Where can I buy audio equipment in different price ranges?

I can offer some suggestions based on my experience and on company reputations, but it will still be up to you to decide which items best fit your needs and budget.

I suggest you start by getting printed catalogs from the following companies. Since they all have web sites, you can also look at the equipment online. However, I have found it easier to make comparisons when looking at printed pages. (This may have something to do with my age!)

All the price information on this page is current in September 2005 but, of course, it is subject to change as distributors publish new editions of their catalogs.

In alphabetical order:

Acoustic Sounds, Inc.
PO Box 1905
Salina, KS 67402
1-800-716-3553
www.acousticsounds.com

Audio Advisor, Inc.
4717A Broadmoor SE
Kentwood, MI 49512
1-800-942-0220
www.audioadvisor.com

BSW
7012 27th Street West
Tacoma, WA 98466
1-800-426-8434
www.bswusa.com

Music Direct
318 N. Laflin St.
Chicago, IL 60607
1-800-449-8333
www.musicdirect.com

Parts Express
725 Pleasant Valley Dr.
Springboro, OH 45066
1-800-338-0531
www.parts-express.com

Pro Sound and Stage Lighting
11070 Valley View Dr.
Cypress, CA 90630
1-800-945-9300
www.pssl.com

Another source worth considering for some items is www.ebay.com and I will specifically tell you which things you SHOULD NOT look for there, along with the reason.


AM/FM TUNERS

No great advances in AM/FM tuner performance have been made recently so I would be comfortable in trying to find a used one in good condition on ebay. And I would pay up to about half the price of the same or a comparable new model. Marantz has a good reputation in tuners so that is what I would look for.

Several of the dealers whos catalogs I suggested above have new Marantz tuners in stock so you can get an idea of what you are looking and what price to pay.

If you already have a tuner in your existing system that sounds OK to you, I would not bother with trying to upgrade


CD PLAYERS

If your CD player is more than a few years old, you should get a new one that specifically says: "24-bit DAC" in the specifications. Standard "Red Book" CDs have 16-bit encoding and originally the players had 16-bit DACs. But 24-bit is better on many (not all) CDs and I can demonstrate it for you if you are interested. Besides, most of the new players also play SACDs, DVD-Audio, DVD-Video and some play MP3 and Microsoft® Media wave files directly. This is one item you should probably NOT look for on ebay because lots of folks are wanting to sell their old players to buy new ones.

A good CD player need not be expensive. The Pioneer model DV-563A received an excellent review in AudioXpress Magazine and I bought one. It performs fine and cost well under $200 new. This model has now (August 2005) been discontinued so you might take a look on ebay. The current model in this Pioneer series is the DV-588A-S. I have one of those too and it was $129. from Audio Advisor with free shipping. It too, performs quite well on CDs, SACDs and DVD-Audio. I have not used it for DVD-Video.

The one problem with both of these Pioneer models is their light weight, and this is true of many under $500. players. Their light weight does not sufficiently dampen the vibration from the moving parts (motors) which can sometimes introduce audible distortion. This is fortunately curable! You can, as I did, attach brass cone feet to the bottom plate (they come with double-sided tape) and weight the top of the player with an aluminum and brass weight (about 4 pounds seems to work well). The brass cones are availabe in sets of four from Parts Express as catalog number 240-721. Brass weights (specifically for this purpose) can be ordered from Mapleshade or you can have some built by your local machine shop. CD players costing a few thousand dollars up are built much heavier and may not have this problem but I have not compared any of them to my Pioneer models.


TURNTABLES

Some audio "experts" would have you believe that you have to spend at least $10,000. to get a decent turntable and pickup cartridge. But it isn't true! You can do very, very well for less than $1000. and very well for less than $500. In fact, I decided to see how little I could spend and still get a good system, even though I already had several turntables.

