The best, cheapest sound system possible
July 25, 2007 2:04 AM   Subscribe

AudioNoviceFilter: I need an audio setup for a dorm that sounds the best it can for the least amount of money.

I'm extremely green to the whole home audio thing, and need help/recommendations finding a setup that can take multiple inputs like a Turntable, CD player, and Cassette Deck (this means I need a receiver or a tuner, right?), and make them sound very good for not a lot of dough. A-la-Carte and package deals are both fine.
How much can I do this for and still get high quality?
ALSO, what would be the best way to hook up the aforementioned system to an iBook G4 (to play my itunes library)?
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew to Shopping (19 answers total)
You'll get marked improvements up to about $2k for your system -- after that, the improvements slow down a lot. 'The least possible money' isn't very useful, because there are many tradeoffs. An actual budget and an exact purpose will let us give you much more sensible answers.

A few basic questions: are you intending it just for yourself, or for guests? Do you want to just do music, or movies too? Do you want surround sound? How much space do you have?
posted by Malor at 3:41 AM on July 25, 2007

Also, how much you'd like to spend and the absolute max you're willing to spend will help a lot.
posted by Malor at 3:42 AM on July 25, 2007

Ditch the cassette deck, and provide some real budget numbers.
posted by pompomtom at 4:23 AM on July 25, 2007

To save some coin, buy used speakers and amplification equipment if you can. This stuff doesn't really wear out too fast, but avoid anything that is over ten years old or which has not been used in a few years unless you really know your stuff. For equipment in good condition the going rate is about 50 to 60% of the new price. Audiogon is a pretty good place to look, and of course there is always eBay.
posted by caddis at 4:51 AM on July 25, 2007

Is this a concrete-walled, foam-ceilinged dorm room? If so, you might want to wait until you have a better acoustic environment before getting new gear.
posted by tmcw at 5:40 AM on July 25, 2007

This is a very relative question. Are you looking for the stereo you're going to keeop forever or just one to power your dorm parties for the next few years? Also, what kind of music do you listen to? What volume do you want to be able to achieve?

For audio on the cheap, ebay can be a great place to shop, but you have to be careful. Audiogon is great for hi-end gear but is probably going to be somewhat pricey for the avarage college student not-on-a-trust-fund. The beauty of buying cheap stuff on ebay is it's disposable and you can afford to experiment. I bought my current Ohm speakers off ebay for $300 and liked them so much I upgraded to the new drivers after keeping them for 2 years.

I also totally agree with Malor, after a few thousand dollars you end spending a lot more to get that last nth percent of better sound.

To get reasonable sound out of your computer all you need is a 1/8 stereo to RCA cable to run to the reciever. To get really good sound, you'll need a USB or Firewire audio converter (M-Audio makes a lot of these).
posted by doctor_negative at 6:23 AM on July 25, 2007

For the price of "audiophile quality cables" you can get a whole 5.1 system from Creative. This is more than enough for a typical dorm. When you get a decent paycheck and a decent place to live, ditch it for a component system.
posted by damn dirty ape at 6:46 AM on July 25, 2007

I would be wary about investing any serious $$ in a set-up for a dorm room for several reasons:

1) As a student, presumably you have a limited budget. Even if you don't, you may not want to become known as the student who has $3000 worth of stereo equipment in his dorm room.

2) High end systems may invite the possibility of theft from a poorly secured dorm room (as most are).

3) You will likely be moving your stuff around on a yearly basis until you graduate.

So, with that in mind, I would recommend simply investing in a decent pair of powered speakers (say, $300 maybe) that you can plug directly into your ibook. Alternatively, you could buy an airport express, plug the speakers into that, and then stream wirelessly from your ibook (I do something similar with a Macbook and a proper receiver and speaker setup, and it's very convenient).

Yes, powered speakers are not going to be the best sounding things on the face of the earth, but are more than adequate for filling a dorm room with sound coming from compressed MP3s on your ibook.
posted by modernnomad at 7:00 AM on July 25, 2007

Vintage speakers.

Find a shop that specializes in old speakers (70's or 80's) or check ebay.

Check AudioKarma for reviews and info

buy said speakers and equipment.

Spend a little money on some new replacement capacitors and clean up the interior of the speakers.

