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Guide to upgrading your stereo

technofile  by al fasoldt

Columns and commentaries in a life-long dance with technology
 

Simple gray rule


No-nonsense guide to upgrading your stereo
 

By Al Fasoldt

Copyright © 1994, The Syracuse Newspapers

Want to turn that boom box into a dream machine? Is it time to put more pizzazz in your jazz and mix some Bach with your rock?

Then come along while we look at how you can upgrade your stereo. Here's a buyer's guide to the hot stuff that can make your summer more fun.

 

Compact disc players:

CDs are the greatest things since the invention of toothpaste. They're small and last forever and never let you down. And they sound great.

What more could you ask?

Well, you could ask for an easier way to keep the music spinning. It can get a little boring hopping up every 60 minutes to slip out one CD and slide in the next.

So the Big Thing in CD players these days is the CD changer. The nerdy ones handle only three CDs—better than nothing, but not enough to impress your friends—but the ones worth looking for can swallow up at least five CDs at a time.

CD changers don't even cost much more than the old-fashioned single-serving kind, so figure on spending about $150 to $200 at the most for a good five-disc model.

You can even get CD changers that handle 100 or more discs. They're a little pricey—hey, these companies have to make money some way—but the megabucks may be worth it for a party weekend.

CDs work with laser beams and a kind of code that's written in numbers. That's why they call CD sound "digital,'' and it's also the reason CD players don't have to be expensive to sound good.

Basically, if all the parts of a CD player are screwed together right, it will work just fine. (Your digital watch is like that. A $5 digital watch keeps time just as well as a $500 one.)

Save even more money by sailing past the fancy gold-plated CDs at the record stores. They're supposed to be "high definition,'' but they're really just high price.

The gold down under the plastic coating of the CD is supposed to reflect the laser beam better. But laser beams will bounce off just about anything—peanut butter, nail polish, oil from a big-block '57 Chevy, you name it.

Instead of going for the gold, reach for a clean dish towel the next time you play a CD that's been living under the sofa. Just wipe it off and it will play like new.

 

Receivers:

Hi-fi has been around almost as long as I have—and that's almost forever. But the modern era of hi-fi didn't get under way until the receiver came along.

Since every receiver can pick up Talk Radio and the Top 40 without skipping Rush Limbaugh's beat, forget the AM and FM performance when you are shopping for a receiver. Look for a model with a lot of in-and-out connections.

They're called inputs and outputs. These days, you're probably going to have a lot of things hooked up to your receiver, and you need to be able to turn a knob to go from one to the other. (The dimwit way of doing this is to yank one wire out and another one in, and that gets boring pretty quickly.)

Your receiver should have inputs for as many of these sound sources as you can afford:

Cheap receivers won't have all these connections, of course, but you should stay away from them for another reason: They won't have enough oomph to play loud enough anyway.

Receivers need watts—lots of them, if they are going to keep Soundgarden from sounding like Oscar the Grouch.A rating of 30 watts per channel is on the shy side. You'll get more punch with 50 to 100 watts.

 

Speakers:

Once upon a time, a speaker was the unfortunate droid who gave the address at commencement. But in the hi-fi world a speaker is the only thing that makes the sound.

Of all the advice you can get, take this tip and run with it: Don't scrimp on speakers. You don't need to spend a lot of money, but you should always buy speakers that go about their business in a serious way.

Bad speakers are sometimes easy to spot. They weigh about as much as Madonna's costumes and sound like a chipmunk on steroids. There is just no way any lightweight speaker can sound good, since the part of the speaker that pumps out the vibes—the magnet inside the box—has to be big and heavy to do any real work.

Even if speakers are beefy, you can get a pair of turkeys if you're not careful. Avoid brand names you and your friends have never heard of, and always be suspicious when the store offers to "throw in" a pair of speakers to clinch a deal on a receiver. (I have a better direction they can aim those speakers at, and it's out the window.)

Brand names you can trust include Boston Acoustics, AR, Advent, Bose and Cambridge Research. The ones from Bose cost more than they should, so look for sales if you're considering them.

Small speakers can often sound just as good as large ones, so don't assume that bigger is better. But really good small speakers sometimes need a lot of watts to pull them up to the sound quality of big speakers—there's no such thing as a free lunch or a free decibel these days—so make sure your receiver is powerful enough to handle any speaker you're considering.

 

Tape decks:

Cassette decks can sound almost as good as CD players, and they're a lot handier. (Try recording something on your CD player, for example.) Look for a cassette deck that has Dolby B and Dolby C—those are circuits that cut the hissy noise from the tape—and something called Dolby HX Pro, too. It gets the most out of even cheap tapes.

Everybody seems to love dual cassette decks—the kind that can copy one tape when you play another one—but you can always get a better sounding tape deck for a lot less money if you buy the single-tape kind.

Avoid the cheapest cassette decks, which sell for less than $100; it's just not possible to make a good one for that kind of money.

 

Boom boxes:

Some of the expensive boom boxes sound great, but most of the others sound like they need a thyroid transplant.

If you are buying a boom box with a CD player built in, keep in mind that the CD player itself takes up about $60 of the total price, so a CD boom box that sells for $200 doesn't have much left for good sound. Figure on $400 for a model that won't embarrass you at the beach.

Listen up:

Be sure to listen to the components you're considering before the dough goes with the flow. After all, your ears have to live with these things, and they'll should always have the final say.


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