5 ways to connect your computer to your stereo

Music playing on a computer

I spend most days at the office trying to come up with ways to get music onto your computer. I’ll try to sell you downloads and subscriptions, direct you to websites and encourage you to rip your CDs. Before I give you the hard sell on any of that, it’s only fair to tell you how to get that music out of your computer and into your stereo, so you can enjoy it at its best.

1) The 20¢ solution: Burn a CD

You can use iTunes, Windows Media Player or another jukebox application to create a CD from your downloaded music. This won’t help you with streaming music from ClassicsOnline.com or NaxosmusicLibrary.com, but it’s the best solution if almost all your music is on CD and you have a small number of downloads that you’d like to hear in your car or on your stereo. CD-Rs are cheaper in bulk – $7 /£5 or so for a pack of 50, but then if you’ve got fifty albums on your computer, it might be worth exploring some of the other options below.

Pros: Easy. Flexible. Inexpensive for a few CDs.
Cons: Your house or car quickly fills up with CDs. Doesn’t help with streaming sites.

2) The $5 solution: Buy a cable

The easiest way to connect your computer to your stereo is to use a cable. What kind, though?

You’re almost certainly looking for a 1/8 inch (3.5mm) to dual RCA cable. Hosa make a very affordable range of these in a variety of lengths, and they’re available at many large retailers, including Amazon in the US and UK.

Jack to Dual RCA

It’s possible to spend a lot of money on cables, but in my experience your effort is often better spent on carefully planning where you put them. Coils of excess wire act like antennas for interference, especially if they’re near power cables or transformers, so get a cable the right length. I use nylon cable ties to keep the audio cables away from the tangle of mains leads and power supplies that seem to be breeding in the space behind my computer.

If you’ve spent a fortune on your stereo and want a cable to match, there are many options out there. Just remember that the retail margins on these can be quite high, so once you’ve decided what you want, it’s worth shopping around for the best deal.

If, like me, you find yourself fumbling in the gloom behind your computer in search of the correct plughole, it may help to know that the one you want (the Line Out socket) is almost always green. If there’s a volume control back there, adjust it so your computer is as loud as the other inputs on your stereo.

Pros: Inexpensive, simple, reliable.
Cons: Either your computer has to be close to your stereo, or you need a very long cable.

3) The $20 solution: connect digitally

If you’ve got a sound card with a digital output and your hifi receiver or home cinema setup has a digital input, this is a great way to go. The quality of sound will depend upon the quality of your receiver. There are three common types of digital connector:

S/PDIF (coaxial): a single RCA plug, normally yellow
TOSLINK (optical): uses optical fibre to transmit the digitised music
HDMI: commonly used to for HD video, but also transmits digital audio

Receiver Connections

Most modern receivers have all three, but computers may have just one or none at all.

As a general rule, these connectors either work or they don’t, so the quality of the cable isn’t very important unless it’s more than about 20ft (7m) long. Be careful with optical cables: they’re great over long distances, but the good ones are made of glass fibres, and they can break if you bend them too tightly around corners. Prices change all the time, so shop around for bargains, and buy online: you can save up to 90% of the high street price.

Pros: High quality sound with no interference
Cons: Your computer and receiver must have compatible connectors.

4) The $99 option: Go Wireless

Perhaps you don’t want your computer in the same room as your stereo. Perhaps you use a laptop and don’t like to be tied down with cables. Either way, it’s time to go wireless. There are a number of options here, but I’m just going to tell you about two:

Airport Express

Apple make a device called the Airport Express. It’s a wireless router with an audio output and a USB socket, so you can connect it to your printer and your stereo. It will receive audio from iTunes, or you can purchase an application called Airfoil ($25), that will send all the sound from your computer to your stereo over your wireless network. It works with any wireless-compatible Mac or PC, and it costs $99. If everybody in your family keeps music on their own laptop, this is a great way to go. I’ve had several of these for years, and they’re great.

Pros: Also functions as wireless router and connects to printer.
Cons: Computers must have wifi. Doesn’t come with audio cable (see 1, above). Who wants their printer next to their stereo?

Audioengine W1

If your computer doesn’t support wifi, we suggest the Audioengine W1. You get two modules: a “Sender” that plugs into your computer’s USB port, and a “Receiver” that connects to your stereo. Unlike the Airport Express, this device creates its own wireless network. Your computer thinks it’s an external sound card. Your stereo thinks its just another input. Nobody needs to know that there aren’t any wires. I asked two people in our Nashville office to test this. The only thing they disagreed on was who got to take it home.

