Home Stereo of the Future?
July 8, 2005 10:01 AM   Subscribe

It's been many years since I've bought any home audio equipment and I'm now thinking of buying a new set of audio components for my home livingroom. So here's my question - I no longer use CD's, as all of my music is digital. I listen to internet radio all the time on my computer. I have an iPod. It seems that most of the audio components in Best Buy are still rooted in the past. What would you suggest I buy to create the "home stereo the future" that would leverage all of the new technologies that have come out in the past couple of years. What should my home audio set up look like? Any and all suggestions would be welcomed! Thanks, Marc
posted by marcschil to Technology (21 answers total)
Don't buy from Best Buy. Go to a mom and pop-type audio specialist shop and they'll be much more helpful to you.

I can answer better if I know your video needs. Is this audio system to be used to movie/tv viewing as well?

What sort of periphrals do you have? Sat radio? Digital cable radio?
posted by k8t at 10:15 AM on July 8, 2005

Response by poster: thanks for the quick response. i do want to use the components for video as well so yes, it will be for movie/tv viewing as wel. i have digital cable that includes cable radio stations. im very interested in satallite radio for the home. i do have a dvd player. thanks!
posted by marcschil at 10:19 AM on July 8, 2005

you probably need one of those expensive home media servers! May be some media center PC hooked up to a good processor would do. But look at Sonos. I wish they had SPDIF output instead of their stereo setup. All the reviews I have read are excellent and they are not very pricey either. They have a wicked cool handheld client too.

I basically have a PC that is hooked into my living room processor via a SPDIF connector and it is also hooked up to my HDTV. I can control it via wireless keyboard and may be remote (if I was not so lazy to set it up). but I generally use VNC client running on my laptop which always tends to be sitting around my couch.

If Sonos had a multi-channel digital out option I would really seriously think of getting it. But i could use a client like theirs anytime for sure.

I guess I can call my PC HTPC but I rarely use for anything other than listening to my music collection. I am not big on PVR and I watch digital cable most of the time.

However, I am in the process of building a disk array which I am expecting to put to good use in the future in my living room :-) Once that is done may be I will use the PC more.
posted by flyby22 at 10:26 AM on July 8, 2005

what kind of connections do you have on your existing DVD player/tv?

Are you willing to buy a new DVD player and/or TV to match up with your audio?

Do you see yourself having HD or Tivo or any other video in the future?
posted by k8t at 10:26 AM on July 8, 2005

Response by poster: I would buy a new DVD player, sure. My tv is HDTV "ready" and I do have a tivo, although it's broken. I was thinking of getting the Time Warner DVR system.
posted by marcschil at 10:29 AM on July 8, 2005

Get TiVo - it is much better.

How do you connect your existing TV and DVD?
posted by k8t at 10:32 AM on July 8, 2005

marcschil - I'm in the same position as you. I have removed the CD/tuner from my B&O system and have hooked a Macintosh Powerbook up to it ... playing digital audio (from iTunes) and Internet radio broadcasts. The next step is to find a "home media server." I'd also like to find wireless speakers and video streaming solutions. I'm waiting to see how things shape up in the market with so many companies pursuing the "digital home": Apple, HP, IBM, Intel, Microsoft, Sony, TiVo, etc.

I have found the following to be helpful resources:
The Battle For The Digital Home
CNET's Digital Home
DigitalMedia DigDia.com
Digital Home
Intel's Digital Home
posted by ericb at 10:42 AM on July 8, 2005

None of the new non-physical-media technologies is actually good for high-end listening, given that they are limited to two-channel music compressed down to below 200k bitrates.

In fact, if anything, audiophiles, and the gear makers who curry to their tastes, are moving in the opposite direction, towards formats with resolutions even higher than the uncompressed two-channel .wav files of CDs. While SACD and DVDA are pretty much dead, the much more successful Dolby 5.1/6.1 and DTS standards for home theater are being adapted for audio-only albums which are pressed onto standard DVDs, played on a high-quality DVD player networked to the digital audio input of the tuner.

Since compression defeats the point of this format, high end audio is going to stay married to physical media until home broadband speeds take another quantum jump. Blu-Ray and HD-DVD will enable multi-hour albums of 6.1 channels of in fabulously high resolution, which would take many hours to download over a DSL or cablemodem.
posted by MattD at 11:11 AM on July 8, 2005

I'd argue that, for now, all you need is an amp, some speakers, a media server and a Squeezebox.
posted by ascullion at 11:23 AM on July 8, 2005

Um... The Dolby and DTS standards MattD refers to are based on lossy compression. I'm not convinced that SACD and DVDA are dead, but I haven't paid much attention to that end of the business for a long time... Audiophile recordings have always been a fringe market at best.

What you are looking for is a home theatre PC (nothing special, just any PC you feel like sticking in the living room) with ASIO capable sound card combined with a good quality DAC or home theatre receiver.

Check out the avsforum's home theatre pc section for useful information.
posted by Chuckles at 11:29 AM on July 8, 2005

Get TiVo - it is much better.

Can you record one channel while watching another, with TiVo? I know that DirecTivo does this, but I'm thinking about cable. I understand the answer to be "no", which is why I went with TWC's good-not-great DVR, and I've love to find out I'm wrong.
posted by mkultra at 11:32 AM on July 8, 2005

If you split your signal you can record with TiVo and watch something else.
posted by k8t at 11:54 AM on July 8, 2005

You might want to consider just buying a good home theater receiver and decent speakers. Then either buy and mod a Xbox or buy one premodded. I use a modded xbox for my media PC and it does a great job. I can connect to my server to get music from Itunes and also connect using SMB to stream video from the same server. Takes a little patience and some technical skill. But it really delivers much bang for the buck. If interested in this route I can point you in the right direction for the Xbox stuff.
posted by white_devil at 12:15 PM on July 8, 2005

If you split your signal you can record with TiVo and watch something else.

That'd only work for the analog cable channels. If he's got digital cable, the cable company's DVR is the only way to do this without renting multiple digital converters.
posted by cnelson at 12:22 PM on July 8, 2005

iCube has a device called Play@TV that serves video and audio from your computer to your TV, either wirelessly or via Ethernet. It has component, S-video and composite video ouputs and analog and optical digital audio outputs, but I don't know whether it would be able to serve up HDTV. I would guess that it could if your computer is fast enough (it uses Windows Media Player to compress video on-the-fly to fit down your network pipe), but I'm not sure. Quick price check has it at $170 with wireless card and $150 without at ZipZoomFly.
posted by hootch at 12:25 PM on July 8, 2005

To piggyback: Could you use a mac mini to rig up such a system? Not one for audiophiles but one for people who hate the ten millon components and want something that will work well?
posted by Medieval Maven at 1:36 PM on July 8, 2005

Depending on the quality of hate equipment you are considering buying, you may want to rethink giving up the CD player. While mp3's and aac files recorded at typical compressions sound fairly good, their limitations become more and more evident as the quality of your equipment increases. These files both lead to a loss of dynamic range and may actually add artifacts to the music. While this can be overcome by decreasing the amount of compression, it is a problem with all of the "lossy" compression schemes. (After I picked up a good set of headphones for my iPod, I had to recompressed all of my music at higher compression, in my case 192 kbit/s, before they sounded good).

There are lossless compression systems, such as flac, or as MattD suggests, raw wave files, but all of these are big, requiring a lot of hard disk space. Take a look at Hydrogenaudio for good discussions of all of your options. Or, the easiest solution is to keep you CDs and invest in a decent single disk player. They are fairly cheap.
posted by rtimmel at 1:56 PM on July 8, 2005

Be sure to audition speakers using music you're going to listen to in the format you're going to play; e.g., if you listen to a lot of MP3s, bring MP3s on your ipod. A good audio shop will be able to jack you in to their system.

Like rtimmel said, better equipment, especially speakers, will highlight issues with the format you choose. If you have an ear as bad as mine, you might need to listen on pretty good speakers before you realize what you're missing.

Pick the speakers in your price range that you find most pleasing to listen to over a period of a half hour or so. Be aware that it takes several minutes to form an opinion, and first impressions can be deceiving.

A good M&P shop should be accomodating here. Best Buy/similar boxes probably not so much.
posted by Opposite George at 4:07 PM on July 8, 2005

(M&P = "Mom and Pop")
posted by Opposite George at 4:53 PM on July 8, 2005

I wouldn't go Mac Mini for HT just yet. I was going to - but if you want Dolby and HDTV recording it simply isn't ready yet without additional outlay of cash - and it is worth noting the form factor gets a little ruined in the mishmash.

On MP3 playback - I am going the Sonos route. No offense to who told you that w/o multi-channel digital out makes it no good, I disagree.

There are very _few_ albums that use Dolby. Maybe in the future there will be more, but stereo is sufficient. Especially when you consider everything (including digital out) eventually converts to analog.

Sonos is not for audiophiles, but when you are streaming MP3s in general (at lower sample rates) you are probably not an audiophile, or it is an acceptable compromise for minimalist use of space as well as about the most trick controller you can find.

For HT applications, I would (and am) going wired. Sonos is not appropriate for this. Splurge a bit on the speakers as this (I have heard) is always the weak point in any system.
posted by gnash at 6:29 PM on July 8, 2005

Just to throw a wrench in the works... As someone who has always had excellent ears and also been surrounded by quote-unquote audiophiles, my experience has matched that of several studies:

Extremely rare is the human ear that can tell uncompressed digital recordings from those same recordings compressed at over roughly 210-230kbps (ie APX or even APS VBR). Granted at 128 (and to me at 192) you can hear artifacts and whatnot, but at these rates it's exceedingly difficult. I only bring this up because lossy compression at APX can still cut the size of your files by 6 or 3 times compared to uncompressed or lossless compression formats, respectively. For someone who has 3,000 records in digital format, the issue of appropriate storage devices and security also becomes an issue. Getting a couple of terrabytes of storage space and making it redundant (ie RAID 1) can be quite expensive.

Also re: DTS, SACD, DVDA, etc... I find the notion that this substantially improves the listening experience to be rather odd. Few musicians write and perform music, specifically intended to be blasted at you from particular directions. To take tracks off a recording and partition them to different speakers is creepy for me as the listener. It just doesn't feel right. I'm not saying that you can't do potentially cool stuff with it, or that you can't create a very particular effect as the artist. It just hasn't translated to me. Surround sound makes a whole lot more intuitive sense with accompanying video, as in a movie. That was of course the original purpose of these sound systems. With a moving picture, on a large screen with lots of realestate, sound movement serves a more clearcut purpose.

Others may disagree, subjectively speaking, but the general point I'm trying to get at is that you need a system designed for your own purposes and tastes. Not what the 'audiophiles' recommend.

The rules I'd follow are simple: get the best speakers you can afford. Get a receiver that powers those speakers amply, and can handle the inputs you like (ie satellite or internet radio, digital music, HDTV, etc...). Keep digital signals digital through as many peripherals as possible, and use good cables (I love SPDIF).

To answer your question in specific, I would consider looking into the new Denon S-Series receivers. They are designed specifically with the iPod in mind, and will allow control of the iPod through the receiver remote. Pretty sweet if you ask me, but it ain't out yet, and I'm sure the competitors will have similar systems soon enough.
posted by drpynchon at 7:18 PM on July 8, 2005

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