Death of the Living Room Stereo?
March 30, 2005 4:59 PM   Subscribe

Does the wired home spell the end of the living room stereo system?

I was in Montreal for a few days and returned home with an armful of CDs (despite participating in two MefiSwap music groups!). Despite having a lovely 5-CD player in my living room, I slapped each of these CDs, one by one, into my computer so I can later play each song on my various MP3 devices.

The expensive stereo equipment in my living room, which I last upgraded some years ago, hardly gets any more play. Instead, I use my computer, some nice HK speakers that connect into the desktop, and am very happy with the results.

My next upgrade will involve a computer - with WiFi across the house, how could it not? Which stereo component brands can I still count on? Currently I have NAD, Denon, Linn Science and Mac in the living-room setup.

Is the non-networked stereo system going the way of the phonograph?
posted by seawallrunner to Computers & Internet (15 answers total)
It'll be more and more common for people to connect their stereos to their computer networks, but I certainly don't think we've seen the end of systems with AM/FM tuners, CD players, and amplifiers connected to speakers. In other words, I don't think the addition of a networking component will replace any of the current standard components.

CD players will stay around to accommodate the collections most people have. I think even people who listen to most of their music from a computer source will keep a cheap CD player around, just 'cause it's cheap, and they still have the CD collection. Audiophiles will have nice CD players. And even if you're using a computer as a source, you still need to amplify the signal; that amplifier might as well include a tuner.

Also keep in mind the fact that many people use their stereo systems for home theater, and that the TV and DVD player (and eventually, Blu-ray or HD-DVD) player will increasingly become integral components. You can't do video over a network (especially a wireless network), and I think most people will prefer a dedicated device for their video source rather than a dedicated media computer sitting underneath the TV: it's cheaper and easier.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:17 PM on March 30, 2005

Well, I think it might, but it will depend on the price point of going totally digital. I can see component systems eventually becoming less of the norm with the prevalence of digital media, but there'll always be someone who wants to listen to something on vinyl. The phonograph's not completely dead yet. I'm currently not happy listening to music just from my computer, but that'll probably change with upgrades in technology and accessories.

I work on pretty high-end homes for a living, and a lot of our clients end up getting a distributed audio system, which is somewhat analogous to having central air conditioning, but with sound instead of cold. Eventually, I imagine that there will be (if there aren't already) homes where instead of the distributed audio system being hooked up to a rack of components, it'll have a wire running from the computer (or wifi, as you mention). What distresses me about this (as a music geek) is that the speakers for home audio systems, while of high quality, generally aren't very big, and install into your walls or ceiling much like in a department store or restaurant Muzak system. Personally, I'm always going to want a couple of big honking speakers in one room of my house that will make vibrate the walls if I want them to. I believe there are plenty others like me, so I really don't think the living room stereo system will ever be totally obsolete. It might just get pushed into a niche market. I don't think the living room system will die so much as it will evolve.

On preview, mr_roboto: You can't do video over wifi yet.
posted by LionIndex at 5:29 PM on March 30, 2005

Video over WiFi is easy if you have a modded xbox.
posted by Jairus at 5:43 PM on March 30, 2005

To expand -- I really disagree with what mr_roboto says about "you can't do video over a network". Here at Casa Jairus, we all rip our DVDs/CDs to a central file server, and watch/listen to shows/movies/music/shoutcast/etc from our fancy (but older than me) stereo system, which is plugged into a LAN-connected XBox.

Want to see an episode of Futurama? Or a rare Criterion DVD you don't want to damage by playing? Select it from a menu, with subtitles/commentary/etc. Want to listen to the collected works of whatever-artist-you-like? Select the artist/album/whatever, and you're done.

I think that central media storage is becoming trivial to setup for people comfortable with technology, and is really going to be where the industry moves. We're just in transition, right now.
posted by Jairus at 5:53 PM on March 30, 2005

As far as the AM/FM tuner surviving the change, I think products like the radioSHARK show that might not be the case. Time shifting has become the norm for many people with respect to video (Tivo), and is getting that way for audio (podcasting), too. I would think the easiest way to do this is with a networked tuner.
posted by bachelor#3 at 6:31 PM on March 30, 2005

Well, it sure worked that way for me. My computer is my stereo; I still have some CDs in my car, for listening on the road, but at home all music flows through iTunes. The amp & speakers connected to my computer sound better than anything I ever had as a standalone stereo, and mp3 streaming beats FM radio silly when it comes to quality, diversity, and freedom from obnoxious advertisements.
posted by Mars Saxman at 7:10 PM on March 30, 2005

I have a wired/wireless home, but I'd never give up my living room system, which I use for both music and movies. I value accurate sound reproduction highly, and let's face it, no pair of computer speakers can match a carefully put together stereo system.
posted by pmbuko at 7:12 PM on March 30, 2005

I guess I am an audiophile, as computer music just doesn't sound right. When I grew up everybody wanted to have a great stereo. Music was a cultural focal point and a great system on which to hear it was desired by all, or at least many. Somewhere along the line people stopped caring whether the music sounded good as long as the performance was good. I can respect this to a degree as the performance really should be more important than accurate reproduction. I would rather hear Beck's new album on a crappy computer speaker than my next door neighbor singing pop tunes on my high zoot stereo. However, since I typically only listen to music where I already like the performance, I really do like to hear it in high fidelity. MP3s lack high fidelity. Anyone who claims otherwise has not played them through a really good system. On computer speakers, even good ones, who cares. The computer is brimming with digital noise, the amplification is cheesy and the source is less than perfect. There is a reason that high fidelity systems cost more than a handful of computers. They will put you back in the concert hall (almost). Some people will always be willing to pay a little extra for that.

