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Intro to home stereo systems

Listen to music the way the artists intended: on a stereo system

In this article: We'll explain how stereo sound works, then go into some detail on the components of a home stereo system, including:

...and we'll talk about some home stereo accessories that can help your system sound its best.

Iassociate great home stereo sound with a large velvet couch whose only purpose is to let you listen in silent, distraction-free comfort to a large pair of Advent speakers in front of it.

As a kid, I spent a lot of time sitting on that couch listening to great stereo recordings from my parents' eclectic vinyl collection — the Beatles' White Album, Led Zeppelin IV, and Byron Janis and the London Symphony's recording of Rachmaninoff's Piano Concerto No. 3. all come to mind.

Sitting there, sometimes I would forget all about the two walnut-veneer boxes producing the sound. I would feel like I was in the room with the players and get lost in the music.

What is stereo sound?

These days a lot of people listen to music on single, standalone wireless speakers. They can sound fantastic, and they're super-easy to use. But there's one thing those speakers all strive to do that they simply can't (unless you have two): deliver true stereo sound.

Stereo — or stereophonic — sound uses two speakers to produce lifelike, 3D audio. Technology for two-channel sound reproduction has been around since the 1890s, and the first mass-produced, high-fidelity stereo records came out in 1957. Even today, pretty much every new song you hear is mixed in stereo.

Recording engineers create great stereo sound partly through microphone placement during recording and partly through the mixing process.

During mixdown, they use a pan (short for "panoramic") knob to send each mic track to the left or right side of your stereo mix. Some of the musical parts come more out of the left speaker and some come more out of the right. Some parts, like lead vocals, tend to be mixed in the center, coming out of the left and right speakers at equal volume.

With careful recording and panning, a good mix can place different musical elements into a three-dimensional "soundstage."

Some modern spatial sound reproduction techniques use Dolby Atmos and other surround sound technologies to reproduce an immersive soundstage. To get the most out of them, you'd want to use a multi-speaker home theater sound system.

But most music is presented in a stereo mix. And to hear it the way the artists intended, you should listen to it on a stereo system.

Parts of a home stereo system

There are three essential elements of a home stereo system:

  1. A stereo receiver or amplifier
  2. A matched pair of speakers
  3. One or more music sources
The parts of a stereo system

A home stereo system typically includes a stereo receiver or amplifier and a matched pair of speakers.

The amp or receiver drives the speakers and amplifies the source. The source could be a turntable spinning vinyl, a CD player, or another component connected by cables. Or it could be a smartphone streaming Spotify, TIDAL, Qobuz, or any other wireless source.

Stereo amplification

Home stereo systems need amplification to drive the speakers. An integrated amp is a great choice, since you can get them with all sorts of source inputs. A stereo receiver is basically the same thing with a built-in FM tuner.

Marantz integrated amplifier with turntable and speaker

An integrated amp powers your speakers and handles your sources.

Receivers and integrated amps let you control volume and other tone-shaping controls — some even have network streaming built in, so all you need is a pair of speakers. Take a look at our top integrated amp picks to see some of our favorite options.

You can also get a separate power amp and stereo preamplifier. The amp provides power and speaker connections, while the stereo preamp lets you connect sources, control volume, etc. Learn more in our article about using power amp/preamp separates.

Home stereo speakers

Different stereo speakers have small and sometimes large differences in sound. It can be helpful to listen to a few different models to get an idea what you like.

One way to audition a lot of different speakers is to spend some time with Crutchfield’s SpeakerCompare™ tool. For fair comparisons of sound quality, use the “equal volume” setting.

Your room’s size, shape, materials, and furniture will also influence what type of speakers you decide to buy. Check out our guide to choosing home stereo speakers to learn more. You can also read up on our favorite stereo speakers.

Floor-standing vs bookshelf speakers for home stereo

You can get floor-standing or bookshelf speakers. Since they can house more drivers, floor-standing speakers tend to have better bass reproduction and can fill larger rooms with sound. Like their name says, they stand on the floor.

bookshelf speaker

tower speaker

Bookshelf speakers can deliver fantastic stereo sound; floor-standing speakers offer extended bass.

Bookshelf speakers sound great and work well in medium-sized or small rooms where you might need flexible placement. You can place them on stands or furniture or mount them on your walls.

