How Much Should You Spend on a Stereo?

If you follow this blog and my articles on Macworld, you know that I’m a serious music buff. My iTunes library is nearing the 80,000 mark, and I listen to music several hours a day. My musical touchstones include The Grateful Dead, Franz Schubert, The Durutti Column, Johann Sebastian Bach, Bill Evans, progressive rock from the 1970s, post-punk bands such as Joy Division and The Cure, Charles Ives, Brian Eno, Bob Dylan and much more.

A recent article I wrote for Macworld, How to find and play high-resolution audio on the Mac, elicited a number of comments and reader e-mails. Many people suggested that my ambivalence regarding these high-quality files was due to my not having an appropriate stereo. I do have decent equipment in my home-office, where I do most of my music listening: a Cambridge Audio Sonata 30 amplifier, a Cambridge Audio DacMagic digital-to-analog converter, and bookshelf speakers from the same company. Overall, I’m very pleased with this system, which offers what I consider to be good sound at an affordable price. The DAC might be overkill for some, but I find the difference between listening to music with and without the DAC to be very obvious. (See my Macworld review of the DacMagic). I don’t have a CD player, because I rip all my CDs, but I’ve actually been thinking of adding one to my system to listen to some music on CD – I have a lot of CDs I haven’t ripped yet, and I review classical CDs for MusicWeb International, and sometimes it’s easier to listen to CDs on their own without ripping them, if I don’t want to add them to my iTunes library. (My iMac’s optical drive is a bit noisy.)

I also like to listen to music with headphones; I recently wrote about the headphones that I use.

But I’m more interested in music than sound. People have told me that I should spend several thousand dollars for a good stereo system, and, while I appreciate good quality sound – when I added the DacMagic to my system, I was stunned by the difference – I just don’t see the need to spend that much.

It’s difficult for me to shop for stereo equipment: I live in a village in the French Alps, and any city that would have a good store for such equipment is a 3-hour drive. I could buy online, but I don’t plan to spend that kind of money without listening first. I have also been very disappointed by recent changes in stereo amplifiers, at least AV amps. The model I have in the living room – a middle-of-the-line Sony – is becoming quickly obsolete. It doesn’t handle HDMI correctly – I have to plug in audio separately. It doesn’t handle all new audio codecs used on Blu-Ray discs. And it simply doesn’t have enough connectors. (Even my TV set, which only has three HDMI jacks, has one too few for my needs.)

Audiophiles may want to spend as much as I did for my car on a sound system. And the problem is that often they think that anyone who doesn’t spend that kind of money doesn’t appreciate good sound. As I said above, music is more important to me than sound. Sound counts, but I would never become as obsessed as some people, who end up buying dubious products that improve the quality of their sound systems by minute increments, and very often through a placebo effect.

In addition, a lot of my listening is what I could call passive listening. As I write this article, I’m listening to a string quartet by Franz Schubert. This is not entirely background music; I have the ability to listen and think at the same time. And, when I pause, is search of words, the music often carries me away. But actively listening to music is something I do less often. By this I mean sitting and listening to the music while doing nothing else. When I do this, it’s often outdoors, as I watch the mountains grow, or contemplate the clouds floating in the sky. And, for this type of listening, I use headphones.

There are plenty of reasons to buy a better stereo system, but there’s no guarantee that spending twice as much would lead to any noticeable improvement in sound. In the past, I’ve visited stereo dealers and listened to equipment in rooms designed for listening; I don’t have such a room, and anything I bought would not sound as good as it did in the store. I have very good headphones, yet, as much as I enjoy listening to music on headphones, there’s something artificial about it. When you attend a concert, the music comes from in front of you, not from the sides. Recordings are mastered for listening via speakers, not headphones. If there’s too much separation, the music sounds slightly odd. (In fact, today I was listening to some arias from Bach cantatas from a smart playlist that picks from the many cantata recordings I have, and when I got to one from Helmut Rilling’s set with Hänssler, it was terrible; the lead violin was way off to the left, the continuo to the right, and the sound terribly unbalanced.)

In any case, I’m curious to know how much my readers have spent on their stereos. I’d also welcome recommendations for a better set of headphones. I’d be willing to spend a few hundred dollars for something really good. Any thoughts?