Please Advise me on Building a System on a Budget

Hello everyone,

I am an aspiring audiophile who loves music but I have never had the money to buy any real nice equipment. I am looking to build a relatively nice system for the first time and I am on a budget. I am looking to spend only around $2000 on everything. I am looking to get everything used and I am willing to hunt on ebay and craigslist for bargains. I want to stretch this $2000 as far as I can. I have a few questions that I hope some of you experts could help me with.

Ideally, I need a pair of speakers, a preamp, an amp, a record player and some type of digital source like a cd player (or SACD player). I know that is an aweful lot to ask for on a $2000 budget but tell me what you think I could do.

One question I have been wondering is if it really makes sense in 2011 to spend big money on a cd player or SACD player. I don't quite understand people who are spending a thousand dollars on a top of the line NAD player or other unit. Wouldn't it make more sense to have a hard drive based unit or computer playing lossless audio files? Wouldn't that be able to produce the same quality audio but be more convenient?

My initial thoughts would be that I should have a PC with a solid DAC as my digital source (or hard drive based player) and then get a good record player. Does this sound reasonable? Or is there some reason why playing old fashioned CDs through a NAD or other device would sound superior? Also, would you recommend a SACD player? Of course, there are plenty of high resolution FLAC files that I could conceivably play from a hard drive unit as well.
Please advise on this.

What I was thinking of as far as budgeting was concerned is: Spend about $700-$800 on the best used speakers I can find. Spend about the same on the best Pre-amp/Power amp combination I can find. And spend the rest towards the rest, particularly the digital and vinyl sources.

The $2000 is not a hard and fast budget but I seriously do not have a lot of money and I want to get the best audio I can for a reasonable amount. I would rather spend more on the speakers and amps and maybe wait on a record player.

What can you suggest? Thanks. I look forward to hearing your suggestions.
Answers depend on the experiences of someone responding, and well-learned lessons. I suggest system matched components. By that I mean learning to appreciate reading spec sheets. For example, pro's have different output levels and amps have different minimum signal level requirements for full-rated power. Speaker's have amp rating specs to match-up. For digital sources like a transport, professional AES/EBU connections are the best I've heard. Yet, I have an OPPO 981 HD with very fine multi-disk audio/video playback abilitites, too.

Certain matched components, like processor/amp/speaker combinations seem to sound made for each other. Cables can be a daunting. I like and have all Mogami Gold. Analog and digital 75 ohm and 110 ohm can look very similiar, yet, sound way different. Order carefully and look for the cable identification.

I'm looking at adding vinyl playback, so, can't answer from good experience. When I do, it will be best system matched components, within reason.

The types of music you enjoy is important, too, because some well-matched system's seem best for certain music. Of course, the true musicality MoJo has to be experienced with your own well-known recordings. Also, check the system settings when demo'ing. "Flat" is often the best baseline reference point to judge the musicality MoJo with your ears. A "in-home audition" is usually best.
Alright, I'll give it a shot.

Zu Audio Omen (high efficiency speaker--will give you flexibility with amps--stunning dynamics without any shrillness) You might be able to get one for $1000.

Onix Sp3 tube integrated. (this is an amazingly sweet sounding tube amplifier, built like a tank, will drive the Zu's louder than is bearable) You usually see these going for $450 used.

Peachtree Audio iDac (this is a world class DAC, you can use your computer as a transport and truly enjoy your cd collection) You might be able to get one for $700 used.

I'm a bit over your budget, but I can guarantee you would not regret it...

