The Incredible Stereo Hunt

A guide to help shoppers through the retail hi-fi jungle

Japanese and European-made hi-fi equipment on display in a London shop on October 13th, 1972. Credit: Brian Harris/Fox Photos/Getty

I hadn't realized the retail hi-fi market was such a jungle until I went shopping recently with a friend. He was confused and needed a guide to help him hack through the thicket of information and misinformation presented by hi-fi manufacturers and dealers.

"Listen, buddy, can you take some time out this week to go shopping with me? I want to get a new stereo system and don't know where to start," he said over the phone one Monday. He knew I'd been writing about audio equipment and the hi-fi market for four years and figured having an "expert" along would make his job a lot easier.

"Sure," I said, thinking it would be simple. I mean, I do know a great deal about hi-fi products and the people who make them. Besides, he promised to buy me dinner, and he has expensive taste. We set a date for Wednesday and I went back to my typewriter.

On Wednesday, my friend and I set out for the bank. He was eager to get something that day, so he wanted to pay cash. Now this guy does quite well for himself. He's a bartender in a posh restaurant on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where gratuities nearly always top the twenty-five-percent mark and sometimes soar to the lofty reaches of 200 to 500 percent. He drew out $850, believing that would just about cover it.

From here on, the story gets pretty bizarre. Not a single merchant tried to sell my friend a hi-fi system. Oh sure, they presented some products and demonstrated some speakers, but they also confused him so badly that by four o'clock we were sitting in a local gin mill having a couple of beers and talking about which restaurants were about to close.

That's when I got the idea for this story. It's a jungle out there, and you do need a guide to help show the way to a satisfying sound system. The painful realization is that it's really a simple proposition. But to accomplish your goal, you have to know what to expect in a retail store, what kinds of salesmen you're likely to encounter and what advance knowledge you need to be an "educated" consumer. So this is it. The hunt for the perfect stereo system.

Our first stop was a local warehouse operation that proclaims daily in its ads: Check These Prices, They Simply Can't Be Beat. Under that headline is usually a laundry list of names, model numbers and prices. My friend wasn't sure what he wanted, but he figured we could go to the place, listen to a few products he had in mind and walk away with a real bargain. What we found when we got to the fifth floor of the dingy downtown office building was a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot room piled high with cardboard cartons. Only a few hi-fi components were on display.

"Can we play with any of this?" my friend asked the man in charge.

"It's not plugged in," came the curt reply. Well, so much for that place. Our first rule for buying a hi-fi: don't go to a warehouse unless you're absolutely sure what you want and just need to pick it up. Such stores offer no help, and few, if any, offer demonstrations. The next stop on our safari was uptown in a store that specializes in appliances, television sets and audio equipment. This shop, located in a fashionable neighborhood, is equipped with two sound rooms, which would enable my friend to get his hands on a few products in his price range.

It's usually a good idea to begin by choosing which speakers you like, because they offer the greatest differences in sound of all the components you're going to buy. Once you've chosen them, you have the basic sound you're going to end up with. Our salesman, sort of halfhearted in his attempts to serve us, agreed to cue up a tape and audition some speakers. Nothing we heard knocked my friend's socks off, and he commented on a shrillness he heard in one set of speakers. Then, without saying a word, the salesman switched to a pair with an even thinner sound, then back to the originals. Amazing. That first pair now sounded warm and rich by comparison.

We left shortly thereafter, formulating rule number two for hi-fi buying: listen to a lot of speakers over a period of several days in several stores. Try to develop a critical ear before you begin the process of choosing a speaker. It doesn't take long; the ear is a very sophisticated instrument and learns quickly. But initial comparisons of two or three loudspeaker pairs can be confusing.

On our way to the next hi-fi store, we stopped in a shoe store to see if anything new had come in. My friend saw a fine pair of red Italian loafers and bought them for sixty-five dollars plus tax. He now had about $775 in his pocket, and his resolve to fill his new apartment with stereo music was flagging. Still, we pushed on.

At our final stop of the day, my friend found a pair of speakers he liked, and he had settled on a receiver days before, so we turned our attention to turntables. Immediately, I spied a favorite of mine that was on sale. When we asked about it, the salesman informed us that the store was having a lot of trouble with the model, that it kept breaking down. He showed us a model the store obviously was featuring. It was a fine turntable, but I had a bad taste in my mouth. I knew that the other model didn't have any particular predisposition to break down, and I told my friend so. That was the last straw.

