How to upgrade your home audio system without spending too much

Better beats on a budget

If you're looking to get better sound for your music, movies and podcasts around the home, then there are a dizzying number of options to sort through - no matter what you're looking to do, chances are there's a smart bit of kit out there to help you do it.

For this particular feature we're going to look at reasonably-priced but top notch audio hardware - you really can break the bank with a home audio system, but if your budget's more towards the lower end of the scale, these are some of the devices worth a look.

Wireless and multi-room

For adding wireless streaming capabilities to an existing set of speakers, the Chromecast Audio dongle (£30/$35) is hard to beat: instant streaming from pretty much any smartphone or computer to any speaker system with a 3.5mm audio jack input.

If you're only beaming music from Apple devices, meanwhile, then an Airport Express (£99/$99) can get your tunes playing through any kit with a 3.5mm input.

As for a more comprehensive multi-room setup, Sonos speakers aren't exactly cheap but could fall into the 'cheaper than you thought' bracket - a single Play:1 speaker can be yours for £149/$169, which isn't bad considering the extra smarts it has built into it.

You can go cheaper - one of Pure's Jongo TX2 speakers will cost you £99.99 (in the US you can pick up the older T2 for $149.99). As with the Sonos kit, you can set up streaming music in every room, but this speaker actually works over Wi-Fi or Bluetooth.

The Izzy speakers from Philips work solely via Bluetooth, so there's no need to configure your home network to work with them, and you can pick individual speakers up for £99.99/$129.99 or less for each one online.

Buying DACs and amps

If you're particularly serious about improving the audio around your home then buying a DAC (digital-to-analogue converter) or an amp is a good way to show it.

DACs convert 1s and 0s into sound waves, and amps turn up the volume from DACs to power speakers and headphones - both can be found in phones, tablets, TVs, laptops, hi-fis and pretty much anything else that outputs sound, but for the most part the quality won't be good enough to fill rooms full of sweet-sounding audio.

That's where our upgrades come in, and you need to add both a DAC and an amp at the same time (this also gives you the flexibility to update them separately in the future).

It's hard to make recommendations in the space we have here - the right kit you need depends on where the audio's coming from, where it's going, and what else you have installed - but you can find some relatively inexpensive equipment out there.

The Cambridge Audio DacMagic 100 DAC comes highly recommended and will set you back £170/$299, for example, while on the amp side the Onkyo A-9010 (available for around £199/$299) is considered one of the best budget options out there.

If you really want to save cash, go for speaker systems that have their own DACs and amps built in, ready to upgrade and enhance the audio from whatever system you're playing it from (whether music, movies or games).

Buying speakers and soundbars

There's a world of choice here, from the size of your speakers to how many you want to set up and what you want to connect them too.

If you want surround sound for your movies, music and games, then you want a 5.1 system (five speakers and a subwoofer) - systems such as the Tannoy HTS101XP (around £350) in the UK and the Pioneer SP-PK22BS (around $400 in the US) come highly recommended and aren't ridiculously expensive.

Maybe you don't want five speakers and a subwoofer though, maybe you just want a couple of speakers for a laptop in the bedroom - the Roth OLI RA2 pair are a great example of excellent quality speakers, available for around £149 (roughly $189) online.

If the upgrade is primarily for a big-screen television then  a soundbar may make more sense, adding plenty of audio oomph and sitting nearly underneath your set.

The real budget option is just to stick with your TVs speakers but there are good value soundbars around - the LG SH7B can be yours for somewhere in the region of £300/$500, for instance, while the Edifier CineSound B7 is even cheaper at £250/$300.

General buying tips

There are a few general tech bargain-hunting tips that you can apply in your search for good value audio kit - finding hardware that's on sale second-hand, for example, or going for models that are a few years old rather than the very latest ones.

In fact audio equipment is likely to last you many years, so don't be afraid to pick up something that's a little older if you can get a good deal on it.

It's also important to do your research first - make sure everything you're buying has the correct input/output ports and specs you need, because your budget is going to get spent very quickly indeed if you're buying kit that's not compatible.

Really though it's just a case of keeping an eye on retailers and shopping around for the best prices, the same tactic you would use with any tech purchase.

If you're wondering where you should spend the bulk of your money, always go for the speakers: it's here that you're going to really notice the difference in an extra few pounds or dollars. Oh and pay attention to your source material too - there's no point upgrading your home audio setup for a bunch of poorly encoded MP3s.

David Nield

Dave has over 20 years' experience in the tech journalism industry, covering hardware and software across mobile, computing, smart home, home entertainment, wearables, gaming and the web – you can find his writing online, in print, and even in the occasional scientific paper, across major tech titles like T3, TechRadar, Gizmodo and Wired. Outside of work, he enjoys long walks in the countryside, skiing down mountains, watching football matches (as long as his team is winning) and keeping up with the latest movies.