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Connecting 2.1 system to computer/mp3 efficiently

Last response: in Home Audio
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July 31, 2012 3:41:16 AM

Hey all. I'm going to be moving into an apartment this fall, and I'd love to upgrade from headphones to a decent-ish 2.1 sound system. I'll be using it primarily for music but some video, but I won't connect it to a TV. I'm willing to spend $300-$400 on the entire system, and I'd appreciate any recommendations on good bookshelf speakers or subwoofers that would fit in the overall price range since I'm not sure where to prioritize my budget. My major question is this: given that I'll only be connecting the speakers to my PC or MP3 players, what do I need beyond the speakers themselves to connect them to an audio jack? I know very little about speakers; I understand that I could get a receiver (something like the Sherwood RX-4503) to do the job, but it takes out a large chunk of my budget and I'm not sure if I need all of the features it offers. Is there a better setup I could use to free up more cash for the speakers?

tl;dr I'm building a 2.1 system from scratch, know very little about speakers, and I'm wondering the best way to get the best speakers hooked up to my computer/MP3 player.
July 31, 2012 7:31:49 AM

Xensity said:
Hey all. I'm going to be moving into an apartment this fall, and I'd love to upgrade from headphones to a decent-ish 2.1 sound system. I'll be using it primarily for music but some video, but I won't connect it to a TV. I'm willing to spend $300-$400 on the entire system, and I'd appreciate any recommendations on good bookshelf speakers or subwoofers that would fit in the overall price range since I'm not sure where to prioritize my budget. My major question is this: given that I'll only be connecting the speakers to my PC or MP3 players, what do I need beyond the speakers themselves to connect them to an audio jack? I know very little about speakers; I understand that I could get a receiver (something like the Sherwood RX-4503) to do the job, but it takes out a large chunk of my budget and I'm not sure if I need all of the features it offers. Is there a better setup I could use to free up more cash for the speakers?

tl;dr I'm building a 2.1 system from scratch, know very little about speakers, and I'm wondering the best way to get the best speakers hooked up to my computer/MP3 player.


You ought to skip a receiver and look at powered speakers (self-amplified), the type used in recording studios. I wouldn't bother with a subwoofer on your budget, just go for a speaker with decent bass extension. Maybe you can save up for a subwoofer additionally and get one later if you really crave deep bass, but you don't really have room in your budget for a subwoofer that will sound good or go deep. Here are some decent bookshelf speakers that out to have good bass due to the larger sized woofers. Be aware that they are all pretty large bookshelf speaker because of this, but you can't have good bass without a large enclosure.

http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/B1031A/
http://www.sweetwater.com/store/detail/B2031A/
http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/816176-REG/M_Audi...
http://www.bhphotovideo.com/c/product/222306-REG/Alesis...

These are not the only good active monitors in your price range, but that ought to get you an idea of the kind of setup that I am talking about.
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July 31, 2012 11:11:46 AM

Thanks for the advice! The speakers got great reviews and seem much easier to set up than anything else I've looked at. Are there any disadvantages to self-powered speakers, beyond being unable to control their power intake with an amp? I'd also like to be able to use these to blast music through two small-ish rooms of people. Are these be able to handle loud volumes? I noticed a few warnings about blowing them out on Amazon.
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July 31, 2012 2:29:28 PM

Yes, you can destroy them if you crank them hard enough. Studio monitors can get pretty loud but they are designed for critical near-field listening, they are meant for quality, not quantity. If you are interested in blasting your speakers without destroying them, you will need high sensitivity speakers or maybe something with compression drivers. That will be tough to get on your budget. You might try looking through ebay and craigslist for used Klipsch Heresy speakers, sometimes you can get those for less than 400, and your ears will break long before they do. Basically look for any used Klipsch speaker, older and larger ones especially, they are very robust but they will still sound clean and great. If you really want to go nuts, get some live sound speakers like these things:

http://www.zzounds.com/cat--Main-PA-Speakers--2733

They are very large but they will get extremely loud, some of them get louder than 130 db at 1m, that is permanent-hearing-loss-within-moments-territory. Live sound speakers are sheer, hardcore SPL producers, although they may not have the most refined sound.
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July 31, 2012 3:17:10 PM

