So you want to put together a home stereo system—but you’re not sure where to start.
Rather than turn to the overwhelming bounty of information on the internet, where gear talk can be confusing, seek the advice of an expert, instead. Ours is Wavley Groves III, of EccoHollow Art+Sound in Staunton. Groves knows what he’s talking about: He took his first steps at a Virginia Beach radio station, worked in record shops throughout his 20s, played in and served as an audio engineer for several bands, and worked in the National Radio Astronomy Observatory’s development laboratory where, among other things, he built low-noise cryogenic microwave amplifiers (including some for NASA). At EccoHollow, he and fellow gearhead Matt Bailie repair and sell all manner of audio gear, build custom amps and effects, offer recording services, and much more.
There’s plenty of high-quality (and sometimes affordable) new gear for sale in stores like Crutchfield, but now is a great time to assemble a secondhand home sound system. “We have 60 or so years of hi-fi equipment out there,” says Groves, “and guys like me that can repair stuff.” While it’s true that vintage gear may need to be fixed and top-of-the line pieces can be costly, “there is some really nice stuff that’s being ignored,” he says. And if you nose around yard sales and pawn and antique shops, or click through eBay or Facebook Marketplace, you’ll discover a rich but affordable vein of coveted brands like Marantz, Bose, Technics, Pioneer, Boston Acoustics, JBL, Audiolab, Nakamichi, and others.
Groves advises first asking yourself: How do I prefer to listen to music? If streaming’s your thing, a lot of new stereos are set up for that, either via Bluetooth or A/V cable connection. If you’ve got a hard drive full of mp3 and wav. files, you can set up an old computer as a music server and connect a decent set of speakers.
Things get a bit more complicated with physical media: CDs, cassette tapes, and vinyl. The latter requires the most gear—usually a turntable, a preamp/tuner, and speakers. Groves says that a good rule of thumb is to buy components from the time period when your preferred format was king. For vinyl, that’s the 1960s through the early ’80s and for CDs and cassettes, the 1980s through the early 2000s.
Once you know what you need, it’s time to consider the budget. “If you pay attention and you’re patient, you can build a really nice system for not a ton of money,” says Groves. Before you buy, do a bit of research online about a model that grabs your interest. Pull up Google to see if that particular Technics turntable has a fussy switch, or if it’s a stalwart—or get advice from a gearhead friend. If possible, before you pay for a piece, plug it in, turn the knobs, flick the switches, see if everything works.
If it does, great. But finding a flaw in an item doesn’t necessarily mean you should pass it up, says Groves. For example, if you can get an imperfect Pioneer receiver from the 1970s or a set of Marantz speakers for a steal, it’s well worth your money to foot the repair bill. (Groves and Bailie are happy to advise on these types of purchases.)
What you’ll spend
If you follow the basic rules above, and stick with high-quality brand names, it’s possible to assemble a really nice system for $500 or less. For $500 to-$1,000, “you can put together a really really nice system,” says Groves, perhaps incorporating a set of audiophile speakers (like the Magnepan brand). For upwards of $1,000, you can move into “amazing” territory, he says, though the casual listener probably doesn’t need this level of investment.
“Your system gets better as you become a better listener,” he says. “Some people are going to put [music] on and make dinner, so you don’t need the world’s best stereo to do that. The more you’re going to sit and just actively listen to the space around the notes…the more you listen, the more [you’ll] train your ears, your palate. I suppose it’s a little like wine: There’s a point where there’s a super taster, and a super listener. And even then I have my doubts as to, ‘Are your ears really that good?’”
Particularly where vinyl is concerned, there are some pieces of equipment to avoid, because crappy gear will ruin your records. Typically, the heavier the turntable, the better the quality, says Groves. Steer clear of anything with a platter or tonearm made of plastic, and note that any good tonearm will have a counterweight. Console stereos—the ones built into credenzas, for instance—may have a cool vintage look, but their turntables aren’t usually of very good quality.
Groves says that the most important component of a turntable is the needle, or cartridge. A worn or damaged needle will distort the audio and mess up a record’s grooves. So, if you buy a good vintage turntable, you may want to invest in a new needle.
He also advises those buying a vinyl system to get a carbon-fiber record brush. Boundless Audio makes a good one; Groves bought his years ago at Crutchfield. “The electrostatic fiber sucks the dust right out [of the grooves],” he says.
And he’s emphatic about his final piece of advice: “The most expensive part of your stereo system is your record collection. Take care of your records!”
EccoHollow Art+Sound, Staunton, (540) 415-9000, echohollow.com
Whether you’re new to vinyl or getting back into it after selling (or tossing) your collection when CDs were king, Gwen Berthy
of Charlottesville’s Melody Supreme recommends a few recent releases to kickstart, or reinvigorate, your collection.
The 2019 reissue of the seventh album from these English-French avant-poppers is not only remastered from the original half-inch tapes, it’s also been expanded to include demo
versions of the album tracks.
Alice Clark, Alice Clark
Clark is a legend among funk and soul fanatics, and her 1972 self-titled record was officially reissued for the first time in 2019.
Silver Jews, American Water
Silver Jews frontman David Berman, who died last year, lived
in Charlottesville for a time (and attended UVA, where he met bandmates Stephen Malkmus and Bob Nastanovich), and DJed on local station WTJU. In 2018, his label reissued this indie rock classic with half-speed mastering from Abbey Road studios.
Echo and the Bunnymen,
John Peel Sessions 1979-1983
Liverpool’s post-punk heroes compile all of the sessions they recorded with legendary English DJ/music journalist/radio producer John Peel.
Cate LeBon, Reward
The latest from a wonderfully quirky, risk-taking folk/baroque pop Welsh musician and songwriter.
Patrice Rushen, Remind Me
The definitive three-LP compilation of this jazz pianist and R&B singer’s music, remastered from the original tapes.
Angel Olsen, All Mirrors
Lush alternative pop from a contemporary master of the genre.