Buying your first good audio system

(This article was originally written in mid-2010.)

There comes a time in the lives of some (very small number of) people when they want to buy their first good music system. Some of the friends in my circle ask me what to do. They manage to save up a budget clearly higher than the price of combo systems (which usually plateau out at Rs.20,000 or so) but lower than the price of expensive components. The total budget for source, amp, and speakers for many of my friends is less than Rs.100,000 (very roughly USD 2,000).

I've tried to think of what to tell them. I thought I could point them to something useful on the Net, which would act as guidelines. I finally realised that there's hardly any brand-agnostic advice available online, and even more serious, there's nothing India-specific. Most of the advice on the Net is for countries where hi-fi stores exist in every city and brands like NAD, Cambridge Audio and Rotel are available freely. Not the India of 2010. All these items are available here too, but only in a very small set of showrooms of the largest 2-3 cities.

So, I thought I'll write something reusable for friends to use. If you think of any suggestions, please let me know. I'd love to polish the essay based on your feedback.

This essay is for those first-time buyers who

  • live in India,
  • have a budget between about Rs.40,000 and Rs.75,000, and
  • are tired of the mediocre sound quality of boomboxes and combo systems, and want to buy a component-based music system.

I feel people like me who have dabbled in audio systems for some time almost have a responsibility to help new enthusiasts enjoy music. I see less and less people wanting to sit down in front of a music system and listen to music. This urge is dropping among people of my generation, and is very rare among the twenty-somethings who throng the gallis and chai-shops of Facebook and Orkut. Music companies talk about CDs of hit movies not selling at all. I recently heard an industry insider tell me that one of their super-hit Hindi film soundtracks sold less than one hundred CDs all over India, but is minting money for the music publisher in ringtone-download fees. Welcome to the current generation where audio (ringtones, FM) and video (Youtube) are more popular than ever, but no one bothers about reproduction quality, and the country is spending more on cricket sponsorships than ever in the history of the game, but no so-called cricket lover plays cricket. When you figure it all out, let me know. :)

The components of the system

At the budgets we are talking about here, the music system must include

  • the source: a CD or DVD player,
  • an integrated amplifier,
  • a pair of speakers, and
  • accessories: cables, speaker stands

Turntables are not for the first-time system buyer today. Cassette decks can always be added later for a few thousand rupees --- good ones which cost more are not made any more.

Where should one buy from? Almost all the audio products are imported into India. This page talks of options now available for Indians to import audio systems and components relatively easily. Big cities in India have a few boutique hi-fi audio showrooms, which may be good sources for amps and speakers. These showrooms stock many imported brands. DVD players may be picked up from the mass-market retail outlets like Croma, Reliance Digital, or any of the other showrooms. In order to locate hi-fi showrooms and boutique resellers, purchase any recent copy of a magazine called "AV Max". This magazine is an Indian publication. Ignore all the articles written in it, and just look at the ads. These ads will give you names, locations and phone numbers of the showrooms in your city.

Indian manufacturers? Yes, there are two, I am glad to say. And both are top class. One is Pune-based Cadence Audio. The other is Delhi-based Lyrita Audio, run by a designer and builder, Viren Bakshi. Both are labours of love. Cadence equipment is available at some of the hi-fi showrooms in the Pune Camp area and in other cities --- most of their inventory are exported. I have personally auditioned some of the Cadence speakers, and my close friends have visited Viren Bakshi in Delhi and listened to his creations. I can recommend both brands without hesitation. If budgets permit, entry-level Lyrita or Cadence speakers can be coupled to Lyrita's solid-state amplifiers to make a top-notch music system. It may be possible to put together such a system in the budgets we are working with in this essay.

The source: the disc spinner

  • To audio or to video? Some people prefer a pure audio CD player, and do not want video playback at all. Others want both audio and video playback (a DVD player). At the price points we are talking about, I feel that a DVD player is a good idea. When you have budgets for a USD 1,000 disc spinner, you can definitely separate audio and video playback and look for audible differences.

