Build a Home Stereo System While Sticking to a Tight Budget

A content man with eyes closed, leaning backwards against large stereo speakers
A budget stereo system can be satisfying if you're patient and shop smart. Larry Williams/Getty Images

Stereo systems range in price from a few hundred dollars to – well, the sky's the limit. However, building a home stereo system that satisfies your discerning tastes doesn't have to cost a small fortune. In fact, a quality system can be very 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.

1) ​Identify Needs and Create a Budget​

​If funds were unlimited, all the best equipment would be in your living room instead of on a wishlist.

But in the meantime, you can actively enjoy a fantastic-sounding stereo system while also keeping those wishlist items for potential future upgrades. First, it's prudent to set a budget and stick to it. The goal is to be at or under (yes, even including any tax and shipping costs) the specified amount for purchasing. 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 needs and what can be comfortably set aside. For example, if you already own a great receiver/amplifier, then that's one less thing to shop for. It also means that more can be spent on speakers, other components, and/or accessories. So decide what you need and commit to the spending limit. While it's acceptable to revise the budget (e.g. you worked some extra overtime, earned a quarterly bonus, etc.), don't give in to the temptations to exceed it.

2) ​Sell Stuff You No Longer Need or Use

Putting together a new home stereo system doesn't have to be only about buying. Getting rid of dusty, excess, or older equipment/gear can be an effective way to boost your spending budget. Take it as a wonderful opportunity to purge! (Get things cleaned up before you do, especially those old stereo speakers.) You might have CDs or DVDs that can sell for a few dollars each.

Old headphones? Computer speakers? Those could pick up US$10 and $15 apiece. 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 totally missing out.

There is a trade, of course, which is time. Not all of us have hours to spare to sell online, hold a garage sale, and/or put up Craigslist ads. But you can find someone who does. Just like how parents would 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 and/or young adults living under your roof, you might be thinking of them right now.

3) Be Willing to Buy Used/Refurbished Goods​

There is a certain satisfaction involved with opening a brand 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 necessarily 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 come time to upgrade.

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

But 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 up to a few times a year, which can often lead to "old" lineups going on clearance. While clearance discounts may vary, you can find a better opportunity to haggle over the floor/demonstration model. Speakers and receivers are far less likely to get roughly handled as might laptops or smartphones. Just make sure the condition is good – scratches can be covered/repaired, but damaged speaker cones or cracked cabinets should be avoided. Some units may even carry a factory-/dealer-backed warranty.
  • Shop on Amazon and Ebay.com. It's easy to spend hours browsing through these giant online marketplaces, all in the comfort of your own home. While most of what's being sold is new, there are a lot of 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 any sales tax. Those subscribed to Amazon Prime can also enjoy perks of free two-day shipping (when applicable). On top of all that, you can submit Amazon product links in CamelCamelCamel.com to see the price history (and even set email alerts) to know if you're really getting a deal or not.
  • Browse Craigslist.org. There's 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. Just remember to buy and sell safely when using Craigslist.
  • 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 receive public donations (among other means) in order to stock shelves. People who are moving/relocating, clearing out garages, or simply getting rid of items often donate when there's no time or interest to sell each bit. You can find valuable equipment at ridiculously low prices if merchants judge incorrectly. Bear in mind that thrift stores in/around upscale neighborhoods tend to stock higher-quality goods.
  • Cruise the 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.

4) 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 and/or adjusted the equalizer settings to perfection.

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 will help determine the amount of amplifier power you will need. Some speakers require more power than others in order to perform well. And if you happen to 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 (e.g. media player, CD, DVD, turntable, etc.) to the speakers. If you're sticking to the basics, there's no need to get fancy so 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 (e.g. HDTV, Chromecast, Roku Stick, etc.), make sure you have your bases covered.

The last things to consider would be the source components themselves. If you own a lot of digital music and/or stream from online services, it's easy and inexpensive to connect a mobile device to a stereo system. Otherwise, basic DVD 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 performance. That $5 speaker cable is going to work just the same as the $50 one. What does matter 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 you can test at home and decide which to keep. By the way, here's how to hide or disguise speaker wires if you need to.

5) 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. Remember to stick to the plan and 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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