An Experiment With Budget Audio

by | Apr 11, 2014

Budget Audio

The question I asked myself was "Could I put together a quality surround sound budget audio system for $500.00?" The answer depended on what kind of system I put together. For the purposes of this exercise, the system had to be 5.1 and include a sound receiver, speakers, sub-woofer, speaker wires and speaker wire connectors. After some deliberation, I added speaker stands to complete the package. With all of that on the bill could I still get it all for $500.00? The answer turned out to be a qualified yes.

The Components

The Key to this experiment working was the receiver and speakers. I chose a refurbished Yamaha YHT-497 5.1 Home Theater in a Box System. By choosing a refurbished system, I was able to trim the $429.99 regular street price down to $349.99. A refurbished system was part of the qualification I alluded to above. Was it cheating? I like to think it was more along the lines of a calculated risk. The receiver and speakers came with a one-year warranty so if there were any issues I could return them. In addition, I was willing to look past a scratch or two if the receiver or speakers had any. As it turned out, everything worked perfectly and arrived in pristine condition. The best part was that I saved $80.00!

I ordered 16-gauge speaker wire because I knew that I would be running one leg around the perimeter of the room to get to the right-rear speaker and I didn'’t want to run the risk of loss due to inadequate wire size. Note that I didn'’t get the super over-sized, over-priced wire that you might encounter in any number of different retail establishments. I got the 100-foot reel of Amazon Basics Speaker wire. It didn't need to be fancy to get the job done.

I also ordered Monoprice 109438 speaker plugs to go on the speaker ends of the speaker wire and Sewell Direct SW-29863-12 Deadbolt banana plugs for the back of the receiver. Both wire ends were a breeze to use. You simply strip approximately 3/8"” off the end of each leg of the wire and screw the connectors on. The design of these wire connectors means that you only have to position the pieces properly and screw them together by hand. Presto, you are good to go!

The last component I ordered was a set of 4 ‘Mount-it!’ Speaker stands. The plastic used on these stands was a big disappointment. Several parts snapped during assembly. I suppose it's “shame on me” for not researching the stands more thoroughly. If I had done my homework, I would have either ordered different speaker stands or none at all. If I had omitted the speaker stands, I would have trimmed $49.99 off of the total.

The total for everything listed here came to $475.34

What I Ended Up Spending

The total for everything listed here came to $475.34, shipping and handling was another $46.09 and tax was $39.76 for a grand total of $561.19. The total was just a tad over my $500.00 target, but I can say I met my budget by pointing out that the combined price of everything was under my target price. It was the taxes and shipping that added the extra cost.

Configuring The System

After setting everything up and plugging in the supplied microphone, I was ready to run Yamaha'’s sound tuning routine. The routine sends sound pulses to each of the speakers and the sub-woofer while the microphone listens. The routine then calibrates the receiver’s output according to the input from the microphone. When the routine was finished, the receiver was calibrated and ready to go. Unlike some other manufacturers' calibration routines, the sound equalization routine Yamaha includes with the receiver was almost perfect. I personally prefer just a hint more bass than the program dialled in. One click higher on the sub-woofer output and it was perfect to my ear.

How It Sounds

I was prepared for an improvement in sound quality over the speakers built in to the Samsung 46"” TV, but the degree of improvement was nothing short of astonishing! The mids and highs were crisp and clean while the sub-woofer supplied the bass for a rich, balanced medley. As a test I cranked the volume up to explore the upper limits of the speakers. Even at a volume that was way past comfortable, the system sounded crisp and clear without any distortion while the bass rattled the windows. I could hear everything clearly even out in the front yard. I'’ll score that a successful test.

Next, I popped “The Avengers” into the Blu-ray player and sat back to enjoy the show. I could have been in a commercial theater except my seats are a lot more comfortable. The sound was everything I could have asked for and complimented the HD picture perfectly. The dialogue was clear and the rumbles and explosions in the action scenes resonated in my chest just like they should. This was better than the theater!

Finally I plugged my iPod into the receiver. I thought what I had run through the system before was nice. Wow! The music emanating from the speakers was nothing short of magnificent! If you had brought someone in blindfolded, they would have sworn the band was playing in the front room. Superlatives do not do the music reproduction justice!

One very interesting note was that the sound from the new Yamaha home theater in a box, when played at a more moderate level, did not carry as much as the TV speakers did without the sound system. This was counter-intuitive, but let me explain.

The speakers in the Samsung TV were aimed straight down making the sound bounce off the media center cabinet on its way to our ears. To hear everything, we had to turn the volume way up. That, combined with our home's hardwood floors meant the sound from the TV in the living room could be heard throughout the front of the house. With the Yamaha speakers placed correctly and aimed at the audience, the sound stayed where it was intended. In addition the Yamaha speakers are much higher quality than the speakers embedded in the Samsung flat screen. These two factors combined to lessen the need to crank the volume up in order to hear the TV. We got superior sound quality and reduced noise leakage into the rest of the house at the same time. Win!

The Bottom Line
I'm calling this experiment a success. I was able to meet my price point and the sound quality was superb. “Could I put together a quality surround sound system for $500.00?” The answer was a resounding “YES!”


About Brian Hill
Brian Hill is a home theater enthusiast who has an extensive background in sales. His interests include music & movies, F1 & NASCAR auto racing, hot rods (he has a '56 Nomad) and hockey — Go Sharks!
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