiophiles may want to spend as much as I did for my car on a sound system. And the problem is that often they think that anyone who doesn’t spend that kind of money doesn’t appreciate good sound. As I said above, music is more important to me than sound. Sound counts, but I would never become as obsessed as some people, who end up buying dubious products that improve the quality of their sound systems by minute increments, and very often through a placebo effect.

In addition, a lot of my listening is what I could call passive listening. As I write this article, I’m listening to a string quartet by Franz Schubert. This is not entirely background music; I have the ability to listen and think at the same time. And, when I pause, is search of words, the music often carries me away. But actively listening to music is something I do less often. By this I mean sitting and listening to the music while doing nothing else. When I do this, it’s often outdoors, as I watch the mountains grow, or contemplate the clouds floating in the sky. And, for this type of listening, I use headphones.

There are plenty of reasons to buy a better stereo system, but there’s no guarantee that spending twice as much would lead to any noticeable improvement in sound. In the past, I’ve visited stereo dealers and listened to equipment in rooms designed for listening; I don’t have such a room, and anything I bought would not sound as good as it did in the store. I have very good headphones, yet, as much as I enjoy listening to music on headphones, there’s something artificial about it. When you attend a concert, the music comes from in front of you, not from the sides. Recordings are mastered for listening via speakers, not headphones. If there’s too much separation, the music sounds slightly odd. (In fact, today I was listening to some arias from Bach cantatas from a smart playlist that picks from the many cantata recordings I have, and when I got to one from Helmut Rilling’s set with Hänssler, it was terrible; the lead violin was way off to the left, the continuo to the right, and the sound terribly unbalanced.)

In any case, I’m curious to know how much my readers have spent on their stereos. I’d also welcome recommendations for a better set of headphones. I’d be willing to spend a few hundred dollars for something really good. Any thoughts?

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21 replies
  1. Mark Whitcombe says:

    “But I’m more interested in music than sound.” Wonderful idea! As a person with a hearing loss, that’s exactly what I think too. Even with top-drawer hearing aids ($6500 per pair …) my 25-year-old mid-range sound system is better than my augmented ears can hear. With headphones, I can’t use hearing aids, so low-end Shures or Sennheisers do me just fine.
    It’s the emotion and structure of the music that I want to hear.
    Thanks, Kirk!

    • Russell Higham says:

      I agree with Mark Whitcombe. My hearing has deteriorated over the past few years also (from exposure to loud noises) and, although I don’t need/use a hearing aid, I’m unable to hear the top-end frequencies as well as I used to. However, a well-crafted tune or composition can still move me like it could when my ears were in their prime!…even if I now can’t hear every technical nuance of the sound. I think there is a trade-off when purchasing HiFi equipment between “doing justice” to the music and “going overboard” just to get the highest spec’ possible on an audiophile’s wish-list.

  2. Laurent says:

    I changed my stereo system this past spring and am really happy with the results. I spent more than a year thinking about what I wanted and how much money I could afford for it – my first two systems lasted 16 years each (my parents got the first one when I was 10) and are still in use elsewhere, so I thought I could spend about 2000-2200 € for an amp + speakers – that’s about 125 € per year. I figured it would break out at about 1200 € for the speakers and 800 € for the amp.

    I wanted 3-way bass-reflex floorstanding speakers with front facing vent, this much I knew. I’ve spent the last few years dreaming about those, and they seemed the best fit for my room. I went to 2 stores, listened to 8 models in the 3 and 4 speaker range with my CDs (all Bach – harpsichord, piano, cello, chamber orchestra, passions, cantatas…). The Triangle Antal EX were a clear favorite.

    Now I had to find the best amplifier to go with that. I had no set idea – I wanted to check out some Rotel amps, I was also interested in specialty makers. I was really impressed with a Chinese valve amp, don’t remember the maker. In the end I thought a valve amp might be too much trouble and got a Marantz PM 15S1, which have been replaced by the 15S2 – a huge monster, but the Antals require a lot of power.

    All in all, I paid about 2300-2500 €. The differences in sound betwwen all the speakers and amps I listened to were amazing. I won’t say that mine is better, but it suits my taste perfectly.

    I listen mostly to classical (Bach, other German baroque, pipe organ), jazz and Americana / Alt-country, JS Bach and Peter Case are my two favorite artists. Main source is iTunes (3000 CDs ripped and properly tagged, about 500 more to go) + AirPort Express.

    Next step will be to add a DAC, probably Rega. I feel the choice is still somewhat limited and will wait until next year.

