How can I upgrade my home sound system & radio to a 21st century solution, without breaking the budget?
March 12, 2008 4:27 PM   Subscribe

How can I upgrade my home sound system & radio to a 21st century solution, without breaking the budget? I have CDs and an old boom box that plays CDs & analog radio. What's the best system to upgrade to for the next 5-10 years?

The situation is that I have a couple hundred CDs that I could rip, but no easy way (in the living room) to play them, without bringing out a laptop with tinny speakers.

I want something that will sit permanently in the living room, taking the place of the boombox, which can...

- play the mp3s with nice sound quality
- play the local (analog) radio with good reception
- ideally have a good user interface for both of the above
- optionally play actual CDs

Possible solutions -

- The Bose GSX seems to do all of the above, but it's $1,500. Anyone have a thumbs-up or thumbs-down on this?

- I guess I could also piece together an iMac with some nice speakers and just have an iMac do everything - except local analog radio, though I could just play the stations' iTunes streams, I guess. Though this would be about the same cost as the Bose above, it would also give me other functionality (Web browsing etc.).

- Any other solutions I've missed but should consider?

Thanks for any help, Metafilter community!
posted by mark7570 to Technology (13 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
Before you buy any Bose products, read this.
posted by wfrgms at 4:35 PM on March 12, 2008

Get a decent receiver, a decent set of stereo speakers, and a cd player. For the mp3 functionality, use a headphone jack --> RCA input adapter to get sound from your laptop to the receiver. There are probably better solutions for that part, someone else will hopefully chime in.
posted by entropic at 4:48 PM on March 12, 2008

I'd consider going with an Airport Express to stream mp3s wirelessly to a stereo receiver. It should remain a workable solution with whatever computer you're using as you upgrade over time, and if you're already using iTunes, it's a pretty seamless transition.

As for the actual stereo components, figure out what your budget is, and then spend ~80% of it on speakers and ~20% of it on a receiver.

Bose is generally considered overpriced. If you look around here, you'll see endless advice on speakers and stereo components.
posted by mr_roboto at 5:07 PM on March 12, 2008

- play the mp3s with nice sound quality

this may be a bit of a contradiction. Before riping your whole collection as mp3 (and especially if you want high quality), you should read this.

I agree with Bose being overpriced.
posted by ddaavviidd at 5:42 PM on March 12, 2008

Back to add a few more thoughts...

Streaming MP3s to your stereo via devices like the Airport Express or something like the Roku Soundbridge seems to be gaining in popularity. These sorts of devices allow you to get your music to your stereo wirelessly without having to have a computer plugged directly into your stereo. However, you do still need a computer located within wi-fi range (perhaps connected to your wi-fi router) to house your MP3 collection.

There are slick products out there which roll storage and playback all in one, but if you're on a budget, have a dedicated computer which can rip and house your music library then something like the Soundbridge may be a good option. I love mine.

A few other thoughts: a pawn shop receiver will probably work great for stereo sound. I'd splurge a little on speakers. I have a pair of Klipsch bookshelf speakers that I love which I bought from the Klipsch store on eBay. They were refurbs and I got them for about half price. Wonderful speakers, but then again I'm a dedicated Klipsch fan so I'm biased.
posted by wfrgms at 8:05 PM on March 12, 2008

These are great comments, thanks.

One other question - what about the Sonos music system, which sends the tunes wirelessly around the house and has what appears to be an OK handheld interface? Any opinions/experiences with it?
posted by mark7570 at 8:12 PM on March 12, 2008

The Sonos looks cool if you've got $1000 to drop. That's not expensive at all compared to some of the systems that are out there. I figure I've got just less than that in my speakers and receiver plus all the in between bits involved in getting my music across the network.
posted by wfrgms at 9:49 PM on March 12, 2008

spend ~80% of it on speakers and ~20% of it on a receiver.

I would encourage you to spend only slightly more on speakers than you spend on an amplifier. Don't bother spending $800 on speakers only to drive them with a $200 amp. If you spend more than twice as much on the speakers compared to the amp, you'll be paying for a lot of performance potential that you can't realize.

You weren't specific about your budget. If less than $500 would be ideal, I would highly recommend buying vintage equipment. Anything from about 1970-1975 (give or take) made by Pioneer, Marantz or Kenwood and still in good condition will sound vastly better than anything sold at Best Buy. It won't have a remote, but you can still plug in the AirPort Express to the Auxiliary input.

Don't be fooled by watts. A Kenwood from 1970 rated at 80w can produce the type of bass you feel in your gut. The 500w system that sells for $200 may play loud, but it won't feel powerful.

If you're thinking more in the $1500 range, you could get some used high-end gear that would trounce the linked Bose system. has a lot of great used gear.
posted by reeddavid at 10:02 PM on March 12, 2008

Two thoughts from a guy with enough pro audio experience to know:

#1: mp3s... Any time you convert audio from one form to another there is a loss of sound quality in some form. If you keep the bit-rate high enough, you won't hear the difference, but most people set the bit rate low to make the files as small as possible. The real tragedy of mp3s is that most people set it to 128 bits and forget it. They then build a huge library of music that will sound tinny when they upgrade to better speakers. As you get better equipment and begin to experience better sound quality, your mp3s will never sound as good as a CD if they're converted at a lower bit rate, so DON'T DO IT. On crappy speakers you won't hear the difference, but on good speakers you will.

