Help me figure out what I need for a home audio setup
January 10, 2011 11:46 AM   Subscribe

I am supposed to be a Smart Person and understand technology, but trying to price out and determine the right components for a modest home-audio setup is apparently beyond me.

I tried to do my own research, but keep running into websites that assume I'm building a much more elaborate setup, are painfully old, and/or buy into the borderline-religious ridiculousness that infests so many audiophile sites.

I'm looking for a basic understanding of what I need, what it'll cost me, and - ideally - actual product recommendations.

The Space:

A 200 sq foot living room, with TV about nine feet from the sofa.

The current equipment:

A TV with a several inputs and exactly one output: a square digital TOSLINK jack.
A DVD player, which is plugged into the TV via HDMI for video and audio.
An XBox 360, which is too old for HDMI capability, plugged in with component cables for video and standard RCA jacks for audio
There's a good chance I'll add a third device in the future, probably an Apple Airport Express or Apple TV to pull music over the network.
I do not, and do not plan to ever, have cable or antenna TV.

What I want:

My audio sources consist of music, movies, and video games. I physically cannot run cables for speakers that aren't sitting next to the TV stand, so surround sound is not an option right now. I'm assuming that at this point, there's no real savings in going with 2.1 over 5/7.1, but please do tell me if I'm wrong. I assume I need a receiver/amp and a pair of small speakers, but I'm not sure what specs/size I need.

Also, I'd really like to keep to 1 the number of devices I need to hit a button on to switch A/V sources. That can mean running everything through the TV like it is now and using a digital-friendly receiver to take audio from the TV's toslink port, or a full-fledged A/V receiver that can speak HDMI to the TV, but keep in mind that the Xbox only outputs component and I don't know if that's an option. I just really don't want to have to keep track of what device the receiver's talking to and switching the TV, though if that adds a lot to the cost of this setup, I'll deal with it.
posted by Tomorrowful to Technology (21 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Think about getting a soundbar. I have this one, it's got multiple HDMI inputs so you can use it as a switch. And the surround effect is pretty great for video games.

No wires needed.
posted by empath at 11:49 AM on January 10, 2011

HTIB with wireless speakers. Cnet has the rundown. (Those have built-in Blu-ray players, these don't.) Maybe a soundbar.

Cnet is great for figuring out your options.
posted by supercres at 11:50 AM on January 10, 2011

First of all, do not buy Monster Cables. Tattoo it on your arm if you need to.

I'm assuming that at this point, there's no real savings in going with 2.1 over 5/7.1

I'm not sure what you mean. 5.1/7.1 is always going to be more expensive than 2.1, but if you can't run speakers behind you, it's pretty much a waste of money.

[opinion] If you're going with 2.1, I suggest you get a pair of quality plug-in speakers that come with a subwoofer rather than dealing with receivers and amps, especially if you're working with 2.1. When the audiophile bug bites you and you set up a surround sound system, then you can worry about how and where the power is generated. [/opinion]
posted by griphus at 11:51 AM on January 10, 2011

I can't recommend anything specific, but be aware that there are receivers that will convert non-hdmi video from source devices into hdmi for output to the TV. Last I looked they are not on the cheap end of the scale.

Your 360 does have the option to output toslink audio if you get a $10-ish adapter for it.
posted by de void at 11:55 AM on January 10, 2011

Response by poster: Things I forgot to mention:

* I have it in my head that I can do this for $200-400, though I'm willing to hear "spending just a little more buys a lot more Audio Goodness" or "for less than $X, you'll just be frustrated."

* I've looked at sound bars, but a lot of them seem to be HDMI-only, and my Xbox requires a component-capable option, because I can't just buy a new cable for it, and I'm really not in the mood to replace it just to get HDMI output.
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:57 AM on January 10, 2011

Best answer: Oh, and if you get a Harmony Remote, you don't have to worry about switching both TV inputs and receiver/soundbar inputs-- you just press "Play Xbox" and it switches both appropriately. I have this one and would recommend it, though this looks to be the comparable current model.

The programming software is awful, but you only have to use it once.
posted by supercres at 11:59 AM on January 10, 2011

Response by poster: I'm not sure what you mean. 5.1/7.1 is always going to be more expensive than 2.1, but if you can't run speakers behind you, it's pretty much a waste of money.

