Stereo Buying for Audio Idiots: Three Quick Tips

Stereo Buying for Audio Idiots: Three Quick Tips

Written by Steven Bryan Bieler

I once bought two hefty speakers at a yard sale and stuffed them into the backseat of my four-door Mazda. It was like loading R2D2 into an X-wing fighter – twice. The seller had lost all the paperwork, and this was in the early days of the internet when looking up specs was a lost cause, but the two behemoths only cost me $50, so away I went.

I lugged the speakers up the stairs to my study and attached them to what passed for my stereo, which was made up of cast-offs, hand-me-downs, donations from concerned friends, and other flotsam and jetsam. Then I placed on the turntable my pristine copy of Sticky Fingers (the dealer at the street fair with the cardboard boxes bursting with LPs had described it as “gemstone mint”) and dropped the needle.

“Hmm,” I said after a few minutes. “I thought all this junk would sound better.”

My friend, if you’re an audio idiot, as I clearly am, and if you’re looking for a respectable stereo system, not something you hauled home from a garbage scow, then here is your first tip. Find a stereo store that’s been around for a while and that has many testimonials to their good work. Call them and tell them what you want and what your budget is. Don’t just show up – make an appointment to use their listening room. The staff will set up a trial system for you. Imagine: gleaming new components, all with their original boxes and packing material, all designed to work together and to accept upgrades. The salespeople will gladly explain how to connect and disconnect everything instead of you wasting time guessing what to do with your mongrel Craigslist purchases.

But what do you tell them? Ask yourself this: What format do you primarily listen to? Your primary interest – streaming, vinyl, CDs, or whatever might be invented between the time I finish writing this and you begin reading it – will determine what audiophiles call “the source.” In my case, I primarily listen to CDs. Therefore, the source of my music should be a CD player. This is the most important choice you will make and where you should spend the bulk of your budget.

My last tip is a simple one. Don’t hesitate to ask for other components. On the day I first heard the gear that would become my dream stereo, I was listening in a room that was longer and wider than the one I have at home. The speakers the staff chose for me were superb, but they were too much for my space. They could’ve sterilized me and everyone on my end of the block. The speakers also took up more room than I wanted to give up. So I asked for the next size down. The salesman replaced the demo system’s speakers with a less-powerful pair from the same model line. I could hear the difference; these smaller speakers were not quite as good, but if they weren’t really superb, they were still really close. Sold.

A cozy, well-designed listening room is key to a good demo experience. Read on to see where Steven got his stereo groove on.


I am writing this while listening to my new system, which does everything I could ask it to do, doesn’t occupy too much space in my office, and doesn’t disturb my wife or our dogs, unless I decide to turn Coltrane to 11. And the next time I drop by a yard sale where somebody has decided to dump an amp or a sound bar or a turntable with a Slayer sticker on it, I will cruise to the next sale. They might have CDs there.

Bonus tip: When you try out your new system, bring some samples of your music. I brought six CDs of various genres, each with a strong first track. I had enough to think about without wondering which track I should play on each album. I just popped each CD in and let it go.

In case you’re wondering: I purchased a Marantz CD6007 CD player, a Marantz PM6007 integrated amp, and Wharfedale Diamond 12.0 speakers. (The next size up was the Diamond 14.0.) I owe it all to the gentlemen at Hawthorne Stereo in Seattle, Washington. Thanks to you guys, I rock.


The store offers a wide selection of new and used gear.


Header image: Hawthorne Stereo, courtesy of Steven Bryan Bieler.

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