Top 10 must-have audio bargains

High-end audio components can be silly expensive, but there are deals to be had. Here's a Top 10 list of affordable, but great-sounding, products.

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
4 min read
Samsung HT-C6500
Samsung HT-C6500 Samsung

"Good enough" audio is the order of the day, but here at The Audiophiliac it's all about great sounding gear, which can get really expensive. Usually, but not always, so here's a Top 10 list of great gear that won't break the bank. Prices run from $8 to $1,995, and seven of the ten are under $650. All are truly exceptional performers, affordably priced. (Just note that these are my personal picks; see CNET's list of best home audio products for the editors' official recommendations.)


Grado SR60i headphones ($79). Grado long ago set the standard for unbelievably great-sounding, full-size budget headphones with the original SR60. The SR60's sound had weight, detail and punch far beyond the capabilities of most under $100 'phones. Jim Austin, over at Stereophile magazine, recently reviewed the SR60i, and he thinks Grado's upgraded design surpasses the original SR60.


Ikea Lack hi-fi component stand ($7.99) It's made of particleboard and ABS plastic, and it comes in a variety of painted colors (and "birch effect"); it's 21.3 inches wide and deep, and 17.75 inches high. Ikea doesn't present the Lack as audio furniture; it's a side table, but audiophiles all over the world have used it to support their prized possessions. Build quality is surprisingly sturdy.


Sony XDR-F1HD HD Radio ($100). I guess most of you don't listen to radio anymore, but if you're lucky enough to still have a great NPR or college station nearby, you gotta hear this radio. Plug it into your computer or hi-fi and it'll sound better than Internet radio by a long shot.

Samsung HT-C6500 home theater in a box system ($649, pictured at top). I've probably reviewed more HTIBs than anybody, but this new Blu-ray Samsung HTIB really stood out from the crowd. First because it doesn't have the feeble, thin sound I associate with the petite speakers that come with most HTIBs. The sound is rich, full, and thanks to the HT-C6500's potent subwoofer, powerful.

Altec Lansing Expressionist Ultra MX6021 PC speaker-subwoofer system ($200). I checked out Altec's mighty PC sound system when David Carnoy was working on his CNET review. Wow, this thing rocks! It's remarkably clean-sounding, and the subwoofer goes really deep, without the boom and bloat so common to computer speaker systems. Face it, you're never going to get great sound out of pipsqueak speakers, the Altec system's subwoofer is 15.8 inches tall by 15.1 inches wide by 10.2 inches deep, and the satellites sport 3-inch midrange drivers and 1-inch neodymium tweeters. It's easily the best sounding $200 speaker/subwoofer package on the planet!

Rega P1 turntable Rega

Rega P1 Turntable ($350). Rega's belt-drive turntables have been the go-to choice for budget-minded audiophiles for more than 30 years. I sold hundreds of Regas when I worked as a hi-fi salesman, so I know firsthand of their quality. The P1 is the most affordable Rega turntable and features a completely new tonearm, prefitted with an Ortofon OM5e moving-magnet phono cartridge. If you're just now getting into vinyl, put the P1 on your short list.


Dynaudio Excite X12 speaker ($1,200 a pair). Another Stereophile reviewer, Robert J. Reina, reviewed this Dynaudio speaker. I'm a big fan of the company and I use a Dynaudio C1 as one of my reference speakers. Reina was knocked out by the sound, "The Dynaudio Excite X12 has become my new benchmark for loudspeakers costing under $2000/pair."

Steve Guttenberg

Magneplanar 1.7 speakers ($1,995 a pair) These brand new 2 inch thick, 65 inch tall panel speakers blow away most $10,000 speakers; the 1.7 is the high-end audio deal of the century! Magnepan doesn't revamp their line very often, but when they do the result is always something special. I'm writing a complete review for Tone Audio magazine right now, but watch this blog for a review within a few months. Can't swing $1,995? Magnepan offers a smaller panel, the MMG, for $599 a pair! All Magnepan speakers are built in the U.S.A.

Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition Blu-Ray player ($899). It may not look much different than a standard BDP-83 ($500), but the Special Edition really is a very different, potentially better sounding Blu-ray/SACD/DVD-Audio player. I say potentially because the new model's upgraded audio circuitry won't make a bit of difference if you're using HDMI connectivity for audio; the two models would sound exactly the same. But if you have a system lacking HDMI, this player is for you. But even if you do have HDMI, the sound from the Oppo BDP-83 Special Edition's 7.1-channel analog outputs will be music to your ears.

Steve Guttenberg

The Miniwatt N3 Integrated Tube Amplifier ($379). A lot of audiophiles love tube amps, but tube components are usually pretty expensive. The N3 is affordable and uses a single ECC83 twin-triode tube feeding a single EL84 output tube per channel, and the amp features a switching power supply. The N3 delivers a healthy 3.5 watts per channel, and matched with the right speakers, the wee amp makes a big sound.