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by Staff Writer
The ways people listen to music are constantly changing. Your home stereo is still probably your most powerful audio system, but your options for enjoying music and movies are always changing. Portable stereo systems are popular as well, especially when you want the music to move around with you. This stereo buying guide will help you determine which stereo equipment will give you the best audio quality at home or on the go.
Portable stereo systems: Portable stereo systems are a great choice if you want a stereo that you can carry with you as you move. If you need a portable sound system for areas without electrical outlets, look for a small set of stereo speakers that don't draw much power. The batteries -- and the music -- will last for hours.
Connections: The most common portable stereos include CD players and connections for your MP3 player. A boombox with a docking station will charge your MP3 player and play music simultaneously.
Frequency response: Sound quality in portable stereo systems depends on the frequency response of the drivers. Check to see what drivers are present and whether they cover the range from low-bass sounds to high-frequency tones.
Shelf stereo systems: Shelf stereo systems aren't designed to be easily portable, so they can afford to have larger speaker enclosures and multiple audio channels for surround sound. A good shelf stereo will have superior sound quality and room-filling volume. If you have a large collection of cassettes or records that you still enjoy listening to, make sure that the shelf system has a cassette deck or turntable in addition to the standard CD player and MP3 compatibility. Select a quality speaker system for your stereo, including a subwoofer, tweeters and mid-range speakers for as many audio channels as your stereo system will support.
Audio receivers: The receiver will be the heart of your stereo system. All of your audio sources and stereo speakers connect to it.
Peripheral devices: Your receiver may include a built-in CD player, MP3 connection, satellite radio or other features. Check the number and type of connection ports on the receiver to be sure that you can connect all of your external devices, especially if you have special audio electronics, like a vinyl turntable.
Equalizer: Most receivers will feature a graphic equalizer that allows you to adjust filters for audio levels. You may also be able to control audio levels for each individual channel. More advanced surround sound systems can automatically adjust audio levels for the room, using one or more microphones during setup.
Audio sources: Building your own stereo, either for music or for your home theater, allows you to customize the entire system, including other electronics that you use for audio.
CD players: CDs provide you with digital-quality, clear audio, and a CD changer can make multiple discs from your library available through your stereo at the touch of a button.
MP3 players: You can store thousands of songs on a digital music player. If your stereo receiver accepts it, you can take advantage of those songs through a USB connection.
Turntables: Vinyl enthusiasts will want a turntable to enjoy the warmer sound and genuine audio reproduction of vinyl records.
Satellite radio: If it isn't already built into your stereo receiver, you can connect a satellite radio receiver and enjoy hundreds of commercial-free stations with a subscription.
Graphic equalizers: For some people, these are completely optional when you're putting together a home stereo system. Graphic equalizers are a popular component to add to a stereo system, as a stand-alone graphic equalizer can give you tremendous flexibility in how your stereo sounds.
Audio cables: The cables you use to connect your sound system to speakers and peripheral devices can seriously affect the audio quality you experience. Before you buy cables for your stereo system, check to see what connectors your components have, and then make sure your receiver supports the same connection type. Different cables offer varying performance:
A/V cables: RCA connectors can transfer digital or analog audio, depending on the audio source. These are the most common connectors.
Optical: If your equipment has optical connectors, you can use an EIAJ optical cable, such as TOSLINK cable. Optical connections are able to carry a higher fidelity audio signal.
Speaker wire: Speaker wire will run from the audio receiver to your stereo speakers. Match the resistance of the wire to the impedance of your speakers.
Stereos for home theater: The great audio quality of your stereo system can be perfect for your home theater, but there are other features to consider for video applications. Find an audio receiver that also processes common audio formats for DVD and Blu-ray movies, as well as the video from these sources. Much of this home theater functionality requires HDMI or similar connections between your home theater receiver, HDTV and a Blu-ray or DVD player.