Build my stereo system
February 26, 2005 10:55 PM   Subscribe

1. I want to buy/install small satellite speakers for my TV and to play music through my computer (AirPort Express). Do I need an amplifier or a receiver? Can someone guide me through this? Please help!

I got rid of my old bookshelf system before I moved, and now all I want are 2 or 3 small speakers. I don't need a CD player, tape player, subwoofer or any of the rest. I've always liked the Orb Mod speakers, and they use no amplifier.
2. Anyone have any suggestions for building a simple system (more than 40 watts)?
3. I live in a loft so cords are going to be a problem (no walls to run them along). I read that wireless systems still suck, are there any new innovations in the feild that I should look at?
posted by scazza to Technology (12 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
The audio-out on an Airport Express is a stereo mini-jack. You can connect that to any other standard input providing you have the conversion cable. The sound is fine. An audiophile could nitpick, but the biggest difference in quality will be from your source files, not the Airport Express...
posted by airguitar at 11:09 PM on February 26, 2005

Do you mean that those Orb speakers don't come with an amp, so you need one? Or do you mean that they're self-amp'ed, so you don't need one?

I'd just buy a home-theater receiver in whatever price range you find acceptable and slap it underneath the TV. Then you'll be able to easily switch between the airport and the tv, and have inputs for other a/v stuff (dvd, tivo, game machine) you might want later and be able to easily switch between them with the remote. Decent ht receivers start at a bit shy of $200, and any of the major brands should be fine. Just play with them in a store and see what you like, or what you like the looks of. I've had good luck with the couple of cheap Kenwoods I've had.

Almost all receivers in this range will have more than 40 watts/channel. If you want less than that, you'll have to go spend a lot more money for audiophile stuff.

You'll also have to go out of your way to find stereo-only receivers instead of surround ones, and you can't expect to save any money doing so. I'd just get a surround receiver.

If you put the receiver in the same cabinet with the tv, the speaker runs to the left, right, and center (if you want it) speakers will be so short that they won't matter. If you're going to put speakers right next to the tv, check to make sure they're shielded.

Do not get any sort of all-in-one home-theater kit from anyone.

If you think you don't want a sub because you don't play it loud, keep an open mind. Subs make the big difference when it's *not* loud.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 12:01 AM on February 27, 2005

I understand how the AirPort Express works, I was just describing what I have so hopefully someone could assist me in what works best with it.

With the Orb speakers I'm saying I have no idea what the deal is. I don't know anything about building a sound system except what I know from threading my TV, etc. through a simple bookshelf system.

Are there any resources out there that can explain to me simply what I need and why? So with a receiver I'd have to switch between the TV and other devices? Why wouldn't it just play whatever is playing? Or that's just how receivers work?

What is the deal with watts? You say that less watts cost more, why?

I'm not interested in a sub b/c I don't have the money for it. And I'm intending to put the satellite speakers far away from the AirPortEx and the TV.
posted by scazza at 8:53 AM on February 27, 2005

This two channel amplifier will give you quite nice sound for the money. The sky is the limit on these things and you can certainly get better sound for more dough, but then you would probably want to get better speakers. I think you will be disappointed in those speakers without a sub as they will not produce much bass on their own. You might just consider some slightly bigger speakers that can produce bass down to say 60 hz or so before it starts rolling off. More watts will play the music louder and with more authority at lower volumes. The first watt is the most important one as that is all you will usually use. A good low powered amp, especially a tube amp, with speed, finesse and accuracy will beat a big, cheap high watt monster. It sounds like you want to play MP3s through this, and if that is the case you might be better off just picking up what is on sale at Best Buy as any extra refinement would be wasted on these sonically challenged files. You could even use the TV as the switching gear by plugging the Airport into the TV and using self powered speakers. The sound quality will be OK, but not great, but it will be simple and cheap.
posted by caddis at 9:12 AM on February 27, 2005

Are there any resources out there that can explain to me simply what I need and why?