  • Buy something from one of the large electronics retail outlets: Croma, Reliance Digital, the eZone at branches of Central (eg Vashi Central, Pune Central, etc). There is no need to hunt down boutique hi-fi showrooms at this point, and they may in fact cause some confusion by offering only high-priced players.

  • It is hard to recommend specific models. Do not purchase the cheapest models on offer. As a rule of thumb, set your bottom limit of price as about twice the price of the cheapest model displayed. Currently, the cheapest models are priced between Rs.2,000 and Rs.3,000. So set a bottom limit of about Rs.5,000, and look through all models at or above this price limit.

  • Look for a player which has a tray that comes out, to let you place your disc on. Do not purchase a player which has a thin slot into which you need to shove the disc. The slot-type players are known to scratch discs at times.

  • DVD player tips: If you are buying a DVD player, not a pure audio CD player:
    • buy a model which supports a USB device input, so that you can play audio and video files from a USB memory stick

    • buy a model which has HDMI output, not just analog video outputs

    • buy something which can play DVDs of all regions --- check with the sales clerk

  • Ask for a warranty of at least 12 months.

  • Paper specs will not make an audible difference to the quality of the player. So do not try to compare one model with a 10-bit video DAC with another which has a 12-bit video DAC. It doesn't matter.

Remember, this component does not affect the quality of the sound that you will hear from your audio system. There is an enormous amount of literature in the hi-fi industry talking about the impact on the final sound by the CD player, but this is almost impossible to detect at the budget levels we are talking about. The impact is so subtle that you will need very quiet listening rooms and extremely high quality amps and speakers to notice them even in a deliberate comparison test. Most of the time, the audible effect of the quality of the disc player is only audible using very high quality headphones, not using speakers at all.

I have done A-to-B listening tests to compare an entry-level Yamaha CD player with a Sony ES-series top-of-the-line CD player, with the same set of CDs, the same downstream equipment in the same room. I would be hard pressed to commit that I'll be able to make them apart in a blind test. I believe I did hear differences, but I also believe that those differences would not be audible in a typical listening environment where you are not doing comparative listening. Therefore, at the Rs.40,000-75,000 full-system budgets we are talking about here, I think we should not worry about the audible impact of the choice of DVD player.

There are those who claim that they can hear clear differences between amps and between disc players. My suggestion to them would be to do auditioning of various models and buy the disc player which sounds good to their ears. But this article is for those who are buying their first good audio system, and such buyers usually cannot hear any differences from one music system to the next.

The amplifier

  • Integrated or pre-power? A pre-power combo amp is an amp which comes in two separate units, one for just signal control (the preamp), and the other for just power boosting (the power amp). In my opinion, you need not look for this, because good pre-power combos are usually much more expensive than our current budget will allow. Therefore, go for a single-unit amplifier (called an integrated amp).

  • Home theater (HT) or two-channel? This is the biggest debate for the first-time buyer. A music lover, specially one on a budget, must always buy a two-channel system, not an HT system. In the HT system, the same budget is spread over three times as many channels, thus bringing down the quality of each component. Moreover, surround channels actually degrade from the music listening experience unless the recorded material is high quality and the music system has been set up correctly, something which is never done at the homes of beginners and first-timers.

  • Choose a model which has at least a power rating of 50 Watts RMS per channel. When checking the power rating, ignore all labels stuck on the front panel of the amp or on glossy brochures. Go to the product technical specifications, and look for the power rating as specified in "RMS continuous power output per channel into 8 Ohms load". The keywords "RMS", "per channel", and "into 8 Ohms" are important. It is important to ignore all ratings of "music power" or "peak power", etc. An amp more powerful than 50 Watts/ch is good too, except that the price will begin increasing. If you can afford it, go for a 100 Watt/ch rated amp. Greater wattage than this is of little use in a domestic listening room.

  • Choose a model which has a THD rating of 0.03% or less. Lower is better. THD stands for Total Harmonic Distortion. Some inexpensive amps have THD ratings of 0.08% or even higher --- I suggest you avoid them. At those levels, THD becomes quite audible.

  • A remote control is a must. The only item important on the remote control is the volume control, and maybe, a mute button. All other buttons are rarely used. Large and complex remote controls impress neighbours more, however.

