The Complete Guide to Home Audio Systems for Beginners

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

You don't have to be an audio expert to have an excellent home audio system. Here's what you need to get a listening experience beyond a smartphone with earbuds, Bluetooth, or another type of wireless speaker.

Why Stereo?

Stereo provides a listening experience where sounds are placed across two channels to create a stage.

Music mixing places some sounds 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. In short, it creates an audio illusion of sound coming from different directions.

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.
  • Sources: Sources provide access to music content. You must plug in external sources on systems with an integrated amplifier. If the system has a receiver, it will have a built-in tuner and, in some cases, Bluetooth or internet streaming. Other sources need to be connected.

Pre-Packaged Stereo Systems

If you're a casual listener, have a small room, or are on a limited budget, a compact pre-packaged system may be the optimal choice. It provides everything you need (including an amplifier, radio tuner, receiver, and speakers) to listen to music.

Denon DT-1 Mini-System
Denon / Sound United

Depending on the system, additional features can include a built-in CD player, extra inputs for connecting one or more external sources, and Bluetooth to stream music wirelessly. However, one downside of this is that these systems might not have adequate power or good-enough speakers to provide high-quality sound for a larger 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 individual components and speakers you want.

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

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

Stereo Receiver Core Features

A stereo receiver has these features:

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

The higher the quality of a stereo receiver, the better it is at keeping its different internal components from interfering with each other. In lower quality receivers, this lack of compartmentalization can cause unwanted audio distortion.

Additional Stereo Receiver Connection Options

The connection options you may find on a stereo receiver include:

  • Phono input: These inputs are included on most stereo receivers to connect a record (a.k.a. vinyl) turntable.
  • Digital audio connectionsDigital optical and coaxial audio inputs enable you to access audio from select CD players, most DVD and Blu-ray players, cable and satellite boxes, and TVs.
  • A/B speaker connections: This allows the connection of four speakers. However, 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 and requires external amplifiers. Zone 2 allows different audio sources to play in a primary and second location.
  • Subwoofer output: Select stereo receivers allow the connection of a subwoofer, which can amplify low-frequency sounds for added bass.

A 2.1 channel setup is a stereo system with a subwoofer.

  • 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 or Wi-FiEthernet and Wi-Fi provide access to music streaming services and network audio storage devices.
  • Bluetooth: If included, Bluetooth allows wireless music streaming from compatible smartphones and tablets.
  • USB: A USB port allows music listening from flash drives and portable hard drives via a USB cable connection.
  • 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 various loudspeaker types and sizes, and speaker placement is essential. If you have limited space, bookshelf speakers may be the best option. 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 six to eight feet apart (about three to four feet from the center of a front wall) or in a front corner. However, don't place speakers flat against a wall or corner. You need space between the speaker and the wall or corner.

Speakers should not face directly forward. Speakers should be angled toward the primary listening spot (the 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: A phono connection with a ground or analog line connection might 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, and some provide analog, digital optical, and coaxial audio connections.
  • Tape deck: An audio cassette deck can connect to a stereo receiver using 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 streaming services and music stored on PCs and media servers. Bluetooth and USB are 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 or PC) without connecting to an external network audio player.

Audio/Video Source Options

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

  • DVD, Blu-ray, and Ultra HD players
  • Media streamers (Roku, Chromecast, Fire TV, and Apple TV)
  • Cable and satellite boxes
  • VCRs

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

Stereo System vs. Surround Sound

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

However, you can also use home theater receivers for stereo music listening, as almost all have a two-channel (stereo) listening mode. This mode 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 using Dolby ProLogic II, IIx, DTS Neo:6, or other audio processing. It 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 you're a critical or casual listener, try a demo of the system or components you're considering. If it doesn't sound great at the dealer, it won't sound good at home.
  • Small or large room: A compact system might be sufficient if you have a small room. If you have a large room, make sure your choice can fill the space with a satisfying sound.
  • Music vs. TV and movie listening: If you want to use a stereo system for TV and movie sound, and still listen to music, consider a system that enables you to connect a subwoofer and provides pass-through video connections.

If you're primarily a TV and 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 high-end stereo receiver. Still, 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 below $100 and go up to over $1,000. Also, keep these tips in mind:

  • Don't get seduced by amplifier power output specifications.
  • You don't have to spend a fortune on cables and wires. Beware of 6-foot speaker wires that cost $100 or more.
  • Don't assume a $2,000 pair of speakers will sound twice as good as a $1,000 pair of speakers. As prices go up, there's often only an incremental increase in quality. There are excellent expensive speakers. However, some moderately-priced speakers provide superior performance for the price. 
  • Can I install a car audio system in my home?

    The only obstacle to setting up a car sound system at home is the power, as car stereos don't connect via a typical AC power cable. It is possible to adapt a car stereo to AC power, but this will require some electrical know-how.

  • What are the best audio file formats to use with a home stereo system?

    Lossless audio formats like FLAC, WAV, ALAC, and WMA Lossless offer the best sound quality. They're generally believed to be as good or better than CD quality. Unfortunately, these formats aren't as widely supported as formats like MP3.

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