How to set a budget for your audio system

The Audiophiliac’s guidelines for how much to spend and what you get for your money.

Steve Guttenberg
Ex-movie theater projectionist Steve Guttenberg has also worked as a high-end audio salesman, and as a record producer. Steve currently reviews audio products for CNET and works as a freelance writer for Stereophile.
Steve Guttenberg
3 min read

I enjoy covering the widest possible range of audio products, with an emphasis on gear that gives the best sound per dollar, with occasional forays to the upper limits of audiophile nirvana. So whether your audio budget is $100 or $100,000, I'm here to help.

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The new Yamaha YAS-207 sound bar.


As for what you need to spend for a decent audio system, first consider how you're going to use it. Is this a music-only system, a TV/movie-only system or do you want both in one system? The easy answer is both, but you may sacrifice sound quality with that choice.

For example the best option for movie-oriented systems, especially if you're on a tight budget, is a sound bar . They sound great with movies, but are only borderline acceptable for music . Meanwhile a music-only system costing the same would sound better with music, but lack the bass muscle of a decent sound bar/subwoofer system. That price/performance ratio holds true for home-theater systems up to around $2,000. 

So if you watch a lot more movies and TV than listen to music at home, buy a home-theater audio system. Or, if you're like me and listen to a lot more music than you watch movies, I strongly recommend a music-oriented system. 

As for how much to spend, that comes down to what you can afford and whether you want something that you can upgrade in a year or two. Prices start at $150 for recommended sound bar/sound base systems from YamahaSamsung, Sonos and Vizio.

Stepping up from sound bars and bases doesn't have to be terribly expensive. Denon, Marantz, Onkyo, Yamaha, etc. have  AV receiver prices starting around $300, while 5.1 channel speaker/subwoofer packages start around $450, so for as little as $750 you can have more room-filling, more dynamically alive sound than what's available from the better sound bar or base systems. That's where AV receiver/speaker systems prices start, and you can spend a lot more.

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The Denon AVR-X1400H 7.2 channel AV receiver.


What do you get for dropping more cash? A bunch of things, starting with superior build quality, which leads to better sound with more clearly defined bass, mids and treble along with more enveloping, room-filling sound. You also get more power, so the system can play louder without strain, and/or more channels of sound to better fill larger than average sized rooms. 

To get that, you'd choose a higher-end receiver from the brands I mentioned previously, matched with bigger and better speakers from Bowers & Wilkins, Dynaudio, Emotiva, KEF, etc. These higher end AV receiver/speaker system prices start around $2,000, but the sky's the limit for how much the best home theater sound systems can cost.

Music systems

Starter music systems come in around $300, which can buy a pair of Pioneer SP-BS22 bookshelf speakers and the Yamaha R-S202 stereo receiver, for example. 

If you play vinyl, add another $100 for the Audio Technica AT LP60 turntable, which is startlingly good for the money. If you're serious about extracting more music from the grooves, spring for a U Turn or Rega turntable

If you play music files, consider dropping some coin on a sweet sounding digital converter from Arcam, Chord, Meridian or Mytek, to name just a few.  

Stepping up from the little Pioneer bookshelf speakers, I like ELAC America, Emotiva, Dynaudio and Klipsch speakers that will have more clarity and bigger, more sharply focused stereo imaging, along with more and better bass for around $300 per pair and up. Investing in floor-standing speakers is recommended for folks who really love bass, have larger than average rooms and/or like to party! 

Wired speakers, unlike electronics, never really go out of date, so upping your budget to get the absolute best you can afford would be a wise long term investment.

If you place your TV between your stereo speakers and hook up a Blu-ray player, cable or satellite box's audio output to the stereo receiver, you can enjoy stereo home theater sound for as long as the speakers last.

The best sounding gear, like the best of anything else doesn't come cheap, but very decent systems can be extremely affordable. If you really love movies or music, that might help justify splurging a bit more for great sound for years to come.

Watch this: Vizio's $150 sound bar is one of the best you can buy