While I spend a lot of time covering headphones, earphones, and headphone DAC/Amps, 2-channel audio systems are my first love. While headphones can create a wonderful listening experience, they can’t re-create the sound of a well-matched stereo system made up of two-speakers and an amplifier, or in this day and age, just two powered speakers.
But putting together such a system can be daunting, to say the least, so here is a list of building blocks to put together your perfect budget or affordable audiophile system. You have the speakers, the amps to drive them, along with your sources, like a streamer or DAC to provide the music. Put them together and you have a great hi-fi system.
1. Elac Debut 2.0 B5.2 Bookshelf Speaker-This speaker has become a legend of sorts in the audiophile world due to its insane value. When paired with a quality amp like the NAD C316BEE V2 on this list, you will have a nice starter hi-fi system that will give you a nice soundstage, decent imaging, and nice excitement without being too forward in any one area. What that adds up to is a system that is easy to listen to for hours and hours without any fatigue to your ears. I have these hooked up to the NAD in my office system, and it’s hard to find a speaker more musical for the money.
2. Q Acoustics 3020i Bookshelf Speaker– If you want a speaker that is a little more refined with a little more definition and air than the Debut 2.0, then go with the Q Acoustics 3020i. It will also go a litlle lower than the B5.2, with some well-controlled bass.
The sound is well beyond what one would expect from a speaker under $300. They are nice and flat, with really good treble detail and a sweet midrange. The imaging is also very nice. With the right recording, you will be able to hear instruments hanging in space with realism. There are some speakers well over $500 that will not give you the same “you are there” feeling.
However, since this is a very flat speaker, a little on the clinical side, they will not be as forgiving of bad recordings as the ELACs, and you will need to pair them with a lively amp like the next piece on the list.
3. Cambridge Audio Topaz AM10 Integrated Amplifier-This Integrated has a warm, punchy sound that goes great with the aforementioned Q Acoustics 3020i. This amp will add a little excitement to the analytical sound of the Q Acoustics, giving you a good balance of warmth and detail. Don’t the 35w per channel fool you, this is a high current amp that will drive your speakers with verve, and the built-in phono amp is icing on a very high value for the money cake.
4. NAD C316BEE V2 Integrated Amplifier– As I said before, I have this guy in my office system, and I bought it because like the CA Topaz, it’s built like a tank and has a high-current amp in it. Also, like the Topaz, it has a very conservative power rating, just 40 watts per channel, but with NAD’s patented power drive circuitry it can provide much more than that during challenging dynamic passages in the music. It presents a good amount of detail, imaging, and a nice soundstage, something that plays very well with either of the ELAC Debut 2.0 bookshelf speakers. Get the B5.2 for the best imaging, and the B6.2 if you want more bass at the expense of some midrange detail and imaging.
5. Cambridge Audio CXA60 Integrated Amplifier– If you want a step up from the other two amps on this list, check out the Cambridge Audio CXA60, which has the same punchy bass and fast presentation as the Topaz, but with more detail and a bigger soundstage. The CXA60 also has a sub out for the addition of a powered subwoofer along with several digital inputs for digital sources like a streamer. It also has a nice Wolfson WM8740 onboard DAC to enhance the sound coming from digital sources. If that’s not enough, you can also stream Bluetooth with the addition of an optional Bluetooth dongle.
6. Bluesound Node 2i Music Streamer-If you have an old amp or just purchased an amp that doesn’t have streaming capabilities, (which I recommend…start with an amp that concentrates on the sound first, then add a source) then the Node 2i is a steal. For around $500, you get a great sounding music streamer that will connect to just about any music service out there, stream Hi-Res files from your network drive, or play them from a hard drive connected directly to its USB port.
It also has a lot of audiophile-centric features like compatibility with Roon music software to manage your music collection, MQA compatibility, and Burr-Brown DAC to give you great sound from the RCA out and Headphone out. It will also stream music to Bluesound speakers placed throughout the house as Sonos does with its speakers. The new “i” version features tech from the NAD Masters gear for improved sound along with greater flexibility in the form of dual-band wi-fi, Apple AirPlay 2, and two-way Bluetooth. This unit does so much for so little, it’s really a no brainer to most people looking to add streaming to their Hi-Fi rigs at a reasonable price.
7. Chromecast Audio-If $500 for a streamer is too rich for your blood, or you just want to dip your toe into music streaming, then the Chromecast Audio is what you need.
While the sound quality won’t quite be up to the standard of the Node 2, Google’s $35 accessory plugs into any stereo, provided you have the proper cable, and it will stream music via Wi-Fi from a multitude of Android apps in up to 24/96 Hi-Res quality.
You can even play to two of them at the same time for a multi-room setup. This little device is awesome!
(Update: The Chromecast Audio has been discontinued by Google, so it is now a lot harder to get. However, there are still quite a few available on eBay and secondhand sales sites like OfferUp. If you can find one between $20-$40, grab it because there is nothing else that will stream your music with the same sound quality for so little money!)
8. Monoprice Affinity Premium 14AWG Braided Speaker Wire– I’ll just say this..Quality speaker wire is essential to get the most out of your system.
9. Vanatoo Transparent Zero Powered Speakers– If you think the whole Integrated Amp/Speaker setup is too much, then these itty bitty speakers with the amps built in are a great option. They have a USB input for music from a laptop, or you can just play music from your smartphone via Bluetooth. They sound amazing on their own, but you can also add a cheap subwoofer to them for a more full range sound.
10. Audioquest Beetle DAC– A good DAC is essential to convert music coming from a laptop or desktop PC into an analog signal that can be input into your amp. While most PCs have an inexpensive DAC built-in that will output into your stereo, the result is usually subpar since PC are normally not equipped with the circuitry needed to remove digital noise from the music being played.
The Beetle, however, has one of the best ESS Sabre DAC chips, combined with a quality power supply and quality digital timing circuitry, two things that are needed to provide a clean, clear signal to your amp. The Beetle also has Bluetooth so you can send music from your smartphone in a pinch. It also has a clean, powerful headphone jack to power you audiophile headphones to their full potential.