Help bring music to our home.
March 9, 2011 4:52 PM   Subscribe

Stereo advice needed.

Our antiquated stereo system is finally giving it up, and we need advice on what to replace it with. Our budget is under $300. Here's what we have:
* Three sets of bookshelf speakers
* Five-disc Sony CD player
* Multiple iPods and iPhones
* Laptops with iTunes libraries
* An AirPort Express

We want to play music throughout the common area of our house (kitchen, living room, and dining room). Sources in order of usage:
* iPod/iPhone streaming Pandora or playing MP3s
* CDs
* Laptop playing MP3s or audio downloads
* Radio

Specific questions:
* Can an amplifier drive three sets of small speakers directly, or do we need some other component?
* Is there an all-in-one bookshelf-sized unit that meets our needs with a smaller footprint than our old full-sized multi-component system?
* Is there some way to send music from an iPhone or iPod Touch using the house network and the AirPort Express?
* We're not big consumers, but we do plan to use this stereo for a long time to come. Is stereo equipment something that makes sense to buy used?

Thanks audio mavens!
posted by ottereroticist to Technology (14 answers total) 7 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Can an amplifier drive three sets of small speakers directly, or do we need some other component?

There are plenty of amps that can do this, depending on how much control you need of driving the speakers independently or at different levels. Assuming 'none', this is easy. Assuming 'some' (switching off one or another of the three total sets of speakers, say), still easy. Assuming 'lots', you are probably going to need to buy another gadget, like a speaker switcher.

* Is there an all-in-one bookshelf-sized unit that meets our needs with a smaller footprint than our old full-sized multi-component system?

I don't know.

* Is there some way to send music from an iPhone or iPod Touch using the house network and the AirPort Express?

Yes. There's a piece of software called Airfoil Speakers Touch that's designed expressly for this perfect (from Rogue Amoeba, IIRC), but I think Apple's supposed to be rolling in some native support for this at some point, or they may have already done this.

* We're not big consumers, but we do plan to use this stereo for a long time to come. Is stereo equipment something that makes sense to buy used?

Absolutely, especially for stuff like big receivers and integrated amps. In fact, I would argue that unless you just can't find what you want, or you are looking at a specific niche product (like...really well-known bookshelf speakers that are known to be a good value, like Axiom Audio m2's or Paradigm Atoms or something don't trade a big discount on the used market), it doesn't really make a whole heap of sense to buy new. These things should last decades with minimal or no maintenance.

I used to have a receiver, I believe the model number was something like Denon AVR-1804. It could drive several sets of speakers and it had enough inputs for what you want to do. I sold it when I moved on eBay. I think I got like somewhere between 100 and 200 dollars for it.
posted by jeb at 5:21 PM on March 9, 2011

Yes, an amplifier can drive 3 or more sets of speakers even if it only has one set of speaker outputs. What you need is an impedance matching switchbox such as this.

Now, when you say amplifier, do you actually intend to say receiver, with a built-in Am?Fm radio, and source switching? Because the rest of the answers depends somewhat on this.

How important is the radio?
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:22 PM on March 9, 2011

Best answer: You can stream audio directly from an iPhone to an Airport Express with the new versions of the free Remote app. The Airport has an audio out port that supports both analog and optical digital signals - for best sound quality you want to run it optical, assuming your receiver can take the input, which a new one probably will be able to. The cable you'd need is called a TOSLINK-to-optical-miniplug. I don't think you can stream from a third-party app like Pandora, but you can definitely do it from either the library on your iPhone or on a computer with iTunes on your home network.

There are three-zone receivers at around your price point, though I think you might have to go used to get one for under $300 rather than somewhere higher in the threes. Just as an example, and I have no idea of the quality, the Denon DRA 397 is a three-zone receiver that goes for around $360 new.
posted by strangely stunted trees at 5:36 PM on March 9, 2011

Response by poster: Control over speakers: we want to switch the different sets of speakers on or off.

Amplifier vs. receiver: I mean the part that drives the speakers. On our old stereo, it was separate from the tuner. Are they usually combined as a receiver?

Radio: It's not critical. A lot of the time we're actually listening to the NPR app on an iPod touch. But I would occasionally like to be able to pick up local radio stations.

Three-zone receivers -- thanks, that's a term I was looking for.
posted by ottereroticist at 5:44 PM on March 9, 2011

Yep, that Denon looks pretty good, and is designed to do precisely what you want, but the multi-zone/source capability isn't actually necessary, and there is no provision for home Theatre, which is almost always a mistake. When all the answers are in, and the dust settles, askers at this price point often wind up with one of these, and in your case, along with a speaker switcher, so might as well cut to the chase.

