Buying A Stereo System
by Gareth Branwyn for Digital Living Today

It used to be that the bigger the stereo, the bigger and badder the sound. Like with all modern electronics, small is beautiful, and stereos are no different. New components and construction techniques, especially for speakers, have led to ever-shrinking systems whose diminutive size belies their sonic splendor. It?s no wonder that "bookshelf," "mini-stereo," "desktop stereos," and "micro-systems" have become the hottest words in home consumer audio (OK, next to "MP3"). But it's not only the names for these systems that compete for dominance. There are gazillions of options from nearly as many brands. Do you still need a tape deck? How about tape-to-tape? How many watts per channel do you need? Is being able to title your MiniDisc mixes from across the room on the couch really worth the extra bread?

What follows are some basic tips on how to shop for a stereo system and a few systems that we recommend.

A lot of the common sense shopping tips we discussed in buying a computer in a bricks and mortar store apply to stereo shopping. Chief among them is education and proper prior planning. Don't enter the stereo store cold, or you'll play right into the sales droids' nefarious plan to sell you whatever he wants, not what you need. Check out sites like Sound & Vision, eTown and read the consumer reviews on online stores such as Amazon.

So, what do you need in a stereo? Good question. This is obviously different for each person, but some general guidelines apply:

  • The first thing to do is to assess your ears. How picky are you about sound quality? If you can't tell the difference between a copied cassette tape and a commercial CD; the difference between Bang-Olufsen and AIWA, there are lots of low-priced systems with your name on them. If you cringe at your friend's $2K stereo because you swear you can tell that he doesn't use gold-plated plugs, you better take your time doing some serious research, because you're a true audiophile and you're looking to blow a bundle.

  • Next you need to think about the music you'll be playing most of the time. If you've got the Insane Clown Posse and Busta on heavy rotation, you'll need something with lots of firepower and some serious bottom (bass response). If nothing but classical will ever pass before your CD player's laser eye, something with a good dynamic range and high-end response will sound the best. And here's perhaps the best tip we can offer: take your own tapes and/or CDs with you to the electronics store. They like to play the music that sounds the best on the machines they're demo-ing. Take music that you're familiar with and that represents the different types of music you'll be playing at home.

  • How big is the room you'll be setting up the stereo in? A small room can get by with a modest amount of wattage (say 15-25 watts per channel). For a living room, dining room or family room, especially if you like loud music, plan on throwing parties, etc., you'll need between 35-80 watts per channel. If you can fit the cast of Riverdance in the room and have thought of instituting a door policy because your parties get so crowded, a 100-watt-plus system is probably in your cards.

  • To MD or not MD? MiniDisc seems to be the little audio format that can't. It's been struggling to get a foothold in the market for years, with only modest success. So, should you bother? A lot depends on your needs. If you like to make a lot of mix tapes for yourself (for DJing those slammin' parties that you throw), a MD machine is a godsend. You get CD-quality sound and you can move tunes around on the disc, title them, etc. There are a limited number of commercial releases on MD, but more are coming out all the time. If you haven't even pressed the "Open" button on your cassette deck in months, chances are you won't make full use of a MD machine. If you're a mix tape master who dupes a lot of copies for friends, a MD might limit your distribution. Then there's the question of dual-cassette decks. Again, if you do a lot of tape-to-tape copying, you'll want this, and you'll also want to spend the money on a higher-end system with a good deck. There's nothing worse that tapes duped on a cheap dual deck. For CD players, there's the issue of a single-disc or multi-disc CD-changer. If you listen to a lot of tunes at a time, get a CD-changer Ñ how many trays depend on how lazy you are.

  • Then there's the issue of bells and whistles. Take this little test: Can you comfortably program your VCR? If yes, don't be afraid to get a system with lots of control features (multi-band equalizer, x-bass, station presets, remote titling, etc.). If not, stick with a simple machine with a basic remote, EQ presets (Jazz, Rock, Classical, Pop) and simple overall operation. Some cool features you might overlook: A well-lit display that you can read from a distance, a remote that lets you not only control volume, but bass, treble, EQ presets (if applicable), radio station presets, and optical output (if it doesn't have a built-in MD player), so that if you get an MD deck, you can have direct digital recording from CD to MD (or to a DAT machine).

Stereo Systems to Consider:

JVC FS-SD5 Executive Microsystem (around $300 )
This elegant brushed steel system delivers amazing sound for the money. It has a single CD player, FM/AM tuner, a 19-watts per channel amp and a small set of speakers that offer excellent sound. A great system for a small-to-medium space, especially if your music listening needs are modest. It has optical digital output in case you want to add a MiniDisc machine later on and bass output in case you want to add a subwoofer to give the system a bigger booty.

Panasonic SC-AK29 (around $250 )
This 100-watts per channel system(!), which may look too much like the audio version of a muscle car for some tastes, will rattle your neighbors' windows if you unleash it. It has a 5-CD changer, AM/FM tuner, manual and preset EQs, and decent dual cassette decks. It's a huge hunk of stereo for the money (and the size). One great feature (which is really annoying when missing) is that you can access each of the disc trays separately (i.e. you don't have to cycle through all five).

Sharp MD-X8 (around $650 )
This handsome 80-watt mini-system has three CD trays, an AM/FM tuner, and a built-in MiniDisc player. An optional (and overly-priced) cable and software even lets you transfer MP3 files from your PC to the MD-X8. Its big display screen can be read from across the room and its game console-like remote lets you control nearly everything from a distance, including titling your MiniDiscs.

Harman-Kardon Festival 60 Mk II (around $600  )
This thing looks more like an item on exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art than a home stereo. Packing an unheard of 7-CD changer and AM/FM tuner into a 35 watts/channel system, this machine sounds as good as it looks and is a great choice for someone looking for style, great sound for a wide range of music, and a full-function remote. You can go days before you'll need to get up and change CDs.

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