Home Audio question
September 28, 2007 9:18 PM   Subscribe

Help me with a home audio dilemma...

I want to update a sound system I currently have, wherein a ten year old Onkyo receiver is driving two separate pairs of speakers, and is hooked up to my iMac. What I'm after:

A decent receiver that will handle two pairs of speakers (one outside, one in) that sometimes run simultaneously, others not. And more importantly, the cleanest, best way to run my iTunes output to the receiver.

posted by docpops to Technology (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
So far as I know, the best inexpensive amp that can drive A/B speakers is the NAD C372. I use their C325BEE to drive a pair of B&W 300s and it's fantastic.

Your iMac presumably has WiFi, so you could just plug the amp into an Airport Express.
posted by nicwolff at 9:45 PM on September 28, 2007

Um, you didn't mention a price range; the C372 is $900 or so which for its quality is cheap.
posted by nicwolff at 9:47 PM on September 28, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks - I should have said that the receiver is close to the computer. What I was wondering is if there is a cable especially designed for the connection from the computer to the receiver. What I have now is a cheap mess from Radio Shack.

Nic - funny you mentioned the B and W's, as that's what I'm getting (the X2's).
posted by docpops at 10:11 PM on September 28, 2007

If the idea is just to run iTunes, use an Airport Express. It shows up automatically in a dropdown list in iTunes... you can choose either iMac output or AE output. The AE sends stereo via either analog cables or optical S/PDIF.

From there, the problem becomes just a receiver with an optical input that will drive A+B speakers simultaneously. If the signal is always the same to both sets, then it's very easy... just use a newer Onkyo (or even the one you have) and switch it between stereo and multichannel sound expansion mode.

If you want different signals on different speakers, it becomes much more complex.
posted by Malor at 10:17 PM on September 28, 2007

To be clearer about how that would work -- because the Airport and the Mac both have wireless, you can separate the receiver from the computer entirely. Just plug the AE into the wall, configure it, and run an optical cable to the stereo. Voila, you're done with the computer part of the problem.
posted by Malor at 10:21 PM on September 28, 2007

Response by poster: Malor - can you explain what you mean by "iMac or AE output"? I run some JBL compact speakers in my kitchen on an Airport, so I understand about seeing the drop down menu on iTunes.

It sounds like you are recommending NOT connecting my receiver directly via the headphone port on the back, but rather hooking an optical cable up between an AE and the receiver (as long as it has an optical input), then running another Airport off of the iMac.

Is that right?
posted by docpops at 10:27 PM on September 28, 2007

Response by poster: sorry - did not check preview. But I'm still confused about the first comment re:iMac or AE output.

posted by docpops at 10:28 PM on September 28, 2007

Best answer: Well, I had forgotten that the iMacs have an optical port, so I was figuring to solve two problems at once... get you optimal sound for your setup, and also let you separate the receiver from the iMac.

But if separation isn't a goal, you have an optical port, so you could just run a $15 fiber from the computer to the receiver. Receiver DACs are almost always better than computer DACs, so you'll get the best sound that way. Generally, most receivers redigitize the sound anyway, so you're going digital to analog to digital to analog -- it's better to just send it in digital form and let the receiver do its mojo directly, and then convert to analog only once.

Another nice thing: the internal soundcards on the Mac don't mangulate the sound -- you can get bitperfect sound reproduction via S/PDIF without effort. (This is annoyingly difficult in Windows.)

You could also just run the analog cables, from either source (iMac or AE) if you wanted... that would be cheaper, but then you get the accumulated error of four conversions, instead of just one, and it will never sound better than the poorest-quality DACs in the chain. I haven't really listened to the DACs in the Mac, they may be just fine... I'm just reflexively avoiding them because most Windows soundcards are so terrible.

If you do go for the AE, you have the iTunes dropdown for which set of speakers to send the sound to. You can either play iTunes sound locally (on the computer) or remotely (on any Airport Express unit it detects). The dropdown box just chooses where the sound will go when you hit play.

I don't think you can play to more than one AE at the same time. If you want to get into that, you'd probably want something like the Squeezeboxes.
posted by Malor at 11:11 PM on September 28, 2007

I don't think you can play to more than one AE at the same time.