Probably, but the ones I've seen have been badly written. You're better off just asking followups in this thread.

You need a receiver. Why do you need it? (1) To amplify the sound and deliver it to the speakers. (2) To switch between sources easily. You might also think about an "integrated amp," which is just a receiver with no AM/FM tuner -- they'll be higher-quality than most receivers and cost more money (viz, the NAD one above). You'll also need connector cables and speaker cables.

Yes, there are other ways to deal with it. You could get one of those little a/v switchboxes and powered speakers. I think you'd be happier in the long run with a basic receiver; it'll do the same things, but better, and it'll mean that you can get whatever speakers in the world you want instead of only looking at powered ones (where you'd need to put the speakers near a power outlet), and it'll mean that you're already set up for any dvd players or game machines or whatevers that you might get in the future.

So with a receiver I'd have to switch between the TV and other devices?

Yeah. If you want to stop watching tv and watch a DVD, you push the DVD button on your receiver's remote. You can often set up the remotes to also turn things on and off as you hit the source buttons.

Why wouldn't it just play whatever is playing? Or that's just how receivers work?

They're mostly set up to deal with sources that might mostly be on all the time. So, to a first approximation, that's just how they work.

You might be able to find one that would auto-switch to any input that's active, but then you'd still have to manage it -- by turning things on and off instead of by selecting the input -- and if you can find it, it'll cost.

What is the deal with watts? You say that less watts cost more, why?

More watts cost more money. But the only people you're likely to find selling you a receiver or amp with less than 40 watts/channel are entry-level audiophile products, so you're gonna pay. But less than you'd pay for that same company's 150 w/c amp.

All I really meant is that you shouldn't insist on having fewer than 40 watts/channel. That will drive you into the audiophile market, and you'll spend more money for a 35w/c amp from NAD or someone else than you would for an 80x5 receiver from Sony or Kenwood. The NAD will also sound better, but the Sony or Kenwood or Pioneer or other $200 receiver will be fine.

I'm not interested in a sub b/c I don't have the money for it.

Sure. You'll be fine without one. But just keep an open mind about 'em in the future. They're not just for thumping away at loud music.

And I'm intending to put the satellite speakers far away from the AirPortEx and the TV

I'm not gonna try to teach you to suck eggs, but isn't the point of the airport that you can put it where it needs to be?

Either way, you're gonna have some cable runs, then. Simplest thing would be to use floor conduits. You should be able to pick them up at Office Despot or similar.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:05 AM on February 27, 2005

If you're not interested in a sub, then I'd suggest some different speakers - those orbs will sound very weak down low without a sub, and they won't be all that great on the highs, either. They're spec'd at being flat from only 120Hz to 18000Hz (that's the frequency range in which they respond relatively evenly - outside that range they fall off). The human range of hearing is roughly 20Hz-20000Hz, and a well-designed, two-way bookshelf speaker should go from 80Hz or below, to, at least, 20000Hz.

My grandfather just bought a pair of these on my recommendation, and they sound excellent, and deliver surprisingly decent bass without a sub. Only $300. These look excellent as well, for the same price. I suspect either of these speakers will sound better than the orbs - although neither will look as sexy. All three speaker models are magentically shielded, which is important if you want to place them near a TV.

As far as amplification, I, too, would recommend the A/V reciever route, assuming that you're on a budget. Recent developments in digital/switching amplification have made for a number of recievers that bat way out of their league in terms of sound quality for the dollar. A quick visit to audiocircle suggests that this JVC model is well-liked, and is only $230.
posted by kickingtheground at 12:51 PM on February 27, 2005

For an inexpensive amp you might try the Sonic Impact class T amp for $30 which has been getting some rave reviews around the internets, especially on Audio Asylum (search for "Sonic Impact" in the amp/preamp asylum) and has been favorably reviewed by TNT Audio and SixMoons Audio, both high end audio reviewers. It runs on batteries; a wall wort power supply will cost an extra $15 or $20. I have one to play with. Not too shabby. I am not sure I would sing it praises as highly as these reviewers, although it does have very good sound, especially for THIRTY DOLLARS! Anyway, those reviewers have a lot more credibility than I do and they loved it. Hurry up if you want one, the supply seems to be drying up due to the hype.
posted by caddis at 3:36 PM on February 27, 2005

Thank you everyone!

