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Intro to home stereo systems

Love music? If you're not playing it on a genuine stereo system, chances are you could love it a lot more

In a nutshell. A home stereo system includes two speakers for two good reasons. Most recordings have two separate and distinct channels. And you have two ears.

When you listen in stereo, recorded music sounds more like a live performance. It's a feeling you won't get from a single wireless speaker.

Most stereo systems include three things:

  1. A stereo receiver or amplifier
  2. A matched pair of speakers
  3. At least one music source

This article will help you choose a home stereo system that suits your lifestyle and your listening space.

Wireless speakers are super convenient. One box is all you need. And some of them sound surprisingly good. For background music, I love them.

But stereo recordings have discrete left and right channels for a reason. They give you the unmistakable impression that you’re in the room with the performers. In this regard, a pair of speakers always beats one.

Stereo imaging

Listening to music in stereo gives you the experience the artist had in mind. And it’s just plain more fun! You can hear the musicians spread out across a three-dimensionsal sound stage.

With stereo, different instruments come at you from different points between and beyond the speakers. You hear your music in three dimensions – just like you hear real musicians positioned in different places on an actual stage. You experience the music and the space in which it’s played.

Parts of a home stereo system

A home stereo system typically includes three main ingredients:

  1. A stereo receiver or amplifier
  2. A matched pair of speakers
  3. At least one music source

Stereo components

The music source could be an external component, such as a turntable or CD player. It could be a receiver’s built-in AM/FM tuner. Or it could be a wireless connection to a smartphone or a home network.

What is a stereo receiver?

Traditional stereo receivers combine an AM/FM radio tuner with a 2-channel power amplifier and a preamp section. The preamp section gives you control over source selection, volume, tone and balance.

What's an integrated amplifier?

An integrated amplifier is just like a receiver, but without the radio. Some models are as large as a typical receiver. But there are plenty of compact amps, too. For more info, see our integrated amplifiers buying guide.

For a super-simple system, try powered stereo speakers

Powered speakers

A turntable and a pair of powered speakers make a great compact stereo system.

If you’re looking for an even more compact system to liven up a dorm room, kitchen, or small apartment, consider a pair of powered stereo speakers. With the amplifier (and, in some cases, the Bluetooth receiver) built in, these speakers save a lot of space.

Wireless speakers in stereo mode

Some wireless multi-room speakers can be linked together in stereo mode. If you alread have a wireless speaker, check to see if you can pair it with another identical speaker.

For example, if you're a Sonos owner, you can add a second Play:1, Play:5, or Sonos One in the same room. Use the Sonos app to pair them. One of the speakers will play the right channels, and the other will play the left channel.

Stereo amps with wireless multi-room audio built-in

Want to enjoy the benefits of a wireless multi-room audio system, but with real stereo speakers in at least one room?

Whole-house audio

The Yamaha WXC-50 wireless streaming preamplifier adds Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, and MusicCast multi-room audio features to a traditional stereo amp or receiver.

Consider mating a pair of regular (non-powered) stereo speakers with a powered zone component like the Sonos amp. It’s a very compact wireless multi-room music player with a stereo amplifier built in. Amplified zone players are also made by Yamaha, Denon, and Bluesound.

Speaker options to fit your taste and your space

Your library, home office, spare bedroom, or any other small, relatively private room can become your sonic sanctuary. Bookshelf speakers are perfect for small rooms. They can be wall-mounted or placed on speaker stands.

Floor-standing speakers are great for large rooms. They produce plenty of deep bass. They're hard to beat for big, room-filling sound.

For more speaker selection tips, see our article on choosing stereo speakers.

Don’t forget the speaker wire

Most speakers don't come with any wire. You'll need to get some to connect the speakers to your receiver or amplifier. For more info, see our article on choosing and installing speaker wire.

How many watts do you need?

If you’re buying a pre-packaged system, you don’t have to worry about the finer points of matching speakers and amps.

If you’d like to put together an a la carte system, you can get some advice from one of our expert advisors. Or you can follow these simple guidelines:

  1. Look at the recommended power range for the speakers you want to buy.
  2. Choose an amp whose RMS power output (watts) is within the acceptable range.

If you already have an amp (or you'd rather pick your amp first), make sure the speakers you choose can handle the power it puts out.

If you’re using 4-ohm speakers, make sure the amp you choose is compatible.

To get the most from a small amplifier, choose efficient speakers (as reflected in their sensitivity rating). The higher the number (in decibels or dB), the more efficient the speaker, and the louder it plays with a given amount of power.

Setup makes a huge difference

Toeing speakers for better sound

Toeing in your speakers (pointing them toward your seat) can make a dramatic improvement in their sound.

The placement of your speakers relative to your listening seat plays a large role in your system's sound.

The speakers should form an equilateral triangle with your listening position. This means your speakers are the same distance apart from each other as they are from you. For more tips on how to set up your speakers, see our article on speaker placement for stereo music listening.

Will a stereo system work with my phone?

Onkyo TX8160 stereo receiver

Stereo receivers with home networking capabilities give you access to an endless variety of music.

Think stereo systems are strictly old-school? Think again. Many of today’s stereo systems have Bluetooth® and/or Wi-Fi® built in, so you can easily connect your phone and listen to Spotify or You Tube™.

Think they’re just for well-heeled audiophiles? You might be surprised by how little you have to pay to get a decent system.

A stereo system takes up more room than a single wireless speaker. But for music lovers, that’s a worthwhile trade-off.

We can help you choose

Have questions about home stereo? Our expert Advisors know the gear inside and out.

Your Advisor can send specific Crutchfield pages to your screen, saving you a lot of browsing time. You'll get a shopping cart loaded up with everything you need. Contact us today.