Well, over time, prices for things come down. It's like how progressive scan DVD players used to be a lot more expensive, but now it's hard to find ones that aren't. I wasn't sure if this was a case of "5.1 is still going to add a lot of cost," or "you can barely even find 2.1 receivers any more, and they're only ten bucks cheaper."
posted by Tomorrowful at 11:59 AM on January 10, 2011

Well the sony (and most other ones) one have rca audio inputs. You'd just have to hit 2 buttons to play your xbox (one for video on your tv, one for audio on the soundbar)
posted by empath at 12:00 PM on January 10, 2011

Addendum-- yeah, the Harmony solves that problem; you can use all your TV inputs normally. For example, I have my computer video plugged straight into the TV with DVI, but run Toslink to the receiver. The PS3, on the other hand, is only plugged into the receiver via HDMI. I don't notice a difference switching between inputs.
posted by supercres at 12:02 PM on January 10, 2011

Step 1 would to be to buy a competent receiver that can handle the inputs you want and also can drive the speakers you intend to buy. I would advise buying a used receiver that doesn't support HDMI. Also most receivers will take any video input and output HDMI.

Worry about the speakers later, and if you don't have any laying around, you can get cheap used ones as temporary (anything will sound better than the TV).
posted by wongcorgi at 12:16 PM on January 10, 2011

I recently asked a similar question for a different pricepoint.

I continue to believe that "buy as much Onkyo receiver as you can afford" is generally going to be the right answer.

What else I've learned since then, relevant to you:

The Onkyo's onscreen programming is really easy to comprehend and use. The Onkyo remote makes one-touch source switching a breeze, although your Xbox 360 will never play because it can't do RIHD. (HDMI is not just a means of delivering digital video; it also transmits digital audio *both directions* (HDMI audio return) and has intelligence to sense the best video and audio type for a given transmission; and it can transmit simple commands to RIHD devices, such as 'power on now'.)

Wireless surround speakers and wireless subs are ready for primetime, so that is no excuse to avoid a 5.1/7.1 setup. You do save a little bit if you opt for a 2.1 receiver, probably more than $10, probably less than $100. What costs are the extra speaker amps, more so than the 5.1/7.1/9.2 decoding technology.

I spend a *lot* more time listening to Pandora on my internet-ready receiver than I ever thought I was going to. So you might consider that.

Finally, you have correctly ascertained the two Apple devices that allow music streaming to your receiver. AirPlay on the AppleTV is essentially replacing the older AirTunes technology on the Airport Express, so you are probably well served to opt for the AppleTV, which even while streaming music will also be able to stream things like album art, tracknames, etc.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 12:40 PM on January 10, 2011

The Samsung HW-C451 soundbar with subwoofer has two TOSLINK inputs and a minijack (heaphone jack) input. If you run everything into the TV and out from the TV to the soundbar via TOSLINK, you're done. Should be about $350 US.
posted by bartleby at 12:46 PM on January 10, 2011

Or take another close look at the TV - are you SURE the only output is TOSLINK? Because if it has a plain old headphone jack (check the sides and underneath the front of the screen), you can get some VERY nice 2.0/2.1 computer speakers to plug into that on your $300 budget.
posted by bartleby at 12:54 PM on January 10, 2011

I asked a similar question and the response that worked was to look at Crutchfield.
posted by plinth at 12:56 PM on January 10, 2011

In these kinds of situations, I'm always reminded of the book The Paradox of Choice by Barry Schwartz. (He also gave one of the most popular TED Talks of all time on this subject.) The Wikipedia article linked to is definitely worth a quick read to supplement your decision making process.

In a nutshell: there are millions of choices out there...FAR more than are really necessary. Many represent differences without distinction and therefore only complicate our decision making process instead of helping it.

Remember this: Once you have your purchase in your home, you are no longer comparing it to anything. This makes subtle differences between products more abstract and more difficult to appreciate over time. Side-by-side testing ad nauseum stands a good chance of leaving you with feelings of having made the wrong choice after your purchase because we still covet that which we don't have once we know it's out there. No matter what level you buy at, it's really hard not to continue to want the thing "one level higher".

The solution: Set a couple of primary criteria for yourself and focus your process on meeting this criteria. This has the best chance of leaving you happy with your choice...the idea that you made the best choice given the constrained criteria. Most people set the main criteria as "price range". A hard-to-beat strategy given this criteria is "Buy the highest quality you can afford." It's hard to regret this. Quality is the best way to ensure long-term satisfaction. There is a point of diminishing returns with respect to things like features, bells and whistles, etc.
posted by nickjadlowe at 1:35 PM on January 10, 2011 [4 favorites]

