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How to get audiophile sound on a budget

Get great home stereo sound without spending a fortune

In this article: We'll explain what an audiophile is and help you develop a strategy for building a hi-fi system without breaking the bank, including...

...and we'll talk about accessories that can help your system sound its best.

My dad had a pretty nice stereo system and a vinyl collection with some great jazz, classical, and rock records. I grew up listening to classic recordings of Stan Getz, Beethoven, and the Beatles, among many others. Maybe I even took great stereo sound for granted.

By the time I was 12, I’d already been gifted a pair of decent on-ear headphones so my parents wouldn’t have to listen to every record I wanted to play (Kiss! Queen! Dan Hill?). Then I moved into what was basically a utility closet in our basement. My dad gave me his old turntable and tape deck, a perfectly good pair of large bookshelf speakers, and a stereo receiver.

I’d become a teenage audiophile. And I was certainly on a budget.

Pieces of that system followed me to college and beyond. But the originals are all long gone now, because I have a habit of swapping out components whenever I see a great deal. I'm living proof that you don't need to break the bank to get high-quality hi-fi sound.

What is an audiophile?

Defining the word by its ancient Greek roots, it means "lover of sound." If you’ve ever heard a great recording played on a great hi-fi system that left an indelible, almost spiritual impression on you, you might be an audiophile.

Audiophiles listen for detail and nuance in recordings. And they seek out gear that improves the listening experience.

Record store

Searching out great recordings helps bring out the best in your audiophile sound system.

What is hi-fi?

“Hi-fi” is short for “high fidelity.” Fidelity has to do with how true-to-life an audio reproduction sounds.

The history of recorded music up until the digital age is a story filled with advances in techniques with a central goal: to achieve lifelike sound.

What about surround sound?

For the most part, audiophile sound systems are two-channel stereo (though some might add a subwoofer). There have been some intriguing developments in 3D sound reproduction that makes use of Dolby Atmos and other surround sound technologies. But to get the most out of them, you'll need a multi-speaker home theater sound system.

Planning a budget audiophile sound system

Think about your dream system. Will it include a turntable? A CD player? A network streamer? Where will it fit in your home? Will it be part of an entertainment system that includes your TV? Knowing what you want will help narrow down your choices.

I've heard that allocating approximately half of your total budget to speakers is a good idea. And I think that's probably sound advice if you're starting from scratch.

But since there's a range of ways you could go about building an audiophile sound system, I would prioritize keeping your eyes open for great deals.

Shopping for audiophile components

When I was a kid, my dad bought all his stereo gear from a neighborhood place called Jay Carder’s Hi Fidelity. Later, when I had kids of my own and lived in Baltimore, there was a high-end stereo store just a block away. In these places, you could listen to several different systems before you bought.

These days it’s not so easy to find brick-and-mortar hi-fi shops. But if you look around, you can still find places to audition speakers and components in person.

You should also seek out others who appreciate high fidelity sound, listen to their home systems, and consider the advice of our experts. Learn the language of great sound and compare notes — maybe even borrow, lend, and trade gear. Part of the fun is trying different components.

Brands like Cambridge Audio, NAD, Denon, Rotel, Yamaha, and others are known for the high quality of even their most afforable components.

Rotel integrated amp and CD player stack

Brands like Rotel offer affordable audiophile components.

Swap out your speakers or amp when you have a good opportunity. Or try a new cartridge or phono preamp on your turntable. Or add an outboard DAC. If you’re like many audiophiles who came before you, trying out new gear might become a lifetime pursuit.

Every piece of equipment you listen to will expand your experience as a listener and help you make more informed choices as you go. And building a better system incrementally over time softens the blow to your wallet.

Budget audiophile sources

How do you listen to music? Your audio sources — from vinyl records to Spotify — will shape the way your sound system fits into your space.

Turntables

For a lot of audiophiles, vinyl played on a turntable is the ultimate source. Why, when digital sources can give you clearer audio?

Pro-Ject Debut Carbon EVO turntable

Vinyl was the dominant music format for decades and many audiophiles prefer it.

Because records were the dominant format from the late 1940s until the mid-1980s. During that time artists and labels focused on producing music that would sound best on vinyl.

If you opt for vinyl, check out our tips for improving turntable sound.

Streaming network music players

A network streamer lets you play digital files from a computer, drive, or a music service on your smartphone. If you use a streaming service, look into their high-res options.

CD players

A CD player can deliver super-clear sound. And while it might not fit into your startup budget, an SACD player is the ultimate for getting musical detail out of a disc.

