Build your system around a good speaker and integrated amp found on the GON.
Start auditioning components in your area from local hifi stores.
Couple of suggestions found on the GON:
Swan D1.1se Mini Monitor
NAIM NAIT 3, Musical Hall, NAD or Arcam a85
Welcome to the wonderful world of precision audio and to the joys of vinyl playback!
The good news is that you should be able to get a musically satisfying system within the $1500 cash budget you mentioned.
First, I think that you would want to purchase a complete turntable-arm-system from a dealer, since set-up is an important part of performance. You might as well have a pro do it originally for you. The Rega RP1 would be a good start. For about the same money, another option is one of the entry-level Pro-Ject 'tables, with a decent entry-level MM cartridge. So say you spend $300 out-of-pocket, plus your Amazon gift card on something like that.
I would think you would be hard pressed to do better than a Rega Brio for an integrated amp. It's about 40-50 wpc and has a built-in MM phono input, so you don't have to spend money on a separate phono stage and interconnect. The Brio is $695 new, but you might be able to find a used or demo for less.
Even paying full freight to buy a Brio new, that would leave about $500, and there are lots of very decent monitors out there in that price range. The Totem Dreamcatcher just got a rave review at $575. The PSBs are nice, too. The small Quads (non-powered versions) sounded good to me the one time I got to hear them.
Some of the B&W's get high marks though I have to say they've never gotten my toes tappin' like the Totems. In a different vein, the entry level Maggies at $500 are supposed to be very tasty, though I haven't heard them and don't know how they'd fair (a) with the Rega and (b) in a bedroom system that might have limited space. Same for a used pair of Vandy 1c's.
I guess the bottom line is that you are going to have plenty of choices to make and need to trust your ears. Don't be afraid to "make do" when it comes to stuff like speaker stands and wires -- for the time being. It's true that they impact the sound, but for your initial purchase I would concentrate on getting the best quality source, amp, and speakers (i.e., ones that sound best to you) that you can afford and then fill in the rest as you go.
Dawgfish's advice is good IMHO. Another approach, not hard to take where I live, is to visit a few audio stores and decide where you feel the most comfortable. Then start building a relationship.
This can be done several ways, not necessarily by making a major purchase. Do buy some smaller things, an LP or two for example. Check out the used and demo items. Ask to hear a favourite recording on the best system they have.
The objective is to hear the best systems you can and discuss ways to get there eventually. This will be of enormous help as you make your initial choices, because you will learn what qualities and features are most important to you.
Although buying new gear from a store is more expensive than any other way to get it ( except being scammed on the Internet ), trial and error can cost you too. In the long run knowing what you want may end up saving you more than you thought.
One thing to avoid like the plague is auditioning an item at a store and then going out and buying the same unit used, for cheaper, on the Net.
Finally, I have a preference for listening to systems where money is spent on the source first. This is because you can hear a good source through any downstream gear, and I find that more fun to listen to than an ordinary source through great speakers. So if I were buying with a view to later upgrades, that's how I'd balance things.
Bedrooms can be difficult ... I have had better luck with monitors but it really depends on the size of the room. I really like the Vandy 1c advice - I have nearly pulled the trigger on a few sets of Vandersteen's myself. I see them on Craigslist every once in a while. Very good reviews and a bargain if you can pick them up local. I have heard the Totem Dreamcatcher and I always wonder why they never made my list - also a very good choice. I dont know if you could pull it off but a Jolida 50wpc tube integrated and an inexpensive phono pre (Bellari) would be an interesting combo with either of the two speaker sets. Wouldnt leave a ton left for the table but a used Technics 1200 MK2 and a Grado mm cart might just cutoff.
I think I'm probably breaking the bank ... I have a hard time holding back when it comes to spending someone else's money.
Another good speaker brand that shows up on Craigslist, at least in the Pacific Northwest is A/D/S. I have a set of L710's and they really sing. Softdome tweeters and mids and the woofers have rubber surrounds so they age very well. I have seen them sell for under $300.
Good luck and have fun with you LP's. I would also recommend the Spin Clean system ... it's cheap and works well. A bit of a pain - having to clean 30-40 albums at a time but I was really happy with the result.
As relates to the Turntable, look for a used Denon 47F, and marry it with their 160 cartridge. As you have mentioned TT's are best picked up, unless the seller has the original packing materials and boxes, even then, double box, ship fully insured..
There is nothing wrong with buying a turntable on ebay, just make sure the seller knows how to pack and ship it. I have sold and shipped a number of tables without any damage whatsoever. I have received a few tables that were wrecked, and it is all in the packing, rarely the shipping company.
So, make sure the seller removes the platter and tonearm at a miniumum and pack them seperately. Of course, any cartridge should be removed and packed. Dont let them use peanuts, because they get everywhere you dont want them to.
For the price you are looking at, you can get any number of Oracle Delphi Mk II, VPI MK IV, Sota Sapphire, Townshend Rock III, all of which attempted the state of the art at some point. They will probably come with Rega RB300 or Sumiko/Jelco arms which are acceptable. Any of those will get you a huge part of the vinyl experience. Then get a record vacuum machine and some set up tools and you are all set to go.
As for integrateds, the Cambridge 340A is stellar for the money. I have one, and can vouch for it. Stephen Mejias also just wrote about it in his new column. the 350A just replaced it. The entry-level Marantz is also supposed to be excellent. One of the Stereophile guys reviewed the Pro-jet Debut III with it and was impressed.
As for speakers, the Cambridge S30 monitors arew shockingly good for $220 a pair. Parts-express has a very good Usher kit for $600 which you can also buy assembled.
I like some of the suggestions above. I had Project and Music Hall turntables, and I'm much happier with a KAB-modified Technics. It's a very stable platform that is compatible with a wide range of cartridges and is a great bang for the buck.
Here is what I would do:
Turntable and accessories:
Technics SL1200 turntable
Denon 103 cartridge
Parasound zPhono or NAD phono stage
Music Hall Mambo, Jolida 302b (tube integrated), Onkyo A9555, or Audio Refinement Complete
Usher S520, PSB Stratus Mini, Von Schweikert VR-1, or Totem Rainmaker
You'll have a killer system for the price.
I really want to thank you all for your suggestions! I definitely feel like I have a sense of direction now :)
For amps I have so far short-listed the Music Hall Mambo, Jolida, Cambridge 340A,and the Onkyo A9555. I've actually located a Music Hall and Onkyo on sale here at Audiogon for a very reasonable price. NAD, Arcam, and something like the Marantz 5003 might also be considered. The Rega Brio, while a bit steeper in price, has not been ruled out either. (not much of a short list I guess, heh)
As for speakers, I plan on auditioning the Totem Dreamcatchers as many of you have mentioned these. The Cambridge S30, and Usher S-520 will also be taken into consideration.
I have been able to find a dealer in Fresno, which is about a 45-50 min drive for me, which carries Arcam, Onkyo and Totem, so I will make the drive and kill three birds with one stone. I'm also planing a trip to the bay area at the end of the month and am planning on searching for a dealer where I can check out the remaining equipment.
Well I'll make sure to keep you guys posted with any new progress/decisions. Again, thank you all for taking the time to help me out!