Build your own desktop stereo for under $70

The Audiophiliac pairs the Dayton B652 speakers with the tiny Lepai LP-2020A+ stereo amp, and finds very respectable sound for around $70.

The little Lepai amp sitting on the Dayton speaker Steve Guttenberg

My quest for the best-sounding/lowest-cost desktop system is finally over.

I paired the tiny 20-watt-per-channel $24.49 Lepai LP-2020A+ amplifier with the $44.50-per-pair Dayton Audio B652 bookshelf speakers. The total price (excluding taxes) on Amazon is just under $70.

First, the caveats: I'm assuming that you, like me, will already have an audio source -- an iPod, smartphone, or CD player -- so I'm not including that expense. And you may need to invest in some speaker wire, which could run you another $10 or so. I also name a handful of optional accessories below that you might want to consider at an additional cost.

Still, we're talking a basic investment that's well short of $100. The result is a DIY stereo system that will outperform sleeker speaker docks or portable speakers that cost two to three times as much.

Sarah Tew/CNET

Considering the minuscule 1.5-by-5.5-by-4.5-inch amp's rock-bottom price, the Lepai is surprisingly well made, has adequate features, and sounds very decent. And for an inexpensive speaker pair, the Dayton B652 has an unusually large woofer -- it's a 6.5-inch polypropylene cone -- and the speaker also has a ferrofluid-cooled 5/8-inch polycarbonate dome tweeter.

If you think the $199 Jawbone Jambox Bluetooth speaker sounds good, you'll flip over the Dayton/Lepai sound. True, it's very much a wired home- or office-bound system, but it plays louder, sounds dramatically clearer, and actually creates a true stereo image (you can place the two speakers as far apart as you like), something no single-box speaker at any price can ever hope to achieve. Hook up your computer, phone, or portable music player to the Lepai/Dayton combo, and enjoy the music.

Speaking of the Jambox: I'm not a big fan of wireless audio to begin with (Bluetooth sounds way too compressed to my ear). But if that's your thing, it's an easy upgrade to the Dayton/Lepai system. Just add the $25 Belkin Bluetooth Music Receiver or the $40 Logitech Wireless Speaker Adapter, and you can stream anything from a smartphone, iPod Touch, iPad, or most other tablets sans wires.

For $70, the Dayton/Lepai sound was very listenable, but depending on the sort of music I was playing the treble could sound a tad harsh, so I preferred the sound with the LP202A+'s tone controls cutting the treble and boosting the bass. That made a big difference for the better, but I couldn't resist adding the HiFiMan Express HM-101 USB-powered DAC to see if it would take the sound to another level. It absolutely did; the tonal balance was sweeter and more natural. (Just insert the HiFiMan between the audio source and the Lepai's input.) Selling for $39 on Amazon, it's a logical upgrade option. When using a PC as the audio source, the FiiO E10 USB digital-to-analog converter ($76 on Amazon) took the Lepai/Dayton system's sound to an even higher level, so the potential for sound improvements is strong, without breaking the bank.

Add a Bluetooth receiver if you want to go wireless. Sarah Tew/CNET

I directly compared the Lepai/Dayton/FiiO system with my Audioengine 2 speakers ($199 per pair). The Audioengines were so much smaller, but they had a bassier, richer balance -- which I liked -- but on the other hand, the Lepai/Dayton/FiiO's combo sounded clearer and more dynamically alive. The stereo imaging was wider and more sharply focused, and had superior depth. The differences were far from subtle; the Lepai/Dayton/FiiO system was the hands-down winner. Radiohead's "Kid A" album created a broad and deep soundstage over the B652 speakers, and some spatial effects were projected well ahead of the actual locations of the speakers. It was like 3D sound -- very cool. Granted, the Audioengine 2 speakers are just 4 by 5.25 by 6 inches, and the B652 measures 11.75 by 7.2 by 6.5 inches. The B652s' significantly larger size may tip the balance in favor of the (still awesome) Audioengines for many buyers. They're also self-amplified, so you can connect your audio source directly to the Audioengines speakers, with no separate amp needed.

The Dayton/Lepai/FiiO's sound will handily beat most $300 iPod speakers, and fill a room better than a $600 Bowers & Wilkins Zeppelin Air, because single-speaker systems always have built-in limitations. Still, the Dayton/Lepai/Hifiman system can be bettered by the likes of Audioengine 5+ ($399 a pair) or Emotiva Airmotiv 4 desktop speakers ($349 a pair). Those two speakers make more and better bass, sound more refined, and are clearer than the B652s.

Still, if you want great sound on the cheap -- and a desktop stereo system with some real street cred -- you won't be disappointed with the Dayton/Lepai combo.

 

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