Other sources

You could also get an inexpensive tape deck or a radio tuner. While these sources can't compete with higher resolution digital formats, you can get surprisingly good sound from them.

Amplification for audiophiles on a budget

A nice integrated amp or stereo receiver is a great place to start. They've got power, volume, and other tone-shaping controls, and inputs for your sources. Take a look at our recommendations for the best integrated amps to see some of our favorite options.

If you find a nice power amp for a good price, you can get a stereo preamplifier, or plug in a network streamer that has preamp capabilities — like the WiiM Pro Plus — directly into it. Check out my article on stereo preamps and power amps to learn more about a "separates" sound system.

You can also get affordable integrated amplifiers with built-in network streaming. If streaming is your main or only source, then all you'll need is a pair of speakers.

Matching amplification to speakers

Amplifiers and speakers work together, and there are a few specs to keep in mind for finding a safe and effective match.

Arcam SA10 integrated amplifier with KEF Q150 bookshelf speakers

Check specs when choosing an amplifier and speakers for a harmonious match.

Look at the recommended power range — given in watts — for the speakers you're considering. Make sure the amp you would match with them has power output within that range.

If you’re looking at speakers with 4-ohm impedance, make sure the amp you choose is compatible.

And look at the speakers' sensitivity rating, given in decibels. The higher the number, the more efficient the speaker, and the louder it will play with a given amount of power. To get the most from a small amplifier, choose speakers with a higher sensitivity rating.

Budget audiophile stereo speakers

If you listen to a lot of different speakers, you can start to distinguish between characteristic sounds of different driver cone materials. You learn to notice how a soft-dome tweeter's smooth high frequency delivery differs from a hard-dome tweeter's crisp response versus a ribbon tweeter's open sound.

Wall of speakers

You can learn to hear the characteristics of different speakers.

One way to audition a lot of different speakers is to spend some time with Crutchfield’s SpeakerCompare™ tool. (Hint: for fair comparisons of sound quality, use the “equal volume” setting.)

Bookshelf vs. floor-standing speakers

Floor-standing speakers can generally reproduce more bass than bookshelf speakers. But which will work best in your listening room depends on your room’s size, shape, materials, and furniture. Check out our guide to home stereo speaker placement to learn more.

Floor-standing speakers

Floor-standing speakers can deliver audiophile sound with a wide frequency response and rich bass.

If you opt for bookshelf speakers, put them on stands or wall-mount them at ear level to get the best sound. And the golden rule of speaker placement is to form an equilateral triangle with the left and right speakers slightly "toed in" toward your listening position.

Powered audiophile speaker systems

Powered speakers have built-in amplification that's tailored to the drivers. If space is a concern, there are a lot of fantastic-sounding options. Just make sure you get all the connections you need for your sources.

KEF LSXII

Powered speakers can provide a great-sounding, low-profile audiophile hi-fi system.

Some powered stereo speaker systems like the KEF LSX II have built-in amplification and wireless features plus inputs for analog sources. Considering that you wouldn’t have to buy an amp or sources to start listening, this system could well be within your budget.

Audiophile headphones

Want high-quality sound that doesn't depend on the shape and size of your room? Consider the direct immersion and isolation you get from a nice pair of audiophile headphones.

Sennheiser HD 560S audiophile headphones

A set of audiophile headphones and a headphone amp can deliver fantastic sound.

With a good set of headphones, you can enjoy rich, detailed sound for a fraction of the cost of a comparable speaker-based system. Even if you add in the cost of a headphone amplifier, you can stay within a reasonable budget.

Check out our headphone specialist Jeff's buying guide to learn how to choose the best 'phones for your needs.

Experiment with an outboard DAC

Most network streamers, CD players, and other digital sources have a built-in DAC. A lot of them also have digital outputs for connecting to an outboard DAC or an amp with a built-in DAC.

Cambridge Audio DACMagic 200M

Cambridge Audio's DacMagic 200M is one of our most popular outboard audiophile DACs.

You might find that using a digital output to bypass your source’s built-in DAC gives you sound you prefer. And a lot of outboard DACs have built-in headphone amplifiers. Check out our DAC buying guide to learn more about experimenting with external DACs.

Audiophile accessories

Little things can make a big difference in the way your system sounds. Using high-quality audio cables and speaker wire keeps noise from interference at bay. And adding vibration isolators to your speakers and components prevents acoustic resonance from coloring your sound.

