Strategy needed for a new home audio system (not home theater).
December 12, 2010 1:49 PM   Subscribe

I would like to upgrade or completely replace a 30+ year old stereo system, but don't know where to start. Previous questions seem to be oriented toward home theater, which is not an interest, or to address details instead of the overall approach.

Here's what I'm looking for: Audio only for listening to classical/jazz/folk. Music sources would be FM, hard disk based Cd's, and downloaded music files. No interest in video or home theatre; surround sound not important. Audio quality should be better than or equal to existing Luxman receiver + small Advents playing CD's. I would like to copy a few hundred CD's onto a hard drive where they would be available for playing in uncompressed format and for compression and downloading to itouch/iphone/droid. The main system including speakers can be in one room and hardwired together. This is for a small to medium sized room; enormous output power not needed. Ability to add remote (wireless) speakers would be a plus.

I'm guessing that the main components would include: Computer with a couple of external terra drives (one for back up) to hold the cd's and with an HDMI interface card; music management software; up to date receiver with an HDMI interface; new speakers.

The overall objective is to save space (all those CD's) and to improve operational convenience.


* Have I misunderstood what's needed for the main components; e.g., is some other trype of gadget needed to support this ?

* Can the computer be a repurposed five year old xp machine with a newly installed HDMI card ?

* Is this a doomed endeavor because today's digital systems aren't as good as the old ones with respect to audio quality ?

I would have a psychological limit of $1,500 to $2,000 on this. Cobbled together and geeky is ok as long as it works.

Thanks for any reactions or ideas.
posted by Kevin S to Sports, Hobbies, & Recreation (18 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite
Go for a computer-based system. I did, and I never looked back. You don't need an HDMI card. Something like a Squeezebox will run a couple hundred bucks. Spend another $20 on dbPoweramp to rip your CDs.

That will leave a healthy budget for the amp and speakers. Dollar for dollar, your money is better spent on the speakers, where you will get most bang for the buck. You could get a decent integrated amp on the used market for say, $500, and spend $1 to 1.5k on speakers. That would give you a very nice setup for the money.
posted by mikeand1 at 2:17 PM on December 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

"Is this a doomed endeavor because today's digital systems aren't as good as the old ones with respect to audio quality ?"

Oh, and the answer to this is: NO! You have to spend a lot of money on analog to equal the quality of today's digital setups. Even with a high-quality turntable, you have to deal with crackles/pops/rumbles. To get truly high-quality analog sound w/o that noise, you have to go to tape, very expensive.

Focus on the speakers; that's where the sweet spot is as far as sound quality goes.

Also, with a digital system like a Squeezebox, you get decent-quality Internet radio, which is very hard to beat as far as selection and variety goes.
posted by mikeand1 at 2:21 PM on December 12, 2010

So, what's wrong with your stereo that you want / need to replace it?

I'm not sure that you'd need to use a computer for this. It sounds like a WD Live might fit the bill for you. They do video stuff as well, but you could ignore that. You could just hook up a USB hard drive directly to this. It would be really quiet and low powered. I'd get a second USB hard drive as a backup though.

Or, as suggested by mikeand1, a squeezebox. I think the Squeezebox Touch might be a great option for you. You can connect a hard drive directly to it if you wanted. Otherwise you can have your music stored on a computer on your network that it could pull the music from. And it will have digital audio output.

I agree that you don't need HDMI unless you are doing video.
posted by reddot at 2:27 PM on December 12, 2010

Set up a Mac mini as an iTunes/AirTunes/file server. The Mac mini becomes a "jukebox".

iTunes can rip music to the Apple Lossless codec, so that you get lossless copies of your music.

Your iPhone and iPod Touch will play Apple Lossless.

You can use this file server with Airport Express units around the house for remote wireless audio through your house.

You can use your iPhone and iPod Touch with the Remote app to wirelessly control the Airport Express devices and play music through them in your house.

The Mac mini has an HDMI and digital audio output. The Mac mini can run headless, i.e. without a monitor. You can use VNC or Apple Remote Desktop to remotely configure and manage the mini from other Windows, Linux or Apple clients.

The Mac mini has USB 2 and FireWire 800 ports for connecting external storage. You can quickly configure iTunes to keep its music on external storage.

A Mac mini and two Airport Express units would be under $1000, well under your budget.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 2:28 PM on December 12, 2010

I don't see the necessity of using HDMI, especially since you're not doing a home theater. S/PDIF and TOSLINK should work just as well for ferrying the audio signal around.

Also, they do still make audio-only, non-home-theater type receivers.

I have similar needs to yours, and personally I'm happy with a simple, 2-channel power amplifier, connected to my computer through a high-quality DAC.
posted by Hither at 2:28 PM on December 12, 2010

OH, and one more thing -- for classical/jazz/folk, I highly recommend Magnepan speakers. They require a more powerful amp than traditional cone speakers, but the resolution and detail is unsurpassed. You could probably get some used 1.6QR's in your budget; those are very nice speakers.

