Audio setup with Airport Express
November 5, 2013 11:06 AM   Subscribe

I have a small apartment. I would like a speaker setup for listening to music. It's an Apple apartment, so I figure the path of least resistance is to get an Airport Express and then connect speakers somehow. Can anyone recommend either (1) a specific set of powered speakers that reproduce music accurately, or (2) a separate amp to put between an input like the Express and a pair of bookshelfs like the Pioneer SP-BS22-LRs.

In either case (powered speakers or an amp), I would prefer things that sound good and look like they belong next to a hifi in an adult's living room, not in a gaming "mancave" or book of concept sketches for The Fast and the Furious (e.g. ideally not a Lepai).

To give you an idea of my budget, if I were in the UK, I would go to Richer Sounds and buy a Cambridge AM1 and a pair of Gale speakers. But I'm not, so I can't. I'm in New York City, but I would prefer to get things delivered (and I would very much like to avoid a trip to B&H).

p.s. I tried a highly recommended, affordable Airplay system, but I didn't love the sound and I couldn't get the quickstart thing to work (or I didn't understand how it was supposed to work). I'd like to go with a setup that begins with an Airport Express.
posted by caek to Technology (17 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I'd get an Apple TV box, not an Airport Express (assuming you already have a Wi-Fi box), and stick a receiver and decent speakers on the TV's output.
posted by w0mbat at 11:29 AM on November 5, 2013

Response by poster: I do already have a wifi network, but I don't have a TV.
posted by caek at 11:33 AM on November 5, 2013

Hey, I did pretty much exactly this, and have a setup I am super happy with. So happy I've actually already evangelized it a few times on askme.

First, as far as powered speakers go, I think you're going to get a lot of recommendations for the Audioengine A5s. I do not have these, but they seem almost universally well-regarded.

Here's what I use:

* Used iBook with itunes (~$100), streaming music to a used
* Airport Express (~$50), which them pipes it to a
* T-amp ($25-$80). You linked to the Lepai, which are well-regarded, but really any cheap t-amp will do, and there are less garish choices. Just search Amazon for "Class-T" or "T-amp". Anyway, from the T-amp, the music gets sent to:
* An inexpensive subwoofer I got off Craigslist. (If you don't find anything on Craigslist, people seem to love this)
* And these BIC America bookshelf speakers, which I'm perfectly happy with. Alternate highly regarded but low-priced speakers would be the Dayton ones that you assemble yourself (from, or the Polk Audio ones sold on Amazon (which again I have not heard but people seem to love.)

Hope this helps!
posted by Alaska Jack at 12:04 PM on November 5, 2013

I have a pair of the Audioengine A5s that Alaska Jack mentions, connected to an Airport Express and I like them a lot. I like the ability to stream things from my computer or iPhone (or my friends iPhones when they come over). Airport Express is great for music, but don't try to use them for audio when watching Youtube or something, since there's a delay.
posted by FreezBoy at 12:13 PM on November 5, 2013

Oh, one interesting thing about the Audioengines:

The previous model (i.e., the A5, not the A5+) had a regular pass-through electrical outlet on the back of one of the speakers. In other words, if you can find a pair, not only could you probably get them at a cheaper price, you could plug your airport Express right into the back of the speakers themselves!

Again, I don't have and have never listened to them. It was just one idea I was considering when putting together my system.
posted by Alaska Jack at 12:19 PM on November 5, 2013

I'd go with something like this or these(full disclosure:i own a set of primus', but the larger ones. They're legitimately some of the nicest speakers i've ever heard, much less owned).

As for what to plug it in to though, there's no smallish amplifier that's relatively cheap like that cambridge sold in the US that i can recommend in good faith. All the pyles and such have really disgusting SNRs and distortion percentages. Buy something like this(NIB!), or hit craigslist.

I spent a bunch of time looking for good ebay BINs to link to, but there really aren't many. all the actions in regular auctions, or on craigslist. go buy a sansui 8080/g-anything or one of the 70s 5 digit series(i.e. 5xx, 6xx, etc) harmon/kardons or basically anything else they made in that time period. Really, any 70s integrated amp or receiver that's heavy enough to be annoying to pick up will produce seriously high quality sound. I've tried out a bunch of those cheap pyle/etc type amps over time and none of them even held a candle to cheap amps/receivers i've picked up at thrift shops or on craigslist. One of the best amplifiers i ever owned audio fidelity wise was a kenwood i paid $20 for.