Isn't the point of the airport that you can put it where it needs to be?

Not necessarilly. I don't think I'm interested in having my stereo and my printer next to each other. My AirPortEx is connected to my printer (in my "hallway"), which are accross the room from my TV (in my "living room"). The TV is accross from my couch and I'd put my speakers on the bookshelf behind the couch. Yea, cables suck.
posted by scazza at 4:16 PM on February 27, 2005

A caveat to caddis' suggestion: I'm sure the t-amp does, indeed, sound very good, but it needs, in the words to the tnt-audio reviewer, ">90dB speakers, small listening rooms [and]moderate listening level habits." There's really not a lot of power there - and that can definitely be a problem. In the high-end audiophile community, low power tube amps are fairly common, so high-efficiency speakers have some market there. I don't know what speakers caddis is using, but most high-efficiency speakers are either expensive or significantly sonically compromised compared to more conventional designs. I doubt the t-amp would satisfactorily drive the orbs (or, for that matter, either of the speakers i suggested above).

On the other hand, it is only $30.

On preview: scazza, you plan to run TV audio through a pair of speakers on a bookshelf which is behind your couch?
You really should take a second look at that. Bookshelf speakers, despite their name, really shouldn't be placed on bookshelves: they are usually rear-ported and like to have a 12-18" of space behind them for proper bass response (the unported orbs will actually be an exception to this). Ideally, you'd have them on stands, facing your couch, several feet on either side of the TV. This is, of course, very general - every space will impose its own constraints. However, you absolutely should not underestimate the importance of proper speaker positioning: even the very best speakers can sound like crap if positioned badly.

BTW: If you do end up using an A/V reciever, make sure you set it up correctly. If you're not using a subwoofer, make sure you tell your reciever that your speakers are 'large,' even if they aren't. Otherwise, the reciever will cut the bass notes from the signal sent to your speakers, and send them instead to the (nonexistant) sub.
posted by kickingtheground at 4:31 PM on February 27, 2005

True, here are some nice sounding very efficient speakers.
posted by caddis at 5:54 PM on February 27, 2005

By the way, I have used the T amp only with some 88 or so dB efficient speakers (I do not have actual specs but have compared them to a pair with specs at 89 dB and they are just slightly less efficient) and the T amp performs well at low volumes or with music such as jazz trios, folk, etc. For heavy rock or orchestral works it runs out of gas with these speakers, but not obnoxiously so unless you are looking to reproduce concert volumes. In that case a 200 watt amp does merely OK. Also, they are bookshelf speakers with no bass below 50 or 60 hz where speakers really can draw some watts. In my main system I am running a 2.5 watt SET tube amp into 92 dB speakers and it more than meets my needs. I have a big powerful solid state amp in the basement when I need to shake the furniture and dim the lights in the neighborhood.
posted by caddis at 6:06 PM on February 27, 2005

For a small space like a loft you might consider the Soundmatters Mainstage. It's a powered, digital surround sound system that fits in a single box; it actually does a really good job of impersonating surround sound (for DVD's) and plays stereo content really nicely. I've got mine in the main room of my apartment, connected via digital coax to a Roku soundbridge and via an optical line to my Samsung DVD player.

Obviously, it's not as nice as having a five speakers for surround, but for small space, the sound is rich and it's very easy to use. I don't consider myself an audiophile, but I am particular about my sound. Until I move into a house where I can build a real stereo, this setup works amazingly well.

Because it's powered, you won't need an amp, you can go directly from your Airport Express to the Mainstage via the optical Toslink. Recommended, for sure.
posted by jimray at 7:02 PM on February 27, 2005

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