We covered much the same ground before here as well. Get yourself an Onkyo receiver as mentioned above, and the best speakers you can afford. Its worth it to just get surround these days, as amps tend to last for decades, and 2 channel stereo choices are now really limited. This is probably a good choice; if you add it your cart, you'll see that its just $199. Then add a pair of these Polk Monitor 50s and you'll be golden at $460, free-shipping. You can switch everything through the receiver. While you're at it, NewEgg is also a good place to get your interconnects. Run 16-gauge oxygen-free copper to the speakers.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 2:59 PM on January 10, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, all. I'm now looking at lower-end Onkyo options and some of the sound bars. I should probably note that I re-checked my TV and I was wrong - I don't have TOSLINK out from the TV, I have an RCA-jack SPDIF connector. Even less useful, but I also have a 3.5mm headphone jack; between the two of those I should be able to figure out the right combination of inputs and outputs for the receiver to make everything work.
posted by Tomorrowful at 7:50 AM on January 11, 2011

To get more out of your dollars you might look at used equipment. Benefit from some other's obsessive compulsion to have the best. As long as you get to listen to it before you buy you'll be ok. Unless they are badly abused, amps/receivers last practically forever. Speakers are more likely to break down over time, but even these can be reconed or have the surround replaced. Personally, I like NAD for electronics. I'm not going to recommend speakers, because they are very subjective. Just make sure you spend some time listening to the equipment with a recording you are familiar with, and you'll do ok.
posted by davismbagpiper at 1:40 PM on January 11, 2011

I know this sounds a bit fighty for Ask, and am a bit reluctant to post this, as I don't want to start a squabble. That said, it's something that I am passionate about, and I really hate to see people throwing perfectly good money at sub-standard equipment.

You are absolutely correct, davismbagpiper, NAD makes fabulous stuff; and speaker selection is both complex, and incredibly subjective, coupled with thousands of good choices. Comparing speakers in a shop is hard enough to accomplish, and simply impossible to do going from place to place, listening to used speakers. Ignoring how the environment colours sound however, the overwhelming objection to buying used is in the way that electronics continually come down in price. What this means is that (performance-wise) it's really difficult to get a bargain shopping for used hi-fidelity gear. To do this, one needs to know as much, or more, about accurate sound-reproduction as does the average NAD owner, an unlikely scenario. In my experience, a user with enough knowledge to have sought out a $700 NAD receiver 5 years ago is not going to be willing to now sell for $200 or so. For most novice consumers then, the many hours of time needed to invest in hunting for used Hi-Fidelity equipment really doesn't make sense. This is especially true for someone investing just $400 or so for their whole system. Tomorrowful is better off getting an up-to-date and feature-rich A/V-switching mid-fi receiver such as the Onkyo suggested, with a 2 year warranty, than chancing spending an equal amount for something like an NAD or a Rotel, which might have hidden defects.

It would be a real shame though to see those dollars wasted on a plastic sound-bar, when for less money he could get some properly-made speakers with decent performance.These would grow with his system, as he builds it. As a system-designer and sales-manager with 20 years of A/V experience it really does frustrate me when consumers buy crappy plastic and paper speakers at high price-points from brands like Sony and Samsung when they could have instead purchased properly-made speakers with MDF enclosures, 4"- 5" composite-drivers with butyl-rubber surrounds, and full-size tweeters, using decent dome materials such as silk. The Klipsch or Polks that Newegg carries are examples of good bargains in this area that would just blow any mass-market manufacturer such as Sony right out of the water, performance-wise. I looked at the sound-bars suggested here, and you literally could not pay me money to listen to a single one of them.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 2:41 AM on January 12, 2011 [3 favorites]

I really do agree with P.Boy above. I would add that if you are concerned at all about sound quality, speaker quality absolutely dwarfs all the other concerns put together, as even the lowest end Onkyo receiver will far outperform most speakers these days. (You could spend $100,000 in 1960 and not have as good quality from your receiver as you get from that $200 Onkyo.)

And I would argue in favor of buying new, because electronics have defects sometimes, and if what you get home with has a defect, it's nice to be able to exchange it promptly for an identical model at no cost.
posted by Protocols of the Elders of Sockpuppetry at 4:26 PM on January 12, 2011

Sure, if you want to be done with it fast and easy, the new Onkyo and Klipsch or Polks will get you a nice sound with the 2 year warranty. No question there. But if you are in a big city and willing to take (in my opinion) a smallish risk, you can do better for cheaper. Here's my example from Chicago's Craigslist: A Denon AVR-1706 for $120. It took me 1 minute to find and it's cheaper than any of the new Onkyo's. Which leaves more money for good speakers.

And about the 1960's, if you know of anyone selling a couple of McIntosh monoblock tube amps from the '60s, or any or any Quad ESL-57 speakers in good condition for cheap, I'd be happy to have them and I'd gladly put them up against anything made today for sound quality.

There really isn't any "right" way to go about building a system. It's all subjective. My method is more like going to garage sales. 99% is junk, but occasionally there is a diamond. For cheap. The hunt is as much fun as the listening experience.

posted by davismbagpiper at 9:12 AM on January 13, 2011

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