Having roamed through stereo's bargain basement last week, our annual pre-Christmas shopping guide now climbs up to the middle class.
Prices in this group are roughly double those of low-budget models. This difference prompts the question of whether they are twice as good.
However, the notion of twice as good is problematic. What is to be doubled? The quality of sound or the listener's pleasure?
And even if we assume the two to be roughly identical, neither can be precisely measured.
But if you'll settle for metaphor in place of exactitude, be assured that the costlier systems, thanks to richer bass, lend heft to massive scores -- especially in passages where cellos and basses play in octaves to put a deep, sonorous foundation under the musical structure.
And when it comes to contemporary sounds, the more potent lows and generally higher power of mid-price systems add greater thrust to the rhythms of rock.
At the upper end of the tonal spectrum, mid-priced systems generally exceed their lower-priced counterparts in smoothness and clarity. Moreover, their broad dispersion of highs accounts for sonic spaciousness beyond the range of budget systems.
On the whole, mid-priced components spring from the drawing board unhampered by the compromises typical of products designed to shave costs.
Here the designers enjoy a fair amount of creative freedom, and that freedom shows up in the sound.
And at their best, components in this group approach the performance of top-rank designs without approaching their price. They make good sense, musically and financially.
Among stereo receivers in this group, Sony's STR-GX50ESII ($500), rated at 80 watts per channel (wpc),
a champion in terms of sheer power, and it is well designed in other respects.
With only half that much power, NAD's 7240PE receiver ($479) would seem a weak contender, yet the numbers don't tell the whole story.
Thanks to the receiver's unusual overload characteristics, the effective output of the NAD is far greater than its rating of 40 wpc would indicate. It has muscle enough to clear all musical hurdles in almost any domestic setting, and its sonic quality ranks among the best.
Other highly capable receivers in this group include Yamaha's RX-730Ti ($499, 70 wpc) and Denon's DRA-625RA ($500, 65 wpc), both of which have an unusually flexible loudness control that assures proper tonal balance at any volume setting.
The choice of loudspeakers is always a matter of individual taste.
But any of the following designs is likely to please listeners who go to concerts frequently and whose ears are accustomed to the real thing. All quoted prices refer to a pair of speakers.
In the KEF C55 ($598), the tweeter nestles right at the center of the woofer so that all sounds -- highs and lows alike -- originate at the same point in space. This arrangement results in an uncommonly precise stereo location.
A Canadian newcomer, the PSB 50MKII ($550) combines exemplary clarity and detail with a full-bodied sonic aura, and Boston Acoustics' T830 ($500) also excels in conveying a sense of sonic magnitude.
The unforced naturalness of sound typical of the more expensive speakers made by Allison Acoustics of Framingham, Mass., is also evident in the company's mid-price Model AL-115 ($440).
Two bookshelf speakers, one by a/d/s/ (Model L8e) and the other by Altec Lansing (Model 205), sound forth with a clarity and sweetness that make any music more enjoyable, and both list at $600.
Among the many commendable CD players in the mid-price range, the Harman-Kardon HD7450 ($429), the Technics SL-PS70 ($450) and the Yamaha 930Ti ($549) all use the new one-bit decoding technology, which yields superior results at relatively low cost.
Outstanding tape decks in the mid-price bracket include Denon's DRR-680 ($350), NAD's 6340 ($399), Sony's TC-K650 ($400) and Technics' RS-B755 ($440). The last two are three-headed models that permit the tape to be monitored as it is being recorded.
No mid-price listings would be complete without mention of the Bose Lifestyle System -- an offbeat item likely to appeal to listeners who love music but hate gadgets.
It is a nearly complete system comprising speakers, amplifier, tuner and a CD player. Only a tape deck need be added, and the whole rig lists for $2,100.
Unobtrusiveness and operating ease are the keynote of this singular design. All you see of the Bose system is a sleek, small brushed-aluminum box containing the CD player and the radio tuner.
The amplifiers and woofers are in a separate unit that can be kept out of the way or hidden under some furniture. Two tiny mid-range tweeter units take up almost no space and can also be easily concealed.
Among the many unusual capabilities of the Bose system is that it can be set up with auxiliary speakers to play different kinds of music in different parts of the house simultaneously.
Moreover, its remote control need not be aimed directly at the central unit but can issue commands from anywhere in the house -- even through walls.
A final shopping hint: If what you want isn't in stock at your dealer, ask for the manufacturer's address so you can find out where the items can be obtained.