Recommendations for a PC-based sound system - on a budget for a 13x14ft room.

mebassett

Standard Member
Hello AVForumers! I need your wisdom to improve my sound system for music and movies from my PC.

The past several years I've been in uni living in tiny rooms, and I've used my computer (onboard sound card) + logitech Z 4 speakers. Now that I'm a bit more grownup, I'd like a bit more grownup sound system. I don't want to spend more than 300gbp.

I mostly just listen to music (occasionally a bit loud - dance parties with myself) but occasionally for films, too. I also play bass guitar: I have an active bass and I route it directly into my PC speaker [at low volumes!]. I really don't want to mess with a 5.1 system - too many wires, and I don't think it'd be that great for just music (or am I wrong?)

onboard soundcard + PC speakers sound like tolerable crap, and I suspect that I should use a decent sound card + amplifier + real speakers. (or maybe I'm wrong, maybe there is a decent sound card + 2.1 PC speaker combo out there?) So I'm looking at various solutions.

Unfortunately, I know very little about sound systems. There's all sorts of specs I don't understand - amplifier power output, amp. frequency response, amp. max. power consumption, speaker sensitivity, speaker freq. response, speaker nominal imedance, tweeters, woofers. What do they all mean? Can you suggest a good guide? What specs should I look for? How much should the amp specs and speaker specs match up?

Some solutions I've found

1) all-in-one solution by Onkyo: Onkyo HTX22HDX Black | 2.1 Package System inc. Speakers excluding DVD Player | Richer Sounds

2) Speakers: Cambridge Audio S70 Black | Speakers Per Pair | Richer Sounds (perhaps something less pricey) and amp: http://www.richersounds.com/product.../cambridge-audio/topaz-am1/camb-topaz-am1-blk
(though the cambridge audio website suggests the power output for that amp is 20watts, while the speakers want 120watts - is this something I should worry about? does this mean it can't get too loud?)

Has anyone used these components before? How are they working out?
If I go the "speakers + amp" route, is a subwoofer necessary? Subwoofer's are pretty pricey, but they're quite ubiquitous with PC speakers [my Z4's have one].

Can you help a clueless potential audiophile find a sweet-sounding, occasionally loud system for his computer without breaking the bank?

Thanks in advance!

meb.
 

MaturityDodger

Well-known Member
Hi Meb, welcome to the forums.

It sounds like you've thought of most of the major considerations already, so here's my take on your options...

Firstly, I'd definitely agree with your decision of 2.1/2.0 instead of 5.1. You won't get anything worthwhile in 5.1 within your budget.

And your source. You suggest a new sound card. I think that you could be better off getting an external DAC. Does your current onboard sound card have optical/coaxial output? If not then you could get a USB DAC. This will get better audio results, and chosen carefully could be cheaper.

Then the question of whether you need a sub. You're right, PC speakers of a certain price range nearly always come with a sub. This is because the two speakers are crap. An amp and speakers (or a pair of active speakers) will be much closer to full-range so the need for a sub isn't as great. The figure typically quoted as the lower end of musical frequencies is 20Hz. Bookshelf speakers might go down to 50Hz, floorstanders quite a bit lower. You'd be lucky to get below 100Hz from small PC speakers if you take the sub away.
So you'd be ok without a sub, but could always add one later if you want. I'd certainly say to exclude it now, given your £300 budget.

And finally, your bass guitar. I'm not going to advise you to play that through whatever you end up buying. Electronic instruments have a very different frequency profile to full-range music. If you use an amp's full power to amplify a bass guitar into some regular 2-way speakers, then all of that power ends up in one driver, rather than being shared as usual. You really want to get a bass amp for that, or headphones as a temporary solution while you save up some funds.


Right, onto buying choices.
I think that by far the most effective way for you to spend your money is to go second-hand. Would you be happy with that? The classifieds on this forum tend to trade at a fair price for both parties and users are pretty trustworthy. Or you could get a bargain on eBay.

You have two choices for the speakers - hi-fi amp and speakers, or active speakers.
Active speakers at your budget tend to be designed as nearfield monitors. As you want yours to fill a 13'x14' room, then this isn't really right for you. So I'm saying stereo amp and speakers.
The same goes for anything that calls itself a PC sound system, or PC speakers etc - it'll be designed for nearfield listening.
Another benefit is that they're far more common, so would come up second-hand more often.

And as mentioned before, I suggest a DAC as your source, not a sound card.

I'll not go into actual model suggestions until I've got some feedback from you on the above. Am I going in the right direction for you?
 
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davepuma

Distinguished Member
I would definitely look at upgrading the sound card to a decent one. There are a few audiophile PC forums on the net that would be better placed to suggest something. Those guys are obviously chasing perfection using external DACs etc.

Alternatively, if you have a wireless/wired network what about a streaming solution? You would still need the PC to be on but rather than fitting expensive sound cards, you would simply stream wirelessly to a music streaming device.

I would seek out a second hand Squeezebox 3 (wireless version) then buy a stereo amp and bookshelf speakers. There is nothing wrong with second hand. You will certainly get a lot more bang for your buck and these things tend to be looked after. I might be tempted to go for new speakers though. I have always found Tannoy Mercury e.g. V1 to be both excellent sounding and excellent value for money. Other budget options would be the Wharfedale Diamonds, Mission MX1 and Acoustic Energy Compacts.

http://forums.slimdevices.com/showthread.php?t=19817

How is your music ripped? I know it might be a pain but if you haven't already done so, I would recommend ripping in a lossless format like FLAC. I use EAC to rip, mp3tag to tag and Foobar2000 to convert to mp3 for use on my mobile devices.
 
