What to upgrade first?

Currently running an inexpensive 2x50 receiver and inexpensive speakers. Primary audio sources FM and CD's.
CD player is close to brand new California Audio Labs DX-2.
Apt. environment, good sized living room with high, sloped ceiling. Listen to jazz, blues, female vocals, classical
only occassionaly. Should I upgrade the reciever or speakers
first, and any recommendations? Price range around $500 for
first upgrade, can't do both at one time. THANKS!
It's kinda tough to call at that price point. To get the most for your money, you're probably looking at used gear, and there are some buys to be had in electronics out there, but I'd suggest trying to save up a bit more (closer to $1000) and then upgrade the speakers first. My logic is that $1000 can buy some very fine used speakers (and some quite decent brand new ones) that may show your current receiver to be better than it seems, but more importantly, will definitely show the true colors of any replacement gear you subsequently acquire. Even if you find an incredible deal on an amp right now, it's only going to sound as good as the speakers it's played thru - if they totally suck, well, what you think you gonna hear?

You are lucky to have the CAL - I really like their stuff.

I think you need to upgrade both.

A lot of people will say that the speaker is the most important component but I tend to disagree. I think the front end is the most important followed by the line stage and amp. I have heard mediocre speakers (polk, psb) sound excellent with a good front end (CAL, Theta, Jeff Rowland.) For 500 bucks you could buy an excellent used amp (aragon, PS Audio, NAD) or integrated. Then you get into something like Vandersteen 2ce's for another 500 and Boom! close to Hi-Fi and light years better than what you've got now.

oh yeah-Don't forget about cables (another 200-400 bucks.)

One good purchase motivates the other and justifies the cost. Its not a painful purchase if the improvement is obvious.

Dude, tell us what you have now.
Hey Danvetc wasup? Receiver is a 2x50 RCA Stereo Receiver STA-3850, Speakers are Optimus STS 600 61/2" Two-Way Mini Towers, 75W into 8 Ohms 55 Hz-20kHz. The CD player as mentioned above is a California Auduio Labs DX-2. I would appreciate your input.
OK, you have a big room to fill. First, maybe check out this site with lots of good info and then check the listings, http://www.goodsound.com. I also vote for speakers first. There are a pair of PSB Image 5T for $550. Also a pair of [discontinued] PSB 500i for $280, (will need stands though,) that would fill that room. You could check the PSB website for specs. PSB is, across the board, respected for what they do in their price range. If you bought the cheaper speaker and strrrrrrrrrrrretched your budget for a used Creek 4330 integrated amp, you would be in business. How do you say, “A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step?” Good luck, and hey, you really can live for a month or two on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches if you take a good multivitamin. Charlie.
hey danvetc, any adwantage to going to name-brand multi-witamins vs the generics? ;~)

regards, doug

Hello Scmca; I wholehearted agree with Costrosk. For your situation i would think ahead and start with the speakers. Though 500 is a little lite for what i suggest. I can tell you how to plan ahead and knock your socks off with the components you now have. Later as funds become more available you can get a high quility intergrated amp. First save about another 900 or 1000 (you can do it, work hard and save and watch every penny). Than FIND, BEG, BORROW but don't steal and get a USED PAIR OF INFINITY PRELUDE PFRs. This is a former Stereophile Class B speaker that has been discontinued by Infinity. It has a 96db sensitivity which means that the Prelude PFR will play loud with your 50 watt receiver and the sound will KNOCK YOUR SOCKS OFF. The Prelude also has an integrated sub that blends in great and will give you FULL RANGE with HIGH QUALITY SOUND with your present equipment. MAKE SURE that the used pair you will buy IS IN VERY GOOD CONDITION both sonically and cosmeticly. You will be very happy with the PFRs and your present receiver and CD player. Now for the future, next you find a high quality integrated amp. It doesn't have to have alot of watts because the PFRs don't need alot to upset your neighbors. So you will be able to buy a used high quality integrated amp for a very reasonable price right here at this site. Than later on you can get a better CD player and cables. With this setup you will be impressing all you friends and most important yourself. If you need more help and good advice, you can email me and i will send you my tele#. Start saving your money and don't make any spuratic purchases until you have around 1500. Trust me, you will be very happy and have a great system right at the start with what you have now. Just save till you can afford to spend 1500 or so.
It's clear that if you want better sound you must upgrade everything except your CD player. Very tough question to answer given the price point you mentioned. But, here it goes...

