Under $20, Under 20 minutes: How to hook up your home stereo to free the music that’s trapped inside your PC

Bose 301 speakers circa 1985. Beautiful sound for modern music!

These Bose 301s mounted to the wall in my living room were purchased in 1985 and still sound better than some of todays most elaborate and expensive computer surround sound speaker systems.

This is the sort of stuff that, as a geek, I take for granted, but always seems to amaze my non-geek friends when they’re over the house for a party or a barbeque. The stuff I’m talking about is breaking free of the cheesy speakers that came with the computer, or worse yet, that are built into your laptop computer, and instead, playing the music from your computer through the superior sound quality of your home stereo system.

Of course there are all sorts of expensive high-tech and wireless networking devices that will do this for you, but that’s not what this article is about.  This artiicle is about how to play the music from your PC or laptop with the full glorious sound quality of your home stereo system, for under $20, and be set up to do it in less than twenty minutes!

stereo mini to rca mini y adapter is plugged into the computer end of the deal and enables the rca connectionsd that are standard input on most stereo equipment

Stereo-mini male to RCA female is one of two cables needed for this connection.

There are a couple basic audio cables that you’ll need in order to make the connection.  The first is the cable that plugs into the headphone or sound output jack of your laptop or pc, and splits that signal into left and right channel for connection to your stereo.  This cable is often what’s referred to as a Y-adapter and on the computer end, has a male  “stereo mini” plug (also referred to as a 1/8″ or 3.5mm plug, you can see how it can become confusing if you’re not used to the terminology!). The other end contains a pair of female  “rca” connectors, usually color coded red and white for right channel and left channel respectively.

RCA female connectors

Make sure your Y-adapter has RCA female connectors to mate up to the RCA stereo male/male cable.

Your cost: The Stereo-mini to RCA Y-adapter can be found online for around $3.  When ordering online, save yourself the aggravation and double-check to be sure what you’re ordering has RCA female ends!

 

The RCA stereo cable has two connectors at each end, White for left channel and red for right.

The RCA-stereo male/male cable will go from your computer to your stereo so make sure you buy one that's long enough!

The second cable you’ll need is a simple rca-stereo male to male.  This is the cable that will plug into the rca-female end of the Y-adapter at the computer end, and extend to plug into your stereo amp or receiver. Because the Y-adapter is usually very short, you will want to buy your RCA-stereo cable in an adequate length to get you from the computer to the stereo receiver or amp with enough extra to let you hide it if so desired under carpet, or along baseboard heaters.  I actually drilled holes in my floors and cabinets big enough to feed the rca cable through so I could drop it into the basement and bring it back up to the amp through the cabinet.  Another solution of course if you have the space for it, is to have the computer or laptop that houses your music mounted near the stereo itself, just as you would with a CD player or other device.

Your cost:  The cost of your RCA stereo male/male cable will depend on the length required to get from your computer to your stereo system. You can get a 15′ cable online for around $8.00

Let’s make the connections:

First, plug one end of the RCA-stereo cable into the RCA female ends of the Y-adapter, matching up red to red and white to white.

a laptop computer set up as the sound source for my home stereo system.

The laptop computer I use as my "tune server" has a headphone jack on the side, shown here with the stereo-mini y-adapter plugged in.

On the computer end, plug the stereo-mini plug into the headphone jack or audio-out port of your computer.

  • Laptop, Netbook, or tablet computer – Plug into the headphone jack.  This port is usually color-coded black and is typically marked with an embossed or silk-screened headphone image.
  • Desktop computer – Plug into the audio-out port on the back of the tower. Desktop computers sometimes have a headphone jack right on the CD drive. This may or may not work depending on your hardware configuration. The most reliable approach is to plug into the audio output of your computer’s sound card.  This is generally found on the back of the tower, and is usually color-coded green (it’s the port your computer speakers are usually plugged into).

An aside about old laptops:  I find most folks have an old laptop or two kicking around the house.  If this is the case, why not hog it out, reload the operating system, and make it a dedicated music server?  Provided the hard drive is of adequate size (40 gb or better will nicely handle the average music library), this can be a convenient way to get the music connection going without having to constantly be plugging in and unplugging the laptop you use on a day-to-day basis.

