How to Stream Music Throughout Your Home

Even the most hardcore vinyl fan probably has thousands, if not tens of thousands, of digital music files sitting on a computer or smartphone, and despite their questionable sound quality, streaming music services continue to proliferate.

If you’re like me, you probably want to bring all these media types together and enjoy your tunes throughout your pad, and with your friends and neighbors. Just a few years ago music fans were limited to a handful of choices, but now we have a ton of options that are within reach of all budgets, and it doesn’t have to be confusing.

The method you use to stream music from your computer or smartphone across your house will depend on your budget, the audio equipment you already own and the number of rooms you want to fill with music. So let’s break it down.

Start by asking yourself a few questions:

  • How many rooms do I want to play music in? How many rooms do I want to access media from? More rooms generally mean more equipment to buy; you’ll need, at a minimum, speakers in every room and you might want controllers in some rooms, but not others.
  • What components do I already own that can integrate with a streaming setup?
  • What wires or wireless connectors will I need? For a home stereo, a Bluetooth transmitter will generally come with a 3.5 mm or RCA jack. If you’re using a Roku or similar device to connect to your home theater system, an HDMI cable may be included, but check.
  • What streaming options do I want? Spotify, Pandora, Tidal or iTunes? Several available options, including the Bose SoundTouch and the Sonos systems, offer easy access to Web-based streaming services. If you have a Blu-Ray player, you may already have access to some of these streaming services, so read the friendly manual, connect it to your network and update your firmware.

Wired

If you already have a home stereo and don’t mind running some wires, one option is to run an inexpensive 3.5 mm-to-RCA cable from your computer to your stereo receiver. This is a quick and dirty way to get started, but you’re going to find yourself reaching behind your computer to plug and unplug that jack any time you want to use your headphones and unless you want to hear your email alerts through your stereo. Functional? Yes. Optimal? Not for you, I’ll bet. A switch box will help, but even so ...

Jolida FX Tube DAC III

Another option is to buy an inexpensive digital-to-audio converter (DAC) box and run a couple of connector cables between your PC and your home stereo systems. DACs, which convert digital signals to higher-quality and better-sounding analog audio, can cost as little as $20, but hi-fi devices can run into the hundreds of dollars. They can make a huge difference in the listening experience compared to your PC’s built-in sound card. Some modern stereo receivers/amplifiers also have DAC functionality built in, so RTFM. You’re going to want to maximize the gear you’ve got, which frees up some cash for what matters: the music.

Wireless Speakers

Pyle PT390BTU Bluetooth Digital Receiver

If you want to ditch the wires, several companies now offer Bluetooth wireless adapters/receivers that connect to existing home stereo or home theater systems and enable them to send music to wireless speakers. They generally come with a 3.5 mm or RCA jack to connect to your stereo. Prices for the transmitter start at about $15, and Bluetooth or Wi-Fi speakers start at about $25.

If you’re in the market for a new stereo receiver/amplifier, several audio vendors now sell stereo receivers with Bluetooth and/or Wi-Fi capabilities built in.

Kicker 41IK5BT2V2 Amphitheater Bluetooth

There are many Bluetooth-enabled speakers available, some of them battery-powered and portable. The downside of the technology is that it works by pairing a speaker to an audio device, meaning music can stream only to a single speaker set at a time. Bluetooth also has a limited range, often 30 feet or less.

Wi-Fi devices aren’t quite as ubiquitous but have a bigger range and a higher fidelity music stream. The downside to Wi-Fi is that setup can be a drag; you often have to fiddle with long passwords to connect devices. Prices for Wi-Fi-enabled receivers start around $200.

Home Theater

If you already have a kickin’ home theater system, you can also connect it to your PC on the cheap.

Denon AVR-X1100W 7.2 In-Command Receiver

Google’s Chromecast device, which allows you to stream music and videos to your TV through your existing home Wi-Fi network, costs about $35. Amazon.com’s similar Fire TV Stick, costs about $40, as does Roku’s entry-level streaming devices. The Apple TV streaming system will set you back about $150. The basic functionality of all these streaming-to-the-TV devices is similar, but there are a bunch of models out there, they each have their quirks and they are constantly being updated.

  • Chromecast doesn’t include a remote control; instead, you use your smartphone or laptop.
  • Apple TV offers integration with iTunes video and includes apps and games from your iPhone.
  • Apple’s AirPort Express, a Wi-Fi network base station for the company’s smartphones and Macs.
  • Amazon’s device works well with the company’s streaming video service.
  • Roku offers several devices, with prices higher for 4K video capabilities, but the company’s products get good reviews.

You also can run wires from your computer to your home theater. While some home theater systems will allow you to send signals to another zone — meaning speakers or a separate audio system in another room — the number of zones is likely going to be limited.

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Starting from Scratch

If you’re starting from scratch, you have all kinds of options. For recent computers or smartphones with Bluetooth functionality, it’s as simple as buying Bluetooth-enabled speakers, some costing as little as $20 each, although music fans with discriminating ears may want to spend a little more.

A word of caution on Bluetooth: Owners of older computers, particularly desktop PCs, may not have Bluetooth functionality on their machines. That’s easily fixed, however, with an inexpensive USB-powered Bluetooth adapter.

A step up from buying a couple of inexpensive Bluetooth speakers are in-home Wi-Fi streaming systems from Sonos, Bose SoundTouch, Denon Heos and other vendors. Individual components for the systems start around $200, although standalone Wi-Fi streaming boxes from lesser known vendors can be found a little cheaper.

Sonos, one of the pioneers of in-home music streaming, is a great way to handle this from a user experience standpoint. It’s simple to install and enables a ton of flexibility, from supporting portable speakers to full-room integrations with in-ceiling or in-wall setups.

The downside of Sonos is its maximum streaming sampling rate of 16 bits and 44.1 kHz, although some audio experts question whether most human listeners can hear the difference between 16 bits and 24 bits. Some other home streaming systems, like Heos, offer higher resolution sampling rates.

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