The good news is that there are so many great re-sale deals to be had. And, given your current equipment, you will notice a big difference in sound quality. There is some high end equipment -- with mileage on it -- that goes for a song. Much to your benefit.

My advice? Patience. Don't be in too much of a hurry to spend $500 to upgrade either your speakers or your receiver right now. I think you should get our and listen to as much mid-fi and budget hi-fi gear as you can and find out what you like. Then, develop a plan to get as close as possible to the sound you like. I really think your ears would be better served by taking your time rather than buying the best $500 upgrade you can find now, (whether it be speakers or whatever), without knowing where you plan on going with it.

I'm not suggesting that you need a ton of money, (it does help, though -- no doubt about that), but with another $1500-$2000 you can build a very satisfying system if you buy used gear wisely. And, believe me, what you buy on the cheap can sound fantastic compared to what you currently have. Hell, it can sound fantastic, period. But, you can also get tangled up if you don't pay attention to the synergy of the equipment you put together, especially if you listen to people teling you to "buy this" or "buy that" without having a sense of what it sounds like. How do you know if you like it? For instance, I have some swell Apogee hybrids that cost $2,500 that I could sell you for a few hundred dollars. A lot of speaker for the money. Whatcha gonna drive them with? Will you even like ribbons? Someone here mentioned Vandy 2 CE's. Popular speakers and some people love them -- I don't like what they do (actually I like what other speakers do that they aren't capable of). Synergy and matching equipment to your taste is the real key, and that is something that takes a little time to figure out. My advice is save your scratch for now. Best of luck.
SCMCA: I have a pair of Castle Acoustic's Isis speakers listed for sale that are well within your budget, they are very good for your source material and I feel that the reviews are fairly accurate. Review sources of the speakers are listed in the ad. I was running them in an 18 x 24 room with a musical fidelity X-A1 amplifier that is rated at 50 watts per channel. The speakers sounstage and image well when placed as close as 12" from the back wall which is a nice feature in most living room applications. They do need decent 24" sand fillable stands though that should be available for around $100.00. Other speakers that are around the top of your price range that you may want to check out are Linn Tukans (now discontinued but available on the used market), the small PSB's that DanVet mentions and Coincident Triumph Signature's that can sometimes be had for $600.00 or so. I am for upgrading the speakers first as you can see. I am familiar with your CAL player and would leave that for way last following your amplification and cabling down the line, granted that you like its sound. The CAL has a very full, balanced and musical character to it, IMO and is hard to beat without spending a lot more money. I use a CAL Icon Mark II now as a tranport but used it as a stand alone as well and am partial to CAL's sound.
Hi Scmca; All of the above posts offer good advice. You, yourself have already recognized the need to upgrade both your speakers and amp/pre-amp. Being pretty much of a "front end" kind of guy myself, I personally would go with a decent integrated amp first, but I also like Danvetc's, and especially Jim's advice about getting out and perusing the marketplace, listen a lot, and see (listen for) what YOU like. In a way you're fortunate as in the last few years high end manufacturers have turned their attention to integrated amps, so there are many good ones to choose from in the used market. Charlie mentioned the Creek, which I agree is excellent, but there are others. Maybe you'll like tubes, and there, Jolida is a good candidate. It's your call, but enjoy the process. Good Hunting. Craig.
Those Prelude PFRs sound so good with low wattage SETs. Will get you close to class A sound with the tubes. This speaker listed for 4000. Also does well with inexpensive receivers. Well worth the hunt to audition with your own ears. If buy any chance you live near central NJ my friend owns a pair (not for sale) you can listen to. The new model that replaced the PFR i believe list for 6000 or 7000. The PFR was a stereophile class B full range best buy ($$$) speaker that the reviewer bought for himself after the review. I'm not one to boast about a product but after listening to them over my friends many times. I'm quite impressed. Feed them the 50 watt reciever and SCMCA will sound good and enjoy them from the start. Later on feed them better upstream gear (w/tubes or ss option) and they will seduce you. Serious sound for a guy with out much to spend and inexpensive components to start with. For not to much of an investment and SCMCA's start and upgrade path options with this speaker pair i can't think of little money spent so wisely. Am also concidering his room as mentioned. I heard some of the other speaker choices and some are good but non better and most outclassed. But all advice given is excellent and recommend following. All choices given will be an approvement within your budget.
