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August 15, 2011 10:23 AM   Subscribe

An idle stereo upgrade question: If I were to upgrade any part of my stereo system, would I get more bang for the buck upgrading my receiver, my speakers, or it would it probably not make a difference given my listening habits? Details on my setup inside.

Here's the setup:

I use an integrated receiver, the Sony STR-555ES, a solid-state 5.1 model from about 1999 or so. It still runs well. It's from Sony's "Elevated Standard" line, so is not just their usual consumer stuff, but it's no NAD, Rotel, etc.

For front speakers I have B&W 601S2s. For rear speakers, I have B&W DM302s. I use an active B&W ASW1000 (pdf), a truly massive beast. I also happen to have a B&W CC3 as a center speaker, but I haven't hooked it up in years--I just run a 4.1 setup.

90% of the time, I just listen to music, which is all MP3s streamed from a computer to an Airport Express that's wired to the receiver. 1% of the time I listen to NPR. The remainder of the time is movies, but it's rare that I watch anything that I crave surround sound for.

I don't really have any complaints about the setup, though I wouldn't mind simplifying it. The receiver, for instance, has all sorts of soundstaging options, but I really don't want my living room to sound like an arena. In fact, I find that the rear speakers never get enough power in the surround setups and get drowned out by the front, so I actually just re-wired them to be B speakers in an A+B setup. Also, because of electronics conversion, I only use two inputs these days: a Blu-Ray player with a coaxial audio in, and the streaming MP3s with just one set of RCA connectors. No TV in, no MD, tape, cable, etc.--and none forthcoming.

So, would embettering any of this system provide an improved listening experience (given that I'm mostly listening to MP3s, which are clearly not high fidelity)? If so, would I get better results from upgrading the receiver (probably to a simple stereo amp, though I'd probably like to keep the A+B setup, and the sub), or from upgrading any of the speakers (I've long coveted B&W's handsome PM1 or their floorstanding speakers (which can be had used on Craigslist or at your local hi-fi shop for much less than new)? If an upgrade makes any sense, any recommendations? I can't seem to find an amp that is simple (and sounds great) that will give me an easy A+B and sub setup.
posted by Admiral Haddock to Media & Arts (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Normally, I'd say "speakers", but you already have a nice pair of speakers. For the money you would spend on getting even better speakers, you could get a better receiver/amplifier setup. Replace the Sony with an NAD like this one (or maybe a less expensive previous-generation model), which will provide you with enough power for your rear speakers as well as improving the stereo quality.
posted by deanc at 10:35 AM on August 15, 2011

It's not a bad system, actually.

Honestly, to me, the true weak link is your heavy use of mp3's (Depending on how they were ripped, of course. Still, this system would sound great using higher-quality source material)

The speakers are great, so keep those. I suppose replacing the Sony piece would be a place to look at . I've never been a fan of Sony home audio gear.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:44 AM on August 15, 2011

Your current setup sounds pretty nice, and I would say your main performance bottleneck right now is probably the source material itself. I don't know what bitrate your mp3 collection is at currently, but start collecting lossless music and get yourself a decent DAC to plug your Express into instead of using the crummy built-in one (actually, how is the Express "wired to the receiver?" Assuming you're using an analog stereo mini, you might see see a big improvement just adding an optical cable like this one, so that you use the DAC in the Sony instead of the one in the Airport Express.

At my shop we just demoed some new PSB bookshelf speakers that we first tried with a CD in a cheap Sony Blu-ray player hooked straight to the Anthem amp, then we tried putting it through this PS Audio DAC and the difference in quality was astonishing even though we were expecting it. Of course you don't have to spend $800 on a unit like that, pretty much any dedicated DAC is gonna give you better quality than the afterthought one Apple puts in a little Swiss Army WAP/Router/Music player that retails for a hundred bucks.
posted by contraption at 10:46 AM on August 15, 2011 [1 favorite]

A quality modern A/V receiver will come with a microphone and will do the room setup for you automatically, which I don't think that Sony can do. This alone will probably improve the sound quality of your surround sound sources. Also, if you had a modern AV receiver then you could plug the HDMI output from your blu-ray player straight into it & possibly eliminate a bunch of cables. It's a fair bit of money to spend just to eliminate some cable clutter though :)

What bitrate are your mp3s? If it's anything over 200kbit, it's very, very unlikely you'll be able to tell the difference in a blind testing between those and the original source files.
posted by pharm at 12:24 PM on August 15, 2011

Response by poster: Thanks, guys--it's been a long time since I first put the system together, and it's good to know I chose wisely at the time!