I have a preference for the simplicity of direct drive but belt-drive systems are "in" these days. Both can perform well, with belt-drive probably costing a bit more. Anyway, to get back to my minimum cost turntable, I found a discontinued direct drive model (XL-500ii) from Gemini at a greatly reduced price of $139. Coupled with a Shure model M97xE cartridge for less than $80, I had a complete system for about $220. I have transferred quite a few of my LPs to CDs using this turntable and they sound fine. (This is a two speed 'table, 33-1/3 and 45 RPM, and it does not have quartz speed lock that some slightly more expensive models do have. However, by letting it run for ten minuties or so before I start my recording to hard drive, the speed is acceptably stable.)
(If you are interested in the "$220" system, we can send you a free CD transferred from a 1950s or '60s LP. No choice of LP, but we will send you something.)

Here are a few suggestions for LP and 45 'tables: Less than $200

Less than $600

Turntables in all price ranges (up to $29,000 for the Walker Audio Proscenium Gold Signature) are available -- just take a look at the suggested catalogs.

Here are a couple of suggestions for 78 turntables (these are all three-speed 'tables but their short, straight tone arms makes them better for 78s).
Less than $250

You will have noticed that some 'tables come with cartridges and some do not. If you need a cartridge, and some of the inexpensive cartridges are very good, I suggest one of these for LPs and 45s:

And for 78s:

Before leaving our discussion of turntables, I want to write a bit about "skating" which is the tendency for the tonearm to jump out of the groove and "skate" towards the center of the 'table. Why this happens is rather technical and is beyond the scope of this help section. If you are interested, there is a collection of 35 magazine articles in the book: "The LP is Back," published and sold by www.audioXpress.com. Several of the articles are on record tracking problems and solutions.

To counteract skating, some tonearms have an antiskating device built into the tonearm base with a dial that you can set. The idea is to retard skating by stretching a spring or pulling on a wire attached to a weight as the tonearm moves across the record. Back in the early 1960s, the engineers at Shure found that antiskating devices were not effective and sometimes did more harm than good. So Shure tonearms were built without antiskating. Now, another company, JMW has echoed this opinion. This is a quote from their tonearm owner's manual. After very careful listening tests we have determined that every tonearm we tried sounded better with their mechanical anti-skating disabled and the tracking force very slightly increased. I have found that just leaving the dial on the antiskate device set to zero is sufficient.

Turntable setup tools are also useful. An inexpensive Stylus Tracking Force Guage is the Shure SFG-2 (Parts Express or Music Direct). I also have several cartridge alignment tools:

I rather prefer the DPB-10 because it helps you with the alignment and also tells you the amount of mistracking that you haven't (or can't) eliminate.


OTHER MUSIC SOURCES

Other sources include audio cassette tape, 1/4 inch reel-to-reel tape, 8-track tape and DAT (Digital Audio Tape).

Parts Express, BSW, Pro Sound (and perhaps others) sell new audio cassette tape decks if you want a new one. But all of the above items can be found on ebay. Any of these sources can be connected to the "TAPE IN", "AUX", or "LINE IN" connectors on your preamp. Connector labeling depends on manufacturer and equipment age -- you may need to look at your preamp Owner's Manual. (As far as I know, no music was ever commercially released on DAT.)


PREAMPLIFIERS

A preamp primarily serves as a volume control for all music sources except turntables. Rather than repeat a lot of information here, I suggest you look at the help sections on "How do I listen to...?" and "How do I copy...?" for some guidance on what kind of preamp you need. If you are interested in listening to or copying "old fashioned records," I suggest you take a close look at one of our phono preamps.

Most of the dealers whos catalogs are listed above sell preamps in a wide variety of prices. I have found some very good "preowned" preamps on ebay. Look for brand names such as ADCOM, Crown, Hafler and Marantz. I'm sure there are other good brands, but I am familiar with these. I would not hesitate to buy a good-condition, used preamp made by one of these companies.

I will also mention that our model 457 Audio Control Center makes an excellent preamp. It has six, stereo "line inputs" and provides the needed volume control. Of course, it was designed to do a lot more than just be a preamp. Still, you might want to take a look at it by clicking here.