"Let's go get a beer," he said. "I have to be at work in two hours and I want to get home for dinner soon." After we parted ways, I couldn't help but wonder how anyone buys a stereo system — or, for that matter, how any of the stores we visited stay in business. Well, staying in business is their problem, but if you want good music in your home, it appears that you have to take responsibility for that yourself. Do your homework. Talk to friends. Read as much as you can about the kind of products you want to buy. Lord knows, there's enough written on the subject every month by guys like me. But at the bottom line always know this: anything my friend would have purchased that day would have provided him with years of pleasure. Hi-fi gear is high-quality stuff and does not tend to break down. If you've read about some interesting new products somewhere or seen them in a store and like the styling, features and performance, don't be dissuaded from the purchase by some audio salesman who tells you it's going to break. He has some other reason for telling you that. Buy what you like.

Here are some new products that might appeal to you. They're arranged by price, and a general discussion of the features and performance you can expect within each category is included.

One more thing. The figures mentioned here are manufacturers' suggested retail prices. Most of the equipment, especially in the lower price ranges, can be had for less money if you shop carefully. But be wary of the ultimate discounter. If anything goes wrong with your dream system, he's probably not equipped to deal with it. Or worse yet, since he made a minimal profit on the initial sale, he can only remain profitable as an operation by not bothering with you a second time.

$500 to $750

This is basic-system territory, with a little leeway at the top to add a cassette deck or to indulge in a bit more sophistication in one or two of the components.

There are very few loudspeakers on the market that sell for less than $100 apiece, so you're going to have to spend between $160 and $260 total for that basic part of your component system. One of the most highly thought-of loudspeakers in the $100 class is Infinity's Qe. At $127 each, this model features a special tweeter that incorporates a rare-earth magnet made from samarium cobalt. Other speakers in this price range include Acoustic Research's AR 25 ($110 each); the EPI 100 ($210 a pair); and the D-1A ($125 each) from Design Acoustics.

For power and control in this price class, your best bet is a receiver in the fifteen- to twenty-five-watt range. Available from nearly all the major Japanese suppliers, receivers of this type offer more performance than those rated at twice the power five years ago. Total harmonic-distortion (THD) figures hover around the 0.5 percent range, which is well below the level of human perception. Among the newest in this area is Hitachi's SR 4010, a twenty-five-watt-per-channel unit for about $250. Other models include Onkyo's $235 TX-1500 MKII, boasting seventeen watts per channel and 0.3 percent THD, and the SX-580 from Pioneer, which for $250 is rated at twenty-five watts per channel and 0.3 percent THD. Kenwood's KR-3090 (about $260) claims twenty-six watts per channel with no more than 0.05 percent THD. Fisher's $250 RS 1022 features twenty-two watts per channel and 0.5 percent THD, while Sony's STR-V2, priced at $260, claims twenty-five watts per channel with no more than 0.3 percent THD.

To spin the records for this system, you'll want a turntable in the $100 price range. For that amount of money, you're likely to get belt-drive instead of the much-touted direct-drive, but that's certainly no trade-off. To most experts in the field, there is no sonic difference between the two. And while five years ago you weren't likely to get automatic operation in a $100 turntable, many of the new models offer that feature.

Among the most popular turntables in this class are BSR's 255SX ($80), B.I.C.'s 20-Z ($100) and Garrard's SP25MK V ($110). Kenwood's KD-1500 carries a $120 price, and Pioneer's PL-512 comes right in at $100.

You'll want to load your turntable with a cartridge that runs about $30 or $40, though most dealers offer a significant discount with systems in this price range. The most readily available cartridges are ADCs QLM 30 MK III ($35), Audio Technica's AT10 ($40), the Empire 2000 ($35), Pickering's XV15/140E ($35) and the Shure M30 ($26). Your optional tape deck will cost between $200 and $250. Most of the major manufacturers have products in this price class, including Aiwa, Akai, Fisher, JVC, Marantz, Pioneer, Sansui, Sanyo, Sony, Technics, Teac and Yamaha.

$800 to $1,000

In this price range, you can begin to add to the power of your receiver, the size and precision of your loudspeakers, the delicacy of your turntable and the flexibility of your overall system. If you've caught the hi-fi bug, you may want to consider separates: tuners, amps and preamps on individual chassis that allow you to alter your system more easily when something "new and better" comes on the market.

