We're learning by example at the end of this series on audiophile basics, and last week's scenario of a video gamer building a serious audio system on the cheap was a great start.
As I reiterated in the previous column, the path to magical music experiences at home can be made clear only when you figure out how you're going to use the system and how it's going to fit into your life.
This week, let's look at a bit more complicated setup and a more typical one these days. We'll dial up a system that can sound great playing records and also kick ass in audio duty for the TV.
A record player has an analog signal coming out of it — it's analog the whole way, actually. A TV, while also containing analog outputs, is a digital device, and therefore puts out a digital signal as well. And I greatly prefer digital signals for "transmission," meaning passing music from box to box.
So we'll need an amplifier that has both phono and digital inputs. Simply having analog inputs is not enough — record players are unique as music sources because they output an incredibly tiny signal and must be amplified a lot more than other inputs.
The PS Audio Sprout100 ($599) is a great choice to handle both digital and phono inputs, and it's a powerful little amp to boot. And the real kicker is that it's designed and shipped from right here in Boulder.
I've written about PS Audio before, but if you haven't heard of the company, take a quick Google trip — they make good stuff. Alternatives to the Sprout are Onkyo's A-9010 amp ($339) and the slim little Rega Brio ($995). I've heard all of these and think the PS Audio sounds the best of the bunch.
We'll need speakers of course, and here's where we need to get specific. If they must go on the wall, then we're looking at "on-wall" or "surround" type of speakers, like the Klipsch R-14S ($280) or the Wharfedale Diamond 10.SR ($230).
But we'll need space for the turntable, and a big horizontal bookshelf or entertainment center would be perfect for the whole system. You can place the speakers on the ends facing inward toward the couch, set the turntable on one side and place the TV in the middle, mounted or on its stand.
To finish up with this system, we need some interconnecting cables. TVs use an optical (also known as Toslink) digital signal for sound output. I've found that there is more difference in sound quality between optical cables from cheap to expensive than for other types of cables, so you'll want to get a decent one here. Amazon has tons of options, but the Audioquest Cinnamon, Forest or Pearl optical cables are excellent and relatively affordable.
If the speakers are good enough and the location for them good in the room, they will be leagues beyond what a soundbar would offer for TV listening. That's what makes this whole thing work — if we get it right, this system will deliver exciting music and surprising quality of sound for the TV at the same time.
We dive into whole-house audio next week.