POWER AMPLIFIERS

As with preamps, most of the dealers whos catalogs are listed above sell power amps in a wide variety of prices. I have found some very good "preowned" power amps on ebay but I want to inject a note of caution. By their nature, power amps can be used for long periods at "high power." This can stress their "parts" and make them much more prone to failure than preamps (which are very low power devices). If you have some electronic equipment repair skills, or have a friend who does, then a used power amp may be a good buy. Many manufacturers, such as ADCOM and Hafler, have complete service info free for the downloading on their web sites. So you might want to check out service info availability before buying. If you want to go this way, again look for brand names such as ADCOM, Crown, Hafler and Marantz. I'm sure there are other good brands, but I am familiar with these. If you prefer the safety of a factory warranty, then buy a new power amp.

I am frequently asked why you need a power amp with at least 100 watts in each stereo channel. The answer is "dynamic range" or the ratio between the softest and loudest sounds. The range of human hearing from the softest detectable sound to the threshold of pain is one to 32 trillion! A very loud rock band in live performance can produce a range of one to 10 million. Recorded orchestral music can have a range of one to 100,000. Suppose we are listening to a soft passage in a symphony and the power amp is sending just 0.01 watt to each loudspeaker. Then along comes a crescendo demanding 100,000 times more power. This is 1000 watts and that takes quite an amplifier! If the crescendo is short enough, the 100 watt power amp will do pretty well and it's likely you won't notice that your amp "ran out of gas." Anyway, with power amps "more is better," but amps larger than about 200 watts per channel are heavy and, of course, more expensive.

With very sensitive loudspeakers, such as our model TSMD-2, a 20 watt per channel power amp does fine simply because the 'speakers are more efficient in converting the power amp's "power" into sound. This is something to keep in mind if you are shopping for a whole new sound system.


LOUDSPEAKERS

The Genesis model 201 weights 650 pounds each and is reputed to cost $135,000 per pair. Or you could get a pair of Roland MicroAmp Monitors from ProSound for $100. I'm mentioning these numbers to show you can buy a pair of 'speakers for virtually any amount. In general, performance increases with price, but we all have to live within some kind of budget!

So, you ask, what is reasonable? In my opinion, spend as much as you can on the speaker system because these are the components that convert the electrical signals into what you hear: the music itself. Yes, all the parts of your system are important, but the 'speakers are the most important.

All the suggested catalogs feature 'speakers in many price ranges. But if you possibly can, listen to them before you buy. Also, please take a look at the section on Speaker Placement in "How do I listen to CD, SACD and DVD-Audio music? by clicking here.

Loudspeakers come in two basic varities: sealed and vented. Both can provide good performance. As the name indicates, the sealed 'speakers are in an air-tight box while the vented type have a vent (often a smooth plastic tube) to the outside air. There is a lot of technical information on both types which I won't go into here as many books are available as well as much web info, in case you are interested. I prefer sealed enclosures because I think their placement in the room is less critical than vented types, but there are others with a differing opinion. We have, however, "put our money where our mouth is" as both our TSMD-1 and TSMD-2 designs are sealed as is our model 912 subwoofer. Incidentally, we would be delighted to have you come by to listen to either or both of our 'speaker systems.


AUDIO CABLES

Good cables are essential but please don't get carried away! There are some vendors selling RCA stereo interconnecting cables for more than $600 per foot. Dayton Audio RCA stereo cables cost about $2.50 per foot from Parts Express. Maybe you have "golden ears" and can hear a difference, but I can't. Acoustic Research cables, also from Parts Express, run about $5.00 per foot and are, perhaps, a bit better built than the Dayton Audio cables. Both are very acceptable. (We mostly use Dayton Audio cables here at TDL®.)

Bruce Rozenblit in his book: Audio Reality (now out of print), writes at length about the similarity between the current advertising for "quality" audio cables and "snake-oil" advertising a hundred years ago. In addition, the professional electronics magazines such as EDN and Electronic Design regularly publish letters-to-the-editor about the fantastic claims made for audio cables that have no scientific basis nor is their supposedly "superior performance" measureable. They do, however, increase the wealth of the companies making and selling them.

Dayton Audio speaker cables run a bit higher, about $3.50 per foot, because the wire is larger than in the RCA interconnect cables. They are available in standard lengths of 10, 15 and 20 feet. As I have mentioned before in the pages on "How do I listen to...?, speaker cables are often custom made to the required length. We buy a very flexible speaker cable in bulk and connectors in quantity so we can make your speaker cables at a very competitive price.



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