Powered speaker systems

Powered speakers have built-in amplification. Some powered speakers have built-in network streaming, so you won't need separate components for amplification or a streaming source. That's great for a compact desktop computer stereo system — or anywhere that space is at a premium.

Audioengine HD3 powered speakers

Powered speakers have built-in amplification tailored to their drivers.

And if you want to connect another source — like a turntable or CD player — you can find powered speakers with all types of inputs. Check out our Best powered speakers article for some great recommendations.

Wireless speakers in stereo mode

Already have a standalone wireless speaker that you love listening to? Most models from Bluesound, Sonos, HEOS, Yamaha's MusicCast, and some other streaming platforms let you pair two identical speakers in stereo mode to get true wireless stereo sound.

Speaker stands and mounts

We recommend that you use stands or wall mounts to get bookshelf speakers at ear level for the best sound. I like models with built-in cable routing for helping keep speaker wire organized and out of sight.

Bookshelf speakers on speaker stands

Speaker stands let you place your speakers near ear level for the best sound.

Home stereo speaker placement

The basic rule of thumb for speaker placement: form an equilateral triangle from your listening position with the left and right speakers slightly "toed in" toward your ears. Check out our guide to home stereo speaker placement to learn more.

Speaker placement for stereo listening

Place your speakers in an equilateral triangle with your ideal listening spot for the best stereo sound.

Subwoofers in a home stereo system

You can get extended bass with a powered subwoofer if your amplifier or powered speakers have a subwoofer output.

While it fundamentally changes stereo sound by adding a third speaker, a powered subwoofer can sometimes really enhance it. It lets your amplifier and right and left speakers work more efficiently since it relieves them of the significant demands of reproducing low frequencies.

Stereo speakers and subwoofer

Adding a subwoofer to a system like this will give you solid bass and improve your stereo speakers' performance.

Music sources

Your home stereo system can only sound as good as the sources you play through it. Network streamers, CD players, and other digital sources can provide the clearest audio.

But most music recorded before the late 1980s came out on vinyl and tons of artists — from DIY garage bands to top-ranking hitmakers — still release their music in that format. That's because a lot of people — myself and plenty of others at Crutchfield included — still like and even prefer to listen to music on vinyl.

Turntables

Turntables are a time-tested source and we've got tons of great options for people who like to spin vinyl.

Kristine using a turntable

Turntables were the dominant stereo music source for decades and many audiophiles and artists still prefer vinyl.

Some turntables have a built-in phono preamp, which allows for a direct connection to a receiver or integrated amp. If your model lacks that feature, many integrated amps also have a dedicated phono input. And there are also outboard phono preamps if your turntable or amp doesn’t have one built in.

Most turntables come with a pre-installed cartridge, which contains the "needle" that reads your records' grooves. If you get a model with a removable headshell, it makes replacing or upgrading your cartridge easier.

To learn more about turntables, check out our buying guide and our favorite models.

Network music players

Network music players make it easy to play high-res music over the air. If you already have a stereo amplifier, you can add streaming from music services like TIDAL, Qobuz, and Spotify and network-attached storage (NAS) drives.

Some network music players work as preamps, so you can connect them directly to a power amp driving your speakers. Check out our favorite network music players to find models for every budget and situation.

CD players and SACD players

CD players have had a renaissance for a very good reason: they provide very clear audio. You can get the clearest disc audio from SACD players. Check out our article on SACD players to learn more.

Some CD players have network streaming built in. That's like getting two sources in one. Some even work as preamps that let you connect other digital sources. Some even have all three — CD playback, network streaming, and digital inputs — in a single component.

See our favorite CD players to find a model that has the features you're looking for.

Other home stereo sources

A Bluetooth adapter is a great way to add wireless stereo streaming to pretty much any hi-fi system. Although the sound quality won't be as good as you'll get with a high-performance Wi-Fi streamer, some models deliver surprisingly clear audio.

McIntosh MB 20 component stack

A Bluetooth transceiver like the popular McIntosh MB20 can add surprisingly good stereo sound to your hi-fi system. It can also stream to Bluetooth headphones.

If you're like me and tune in pretty much every day to your favorite radio station (mine is WTJU), you can get a a radio tuner.

A tape deck can also provide surprisingly good stereo sound, especially if you're of a certain age and still have some cherished mix tapes.

Home stereo accessories

Using high-quality audio cables and speaker wire keeps noise from interference at bay. And vibration isolators go under your speakers and components to dampen acoustic resonances that might mar your sound.

