3 tips to build a decent audio system on a budget

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Photo credit Sebastian Włoszek

“If I were rich I would have the best sound system so I’ll have a live concert every day at home”

Nowadays you can build a decent audio system with few hundred bucks if you pick your components wisely. If you’re used to listen 128khz MP3 music on your portable speaker, you’ll simply rediscover music.

I. Ugrading your source

You can have a 20,000$ hifi system, if you have a poor quality source you’ll never have a great sound. In terms of hifi sources you have two options, analogue or digital.

Today, Cd players are one of the best option for digital audio in terms of quality/price ratio. 2nd hand CD albums cost 1 or 2$ in mint condition and you can find good CD players between 50 to 100$ on craig’s list, ebay or at yard sales.  Make some research before buying so you can find real underrated gems for few bucks.

I personally own a 1989 Sony CDP-507ESD (CDP-227 in Japan and CDP-950 in Europe) and I’ve paid 70$ for it. At this price it’s a hell of a CD player. Really good build quality with an awesome green PCB, not a single cheap part, TDA 1541-A DAC and KSS-150A cd mechanism. I’ve bought it 5 years ago and despite being nearly 30 years old it works like a charm.

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If you listen to music from your computer, first thing to do is taking all your MP3 128khz files and put them in the bin. Then you can download your favorite albums in high quality audio format like .FLAC, Apple lossless or .WAV. Or you can find online high quality streaming websites like Qobuz or Tidal.

The motherboard’s integrated sound cards are usually not that good and you can upgrade the sound with a good USB DAC.

SMSL Sanskrit 6th 32bit/192kHz USB/Optical/Coaxial to Analog Audio Decoder (Black)

For exemple the SMSL Sanskrit 6th 32bit/192kHz is only 108$ but it’s a really qualitative DAC. It converts USB/Optical/Coaxial signal into Analog signal. Input signal includes Smart phone/Computer/TV, etc. Output signal can be connected to amplifier/multimedia speakers /Headphone amplifier. Optical/Coaxial input support 24bit/192kHz sampling rate. Computer USB input support 32bit/192kHz sampling rate and asynchronous transmission .


II. Go Vintage

One way to get a decent Hifi system on a budget is looking for vintage stuff.

You must be careful about vintage Hifi. Nowadays it became a hype and prices are sky-high for some overrated gear. An another important thing to understand about vintage Hifi is that electronic components can loose their capacity over time. For exemple, foam surround can easily be deteriorated on a 20+ years old speakers. Same goes with electronic capacitors in vintage amplifiers. It’s better sometime to spend more on a fully restored pair of speakers or amplifiers and get a fully restored gear unless you have the tools and skills to do it yourself.

Few exemples of good vintage gear that you can find fully restored in a 100-200$ price range :

NAD 3020

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Pionneer HPM 50


III. Go chinese

If you want to get a decent amplifier with a low budget, you should consider chinese amplifiers. Nowadays China produces really good Class D and valve amplifiers at very low prices. Most are not high end but the price/quality ratio is unbeatable.

Here is an exemple of a good chinese budget amplifier :

65$ SMSL SA-50

Good build, 2x50w, very compact with a decent quality at this price point. Of course you can’t compare this 65$ amplifier with a 12,000$ MC452 Mcintosch amp, but this little guy is really punchy and should surprise you regarding his size and prize.

In brief this class D amplifier is the best power/size/price ratio on the market and deserves our “best bang for your buck” award.

You can pair it with a pair of 69$ POLK AUDIO T15 speakers :

Now you have a 50$ CD player found on craigslist or at a yard sale, a 65$ amplifier and a 69$ pair of speakers and for less than 200$ you have a very decent entry level audio system that will make your enjoy music again.

Now if you want to enter in the hifi world we’ll soon publish a dedicated article.

2 Comments

  1. All good advice. Only one question. Surely a CD player is a digital source, not analogue? Only the output from the DAC is analogue. If you want analogue, get a decent budget turntable from Project or Rega!

    Like

  2. You’re absolutely right Neil, CD are digital sources, I made a mistake.
    I’ll correct that mistake quickly.
    Thank you for the comment!

    Like

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