Build a Home Stereo System on a Tight Budget

A banging stereo system doesn't have to cost a fortune

Stereo systems range in price from a few hundred dollars to several thousand dollars. However, building a home stereo system that satisfies your tastes doesn't have to cost a fortune. A quality system can be affordable, especially if you're patient, vigilant, and know how to get the most for your money. But before you get started, it's important to have a plan.

A content man with eyes closed, leaning backwards against large stereo speakers

Larry Williams / Getty Images

Identify Needs and Create a Budget​

​If funds were unlimited, the best equipment would be in your living room instead of on a wishlist. But you can enjoy a fantastic-sounding stereo system while keeping those wishlist items for potential future upgrades. First, set a budget and stick to it. The goal is to be at or under your specified purchase amount, including tax and shipping costs. It does little good to overspend and come up short for the household bills that matter.

How much to allocate for a stereo system depends on your needs and what you can comfortably set aside. For example, if you own a great receiver/amplifier, that's one less thing to shop for. It may also mean you can spend more on speakers or other components.

So decide what you need and commit to the spending limit you set. While it's acceptable to revise your budget (for example, you worked overtime or earned a quarterly bonus), don't give in to the temptation to exceed it.

​Sell Stuff You No Longer Need or Use

Getting rid of dusty, excess, or older equipment can be an effective way to boost your spending budget. Take it as an opportunity to purge. Get things cleaned up before you do, especially old stereo speakers.

You might have CDs or DVDs that you can sell for a few dollars each. Old headphones? Computer speakers? Don't limit the scope to technology or media either. Books, clothes, kitchenware, toys, furniture, household decor, and more can move quickly if priced right. It all adds up and can mean the difference between snagging a great deal or missing out.

There is a trade, which is time. You may not have hours to spare to sell online, hold a garage sale, or put up Craigslist ads. But you can find someone who does. Just like how parents seek out a babysitter for the night, it's possible to hire an individual to do the work for a percentage of the profits. If you happen to have teenagers or young adults living under your roof, you might be thinking of them right now.

Be Willing to Buy Refurbished Goods​

There is a certain satisfaction involved with opening a new, factory-fresh package. But unless you happen to score a crazy-good deal, chances are you're still paying more than if you bought something used or refurbished. Just because something is used doesn't mean it's in terrible condition—products are often considered used as soon as the retail box has been opened. Many individuals take great care of their equipment so that it's easier to sell when it's time to upgrade.

Also, consider older models in a series. Quite often, newer products offer only incremental upgrades over the previous generation. The small variations in specs (for example, extra connections, bonus features, and premium materials) don't necessarily make an impact on overall sound quality. This holds true for amplifiers/receivers, which can maintain peak performance for years.

No matter where you look, don't forget to be smart and pay attention to the details. Here are good places to start:

Check Local Electronics Stores and Stereo Dealers

Retail outlets move in new inventory a few times a year, which can often lead to old lineups going on clearance. While clearance discounts vary, you can find a better opportunity to haggle over the floor models. Speakers and receivers are less likely to get roughly handled as might laptops or smartphones.

Make sure the condition is good. Scratches can be covered or repaired, but damaged speaker cones or cracked cabinets should be avoided. Some units may carry a factory-backed warranty.

Shop on Amazon and Ebay

It's easy to spend hours browsing through these giant online marketplaces, all in the comfort of your home. While most of what's being sold is new, there are used and refurbished products that can be acquired for a fraction of the cost. Conditions vary, so pay attention to the notes in each description.

Amazon offers a favorable return policy in case a purchase doesn't work out. And depending on where you live, you may not have to pay sales tax. If you subscribe to Amazon Prime, you can enjoy free two-day shipping (when applicable). You can submit Amazon product links in to see the price history (and set email alerts) to know if you're getting a deal or not.

Browse Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace

There are always people looking to get rid of stuff and make some cash, and Craigslist offers a way for local sellers and buyers to connect online. Items posted for sale often come with a photo, price, general location, and contact information. The site's search box makes it easy to filter for the kinds of products you're looking for. Listings go up and down all the time, so you'll have to look often.

Not everyone knows (or cares about) the value of what they're selling. Don't be afraid to negotiate if you think you can get a better deal. That scratch on a speaker cabinet won't affect the audio, but you can try to play it up to lower the price.

Visit Thrift Stores

If you fancy yourself a modern-day treasure hunter, the local thrift can offer a bounty of goods to browse. While you may not be able to haggle as you would with a Craigslist deal, you can expect a greater level of personal safety since it's a retail place like most.

Thrift stores like Goodwill receive public donations (among other means) to stock shelves. People who are moving, clearing out garages, or getting rid of items often donate when there's no time or interest to sell each bit. You can find valuable equipment at low prices if merchants judge incorrectly. Bear in mind that thrift stores around upscale neighborhoods tend to stock higher-quality goods.

Cruise Garage Sales

Even with the power of the internet available, some people like to get rid of stuff the old-fashioned way. Garage sales can seem hit or miss, but not if you learn the do's and don'ts and stick to the strategies for getting the good stuff. Chances are good that you can pick up quality equipment that never would have made it to either Craigslist or a local thrift store.

Start With the Speakers First

Now that you have an idea of where and how to look for new equipment, it's time to prioritize. Speakers are the most important factor in determining the ultimate sound of a stereo system. A set of $60 speakers isn't going to give you $600 sound. It doesn't matter how correctly you've placed them in the room or adjusted the equalizer settings. If you start with quality speakers, you'll end up with quality (or better) sound. So go for the best you can afford.

Not only that, but speakers help determine the amount of amplifier power you will need. Some speakers require more power than others to perform well. And if you own speakers you enjoy listening to—and if they are in good operating condition—use them.

Once the speakers have been acquired, you can then choose a receiver or amplifier. The receiver/amplifier serves as the hub to connect the audio source (such as a media player, CD, DVD, or turntable) to the speakers. If you're sticking to the basics, there's no need to get fancy as long as the power and speaker connection needs are met. But if you own (or plan to) modern source components with digital optical or HDMI inputs (for example, HDTV, Chromecast, or Roku Stick), make sure you have your bases covered.

The last things to consider would be the source components. If you own a lot of digital music or stream from online services, it's easy and inexpensive to connect a mobile device to a stereo system. Otherwise, basic DVD/Blu-ray Disc players are affordable, and most can serve double-duty to play audio CDs as well. If you're interested in owning a turntable to play vinyl records, entry-level models from Crosley or Audio Technica can be found under the $100 price point.

When it comes to cables, don't buy into the hype that price equates to performance. That $5 speaker cable works the same as the $50 one. What matters is the construction. Choose cables that have good insulation and don't come off as cheap or flimsy. If you're unsure, purchase from a place that allows returns so that you can test at home and decide which to keep. By the way, you might want to hide or disguise speaker wires, too.

Patience Pays Off

Don't expect to venture off on this mission and have it completed within a week. Sales and deals can pop up anywhere, anytime, and being impatient often leads to hasty decisions and overpaying. Stick to the plan and remember that the thrill of the hunt can be a reward in itself.

As the saying goes, one man's trash is another man's treasure. Buying used speakers and components is a satisfying way to build an incredible home stereo system while sticking to a budget. You may end up finding some true bargains on high-end equipment that have been waiting for a chance to play again.

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