A Great Mid-Priced Stereo System

You probably know that I like to be pretty minimalistic, and don’t accumulate a lot of “stuff” in my life. Yet for the few material things I value, I try to find the sweet spot: quality above average, price no higher than needed.

Music is one of the things I care a lot about: I have bought thousands of CDs. But I also value when my music sounds as good as possible. I treated myself to an upgraded stereo system so I’d enjoy better audio quality. Here’s my current system.


It’s quite simple: it’s designed to listen to stereo audio with as little processing and as few components as possible, but still be convenient. Here’s the full list of components and widgets:

I bought a couple of the items from Amazon Warehouse Deals and spent less than $700 on the whole setup. I cannibalized an old rubber doormat, cut in half, for padding under the speaker stands.

How does it sound? It’s entry-level audiophile, well above average performance on a small budget. For my purposes, it’s great: it fills a medium-sized room with accurate, uncolored sound.

The speakers are by far the most important part of the setup. Read anywhere online and you’ll see all the audiophiles raving about the ELAC speakers. They outperform speakers many times the cost. There’s a newer generation of ELACs that are supposed to be even better, for a small uptick in price. A reasonable upgrade for this setup would also be an ELAC subwoofer.

The amplifier is a now-discontinued generation from Cambridge Audio. Cambridge Audio is an audiophile brand with a near-legendary reputation. I wanted it to be simple (no fancy processing), slightly above bare-bones, but have plenty of horsepower (45 watts per channel) to drive through dynamic peaks and power good-quality components. There’s only a few controls, including a bypass switch to remove the equalizer and so on from the circuit. Getting a discontinued model saved me a lot of money. If I wanted to step this up and spend a few hundred dollars more, ELAC’s amplifiers are a great combination of price and value.

The speaker stands are serviceable, nothing fancy, but they place the speakers at the right height and they don’t cause issues with sound quality. The rubber doormat keeps them stable and vibration-free.

The rest of the components are things I already had: some headphone-to-coax adapters, 14-gauge speaker wire, and so on. The UPS is important to protect the components from electrical damage.

I mostly listen to my music from an iPhone or iPad over AirPlay via an Apple AirPort Express. Despite the theoretical problems with this (lossy compression, inferior components), the reality is lossy compression artifacts at 256kbps AAC or 320kbps MP3 are minor compared to the quality degradation of nearly any speakers you can buy.

I listen this way because it’s extremely convenient, and convenience enables more listening, which is where I get my enjoyment. (I used to design and build speaker enclosures myself. I learned to appreciate fine audio from a relative who’s made his living designing custom systems for wealthy people. I’ve listened to music on systems costing hundreds of thousands of dollars. I don’t think the high price makes it more enjoyable.)

The result sounds amazing overall. Yes: if I’d spent thousands of dollars more on my stereo, that one passage in that one song could have sounded better. But! I built a system that sounds incredible for a few hundred dollars. If I want to hear my music on a better system, I can visit someone who owns one.

Pro tip: if, like me, you listen via AirPlay for the convenience, you can Option-Click on your speaker icon in your Mac’s menu bar and select an AirPlay device for audio output.

Want to listen to some music that sounds great on a good system? Here’s a Spotify playlist just for you. Make sure you toggle high-quality playback in your Spotify preferences. Enjoy!

I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.