Music is available in more forms than ever before. The compact disc, once the cutting-edge herald of a digital revolution, is now the stodgy hanger-on in a world of downloads and streaming.
For audiophiles, CDs were the beginning of the end. Breaking sound up into 44,100 samples per second and removing the warmth of vinyl or hiss of cassettes took the soul out of music, making it too clean and sterile.
Compressed MP3 files introduced “lossy” compression to save disk space and speed download times, and when instant streaming came along, sound quality degraded even more. Not that you could tell with the tinny laptop speakers or earbuds you started using.
Vinyl is making a comeback among enthusiasts, and larger hard drives and faster Internet connections are making compression less necessary. Those small speakers can’t fill a room very well, though, so the home stereo still has a role to play. It just needs a few different features than the one you bought 20 years ago.
It’s easy to spend thousands of dollars on individual components, premium cabling, and speaker cabinets constructed from shavings of prize orchids. If you’re shopping for that stuff, you likely know what you want. We’ll focus on more compact, cheaper systems that have everything but speakers in one box.
Firstly, iPod users: you’re lucky. Every manufacturer, even those with competing MP3 players of their own, makes systems with dedicated iPod connectors. Congratulations, you dominate the industry. For the rest of us, we need some other way to pipe our portable music into our stereos.
The most basic connection is an auxiliary in or line in port. This might be as simple as a 3.5mm jack that connects directly to your player’s headphone port; it might even be called “MP3 In” and be right on the front of your system. Or it might be a more general aux input using a red and white pair of RCA connectors, in which case an adapter cable is all you need. Since portable music players without a headphone jack are a rare breed indeed, this will accommodate most of your needs — including a laptop music collection or Internet streaming. Just be prepared for all your other computer sounds to come through the speakers as well.
Some systems also have a USB port for playing music directly off a flash drive. This method will support certain MP3 players too, but only ones that support the Mass Storage protocol.
But who wants another device hanging off the stereo? What if you want to keep your phone conveniently in your pocket while its music plays in your living room? No problem, if your stereo has a Bluetooth or Wi-Fi input. It’ll suck your phone battery dry, but Bluetooth can stream songs digitally up to 30 feet away and Wi-Fi integrates into your existing wireless network. Depending on how sophisticated the stereo is, it might even display artist and title information. There’s no degradation of sound quality like there is over an analog cable, either.
You can even add Bluetooth capability to an existing stereo as long as it has either 3.5mm or RCA line in, and you have a spare power outlet. The Belkin Bluetooth Music Receiver gets that job done for about $30. (Some reviews mention removing a bit of metal from inside the casing to improve its range. Whatever, your own risk.)
Models are constantly changing, so check your local store. You probably still want to be able to play CDs, too. For cassettes, records, 8-tracks and and wax cylinders, you decide what’s important to you.
Occasionally there’s music linked at twitter.com/CitizenjaQ.