How To Piece Together A Budget HiFi System (That sounds great)

Have you ever wondered if you could piece together a HiFi setup without spending too much? I have many years ago. I have pieced together many HiFi systems without spending that much. Over the years, I’ve tried a lot of different things. In this post, I’m going to be helping new audiophiles enter the addicting world of HiFi sound. HiFi sound isn’t just a hobby, it’s a passion. Nothing sounds like a really good sounding HiFi system that not only plays your music, but also put’s on a live performance right inside your listening area. You don’t need to spend a ton of money to piece together an excellent system.

For a receiver, go vintage!

Yes, you read that right. When choosing a stereo receiver, vintage is the best route to take. In fact, I haven’t bought a newer receiver in years. There are many reasons as to why you should go vintage. A vintage stereo receiver is built with strictly sound in mind. Modern receivers on the other hand are designed for features. Although they do get the job done, modern receivers will not be efficient in a 2 channel HiFi system as their ancestors that are built for this purpose. Also, they just look fantastic. Just the attention to detail alone should show just how well vintage receivers are built.

My 1981 JCPenny Stereo Receiver

Although you can find a ton of vintage stereo receivers on eBay, I recommend checking your local Goodwill or ReStore. You never know when one of these beauties will turn up. You should also check any garage or yard sales that are in your local area. There’s almost always someone who doesn’t know what they have. If auctions are your thing, Goodwill has an online auction site where they list most of their goodies that they know that they can get more money for. I scored a Kenwood KR V106R there once for only $14! This receiver pumps out 100 watts per channel RMS. I got a year’s worth of service out of it until it stopped turning on. I hope to fix it soon however as it was a beast. If you want to be 100% sure that you’re going to end up with a good vintage receiver, hit eBay up while also researching the different models that you find.

Vintage Stereo Receivers On eBay

The Speakers: It Depends On Your Needs.

This is going to be one of the harder parts of piecing together your own HiFi system. There are such a large variety of different types of speakers out there with their own sound personalities. Going off of my collection of speakers I’ve built up over the years, if you want a warmer-type sound, go for a set of nice vintage speakers. For me, clarity is nothing without warm, lush, and big sound. Just be aware that vintage speakers are often abused. You don’t want to end up with a set that once sounded good but now sounds terrible due to abuse.

A dented dustcap.

When looking at vintage speakers, you’ll want to look for dented dust caps. Dust caps are often pushed in by kids. A dust cap does more than just keep dust from interfering with the voice coil gap. Dust caps are often designed to resonate in order to produce frequencies that a driver otherwise couldn’t. The only way to undent a dust cap is to take a piece of tape and touch it to the dent and pull the tape straight outward. Depending on how long the dust cap has been dented, the tape should pull the dent right out. I had to do this with my Yamaha NS A637s when the dust caps got smashed in by my little sister. Another thing to look for on a set of vintage speakers is how the cabinets look. Look around the corners which could have wood that is either chipping away or rotting. It is possible to save the cabinets if the damage isn’t too bad. You should also look at the surround as foam surrounds often need to be replaced. This shouldn’t be a problem with popular models. One more thing that isn’t required but is nice to know is whether the speakers have maintained their resistance. Resistance that doesn’t co-inside with the speaker’s specified resistance is a sign of being overdriven.

Vintage Speakers On eBay

Other than the above, finding vintage speakers is pretty much the same as finding vintage receivers. Now for finding speakers in general, there are other principles to look into such as the type, size, and design of the cabinet. There are three main types of speakers. These main types include floorstanding, tower, and bookshelf speakers. There are also many models that can be designed in between these main types. My Yamaha NS A637s are too small to be a floorstanding set and are also not designed to be used as bookshelf speakers. They wouldn’t image right in a bookshelf speaker application. Speakers can also have ported, sealed or even open baffle cabinets. These cabinets can be sized differently along with different sized drivers. The type of speakers that work best for your system really depend on what type of sound you’re looking for and where this system is going to be located. No two HiFi systems are created equal.

Realistic Minimus 26 speakers

For a system such as my desktop HiFi system, you’ll want to find a good set of bookshelf speakers. I would aim to get a set of sealed cabinet bookshelf speakers as most ported ones will not produce smooth low end. You’ll also want to look for ones with 2 or less drivers as this is vital for proper imaging. Don’t be afraid to buy a small set like my Electrohome SC 490s or my Realistic Minimus 26s. A powered subwoofer will be able to handle the low end. I recently wrote an audiophile’s subwoofer guide which features a few budget recommendations. Smaller speakers tend to image better than larger ones.