Two good routes are available to you. You could take that $1000 you have in your budget and buy speakers. Put off amplification for another year. Then, again spend $1000 on that area. This strategy will buy you a system several levels higher than spending $500 on either speakers or amplification. And, I would keep a keen eye towards used equipment. For $1000, you can buy the kind of speakers you can live with indefinitely. Lots to choose there. Only limited by your likes and dislikes. Alternatively, you could buy the amplification now(Anthem, Audio Refinement, Creek, Jolida, LFD, Musical Fidelity, etc.), and spend $120 - $150 redoing your current speakers. Vifa drivers, Solen caps, Ohmite resistors, and 14 gauge air core inductors(if you have coils...). While you are in there, lay down a bead of RTV silicone along all cabinet joinery. Also use a gasket between your drivers and cabinet. You WILL be surprised. And you'll get another two years out of the speakers. Either way, for wire, use AudioQuest Turquoise interconnect and Type 6 speaker cable. You'll get more mileage out of these two cheap cables than most people will admit. They are very neutral in sound, and will lend themselves to most directions you will be headed down the road. When the rest of your system is finalized, then you can move up to better cable.
No doubt, listening for yourself to as much as possible is great advice. Since you asked, though, I'd do this - I'd find a Linn Majik integrated amp. $500 should fit perfectly. It's a great little integrated amp by a top manufacturer, they're relatively easy to find, and it has a very musical sound to it. There are two versions - one with a phono input, one without. I'm quoting the one without. There are other choices in this price range that would be fine choices (many have been suggested), but IMO it fits your price range perfectly and is a top performer. Then, being broke again with no money burning a hole in your pocket, during the time you're saving for speakers, I would go listen to as many things as possible, savor the investigation, read about speakers, etc., such that when you do have the money, you know what to buy. And, I would allow for some flexibility in the price range you're saving for - ie, if you convince yourself that you'll need to spend $800 or $1000 to get what you really want, you'll already be in the mode that it's a ways off and less tempted to buy something just because it meets your price criteria.
I can't help but agree with the above posts, but, if you'd rather not wait you can still pick up decent gear that meets your budget. Since you're limited to what you can pick up right away, I'd suggest picking up good speaker stands ($100) and a pair of used B&W DM302 speakers ($200). Scour the used sites and pick up a NAD receiver, perhaps a 7250PE ($200). The B&W's are impressive for the price and size, and you won't lose any money when you decide to upgrade later on to something more substantial. Same goes for the NAD, easy to sell here or on EBay. You'll be pretty happy with this set up as you learn to live on Kraft Dinner and peanut butter, as you save up your hard-earned dough for real good tube gear and planar speakers. ATB, Jeff
If you go with speakers first, do not choose them because they sound good connected to your current receiver. Once you upgrade the amp, you may be disapointed with how the speakers sound. A better pair of speakers will be more detailed and revealing, and may sound bright and thin connected to poor electronics. So if you want to do speakers first, have a rough idea what kind of amp you want to get later, and use it at the dealer to audition speakers. Vice Vera for a new amp connected to your old speakers. A better amp will make your old speakers sound better, so that may be a better starting point, but still audition the amp on some other better speakers at the dealer.
For around $500 to $600, the B&W DM602 S2 are a good choice. An NAD integrated amp is a good choice in the $400 to $500 range.
All of the advice and makes/models recommended here are excellent. I would especially heed Sugarbrie in terms of listening to either speaker or amp w/future upgrade potential if you buy from traditional storefront. OTOH, Jeff's advice about buying good name used gear here or ebay and then being able to re-sell is a sound approach and doesn't require delayed gratification.
THANKS to everyone, your responses were insightful and educational. My thinking tody is to upgrade the electronics first via an integrated amp, which means I will need to get an FM tuner at some point. After settling in with the amp
I can, as suggested, listen to lots of speakers and kind of narrow the short list down. The NAD C370 2x120 seems to have all the controls and features for me now and in the future. I found an on-line seller (The Happy Medium)who quoted me $557 + UPS Ground, no sales tax. If anyone knows of a better priced source please let me know. Thanks again.
If you are looking at $557 for the NAD, consider a closeout Audiolab 8000S from Artech Electronics (if they have any left) at $549, a discontinued $1100 amp that was very highly thought of at the retail price. I'd be shocked if it wasn't a big improvement on the NAD.
Thanks Hdm, I'll check it out.