My Budget Audiophile Stereo System

You probably know that I like to be pretty minimalistic, and don’t accumulate many belongings. Yet for the few material things I value, I try to find the best balance of cost and quality. I enjoy music a lot, so I treated myself to an upgraded stereo system.

stereo

I chose my components for the best combination of price, convenience, and quality. Here’s the full list of components and widgets:

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.1

An integrated amplifier offers much better quality than a receiver. To save money, I chose a now-discontinued generation from Cambridge Audio, an audiophile brand with a near-legendary reputation. It has plenty of clean power (45 watts per channel) to drive through dynamic peaks and power the ELACs.

The speaker stands are not fancy, but they place the speakers at the right height and they don’t cause issues with sound quality. I cut an old rubber doormat in half for padding under them; it 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 CDs, but I often use an iPhone or iPad over AirPlay via the Apple AirPort Express. Despite the theoretical problems with this, the imperfections are minor compared to the quality degradation of nearly any speakers you can buy. And the convenience2 makes it more fun to listen to music.

How does it sound? It’s entry- to mid-level audiophile, well above average performance on a small budget. For my purposes, it’s great: it fills a medium-sized room with joy. 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.3

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 have tried a few variations on the system above. Read on to learn more about them.

Klipsch and ELAC Subwoofers

Some of my music extends below the ELACs’ 40-Hz bottom end, so I tried adding a Klipsch R-12SW Subwoofer. At first I thought I liked the result, but after spending some time listening, I couldn’t stop hearing the subwoofer. The best way to describe it is flabby. The ELACs produce obviously superior bass within their range. The Klipsch just muddied things. I spent a lot of time trying to blend the two together, moving the Klipsch around the room, and so on. In the end I decided it’s no match for the ELACs, and returned the Klipsch.

My next try was an ELAC S10EQ Debut Series 400 Watt Powered Subwoofer. It was clearly superior to the Klipsch, but again after listening I decided I like the bookshelf speakers alone without the subwoofer. If I were watching movies or playing games it’d be different, but the Debut B6’s are more musical alone. I did like the subwoofer a lot, though. It’s extremely tight and accurate, very musical in comparison to the Klipsch. And the smart features to analyze the room room’s characteristics and adjust the frequency response work very well.

Trying out the Klipsch and ELAC subwoofers made me conclude that these speakers are so good alone that it’s simply not worth adding a hard-to-blend subwoofer to gain another 10Hz or so on the low end. If I were trying to build a system that had Entec-like low-frequency response, that’d be different. The ELACs are more than capable for most music.

The Cambridge amplifier doesn’t have a separate subwoofer output. To hook up the subwoofer, I swapped out the Cambridge for the smallest of Yamaha’s integrated amplifiers, the Yamaha A-S301BL. Although I returned the Yamaha and kept the Cambridge, the Yamaha is very nice and if I had to do it over again, I might buy it instead. It has more inputs and outputs, and is slightly more modern and powerful. And I don’t think there is any perceptible difference in quality.

Chromecast Audio

I had a short and unsatisfying experience with the Google Chromecast Audio. It’s more convenient and works more reliably with Spotify than the Airport Express over AirPlay. But its audio quality is very bad. I think this is because it’s transcoding Spotify’s audio. Spotify sounds great over AirPlay.

Calibrated Microphone

If you have an iPhone or iPad, you can buy an inexpensive calibrated microphone such as the Dayton Audio iMM-6 Calibrated Measurement Microphone and pair it with the AudioTools app to measure both your speakers and your room. I found that, as I had noticed from listening, the ELAC B6’s in my room have a weak spot in their frequency response around 125Hz. If you’re curious about their measurements you can read Stereophile’s test results.


  1. There’s a newer generation of ELACs that are supposed to be even better, for a small uptick in price. [return]
  2. You can Option-Click on your speaker icon in your Mac’s menu bar and select an AirPlay device for audio output. [return]
  3. 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. [return]

See Also


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.


Comments