This receiver has a variety of available inputs that can be used to hook up sound from the computer. Shown here, the RCA stereo cable is connected to the TAPE/DAT IN

On the stereo end, plug in to any of the following inputs that may be available: AUX, CD, TAPE IN, or VIDEO IN, again matching red to red and white to white (note: do not plug the feed from your computer into the “PHONO” input on your amp, phono inputs are different than aux, cd, video, or tape inputs and are not designed to handle the voltage that comes from your computer’s headphone or audio out jack and can be damaged if so connected).

Fire it up and enjoy the tunes!

Once you’ve made the connections, launch your preferred media player on the computer and adjust to about mid volume.  On your stereo amp or receiver, use the input selector to select the input that matches the input connector you plugged the RCA cable into (note that if you plugged into a TAPE IN port, there may be a separate switch or button on your amp called TAPE MON or TAPE MONITOR that needs to be enabled in order to hear your music.

old Realistic brand audio receiver by Radio Shack is one of many old-school bits and pieces of audio equipment around my house that indicates my fascination with electronics long before computers found their way home from work.

As a long-time geek going back prior to the introduction of the home computer, I have an accumulation of old stereo equipment that I love listening to including this 1970's vintage Radio Shack receiver model that is on the other end of the cable from my laptop computer.

A note about sound quality: Depending on how powerful the audio signal is that comes from your computer, you may find that you are over-driving the input on the stereo.  If this is the case, the music may sound fuzzy or distorted, or the amp may cut out due to an overload condition.  If this occurs, turn the volume on your computer lower until things sound normal and then use the volume control of your stereo amp or receiver to adjust volume higher.

Andy Trask |  in-home computer and technology serviceThis article was written by Andy Trask, Owner, and Chief Customer Caregiver at Stickynote! Tech Services.  Based in Mansfield Massachusetts, Stickynote! Tech Services is a local provider of in-home personal technology  services to individuals, families, and small businesses in Southeastern Massachusetts including the south shore, Cape Cod, south coast, greater Taunton area, greater Attleboro area, lower Route 128, and lower Route 495 up to the Franklin / Bellingham area. Need help? Call Stickynote today to experience world-class service!

(508) 369-9077

 

 

 

 

Computer Repair vs. Computer Replace: What makes sense for you?

computer repair picture of up-to-date windows 7 home computer

Is it time for Windows 7 in your house?

Well, it’s finally happened – what computer repair pros have dreaded for years. The cost of buying a new computer has finally dropped to the point where the computer itself has become  disposable, and any decision to repair a computer, even if repairing it simply means paying for a professional virus removal, has to be weighed against the  cost to replace the computer instead.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not advocating stuffing the earth’s dwindling waste and recycling resources with junked computers, nor am I suggesting that arbitrarily buying a new computer is the cure-all for when things go wrong and the old computer needs repair work.  Rather, I’m pointing out to folks who may not have noticed, that the price of an entry-level desktop computer tower with (humor me and let me get my geek on for a sec here) Windows 7 Home Premium, 4 gigabytes of RAM, and a Terabyte or more of Hard Drive space, is currently retailing for as little as $399- and that’s just off-the-shelf pricing!  With a little shopper’s diligence you may be able to shave another $50-100 off that price. Netbook computers (“mini” laptops if you’re not familiar with the term) have been available in the $249-399 range since introduced a few years back.  Even full-blown laptop computers with normal-sized keyboards and screens (for those of us who’s fingers and eyes are not aging so gracefully), are hovering in the $500-700 range and can regularly be found on sale for as little as $399!

So, armed with this knowledge, let’s explore a couple scenarios, one in which replacement is the best option and another where doing a repair of the existing computer is still the more sensible approach. And then we’ll wrap up with what it means to you, and highlight some of the questions to ask and values to consider when making your own computer repair vs. replace decision:

Scenario 1

Laptop video / motherboard failure:  Let’s take the computer repair call I got last week from a woman in Sharon, MA. She told me the screen on her laptop computer had failed some time ago and that she had been using an external monitor with it, but now, even the external monitor wasn’t working.