Cheers & luck,

Hello, I am Geo'ndaLou and I just now (6:50 pm cst) saw a Mark Levinson power($750) amp in one listing and an Audio Research power amp ($625) in another separate listing here on Audiogone. I have NEVER seen these types of components listed so inexpensively anywhere. Either would give you KILLER sound for pennies on the dollar! I now use an Inspiron 1525 pc as my source, and it I am very pleasantly suprised at the quality of reproduction it supplies. I plan to auire a dac for about $1100.00 in the near future. There is a pair of Magnaplanars for $500.00 listed also, you can find a chinese headphone amp to use asa preamp here or on Ebay for around $200.00 or so. I use Canare wire extensively throughout my system, and it is vry neutral in character. Later you could get a good sub to flesh out the bass, but this would give you close to concert quality sound, just give the components at least a month to burn in. Hope this helps!
My System:
-Jolida 3000B tube preamp
-Jolida 3000A tube mono block power amps:200 watt/ch monitor amps
-Dell Inspiron 1525 pc: 4gb ram, 320 gb hd
-Kenwood 2001 tuner: had it since I was 17, it ain't goin' nowhere!
-Adcom 545II power amp, 200 watt/ch(4 0hm) : subwoofer amp
-Musical Design D-75 power amp, 120 watt/ch(4 ohm):alternate monitor amp
-Marchand Electronics XM-9 3-way electronic crossover
-Sound Dynamics 300 Ti 8in-3-way monitors: Treble frequencies
-Custom 15in ported subs: I could tell you who made them, but then he would kill ME!
Canare cable throughout: Killer!
MacMini $570 (MacMall)
Vandersteen 2C's 700 (lots to choose from)
Power amp 700

Lots of power amps to choose from, no preamp needed
8 mg of after market memory for Mac $50
I'd start with NHT Super Zero and subwoofer. Reviewed in Stereophile 2 issues ago. I would also look for a Naim Nait integrated. An Oppo or any descent Digital source a Rega RP1 turntable with arm and I believe cartridge Ready to Play. Interconnects and speaker wire are your choice.
The Naim has some of the best timing (rhythm and pacing) of any amp I know. If you need a dac you have the Scott Nixon Tube Dacs, the Rega Dac and Cambridge Dac and VDac from Musical Fidelity and some others that sound really good. The speakers should be your first choice I think.
$2000 including analog front end is tough. Could you stretch it to $2500 even if not right away? Remember, you will also need a lot of cables and you don't want junk.
In this case, I would probably start by choosing good used integrated amplifier with or without phono stage. Unless you are very lucky I just don't see how you can have acceptable separates within this price range. Even vintage Tandberg or Audiolab would most likely be too much. There are many good speakers for around $500-$600 though. And, yes, I would go with computer based digital source.
I would begin your search with a pair of speakers that would fit you room and taste in music, spend up to $1000.

Speakers are the heart of any system so get that part right.

Use the rest for an integrated amp (not separates) and the computer/DAC idea is a good one. Buy the turntable later as you will run out money to buy a decent one for $2000 for everything.

You will get a million ideas and it may get confusing so start with speakers and search the archives - is the best advice IMO.
For the Cd front end buy a Sony Playstation (Im serious), you'll have to look it up but there are raves on the older units for cd and I think you can nab one for $50 ish. Budget about $500 for the vinyl front end and buy the best used Rega combo you can find including a low - use cartridge ( you can work more on that later, for now stay high output.). Buy a nice integrated with a phono stage. maybe some NADS fit in there or maybe a used Muiscal Fidelity, and you can get something good for $400 for $750. That leaves the speakers and no more than $50 for cabling (study and be creative but Blue Jeans is a great start if you only need speaker wire) - starter EPOS are great. Then fill your boots on whatever kind of speaker you like( stand mount images a little better in the lower end $$ wise). Take you time and have fun. Computer audio is the NBT, dont spend $$$on a CDP.
My friends set up sounds darn nice and was a great bang for the buck IMO. B&K Pro 10 preamp (has very nice phono section too). I've read that Sumo also made some nice pre's with good phono sections. Some of these Sumo's and B&K pres can be had for $275 > $400. I have a B&K MC101 for a secondary system and love it. Very well made too.

