I recently returned to the $6 million Kipnis Studio Standard for an afternoon of listening. Mostly to music and a bit of home theater fun, but the is what really blew me away. I was listening to the 11,315 watt system turned up nice and loud, but I had no idea how loud. Luckily, Jeremy Kipnis had a sound pressure level meter handy, so I took a reading, 105 decibels. Whoa, that's really loud, but the sound was so clean it didn't hurt. Bear in mind I'm no fan of loud movie theaters or concerts--in fact I always wear hearing protection when I hear music or movies in public. But here with the KSS loud wasn't a problem. I turned up the volume louder and louder, just to see how it would feel, and the sound just got better and better. If the goal of "good sound" is to reproduce music at the same volume as it would be in real life, you need a lot of power.
How many watts do you need?
It depends, do you really think any of those "1000 watt" home theater in a box systems are remotely as powerful as a typical 50 or 60 pound 100 watt per channel stereo amplifier? No way, most HTIBs and $500 A/V receiver power ratings are wildly over inflated. Real power is never cheap, but if you like to listen loud, buy as much power as you can. Deciphering power specifications can be tough for the novice, but if the receiver or amp specifies its power output into 4 ohm speakers that's a really good sign. Few receivers do because they cannot properly drive 4 ohm loads. Most high quality amplifiers that deliver 100 watts into 8 ohm speakers double their output to 200 watts into 4 ohms. Really high-end 100 watt amps double their power again into 2 ohms, right, that's 800 watts a channel!
The advantages of this power doubling aren't theoretical, many 8 ohm speakers may in fact be closer to 4 ohms or less when producing certain frequencies (say 50 hertz). Impedance is rarely constant, it varies with frequency and the better amplifiers deal with that more effectively than lesser models.
Power is just one element of a great system, the speakers play their parts, and the CD player or turntable all need to be up to snuff.
How much does it cost for the good stuff? To find out I will in the coming weeks and months put together a few high performance stereo systems for under $3,000.