Audiophile-quality micro system

One of the things I find I enjoy more and more as I get older is music. I never listened that much when I was younger, but now I find it’s a great escape. I discovered the bliss of in-ear monitors back in ’99 when I was traveling a LOT for work, and was using music to deal with the occasional bout of homesickness. My Etymotic ER4-S ‘phones were awesome even if they required an amplifier to get the best sound. It was ok – with a Creative Labs Jukebox, my HeadRoom amp and the Ety’s I was a happy camper.

Later on I got an iPod and later still I moved up to the Sure SE530 phones and no longer needed the amp. The sound & fit are stellar but with small children around the house wearing headphones that block a lot of sound isn’t a very good idea. A frustrated “help me!” call or crying child going unheard is not a good thing. Other than for running, headphones that don’t block sound just don’t make sense to me – if I’m going to hear background noise why not use speakers?

So I was trying to figure out how to put together a small, inexpensive, but nice sounding speaker system for the office and/or shop. I’ve got some old stereo equipment, but it’s a gigantic JVC multimedia receiver – about 18” deep. Not easy to find a home for. I also didn’t need the gazillion watts the old stereo was capable of. Heck, I probably wouldn’t need more than 5.

I thought about getting one of the iPod dock-plus-speakers appliances that a lot of folks are selling, but I don’t need portability and I wanted better sound quality and speaker placement.

After some thought and some reading I figured out that all I really needed was a dock for my iPod, a small amp, and some speakers. I have a set of old JBL 2500 book shelf speakers, and while not great they work for now. The dock was a small purchase at the Apple store. That left the amp.

I looked around a bit and after finding the Sonic Impact t-amp was getting rave reviews from audiophiles I got very interested – the thing is only $30 after all. Turns out that Sonic Impact developed a very cheap amp using a chip made originally for products like big-screen TVs. It is a special kind of amplifier circuit that’s very efficient and produces very little heat. The result is a small, inexpensive amp that has very good audio quality if not a lot of power – something like 10 watts per channel max, with about 6 being the limit for really good sound quality.

Unfortunately Sonic Impact realized the demand and improved the amp and raised the price. Others joined the fray with similar but better designs and the “Class T” audio amplifier market was born. There’s several models out there, and a few companies that offer kits. I think I will ultimately build on of the 41hz kits, but in the mean time I decided on the Trends Audio TA-10.1, which I bought from AudioMagus.com. The Trends is about twice the price of the latest version of the Sonic Impact amp, but it gets better reviews and the build quality (it’s in a metal case with high-quality connectors) was much better.

It’s pretty tiny and has only an LED and a knob on the front. It’s just a simple amp with 1 input and outputs for pair of speakers. Perfect.

So I have an iPod sitting in the dock, the dock connected to the amp which has its volume turned to max. I use the remote for the iPod to change volume, advance tracks, etc. The remote is small and simple and easy to replace if needed.

The sound is excellent at low volume and still pretty good with everything turned up. Something mentioned in every review of the amp was that speakers less efficient than 90db@1 watt would be disappointing and the JBLs are at ~86 so I will probably be replacing them soon. Still, for a system that takes up about as much space as a small alarm clock, and holds about 300 CD’s worth of music encoded in a lossless format, it’s pretty remarkable. If I need to move it to the patio or a different room it’s pretty portable.

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