Stop and Listen Closely

With a basic price range in mind, it's relatively easy to take a close listen and evaluate different pieces of equipment to get an idea of what your money will get you. Audio experts say it's best to think about the sound, rather than the price, when you're actually sitting in a store's listening room.

Prices of digital music servers, which are spurring a renewed interest in home audiovisual equipment (along with advances in television technology -- a whole other story) run between $300 and $800. Brent Butterworth, who edits The Robb Report Home Entertainment and has tested thousands of pieces of stereo equipment, says most well-known home electronics manufacturers such as Marantz, Denon, Kenwood and Sony all offer these at-home boxes, which will digitize all of your compact discs and also enable you to put computer music files on your home entertainment system.

"For about $800, you can get something really nice," he says.

Fans of portable players can create wireless connections or just plug directly into their home components. Apple now offers the $129 AirPort Express box, which creates a wireless connection between its popular iPod digital players and a home stereo.

Getting in at the low end of other high-end audio components -- amplifiers, compact disc players and speakers -- can cost as little as $1,200, or as much as a person wants to spend, says Michael Nadler senior salesman at Sound by Singer, one of a handful of high-end audio stores in New York.

So, armed with a handful of compact discs and an open mind, I listened to a handful of systems at the store. As advised, I brought music with female vocals, low bass and lots of cymbals to test the high, middle and low tones of what I like. Maybe it was the rare chance to turn up the music loud at work, but everything I listened to sounded rich and full, though there were differences in quality -- and they did happen to correspond to price.

On the low end, I tried out a system made from a $600 Arcam integrated amplifier -- which supplies the power and amplification for the system in one unit, as opposed to the pre-amplifier and amplifier setup some audiophiles favor -- a $700 compact disc player made by the same company, and a $350 pair of speakers made by JM Lab, a French company. That adds up to $1,650.

"This is more than adequate sound," he says. "This is just fine."

And it was. A recording of Edith Piaf, the French singer, sounded like she was on stage today, not in a recording studio decades ago. The guitar riff on Happy, from the Rolling Stones' 1972 classic Exile on Main Street sounded, well, a lot more fresh and lively than Keith Richards probably was when he recorded it.

For a few dollars more, a hi-fi enthusiast could be hearing tunes on a $15,000 system, and appreciating the difference. Powered by a $4,000 Krell KAV2250 amplifier, a $2,500 Rogue Audio pre-amplifier, a $3,400 Musical Fidelity compact disc player pumped tunes through a pair of Audio Physic speakers, and it sounded like the music was three-dimensional, with texture and substance to the sound.

"It should flow around you," says Butterworth. "Really good speakers should make you think you're listening to an actual instrument that's right there, not like you're listening to speakers."

Listening to Charlie Parker's Laura, which starts off with a syrupy string passage before the master saxophonist kicks in, each chord sounded like it was woven in the air before being put on a CD. Loud music often has a harsh, blaring sound, but English folk-electronica singer Beth Orton's voice sounded warm and emotional at high volume, unlike the crackling and muzzy effect I get on my Walkman headphones.

It's easily possible to spend more on a system. Sound by Singer has one $150,000 system powered by a VTL brand amplifier system with the model name Siegfried (which lived up to its Wagnerian promise) and dCS' Elgar compact disc player that was designed by former Royal Navy avionics experts and costs $30,000. I think the sound of the salesman saying "$85,000" when I asked the price of the 6-foot-tall JM Lab speakers was still ringing in my ears when he left me alone in the listening room. But Edith Piaf's signature tune La Vie en Rose will never sound richer, redder and more melancholy, and listening to Charlie Parker's bebop classic Lester Leaps In was like being at Birdland.

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