You could make the argument that my 14th birthday marked the beginning of a path that I've walked down ever since. As my gift, my father took me to my soon-to-be part-time employer, Bryn Mawr Stereo in South Jersey, and bought me a really, really cool stereo system. A family friend was one hell of an audiophile, with a system that consisted of Naim, Nakamichi, Linn, and B&W components. He and my dad were both keen to take all of us kids to Tower Records, be it the one in Cherry Hill or the more famous one on South Street in Philadelphia. We saved up our allowances to buy CDs and swiped every hand-me-down piece of audio gear that we could get our hands on to improve our audio systems in our bedrooms. We were the next generation of audiophiles at a time when the stereo store was one of the coolest places to be on a Saturday morning.
Anyway, back to that birthday gift. My dad got me a starter system that was very cool by 1988 standards. For a source, we picked out a Nakamichi Music Bank CD player, which allowed for both single-disc play and shuffle from a handful of other discs loaded into the player. Long before the advent of the iPod, this was pretty slick technology, and the player sounded so much better than the first-generation, tank-like Denon player that I had swiped from my stepfather. In retrospect, while that Denon might have lasted through 30 or 40 years of faithful operation because of its insane build quality, it sounded like crap thanks to its prehistoric DAC. But I digress.
For the heart of the system, we went with an NAD receiver, what I'll call the gateway drug of audio. I got a fully featured model complete with a remote, an FM tuner, preamp outs, and about 125 watts of power, if memory serves correctly. This component lasted me quite a while. It remained at the heart of my system as I upgraded over the years, swapping out speakers and adding external amps from brands like B&K (remember them?).
As for my first speakers, they were pretty good Polk towers. While a little harsh on the high end, these speakers were very dynamic and had pretty good low end for the time. I wired the system with Monster cable and ultimately saved up my pennies to procure a Philips 21-inch standard-def CRT TV (hey, that was a decent amount of screen real estate at the time, so don't judge).
That starter system began one hell of an audio party that has, over the course of three decades now, evolved to include nearly every legendary brand in the AV realm: Naim, Rotel, Audio Alchemy, THIEL, Acurus, Aragon ... the list goes on. Later, I would be lucky enough to own audio products from Cello, Mark Levinson, MartinLogan, Audio Research, Meridian, Theta Digital, Sunfire, Transparent, Krell, ReQuest, Sony, Faroudja, and dozens more.
Today, my system still remains true to those audiophile roots with Classé electronics and Focal speakers, yet it's augmented by modern home automation from Crestron, music servers from Autonomic, Sunbrite TVs outside, and many more cool products (you can read about my system here). The journey has been part of the fun of the hobby. But, as the old saying goes, any journey begins with a single step. Perhaps it seems weird, but I still think of this as the same audio system that my dad bought me at age 14. (This could lead to a Ship of Theseus-style discussion, but that sort of philosophical wankery just doesn't float my boat.)
What's the point of all this? Well, I now ask you this question: with all of the changes that have taken place in our industry over the past 30 years, what system would you buy a 14-year-old kid who likes movies and/or music? If you were to assemble a system designed to kickstart the passions of a budding audiophile or videophile, what would it look like? Back in the day, my old man and I picked some cool gear for the era. Today's marketplace offers so much more AV performance for the dollar, not to mention the incredible features that the Internet of Things brings to the table.
What source would you pick for a young enthusiast? The easy answer would be a smartphone, and there is surely a case to be made that a smartphone can now serve as your front end. The idea that a cellphone could hold uncompressed versions of every CD that I owned in 1988 would have been mind-blowing at the time. Now it's standard. In the spirit of "kids can't put their phones down," perhaps an iPad with a modest-sized internal drive would be a good option; it could serve as a source for streaming music and movies, as well as give you the option to buy music and movies from places like iTunes and/or hi-res online stores like HDtracks.com. Back in the day, we'd gladly pay for a Mobile Fidelity "gold" disc when it was the right title. Perhaps kids would do the same. Who knows? The idea isn't to dictate what they do on their journey, but just to start them off in the best way possible, in a way that makes sense for their lifestyle.