While we are going through this exercise again, please list off the speakers you have as well, that we discern your power requirements.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:46 PM on March 9, 2011

Response by poster: Speakers, two each:

Sony SS-AV22 (100W max, 6 ohms)
Bose Model 21 (10-60W, 4-8 ohms)
Infinity RS1 (15-100W, 8 ohm)
posted by ottereroticist at 5:54 PM on March 9, 2011

Are they usually combined as a receiver

Yep, what you want now is a receiver. This combines amp, pre-amp, and tuner into one box. You can get decent stereo receivers that will do what you want at your price, ( The Denon linked is a stereo receiver, as an example) but because of the movement to home theater and digital sources this will sometimes cost more that a surround receiver. So, how about the Surround Sound part of it. Is home theater something you potentially will ever care about?
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:56 PM on March 9, 2011

Response by poster: Home theater: Probably not.

We don't have a TV; when we want to watch movies, we cobble together a laptop, big monitor, and laptop speakers. This is admittedly kind of a pain, so we might eventually get a TV; and if we do, we'd want to be able connect it to the stereo. But I don't think we'll ever go for the whole five-speaker surround-sound setup. We're just not that kind of audio nerds.
posted by ottereroticist at 6:07 PM on March 9, 2011

Best answer: Surround sound isn't for audio nerds actually, it's for movie buffs. But more on that some other time. None of those speakers are high-fidelity by any means, so at some point they would be easy to replace/repurpose. Based on what you've said you'll definitely want HDMI input and source switching, and the ability to grow your system, down the line.

I'd go for the Onkyo TXSR308 and this impedance matching switch box, ( or similar) and you'll have a receiver that is far better than your speakers, and will allow you to upgrade to mid-fi sound down the road. You'll also be able to add home theater at less than the cost for just stereo, and this receiver will accept modern digital sources and do your switching for less than your budget.
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 6:40 PM on March 9, 2011

I have the beginnings of a wireless whole-house audio system that may align well with your interests.

In my setup, there are two key enablers:
Bluelink Bluetooth Music Receiver
Amphony digital wireless audio transmitters and receivers
To play from the iPod throughout the house, I connect the iPod to a Bluetooth receiver (~$25) that outputs stereo on RCA audio cables, and I feed that signal into a really sweet wireless audio broadcaster (~$50) that talks to remote receivers (~$50) that output stereo audio on RCA cables.

A few notes:
The Bluetooth reaches farther than I expected, maybe 25-30 feet through walls.
Amphony also sells receivers that integrate compact amplifiers, so you can directly drive speakers in the remote locations, without additional audio gear.
I wrote more details in an earlier answer here.
posted by NortonDC at 8:16 AM on March 10, 2011

Well, this is really interesting NortonDC. I am a commercial system designer and installer, and wireless audio has been the holy grail of distributed audio for the 17 years that I've been doing this.

I have yet to ever encounter any wireless speaker that didn't completely suck azz. I'm assuming that there must be "T class" amplifiers in those 1550 receivers. Are you running those or are you using active speakers.

Also, how about RF interference?
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 5:18 PM on March 10, 2011

I'm using it to deliver signal into a receiver, so I've never used/heard/touched the amplified models, but the product data sheets may be helpful.

After installing the Amphony, I set up a 5 GHz 802.11n network, and I chose my channels to avoid contention, so I never had a problem there. There are reports of 5.8 GHz wireless land-line phones screwing it up, but I don't have anything like that around so I can't speak to it.

The signal does interact a lot with building structure, so you may have to move the receiver 6 inches one way or another to get a proper signal. And when it fails, it's not subtle. With the transmitter's current position in my house, the signal crosses of a brick wall at a very low angle, putting part of my deck in the shadow of what is effectively a 2 or 3 foot thick brick wall. That's a case where I had to move the receiver a few feet to get out that shadow, but that is unique, in my experience.

One thing I can tell you is that they are not kidding about the super-low latency. I split out a signal and had one ear getting fed straight from wired analog, and the other traversing the Amphony, and I could not detect any audio lag.
posted by NortonDC at 8:03 PM on March 10, 2011

Response by poster: I ordered the receiver and switcher box specified by PareidoliaticBoy, as well as an Airport Express and an Onkyo iPod dock. We spent yesterday afternoon wiring it all up and are very pleased. Thanks for your help!
posted by ottereroticist at 12:51 PM on March 21, 2011

Glad to be of help, thanks for updating us. Let us know if you ever want to get some speakers to match that amp!
posted by PareidoliaticBoy at 4:31 PM on March 21, 2011

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