As a geek, I am required by law (I think) to be into stereo gear and music. In my many years, I’ve learned a great deal about what it takes to reproduce very high quality audio and that it can be done at a reasonable cost. Yes, you can easily spend $100,000 on an audio rig (take glance at any issue of Sterophile or http://www.sterophile.com), but it’s not necessary. You will spend $2,000-$5,000 or more – depending your your resourcefulness and creativity – so be prepared. Take it a step at a time and enjoy the process.
With a well configured system, you should be able to close your eyes and pick out the position of individual instruments in the original recording session and hear all the detail and harmonics. Yes, a stereo system can be that good.
Here are the key components and related comments:
Speakers. Put most of your money here. No idea what to buy? Get an equipment review issue of Sterophile and buy as high in their rankings as you can. In metro-Atlanta, there are a few high-end audio stores where you can listen to some REAL speakers. (I have Martin-Logan electrostatic speakers. They are picky about setup, but they are nothing short of awesome.)
The preamp is the next most important component. Get something with one or more tubes. Yes, tubes. If you go all solid-state/digital for your electronics, you are likely to end up with a system that is edgy and fatiguing to listen to. A tube preamp adds smoothness and harmonics that return realism to your music. You are always safe to use the Sterophile list mentioned above. But here is an alternative: In the last few years, a cottage industry has developed of small entrepreneurs selling one or two tube preamps that sound amazing – for not much money. Check out “Indeed” , “Bravo” and other tube preamps on EBay. These simple, made in Taiwan units sell for about $100 and will add tremendously to your system. (See pic at the top.) You’ll want to try “tube rolling” too (swapping tubes for a different sound).
You will need a great power-amplifier. Here again, there are many good possibilities. Go for higher power than you think you need. You’ll get solid bass and clean mids and highs in return. I use a classic “Acurus” amp built in the 1990s. It delivers a solid 250 watts per channel at 8 ohms and is a beautiful sounding amp that is still in high demand. There are lots of classics out there – high-end amps a few years old that sell at a tremendous discount. Power amps are pretty simple devices – so you have a lot of latitude here. Again, if all else fails, take a look at Stereophile.
Source equipment – get the best CD/DVD device you can or use a streaming source like an Apple TV box or similar. Always use a “lossless” music format as a source – never MP3 (which is highly compressed and incomplete.)
Cables are also an important component – better cables “sound” better than cheap ones. Be careful here – big box retailers will try to up-sell you. They make huge profits on cables. Start with moderate price patch and speaker cables and see how they sound. Borrow cables, swap with friends, etc. Experiment. The differences will amaze!
In all of the above, you’ll need to experiment and tinker, tinker, tinker. Your overall objective should be to reproduce as closely as possible the original live (or studio) event.
Everyone has their own tastes in music. I happen to prefer powerful instrumentals for the most part. Check out three of my favorite artists if you have never heard of them (samples are on Amazon, etc. You can read about them in Wikipedia. Interesting.) All three will adequately challenge any stereo system!
E.S. Postumous – start with Nara on Unearthed
Paul Schwartz – start with Ebben or Aria 2
Mars Laser – start with anything on The Eleventh Hour