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mebassett

Standard Member
Thanks for the fast, informative replies. Big help already! I should mention that any sound card upgrade is a separate budget from the speakers.

davepuma said:
Alternatively, if you have a wireless/wired network what about a streaming solution? You would still need the PC to be on but rather than fitting expensive sound cards, you would simply stream wirelessly to a music streaming device.
I'd like to keep the number of components I have to a minimum; and I'm not sure how a music streaming device would work for movies.

How is your music ripped? I know it might be a pain but if you haven't already done so, I would recommend ripping in a lossless format like FLAC. I use EAC to rip, mp3tag to tag and Foobar2000 to convert to mp3 for use on my mobile devices.
I do try to keep things lossless - FLAC as much as I can.

audioenthusiast said:
And your source. You suggest a new sound card. I think that you could be better off getting an external DAC. Does your current onboard sound card have optical/coaxial output? If not then you could get a USB DAC. This will get better audio results, and chosen carefully could be cheaper.
I'm embarrassed to say it, but my soundcard is the chip embedded into my motherboard - nothing but the standard RCA jack for output. Worse still, I hardly know what a USB DAC is. Google-fu suggests that it's some [wildly expensive] device [that you might have to build yourself] that translates digital signals via usb to analog sound signals (so how is it different from an external sound card?) It sounds like a nightmare when it comes to configuring linux to work with it. I'm certainly open to the suggestion, but could you describe how this setup is different from a sound card? I'll check with some linux forums to see what's its like when it comes to drivers/config

Otherwise, it sounds like you have a good idea of what I want. I think 2.0 speakers + hi-fi amp/receiver is the way forward, and that I should seriously consider second hand. Now what about that source? are USB DACs really vastly superior and slightly cheaper than a good sound card with SPDIF out?
 

MaturityDodger

Well-known Member
Otherwise, it sounds like you have a good idea of what I want. I think 2.0 speakers + hi-fi amp/receiver is the way forward, and that I should seriously consider second hand. Now what about that source? are USB DACs really vastly superior and slightly cheaper than a good sound card with SPDIF out?
Ok, sounds like we need to get you decided on a source first.
Getting a sound card with SPDIF out (and using the SPDIF) won't help you. SPDIF is still a digital format, so you'll need an external DAC to convert its signal to analogue. I don't know of any stereo amps at your budget that take a digital input. A DAC for SPDIF will be pretty much as expensive as a USB DAC.
A DAC is a Digital to Analogue Converter, and you need one somewhere in your system. It can be in a sound card, in a standalone unit, or inside an amplifier (among other options).

I must admit that I don't know that much about the sound card market at the moment. But from my experience with an M-Audio Delta 1010LT (PCI-based), they can be pretty tricky to set up on Linux too.
How much would you be spending if you got an external USB sound card?

The difference between USB sound card and USB DAC is that the sound card will do way, way more.
The DAC will simply take the computer's audio output, and give you stereo analogue audio out.
A sound card will do all sorts of things like multichannel, audio in as well as out (microphone etc), maybe separate headphone output.
If you want these features too, then yes an external sound card could be the way to go.
But if you just want the best stereo output audio quality possible for your money, then a USB DAC.
Which sounds better for you, given those differences?

As I know little about external sound cards, probably best if you tell me what you were looking to spend on the sound card. Then I'll see if I can beat it with a higher-quality DAC.
 
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mebassett

Standard Member

MaturityDodger

Well-known Member
The first one of the three you found only has headphone outputs, not a line out. This would do the job, but is not ideal.
The second and third ones are the right thing.
At this budget though, I'd probably go with the Lindy option at £50. USB Digital to Analogue Audio Converter & Headphone Amp | October | New Products | LINDY UK

After that, there's not really much improvement until you're looking to spend £200-ish, when there's another band of products I could recommend.

But remember, this is only an output device. If you plan on recording on your computer, you could go back to your idea of the USB sound card.

Now, to recap on the rest of your requirements, you have £300 for a stereo amp and speakers. It's to fill a room of 13'x14'.
Do you have any non-audio considerations that need to be made? e.g. physical size of anything? Are you just looking for a small-ish pair of bookshelf speakers, or do you have space for anything larger, or floorstanders if we can find any in your budget? If bookshelf speakers, then will they go on your desk? Or do we need to budget in for some wall-mounts?
Do you need any specific features, like a remote control for the amplifier?
 
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mebassett

Standard Member
At this budget though, I'd probably go with the Lindy option at £50. USB Digital to Analogue Audio Converter & Headphone Amp | October | New Products | LINDY UK
Cool. The Lindy looks good, I'll take your word for it and give it a whirl.

Now, to recap on the rest of your requirements, you have £300 for a stereo amp and speakers. It's to fill a room of 13'x14'.
Do you have any non-audio considerations that need to be made?
Not really, that about nails it. I don't believe I have any other requirements for the equipment - no remote, no size requirements. I would like to be able to add a subwoofer later (I don't know if that requires a special amp or not) I don't really have anything to set bookshelf speakers on, so I'd imagine if I went that route I'd need to budget for stands as well (wall mounts aren't so great - I'd rather not drill holes into the wall.) You mentioned that floor speakers are likely to reach lower frequencies (And thus have better sounding bass?) but I've read elsewhere that floor standing speakers in my budget tend to have a lower quality woodwork that adversely affects the sound. (I suppose this is why you suggested getting used equipment?)

Thanks for your help thus far - I'm glad I asked! You've saved me from purchasing that Onkyo system!
 

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