Honestly i'd personally buy used speakers that had fabric surrounds or had been refoamed than buy new ones, but i specifically linked new ones because i figured you specifically wanted that and there's a few out there i like. If you're open to hitting craigslist and getting good looking older ones though, go look at polk audio monitor 5s/monitor jrs. Specifically these. Absolutely the best sounding small speakers i've ever heard in my life. The high end from those dome tweeters and the bass extension provided by that passive radiator are like some star trek shit. They sound like BIG, expensive speakers. Like big boy klipsch or something with gigantic woofers and radiators.

O, and any good powered speakers are out of your price range by the way. The only set i've tried/used that i truly liked was closer to $500 and died on me(m-audio bx8a, which has a reputation for that). The other ones were the klipsch pro media 2.1s... which also have a reputation for dying. Mackie studio monitors, audioengines, and other things along those lines can sound nice... but are also $$$$. Go ahead and look if you want, they look nice. But you'll find a pair of 5in drivers lacking. You really want 8in unless it's something special like polks. Those are really made for sitting on the desk in front of you, not filling the room with sound. They sound pretty good for what they are, and are an upgrade for a lot of people who have never had a good stereo and just used those preboxed shelf systems from fred meyers... but they really are lacking for full room playback.
posted by emptythought at 12:21 PM on November 5, 2013 [1 favorite]

I recommend Audio engine speakers. They also have a desktop amp. They have a good trial / return policy.
posted by reddot at 12:32 PM on November 5, 2013

Have you considered going with Bluetooth instead of Airplay? I have a couple of Airplay units and a couple of docks (old connector style) but I find Bluetooth simpler to use.

I recently bought a couple of Oontz speakers from Cambridge Audio. Downside: you'll need to charge them over USB every once in a while, and given their size, you don't really expect to have a great bass response. On the upside, they're inexpensive, ultra-portable, and sound surprisingly lush for such tiny units.
posted by RedOrGreen at 2:09 PM on November 5, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks, but portability isn't an enormous factor for me.
posted by caek at 2:15 PM on November 5, 2013

I will second the recommendation of the Audioengine A5. I owned and appreciated a pair for a couple of years before gifting them to a friend. Unless you are trying to fill a very large space or play at seriously high volumes, they provide a remarkable ratio of sound quality/cost. Enough bass extension to not be embarrassed by most recordings, really excellent imaging power and I thought pretty good tonal fidelity, too.

Regarding the visual aesthetics of the A5, the speakers themselves look handsome enough and understated in style, and the finishes are good quality. The wiring between the two speakers might contravene your aesthetic requirements (the amp is in the left speaker, so they have to be linked together), but you can probably find a creative solution for that.

Those A5s were the only powered speakers I've ever owned that delivered "serious" sound or pretended to be useful in an actual stereo rig, so while I do highly recommend you try them out, I'm not really an expert in the field.

In light of that last sentiment, you might also want to post your same question at Stereophile or The Absolute Sound and see what you get there. The editors often step into the discussions there. Maybe also try Audiogon. Just expect that a lot of people will miss or ignore your price constraints at sites like that; but you'll probably get some interesting recommendations, including some more esoteric options.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 2:46 PM on November 5, 2013

This may be overkill for your purposes but, in terms of future (or present) upgradability over the Express alone, you could use its optical out into either a standalone DAC then integrated amp or an integrated with a built in DAC - I know NAD offers one, as may Marantz. I quite like my HRT MicroStreamer, which is an asynchronous USB DAC with headphone and line-level outputs, but I haven't tried it on an Express' USB port, and latency/drivers/unforeseen headaches probably rule this option out. Good luck!
posted by alexandermatheson at 3:32 PM on November 5, 2013

but I haven't tried it on an Express' USB port

You can't connect a USB DAC to an airport express. It used to say on the specs page, now it just says "for a usb printer" when referencing that port. I can't find the right old page that specifically states in plain language "usb port not for USB speakers" but, yea, doesn't work. I tried it at some point with the official harmon kardon+apple speakers.
posted by emptythought at 4:45 PM on November 5, 2013

I have a Sangean WR-1 attached to mine, it's great.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 4:57 PM on November 5, 2013

Response by poster: Thanks everyone for the A5 recommendations, but they cost double what I want to spend. I conclude from this that powered speakers are not the way to go for the sound I am looking for on my budget.