Decision: Replace

Instead of signing myself up to repair her computer at a cost of $300-400 to replace the motherboard (which, in this case, would have been necessary because the video card is built into the motherboard), I suggested instead that she buy a new laptop and have me over to set it up, connect to her wireless network, transfer her data from the old computer to the new computer, set up email or other online accounts, and make sure she’s got adequate data backup and virus protection going forward.

Why the decision to replace?

  • Cost of repair close to cost of entry-level replacement computer
  • Casual use of computer (email, facebook, surf the web, and occasional word processing) means low-cost entry-level system would be adequate for her needs
  • New computer would have greater power, speed, and storage capacity
  • New computer would have Windows 7 vs. old computer Windows Vista meaning better compatibility with hardware, peripherals, and software going forward
  • New computer would have 12-month warranty vs. 30-day warranty on repair

In short, had we gone with a repair, she would have spent almost as much as getting a new computer just to get back to being whole. By replacing, although more expensive when you take into account the cost of the new computer plus set-up and data transfer services, has the advantage of moving her forward into the future with greater speed and capacity, a more modern operating system, and a more comprehensive warranty that makes the extra couple hundred dollars well worth it.

Scenario 2

Desktop Motherboard / Hard Drive Failure:  Here’s a case where I was called out to a small business in Seekonk, MA. They were using a “middle-aged” Windows Vista computer as the central computer for the business, running some proprietary business automation functions, and also doing the business accounting via Quickbooks.  When I arrived onsite, the system had no video signal and would not start up.  I performed some diagnostics and recovery and was able to get the system to start up but would not  trust it to run the business at that point as both the motherboard and the hard disk drive were suspect.

Decision: Repair

I explained the repair vs. replace options to the business owner, leaning heavily towards replace until we started talking about the proprietary software that controls specific devices and functions of his business.  As it turns out, the software was also middle-aged, and the original installation CDs were long lost never to be found again.  With the cost of replacing that software running into the thousands of dollars, the decision to repair became obvious.

Why the decision to repair?

  • Cost of replacing proprietary software and/or related devices would cost thousands of dollars
  • Uncertain compatibility of proprietary software with Windows 7.

In conclusion, it was decided to repair the system, ultimately not by replacing the motherboard, but by tracking down and purchasing a compatible used computer online, and migrating the hard drive image from the old computer to the “new” one.

Your Scenario…

Now of course, every situation is different, and you too may be facing a repair vs. replace decision, if not today, certainly in the future.  Here are some important things to consider if you are faced with that decision:

  • What is the total cost of repair, including parts and labor?
  • What is the total cost of replacement, including computer, applications, and services?
  • Would you need set-up & data transfer services or can you handle that yourself?
  • How old is the computer being repaired? For example, does it make sense to stay with the older Windows XP system, or is it time to move to a Windows 7 computer?
  • Do you have original CDs or installation media and activation keys for software that you want to bring forward to a new computer?
  • Is the software you want to bring forward compatible with the newer hardware and/or Windows version?
  • Are you okay with change?  Realistically, a lot of older folks have become comfortable with their existing computers and how they use their computers, and frankly, the thought of change can be disconcerting.  Don’t fret, you’re not alone! This is one of the big reasons for the continued popularity of Windows XP, and is completely understandable.
computer repair or replacement, that is the question

When I saw this log-in failure, I suggested replacing the computer instead of repairing it.

In conclusion, what I’ve found from helping hundreds of customers with this decision is that although costs can play an overriding role, the decision doesn’t always come down to dollars and cents.  I recently fixed an old MS-DOS computer (a mid 1980’s vintage computer… think pre-mouse!) for a gentleman in Stoneham, MA, who used it to do his accounting.  When I suggested the old machine could fail again and he should think about modernizing, he simply responded, “if it fails again I’ll call you again. I’m 76 years old and don’t feel like learning a new computer!”

 

 

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