Kevin Hunt: A Bargain-Priced DIY Desktop System


To cure a bad case of winter frugality, I'm prescribing a hearty dose of homemade chicken soup and these bargain-basement audio components that will brighten any home office or den.

Use some, or all, of the equipment to build a desktop system for a computer, a traditional two-channel system for a DVD player or gaming console, a replacement for an HDTV's speakers or an inexpensive way to play vinyl LPs.

HiFiMeDIY Sabre digital-to-analog converter ($42, hifimediy.com): This digital-to-analog converter uses the same chip, ESS Technology's Sabre ES9023, as Audioquest's highly regarded DragonFly ($250) DAC reviewed here recently. It doesn't mean it's as good as the DragonFly, but it's a low-risk, high-reward investment — I bought one late last year from the Chinese manufacturer for an on-the-cheap office system.

When plugged into a computer's USB port, it processes all the digital files in a music library, bypassing the PC's soundcard. It's an instant upgrade. Die-hard hobbyists will be glad to know it accepts some high-resolution signals (24-bit, 96-kilohertz).

A 3.5 mm jack at the other end of the DAC is available for connections to an audio system.

Bonus: No computer nearby? Add HiFiMeDIY's $10 USB hub for iPad and you'll use your Apple tablet as a server. Just connect the DAC to your audio system.

FiiO A1 amplifier ($69.95, bhphotovideo.com): A low-power, no-frills, single-input Class D amplifier in a tiny black aluminum chassis. It's only 14 watts per channel, though it's enough to power most speakers to moderate volumes and beyond in smaller rooms.

I first wrote about FiiO (fiio.com.cn), another Chinese manufacturer, five years ago when it was offering the battery-powered E3 headphone amplifier for iPods and other mobile devices for $8.50, which included shipping from China.

FiiO still aims high for the budget market. The A1 produces a smooth, almost effortless sound with surprising punch in the lower frequencies, but it's now hard to find and, apparently, discontinued. I found one at Amazon.com recently for $60, but it's worth a search.

The A1 cannot accommodate headphones and, though it has only one input it has two connection options: a 3.5 mm jack and RCAs. So you could connect an iPhone and the HiFiMeDIY DAC into the A1 simultaneously — or a DVD player and a cable box.

If the A1 is not available: The $89 Dayton Audio DTA-100 might be an even better choice, with more power (30 watts), a headphone jack and a similar size that uses a slightly different amplifier technology, Class T, powered by chips popularized by Tripath. For sheer frugality, I prefer the A1 at up to 30 percent less.

Pioneer SP-BS22 bookshelf speakers ($90, newegg.com): These are updated versions of Andrew Jones-designed speakers that last year were favorites here and around the Web. I bought two pair of the predecessors, the SP-BS21-LR, the last on closeout for $40 shipped.

The new models, again designed by Jones — a former chief designer at KEF and Infinity and now director of engineering for Pioneer's high-end TAD Reference speaker series — are slightly more expensive but still available under $100.

With: Sanus BF24B Speaker Stands ($45, crutchfield.com). Speakers usually sound best with the tweeters aligned at ear level. Stands lift them off the flow, off confining (and sound-altering) bookshelves and away from nearby walls. Not essential, but helpful.

Orbit Turntable by U-Turn Audio (Not yet available, uturnaudio.com): Whether you're ready to dust off bins of vinyl stashed in the basement or want to join the retro movement, you'll need a turntable. To preserve the close-to-$100 mission, I'd be willing to wait for the first product from a new company called U-Turn Audio, which recently completed funding on Kickstarter.com by raising almost $234,000 — far beyond its $60,000 goal.

The investor's enthusiasm was fueled by a promise of a $150 belt-driven turntable that includes an Ortofon cartridge. Investors will get the $150 price, though the Orbit might reach the market at a slightly higher price.

Behringer PP400 Microphono Ultra Compact Phono Preamp ($19.99, parts-express.com): Among the least expensive ways to convert a turntable's phono signal to a line-level signal for an amplifier like the FiiO A1 or Dayton DTA-100a.

khunt@tribune.com

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