Other possible sources include a media streamer like a Roku Ultra (about $100) or an Apple TV (more like $200), which provides easy access to 4K content, some decent music sources, and nearly every other app that a cord-cutter (or, in this case, a "cord-never") could want or need.
A dark-horse source component that I might consider is one of the last Oppo UHD Blu-ray players before they're all gone (about $500). Yes, it plays shiny silver discs, which is considered yesterday's technology, but it unquestionably produces the best sound and picture for movies and can play legacy disc formats that could be fun to collect from eBay or elsewhere.
Pro-ject and Technics make cool-looking turntables, but that would be the last source I'd consider. Yes, used vinyl is cheap and trendy--and yes, all the cool kids are buying it. But it is very low resolution, it's hard to take with you to college, and it's a fad that'll pass soon enough, except with septuagenarians.
For electronics, today's affordable AV receivers are just fantastic. NAD still makes a legacy integrated amp that could be cool if you wanted to go audio-only. At the same time, Sony, Yamaha, and Marantz make killer receivers priced around $500 that can do everything from 2.1 music to 5.1 surround sound and beyond. These receivers can manage and switch HDMI 2.0a with HDCP 2.2, thus your 4K problems are likely solved right in one box. Most modern receivers can be easily controlled via a smartphone or tablet. A Harmony remote might be a fun holiday present later down the road, but for now let's consider that an add-on. What we're after is the core experience.
For speakers, you have a ton of options. I think I'd go with a sub/sat configuration, as today's bookshelf speakers are so good, even in the under-$500 category. Pair them with a small sub, and you've got the whole frequency range covered. With a little help from the receiver's bass management, your 2.1 system will absolutely rock. There are so many good brands available throough brick-and-mortar stores that I couldn't hope to list them all, but here are a few for-instances: B&W, MartinLogan, GoldenEar, Paradigm, RBH, PSB, and ELAC. Online speaker companies offer incredible value and surprising performance, including 30-day-plus returns. Brands that come to mind include (but are in no way limited to) Orb Audio, SVS, Aperion Audio, Tekton, RSL, HSU, and a bunch of others that won't break the bank.
As I said above, my first TV was a late edition to my ever-evolving system, but these days I'm not sure that would fly. TVs are a core component of today's entertainment experience. TCL is making some crazy-good cheap UHD TVs. VIZIO is always a low-cost/high-performance option. Even more establish players like Sony and Samsung have some $500-plus models that aren't huge (unless you are comparing them to my measly 21-inch Philips TV) but will certainly do. In a small bedroom, a 55-inch TV hanging on the wall is pretty much the modern equivalent of that 21-inch TV.
The system my dad got me was about $2,000 (not including video) back in 1988, which was amazingly generous. I think you can spend the same today and get more performance, more value, and way more technology. Room correction was unthinkable back then. DACs are better now. You can get more amp for your money. Subs are small yet powerful (thank you, Bob Carver, et al).
There are also plenty of affordable cables. I like Wireworld's entry-level cables for their overall flexibility, their lack of coloration, and their overall quality. They cost a little more cost than, say, Monoprice or something from Amazon, but they are worth the investment and lay the groundwork for future upgrades in terms of Ethernet, HDMI, and analog cables.
So, with my trip down AV memory lane behind me and a look at some of the ingredients on the table today, my question to you is: what kind of system would you cook up to get a Generation Z kid fired up about our fine hobby? How would you merge their love of technology with the best in high-performance today? Post your system ideas in the Comments section below. We can't wait to see what you've got in mind.
• The 22 Immutable Laws of New-School Audio/Video at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• What Can the Music Industry Learn From Dropmix? at HomeTheaterReview.com.
• What Is the Magic Price Point for Top-Performing AV Components? at HomeTheaterReview.com.