You'll probably be looking for speakers in the $150 to $200 range and receivers priced from about $350 to $400. you can expect to get forty to sixty watts for those prices. If you're looking at the top of the price range, you'll have to pay about $600 to $750 for seventy to eighty watts and a whole slew of convenience features, such as circuits for dubbing material from one tape onto another. In turntables, you'll be looking at models in the $200 to $300 range, with motors controlled by quartz chips that guarantee speed accuracy much the same way quartz circuits guarantee the accuracy of a watch.

In the speaker category, we can include the Allison Fours ($195 each), Altec's Model 3 ($190 each), Avid's 102a ($165 each), Infinity's Qb ($175 each), the L40 from JBL ($250 each), the Koss CM/530 ($230 each) and the Wharfdale XP-60 ($160).

The receiver market is flooded with products in this very popular price range. All of the major manufacturers have entries, and there's fierce competition to see which company can offer the most power and features as well as the lowest distortion figures. At this price, cosmetic flourishes also begin to appear, such as fluorescent power meters and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) to indicate what's happening in your system. Yamaha's new sixty-watt receiver is priced at $495, while Sansui is offering its fifty-watt G-4700 for $430. Kenwood's new eighty-watt KR-7050 ($660) features new circuitry designed to pass the signal faster to give more lifelike crispness to the sound. Sanyo, a relative newcomer to the hi-fi market, recently unveiled its PLUS 75, featuring seventy-five watts of power, for $550.

Separates come into the picture at the top of this price range. Integrated amps (power amp and preamp on one chassis) have become more popular in the last two years as manufacturers learned how to make them more economically. The advantage to owning these components is their flexibility. If the industry comes up with a hot new circuit for tuners, you can take advantage of it without having to junk your whole receiver.

The first company to make a big push in the separates market was Kenwood. Its latest integrated amp is the KA-405, featuring fifty-five watts per channel for a nickel under $300. A companion tuner, the KT-313, is priced at $179. Sanyo's new integrated amp, the A-35, boasts fifty watts per channel and is also priced under $300. The company's lowest-priced tuner, the T-35, carries a $300 price tag. The newest integrated amp from Pioneer, the SA-6800 ($300), claims forty-five watts per channel.

Turntables gain superaccuracy in this price class and almost always feature automatic operation. Fisher's MT6330 offers front-panel controls for $190, while Kenwood's KD-3100 is priced at $199 and boasts direct-drive. The Plus Q40 from Sanyo gives you fully automatic operation for $200, while Sony has an automatic single-play model, the PS-T25, for $170. Technics' SL-B3 also offers automatic operation for $150, and Yamaha has the YP-BZ, a semiautomatic version (the arm lifts at the end of the record and returns, but the motor doesn't shut off), for $140.

In cartridges, you can move up to the $50 to $75 class with Shure's new SC39B for $60; the STR 310IIE, a $75 pickup from Acutex; Audio-Technica's AT11 for $50; or the Micro Acoustics 282-e for $95.

If you're paying this much for a system, you'll almost certainly want to add a cassette deck. They offer the fun of making your own musical programs and the ability to make tapes for your car-stereo system. In the $300 to $400 price range, cassette decks are available from every hi-fi maker. Some that should just be reaching your dealer's shelves include Aiwa's AD-M200U ($260), Fisher's CR 4028 two-speed deck ($350), the Kenwood KX-760 ($350), the SD3000 two-speed deck from Marantz ($295), Pioneer's CT-F750 ($395), Sanyo's PLUS D65 ($400), the TC-K45 from Sony ($320) and Teac's CX-270 ($250).

$1,500 to $3,000

If your ears are beginning to pop, don't be concerned. We're starting to get up there in the hi-fi atmosphere, but this is where you can start to have some real fun. Power specifications get into the three-figure range, and lights and dials begin to dominate equipment faces, which almost seem to come alive with all that blinking. And even if you can't hear the subtle changes the improvements in your sound system are making (chances are you can't), don't be alarmed; the sex appeal and bragging value some of these components pack are awesome.