Yes, I agree that the MP3s are very much the weak link in this chain--that's why I was thinking that it might not make any sense to upgrade. The files were ripped at various bitrates; anything I've gotten recently is probably 200kbit Apple lossless whosywatchit--I can't remember what my iTunes is set at. The oldest, though, are probably all 128kbit from the days when I was first ripping to an old Sawtooth G4 with a 10GB hard drive and needed to save on space. If I had all the time in the world I'd rip them all again, but that seems like too much of a hassle.

But, WOW! I had no idea that the Express could run optical out! I have a spare toslink cable that I can run to the optical in for the CD input and see how that works. I'm sure you're right that the onboard DAC in the receiver is much better than whatever lurks in the Express. I can't wait to try this tonight! I'm probably not going to drop $800 on a DAC, contraption--any other recommendations at lower price points?

Pharm, yes--HDMI (and fewer cables) would be nice! I actually have a bit of a redundant setup--HDMI to the TV (which acts as a center channel, sort of), and digital coax to the receiver. But the main offender for wires--and this I really hate--is my TV, which is an older Aquos that has an offboard tuner box. The tuner box takes up its own space in the system, has its own power, and runs three exceptionally huge video cables to the TV (DVI, S-Video and something else, not HDMI), and the TV has its own power cord. I'm hoping that the TV breaks sometime, but it has been kicking around for seven years with no signs of letting up, that bastard.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 12:58 PM on August 15, 2011

Hmm, why are you running DVI and S-Video from your tuner to your TV? They both carry the same (video) signal, no? So why not just ditch S-Video? There isn't really a need for "redundancy"; your TV will only output one signal at a time anyway.

Unless something is broken, the #1 source of distortion in your system is still, in all likelihood, your speakers. If your receiver can drive your speakers to a loud enough volume, I see no reason to upgrade it.

If you don't mind the size (and cost), some Danleys or JTRs might work for you.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:29 PM on August 15, 2011

Response by poster: From the offboard TV tuner to the TV, yes--that's how this television was designed back in the day. It has its own three-part cable--one big cable with three heads.
posted by Admiral Haddock at 3:58 AM on August 16, 2011

The speakers are great, so keep those. I suppose replacing the Sony piece would be a place to look at . I've never been a fan of Sony home audio gear.
posted by Thorzdad at 10:44 AM on August 15 [+] [!]

Seconding. I have a Panasonic SA-DX55 that I run off of a computer via optical. Tremendous sound quality, as far as I am concerned. A caveat is that its frequency response is very flat, so you are going to hear whatever is being put out. I like that, many don't. They don't make them any more, but you can likely get a used one pretty cheaply and see if it makes a difference.
posted by gjc at 7:36 AM on August 16, 2011

I meant sa-xr55
posted by gjc at 7:36 AM on August 16, 2011

OK, those old 128kbit mp3s are almost certainly the weakest link in the chain then. 10Gb HDs are what, 2000 or so? mp3 encoders improved enormously over the last decade: if you compare the latest Lame release with (say) the stock Fraunhofer encoder from 1999 at 128kbit then the difference ought to be audible to anyone with reasonable ears going by the results of the HydrogenAudio listening tests.

I'll bet that you'll get a measurable (ie detectable in a blind test) improvement in audio quality by re-encoding those old mp3s, even if you still used a 128kbit bitrate. Obviously given that disc space constraints have effectively been removed these days, you'd probably just encode losslessly and be done with it.

(I encode all my CDs to FLAC for archival purposes & then spit out reasonable bitrate mp3s generated from the flac with a perl script.)
posted by pharm at 1:33 AM on August 17, 2011

The sound is in the amp! It's counterintuitive maybe, but if everything else is decent then upgrade the amp.

In your stereo system, the speakers are the final link in a chain. They are a passive electromechanical element that is difficult to control. It's a complicated dance of air pressure and thermal effects and magnet flux fields.

There is an active element that controls these difficult electromechanical elements – your amplifier.

The amplifier has a very large and significant effect on the sound. It's not about watts really, surprisingly watts are needed, it's about control.

Listen and compare. Good amps don't need to be expensive. Published IMD specs (intermodulation distortion) are a sign of quality. Low IMD numbers tend to strongly indicate a pleasant sounding amplifier.
posted by krilli at 12:01 PM on September 13, 2011

*surprisingly few watts are needed
posted by krilli at 12:02 PM on September 13, 2011

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