  • When all else are equal, the amp with fewer buttons and controls is the better amp. In particular, if the salesman offers you an amp with an "aerodrome display" and blinking psychedelic lights, just run!

  • There are many reasonably priced models of amps available, in India and for easy import. Since you do not need to listen to the amp to decide which one to buy, you can afford to place an order sight unseen, after doing a bit of Net research.

  • Well-known brands which have popular models in this price bracket include Harman Kardon (HK), Yamaha (with their very popular AX-397 and AX-497 models), Denon, and Onkyo. If your budget stretches to beyond Rs.20,000 for the amp alone, then other excellent brands come within reach, including NAD, Cambridge Audio, Marantz, Rotel, etc.

  • Amps are usually repaired locally in big cities here fairly easily, and usually require almost no repair for a decade of regular use or more. So, while purchasing the amp, a warranty is useful but you do not need to worry too much about after-sales support.

Like disc spinners, the amp too will have no perceptible impact on the quality of the final sound for a first-time music lover on a budget. Therefore, you can make a safe purchase by simply following some basic rules and comparing a few models.


This is the part of the audio system which affects the sound quality the most. Also, this is the part where differences between two models is easily audible, and where more careful selection and a larger budget yields clearly better results. So, this is the place where the real exploration for the right product begins.

  • Aim to keep aside as much of your budget for speakers as possible. Also, be prepared to exceed your budget by a small margin in case you find a really beautiful pair of speakers, but you do not need to be similarly flexible for the disc spinner and amp.

  • Good speakers are not available at the mass-market electronics retail chains where TVs, DVD players, etc are available. For good speakers, you must be prepared to make the pilgrimage to the specialist audio showrooms.

  • Most of the speaker brands you will see at these specialised showrooms may not be familiar to you. Do not be intimidated by this. When buying speakers, you do not need to go by the "brand reputation" of the product. You must focus on the overall build quality and the sound quality only. Speakers (even inexpensive ones) last for a couple of decades without fuss unless manhandled. No after-sales support or repairs are usually ever needed. Therefore, the prominence of the brand and the recognition of the manufacturer are not important. (In reality, most of the better speaker brands are very well known in their own hi-fi audio circles, but the first-time Indian buyer will find those names unfamiliar. My remark is for such buyers.)

  • Power ratings of speakers do not matter. All speakers have power ratings (RMS power handling per channel), but all speakers built for component systems have more than enough power handling to play very, very loud before you can damage them with excess power. So, if you connect a 300-Watt amp to a 50-Watt-rated speaker, there is no danger (though the salesman will persuade you otherwise). The reason: you will be get room-filling sound in the 1-to-5-Watt range in domestic settings anyway. The only people who fuss about power ratings of speakers are engineers who set up equipment for stage shows, discos, etc. Not the domestic music system buyer. Any speaker power rating above about 40 Watts/channel is just fine.

  • Floorstanders or standmount models? Floorstanders are tall speakers which are placed on the floor and are usually 2-3 feet tall. Standmount speakers are less than 18" inches tall. For the kind of budget we are talking about, I strongly recommend that you opt for standmount models only. A standmount speaker pair at Rs.25,000 is usually much better built than a similarly priced floorstander speaker pair. My first system included floorstanders, and I understood my folly within a year or two, when I learned to listen to various models and identify quality better.

  • Listen, listen, listen. The only way to make the most of your budget is by listening to various speakers. This means that you must prepare to spend a few hours in hi-fi showrooms every Saturday afternoon, and write off a few Saturdays this way. The listening must be done in the following way:

    • Carry your own music. Select a few CDs which have a few tracks you are very familiar with, and which do not have very loud or special-effects-filled music. Well-recorded modern Indian classical albums are excellent, as are jazz or light instrumental pieces. Almost any Indian classical CD published by Chhanda Dhara, Sony NAD or Ninaad is excellent and clean for such purposes. Hard rock like Mark Knopfler or Dire Straits is superb for auditioning, Led Zep and Scorpions may be unsuitable here. If using Hindi film songs, choose only from the last 10-15 years or so, not from the Kishore-Lata era. The film Paheli has a fantastic soundtrack for auditioning purposes --- Lagaan is good too. Remember: take only familiar tracks with you.