With your needs

1. BIC F12 12" sub $200 if new
2. Used older coax/optical AVR $40-60 Craiglist, audio forums, etc
3. Efficient bookshelf speakers (new or used)

There will be no over heating issues, balancing issue and you can run low volume (nearfield) or turn them up w/o worrying

Also
http://www.avsforum.com/f/
look into the 2-channel, subs and amps subforums for a rich source of info, tips , etc ^^
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July 31, 2012 4:01:02 PM

@shadyj I'm definitely not going for permanent hearing loss, nor to share my music with my entire block, I was mainly just checking that I could crank them up to a reasonable volume without damaging them. Given my inexperience with audio equipment, I'd prefer my first setup to be largely idiot-proof. I'll definitely check for any Heresy speakers at a low price and do some more research on self-powered speakers.

@batuchka Your suggestions were along the lines of what I was initially imagining. I'm just not sure what setup I should use to hook up the bookshelf/subwoofer to my computer--an amp, pre-amp, cables, DAC, or just a receiver--and how cheap I could get them without sacrificing too much quality. The AVS forum looks very useful though, I'll check it out later today. Thanks for the tip!
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July 31, 2012 7:44:39 PM

With less than a big budget i would really channel the majority to the speakers/sub and one could just skip the soundcard and feed coax/optical if your mobo has those ^^ The DAC duties are passed to the receiver - yep u are welcomed ^^
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July 31, 2012 9:03:53 PM

I really appreciate your advice, but I'm so unknowledgeable about this stuff that I'm not sure how to implement what you're suggesting. Do I actually need a receiver? Even the cheapest 2.1 receivers I can find run at over $100, which hits my budget pretty hard. What exactly would a setup without a receiver look like? Can I somehow connect an amp directly to an mp3 player?
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July 31, 2012 10:31:31 PM

That's why I would say just get powered speakers. More of your money is placed into the components that make a speaker decent: the drivers, the cabinet, the crossover and amp. But when you buy a receiver or AVR, you disperse your budget into stuff that won't do anything to help the overall sound, and you are already working on a tight budget to begin with. You can get a receiver, some bookshelf speakers, and a sub for 400, hell you can get an entire 7.1 setup for 400, but the more you spread out your money, the worse the sound gets. A $400 5.1 system is generally pretty bad unless you got an amazing deal on a used system.
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August 1, 2012 4:53:41 AM

Yep, that advice makes a lot of sense and I'm now seriously considering going with powered speakers, and maybe upping my budget to $500. But just for my own information/decision making, what's the minimum amount of equipment I would need to hook up a standard 2.1 system with unpowered bookshelf speakers to be able to play out of an mp3 player? I'm just not sure what type of connections I could run out of an amp, how well it would work, or how much it would cost.
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August 1, 2012 6:46:55 AM

Xensity said:
Yep, that advice makes a lot of sense and I'm now seriously considering going with powered speakers, and maybe upping my budget to $500. But just for my own information/decision making, what's the minimum amount of equipment I would need to hook up a standard 2.1 system with unpowered bookshelf speakers to be able to play out of an mp3 player? I'm just not sure what type of connections I could run out of an amp, how well it would work, or how much it would cost.


For a 2.1 setup, technically speaking, you would need a pre-amp, and amplifier, two speakers, and a subwoofer.

But realistically speaking, you would get a receiver with an amp built in, instead of a separate amp and pre-amp. Alsmost all receivers now have built in amplifiers. If you wanted to go down that road, you would do best to get a used AVR with a digital input that matches that of your mp3 player or computer or whatever your source is, assuming it has a digital audio output. One thing I can heartily recommend if you go that way is to look at the Infinity Primus P363 tower speakers:

http://www.amazon.com/Infinity-Primus-P363-Three-way-Fl...

Those things are amazing for the price, and they will get loud. Since they have OK bass, you won't miss the subwoofer as much. Get yourself a used AVR for $100, and the Infinities, and you have a pretty swell setup for $500. If you can't accommodate floor-standing speakers, you might check these out:

http://www.hsuresearch.com/products/hb-1.html

They have pretty good bass for inexpensive bookshelf speakers, and they have no problems staying clean at loud levels.