As for speakers by buddy runs Maggie MMG's I think. Acquired factory direct for about $650 or so.
These speakers produce a wall of sound, very detailed yet natural. For this price it's an amazing value.
Down side is that they are big so you need adequate space for proper set up. You could add a sub to round out the bottom octave depending music and personal preferences.

The Maggies like current. So, he uses some big Emotiva amp (he mentioned they are having a holiday special) Factory direct price with shipping included for $700 I believe). Has plenty of current/juice to run the Maggies properly.

I defer to others on the digital recommendations. He uses a Marantz 8003 cd/sacd which has USB and other provisions to accommodate iPod..... This player goes for about $700 or so used.

I listen to his system often and I'm really impressed with it. Note, this past week he just moved up to the Maggie 1.6s so his MMG's might be for sale. Let me know if interested and I could get you his contact information. I have nothing to gain by this but it might give you a good opportunity to get good used speakers for a reasonable price. He also has nice beefy metal speakers stands (an upgrade) that will go with the speakers.

Good luck :)
How about Snell type C with Tandberg 3012 integrated to begin with? It has a decent phono stage and can be found here or on ebay for $300-350. I saw Snells on Audiogon a few times for about $700 asking price plus shipping. Then you would have about $900 left for the rest. That's not bad.
Unless you already have a bunch of albums, I wouldn't advise spending much money on a vinyl rig. Regardless of what the vinyl junkies say, the budget tables, preamps, cartridges and associated platters, counterweights and all that jive is miles away from high quality sound reproduction compared to even modestly priced digital playback like CD. Taking that road on a tight budget is not going to yield long-term satisfaction. The hard truth is that although vinyl can sound amazingly good, it ain't cheap to accomplish and the budget stuff ain't it.

If you intend to spend your money on downloaded media for the forseeable future then I would suggest you concentrate you funds on the things that matter in the digital to analog world. To what extent each component deserves attention depends on a lot of factors like how loud you listen to music, the size of your room, will a home theater be involved and many other factors.

If you can't properly locate your speakers in relation to your listening position, little else matters. Start with your speaker location and your chair and work your way back to the gear. Speakers need room to breathe and they need to be sized for the room they will be used in and the electronics that will be driving them.

Within your budget, the best route for the best sound for the money is a digital based system.
Totem Arro's can be purchased for $450-700 used. Great imaging and midrange sound. Hopefully, you already have a computer. Get a DAC c a preamp- I like my Burson HA-150 which has been out long enough to be available used. Add a Squeezebox touch. Outlay is $1500-1600 at that point. Then look for an amp. IF you have a smallish listening room, you'll be very happy as a starter system. You can easily upgrade w/o much depreciation. Alternately, consider active speakers (I have no experience with these- thus can only say consider). The selection here is much smaller and even more so if you're looking for used ones.
I just wanted to follow up on how much I would need to spend for a record playing system to notice the difference. I have been wanting to get into vinyl for a while now. I think it is certainly fine to exclude the record player from the $2000 budget.

But how much would I have to spend on a system to make the quality of vinyl anything close to what the enthusiasts rave about? Would I need a better system all around than what I am looking at or would I just need to spend more on the turntable?

It seems that most individuals who have very expensive systems always seem to love vinyl and have it as a vital part of their listening experience. Let's say for $2000, all I had budgeted was speakers and amps. I bought the best I could for that price.

Then let's say I spent $500 on the best used turntable I could find. Are you saying this wouldn't be worth it? It wouldn't yield the type of audio quality that vinyl enthusiasts love?

