If you wish to inject high quality sound into your living space, you need to consider the best stereo and speakers within your budget. Although this might seem daunting at first given the wealth of options in amplifiers, receivers and speakers, it isn't too difficult once you factor in room size, intended quality level and what certain audio specifications really mean. You can find excellent quality components without breaking the bank when you learn how components work together.
Room Size Vs. Power
Your room size, furnishings and the average volume level you expect on a regular basis impacts the amount of power and, in some cases, the brand of speakers you choose. In general, the larger the listening space, the more power you'll need. Although most receivers and amplifiers are honestly rated using an RMS or average power output level, most of the time you'll be using a fraction of that. Speaker efficiency is the rating that tells you how much power is required to elicit a certain volume level. The higher the efficiency, the less input power you'll need for a given speaker. Accurate amplifier distortion ratings at any power level are taken from the frequency range human beings can detect, which is 20 Hertz to 20,000 Hz. Good distortion ratings are in the 0.05 to 0.08 percent total harmonic range, far lower than what we can detect under normal conditions. With 80 to 100 watts per channel, an amplifier or receiver can comfortably drive any speaker in the 86 to 106 decibel efficiency range.
Speakers range from compact satellites to full-size towers, with many options in between. The speaker you choose will most likely have a budgetary component but also needs to be easily driven by your choice of receiver or amplifier and ideally look nice. Since speakers make the largest impact on the sonic experience, it may be wise to select speakers first after you have a general idea of how much power you need. Bookshelf speakers fit comfortably on a shelf or stands, while some tower speakers integrate large woofers into the cabinet to save floor space and improve bass integration. When using most any speaker, adding a separate, powered subwoofer augments the low-frequency end, taking care of frequencies even larger speakers sometimes have trouble with. Powered monitors like the Yamaha MSP5 provide their own amplification optimized for the internal speaker drivers and cabinet but require an AC outlet in reasonably close proximity.
Two-channel stereo systems designed to drive a pair of speakers sometimes have advanced connectivity, designed to improve upon sound and the flexibility in what you can connect. On the back panel, many stereo receivers incorporate optical or coaxial digital inputs, enabling a CD player to send its pure digital stream into the unit. Turntable RCA jacks or phono jacks enable the connection of a record player without the need for an external phono preamplifier. For users of portable music devices like iPods and Android phones, USB ports are a welcome addition. These typically enable the receiver to take control of the connected device, enabling you to use the receiver's remote control to operate the player. If you're connecting a stereo receiver to a television, look for composite or component video jacks to enable the receiver to switch audio and video, removing the need to switch inputs on the television as well. If you use a surround receiver, look for HDMI jacks. This connection type offers the highest-definition audio and video from supported devices, requiring only one cable per device.
Stereo systems are generally grouped into entry level, mid-fi and hi-fi. The Sherwood RX-4105 is an example of an entry-level receiver, offering 100 watts per channel at a reasonable 0.08 percent total harmonic distortion. Mid-grade units modestly up the power ante -- to 105 watts per channel in the case of the Sherwood RX-4109, but it also adds high-quality binding post connections for speaker wires and an integrated phono preamplifier. Adding a separate amplifier to a receiver dramatically increases power output. For the high-end audiophile listener, the AudioSource AMP 310 amplifier, for example, boosts output to a full 150 watts per channel, while offering extended frequency response from 20 Hz to 50,000 Hz, or 50 kHz. Any of these receivers and amplifiers will easily drive a variety of speakers, such as the BIC DV84 tower speakers, Cerwin-Vega! XLS-28 or in-wall solutions like the NXG Pro NX-W8.3-P for discrete sound.
Looking to the Future
Many choose to invest in a full-featured surround sound receiver over a simple stereo unit, planning to upgrade to a surround sound speaker array in the future. Any surround receiver will happily drive a single pair of speakers while still offering advanced video connection options like HDMI. Designed to be the hub of an audio/video system, surround receivers will always include a subwoofer output and typically have better audio processing circuitry than the majority of similarly-priced stereo-only receivers. Even if you never move beyond a pair of speakers, these other features might make this option the most logical. You might be surprised to learn that prices on stereo and surround receivers often overlap, making these extra features virtually free.
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