Yes, there’s that “B” word that sometimes strikes fear, hopelessness, despair and other negative thoughts, feelings and images in the mind, “Budget”.
While this is not an article on household budgets, fiscal advice and such, I am inspired to write about budgeting for audio for two reasons. One is at the foundation, many folks might be wanting to improve their sound system or add to it or want to get their first piece of audio gear or first system. Second, is because the subject has come up lately in forums with much ill-advised theories and “advice” being given.
I’ve seen it all, the pie charts, graphs, anecdotes, you name it and all it does is make assumptions and muddy the already murky waters of audio. Every time the subject comes up on forums and such you get inappropriate people giving inappropriate advice and opinions. I want to show a clearer path. A cleaner and most importantly, a more realistic approach.
Everybody will have their own reasons, ratios of allotment and abilities for spending on audio gear. That’s why the theories on forums are out of sync. Once in a while you may find an audio spending theory that makes sense or fits you, but the problem is that one has to wade through too many opinions and other personal theories. Some say speakers are most important, others say it’s the amps, others say the source, etc.
I want to try to make it easier for you. To that end, I am going to be rather basic because a solid foundation is key. So I use the following that can be applied to anyone at any budget level.
Let’s say you are looking to get a new complete system or doing a complete re-work of an existing system. The first thing you should know is that system setup can make a huge difference as can the room. So if you have a system of any level already, it would be most prudent to first look at how it is set up. Look at speaker placement, furniture in the room, look for reflection spots, etc. Sometimes a tweak here or there can make a very noticeable difference and doesn’t require a lot of money and sometimes none at all.
That being done, you should consider speakers first. You should set aside the majority of money to speakers, say 60% or so. beside recording and setup, speakers are the most important component in a system. Speakers are the thing that reproduces the music and of course you want comfortable accurate reproduction. This is also the more challenging of components to shop for, but also the funnest at the same time. There is no magic bullet or certain brand or type that checks every box making it easy. You must listen to several pairs you may be interested in within your price and decide what you like best. That is the only way to do it properly and be happy.
Selecting speakers first also makes selecting an amplifier a little easier because you must match the amp to the speakers in regards to load and such. It makes it easier because instead of having a thousand amps to choose from, learning what amps are compatible with the speakers you chose narrows the field a bit. Don’t worry, you will likely still have almost too many amps to choose from.
Also if starting out, I would recommend choosing one source that you feel you would use or need most, be it digital streaming, CD, NAS, vinyl records, what have you. You can always add another different source later as funds allow. I suggest starting with the easiest least expensive source, whatever that my be to you. Say you have a PC, then all you need is a decent DAC if not built-in to the amp or what have you and away you go. If you already have records, then a very decent analog front-end can be had for little money and built up later. Those are just two examples.
I would also not allocate more than 1% or 2% towards cables and such because they do not offer more than 1% gain, which is likely undetectable to the ear. (I don’t care what the claims are). I’m not saying you should just stick with whatever interconnect cable comes with the components or use lamp cord for speaker cables. I’m just saying not to over-spend for such tiny unguaranteed gain. In other words, don’t raise the odds of diminishing returns. What we want is good ROI (Return On Investment).
In fact, I would suggest not using the cables that came with the component (except to power cable of course) and instead pick up cables from Monoprice (premium versions only please) or Blue Jeans or other reasonably priced decent to good quality connections. A $300 interconnect is not going to do any more than a $30 or $20 or even $10 interconnect. At a point you are eventually just paying for a name stamp or bragging rights, but no substance.
This ratio can be done with almost every budget. You might be thinking, “but what if I only have $500 for an entire system right now?” In that case, it may be necessary to save up a little more or go piece by piece. For even half of that, while you may not be ale to get an amp as well or something, but you can get a pair of insanely good Andrew Jones Elac Debut bookshelf speakers and then still have $250 left over to put towards the next piece as you save towards it. See? There is always a way.
Also, you can pay attention to the used market. If considering used gear from a third party, I would have some way of making sure you are not purchasing someone else’s problem. Speakers are generally safe in this category as they are usually easy to check before purchase, unless you are purchasing from long distance, which I do not recommend in this case.
That said, sometimes reputable dealers have used gear or demo units they want to sell at reduced price. This is the better scenario as generally, they will stand behind what is sold in some fashion and at least a reputable dealer will not sell gear they know to be faulty. Don’t expect huge discounts, but generally, the savings will be significant enough depending on what it is.
Finally, remember to have enough money left for music. This is especially true if you are going with an analog rig and fortunately, easy to do. It’s easy to do if your source will be CD as well. With both of those the used market is your best friend. In the case of CDs it’s ridiculously easy. No work involved, just find the used CD(s) you want in the desired condition and the best price and purchase. I have purchased many CDs this way and still do. Very inexpensive.
Now with vinyl records, it’s a little bit more work, but well worth it. Of course, it’s best to be able to inspect a used record yourself, which is easily done if shopping a yard sale, record fair, record shop, etc. Although, you must factor in cleaning (even with new records). We are talking about “used” records at $1, $2, $5 even $10, what have you. They are not going to be pristine.