My advice: Always rip at 320 bit mp3s even if you think it's overkill. Someday, you'll no longer own that Wilco CD and you'll be glad you ripped it at such a high bitrate. Even better - rip CDs to AAC (which is more or less a fancy name for what should have been called mp4. AAC files are given either a .m4a or .m4p extension. m4a is an unprotected file you can burn or share, etc. m4p is a protected version you can only burn a few times thanks to so-called Digital Rights Management encryption). Blah blah. Long story short, AAC files sound slightly better than mp3s and they take up slightly less hard drive space. I rip everything at 320 bit AAC.

#2: Finding speakers that sound 'good' can be a nightmare because the same speakers will sound different in different spaces. For example, if you hear them in a huge store, they'll sound totally different in your small bedroom. I have a pair of speakers called Alesis Monitor One's. They sound awesome in my loft, placed a foot away from a concrete wall... but in my previous apartment, they sounded awful.

Sadly, the only way to really find the right speakers is to hear them. Do research within your budget and narrow down the list of speakers you're interested in. Read reviews! Take notes! Then, find a local shop that specializes in stereo equipment and bring your favorite well produced CD to use as a reference. Pink Floyd, Dark Side... U2, Achtung... Etc. Something complex and well done, and something you know well. On better speakers, you'll hear things in the music you've never heard before. And since you're bringing music you know really well, you can be the judge of how much better something you know does or doesn't sound in comparison.

When you buy speakers, do so knowing you may have to return them because it all comes down to how they sound in your home. I knew a guy who bought five different pair of speakers knowing he'd be returning four of them after testing everything in his house.

By the way, my favorite speakers are made by a company called Genelec. Mine are called 1029a but have been discontinued (probably replaced by a newer model). They're small but heavy as lead and sound superb (they're actually intended for recording studio work). I bought them eight years ago and absolutely love them. I have them in my living room, connected to a receiver with Apple's Airport Express streaming music to them from my Mac.

Best of luck!!!
posted by 2oh1 at 10:23 PM on March 12, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm going to offer the same advice I always do in these threads: rip your CDs to FLAC or another lossless format. Keep a backup in that format. Then you can just convert that to MP3s or OGGs (or any future format) of any bitrate you feel like with just an expense of CPU time, and without having to insert your CDs one at a time again.

I got what you want with a pair of decent speakers, a slightly out of date Onkyo receiver, and a modded Xbox (not just modchipped, but with the fan replaced by a quieter 80mm fan) running XBMC (this solution is wired: the XBox needs to be physically attached to my router.)

You don't need much computing power for this purpose, and it's fairly cheap to build a weak HTPC, but probably not worth it unless you actually enjoy building computers for its own sake.
posted by Zed_Lopez at 8:34 AM on March 13, 2008

My solution was decidedly more low tech in terms of audiophilia but I went with a mod chipped used xbox classic, wireless adapter and a good set of speakers. In return I get a dvd player, video player, audio player, and limited internet device. I can stream music from any computer on the network. The video doesn't quite work streaming over wireless - too much lag but I just ftp to the xbox hard drive. Plus the xbox is good for gaming and when modded you can play any earlier platform via emulators.

The pros: It is pretty much a universal media machine. It was cheap. Less than 100 quid.

The downsides: Energy consumption is high and the fan is a bit loud (though you can replace the fan - I just haven't gotten around to it yet). No radio other than internet radio.
posted by srboisvert at 12:53 PM on March 13, 2008

I must plug the SqueezeCenter and Squeezebox (formerly SlimServer) now owned by Logitech. The Squeezebox is $300, it is connected to your home stereo and streams music from a server computer. The software is free and open source, and is being continually improved by an active community. You can download the software and try it out with the included Squeezebox emulatorThe sound quality is very good. Best tech purchase I've made in years, allowing me to rediscover my music collection. I watch much less TV.

When you rip, rip to a lossless format like FLAC. Why spend a lot of effort to degrade the sound quality of your collection? Data storage is cheap and getting cheaper.
posted by bephillips at 9:15 AM on March 14, 2008

2oh1's advice is sound, but a little dated. Since hard drive storage is so incredible cheap there is really no reason not to rip to FLAC. Indeed, for the very reason 2oh1 points out that you should rip to 320kbs, you should rip to FLAC. Just make sure whichever player you invest in will support it.

Ripping CDs is increasingly not about saving space, but about converting your music to a more usable form.

FLAC vs. MP3

Ripping to FLAC

I'm a former Exact Audio Copy to 320kps MP3 ripper. I now use EAC to rip everything to FLAC.
posted by wfrgms at 12:01 AM on March 16, 2008

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