Christmas, among other things, is a time for shopping lists. So, as in previous years, we will pinpoint some current standouts among stereo components in different price classes.
At a time when even Santa Claus is feeling a bit pinched, budget models take priority, with higher-priced wares to be sampled in the coming weeks.
The items listed here were selected with two criteria in mind: good dollar value and musical capability rather than technical frills.
With amplifier power being a major cost factor in stereo systems, budget-conscious buyers are necessarily constrained in this respect.
Luckily, budget systems are rarely called upon to shake palatial halls with orchestral thunder, and even a mere 30 watts per channel or thereabouts will do nicely in apartment-size rooms (averaging 2,000 to 3,000 cubic feet), assuming the music is not played loudly enough to register on the Richter scale.
Several well-designed receivers in the lower power range manage to hold the price line below $300, a noteworthy feat in these days of rapid escalation.
Champions in this class include the Technics SA-GX-300 ($280), which delivers an astounding 60 watts per channel and Denon's DRA335-R ($270), which delivers 55 watts per channel.
The latter features a continuously
variable loudness control, which provides an easy way to make sure that full bass and proper tonal balance are obtained at any volume setting.
Other excellent values among low-cost receivers are Sony's STR-AV320 and Onkyo's TX-822, both with list prices of $250, and the Philips FR-50, priced at $299.
All three are rated at 50 watts per channel. The radio tuners contained in these models are all of the digital kind, providing one-touch tuning and enough sensitivity even for outlying suburban locations.
Among CD players suitable for a budget system, the Technics SL-P170 ($180) is the lowest-price model offering the one-bit digital decoder recently used in many technically advanced designs.
More conventional decoding systems are used in Sony's CDP-390 ($190), Onkyo's DX-1400 ($200) and Denon's DCD-560 ($250).
The Denon model features dual 20-bit converters -- a level of design sophistication uncommon in this price range. Sonically, all these players come close to far costlier models.
The most important components in any system are the loudspeakers. Low-cost speakers are necessarily small and lack heft and conviction in the lower range. Consequently, they are not at their best in massively orchestrated music.
Yet in music of a lighter texture, even a budget speaker -- if well designed -- can project the kind of clearly articulated and well-balanced sound that makes for enjoyable listening.
Since the character of speakers varies considerably from one model to another, buyers should make careful and unhurried comparisons, bringing some of their own CDs to the store to assess speakers in terms of familiar music.
High-ranking candidates for a low-cost system include the Boston Acoustics HD7 ($200), the PSB20MKII ($225), the B.I.C-Venturi V62 ($219), the Pinnacle PN5 plus ($179) and the Mordaunt-Short MS3.10 ($229). All prices refer to a pair of speakers.
Rounding out the system with a cassette deck logically leads budget buyers to models priced around $240.
Below this price, cassette decks tend to be flimsily built and may not maintain their initial level of performance under prolonged and intensive use.
For the same reason, it is advisable to avoid the mechanically more intricate double decks (i.e., cassette recorders equipped for copying from one cassette to another) in this price class.
Reliable designs of single cassette decks include the Technics RS-BR465 ($230), Denon's DRM-400 ($230), Sony's TC-RX420 ($240) and NAD's Model 6325 ($249).
A system comprising the components listed here is not likely to quicken the pulse of perfectionists, but the sound can provide much musical pleasure.