Acoustic panels can absorb sound that reflects off your walls and ceiling, minimizing the "echo chamber" effect and letting you hear your speakers clearly.

Home stereo power protection and conditioning

Keep noise from electrical interference out of your music with a power line conditioner. Like power strips, they let have multiple outlets for plugging in your components.

They also protect your home stereo equipment from power surges. Many even offer thousands of dollars’ worth of reimbursement if your stereo gear gets damaged by a lightning strike or other power irregularity.

Home stereo headphones

A nice pair of headphones and a headphone amplifier can deliver a top-notch stereo listening experience — check out our headphone specialist Jeff's buying guide to learn more.

Get some personal expert advice

Want some specific recommendations for building your own home stereo system? Contact one of our expert Advisors today.

Free lifetime tech support is included with your Crutchfield purchase.

  • Dan from Chicago

    Posted on 11/11/2023

    I have had numerous entry level pieces over the years and am now in the fortunate position to be able to build a higher quality system of all new gear (vs. a mish mash of old things). I have lots of vinyl and cds and would like to integrate streaming (but that is not essential). Not building a home theater system, this is just for music. I am intimidated as to where to start. Thank you for advice.

    Commenter image

    Ned O. from Crutchfield

    on 11/13/2023

    Hi Dan, Thanks for your note. I'm envious of your position! We have a bunch of great options for putting together a nice, high-quality stereo hi-fi system — too many to list here. I've asked one of our Advisors to get in touch with you to learn more about your situation and help you make the best choices.
  • Paul C from Erdenheim

    Posted on 10/16/2023

    Which Stereo Receivers can handle phono, CD and tape in/tape out? Thanks!

    Commenter image

    Ned O. from Crutchfield

    on 10/19/2023

    Hi Paul, We have a few stereo receivers that have phono, CD, and tape in/tape out connections. To widen your choices, you may also want to consider an integrated amp. I've asked one of our Advisors to get in touch with you to learn more about your setup and help you make an informed choice.
  • Gus

    Posted on 10/2/2023

    I am in the process of building a house. Is prewiring all the rooms and outside porches still the best way to go to get great music throughout my house? Or have bluetooth speakers come far enough to eliminate wires?

    Commenter image

    Ned O. from Crutchfield

    on 10/19/2023

    Hi Gus, Thanks for your question. While traditional wired multi-room audio can provide the most stable format for getting music throughout your whole house, you may also want to consider Wi-Fi multi-room audio. Platforms like Sonos, Bluesound, HEOS, and others work really well, as long as you have robust internet. I've asked one of our Advisors to get in touch to help you consider the choices for your specific situation.
  • SAMUEL from Gilbert Louisiana

    Posted on 12/10/2022

    Hello Eric. I have a PYLE PD3000BT Pre Amplifier w/Built-in DVD/CD/BT/MP3/AM/FM/USB with a peak output of 3000 Watts. I am playing it through a pair of Vintage AAL 124 floorstanding Loudspeakers that are only rated for 200 Watts. They sound really great but I find myself pushing them to their limits often. I also have a Rockville Rockshaker 12 Powered Sub 850 Watts connected. This is a stereo system not home theater or surrond. I want to upgrade the loudspeakers any suggestions or advice would be most appreciated. THANK YOU.

  • Fredrick A. Keller from Port Orchard

    Posted on 10/29/2022

    I still like my old stereo system with cd and tape because I have quite a collection. What have you got to replace it?

  • George bender from Fort Myers Florida

    Posted on 1/6/2022

    I have amplifier cd table and two speakers. On our move to Florida something got damage and I cannot get cd layer or receiver to work. Can u recommend someone in Fort Myers area could hook up a small system

  • Mark Blaedel from Ames

    Posted on 12/13/2021

    Hello, I have a Dual 1218 turntable and a Tivoli Model 1 radio with one auxiliary input. Both components are older but in good shape. Is there an easy way to plug my turntable into the radio? Thanks for your comments.

    Commenter image

    Eric Angevine from Crutchfield

    on 12/14/2021

    Mark - I also have a Tivoli radio, and I must admit I had never thought of using it as a powered speaker, but I do think it's possible. The Music Hall Mini phono preamp has a 3.5mm output that should allow you to do the trick. Hope this helps!
  • 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!
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