What kind of AVR or receiver you should get depends on what type of audio output your source (mp3 player, computer, CD player, etc) has available. Let me know what kind of audio output jacks your source has and I can tell you what kind of receiver to look for more specifically. I can also give you links to the types of cables you will need.
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August 1, 2012 2:51:04 PM

Thanks so much, you've been very helpful and provided a lot of really useful information. Ideally the receiver would be able to connect to a standard audio (headphone) jack, the kind found on ipods, androids, etc. I'd like for visitors to be able to plug-and-play their music as easily as possible. The cheapest AVR I could find that seemed to suit my needs was the Sherwood RX-4503, but if anything else would work better that would be great. You also mentioned accommodating floor-standing speakers--other than the floorspace they take up, are there any reasons they wouldn't work well for a certain setup? And how much clear space around the speakers would I need to make for them to sound good?
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August 1, 2012 4:07:40 PM

Xensity said:
Thanks so much, you've been very helpful and provided a lot of really useful information. Ideally the receiver would be able to connect to a standard audio (headphone) jack, the kind found on ipods, androids, etc. I'd like for visitors to be able to plug-and-play their music as easily as possible. The cheapest AVR I could find that seemed to suit my needs was the Sherwood RX-4503, but if anything else would work better that would be great. You also mentioned accommodating floor-standing speakers--other than the floorspace they take up, are there any reasons they wouldn't work well for a certain setup? And how much clear space around the speakers would I need to make for them to sound good?


There is no reason why floor standers wouldn't sound as good as bookshelfs (well, there technically is one called cabinet resonance, but that isn't an issue here). In fact, towers would be better if you are going without a sub for the time being, they will have deeper bass extension.

Speakers like as much stand-off distance from nearby surfaces as you can give, this reduces the amount of acoustic reflection that you hear. With well engineered speakers (that have a good off-axis frequency response), this won't be as big of a deal, and the Infinity speakers are very well engineered. The company that makes them is widely regarded to have one of the best speaker R&D facilities in the world, and this is one reason why they can make such a good speaker at such a low price. Btw, if you live near a Fry's, they have been known to go on sale for as low as $100 each. To answer your question, give them some space at least, but don't let them inconvenience you, they will sound good either way. Experimenting with placement if you can, you can be rewarded with a more pleasing sound in the end.
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August 1, 2012 4:45:06 PM

Great! Those speakers sound awesome, I'll definitely look out for them at nearby stores, hopefully a sale may come my way. Does that Sherwood receiver seem to have everything I'd need to hook them up the way I'm describing (to a universal audio jack for standard headphones and stuff), or are there any better ones? And if sometime in the future I decide to upgrade my system, would adding a subwoofer (like the BIC F12 12" previously mentioned) significantly improve the sound?
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August 1, 2012 7:13:43 PM

That receiver will work, but here is an equally priced one that will work much better:
http://www.accessories4less.com/make-a-store/item/ONKTX...

The above one has digital inputs, that way you could hook up your computer to your receiver for a much more clean sound than the analogue jacks. Like I said, there are plenty of cheap used ones on ebay and craigslist, and surround sound receivers will work just as well, even for a stereo setup. Btw, if you really don't have a use for digital inputs and you happen to live in the Northwest Chicago suburbs, I have an old Kenwood receiver which I don't use that I would let go for a small sum, say $30 or so. Some of the features on it don't work, I lost the remote, and it has no digital inputs, but the inputs, channels, and amplifier work just fine and it will give you a true 120 watts per channel which is twice as powerful as that Onkyo. It would make those Infinities blaze with no problem.

As for the subwoofer, the BIC 12" would help, it is one of the better budget subs, but, depending on your tastes, I would encourage you to save for a better sub. My favorite subs start at around $600 shipped, but I am a real bass head, and what only begins to be acceptable bass for me is what most people would regard as overkill, so my opinion in this matter could be a bit skewed. Also, the subs I like might not be appropriate for you if you are living in a apartment or townhouse or something like that. So, in my opinion, yes, a BIC 12" would help, but I don't think it would be a huge help with those particular speakers, but a good subwoofer really would improve the sound bigtime.
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