Optimal speaker set up for a computer playing Spotify?
July 3, 2015 6:06 PM   Subscribe

What is the optimal speaker set up for a computer playing iTunes and Spotify primarily (quality ~320 kbps)? I primarily listen to music on Spotify, and am looking for a new office speaker setup to connect to my iMac, but I'm not sure what the optimal plan is. Bookshelf speakers? Sonos? Computer speakers? DAC? Receiver? I'd prefer speakers to headphones, and am looking for the best sound out of those files.
posted by quickasfoxes to Technology (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
What is your budget? Have you considered these?
posted by kickingtheground at 6:52 PM on July 3, 2015

Sonos is stupidly overpriced for what it does. The markup is literally worse than anything apple sells.

Since you have an imac anyways, get a cheap decent airplay speaker. That logitech one around $100 is fine, and there's regularly deals around 100 for the same sort of thing at a decent quality level. That $250 polk audio one is super insanely nice and generally costs more than $500. Like, stomp the crap out of most bookshelf speakers or any sonos model nice.

On modern versions of macos you can stream any and all audio over airplay. It's too easy. Sonos is just a heap of proprietary stuff that, if you have a mac and access to airplay, is reinventing the wheel for no legitimate reason. Airplay is also lossless.(i believe sonos is too, but bluetooth and other wireless systems generally aren't).

The audioengines also aren't a bad suggestion, but the cool thing about an airplay speaker is that it only needs power. You can position it wherever you like and just use it without routing speaker cables/line in cable/etc. Nothing has to actually physically connect to the imac and it can more easily result in a clean setup.

It might also be worth it to browse through this and then see what you can turn up on craigslist/ebay/slickdeals when you're ready to buy.
posted by emptythought at 7:38 PM on July 3, 2015

Oh, and to be clear, i've had studio monitor setups and quite a few of those speakers. The good airplay/etc speaker boxes sound as good as any $300 or so monitor setup or anything like an audioengine. You can get a better system with a receiver and some bookshelf speakers, but it takes a lot more research and generally ends up costing a bit more to actually get good stuff. The only real way to beat the midrange soundboxes would be to buy a used vintage receiver and vintage speakers on craigslist or at a local hifi shop or something, and then you're dealing with that black hole of potential issues.
posted by emptythought at 7:39 PM on July 3, 2015

I have a pair of those Audioengine speakers and this Bluetooth receiver. I just switched from using AirPlay running through an Airport Express, and so far it's a *much* more pleasant experience: at least as good sound quality and *way* more reliable. AirPlay was constantly dropping and cutting out, and even when it worked properly there was a weird lag adjusting the volume on my laptop.
posted by asterix at 7:46 PM on July 3, 2015

Sonos has a lot going for it, and I strongly disagree with emptythought's assertion that it's "reinventing the wheel"; it is the best-in-class standalone streaming synchronized media player system and is a completely different animal from what AirPlay offers. That said, Sonos is not a computer speaker and if that's really what you want it would indeed be a waste of money. The AudioEngine stuff has been hyped a lot but I've heard a few of their products and found them to be pretty disappointing. Something like this PSB powered system would give you nice sound at around the price of a basic 2-channel Sonos system.

It would be good to have a rough idea of your budget and expectations, for some people "good sounding" means "better than this $35 battery-powered Bluetooth speaker I've been using" and for others it means something more like this.
posted by contraption at 8:18 PM on July 3, 2015

Response by poster: I should maybe be more clear. I'm not concerned as much with the easiest setup-- I'm looking instead for an optimally sounding setup. What is the way to get the peak sound out of that particular input? Is it DAC--> Receiver--> Bookshelf? Or is that all way overkill? Is there truly nothing lost in Airplay transmission? Bluetooth definitely sounds like a suboptimal plan. I basically would like to maximize the sound quality without completely overdoing it. No major budget limit, but I'm more interested in the general setup, rather than specific brands.

And in terms of expectations: right now I am using a cheap DAC and Audio Technica Ath-M50, which I've been happy with (except that I don't generally like using headphones), and my speaker set up is the Harmon Kardon Soundsticks II-- which are pretty, and not half bad, but also not mindblowing. I'm no crazy audiophile, but I do enjoy room filling, well balanced sound that is clean and clear.

Hope that helps! Thanks a ton for all of the input so far.
posted by quickasfoxes at 8:54 PM on July 3, 2015

Is it DAC--> Receiver--> Bookshelf?

Pretty much, yes. Exactly what speakers is a real rabbit hole, but in general, yeah, DAC to a receiver to some nice bookshelf speakers is going to give you some really superb audio quality.

Frankly wireless transmission sucks. It's convenient, and it certainly has it's proponents, but you definitely lose a lot. You'll be much happier with the wired bookshelf speakers.

I would say generally the place to put most of your money is in the actual speakers. The DAC is probably more important than the receiver, but most of your fidelity is going to be in your speakers.

Generally speaking, fidelity is preserved when you maximize voltage drops before you get to your actual speaker component (not power, so don't get too upset about watts, unless you have a big space to fill). You want high input impedance, low output impedance. Sometimes you'll see this as a 'damping factor' on the components. You want a lot of damping factor.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:01 PM on July 3, 2015

If I were you - I mean those AT M50's are great headphones. Just keep your cheap DAC for now, get even a decent thrift store receiver, and put a little money into some nice bookshelf speakers (nothing crazy, but something decent). See how that works. My guess is you'll probably be totally blown away. And then later on you can start tweaking your DAC and such if you really want to.
posted by Lutoslawski at 9:07 PM on July 3, 2015

You don't necessarily need a receiver if you plan to use the computer as the only source and you're going to pair it with a DAC. A nice amplifier or a set of good quality powered speakers like the PSBs I linked above (or, if you want to get a little fancier still, maybe some Genelecs) will do the job.
posted by contraption at 9:11 PM on July 3, 2015

I use studio monitors for my music listening and really like them. Mine are just cheap M-Audio ones but are way better than anything 'hi-fi' for the money.

Some people find them too accurate to listen to, as they're designed to be flat and responsive, which I enjoy but some don't. Definitely worth auditioning some, and the price range is huge. http://www.sweetwater.com/c405--Active_Monitors

Active ones have an amp built in, which is designed to work best with the speaker and the enclosure, but you'll need a way of getting the sound out of your computer. I'd recommend looking at recording soundcards instead of audiophile DACs as they'll be the same or better quality outputs, just with less marketing, so cheaper.
posted by chrispy108 at 2:11 AM on July 4, 2015

As others have said, DAC->Receiver->Bookshelf/Monitors(+Subwoofer, though you may not be into that for a work setup) is the best choice for sound quality. (On preview, I'm not sure that a soundcard will be an option with an iMac.)

This kind of setup, with decent components, will easily take you to a point that either your ears or the source files are the weak point in the system.

(For what it's worth, my work listening setup is an Schiit Modi DAC and Audioengine A5 powered speakers. It sounds nice.)
posted by box at 7:44 AM on July 4, 2015

My old (1993) office rig was a Proton Am-3 integrated amplifier driving a pair of Wharfedale bookshelf speakers with a subwoofer. Very, very clean sound. You can still find Proton amps second-hand, and they're nice.
posted by flabdablet at 9:00 AM on July 4, 2015

I picked up a Samson XP150 portable PA for $150 used. Not a particularly high-brow solution, but it sounds terrific.
posted by doctor tough love at 10:07 PM on July 4, 2015

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