I currently use a computer w/Squeezebox, running into a DEQX, w/3,000 watts of ICEPower amps in an active crossover setup, and Magnepan 3.6R's. It's a phenomenal setup, but costs more than what you're willing to spend. If I was constrained to your budget, I'd go for a more down-scale version of the same thing (which is what I used to have before): The Squeezebox, 1.6QR speakers, and a Musical Fidelity integrated amp for a total budget of about $2k.
posted by mikeand1 at 2:29 PM on December 12, 2010

Nthing the Squeezebox. It totally rocks. I have two of these and two of these, will add another for the deck, and yet another for the garage. They can all sync up to a good WiFi signal, and man, the party is ROCKIN when it's on! ROCKIN. So ROCKIN that with the home theater system with its massive subwoofer that goes down to a clean sub-20hz gets goin, people lose their shit. It basically negates all racism, sexism, homophobia, and any other sort of anti-whatever, as the deck crew, the garage crew, the 2nd bedroom makeout crew, the kitchen crew, and the 3rd floor makeout crew ALL GET TOGETHER and have an orgiastic time!

Ok, anyway, so your needs sound simpler. I think you can run your old computer, get iTunes up and running, and Squeezebox. Keep in mind that the Squeezebox can either be cabled straight to your computer, if needed, but WiFi sounds like more what you're looking for. Squeezebox server software will pull info and songs from iTunes, and with the more current boxen, album artwork.

You'll either need to keep that computer up and running 24x7 or have some way of waking it up when you need it. Not sure about how it can be done, though people have solutions on the Squeeze forums. I keep my computer running the Squeeze server soft on all the time.

You can rip FLAC or purely uncompressed files, and then rip compressed versions of the same. The Squeezebox can use iTunes playlists, so you can just play the uncompressed files when you're listening to them through your home setup. Then it's just a matter of checkmarking the compressed files for transfer to your iPod/fone/etc.

May I ask why you need wireless speakers? If you're looking to pump sound to other rooms, you could consider simply buying another Squeezebox for another setup (amp/pre-amp/receiver/etc-- need some way to plug in optical/RCA cables to something, then to speakers), or simply get a Squeezebox Boom, which I've linked about. The Boom itself is something of a marvel, and sounds great and mild-moderate listening levels. You can attach a separate subwoofer to it, as well.

Basic costs for one-room arrangement:
- Computer running iTunes with WiFi: minimal cost, I'd imagine
- Squeezebox version with an awesome display and cool looks: $232.50
- Onkyo Preamp $202.06 Onkyo site info
- Onkyo Receiver $252.92 Onkyo site info
- HSU Research VTF-2 mk 3 subwoofer $509.00
- About $800 to play with for speakers.

I love my HSU sub. It goes deep, and it's clean. I use one for my home theater setup. It blows away all the other subs I've tried to mate with my 2-channel systems out of the water, and I use one for my 2-channel stereo setup for music. Just make sure you look at the dimensions of the thing.

This is just my experience. Some people might balk at only having $800 for speakers or at my choices, but hey, it all sounds good to me!
posted by herrdoktor at 3:09 PM on December 12, 2010 [3 favorites]

And yes, more money toward speakers. I just chose the Onkyo stuff above cuz it's fairly cheap, and works good enough. GOOD ENOUGH FOR ORGIASTIC AWESOME SLAMDANCING IN THE LIVING ROOM WHEN THE PARTIERS ARE TOO DRUNK/TIRED TO GO UPSTAIRS!
posted by herrdoktor at 3:11 PM on December 12, 2010

Be sure to check out Audiogon, a good place to get used gear.

A used amp is an excellent way to save money for the speakers. Used speakers are also OK provided you can pick them out/check them out in person. I'd be a bit more wary about having speakers shipped.

Unless you really need a separate amp+preamp setup, think about getting an integrated amp. I'd advise against getting a receiver unless you really really need one. You'll get better quality sound for the dollar with an integrated amp. And forget FM, it's no longer necessary w/Internet radio.
posted by mikeand1 at 3:29 PM on December 12, 2010

What model Luxman do you have? They made some pretty good stuff.
posted by Slinga at 3:30 PM on December 12, 2010

Response by poster: Everyone - ok thanks for disabusing me of need for HDMI, and I'll definitely consider squeezebox as a key element in the solution. A lot to think about here, speaking as an ancient geek who hasn't thought much about audio in decades.

Reddot - The current receiver (circa 1978) only has RCA analogue connections. I'm assuming, correctly or not, that quality/convenience would be greater with a more modern interface. Plus power is marginal (40 watts/channel?). I will check out WD live.

Blazecock - the Mac mini soln is appealing except I'm afraid of getting sucked further into the Mac world (yes we do have an itouch) and having to maintain and integerate both windows and apple stuff.

