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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

Jim Richardson is the managing editor for home audio/video and pro audio learning content on Crutchfield.com.

More from Jim Richardson

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.

New tricks

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.

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.

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

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.

Next-gen receivers are more versatile. You'll find models with Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi. Play a streaming service like Spotify®. Tune in Internet radio stations. Or play the music stored on your computer or smartphone.

Integrated amplifier: a receiver without the AM/FM tuner

An integrated amplifier has no 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, like this Klipsch and Pro-Ject package, makes 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.

Want your music streaming sources built-in, too? Try a pair of wireless multi-room speakers linked together in stereo mode.

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 CONNECT: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, Bluesound, Polk Audio, Definitive Technology, Paradigm, and Klipsch.

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 much power 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 guidelines:

Look at the recommended power range of the speakers you intend to use. Choose an amp whose RMS power output is within the acceptable range. Or pick your amp first, and then make sure the speakers 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 in your speakers can make a dramatic improvement in their sound.

Toeing speakers for better 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.

We can help you choose

Have questions about home stereo systems? Call, email, or chat with us today.

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.

Free lifetime tech support is included with your Crutchfield purchase.

Last updated 3/9/2017
  • Jeff from Gainesville

    Posted on 11/2/2015

    Thanks, a nice reintroduction to the old world of vinyl

  • Rainey

    Posted on 2/11/2016

    This is a great service you offer. Wolf was great.

  • Faith from Roxie

    Posted on 6/22/2017

    I am looking for a way to play and listen to my CDs. Simple with good sound. I want a package deal. All components included. I would like the option to add wireless speakers to the other rooms of my home in the future and blue tooth.. I am looking to spend as little as possible but yet I want great sound. Please give me some suggestions. Thanks

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