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Speakers

This starter audiophile system sounds outrageously good for $88

The Lepai LP2020TI stereo integrated amplifier and a pair of Dayton Audio B652 Air speakers dazzle the Audiophiliac.

The Lepai/Dayton system.

Steve Guttenberg/CNET

I cover all sorts of audio gear, everything from dirt-cheap subwoofers to extravagantly expensive turntables; there's something for every budget. 

This time it's a system with a Lepai LP2020TI stereo integrated amplifier that sells for the low, low price of just $38, mated with Dayton Audio B652 Air speakers that go for $50 a pair on Amazon. I'll cut right to the chase: $88 has never sounded this good!

The system will be an ear opener for anyone who's only enjoyed their music with a single Bluetooth speaker, and that includes those selling for triple or quadruple the price of the Lepai/Dayton system. It's clearer and more dynamically alive-sounding, and the advantages of using two speakers over just one cannot be ignored. 

True stereo music fills the room with sound. Bass may not rattle your windows, but it's satisfying, treble is pure, and stereo imaging is surprisingly good. This review was a ball to write, knowing I would be turning people on to really decent sound for such a paltry sum.

Stereo amp: $38

The LP2020TI amp is a tiny critter; its extruded metal chassis measures a scant 1.6 by 4.6 by 4.75 inches. Upfront there are bass, treble and volume controls; the amp's backside hosts one set of RCA stereo inputs, a 3.5mm stereo input and push-spring connectors for speaker cables. There's a small external wall wart power supply. Nothing fancy going on here, unless you count the bright blue LED light encircling the volume knob. That's it; the LP2020TI lacks digital inputs or a remote control.

Go ahead and hook up the LP2020TI to your desktop computer, laptop, tablet or phone's 3.5mm headphone jack, and you'll be good to go. Or maybe a CD or DVD player's analog outputs, or if you have a turntable with a built-in phono preamp go ahead and run that bad boy through the LP2020TI. You can hook up two sources to the pint-size amp, maybe a turntable and a tablet.

See the Lepai LP2020TI at Amazon

Speakers: $50 per pair

The B652 Air's medium-density fiberboard cabinet is finished in matte-black vinyl, with a removable black cloth grille. It's a sealed (non-ported) design, so the B652 Air isn't all that sensitive to the effects of placement near walls or corners. Spring-clip speaker wire connectors are on the rear panel, and there's a keyhole slot to facilitate wall mounting.

The Lepai LP2020TI stereo integrated amplifier.

Lepai

This bookshelf speaker has a 6.5-inch polypropylene woofer -- it's a good deal larger woofer than what you'll find in most budget speakers. And instead of a typical plastic dome tweeter, the B652 Air boasts a high-tech air motion transformer tweeter. This flat, 1-inch square tweeter promises clearer, lower-distortion sound than inexpensive dome tweeters can manage. The speaker's impedance is rated at 6 ohms, and it comes with a pair of 9.5-foot-long speaker cables.

Yes, with our little Lepai/Dayton system you'll have to deal with wires, and if that's a deal breaker, consider the $98-a-pair Dayton Audio MK402BT Bluetooth powered speakers. They're two-way speakers with a 4-inch treated paper woofer and a 0.75-inch soft dome tweeter. The MK402BT is good, but the Lepai/Dayton system is a lot clearer, and has better imaging, with more and better bass. If you care about sound more than convenience, it's a no-brainer; get the Lepai/Dayton system.

See the Dayton Audio B652 Air speakers at Amazon.

Listening test: $88 well spent

The system's sound is smooth and easy on the ears at low to medium loud volume; I really enjoyed my time with the Lepai/Dayton system. Of course if you push it louder, you'll start to hear the limits of what $88 can do. You can temper that a bit with the LP2020TI's treble control. Turn it down a skosh, and that'll help smooth the sound. Still, the Lepai/Dayton system isn't exactly a party animal; if you crave loud, you'll need to significantly boost your budget for a higher-powered amp and bigger speakers.

Still, when I streamed Hulu's new series about a mission to Mars, The First, the Lepai/Dayton combo really shined. The speakers all but disappeared as sources of sound, dialogue was clear, the special effects' dynamics kicked pretty well and bass had decent weight. Budget sound bars can't do much better, and those bars cost more and can't play music nearly as well as the Lepai/Dayton setup. I listened to movies and music long after I needed to write a review, and that's always a good sign.

So if you're audiophile-curious but funds are limited, here's the way in. Of course there's plenty of room for improvement -- upping the budget opens the field to include better speakers, amp, turntable, digital converter, etc. -- but for today it's all about these rock bottom priced, but still decent sounding components. The Lepai/Dayton system really is a charmer.

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