You can in iTunes, and also for other apps and system audio with a shareware program called Airfoil. Sync is perfect with iTunes and a little wonky with Airfoil.
posted by trevyn at 11:16 PM on September 28, 2007

Excellent, they must have added it after I switched to Squeezeboxes.
posted by Malor at 11:35 PM on September 28, 2007

I have a very similar setup to [b]nicwolff[/b]'s, except I use Acoustic Energy Evo-1 speakers, which I love.

The NAD components are very, very impressive at their price-range. I haven't heard comparably-priced CD players or amps that can match them.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 12:13 AM on September 29, 2007

I run iTunes into an m-Audio Firewire Solo into a NAD C372 into a pair of Ohm Walsh 2s. It sounds wonderful. I got the NAD from Spearit Sound as a refurb for $699. I've had it a couple years now, with no problems.
posted by doctor_negative at 12:58 AM on September 29, 2007

Response by poster: Thanks all. I can't wait to get going.
posted by docpops at 6:25 AM on September 29, 2007

docpops, why exactly are you trying to upgrade? What specific thing isn't as good as you want? I'm concerned we may not be solving the right problem. :)
posted by Malor at 7:50 AM on September 29, 2007

I have used a cheap mess from Radio shack for years. Basically you have to get from mini-phones out to the dual RCA in of the receiver, I'm guessing.

The best thing I ever did for my Mac audio is put a Griffin iMic (a USB audio output device) in between the Mac and the receiver. For whatever reason the Mac's audio line out is inherently noisy, way way noisier than the Griffin's output. If you are troubled with hum or RFI in your Mac's output spend the $40, get an iMic and fix the problem.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:22 PM on September 29, 2007

Obviously the S/PDIF is better than the above solution but I'm skeptical that your 10 year old receiver has an input for it.
posted by ikkyu2 at 1:24 PM on September 29, 2007

Roku is half the price of squeezebox.
posted by popechunk at 4:22 PM on September 29, 2007

Response by poster: malor - I'm mostly just screwing around because I can, I suppose. I really, really like running music through iTunes, and just happened to consider that maybe for a modest investment I could tune things up a bit, esp. as my original set-up was borne more out of an impulse trip to Radio Shack when I first realized I could use a Windows/HP sound card to run music. And I have the same Onkyo receiver I bought in college. Plus my old Boston Acoustic speakers look boxy and ugly and ms. docpops wants things looking spiffier in the LR/DR. So it does address the question. I am going to get a Belkin optical cable and a better receiver and likely purchase the b and w's. I'm hardly and audiophile, but I'm enough of a geek with enough disposable income for the occasional indulgence. And I suspect ikkyu2 is right about the output noise.
posted by docpops at 8:49 PM on September 29, 2007

Response by poster: sorry - ikkyu2, you are of course correct regarding the optical input. I am for sure going to have to go out and get something right impressive.
posted by docpops at 8:51 PM on September 29, 2007

Onkyo receivers are still very good.... if you picked up one of their HTIBs, you would probably be very happy. You'll be happier still if you go and shop for speakers carefully, because everyone hears differently, but if you just want a plug-and-go, an Onkyo HTIB should serve you well. Their speakers don't look as good as some solutions, but they sound excellent.

And yes, popechunk, the Rokus are cheaper, but they do nasty stuff like forced 48khz resamples in hardware. When the Roku people were quizzed about this misfeature in their 101 player, they didn't even understand why it was bad. A Roku is a computer soundcard in disguise, with the typical crap reproduction of those devices.

A Squeezebox, on the other hand, does effortless bitperfect, standing toe to toe with $1500 CD players. It has amazingly low jitter, if you think that's important (I personally don't), high quality DACs, and will comfortably drive a very expensive stereo stack. The DACs are older Burr-Browns, not even very pricey anymore, but they sound excellent.

All this is pretty irrelevant to docpops, though, who wouldn't want one.

docpops: If you end up wanting an outboard player, stick with the Airport Express. Since they do synchronized and gapless playback these days, they're a fine solution, if for some reason the optical cable from the Mac won't cut it for you anymore.
posted by Malor at 11:21 PM on September 29, 2007

Oh, one more thing: you might have an optical port on your existing receiver. I'm pretty sure that was invented in the late 80s, so if you bought ten years ago, the spec would have been over ten years old and probably affordable by then. Don't know what your budget range was, but take a look: you might get lucky.

DACs have improved a lot over the last ten years, though, so replacing the receiver probably wouldn't be a bad idea anyway.
posted by Malor at 11:29 PM on September 29, 2007

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