Bring my stereo into the 21st century
August 9, 2014 7:24 AM   Subscribe

My stereo mostly dates from the mid 90's. It was originally an Onkyo component system (tuner, amp, 6-CD changer, tape deck) with JBL speakers. About 5 years ago the amp gave out and I bought another Onkyo system on Craig's List, replacing the amp and adding a subwoofer. This system has served me well, but technology has progressed and I live in a 3BR townhome now, not a dorm room.

I'm looking for ideas to update my system. The complaints with what I have now (in no particular order): It's centralized in 1 room, moving CD's around to listen to music seems archaic, my wife thinks the big speakers are unsightly.

In addition to the hardware outlined above, we have 2 Windows laptops to throw into the mix (if it helps). I have quite a bit of music on the hard drives, but most of it is on CD's. Nothing bought through e.g. iTunes.

What kind of system would you buy if you had a budget of $1000? Can I re-use any of the pieces I have now? Would expanding the budget increase the options by much?
posted by Horselover Fat to Technology (9 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
The important thing with technology questions these days is more about stating your goals and desires? Do you want music in different zones in your house? Want to rip your CDs and stream? Control from iPhone? Badass home theater with no giant speakers??

Goals would help a lot here or you will end up with some very divergent opinions.
posted by chasles at 7:44 AM on August 9, 2014 [1 favorite]

Different zones doesn't seem that important to me. I think I want to rip and stream. Control from the phone would be nice. Unobtrusive speakers would be good. Don't need a great home theater.
posted by Horselover Fat at 8:24 AM on August 9, 2014

I haven't built one, so take with lumps of salt, but it sounds like you can do most of what you want just by building one of those little book-sized itx boxes with a 1TB drive, installing xbmc, and hooking it to the receiver. If your receiver has hdmi in, just about any would do, but if it only has digital audio in you'd want a box that has the appropriate digital out, and you'd need a monitor (or tv with appropriate input) to set it up. There are xbmc control apps for ios and android. You could use the laptops to rip cds and then transfer the mp3/flac/whatever files to the xbmc box.

After that, it's just buying a pair of good bookshelf speakers.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:24 AM on August 9, 2014

I went through this same exercise a couple of years ago.

I think most people these days do one of these three things:

* Buy an Ultimate Ears Boom and stream music from your phone or laptop via Bluetooth
* Assemble a Sonos system for streaming
* Get an AirPlay-compatible speaker system and play music from Macs and iOS devices

Both of which will provide very good sound and are easily available.

That said, I wanted something more versatile than those solutions. My goals were to:

* Remove the gigantic 90s stereo components and speakers from our living room
* Have music magically happen from my laptop or phone in the room without having to touch a remote control or conventional "big box" stereo component
* Have reasonably elegant music and volume control available even when neither a laptop or phone were nearby
* Have it use very little power at standby, but always be ready for play
* Have it sound really, really good
* Cost around $1000

I ended up buying the following:

* A pair of lightly used Paradigm Atoms (Series 3) off of Craigslist for $100. Small, attractive, good.
* A refurbished AudioEngine N22 amp for $180. Great sound, cheap, simple, attractive.
* A refurbished Squeezebox Touch for $300. High quality MP3, AAC, FLAC streaming, intuitive interface, looks good on the bookshelves.
* An Intel Baytrail NUC (DN2820FYK) plus SSD and RAM. $140 for the NUC, $140 for a 256GB SSD, $40 for the RAM.

I installed Linux and Logitech Media Center and then put all my music on the NUC; you could do the same with Windows if you're Linux-averse, although it would cost a little more, or you could use one of your laptops if you don't mind having the laptop running somewhere.

We can call up the Logitech Media Server web site if we want to trigger music from our laptops, we can use the Squeezebox app on our phones, or we can just walk over and call something up on the Squeezebox's touch screen.

Each component has a standby mode and only uses a few watts at rest while remaining connected to our network and "ready to play". Believe it or not, even when active, that particular model of NUC running Linux and Logitech Media Server only draws 4-5 watts of power.

So, that was all $900, and I had a system that sounded very good and was extremely convenient to use. I wanted just a little more. I added a refurbished Audioengine D1 DAC to the mix for $110, and the system went from sounding very good to sounding great. Unfortunately, the D1 uses around 10W or so of power all by itself, but it makes a big enough difference that we keep it around.