    • Consistent volume levels. Set the volume of the music system to a uniform level for all your tests. If one listening session is done at a higher volume than another, then the louder session will sound subjectively better. This is a fact of psychoacoustics known for many decades, but salesmen still try to impress customers by turning up the volume loud. Remember: the volume should neither be too low nor too high, and should be uniform as far as possible.

    • Flatten the tone controls. Set bass and treble controls to "flat", so that there is no artificial colouring to the sound from the amp. Salesmen love to push up both bass and treble, and you will have to insist that they not do so.

    Sit in front of the speakers, about four to six feet away, and listen carefully. Listen to the same set of tracks through each pair of speakers. Do not feel embarrassed to go back to the same showroom more than once, to re-visit the same set of speakers, to get a clearer idea of what you want.

    Also ask the showroom to play the same set of tracks on their best, most expensive system. See whether you can hear any difference between the models that fit your budget and the really expensive stuff. This helps a lot in training the ears.

  • Speakers (in this price bracket, at least) are made of individual circular sound-producing units called "drivers", fitted in a box. Try to look for speakers which have one driver of 6.5" diameter and a second smaller high-frequency driver of about an inch diameter. This configuration with a 6.5" midbass driver and a 1" dome tweeter is a very popular one and you will find many models of this nature. Some models will have a smaller midbass driver, with perhaps 4.5" or 5" diameter, and you will usually find that these have poorer bass output.

  • Subwoofer or no subwoofer? At the budgets we are talking about, good subwoofers will not be easy to find. Moreover, if the aim is to listen to music, as against hosting dance-parties every Saturday night, then subwoofers are completely unnecessary. This is specially true if your main speakers have 6.5" midbass drivers. Salesmen will try to sell you small standmount speakers with subwoofers. Avoid them.

  • The sat-sub configuration. A few very well-known brands try to impress you with speakers which are so small that they "disappear". They talk about small "satellite" speakers, coupled to a subwoofer tucked away unobtrusively in one corner, generating room-filling and heavenly music. Do not be fooled by such products. See this article for further details, though the analysis may be a bit technical for first-time buyers.

  • Well-constructed speaker enclosures sound dead when you rap them on their walls with your knuckles. Just walk up to the speaker and knock fairly hard with your knuckles on the side, as if you are knocking on a door. See how the knock sounds. If it sounds hollow, it's a badly built speaker. If it sounds like a solid brick, with no vibrations, it's a very well-built speaker. This "knuckle test" is an amazingly effective and simple test to evaluate speaker enclosures, and a large part of the quality challenge in low-budget speakers is in building an inert, vibration-free enclosure.

When I bought my first good audio system, I started auditioning in August 2000, and finally selected what to buy in December 2000. Only those people who have more money than good sense can buy their first expensive music system in an afternoon. Incidentally, my speakers fare quite poorly on the "knuckle test". I did not know about this test at the time I bought them.


You will need audio signal cables to connect the DVD player to the amp, and good high-current speaker cables to connect the amp to the speakers. The catch here is that the ordinary cables you will get are too pathetic for serious use, and the good ones are often so surrounded by hyperbole that you may be fooled by clever pseudo-scientific marketing hype and waste money.

In India, today, the Croma outlets and similar electronics retail showrooms will stock a few ranges of audio signal cables. Monster is a popular brand --- a cheaper but perfectly adequate brand is Bandridge. Any of these brands will do. Plan to spend anything between Rs.500 and Rs.1,000 for a pair of signal cables (DVD player to amp). The really cheap and inferior cables will cost anything between Rs.50 and Rs.100 per pair. Throw them into the Bay of Bengal or the Arabian Sea.