Putting aside the current discussion, what would be a decent budget for a system designed for vinyl?
You can get a very credible vinyl system without spending, relatively, too much money. Say, a used Rega P3 ($450), a used Project Tube Box ($300) and a new Dynavector cartridge ($425). It would take a lot of money to beat this combo...
Totem Aero or Vienna Acoustic Mozart speakers

Bel Canto i3 Int amp with built in dac

Squeezebox Touch this will wireless connect to an existing computer

Paul Paul Speltz Anti cable for speaker cable or DH Labs T14

This is the best sound you will get for $2000 used prices.
Watch craigslist/ebay and pick up a Sony Playstation as mentioned above. Sounds crazy, but this thing does sound great and is -so- cheap, it can be a starter source while you put your system together. Must be the PS 1 with rca outputs on back.
If you choose something like the Zu Audio Omen which is 98db efficient, I offer another bit of blasphemy: I suggest you pick up a T-amp. The one I have is the HLLY tamp-20 and can be had on auction for less than $100. It's the only T-amp I have heard, but with the PS1 and Klipsch Forte IIs it is simply wonderful. Source and Amp total cost was $85.
I know this might strike you as ridiculous, but you would be up and running with amp and source for peanuts, and with high efficiency speakers you have endless options of amplifiers to audition. I reccomend the T-amp to anyone with compatible speakers as an essential cheap accessory back-up amp. Stamp me as crazy, but know I am not one of those audio anarchists that think all amps sound the same and that all high dollar gear is a scam. Just stumbled onto something cheap that really works for me. I like listening to my super cheap system as much my other (modest)stuff.
For a digital source, I do recommend using the computer; however, don't exclude hard copies. You can find a really good multi format player for $200 or less. There is almost always a Denon 3910 on eBay for ~$200, and the 2200 can be had for less. The 3910 sounds pretty damn good (for the used price), and is a favorite of modifiers. You'd probably have to spend $500 to beat it.

If you want tube gear, I suggest hunting down a Dynaco ST-70 and PAS-3. You may want to eventually get a PAS-3 regardless as it makes for a sweet sounding phono stage if you don't want to use it as a pre in the future. If you want to get solid state gear, older Sumo and Adcom gear would work for now and can easily be found on the cheap.

For speakers, once you have some components ready, you may want to just order a set of Magnepan MMG's. I believe they're $600 factory direct, and they offer a 60-day money back in-home trial. It's certainly worth checking them out if you don't mind shipping them back if they're not for you. Otherwise many of the other suggestions are good. You may also want to consider just picking up a set of Advent Loudspeakers. You should be able to find a good condition set for $250, and they sound pretty damn good. A non-working set should be <$100 and the refoam kit should be less than 20.

For cables, I'd just start out with stuff from Blue Jean Cables. They're pretty good and much cheaper than anything else out there.
You have waited for a long time to have a good system, and you want serious stuff. That's not Rega or Pro-Ject. You want either Technics direct drive turntable or Nottingham belt drive. Within your price range Technics 1200 with tonearm should be realistic. Moving Magnet cartridge will cost you about $350 new. I would get Goldring 1042, directly from the UK. Some like Audio-Technica 150 and Grado.
Used, used, used, from the 'gon'. For a digital source try the sony 595 changer often available from sonystyle for $60. Turntables that must be picked up, no shipping. Amps, try cayin. Speakers, try Polk.
IMHO, unless you already have a decent vinyl collection, you'd be better off spending the bulk of your $2K on speakers and amplification, etc., and reconsider analog when more money might become available.
Check out Emotiva, They’re Direct Seller to public you can read about their gear here. Their amps are incredible and can drive any speaker. If I were you, I’d go w/Emotiva’s gear, you’ll get matched products with 5 year warranty and good resell value. Their stuff is on sale right now so you got extra saving. Go w/ system #2. And spend some Money on speakers.
By the way, their interconnectors are on sale too and they’re of good quality.

You can setup a pretty darn amazing system for very little cash:

System 1: $1437
Pre Amp: USP 1 - $369
CD: ERC 2 - $369
AMP: XPA 2: $699 (very powerful amp, will drive anything on the market)

System 2: $1336
Pre Amp: USP 1 - $369
CD: ERC 2 - $369
AMP: 2x UPA 1: $299 each (very good mono blocks, will drive most speakers with ease)

System 3: $1027
Pre Amp: USP 1 - $369
CD: ERC 2 - $369
AMP: UPA 2: $289 (This is pretty budget, I’d stay away)
I wanted to ask about Magnepan speakers. Jazzerdave suggested I look at the MMG's. I have long heard about the raves that audiophiles have heaped on the 1.7 and 3.7. I have also heard that they represent some of the best values in audio. I haven't heard too much about their lower priced stuff though.