Hope this helps.
posted by eschatfische at 10:29 AM on August 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

I think a lot of people are beanplating this. You don't want to have to screw around with having an actual computer involved in the process. Many modern receivers have music streaming built in. Mine has spotify, pandora, airplay(which you can finagle working on windows fairly easily with something like airfoil, and it's not glitchy. also works fine with android) and local streaming directly integrated with it. It does others, to. I haven't even messed with most of the features on it. It's a lower midrange pioneer that cost under $300 on sale.

It doesn't sound as good as my gigantic old harmon/kardon integrated amp from the 70s that weighs as much as a planet, but i don't know what actually would. and it sounds fine honestly.

Are tall skinny tower speakers out of the question? Something like the JBL loft that's really thin side to side? Because other than that, i'd probably want something like the polk tsi200 or monitor 45b(or a refurb of the old monitor 40 on ebay, i've seen them dump those for cheaaap). Maybe i'm just spoiled by bigger speakers, but a lot of the smaller ones that don't really try with the woofers like those do just don't satisfy me. And yes, even with a sub. You really only want the sub to hit the really low frequencies, like under 50 or 60hz max. Otherwise it gets tiresomely directional and gross.(and if you sub stops at 40hz, it's not a sub. go buy a real sub like a hsu stf-2)

Alternatively, if you want to screw off from the whole amp/speakers/etc thing, my neighbor has a sonos play5 and it really impressed me. I'm fairly meh on most of the not absurdly priced airplay-type speakers like the bose soundlink air, etc, but that thing fills his entire small-ish one bedroom apartment with sound and has enough bass to rattle the front door, and the sound is very well defined. Then you're walled into the sonos system though, and it's not like you can hook up a turntable to that or anything without it being some annoying daisy chaining of a pre amp, adapters, etc. If that doesn't bother you though, it is a pretty decent "open the box, done" solution and i really didn't expect it to sound as good as it does. I'd say it rivals something like the small polk speakers i mentioned, and seems to have even better bass response. And it's small, and unobtrusive.

And for what it's worth, i'm pretty happy with my skinny tower speakers and streaming receiver setup. I can play stuff from my phone whenever i want, i can play stuff from my laptop seemlessly. It can also play video from+charge most android phones at the same time. There really isn't any feature i wish it had besides streaming video from a phone/laptop with some airplay or chromecast type solution, but that's really my only complaint. Basically any network receiver from a decent brand would probably make you happy here.
posted by emptythought at 10:49 AM on August 9, 2014 [2 favorites]

Look at and used on Audiogon.

I really like the NHT Super Zero speakers at $200/pair. But they have very little low end. Get a used cheaper Velodyne sub, this integrated amp, e.g. and an Airport Express or Squeezebox. Rip the CDs and stream them to your amp. Or, get Spotify/Beats and largely forget about music you own and stream that to your amp.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:40 AM on August 10, 2014

eschatfiche above has good ideas, too.
posted by persona au gratin at 1:44 AM on August 10, 2014

I'm a big Sonos fan. I had started off with a more cobbled together solution for my living room and kitchen but it was flakey. I never tried the Squeezebox line. And then Logitech killed it. But the open source server software is available.

I gotta say, whatever you do, dude, rip your disks!

With Sonos, you could rip all of your music and upload it to Google Music or Amazon Music so you don't even need to have a computer on.

The multi-room feature is really nice. I suspect it's something that you have to try to feel the value of.

I have a Playbar in the living room. We migrated from an amp, speakers, and other peripherals, to just the Playbar, and it's great.

We have a Play5 in the kitchen and it also sounds quite good.

I think whether you go for a more integrated solution, like Sonos, or something you build out yourself, will depend on potentially how much tinkering you want to do.

BTW, if you're happen with your current speakers, you could get a Sonos Connect Amp to replace your receiver.

Also, I have some AudioEngine stuff and also love it. Great quality for the price.
posted by reddot at 8:56 AM on August 10, 2014

Thanks for the ideas, everybody. It seems that the options are wider than I expected, so thanks for opening my eyes.
posted by Horselover Fat at 8:46 PM on August 15, 2014

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