For speaker cables, it is best if you ask your hi-fi showroom to make cables for you out of thick OFC (oxygen-free copper) stock. I prefer 6 sq-mm effective-diameter speaker cables. You may choose slimmer ones without problem, but do not go below 2 sq-mm thickness. Such cables are usually manufactured in large spools, and the showroom will cut pieces of the requisite length for you. Speaker cables sometimes can work without any connectors or plugs --- they can be just bare copper, inserted into the sockets at either end. In some cases, the cables are terminated in banana plugs or spade plugs. The showroom which sells you your speakers will be glad to do the needful. Expect to spend more than Rs.1,000 for reasonable speaker cables. With my current system, the speaker cables are bare copper at the amplifier end, and are held tightly with screw clamps. At the speaker end, they are terminated in some MX brand gold-plated banana plugs.

Standmount speakers are not to be wall-mounted or kept in bookshelves. The best way to keep them will be on speaker stands. Good speaker stands can cost a few thousand rupees, and should be heavy and inert (no vibrations). If your room permits it, placing speakers on stands is highly recommended.

Room placement

The sound of your audio system depends a lot on where you place the speakers and yourself when you listen. A common mistake is to mount speakers on walls. This mistake is more commonly seen if you have small speakers. Bookshelf speakers are termed bookshelf speakers because they can fit into bookshelves, not because they should be kept on bookshelves. Therefore, people who dabble a bit in audio systems prefer to call them "stand-mount" speakers. Ideally, each small speaker should be placed on its own separate stand on the floor. Speaker stands are available as separate accessories. Heavy, rigid stands are recommended and make a big difference to the sound quality.

Speakers should be placed at least about four feet away from any major item of furniture or any wall. The ideal listening position is centrally in front of the speakers, such that the two speakers and the listener make an equilateral triangle. The speakers should be pointed, not directly at the listener, but at a spot about a foot or so in front of the listener's face. In other words, the listener should get the feeling that the sound from the speakers is "intersecting" in front of his face. The speakers' height should be equal to the listener's ears when he sits comfortably.

Speaker placement is yet another area where the first-time buyer dismisses this suggestion because he cannot believe that placements make any significant difference. The sad truth is that a good pair of speakers placed poorly can sound as bad as a properly-placed inferior pair costing half as much. It is the first-time buyer on a tight budget who should be worrying about speaker placement because it helps him stretch his budget. Even boombox systems and all-in-one combo systems sound much, much better if they are "rescued" from their on-wall mountings, placed on good stands, and arranged carefully this way. :)

Most salesmen at Croma and similar shops do not know anything about speaker placement, being trained in the selling of combo systems and HT systems by demonstrating special-effects movie soundtracks.

In summary

I believe that these simplified suggestions will help you buy your first music system for a budget of Rs.50,000 or less, and break out of the limitations of over-sold and under-performing combo systems, glamorous sat-sub "lifestyle systems", and multi-channel home theatre systems.

Here are a few realistic scenarios:

  • A budget of Rs.40,000:
    • Disc spinner: Rs.6,000
    • Amplifier: Rs.12,000
    • Speakers: Rs.20,000
    • Speaker and signal cables: Rs.2,000

    I have seen perfectly usable components at these price points. You can hunt a bit and get very listenable speakers for Rs.15,000/pair, which will outperform any integrated all-in-one combo system.

  • A budget of Rs.50,000:
    • As above, just put in the additional money into speakers, or else split it between Rs.5,000 on good speaker stands and the balance on better speakers.
  • A budget of Rs.75,000:
    • Disc spinner: Rs.8,000-10,000
    • Amplifier: Rs.20,000 (aim for 100 Watts/ch)
    • Speakers: Rs.40,000 (you'll get an entry-level Cadence, etc. here)
    • Accessories: Rs.5,000-7,000

    At this price point, I would insist on proper speaker placement and good stands. If you don't want to do this, save money, buy a cheaper system, and spend the rest of the money on buying CDs.

Once you buy a good system of this kind, your frustration about your audio reproduction performance will be addressed, and the next frustration will then start: where to find good music, and well-recorded music. Most of the music created today is mixed and mastered in a manner so as to sound tolerable only on cheap systems and FM radios. Viren Bakshi of Lyrita Audio can help somewhat with the pursuit of good music. Friends who share your interests will also be able to help.

Next: Three alternatives

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