Vibration isolating feet

Keep acoustic distortion from muddying your sound with vibration isolaters.

Your walls reflect sound and create an echo-chamber effect, especially if they're made of hard, bright materials like brick or glass. Acoustic panels can absorb sound reflections and let you hear your speakers clearly.

Power protection and conditioning

Keep noise from electrical interference to a minimum with a power line conditioner. They also protect your valuable gear from power surges, with many of them offering thousands of dollars’ worth of reimbursement if your gear gets fried by a lightning strike or other power irregularity.

Learn more about audiophile components

There’s a lot to understand about turntables, CD players, receivers, amps, DACs, and speakers. That’s why we keeping writing and updating our series of home stereo buying guides. Take your time and learn what you can from them.

Hunt for bargains

To get updates about price drops and special offers, sign up for our email newsletters. Bookmark our page of current home audio specials and check in frequently.

Want some free advice?

Still have questions about building an affordable audiophile system? Contact one of our expert Advisors today.

Free lifetime tech support is included with your Crutchfield purchase.

  • Phil

    Posted on 12/17/2023

    Once again thank you for your informative articles.

  • Pete from Salisbury, MD

    Posted on 11/29/2022

    Have similar question. Looking for some options for a budget friendly home audio system for listening to music in my den. Mostly CDs, ability for low loss streaming, ability to add a turn table.

    Commenter image

    Ned Oldham from Crutchfield

    on 11/30/2022

    Hi Pete, We've got tons of choices for a system like the one you're looking for. I've asked one of our advisors to get in touch with you to learn more about your specific needs so that you can choose the option that's best for you.
  • Jim Hirakawa from Schaumburg

    Posted on 11/3/2022

    I really appreciate your articles. I accumulated my gear piece by piece over the years when I was in the Navy. Marantz 2270, Pioneer pl600 dd tt, Shure V15 ty lll, JBL L77, JBL sub, B&W 601, I looked into new turntables and a new ntegrated amp couple of years ago when the controls got sticky. Fortunately I discovered Deoxit and that worked wonders. At least for now. I did pick up a new Yamaha cd player. That was a huge improvement.

  • David from Denver

    Posted on 7/31/2022

    I enjoyed the article. I want to get back into vinyl and basically stopped reading anything about audio equipment 30 years ago. Can you recommend a "reentry level" set of equipment I would need to start with a budget 2,500 +/- turntable, amp, speakers?

    Commenter image

    Ned Oldham from Crutchfield

    on 8/1/2022

    Yes we can! This is one of our favorite questions. One of our advisors will get in touch with you ASAP to help you figure out the best system for your situation.
  • David from Columbia, SC

    Posted on 5/16/2022

    A couple of months ago I signed up to be notified when a CD player was back in stock. Just curious if it is still out of stock.

  • Glenn from Naples, Florida

    Posted on 5/7/2022

    Good read. Coincidentally, in my den, I have both of these speakers. The Elacs for movies and the Klipsches for music. Both great and can't be beat for the money.

  • Chip from Chantilly

    Posted on 3/20/2022

    Crutchfield is an awesome company with great range of products and advice!

  • Ed from Ormond Beach, FL

    Posted on 12/25/2021

    Great article. Thank you. I bought my first stereo system in 1962 and have, over the years, replaced various components many times. Thank you for stressing the importance of speaker sensitivity. Don't pay for power you don't need, can't use, but take headroom into consideration. I think that's why you said go toward the upper end of the range of power of an amp.

  • Hans Hildebrand from Conway, NH

    Posted on 10/25/2021

    Crutchfield is incredibly good at every aspect of listening to music, making the technical aspects of equipment, acoustics and room size etc. easy to understand for someone new to quality music reproduction and working within a budget. Years ago I worked in an electronics store and also was a working musician for many years after having played in two U.S. Navy bands out of Great Lakes, IL and traveling the midwest including Chicago and Milwaukee for instance. To review the basics I like to watch your videos done by your excellent staff! I would reccomend you highly to anyone anywhere if asked where to go for the best service and quality equipment!

  • Commenter image

    Ned Oldham from Crutchfield

    Posted on 10/25/2021

    Thanks William, If I needed new bookshelf speakers and had a chance to buy a pristine set of B&W DM310s for under a hundred bucks, I'd definitely take a look. But I'd also be considering new, warrantied options. I can't tell you how those B&W's would sound compared to the Klipsch and ELAC models in the article, but our SpeakerCompare tool might shed some light on the question.

Compare the sound