    As for the listening room : I knew from the start the accoustics in my room were far from ideal, and very removed from those of an hifi store listening room. I can’t do much about that at the moment – I’ll install a new study/home library when I can. It took me two weeks to find the best positioning for the speakers, moving them around in the space available for them, 10 cm at a time – or maybe I just got used to their sound.

    So… was it worth it ? Yes, I think. Of course, it could always be better, but it’s already better than what I previously had and was starting to frustrate me.

    Bu I still listen to music on all kinds of systems around the house, and enjoy it. It’s the music that matters, first and foremost – I don’t buy CDs because they’re beautifully recorded or mastered, I enjoy listening to Peter Case’s crappy archive tapes.
    It’s just that when music plays on the high end system it’s a much more satisfying experience. More details, faster dynamics, richer tones.

    • kirk says:

      That’s an interesting process. I agree that speaker placement alone can be very time-consuming; I found that even in my office. And those are tremendous speakers!

  3. Dominy says:

    Re headphones – I stayed loyal to Sennheiser for many years, but they kept breaking down one way or another. I’m now a big fan of Grado headphones, and have SR80s for plugging into a laptop, and luxury SR325i (the ones which make you look part-cyborg) which I usually use plugged directly into a decent Marantz SACD player. Not everyone loves the Grado ‘sound’ or the feel of the cushions but the SR80s grabbed me the moment I tried them in the shop, and I’ve never felt musically short-changed since!

    • kirk says:

      I’ve never had Sennheisers break down, other than a very-much-used PX-100, which I used with iPods. I’m tempted by the Grados, but I get the feeling that they don’t sit will if you have largish ears, as I do. What do you think?

      • Dominy says:

        I liked the PX-100s for mobile use until the foam pads gave out – though you get a lot of windy noise when biking so I now use in-ear phones when out and about (also necessary as a hat wearer!).

        I have smallish ears and sometime have a little contact with the speaker surface with the big SR324s. You’d be wise to try these first – they’re also quite heavy. The SR80s and other on-ear ones fit just like the Sennheisers, and in fact I replaced my cushions for these with yellow Sennheiser pads. These are more durable, but funnily enough do change the sound.

        • kirk says:

          I’d go for the more expensive Grados; I don’t need mid-range headphones, it’s more to have something high-end.

          I might try them out from a dealer where I can return them for any reason if not satisfied. As I pointed out in the article, I’m far from any stores that sell such stuff. Thanks for the comments.

  4. Hans says:

    I’m not much of an audiophile anymore, but if I were you – given your preference for classical music – I’d go for electrostatic headphones. Beyer used to make nice and affordable ones.

  5. Adrian Cue says:

    I wonder about the purpose of your story. Is it an excuse for not having certain equipment or are you saying that yours is good enough for a music buff, like you, implicitly questioning the wisdom of those who (unnecessarily) spend more money for the sound rather than for listening to the music, like you. My conclusion is, and I may be wrong, that you do not ‘hear’ the music well and therefore don’t care so much about the sound. If that is so, it saves you a lot of money. More money for a better system is not well spent. And I do agree that under those circumstances, listening to music while doing something else is easy, because there is hardly any sonic impact inhibiting your mind. But, as far as I am concerned, that’s what is so sorely missing in your set up. For me music is not just about notes well played, but, and may be even more, about conveying the emotion of the ‘real thing’. The real thing cannot be captured on an iPod with downloaded iTunes or by listening to ‘ripped’ music through an underpowered stereo system with bookshelf speakers, however good they may be. It is technically impossible to reproduce a 20 hertz organ tone or the dynamics of, say, a 100 piece symphony orchestra through the limited air movement of small speakers and an amplifier incapable of instantly delivering the required amount of current. The sound remains in the Muzak domain. Besides, iTunes and anything mp3 robs you of 60 per cent of the musical information. That is: blurring the sound picture and omitting details such as the over- and undertones making, for instance, the sound of a hobo so particular. Understand me correctly: I am not questioning your personal appreciation of the way you like to listen to music. It’s a choice and those who don’t have the ears for it should not worry. Stick to what you have and to what you like. But if your blog story is to say that audiophiles are a silly lot, exaggerating the importance of more costly equipment for the sound rather than the music, than I must correct that and put things in the right perspective. The reason why audiophiles spend more on a sound system, why they do not rip music from the internet or download from iTunes, is because they do care about music; the way it is played and the way it sounds. The ultimate goal: to recreate as closely as possible the thrill of live music in a concert hall. And in doing so, the impact makes it hard to do anything else than letting the music speak. There is an enormous difference between a quantity buff and a quality lover. But one needs the ears to appreciate that. Super Audio would clearly not be something for you. Whilst I am glad you like your background Schubert, for us (me and many other mélomanes) muzak and similar is just not good enough. If you really care for classical music I encourage you to take the next step. Spend more. Your ears (and mind) may grow into it.