The current front-runner is therefore $120ish bookshelf speakers and a $20 T-amp (which I presume will sound not much worse than the A5s). My main problem with this option is seriously every single inexpensive T-amp looks like utter garbage, so if anyone has any specific pointers there, I'm all ears.
posted by caek at 7:07 PM on November 5, 2013

Best answer: Just a point to consider, you could probably find used A5 speakers for your budgeted amount; they have not sold that model for several years now. I was assuming you'd be looking for a pair of used A5s, not the current A5+ (which adds an internal DAC to the mix).

If you want to go with passive bookshelf speakers in the ~100 range, such as a Polk or possibly something like the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR, then buying a nice, old 1970s /early 1980s receiver might do the trick. I actually have just one such, a Fisher receiver that I bought new when I was 14 years old and still works precisely as well as it did then (GREAT for Pink Floyd), now in my dad's guest room; I'm sure a lot of similar items are available near you in thrift stores, etc.
posted by JimInLoganSquare at 8:03 PM on November 5, 2013

Best answer: The current front-runner is therefore $120ish bookshelf speakers and a $20 T-amp

The main issue here is that the 20wpc those put out will not make speakers like that sound nice. It just won't. The lack of oomph, headroom, transient power, whatever you want to call it is what's going to hurt you here. 20wpc from that is not at all the same as the 20-35wpc that came out of vintage receivers because when they say 20 on those class d amps it's peak, whereas on the older amps that was continuous, or the max it could put it non stop without the harmonic distortion starting to creep in.

I was going to recommend one of the higher-specced class-t amps like this or this, but read the long review that shows up first on the second one. Specifically the bit about it cutting off at a very low wattage because the supplied power brick is crap, and even with a higher capacity power supply it still has serious issues.

I know you said you preferred shopping online and getting it shipped, but i really think you're going to be unhappy with anything you'd get in your price range online for the amplifier. There's lots of good speakers out there online for fairly cheap. But driving decent speakers with an anemic amp that can draw the dynamic power it needs from what is essentially a cheapo wireless router power brick will not sound great.

I really think you'd be doing yourself a disservice to not check out both craigslist and local places like this shop. But really, there's so much good stuff on the NYC craigslist. This is a freaking gem and will absolutely destroy any new amp until you start getting in to the range of something like this. And i seriously just went on nyc craigslist, and typed in a random decent brand and didn't even scroll. Just looked for the first thing that was about $50 and clicked. Bam, jackpot. You basically can't lose unless you try to.

Some other good options:
this (and damn, that guys got some good speakers too. maybe try and work out a combo deal? i'd rather have those polk 7bs than any new speaker under $400 or so you can show me)

this (you will never want to upgrade this again. one my coworkers who is a serious audio nut worships this series of nakamichi of amps. i can attest to their extreme quality, and that's a killer price)

this (physically a bit large, kind of a big boy. quality stuff though. if you want something with a small footprint go back to the nakamichi)

this(high quality, and has four separate amps. play different music in two rooms! have room to expand your system to two zones later with one amp)

ALTERNATIVELY: just buy this, it'll sound just as good or better than anything else you'll ever find without spending like $500 or really knowing your stuff and hiding in wait to snap up really good deals(like that nakamichi plus some REALLY nice speakers). Cry when it mysteriously breaks in a year or two. I still get upset when i think about mine dying. There's fan club websites for those speakers. If you put a blindfold on you'd be hard pressed to tell the sound wasn't coming out of some bigass towers.

Tried to give you a wide variety of options there. That's a killer price for a set of those klipsch in good shape though. they go for $80-100 all day on ebay and really sound great if you don't want to bother with the amp+speaker buying process.

Personally though, i think that the polk speakers i recommended in my last post(or even more so, the 7b's above) plus that nakamichi amp would be a dream system. A friend of mine offered me nearly that exact setup for a good price and i'm still kicking myself for not getting it. They fit together like peanut butter and jelly.

sorry if i'm going apeshit on your thread, apartment audio on the cheap is sort of a long time hobby of mine. hope i'm being helpful.
posted by emptythought at 1:54 AM on November 6, 2013 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Super boring, but I went with an open box Klipsch Promedia 2.1 set from eBay for $100.

Thanks everyone for the help!
posted by caek at 1:00 PM on November 16, 2013

« Older My cross (design) to bear   |   Where to find short term ESL work in South America... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.