The heyday of high fidelity, the 70's and 80's was really pretty awful anyway. Power went up, but quality dropped. This was the era of the transistor and the early transistor based amplifiers were awful beyond compare, even most of the expensive ones. Into the 80's the situation improved and then portable music displaced good sound for the masses. Those of us who seek fidelity can still find it, but the marketing of "high fidelity" for the masses seems to have passed. New technology could bring it back, but I see nothing on the horizon. For the time being fidelity has ceded to convenience.
posted by caddis at 7:51 PM on March 30, 2005

no pair of computer speakers can match a carefully put together stereo system

Silly statement. My computer is amplified by a high-end component stereo with awesome Tannoy studio monitors.

Its not about what device produces the signal, its about what does the amplification and the speakers. Manufacturers will undoubtedly offer your tuner/amp in a home-networked version, much as DVD players these days often will play a data CD with MP3s.

And of course, there are always those who only derive satisfaction from size, so 'big honking speakers' will still be sold, if for no other reason than someone will want to buy them.

Now what I want is a system that will carefully monitor my location and continuously adjust speakers so I always have a good stereo field as I move about the house. Heinlein predicted/invented this in his latter novels.
posted by Goofyy at 8:47 PM on March 30, 2005

MP3s lack high fidelity. Anyone who claims otherwise has not played them through a really good system.

I have played MP3s through a system worth a quarter of a million dollars -- and it is possible to make MP3s that cannot be ABXed from the original, for almost all recordings. Musicmatch Jukebox (or whatever the kids are using these days) won't do it, but careful and well-informed encoding will.

I will happily provide two .wav files to anyone who says otherwise, and is willing to use an ABX program (and no technical trickery such as spectral analysis) to try and determine which one has been decoded from an MP3, and which is straight from the original source.
posted by Jairus at 9:04 PM on March 30, 2005

on preview, what Jairus and Goofyy said.
In general, to squeeze that level of fidelity out of a computer may be impractical, but it certainly is possible.
posted by juv3nal at 9:19 PM on March 30, 2005

When I said "you can't do video over a network", all I meant was that the video display device needs to be hard-wired to a video source: the actual video signal is too high-bandwidth to stream over a network (maybe gigabit ethernet, but I don't think so, especially not high-definition video). Clearly, compressed video will stream over a network just fine. Still, you need a box of some sort attached directly to the video display device to decode the compressed video. So long as this fact remains, I think that box will likely be a DVD player (or whatever the next generation happens to be): it's just too cheap and easy. Perhaps eventually there will be a standard video compression format and display devices with built-in decoders and network interfaces....
posted by mr_roboto at 10:04 PM on March 30, 2005

I use a computer to center my stereo... I have an M-Audio delta66 connected to an Adcom dac. Once you get ASIO going it sounds very good (a bit of talk about ASIO related to different sound cards).

I almost always play some form of lossless file, Monkey's Audio, flac, shn...

Jairus: I will happily provide two .wav files to anyone who says otherwise, and is willing to use an ABX program (and no technical trickery such as spectral analysis) to try and determine which one has been decoded from an MP3, and which is straight from the original source.

Heh... What is the compression ratio you are getting on these super mp3s?

Monkey's Audio gets about 2:1. Typical "high quality" mp3 is about 10:1. While I am sure a "nearly perfect" mp3s would have better compression than 2:1 on many types of music, I'm not so sure it would beat lossless by enough to be worth the added bother... 4:1 maybe?!?!
posted by Chuckles at 10:16 PM on March 30, 2005

Chuckles: 45:19 in 66.1MB. That's just one album as I'm far too lazy to do an average, but I've got about 1000 Albums/EPs ripped into about 90GB.

These are VBR, not 320kbit CBR mp3s or anything. I'm going to rerip to FLAC when HD space becomes cheap enough.
posted by Jairus at 10:33 PM on March 30, 2005

i have a living room setup similar to yours. when we moved into a new house i got wires built in, so that i can switch to speakers in the kitchen, living room or office. it's not very high-tech, but it works a lot better than i ever hoped - no interference (these are just direct cables, no fancy balanced stuff or coax) and good sound (i only ever have one pair of speakers selected at a time - the amp is an old old mission cyrus).

however, i don't use mp3 stuff.
posted by andrew cooke at 7:58 AM on March 31, 2005

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