Pioneer CS G203s

For a system that is in a large area like your living room, than you’ll want to look for speakers like my Yamaha NS A637s or my Pioneer CS G203s. This really depends on how much space you have to work with. The thing with big floorstanding speakers is that they require more space to be spread farther out in order to image correctly. My Pioneers sound terrible in small rooms but sound and image amazingly in large, open rooms. If you want big speakers but don’t have the room to accommodate them, than you can buy a set of modern tower speakers. Tower speakers

can image correctly in a much smaller room but are often expensive and don’t have the full, lush sound that floorstanding speakers can provide. Some might require a powered subwoofer as well as their woofers are often not that large. As for whether to go with a sealed cabinet, I would look into finding set that has a properly tuned port. Large sealed speakers will require a more powerful receiver while a properly ported set will be more forgiving on power. I’ve heard some really well-tuned ported sets that sound just as clean as a sealed set

Speakers are the most important part of your system. Different speakers have different sound personalities. Finding a set of speakers really depends on your tastes, your system, and where your system is located.

Your Music Source – It Must Be Lossless

Source: 44.1kHz 16bit 2ch

The source of which you’re playing your music from, otherwise known as the playback source is another important aspect of how good the end result of your system sounds. There are two types of sources. There are digital files such as flac and WAV while there is also physical media such as CD, vinyl, and even over FM radio. All of these different types of media are lossless which basically means that there isn’t any detail lost that was in the original recording. As you can see, there are many music sources that all have their own quirks. Vinyl is arguably the best way to experience your music but is also the most expensive way. Turntables aren’t cheap while vinyl records themselves are also expensive. Needles need to be replace while vinyl records do degrade with playback. When done right, vinyl is an awesome route to go. A CD collection is another physical media route that is far more affordable while retaining the experience of owning a physical collection. CDs last pretty much forever given that you don’t damage them. Their players rarely ever need maintenance outside of playing one of those cleaning CDs that dust the lens off for you. I have a Yamaha CDC 502 5 disc changer that my Dad bought new in 1996. It still plays perfectly and sounds amazing. As we get into a world of convenience however, digital media has taken the music industry by storm. I used to despise digital media until FLAC files became widely available. Unlike MP3s. FLACs utilize a lossless form of compression saving storage space while retaining the exact same bit rate of CD while also being versatile. Streaming services started to pop up but sadly never used FLACs until a service known as Tidal came along. Tidal is a streaming service that is aimed at audiophiles like me. For being only $20 a month, Tidal offers so much more. You can literally stream any song as a FLAC file that can be sent directly to your DAC or digital to analog converter. This allows you to always have a lossless source of music. For music lovers like me that listen to a large variety of music, this is the easiest and most budget friendly option. A cheaper streaming service like Spotify just won’t cut it for a good HiFi system. We’re going to be focusing on Tidal as our music source as with Tidal, there isn’t an excuse to use lossy media.

The DAC – Any form of digital media requires one.

HiFime Sabre U2 USB DAC

Although not quite as important as the other three, a DAC is an important part of your HiFi setup. There are different types of DACs as well. There are USB DACs, your PC’s sound card, desktop DACs, and the DAC inside your CD Player. A USB DAC is nice to have for convenience . It requires no extra power other than the USB port of your PC. You can literally just plug a USB DAC into a laptop and connect up to any system to stream your music on it through Tidal. A sound card is an internal dedicated DAC inside a desktop PC. There’s also a desktop DAC which has it’s own power supply and often it’s own pre-amplifier. I would recommend a desktop DAC such as the Schiit Modi 3 as they are superior to a USB DAC in terms of sound. For those needing a more portable solution, a USB DAC such as the HiFime Sabre 9018 is a great option as it is  small enough to be used on the go.

The Schiit Modi 3

Extra Audio Components To Consider:

The last four components that I had just went over are the foundations of a HiFi system. Although these components alone are enough to sound amazing, there are other components to consider based on your sound tastes.

The first one is a tube pre-amplifier and buffer. I run the FX Audio Tube-01 whenever I do any critical listening. The FX-Audio Tube-01 allows you to not only give your solid state receiver a tube-like sound, it also is a functional pre amplifier meaning that if your DAC has a weak output stage, than you’ll be able to boost the audio signal going into your amplifier.

Another component to consider is a physical graphical equalizer. Unlike a software graphical equalizer, a hardware one will not distort when boosting frequencies. This way, you can create sharper equalizer curves without worrying about having to lower a pre-amplifier slider on your equalizer software. A hardware equalizer also can be placed in between the pre amp and power amp stages on most stereo receivers allowing you to use it with any source on the receiver.

One more thing you could consider adding is a DSP processor such as JRiver’s DSP Studio. DSP Processing is the digital processing of a digital audio signal before it becomes an analog signal. DSP Processing can greatly improve the sound of your digital media. Some examples of DSP Processing include parametric equalizers, mid/side processing, room correction, environment simulation, and even tube sound emulation. JRiver is the software that I use for my DSP processor needs as it supports the WDM driver allowing me to use JRiver with any Windows application.

HiFi Myths – What You Can Cheap Out On:

There are common misconceptions regarding certain components in a HiFi system. One of these components is speaker wire. You wouldn’t believe how much some people pay for “high end” speaker wire. Just take a look at this fancy WIREWORLD Platinum Eclipse 8 speaker wire. I would never pay $50,300 for speaker wire. In fact, most of the wire I use in my systems is from thrift stores. There is no correlation between speaker wire and audio quality. Just as long as you’re running the correct gauge of wire for your speaker’s resistance, you’ll be fine.

