Playing Music All Over the House

I recently bought an iPod and recorded all my CDs to my hard drive. What I would like to do now is use the Audio Out points on my PC to run speakers to the lounge, family room, bedrooms and outside.

My concerns are that the computer soundcard doesn’t seem to handle the music correctly. Sometime vocals are missing, other times guitars are too loud (all the songs sound perfect on the iPod.)

My questions are:

1) Is there a CD-quality sound card I should be using in my PC built especially for home audio or to home audio quality?

2) Is there some sort of amplifier I need to use between the computer and the speakers? I’ve never linked speakers up before (except to a normal off-the-shelf stereo), how do I do this?

I’m assuming I need an amplifier, a new sound card, and 2 speakers per room to attach to the amplifier. Am I correct? Has anyone done this before?

Fortunately, this is a popular result of putting lots of music on hard drives. Once it’s there, why not take advantage and use the audio in every room of the house? There are several ways to approach this problem, ranging from something as simple as plugging the iPod in around the house, to purchasing connected media devices for each room of the house, to running lots of wire and connecting everything to a central point off your PC sound card. Read on for details on each possible solution.

To address your first question, in all likelihood there’s nothing wrong with your sound card, you have a connection that’s not working as it should. I won’t say it’s impossible for the soundcard to go bad, but it would likely stop playing sounds altogether, rather than dropping out specific sections of some songs.

Most PCs do ship with sound cards built onto the motherboard. Often these are very basic and don’t support configurations like 5.1 surround or digital audio out. If either of these types of configurations is important, consider upgrading to a new card (you will need speakers with corresponding support too). Affordable sound card upgrades, with better performance than the onboard sound, are available from Turtle Beach or M-Audio. I’m personally a fan of the M-Audio cards and some of the more expensive solutions using VIA’s audio chipset.

Your second question is a little more complicated because there’s no one right answer. One solution would be to connect your PC to a home theater receiver via one of the receiver’s auxiliary in connectors. This can be a digital connection, via the Digital Audio Out on the sound card and Digital Audio In on your receiver (if you have both available) or it can be a standard analog connection using a 1/8-inch mini-plug to stereo RCA connection. The mini-plug connects to the audio out on the sound card, with the stereo RCA connectors connecting to the receiver on an available audio in jack. Make sure you use shielded cable for this connection, especially if your receiver and PC are more than 3-4 feet apart; you’ll start getting line noise as the distance between the two gets further, unless you use shielded cable. The big disadvantage to this method is needing to run speaker wire to each room of the house, and then needing to select your playlist on the PC, followed by setting the receiver to the proper set of speakers for the room you are listening from. This also limits you to listening to a single playlist at a time, so if you wanted to listen in the living room and your kids wanted to listen to something else in their bedroom, you’d be arm wrestling for who got their music selection (obviously, if you don’t have kids, this isn’t a problem).

A second option would be to put some kind network music player in each room where you want to listen to music. The Roku SoundBridge or the AudioTron from Turtle Beach both connect directly to your home network and pull songs from your PC across the network. Both of these devices come with their own remote control and a front face display for song title information, giving you the ability to browse your song library directly from the room you are currently in. These devices do require a stereo receiver to send the audio to speakers.

A third option is to carry the iPod (or any other portable audio player) to the room you want to listen in and connect it to a receiver in the room. Since you are already considering the need for speakers in each room, adding a low cost receiver may be a viable option. Buying 2 Onkyo TX-SR502 receivers and 4 pairs of moderately priced speakers could cover 4 rooms for about $1500 (or $1000 if you bought cheaper speakers). The Onkyo TX-SR502 may be the best receiver ever offered below $300.