I know I cannot stretch my money to buy the 1.7's but I am open to their cheaper models. Could someone tell me how their lower priced speakers sound in comparison to other speakers of the same price? Is there certain types of music that are better represented with the maggies that others?

Would they work well with vinyl? Are they lacking in bass? I would like to go for Magenpan's but I need to know a little more about them first.

What types of amps would be advisable to use?

I am looking for a tube based integrated amp. Could you give me any more suggestions?

Thanks a lot.
As far as Magnepan goes, yes I would say they're lacking in bass. Even the 3.7's could use a subwoofer. Also you need a really fast sub to integrate it well. The MMG's need a subwoofer for the best experience; however, they're definitely a good introduction to panel speakers. The clarity and imaging will probably be better than anything you can find in a similar price range. I'd recommend solid state power amps and a tube preamp, but there are plenty of options. The TAD Hibachi monoblocks (solid state ~200W/ch into 4 ohms) would work well, sound more "tube-like" than solid state, and you could probably pick up a set on the cheap using up less than 20% of your budget. Essentially the MMG's are there to get you hooked on the Magnepan sound; they want you to start there and eventually decide to move your way up the chain. It's always a good idea to get a feel for the Magnepan sound for yourself, so search around for some reviews and try to find a nearby dealer or owner to audition something in the Magnepan line. However, if you can't find the opportunity to do that, I do suggest giving the MMG home audition a try. You could use them alone for a while, then eventually add a sub, and then after a few years move up to the 1.7's. Or if you don't like them, you just send them back and search for some more traditional speakers.
You've determined your budget, good so far. Now I'd suggest determining what you think you'll need, then what might work in your room, then decide on your speakers, before committing to specific amplification choices.
I almost forgot. Earlier Ivan had mentioned the Peachtree Audio iDac. It's an excellent product, but I'd also suggest trying out the iDecco. The DAC in the iDecco isn't quite as awesome, but it's still very good, the preamp is pretty good too, there's a damn fine headphone amp, and the 30wpc amp is pretty good for the money. You can get the iDecco for a little over $800. I think the DAC alone is worth at least that much. I think you'd have to spend about $500 to beat the headphone amp, and around $1000 to equal or best the preamp. You could probably equal the power amp easily enough, but it's not bad. The combination of the iPod doc with .flac files (of well recorded material) can beat the pants off of some CD players that would consume your entire budget. The iDecco was the 2011 Stereophile budget component of the year, and it was well deserved.

If you got the iDecco, you could have several options You would have a little under $1200 left in your budget (if you bought it new-someone's selling one used here for $680). Here's some build's for you:

System 1:
iDecco = $819 (new)
MMG = $599 (new)
TAD Hibachi monoblocks ~ $350 (used)
Denon 2200 ~100 (used)
speaker cable and interconnects from Blue Jeans cable ~$130
Total : $1958

System 2:
iDecco = 819 (new)
Usher S-520 = 450 (new)
Denon 3910 ~250 (used)
Blue Jeans Cable ~ 100
Total : $1,650

You could easily shave a few hundred buck off the first system by getting everything used or completely forgoing the multi-format disc player. Or, if you want to use the USB input from your computer intead of an iPod, you can find the plain Decco used for under $500.

I actually used the second system in my bedroom for a while and thought it sounded great. The Ushers are a small bookshelf monitor, but they have plenty of punch for their size. The only reason I don't have this system set up right now is because I moved my iDecco into another room with a bigger setup. You could start with just the Peachtree and some bookshelf speakers and then eventually add a better, separate power amp, get some full-range floor-standers, then use the Ushers (or other affordable bookshelves) to start a decent little bedroom system.

