There are many music lovers out there who have significant investment in vinyl LPs and/or CDs and are interested in incorporating computer audio or digital sources. What does that look like and what do you stand to gain or lose? The most adaptive system for you would span the slice of music distribution history which brackets your musical interests, enabling any media you need to play, at HD (high definition) resolutions. An ideal audio system would would be versatile enough to play music in all formats in which you've collected significant libraries of music. Then you lose absolutely nothing and gain a whole new universe of HD digital music.
Most home libraries are now on one to three kinds of media: vinyl LPs, CDs, and digital computer files. Consequently, desirable media players are mostly turntables, CD players, or Digital-to-analog Converters (DACs.) In the greater scheme of consumer audio, other formats including magnetic tape no longer matter.
You certainly don’t have to replace your whole stereo. Of course, you can if you’re unsatisfied with the amplification and speakers. Converting an oldie-but-goodie all-analog stereo into an up-to-date digital-source audio system is straightforward. You may already have most of what you need to play digital music except the digital sources and the DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) to translate the music to analog for amplification.
Most newer systems these days are hybrids with digital front ends and analog amplification and speakers. To make music, a system has to push air around somehow. That requires a transition from digital to analog somewhere in the system because speakers are physical transducers that run on analog power waveforms, not digital bits and bytes.
You simply connect a quality digital front end like a networked computer in parallel with the existing media players (CD and turntable.) Connect the input(s) of one or more digital source devices (computer, player, tablet, smartphone, media server, or the like) to your home network as required, add a DAC and connect the output to your Oldie at the AUX or TAPE preamp inputs. Shazam, you've gone digital. Nothing is lost. Switch back and forth between digital and analog sources at will. In other words, "digital source" can boil down to just another input device.
If your old analog system looks like this:
Plastic Media > Player(s) >> Preamp > Amplifier > Speakers
A new hybrid system can have a switchable second configuration like this:
Digital Source(s) > DAC > Tube Buffer >> Preamp > Amplifier > Speakers
You may well have a suitable computer already so you would only need to acquire a DAC and Tube Buffer.
The photo above provides an example of how a the Audioengine W3 Audio Adapter can connect a USB-equipped computer to your stereo. No wires are needed between the Sender and Receiver. So the computer can be across the room or in another part of the house. The Receiver is powered by an AC USB Power Supply. The music signal travels from the Receiver to your amplification through the pigtail. If needed, an adapter to RCA style connections can be easily added to connect your preamp. The W3's DAC and ADC chips enable it to be universal. It connects any music source, analog or digital, to any stereo or even to headphones without wires running to your preamp
There’s one more analog device you should add if you want the best sound. Ironically, digital music sounds far better if you run the signal through a vacuum tube before amplifying it. I highly recommend a “tube buffer” in the form of a quality headphone amplifier. Just connect it between the DAC and amplifier. It will make the music far more listenable. Filtration through a vacuum tube reconstitutes the music, making it smoother, sweeter, and warmer than raw digital, amplified. In fact, you probably won't recognize it as "digital" with your ears.
Now you can enjoy the benefits of both digital and analog technologies. You can still play your amassed CD and vinyl libraries through the analog players you have until you convert your media library to digital, which you don't have to do unless desired. I wouldn't bother. Instead, why not use that time and energy to explore and enjoy some new musical spaces? Streaming services await you and they can transform how you experience recorded music, offering millions of tracks you don't have at the click of a few icons.
Building a hybrid system is more straightforward for those who are starting from the ground up. There's no obsolete stuff to work around. Just enjoy the wonderful value that's available by making smart choices. Like powered speakers. Some are very cool and capable of astounding fidelity.
I read the other day the resurgence of interest in vinyl is being driven by the New Audiophiles who are discovering music can actually sound really good. That sounds like one step forward and two steps back.
Vinyl has too much downside to be worth its keep (for my taste) unless you're already attached to a library. Old, rare recordings can be easily converted and the sound cleaned up. Properly built modern hybrid digital/analog playback systems sound fabulous for a fraction of what great systems used to cost. Better to spend the difference on worthwhile gear than to adopt the sins of our Fathers. Digital music sounds just as good as anything that came before it if you configure it right.
What about CDs? Pretty much the same deal. Physical distribution media is dead. We have escaped from that compulsion. We can also be free of all that downloading thing Apple, Inc., made billions from by training two generations to buy songs. Turns out you just don’t need to own them any more.
But that’s another blog post.
iHi-Fi is an Audioengine Reseller and would love to be your source for any of the gear depicted in this post. Also, there is a Part 2 version of this Post that deals with upgrading the latter part of your audio system, the amp and speakers. Might want to check that out as well.