Mikeand1 - yes, i think resolution and detail (along with low THC?) are what I'm after, especially at low volumes. I've just been to the Magnepan site; they do look interesting though physical size might be a problem. I can expand the budget if it looks worthwhile. And thanks for the advice about ignoring FM

herrdoctor - your itemized list will be useful as sort of a baseline when looking at costs, and I'll check out Onkyo .

Slinga - it's a Luxman R-1040 with the big slide-rule dial
posted by Kevin S at 4:40 PM on December 12, 2010

There's nothing inherently wrong with analog audio over RCA cables in a home setting. Theoretically, it would be better to have balanced audio with XLR or 1/4" phone jacks, but thats complete overkill unless you have long cable runs, or are picking up actual interference. And generally only the higher tiers of home audio gear has balanced inputs and outputs, so you end up spending a lot more due to the way the consumer market is segmented. (Its different if you look at pro audio gear, there even relatively cheap stuff there has balanced ins/outs.)

There's inherently wrong with 40 watts per channel for a small setup. With high-efficiency speakers, thats plenty loud. (Note electrostatic speakers like Magnepans are extremely low efficiency.) On the other hand, if you get speakers rated for something much higher than the amp is, its kind of dangerous, because the amp reach the point of clipping and distortion before the speakers do, so if you turn up the volume too much, the amp will dump a bunch of high-frequency energy into the tweeter speakers, possibly damaging them.

IMO, you'd probably get the biggest bang for your buck putting most or all of our resources into the speakers. Purely electronic devices like amps and cables are 'easy' to make well, with low distortion; its the difficult electromechanical devices like speakers/headphones that generally limit the quality of your entire system. So maybe you could just try replacing your existing speakers with high-efficiency replacements, keeping the amp the same, and see if you like the improvement. The higher-end audio places often let you try out the equipment at your home before you buy, or have generous return policies, so just go for it.
posted by Hither at 5:19 PM on December 12, 2010

"(Note electrostatic speakers like Magnepans are extremely low efficiency.)"

Small correction: Magnepans aren't electrostatic, they're magnetic.

But yes, they are low efficiency, meaning they need lots of power. There's nothing wrong with this, you just have to make sure you have the right kind of amp for them. Conversely, if you have high efficiency speakers, you want/need much less power.

So you should decide what kind of speakers you want first, then find an amplifier to match them. The type of speakers you select will shape/color your sound more than any other element of your system, so look there first.

Don't worry so much about THD. It's more important to get speakers that:

(1) produce a nice flat response across a wide range of frequencies, especially at the extremes (try to get something that can go down to 40 hz or so; good bass is critical to a realistic sound);

(2) sound good to you!

The only way you can really evaluate the latter is by listening to them. if you are near a major metropolitan area, that's not a problem.
posted by mikeand1 at 5:48 PM on December 12, 2010

The R-1040 is a good piece of equipment. I don't see any reason to replace it. 40 watts per channel is more than adequate unless you have very inefficient speakers or are looking to absolutely blast music. Yeah, it only has RCA inputs, but you can hook up pretty much anything through that. I would definitely look into upgrading speakers. I would recommend the AudioKarma forum if you'd like specific speaker recommendations.
posted by Slinga at 6:21 PM on December 12, 2010

Response by poster: Your responses have redirected me to focus on the squeezebox. So here is my tentative plan, to be implemented stepwise:

1. install squeezebox using other existing components - that will help with the immediate problem of managing all the CD's

2. upgrade speakers

3. if needed, upgrade to new receiver or amplifier

Tune as needed, e.g., external DAC between SB and receiver/amp. (I'm starting to learn the lingo)

Thanks again everyone.
posted by Kevin S at 9:50 PM on December 12, 2010

Just an aside: I found that once I got my Squeezebox on, I started to really enjoy listening to music again. Instead of plopping everything onto my iPod, I've been using the same playlists and listening to stuff in the house. I've got Pandora and NPR stuff zapped into some of the favorites buttons, and it's just gotten a lot easier to, well, turn on the radio.

I dunno. Maybe it's just a psychological thing, but it's really like the way I remember the radio as a kid. Internet radio really has replaced the conventional radio now, and when I get home, I turn the Squeezebox on with one button press, and blammo! Music! Unpredictable, with shuffle modes and Pandora streams, occasionally really exciting with the same holy-cow-I-gotta-get-up-and-look-at-what's-playing-so-I-can-buy-the-song-ness, and just plain fun.

Good luck, and don't forget that the best part of spending money on audio stuff is spending money on the stuff you're actually piping through the hardware!
posted by herrdoktor at 3:48 PM on December 13, 2010

"Tune as needed, e.g., external DAC between SB and receiver/amp. (I'm starting to learn the lingo)"

The DAC in the Squeezebox is actually pretty good. I'd spend the money to upgrade other components before spending money on an external DAC.
posted by mikeand1 at 1:33 AM on December 14, 2010

BTW, be sure to check out the Slim Devices forums to get the most out of your Squeezebox:
posted by mikeand1 at 1:42 AM on December 14, 2010

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