I'd also give another heavy recommendation to Vandersteen speakers. I've never owned them myself, but I have a good friend who had the 2CE's and just upgraded to the 3A sigs. They sound great. The 3A's are more than your budget allows, but I know he picked up his first set of 2CE's for under $400 with the stands. If you look around, you can find some great deals out there.
What kind of music do you listen to?
The first thing you do when buiding a system on a budget is to increase your budget.
Another member posted a great note on developing better critical lisening skills. Critical listening skills can help you better interpret transient changes in music reproduction during high demands.

One interesting note is why some critical lisener's "occassionally" use subwoofers. During high music peaks, especially with lower ohm-rated speakers, amps can drop the balanced levels of less demanding instuments and voices. A good musical sub can reproduce the lower notes, removing the lowest frequency demands from the main speaker amps during highly demanding music.

Matching your main speaker's with a perfectly matched musical sub is something to consider, especially, if the levels of less dominant instuments and voices drop off during musical peaks.

Better link:

Here is the link in working order:
You can get an awful lot out of your computer if you know a geek. I don't know squat about computers, but I know a "geek". Although I have a Marantz transport feeding a DTI which goes into a DAC, I hardly ever use them. I use CODEX on the computer and transfer that to a playlist.

Maybe you could do without a CD player for awhile.
Go to Radio Shack DUDE!!
I would recommend the Denon CX3 Series. The build quality is exceptional. The player is a SACD and the matching receiver is a class D design. Depending on condition $1000 might be enough for both units. This leaves you enough for the Magnepan MMG, brand new! If your a rock/metal only guy look into Klipsch.
For used speakers in your budget, maybe PSB Stratus Golds or Hales R3's.

Probably suggest an integrated like Cambridge, Rega, or Musical Fidelity, or just get a new Emotiva.
Your budget and approach are similar my own. Here's what I came up with, including shipping:

Denon DL-103 lomc cartridge, $180 new on ebay
Denon AU-300 $237 transformer, $237, new on ebay
Denon DP 1200 turntable, $275, used on ebay
Hafler DH-110 preamp (for phono stage only), $195, used on ebay
Music Angel Chinese tube preamp, $183, new on ebay
Hafler DH-220 power amp, $190, used on ebay
Magneplanar MMG speakers, $650, from Magnepan factory
Hsu STF-2 subwoofer, $370, from

Total: $2279

An alternative to the Denon front end might be a Rega RP-1 ($450) plus a Dynavector 10x5 high-output moving coil ($450). Too bad the Denon DL-160 (another homc at $180) is discontinued. Some alternatives for the preamp(s) are other old classics like the Apt-Holman, Audire Legato, certain Adcoms, but beware - the phono section and preamp are crucial, and there is a lot of shlock out there, which can be hard to detect until it is replaced with something good. :) Research the reputations of particular models to find something nearly universally praised - good sound hasn't changed much from 50 years ago, really.

I also endorse other's recommendation to try the Magnepanar MMGs with the factory program. They are a budget reference standard for good reasons, and certainly worth hearing in your own home just for the education. Have fun! :)
I Just put together such a systemfor my media room:

Linn Wakonda Pre w/ phono $500.00
Linn LK85 Amp $400.00
Linn Kan Speakers $400.00
Denon 3930CI Universal Player $275.00
Pro-Ject Essential Turntable $300.00

Linn K20 Speaker wire $12.00/Meter
Audioquest Quartz IC $75/Meter Pair

The only real “compromise” was the turntable which, for me at least, is “good enough” for the secondary Media Room system. I’m in a condo, so I don’t really have the adequate space for a pair of Maggies, ymmv. A Linn LK140 is a better amp than the LK85, but can also be about $200.00 more expensive.

If you like the “Linn Sound” this will get you to a system within your $2K budget.