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Audio Files: Adapting Your Old Stereo to the Streaming Universe

How to upgrade your cherished equipment for today’s technologies

The iFi Zen Blue Bluetooth receiver
The iFi Zen Blue Bluetooth receiver

Like piano trios, old stereos may not use all the latest technologies, but when it comes to their basic function of playing music, they do their job as well as—and sometimes better than—newer options. Of course, new stereos can be far more advanced in the ways they access music, because most have the capability to play Internet music streaming services and Internet radio.

In fact, it’s getting hard for jazz fans to get by without streaming. Jazz was slow to embrace streaming, but most of the new albums you see reviewed in JazzTimes are now up on streaming services by the time the review is published, and all of the services have colossal catalogs of jazz classics. For most of today’s artists, streaming is now the primary way to connect with listeners. Even hardcore audio traditionalists do some of their listening through online streaming—especially now that services including Amazon, Qobuz, and Tidal offer streaming in full CD quality or better.

Fortunately, it’s easy to add state-of-the-art streaming to most stereos, sometimes for about the price of a CD. If you have an old stereo receiver, integrated amp, or preamp—even one built before Miles went electric—it’s ready to move boldly into 2020s technology.

Getting Connected

Any old stereo can connect to most music streaming devices as long as it has an unused stereo analog input, which every old receiver or preamp should. Just connect the streaming device to that input; many devices even include the cables you need. If you’re using a WiFi streaming device, it’ll require a home WiFi network to access streaming services.

You don’t necessarily have to buy new hardware to stream jazz tunes into your old stereo. Any smartphone, tablet, or computer can stream music, and as long as the device has a headphone jack, it can be connected to that spare input on your receiver or preamp, using a cable with a 3.5mm (1/8″) miniplug on one end and two RCA connectors on the other. This will give you better sound quality than a Bluetooth connection, but you’ll have a cable running from your phone or computer to your stereo, which can be clumsy.

 

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Sonos' Port WiFi streamer
Sonos’ Port WiFi streamer

The Options

The easiest way to adapt an old stereo for streaming is to add a Bluetooth receiver. This lets you stream wirelessly from a phone, tablet, or computer without having to add or configure a new app. The downside is that Bluetooth does have a subtle effect on sound quality. You can find these receivers on Amazon for less than $30. Those who are serious about audio quality should pop for the $129 iFi Zen Blue, which adds technologies that improve Bluetooth sound quality, although those technologies work only with Android devices, not Apple.

For audiophiles, the preferred option is a dedicated WiFi-based streamer. These do not reduce sound quality, but they do require you to download an app that connects the device to your network. By adding wireless speakers and soundbars that use the same technology, you can use your stereo as part of a whole-house music system. You can also stream digital music files stored on a networked computer or hard drive.

However, dedicated WiFi streamers are expensive. Two of the most affordable options are the $399 Sonos Port and the $499 Bluesound Node 2i. Millions of people already have (and love) Sonos speakers, so the Port is a great way to get an old stereo into that ecosystem. Bluesound is less well-known, but it does have the ability to stream high-resolution music from streaming services that offer it, and it also supports the subscription-based Roon music player.

Amazon's Echo Input
Amazon’s Echo Input

If you want WiFi streaming and/or whole-house audio and don’t want to spend hundreds, Amazon offers affordable alternatives in the Echo Input and the Echo Dot. Prices for them vary, but the Echo Input is often available for less than $20 and the Echo Dot for less than $30. The Echo Input is basically a little module with built-in microphones and a jack that connects to your stereo; for most stereo system upgrades, it’s all you need. The Echo Dot adds a tiny built-in speaker of its own, but if you’re connecting to a stereo system anyway, you won’t need that.

Both of these products are controlled by voice commands, which are great if you’re content to, say, play an Internet radio station or shuffle through a random assortment of Lee Morgan recordings. But sometimes it’s tough to find the right syntax to play a specific tune off a specific album. If you know exactly what you want to play before you start, Bluetooth or a dedicated WiFi streamer is a better choice.

In short, if you have a stereo you love, there’s no need to junk it in order to get the latest technologies. Just choose one of the above options, plug it in, and enjoy the sweet sound of your revitalized system.

Brent Butterworth

Brent Butterworth has been a professional audio journalist since 1989, and has evaluated and measured thousands of audio products. He is currently a writer at Wirecutter and editor of the SoundStage Solo headphone site; served as an editor at such magazines as Sound & Vision and Home Theater; and worked as marketing director for Dolby Laboratories. He also plays double bass with several jazz groups in Los Angeles.