    • kirk says:

      Thanks for that. I couldn’t have found a better example of the contempt that many audiophiles have for the rest of us.

      • Hans says:

        I’m not sure I understand you correctly, Kirk. What Adrian says is 100% correct and verifiable. I doubt if audiophiles hold other people in contempt. The real audiophiles, that is. They are nuts, that’s for sure/Shure. They can spend hours or weeks to position their speakers in the way that Ella’s voice is exactly in the centre of the living room, her mouth not too big and not too small, and that Joe Pass’ shoe size of his left foot – the one he taps with – is known. Apart from that, we are almost normal.

  6. Henry Slofstra says:

    I find it interesting that you have the DAC and cannot hear improvements in HD audio files. If properly recorded, and that is a very big if, HD audio, say 192K and 24 bit, *should* sound much better. But make sure that your DAC isn’t recoding into a lower PCM format which destroys the higher definition. (I’ve recently upgraded to an SACD player and I can really hear the difference over CD… but many SACD players pass the audio out at a lower CD-level quality .. you need the right kind of SACD player). Aside from a recently purchased SACD player (an Oppo BDP-95), I listen on a conventional stereo amp and stereo speakers at a low/mid price point. Arcam A80s and Totem Arros.

    • kirk says:

      My DAC goes up to 96 KHz. I never said I can’t hear the difference, I simply said that it’s not very much, compared to CD-quality files.

  7. John says:

    I bought a Bose ipod station and think it’s great. It has a rechargeable battery within it so you can take it out. I think you can attach headphones too.

  8. Phil says:

    Although I was born in the 1960s I guess I’m already an ‘old’ man. For me listening to music is a ‘serious’ affair (see your other post) that deserves dedicated time and attention. I try to stay away from the passive, consumptive mode of listening as far as I can. A high quality hifi setup helps me in adopting and staying in that focused mindset. It does so because it produces a sound that is authoritative and involving. It simply commands attention. And I gladly abide by that. In addition I keep a listening diary of every single piece I listen to, researching and annotating as I go. At regular intervals I identify ‘listening projects’, seeking to listen exhaustively and in depth within a certain perimeter.
    Obviously my listening pace is slow. Although I have several thousands of CDs and LPs in my collection, access to the Berlin Philharmonic’s Digital Concert Hall, to archives of classical radio stations and more, I won’t allow myself to indulge in mindless listening.
    For me this way of listening offers tremendous rewards.
    In that sense spending a lot of money on a hifi setup is money well spent.

  9. Geoffrey says:

    There is certainly a large culture of audio equipment neurosis as a visit to any of the popular audio forums will attest. I fall in line with older music lovers who acknowlege their hearing loss and let others obsess over high end audio systems. For us mere mortals with a tight grip on our expenses, most of the modest offerings in audioland suffice to bring bang-for -the buck be they server based, traditional stereo, surround sound, headphone, desktop/nearfield systems. I for one will not have regrets lifting 100 pound mono amps, paying high electric bill for power thirsty Class A, or being on high alert for children grabbing a hot tube.

  10. chris says:

    This article crafted around a double-barrelled fallacy… that a trade-off in “love of music” has occured if someone has a more expensive stereo than the author. In reality, some peoples love of music may manifest itself in investing in a stereo where as maybe you choose to buy iTunes or go to concerts. Conversely, not everyone who has an expensive stereo is a music buff.

    Finance is incredibly relative. If someone earns 10x as the author, he could proportionally spend the same amount and have a 10x expensive stereo. Conversely, if you made $30k a year were mirednin debt and have a family of 5, you’d think the authors system was opulent. While I agree, that like any thing, audio is subject to the laws of diminishing returns. With that said, the scale for high end audio goes up to hundreds of thousands. You may not get universal consensus much between a 20k and 30k system. But assuming a fair priced solid brand, the difference between a stereo costing a few hundred dollars and one costing a few thousand would be obvious to anyone. It would be like comparing a Toyota Camry and BMW M5… both are good cars but its disengenious to say the performance differences are placebo. An inexpensive stereo can have astetic appeal. I have a one speaker Tivoli that I like for its asctetics but I’m not going to say its performance is comparable to my computer system which costs about $2k. And my computer stereo does not compare to my friends $6K stereo system.

    Also, “active” versus “passive” listening seems irrelevant to the point. If you are drawn into a movie and not thinking about the screen or its features, it means your 60 inch LCD is doing its job… not that you should sell it for a 12 inch tube tv.

    We are talking about basic stuff here without even getting finite.


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