Here’s another one that’ll be sure to get you. You wouldn’t believe how much some people pay for a DAC. For example this Cary Audio DAC-200TS will set you back almost $3,000. Unless you’re rich enough to be able to impulse buy something like that beast, you’d be fine with the Schiit Modi 3 that I mentioned in the DAC section. You’re not going to need to playback 32 bit audio anytime soon anyways.

One last myth that I’m going to mention is that name brand gear is always better than no-name gear. This is a huge myth that many believe it or not still believe. I can tell you from experience that by buying from a no-name brand, or a young under developed brand can often be a surprise waiting to happen. Awhile back, I was looking for a good USB DAC that I could plug into a laptop and immediately upgrade it’s audio capabilities. I came across the Dragonfly Black for a little over $100. Then as I was searching on Amazon, I came across HiFime and their first attempt at a budget USB DAC, the HiFime Sabre U2. Reviewers were stating that they owned the Sabre U2 and the Drangonfly Black and Red. They were claiming that the Sabre U2 was far smoother than even the Dragonfly Red. Years later, HiFime is an established reputable brand that now has a much better USB DAC that still costs less than offerings from Audioquest. That is the HiFime Sabre 9018 that I recommended earlier.

HiFi Is A Hobby – Don’t Be Afraid To Experiment.

As I had just said, HiFi is a hobby that requires you to experiment with different components. I experiment on a daily basis with my gear. As I do, I will sure with you my experience on different audio components and HiFI setups. If you have any questions, please feel free to ask them here. I will be sure to answer them. For now, enjoy your new hobby (passion).

8 Replies to “How To Piece Together A Budget HiFi System (That sounds great)”

  1. Hello Rhett,

    Thank you for allowing me the opportunity to comment on HOW TO PIECE TOGETHER A HIFI SYSTEM CHEAPLY (THAT SOUNDS GREAT).

    I have never heard of a HiFi system before this article. Wow, I really never knew there was so much involved with creating the right sound. I always thought all of that stuff was already pre-matched, and all a consumer would have to do is purchase it.

    Is it possible to purchase a HiFi system already put together for the sound a consumer is searching for?

    This really is a very informative article on HiFi systems, it seems that you have broken this information all of the way down and talk about how to rebuild a HiFi system from scratch. This is a very interesting article, especially for a person like me who does not have a clue.

    Thank you again for allowing me the opportunity to comment on your article.

    Blessings To You My Friend,

    Jerry

    1. Although I’ve heard some nice mini HiFi systems back in the day, the market for these systems just isn’t there anymore. I would look for some older Aiwa shelf systems on eBay. These systems were extremely good sounding for what they were.

  2. Hi Rhett, thanking you for sharing this great information. It’s not often that you see many discussions around building a hi-fi system from scratch, piece by piece.  Everyone seems to want the easy and convenient one-size-fits-all option.

    Your recommendation to use a vintage amp where possible got me to thinking.  If you had the choice between a vintage amp that also included the old AM/FM tuner (that you never use) or an integrated amp, would you always go vintage or do you think there are circumstances where an integrated amp might be the better option?

    1. I’m an owner of an old 1980s Pioneer SA-1270 integrated amplifier. I do find the Pioneer to have a more relaxed sound. But the sound of my 1981 JCPenny stereo receiver triumphs pretty much everything I’ve heard. It really depends on what you need however as there are some killer stereo receivers out there like my old JCPenny receiver that will one day pop up for sale at an absolute steal of a price. A lot of people don’t know what they have laying around in their basement, garage, or attic.

  3. I thank you so much for this great article for showing us such beautiful hi-fi setups together and at a very minimal cost.And the design of these vintage receivers has been excellent, which is understandable only if you look carefully.I will look at the steps of these speakers that I have noticed on vintage speakers and I will see if it is maintaining resistance.And I want to use Tidal as my music source.After you Article I will find everything within the simplest and highest budget to listen to my music.

  4. I agree with you that nothing always seems perfect when it comes to HiFi set up unless proper care is taken to ensure that one tests various components and all to achieve the best with it. Thanks so much for sharing all of these here. The components you have shared and some other minor tweaks as well appreciated and I’d try my best to lay my hands on them. Thanks

  5. Thanks a lot for sharing with us this tips and explanation given. 

    I always wondered how to piece together a HiFi setup. For me this is a passion and music makes me always feel free and happy. I didn’t knew that vintage stereo receivers are the best and i really want to buy it because i see a lot of this on the internet. The vintage speakers are my favorite too and i would like to some from JBL but i have problems in finding a good one. Do you think you can recommend me where to buy the best JBL vintage speakers?  Thanks and keep in touch. 

    1. Although you can find JBLs on eBay, they’re going for a high price. I would take a look on Goodwill’s auction site and keep an eye out. A set can turn up when you least expect it.

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