Monday, November 7, 2016

Audio Solutions for your Retro Gaming Setup

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Polk RTI A1 speakers paired with a Topping TP22 Amplifier

Audio always seems to get the short end of the stick when it comes to games. They're primarily a visual medium, and endless debates abound on the internet on getting the best graphics and picture possible (and for good reason!). The interesting thing though is that when I think back to my fondest memories of games, many are actually the sounds and songs that played over and over while I was immersed in their worlds. The melodies of classics like The Legend of Zelda, Mega Man, Contra and many more will be forever burned into my memory.

Don't let me fool you though, I was just as guilty of ignoring the audio portion of the equation for a long time. When I first put a CRT setup together, I grabbed the quickest and easiest thing to get audio working: an old set of computer speakers. They're actually a great solution for many reasons that we'll go over below, but they just weren't cutting it for the long term. In my quest for the ultimate audio setup, I explored a few alternative options that I have presented here in this guide for your convenience. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but should cover at least the most popular options.

Before we continue on, I will just say that I don't think there's any one perfect option for all setups. It all depends heavily on your preference, budget, and space. Also, since this article is strictly focused on retro game systems, we will only be considering solutions for a stereo line-level device. Space is usually the highest priority, so I have ordered the options roughly from the least amount of space required to the most.


A. HEADPHONES

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro

If you're in a space where you can't make any noise, or you're just looking for the best audio bang for the buck, then headphones may be for you. There are many different styles of headphones like in ear, on ear, over ear and even whether they're open or closed. Each has its own benefits, but I will leave this research up to the reader to find the best solution for themself.

The one thing you will need in addition to the headphones is a headphone amplifier. While you can get sound on headphones straight from the stereo line, a proper headphone amp will fully power the larger drivers in pro sets and allow you to set the volume to the optimum level.

Pros
  • Best audio for dollars spent
  • Best space efficiency
  • No noise to bother others

Cons
  • Single-player only
  • Can be uncomfortable for extended periods
  • Requires amplifier


Headphones (Ex.)

Pair with a Headphone Amplifier (Ex.)



B. COMPUTER SPEAKERS

Creative T20 Series II

Computer speakers are a great solution for those looking for something quick and easy. They're small and easy to place, magnetically shielded so you can get them near a CRT, and powered so you don't have to worry about an amp or receiver. The one major downside though is that the sound quality can be lacking on most sets. Finding a set with a good mid-range can be a challenge since most are either tinny from their small size, or boomy from the addition of a sub-woofer that's meant to give the impression of a fuller-range sound.

Pros
  • Small footprint
  • Amplifier built-in
  • Magnetically-shielded

Cons
  • Poorest overall sound quality


Computer Speakers (Ex.)



C. STUDIO MONITORS

KRK Rokit Family (photo courtesy of KRK)

Studio monitors are similar to computer speakers in that they're powered and shielded, but they're designed specifically for professionals doing audio work. When engineers mix music they need a flat, accurate sound. Mixes produced this way have a much better chance of sounding good on many different kinds of sound systems (ie. car, home stereo, TV speakers, headphones, etc.). Studio monitors are made for a very specific purpose, and personally, I can't recommend them for general entertainment. They have a very flat sound, and depending on the set and the person they can come across as harsh, making them fatiguing to listen to for extended periods.

Pros
  • Very accurate sound reproduction
  • Amplifier built-in
  • Magnetically-shielded

Cons
  • Flat sound can be fatiguing for extended periods


Studio Monitors (Ex.)



D. BOOKSHELF SPEAKERS

Polk RTI A1

Bookshelf speakers are a great compromise for those looking for a bigger, warmer sound in a small space. However, not all bookshelf speakers are magnetically shielded to protect your CRT (be sure to verify!) and require an external amplifier to power them. For the Bookshelf's smaller size I would recommend the small Class T amplifiers. These tiny amplifiers started out as super efficient car audio amps, then made the transition to the bedroom. Audiophiles love them for their clean, accurate sound, and if you don't need a bunch of inputs or high wattage they're a great solution.

Pros
  • Warmer, fuller range sound compared to computer speakers
  • Good bass reproduction

Cons
  • Not all sets are magnetically-shielded
  • Requires amplifier


Shielded Bookshelf Speakers (Ex.)

Pair with a Class T Amplifier (Ex.)

E. FLOORSTANDING SPEAKERS

Onkyo SKF-4800 (photo courtesy of Onkyo)

For the biggest sound, you'll want to go with Floorstanding speakers. These speakers generally have several drivers in them and great bass reproduction. The biggest downsides though are the space and power required. The Class T amp suggested for the bookshelf speakers probably won't cut it, so you'll want to move up to a full-on receiver. Again, if you're getting them close to the CRT make sure they're magnetically-shielded since not all sets are.

Pros
  • Biggest, fullest sound
  • Excellent bass reproduction

Cons
  • Need a lot of space
  • Not all sets are magnetically-shielded
  • Requires a large amplifier


Shielded Floorstanding Speakers (Ex.)

Pair with Stereo Amp/Receiver (Ex.)

CONCLUSION

Hopefully this article was able to present some good options for you in your quest for the ultimate retro setup. There are of course even more options out there, so if there's anything you'd like to see here let me know!


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