Free lifetime tech support is included with your Crutchfield purchase.

For some more home stereo system design tips, read our budget audiophile playbook.

  • Mark from Philadelphia, PA

    Posted on 9/8/2021

    Hello, I'm looking to buy a combo CD, Cassette player for music... ??

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 9/9/2021

    Mark - This rack-mountable Tascam CD-A580 is the only one we've carried in the ten years I've been with Crutchfield. That said, it's a darn good one, and you can get it for a pretty good price if you snap up the one that's left.
  • Pat from Califon

    Posted on 8/9/2021

    I have two speakers with RCA connection, an Aiwa turntable, and a Sony cd player. I need an amplifier or receiver to make it all work. Any suggestions for something simple and doesn't cost an arm and a leg?

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 8/10/2021

    Pat - I'm assuming these speakers with RCA connection are self-powered, so I'm not even sure you need an amplifier if that's the case. Without knowing more about them, it's hard for me to make a solid recommendation. If they are self-powered, and have a phono input and a digital input, you can plug your components directly into the back and skip the receiver/amp altogether. It might behoove you to contact an Advisor who can glean the details of your existing equipment and make a truly informed recommendation. Thanks for asking!
  • Fresner from BRONX ,NY

    Posted on 6/1/2021

    i have a problem with my YAMAHA NATURAL SOUND AV RECEIVER RX-V 575, I move it to an other place, when i plug it, it say: DECODER OFF. WHAT CAN I DO, Please help.

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 6/2/2021

    Fresner - I've looked at the manual for that receiver, and it sounds like the decoder is something you have to select to set up your surround sound preferences. If you're using the Yamaha in stereo mode for music listening, I think the default "off" is what you want. If you're watching movies and you want to use a specific type of digital signal processing like DTS, you can use the "program" button to cycle through the menu options until you find the type of processing you want to apply. Hope this helps!
  • John from Redlands

    Posted on 4/30/2021

    Hello, I have a Sony Component System (SEN-421CD) from the 90's. I no longer can play my cassettes because one of the belts keeps falling off and I am having trouble locating anyone who sells the belts for this system. My question is whether I can buy a new cassette player and add it to this system?

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 5/3/2021

    John - I'm having trouble tracking down solid information on how that system works, so I'll say if it has RCA inputs on the back anywhere that allow you to add components, you should be able to find a cassette deck that will work with it. If not, I don't know how you would connect anything external. Hope that helps!
  • Ernie Kallay from Kalida, Ohio

    Posted on 4/24/2021

    Use my line level output which I connect to a YAS 203 Sound bar with RCA cables. I set receiver's volume to minimum volume and adjust volume on sound bar. Sounds great to me, saves space and hopefully isn't damaging my receiver. Would appreciate your comments.

  • Ernie Kallay from Kalida, Ohio

    Posted on 4/24/2021

    Use my line level output which I connect to a YAS 203 Sound bar with RCA cables. I set receiver's volume to minimum volume and adjust volume on sound bar. Sounds great to me, saves space and hopefully isn't damaging my receiver. Would appreciate your comments.

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 4/26/2021

    Ernie - I personally prefer the higher volume "floor" of setting the receiver volume to about the midway point, but if you're happy with the volume levels you're getting as-is, I can't think of any reason to change. Enjoy!
  • Octavio

    Posted on 4/8/2021

    Hello! I would like to set up a stereo system with a turntable and a CD player with two speakers in a medium size room. Should I go with a Stereo Receiver or an Amplifier? Thank you!

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 4/9/2021

    Octavio - If you want to also listen to local radio stations, you want a receiver. It sounds like you might be more in the market for an integrated amplifier with phono input, which will let you plug in your sources, and can power your speakers. Hope this helps!
  • Andrew from Ulm

    Posted on 4/4/2021

    Eric, thanks for answering questions. I am ready to get my first "real" setup and want full sound, for my nice apartment, to play CDs primarily, and price range of $1-3k (but I don't want to limit myself too much on price). Second question, I am currently in Germany where the power is 240V, but I want the system to still work when I move home to the US. Are there "dual voltage" systems? If not, is a transformer safe to use? Please disregard the international shipping limitation - I have the ability to ship here.

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 4/5/2021

    Andrew - There are definitely receivers and integrated amplifiers that can work in Europe or the U.S., and they're usually made by European companies. A good example is this Cambridge Audio AXA35; if you look at the back photo, you'll see a red switch that lets you adapt to the change in voltage. Unfortunately, I don't have that information in our database in a way where I can sift out *only* the ones that have it, so that's a project I'll need to explore. But if you look for that switch during your search, you may find exactly what you need (and I can happily recommend Cambridge as an excellent place to start in general).
  • Paul M from US

    Posted on 2/17/2021

    What are the pluses and minuses of adding a subwoofer to a stereo system?

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 2/18/2021

    Paul - It's purely a matter of choice, based on your preferences. For instance, I'm using bookshelf speakers in my apartment, and sometimes they just don't play low enough - the music ends up feeling "thin." So I have a sub I can employ for those times. Many audiophiles prefer a good pair of tower speakers with no subwoofer. I guess if you're listening, and you don't feel like anything is missing? You probably don't need one.
  • Marco Batalla from Albuquerque

    Posted on 2/9/2021

    Does the music source have an effect on sound quality? Like changing cd player( brand A) for cd player (brand B) shouldn't have an effect on sound quality, right?

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 2/9/2021

    Marco - It can definitely have an effect. Each CD player has a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) inside, and they can definitely vary in performance level. I still think the speakers make the most difference in what you hear, but those other things do matter. Thanks for the question!