To start your new supersystem, how about a loudspeaker that looks like a monument to Cleopatra? The Shahinian Acoustics Obelisk comes in teak ($450), walnut or oak (both $400). Mitsubishi offers its three-way MS-40 for $550 each. The newest loudspeaker from Acoustic Research, the AR-91 ($400), is a floor-standing system. The EPI Model 500 also stands on the floor and is similarly priced around $400. The Altec Model 14 runs just under $500. If you like strange-looking loudspeaker systems the Dahlquist DQ-10 is a flat, thin screen tilted on a wooden base. At $435, sound purists love it. Jensen's new top-of-the-line System B, priced at around $550 each, comes with its own saddle base and features a rear-firing tweeter that sends reflected sound throughout the room.

The power and control sections of your new system can now begin to take on the look of the Starship Enterprise. And you'll gain such control over the music you can practically undo all the producer has done in the studio.

In receivers, take a look at Kenwood's 120-watt KR-8050. Priced at $820, this unit features a power-boost switch that kicks the output up to 150 watts per channel. Marantz' new SR6000, priced at $550, puts out seventy watts per channel. The Sansui G-6700, with ninety watts per channel, features digital display of radio frequencies for $730. Sanyo's PLUS 130 ($700) claims 130 watts per channel, and Yamaha's newest eighty-watt-per-channel unit is the CR-1040 ($660).

Separates make even more sense at this level because you're probably really getting hooked now and looking to upgrade your system at every opportunity. For power and control, take a look at Denon's newest integrated amp, the PMA-360, priced at $465. The preamp section features an equalizer to help tailor the sound to your room, while the power amp boasts eighty watts per channel. Optonica's latest entry in the integrated amp field is its SM-7305, claiming seventy watts per channel for $460, while Kenwood offers a sixty-watt-per-channel unit, the KA-601, for $399.

New tuners to go with your amp include Denon's TU-630 FM ($340), Kenwood's KT-413 FM-AM ($250), the ST-400 AM-FM unit from Marantz ($280) and the Pioneer TX-6800 ($200).

Turntables begin to get ultra-sophisticated in this price class, and one of the most refined is Dual's model 622. Priced at $320, it is designed to be loaded with Ortofon's ULM55E cartridge, yielding an effective mass of eight grams. The superlight weight is said to reduce distortion and increase transient response. For S300, you can get Philips' Project 7 AF829 belt-drive player that features a special circuit to help control platter-speed accuracy. Technics' SL-1700 MkII comes in at $350. Micro Seiki, one of the most respected names in the turntable field, recently introduced the DD-31, a semiautomatic, direct-drive unit for $350.

In this price category, you can begin to investigate the more finely tuned cartridges on the market. Though changes in fidelity at this level are subtle, a trained ear will be able to detect improvements in the way higher-priced cartridges reproduce the attack of a stick on a snare drum, a pick on a guitar string or a brush on a cymbal. Yamaha has entered the cartridge market this summer with its MC-1X moving-coil pickup, which comes with its own head-shell for $250. The moving-coil design is less massive internally and claims to be able to reproduce transients better. Also new is the $300 AT-32 moving-coil unit from Audio Technica. Nagatronics' 9600 induced-magnet design retails for $220, and Shure's venerable V-15 Type IV goes for $165.

Cassette decks provide one of the largest jumps in fidelity within this higher price range. For around $400 to $500, manufacturers offer separate motors to drive the capstans and take-up reels, which eliminates some of the tension on the tape and the tendency for stretching to cause distortion. The 830, Dual's newest deck at $500, has three heads -- one for recording, one for playing and the other for erasing. Other decks include Hitachi's D75S with two motors ($380), JVCs KD-A7 ($480), Optonica's RT-6202/6 ($460), the RD5372 from Sanyo ($500), Sony's TC-K75 ($600) and the Teac C-3 ($600).

At this point, you'll want to make the sound as perfect as you can, and that involves tuning your room with a graphic equalizer. This implement actually divides the frequency spectrum, or range of musical notes, into octaves and gives you slide switches to boost or cut the signal. That's right, it's a sophisticated tone control. ADCs newest is the Sound Shaper Three, which carries a price of $500. Other equalizers include JVCs SEA-80 for $600, the $200 Nikko EQ-2, the Model 1100 from Phase Linear for $600 and the $300 SE-7 from Sansui.

That's it. It's been a long trip. It could have been even longer, but that's one of the troubles with the hi-fi business: it's incredibly crowded with products and manufacturers. Then again, maybe that's half the fun of it. You can make it very simple for yourself with a basic package that'll provide you with great music for years, or you can take three months and pore over all the possibilities. It's your choice.