Expect to pay around $1,200 for mid-priced stereo components, including a receiver, speakers, compact-disc player and tape deck.
That outlay will gain you top-notch performance and virtually every useful feature currently available.
Most of the components recommended by Consumer Reports will work perfectly well with any of the others, so you need not feel obliged to stick with a single brand name. Nor do you need to buy the whole rig at once. You can start with a receiver and a pair of loudspeakers, then add a CD player later and a tape deck only if you need one. Given the prevalence of CDs, you may not need a turntable.
The control center of a stereo system is the receiver, and the receivers recommended performed very well overall, displaying no significant shortcomings.
Useful features include: Connections for two tape decks and two video cassette recorders; a wireless remote that lets you control most functions from a distance or operate other gear from the same manufacturer; digital tuning, plus presets for at least 30 FM or AM stations. Recommended receivers are JVC RX-703VBK, $390; Pioneer VSX4600 at $570, and Onkyo TX-866, $480.
More than any other stereo component, loudspeakers govern the quality of your listening. The four models recommended by Consumer Reports won't disappoint. In tests, they rendered the musical spectrum faithfully, without unduly emphasizing any portions of it.
The four won't sound exactly the same, however. Each deviated from perfect accuracy at different points.
The Allison AL120 ($600 per pair) and the JBL LX44 ($598), the largest and most expensive of the four, are also capable of rendering extremely low bass notes accurately. They scored highest in overall quality in this report, but several other models were just as accurate.
The smaller Boston Acoustics A70 Series 2 ($320) and JBL 2800 ($358) are fine performers overall. They are also significantly cheaper than other small speakers tested.
The recommended compact-disc players deliver superb sound, along with all the features anyone could want. Recommended single-CD players are Kenwood DP-5020, $350, and Technics SL-PS50, $330. Recommended CD changers are Hitachi DAC70, $354, and Sony CDP-C705, $400.
The Hitachi plays only standard 5-inch discs; the others take 3-inch discs as well.
Each has a remote control, and each lets you program the order in which tracks will be played or repeated. Each also has a display showing, among other things, the number of tracks on a disc and the number yet to play.
The Hitachi changer has two rectangular magazines that hold a total of 12 discs; the Sony has a five-disc, front-loading carousel. Either model plays tracks or discs in any order you program, or in random order.
All offer features for people who want to copy a CD onto cassette tape. The Kenwood and the Technics will automatically pause after playing only as many tracks as a cassette can hold. The Technics and the Sony can find the loudest musical peak on a CD and let you set recording levels accordingly.
Cassette decks round out a system. The highly rated Aiwa AD-F800U, $450, a relatively expensive model, turned in some of the best test results ever for a cassette deck. Consumer Reports recommends the less-expensive JVC TD-R431BK, $255, with some slight reservations.
Compared with the Aiwa, the JVC exhibited slightly more flutter (a shortcoming that can make music sound wavery), and it didn't have quite as wide a range between the loudest and softest sounds.
The Aiwa is a three-head machine, which means you can monitor the music while recording. Both decks have soft-touch push buttons, record-level controls and meters, a record-mute button and a jack for a stereo headphone.