I can certainly appreciate this thread. I lived with the same stereo for 10 years...bought it in college with student loan money. Got a great discount (Best Buy employee discount). For 10 years, my stereo was very basic:
Panasonic SA-XR25 receiver ($330)
Klipsch SF-3 floorstanders (retail $900, got for $350)
Audio Technica AT-LP50 turntable ($75)
That was it for 10 years. That, and some crappy headphones...Panasonic something-or-others.
This year was my "10 year upgrade," lol. I had a buddy that was selling some Wharfedale Diamond 9.6 speakers. I looked them up on the internet, they got good reviews. I bought them without ever hearing them. I figured if I was upgrading my speakers, it would be a good time to upgrade my amp...after all, Emotiva was having a sale (I swear they have sales more often than they sell at full price...not complaining). So my new setup was:
Emotiva UPA-200 amp ($299 on sale)
Emotiva USP-1 preamp ($389 on sale)
Wharfedale diamond 9.6 floorstanders ($325)
Rega RP-1 turntable ($450)
Bellari VP-130 phono stage ($175)
And actually, I live in NC and I bought the speakers from a guy in OH, so I had to wait 3-4 months to get the Wharfedales. In the meantime, I traded a Bose Wave Radio + $150 cash for some KEF 103.2's (highly recommended) at the local pawn shop.
And Sherbourn was having a "merging with Emotiva/clearout" sale, so of course I had to buy their desktop amp, normally on sale for $269, for $189. After all, that would allow me to use the Kef's in my office...otherwise they would be sitting in my closet. The buddy I had bought the Wharfedales from mentioned a DAC, so I started look for one of those. Ended up with a Peachtree DAC-it. So that was my office setup:
Sherbourn PA 2-50 desktop amp ($189)
KEF 103.2 bookshelves ($150)
Peachtree DAC-it ($270)
It started bothering me that the Wharfedales were more of a lateral move from the Klipsch's...probably a LITTLE BIT of an upgrade, but more just a different sound than a "better" sound. So I found some Magnepan 2.7QR's. Guy was asking $800. I ended up giving him $400 + the Peachtree Dac...so I got them for $670.
I was pretty happy with my speaker situation after I got the Magnepans, but I saw some Stax electrets on Craigslist for $40, thought they were a good deal, bought them (last night), and that's what brought me here.
My takeaway from this is similar to yours, I think:
1) Never pay full price.
2) As much as possible, listen before you buy!
3) Consider used/vintage gear. Often, it's the best "bang for your buck," especially if you don't mind fixing something here or there. I had to have the crossover fixed in the Kef's...probably could have done it myself...but it was only $50 to have the local repairman do it. I still can't believe how good those speakers sound, and they were made in the 70s or 80s. I've heard people claim you would have to spend $2-3k on new bookshelves to compete with them. Do your research, and don't be afraid to make minor repairs. I know a guy in town here (I bought my speaker stands from him) who has a SWEET system with some sort of Polk or JBL towers and a whole rack of McIntosh gear. My buddy went over to listen to his stuff and buy a set of speakers from him, and my buddy asked how much he paid for his McIntosh amps. He says "1250 for that one, 25 for that one, etc." My buddy thought he meant $1,200 and $2,500...but he said "No, $12.50 and $25.00!" Don't be afraid to look in pawn shops and "hole in the wall, mom and pop" audio stores.
4) If you really want to buy new, shop around...a lot. I was almost ready to buy my Bellari phono stage for $250...almost every website had it for that price, new...when I finally found one site selling it for $175. Score!
Anyway, cheers all, and enjoy the music!