Home Audio Systems: A Guide for Beginners

Stereo systems can be confusing but you only need a few key components

You don't have to be an audiophile to have a great hi-fi stereo home audio system. Let's check out what you need to get a listening experience that goes beyond a smartphone with earbuds, Bluetooth or another type of wireless speaker

McIntosh Soho III Stereo System
McIntosh Labs

Why Stereo?

Stereo provides a listening experience where sounds are placed across two channels creating a "stage."

Music is mixed so some sounds are placed to the left and others to the right of a primary listening position. Sounds placed in both the left and right channels (such as vocals) come from a "phantom" center channel between the left and right speakers.

What You Need for a Home Stereo System

A home audio stereo system can be pre-packaged or assembled from separate components with the following core features:

  • Stereo Amplifier or Receiver: Serves as a "hub" to connect and control content sources and speakers. 
  • Speakers: Stereo systems require two speakers, one for the left channel and another for the right.
  • Source(s): Sources provide access to music content. Systems with an integrated amplifier, sources are external and need to be plugged in. If the system has a receiver, it will have a built-in tuner, and, in some cases, Bluetooth or internet streaming, but other sources need to be connected. 

Pre-Packaged Stereo Systems

If you're a casual listener, have a small room, or limited budget, a compact (aka mini/micro) pre-packaged system may be the right choice as it provides everything you need (amplifier/radio tuner/receiver, speakers) to start listening to music.

Additional features may also include a built-in CD player and/or additional inputs for connecting one or more external source devices.

Denon DT-1 Mini-System
Denon/Sound United

Bluetooth may also be provided. This allows you to stream music wirelessly from your smartphone to the system.

However, one downside of this type of system is they may not have adequate power or good-enough speakers to provide high-quality sound for a large room.

Assemble Your Own System

You can assemble a system using a separate receiver or integrated amplifier, speakers, and source devices. This type of system provides flexibility for your preferences and budget as you can choose the components and speakers you want.

Onkyo TX-8220 Stereo Receiver Front and Rear Views
Onkyo USA

However, that increased flexibility may result in your system taking up more space than a pre-packaged system, as well as adding to your expenses as you customize and upgrade.

Stereo Receiver Core Features

  • Amplifier: Supports a two-channel (stereo) speaker setup. 
  • An AM and/or FM tuner: For listening to local radio stations. 
  • Analog audio inputs: For connecting compatible source devices.

Additional Stereo Receiver Connection Options

  • Phono Input: Included on most stereo receivers to connect a turntable.
  • Digital Audio Connections: Digital optical/coaxial audio inputs may be provided to access audio from select CD players and most DVD/Blu-ray players, cable/satellite boxes, and TVs.
  • A/B Speaker Connections: Allows connection of four speakers but surround sound listening isn't supported. "B" speakers mirror the main speakers and draw power from the same amplifiers. Half the power goes to each pair of speakers. The A/B speaker option allows listening to the same audio source in a second room or provides more coverage in a large room.
  • Zone 2: Select stereo receivers include a Zone 2 Output, which supplies a stereo signal to a second location but requires external amplifiers. Zone 2 allows different audio sources to play in a main and second location.
  • Subwoofer Output: Select stereo receivers allow the connection of a subwoofer.

A stereo system with a subwoofer is referred to as a 2.1 channel setup.

  • Wireless Multiroom Audio: Select stereo receivers include platforms such as MusicCast (Yamaha), DTS Play-Fi and Sonos (Onkyo/Integra), allowing music to be sent wirelessly to compatible speakers. 
  • Ethernet/Wi-Fi: Ethernet and/or Wi-Fi may be included to access music streaming services, and/or network audio storage devices. 
  • Bluetooth: If included, allows wireless music streaming from compatible smartphones/tablets. 
  • USB: If a USB port is provided, allows music listening from flash drives and/or portable hard drives.
  • Video Connections: Select receivers have video connections. These may be analog (composite) or HDMI that provide signal pass-through only. Stereo receivers don't perform video processing or upscaling.
Onkyo TX-8270 2-Channel Network Stereo Receiver
Onkyo, USA

Speaker Types and Placement

Speakers come in a variety of types and sizes, and placement is important. If you have limited space, bookshelf speakers may be best, but consider floor-standing speakers for a large room, especially if the receiver doesn't have a subwoofer output.

Cerwin Vega VE Series and LG Tall Boy Speakers
Cerwin Vega and LG

It's best to place the speakers about 6-8 feet apart (about 3-4 feet from the center of a front wall) or in a front corner. However, don't place speakers flat against a wall or corner. Space is needed between the speaker and the wall/corner.

Speakers should not face directly forward, but angled to face the primary listening spot ("sweet spot"), providing the best sound direction balance.  

Audio-Only Source Options

Some audio sources you can connect to a stereo receiver or amplifier include: 

  • Turntable: Phono connection with ground or analog line connection may be provided.

If a turntable includes a USB output, that's for connecting to a PC, supported by additional software. 

  • CD Player: CD players provide analog audio connections, but some provide both analog and digital optical and/or coaxial audio connections.
  • Tape Deck: An audio cassette deck can be connected to a stereo receiver via analog audio connections.
  • TV: If your TV has an audio output, you can connect it to a stereo receiver for TV sound.
  • Network Audio Player: A network audio player can access music from select streaming services and music stored on PCs or media servers. Bluetooth and USB may also be included. This is practical for receivers that don't have these features. Analog and digital audio connections are provided.
  • Media Server: If a stereo receiver has network connectivity, it can play music from a media server (NAS, PC) without connection to an external network audio player.

Audio/Video Source Options

A stereo receiver with analog or HDMI video pass-through allows connection of video sources, such as:

  • DVD/Blu-ray/Ultra HD players
  • Media Streamers (Roku, Chromecast, Fire TV, Apple TV)
  • Cable/Satellite boxes
  • VCRs

Make sure any video connections on the stereo receiver are compatible with the video connections of your source.

Stereo System vs Surround Sound

Some people have a stereo system for music and a separate surround sound system for TV/movie viewing. 

However, home theater receivers can also be used for stereo music listening, as almost all have a two-channel (stereo) listening mode. This "turns off" all speakers except for the front left and right speakers.

2.1 vs 5.1 Channel Speaker Placement – Dolby Labs
Dolby Labs

Home theater receivers can also process stereo signals for distribution to five or more channels via Dolby ProLogic II, IIx, DTS Neo:6 or other audio processing. This provides more immersive music listening but changes the character of the original music mix.

The Bottom Line

Before you reach into your wallet, consider the following:

  • Critical vs Casual Listening: Whether a critical or casual listener, try out a demo of the system or components you're considering. If it doesn't sound good at the dealer, it won't sound good at home. 
  • Small or Large Room: If you have a small room, a compact system may be fine. If you have a large room, make sure your choice can fill the room with a satisfying sound.
  • Music vs TV/Movie Listening: If you want to use a stereo system for TV and movie sound in addition to listening to music, consider a system that enables you to connect a subwoofer and provides video pass-through connections.

If you're primarily a TV/movie viewer and only listen to music casually, consider a soundbar or home theater receiver and a set of surround speakers

Stereo System Cost vs Performance

Balance what you want with your budget. You don't have to buy a hi-end stereo receiver, but make sure the one you buy has all the features and connection options you need or plan to use in the future. Stereo receivers start as low as $120 and go up to over $1,000. Also keep these tips in mind: