High quality home audio setup on the cheap?
January 21, 2013 3:07 PM   Subscribe

I'm moving in March and have decided I would like to put together a nice, high-quality sound setup on the cheap based around a Class-T Amp. On a whim I picked up this one for $16 and am now looking for advice on the other equipment.

I am clueless when it comes to this, so please bear with me.

I will have two sources of music:

1) My main source will be a galaxy S3 that I use with a paid Spotify subscription (320kbs downloaded tracks)

2) I'd like to try out vinyl.


- I'd like to try out vinyl, but I don't want to get sucked into a "collector k-hole" like I have been with cameras. Just a simple, cheap record player.

- What other equipment will I need for this? I know the phone has DAC built-in, but what about the record player?

- Apparently I need a pair of high-efficiency speakers.... I attempted to look for an inexpensive pair, but the world of audiophiles is strange and scary. I'd like to spend, say, $100 for a medium-sized pair? I don't know if that's a crazy low amount. Again, I'm in the dark here.

- The amp I got doesn't have a proper headphone jack, but obviously I can get an RCA-3.5mm adapter. Should I make considerations for using headphones other than that?

-Any other advice I should have entering this world?

posted by lattiboy to Technology (23 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: Some speakers I've looked at:

Dayton speakers for $50

Polk Speakers for $100

I should also add these will be setup in a carpeted room about 14x11, so I'm not looking to fill an auditorium with these.
posted by lattiboy at 3:11 PM on January 21, 2013

Possibly look at Klipsch; they usually have higher sensitivities (~90 dB vs. ~85 dB for bookshelf speakers) since they use horns for high frequencies.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 3:13 PM on January 21, 2013

Another possibility is to look at "installation" speakers like JBL's Control stuff, or the equivalent from RCF, Electro-Voice or Yorkville. You might be able to find them used on the LAB Marketplace.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 3:18 PM on January 21, 2013

Lifehacker just had an article about this
posted by nickhb at 3:18 PM on January 21, 2013

I know the phone has DAC built-in, but what about the record player?

A record player has no need for a DAC. That said, it doesn't look like your amp has a phono pre-amp input, which is something you would need.
posted by pompomtom at 4:11 PM on January 21, 2013

Best answer: The class T amp is unusual. It amplifies with almost no distortion.

While that may sound like a good thing, I also find my early unit rather colorless. It is also very quiet, so Monday Stony Monday's advice about getting efficient speakers is pretty good. I see yours at least has treble and bass controls, so perhaps it can be tweaked, and I also note it has more power than mine. (The distortion is usually lowest at lowest power, by the way, and you should have a decent power supply. It comes with one, but who knows what the specs are?)

Whatever you put in the signal chain is going to affect the sound. (Caveat: except the silly ass $100/ft speaker cables, etc.) If you put a phono amp in the chain, you'll amplify any defects it adds, but you must get the signal up to a level suitable for your class t amp. Note that your hearing profile is unique and depending on your age, you may need boost in certain frequency bands. Graphic equalizers are out there and cheap, but again, you'll amplify your added defects.

Used, very nice turntables are abundant. Check relatives and friends, as well as yard sales. I have seen scores of them at ham fests (ham radio swap meets). There's not much to them, and you don't have to consider any purchase your last.

memail if you find something you want specific advice on.
posted by FauxScot at 4:27 PM on January 21, 2013

I have those exact dayton speakers. I bought them on a gamble for a garage-stereo, because they were cheap and I had a gift card for Amazon. They slowly worked their way through the house to being our primary speakers for our projector and the turntable. I fucking love these speakers; I feel like we've cheated the audiophile gods every time we turn on the stereo. They sound better than $50 speakers should. Buy them.

I also have a modest turntable setup, similar to what it seems like you're trying to accomplish, and the best balance of money to non-shitty-quality i've found is Audio-Technica's ripoff of the classic technics 1200. It sounds good and doesn't destroy your records...and in the realm of (new) turntables, it's pretty reasonable. You will need a preamp though.

Most of my stereo was built with avoiding the "collector k-hole" mostly because I can't afford to mess around with a million different components, and really, there's no real need to once you settle on a setup that you're happy with.
posted by furnace.heart at 4:39 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks furnace.heart!

I've got a chance to get the Pioneer's mentioned elsewhere for $60 off craigslist, so I might grab those, but it's good to know the Daytons are the real deal.

Gotta say that $220 is more than I had expected to spend on the turntable.... any other less expensive options?
posted by lattiboy at 4:50 PM on January 21, 2013

When you consider that it's a clone of a $1400 dollar turntable? It's a pretty good buy.

Anything less in price (bought new, there are plenty of deals to be found used out there, but that world is ever-changing, used stuff usually needs a good refurbishing that will peg it out close to that price anyway...) and you really risk damaging the records that you're looking to play. In high school I had a $80 RCA turntable, and looking back on how much that turntable screwed up some of my 45's, I really regret not buying something nicer.
posted by furnace.heart at 5:01 PM on January 21, 2013

Poke around on Audiogon and at Audio Advisor. Then hit Craigslist/EBay to buy stuff.
posted by professor plum with a rope at 6:15 PM on January 21, 2013

You don't need to buy a DJ-grade turntable unless you're going to be DJing with it and want to be able to drop it down a flight of stairs and still use it. Here's an Audio-Technica from a little lower in their range that would do just fine. There's also a model for an extra $20 or so that has a USB port, so you can use it to digitize your vinyl if you want.
posted by echo target at 6:24 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

and it appears that the AT turntable that echo target linked has a built in pre-amp (since the specs say "line level output").
posted by mr vino at 6:46 PM on January 21, 2013

I use a t-amp setup as well, and am VERY happy with it. I don't use a turntable, though -- i use a used iBook with itunes (~$100), which streams MP3s wirelessly to a used Airport Express (~$65), which then pipes it into the t-amp. I also round out the sound with a used Infinity subwoofer i picked up off craigslist ($50).

I tried getting those Dayton speakers, but the shipping to Alaska was exorbitant. So instead I went with these, and have been pretty happy with them.

I spent very little on the setup, and yet have been VERY happy with it. I have every album in my iTunes collection at my fingertips, ready to play whenever I feel like it. And it sounds good, to me at least.
posted by Alaska Jack at 8:44 PM on January 21, 2013 [1 favorite]

$20 for an awesome amplifier. Seriously. I own it. It uses so little power that I have it attached to my Mac and it stays on 24/7. I LOVE being able to wake up, reach for it iPhone and fire up the stereo. AWESOME. Unlike the early T-amps, this little sucker gets very loud. It'll go louder than I'd ever need in an apartment, that's for sure.
posted by 2oh1 at 9:18 PM on January 21, 2013

Oh, and I should add that I'm using it to power a pair of Tannoy Reveal speakers (nearfield monitors, really). While I realize those are overkill for you, I mention them because if this little T-amp can rock these speakers, it'll do fine with whatever you throw at it.
posted by 2oh1 at 9:30 PM on January 21, 2013

21oh1: That's the one he bought :) And yes, it's awesome.

I use it a set of dubious Sony speakers and it sounds fine. I've heard reports that it works well w/ the Dayton speakers (available at partsexpress for a $30 + shipping, though they're now sold out).

For the Lepai, try to get a decent power supply. It's spec-ed to take up to 5A -- you can probably do less if you don't want to go too loud, but I suspect that if you go w/ the Lepai and any sort of decent speakers, your AC/DC converter is going to be the bottleneck unless you intentionally looked for a decent one.
posted by bsdfish at 11:49 PM on January 21, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks a lot folks.

Three more questions:

1) Can anybody recommend a specific power supply for the amp?

2) I have an "active" subwoofer (a decent Sony model). I can just use the passthrough feature with this amp and the speakers I get, right? It'll just.... passthrough the non-bass sound as I've set it...?

3) Anybody recommend a really well mastered vinyl I can pickup for kind of a reference record? I was thinking Graceland or Astral Weeks, but I don't know if there is a specific record that's still sold that is considered really well done.

posted by lattiboy at 9:44 AM on January 22, 2013

re: sub, it depends on the sub, really. If I understand correctly, you want to plug your source into the sub, then plug the sub's output into your amp? If that's the case, all depends on whether there's a high-pass/low-cut filter on the sub's output. If there is, you're good. If there isn't, you'll need some other way to filter your signal (basically, send only the low frequencies to the sub, and only the mid/high frequencies to your amp and speakers).
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 3:47 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

What you REALLY want for the Lepai, though it takes some hunting down, is a 2.66A/13.5V power supply. The amp can handle between 12V and 15V, but in my experience, 13.5V is the sweet spot, giving it oomph without risking overloading it.

I bought my power supply here: http://www.advpower.com/
Here's what I got, specifically:
13.5V @ 2.66A power supply
with a 2.1 x 5.5 x 9.5MM output DC
MODEL: A1-36SG135-V /2.1

They don't sell them individually, so I had to buy two (which was the smallest order they'd take). Also, remember, it's just a power supply, meaning it doesn't come with a power cord, but you can buy that too. I have a bunch of left over cords from old computer gear. This power supply takes the same sort of cord you plug into your Mac or PC.

Most places that sell the Lepai with a power supply included send it with a generic 2A/12V power supply. That'll work, but the one I bought gives it more power, which equates to more oomph. Whatever you do, you DON'T want to go overboard. Some people use 14.5V and even 15V power supplies, but they also usually tear the amp apart and replace the inner components (these amps are pretty popular with the DIY crowd).
posted by 2oh1 at 4:33 PM on January 22, 2013 [1 favorite]

I was just checking some online reviews of the 80-dollar turntable that mentioned audible wow and flutter, which would be a dealbreaker for me. I'm skeptical of any new turntable at that price. You could get something decent used, but it's not easy to know what's worth buying and what isn't, in the used market. If you start collecting vinyl records, you'll have more money tied up in the collection than in the player, so it makes sense to get something that treats your records well. My advice is to wait until you have a couple hundred to spend on a new one, or find an expert to take along shopping for something used.

The best reference record, whether analog or digital, is maybe not the one that's a spectacular recording, but something you've spent a lot of hours listening to. On vinyl I'd go with the Beatles white album, just because I've been listening to it since it was new.
posted by in278s at 7:03 PM on January 22, 2013 [2 favorites]

in278s said: "The best reference record, whether analog or digital, is maybe not the one that's a spectacular recording, but something you've spent a lot of hours listening to."


The better you know it, the better you'll know what you're really hearing - and what you're not hearing.
posted by 2oh1 at 9:13 PM on January 23, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks all.

As a follow-up, I picked up a pair of these Sony floorstanding speakers at Fry's Electronics for $100 (!)

I'm still checking craigslist for a good turntable deal and I'll update this when I find it.

Thanks again all!
posted by lattiboy at 9:24 AM on January 28, 2013

Dual (brand) turntables are good used buys if you spot one. (That whole Best Turntables site is useful.)

Technics 1200s have been discontinued. If you want something decent and cheap, you can buy a refurbed Technics belt drive with a preamp from KAB for $200. More info. KAB has done well by me in the past.
posted by snuffleupagus at 9:01 PM on January 29, 2013

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