Voila. Great soundsystem for less money.
posted by Lord_Pall at 7:18 AM on July 25, 2007

You can also amplify your money by 2x to 3x if you are willing to assemble speakers from a kit. Madisound has a good 106$ kit that sounds like a 300$ speaker.
posted by gmarceau at 7:38 AM on July 25, 2007

You can also save money buy building your own amp (probably NSFW despite being a link to a legitimate amplifier kit, the guy just likes to put pictures of his wife into the pages). Nevertheless, this NAD (great amps) is cheaper, more powerful and probably better suited to dorm life, although it won't sound quite as sweet.
posted by caddis at 8:03 AM on July 25, 2007

Some nice speakers to go with that NAD amp.
posted by caddis at 8:07 AM on July 25, 2007

Take the absolute maximum that you're willing to spend. Divide it in thirds. Spend 2/3rds of it on speakers (so, if you want just a regular 2-channel stereo system, which I recommend, spend 1/3rd on each speaker). Then spend the other third on a decent amp. The NAD ones are nice and sometimes turn up on eBay.

Personally I've had some bad experiences buying audio gear on eBay -- I've gotten crap with far more regularity than while buying another kind of stuff -- so be very careful.

Don't be hoodwinked by ridiculously-priced cables. Go down to Home Depot and buy yourself some 12-gauge/2-conductor extension cord cable, strip and tin the ends (some people like spade lugs on the ends, I don't), and enjoy "audiophile" speaker cables for a fraction of the price. (Seriously: there have been double-blind tests comparing cheap power cable to the most expensive, gold-plated, assembled by virgins under a harvest moon, brand-name stuff, and it's virtually the same.)

Keep the run between your computer and the amp relatively short, since it's unbalanced and prone to picking up hum, and enjoy.
posted by Kadin2048 at 9:44 AM on July 25, 2007

I've been happy with a powered speaker set from Monsoon for my PC. I used it in college for gaming and for most audio, since I run all of my music from either my computer or my ipod.
posted by craven_morhead at 9:45 AM on July 25, 2007

Without a price, all I've got is an example: I'd recommend a pair of good, active speakers. Tapco or KRK make 5" nearfield monitors for $300/pair. No amp required, you can hook your computer straight to it.

If you then decide you want more gear, pick up a cheap mixer and plug stuff into that until the cows come home. Total cost, ~$400, and it's infinitely expandable.
posted by Skorgu at 10:46 AM on July 25, 2007

Best answer: I will concur with some of the other posters mentioning the space you'll be living in, frequency of moving, etc. Dorm rooms have horrible acoustics. Although if you get creative, you can help it by putting stuff on the walls/ceilings. Not only that, you typically aren't able to listen to music at a loud level without surrounding dorm mates becoming upset at you - especially if you're on a middle floor and you have rooms all around.

I had a roommate in college who spent lots of money on stereo equipment that was way overpowered for the dorm room, and the condo we later lived in. It was great for parties - but then again, no one really cares about high-end sound quality when you're throwing a few back and hitting on the opposite sex. We just wanted it loud and thumping.

Personally, I'd rather go for a surround-type home theater system for around $300 dollars. I ended up buying a Sony setup for home on the cheap, and I'm glad I bought that instead of dropping $2000 on a really nice surround system. I can't tell the difference, anyway, and it works great - movies, parties, music, etc. I then had $1700 in my pocket to spend on other stuff...

Then if you head off to Torq DJ (by M-Audio) and pick up the X-Session Pro or the Xponent, you could now mix your iTunes library and become The-Esteemed-DJ-Bunsen-Honeydew for parties, and be the shit. Nothing kicks a college party up a notch like having a live DJ. In college, I'd take "being the shit" over having the crispest highs and lowest lows from a high-end system any day.
posted by JibberJabber at 11:44 AM on July 25, 2007

Response by poster: Yeah, I probably should have been clearer.
I'm not looking for the highest-end setup ever, and I'm basically just trying to get myself through college with decently good sound, for $500 or less. I realize I should wait until I have real income and a real, more permanent and more well built space to put it before I drop serious dough on a serious system.

I think i'll be looking into one of these $300-$400 home theater in a box-type systems. That should serve my budget and space pretty well.

Thanks, guys.
posted by The Esteemed Doctor Bunsen Honeydew at 1:57 PM on July 25, 2007

Onkyo HTIBs are pretty good tradeoffs for features, price, and sound quality. If you're going that route, grab an Onkyo and you should be happy.
posted by Malor at 9:12 PM on July 25, 2007

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