Pros: Simple to set up. Everything you need is in the box.
Cons: Only works with one computer.

5) The $150-$2,000 option: Go Audiophile

The law of diminishing returns is certainly hard at work in the world of computer audio, but there are still some very real gains to be made above the $150 price-point. The idea here is to bypass the digital-audio converter (DAC) in your computer (or receiver, if you’re using a digital cable) and use a standalone device to turn the bits into sound. It’s not cheap, but it gives you access to high quality circuitry that most computer users wouldn’t want or need, and allows you to play high definition files that a lot of computers can’t handle by themselves.

The headphone output on my laptop is ok, but it distorts when I plug in the really big Beyerdynamic headphones that I use to check new recordings. I use a DigiDesign MBox Micro 2 ($200), which plugs in the USB port and gives me a cleaner, more powerful headphone output. Now, if I hear a crackle or crunch, I know it’s on the record.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic

If you’re looking for a home system, Kirk McElhearn at Macworld has a lot of nice things to say about the Cambridge Audio DacMagic ($429). You can read his review here.

Audiophile Audition just reviewed a pair of similar (but much smaller) audio interfaces from High Resolution Technologies priced at $149.99 and $499.95. Really, though, if you’re going to spend that sort of money, you want to hear the thing in action before you buy.

Apogee Ensemble

In my office, I use an Apogee Ensemble ($1,995). This is a bit excessive for a home system, but its 8 inputs and outputs let me hear (and, if I want, record) anything up to 7.1 channel surround at sample rates up to 192khz. It’s the same technology used in making a lot of our records, so I have a fairly high degree of confidence in it. The ensemble only works with a Mac but Apogee also made a 2 channel converter compatible with both macs and PCs called the Mini DAC.

There are a few more expensive devices on the market, and you might like to try them, but this is where I hold up my hands and say “I can’t hear the difference any more”.

Ok. That’s enough from me. Now its your turn. How do you listen to your digital music?

Categories: AV Club

10 Comments

  • SigurdB says:

    I connect my PC to my amplifier with a coax S/P DIF.
    I use my computer’s CD-drive when I listen to audio CDs ( which is not optimal. I should rip my CDs but I dread the effort ).

    One fair day I’ll afford upgrading to a 5.1 system and probably a stand alone blue-ray drive.

    • Andy Doe says:

      If you really can’t face ripping all your CDs, there’s always the option to use NaxosRIp in the US or a company like i-fi in the UK to do it for you. I’m sure there are similar services in other countries too.

      Personally, I have thousands of CDs, many of which are box sets that I only keep in case I might, one day, want to listen to something off them. I have a rule that I’ll rip a CD the third time I listen to it. It saves a lot of time.

  • Mark Moore says:

    I use a USB unit from Behringer, the UCA202.

    It is excellent, it allows the connection of audio in and audio out using RCA cables, and headphones.

  • Chris Chelu says:

    Hi Andrew
    I use a Nikkai USB Wireless Audio Kit from Maplin (UK), £39.99. 50m range, or so it says.It has a USB dongle transmitter to a receiver the size of fag packet (20) which has twin RCA connectors into my tuner amp. Mostly used for catching up with radio programmes on-line like “The Archers” on the BBC i-player.

  • Jonathan Beebe says:

    I’ve taken the “5) The $150-$2,000 option: Go Audiophile” route (see Andy’s original post) and bought a Cambridge Audio NP30 Network Media Player which I like very much and which gives excellent reproduction quality. It includes an Internet Radio and it will also search and play media libraries from the Internet “on demand”, given a URL.

    However, I can’t get it to play Naxos.com for which I have subscription (before I got the NP30 I had been listening via the NaxosPlayer in Firefox7.0.1 on my laptop computer).

    Does anyone have any hints to offer on how to make this work – it may just need to be able to handle the Naxos subscriber log-in process. Or do I have to accept that Naxos.com won’t work with my media player?

    Thanks,
    Jonathan

  • Tom says:

    I would just go for the cheaper option myself, going the audiophile route is just overkill for something that could be done for very cheap. Although that Apogee Ensemble does look very neat indeedy.

  • St Clair Henry says:

    Hi i want to say thanks for the information but i got a problem i will need 50ft of cable can you help