Cheap home audio: your guide to great sound for next to nothing

cheap home audio

Many people think their ears aren't good enough to justify spending good money on speakers and headphones, but hearing is believing. And even the biggest tin ears can appreciate a simple audio upgrade.

If you're listening to the crappy speakers built into your TV or a tiny speaker dock, you can do a lot better, and for not much money. You don't have to spend everything in your savings for your favorite TV shows, movies, and music to convey a deeper sense of drama - all you need is the right gear.

Unfortunately, shopping is hard for audiophiles - there's no standard for specifications, which makes the numbers easy to fudge. Ideally, you would listen and form your own opinions before buying. But, if you don't have the time, here are a few awesome-sounding recommendations that won't break the bank.

Getting active

Let's start with speakers. They take an electrical signal and convert it into an acoustic one. But that signal needs to be strong enough to move your speakers, so you need an amplifier to boost it. Some speakers have the amplification built in - these are called active speakers. If you have to bring amplification, they're passive speakers.

If you want to minimize wiring and the number of boxes cluttering up your space, active speakers keep things simple.

Grace Digital GDI-BTSP201

A good place to start is the Grace Digital GDI-BTSP201. While their list price is $249/£189 (about AU$242), at lower street prices around $190 they offer solid sound as well as one wired audio input and Bluetooth audio support.

Stepping up to the $249/£195 (about AU$317) Audioengine A2+ gets you markedly better sound, due to higher-quality components (including better speaker drivers) and construction. The A2+ has two analog audio inputs and one USB audio input, as well as the option to upgrade the system with a subwoofer in the future.

Audioengine A5

If you can spare more, there are lots of good options, but I like the A2+'s big brother, the $399/£330 (about AU$508) Audioengine A5+. The extra money gets you a significant increase in quality, volume, and depth of bass over the A2+, thanks to an increase in woofer size from 2.75 inches to 5 inches. You also get a remote, which is rare in active speakers, and two analog audio inputs.

The passive voice

If you can stomach a slight increase in complexity, passive speakers - along with a separate amplifier or receiver - get you a wider range of prices, brands, models, and quality. Plus, to upgrade, you can replace individual components instead of chucking everything and starting over.

Money put into speakers has the most dramatic effect on sound quality, so this is an important decision.

Dayton Audio B652

Start with the absurdly inexpensive, but surprisingly good, $39/£25/AU$112 Dayton Audio B652. If you're willing to drop an extra $20 for the $59/£133 (about AU$76) Dayton Audio B652-AIR, you'll get an upgraded tweeter that presents more musical and textural detail.

Speaking of surprisingly low prices, the $129 (about £84/AU$165) Pioneer SP-BS2-LR is designed by Andrew Jones. (His designs for Pioneer's TAD brand normally go for five figures.) Plus, the Pioneers offer a huge improvement in sound quality over either Dayton model.

If you're starting to feel serious about good sound, though, the $299 (about £194/AU$382) PSB Alpha B1 sounds even better, and can hold its own against speakers edging up against the $1,000 mark.

Notably, all three companies offer matching subwoofers, making it easy to upgrade your bass.