There are many ways you can send music from your computer to your stereo. Depending on what type of audio equipment you use, and how your system is set up, you may choose a different method. Each of these methods addresses a different type of setup, such as whether your amplifier or receiver has an onboard DAC, or whether you use a standalone DAC.
Note that the first method is the only way of sending analog audio to a stereo device; all the other methods below send digital audio. If you want to send multi-channel audio to your receiver or amplifier, then you must use a digital connector of some sort. You’ll want to do this if you have audio SACDs with surround sound, or if you also play movies from your computer to the stereo device.
Amplifiers and receivers have lots of connections, and the most complex – AV receivers – give you plenty of options, but less feature-rich devices offer fewer connectors. Here’s the back of my AV receiver, Yamaha’s RX-V679, with its plethora of connectors, including analog RCA, optical (Toslink), coaxial, HDMI, and Ethernet:
Here’s a list of 10 ways you can connect your computer to a stereo.
- The easiest method is to use a cable that has a 1/8″ headphone jack at one end, to connect to your computer, and a pair of RCA plugs at the other, to connect to your amplifier or receiver. All amplifiers and receivers have several pairs of RCA jacks, and you generally connect a computer to the AUX pair. This method is inexpensive and simple to use, and the headphone jack can plug into any computer, and most any other device that can play music. (With the notable exception of the iPhone 7.) Cables like this are available at many lengths, and you can add extension cables if you need something even longer. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
- For computers that have a digital audio output (all current Macs offer this, but I’m not sure how prevalent it is on the Windows side), you can use a mini Toslink to Toslink cable. This assumes, of course, that your amplifier or receiver has a Toslink input. You’ll only find this on receivers or amplifiers that contain an onboard DAC (digital-analog connector), because the optical audio is digital and needs to be converted. The advantage to Toslink is that the audio is very clean; you won’t have any of that crackle you may get from the plug in the headphone jack if it’s not seated correctly, or if the jack is a bit old and corroded. You can get a mini Toslink to Toslink cable in lengths from 3 to 25 feet, and they’ve become surprisingly affordable. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
- Some computers have soundcards with a digital coaxial jack. This is essentially an RCA jack, but that sends digital data. Many receivers and amplifiers that have onboard DACs have a coaxial jack as well. This cable can also transport video from devices, such as streaming boxes. Cables for this are inexpensive. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK)
- If your computer has an HDMI output, and you use an AV receiver, which has several HDMI inputs, you can connect the two with an HDMI cable. This sends digital audio to the receiver, but you can also use it if you’re playing video from the computer. Apple’s Mac mini has an HDMI connector, and its small form factor makes it an excellent hub for digital media, in part because of this HDMI connector. The Mac mini also has both optical/analog audio in and out, so you can use it with a Toslink cable for audio, if you wish.
- If your receiver or amplifier has a USB plug, then you can simply use a USB cable between it and your computer. As with method 2 above, devices only have this jack if they have an onboard DAC. Amps and receivers generally have a USB-B connector (the squarish one), so you need a cable that has USB-A male at one end, and USB-B male at the other. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Note that you can’t connect a computer to a stereo using a USB connector on the front. That’s designed for media players or hard drives, and doesn’t accept streamed audio.
- If your amplifier or receiver has an Ethernet jack, you can connect your computer to it with an Ethernet cable. However, you can’t just run a cable from the computer to the stereo; it needs to go through a hub to get a network address. This method works if your computer and stereo are in the same room with your router, but in other situations, it’s more complicated. (See method 9 for a variant on this.)
- If you use a DAC between your computer and your amplifier or receiver, then you can connect the former to the DAC using either a Toslink cable or a USB cable. You then run RCA cables from the DAC to the stereo. Some DACs offer just USB connectivity; some also offer Toslink connectivity.
- If your receiver or amplifier has the ability to receive streamed audio, then you can “connect” your computer to it without a cable. Using AirPlay or Bluetooth (if the device is within range for the latter), you can stream audio to the amp or receiver. Some stereos have these technologies built in; some offer the possibility to purchase a wi-fi adapter, so you can use AirPlay.
- This method is a bit of a hybrid, combining methods 6 and 8 above; it’s what I use in my office. If you have an amplifier or receiver that supports AirPlay but does not have wi-fi, you can use a powerline adapter to connect the stereo device via Ethernet, and stream from your computer. Music uses very little bandwidth – even if it’s high-resolution – so you can get a fairly inexpensive powerline adapter. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK) Connect one of these to your router, and the other to your amplifier or receiver. If you use iTunes with AirPlay, the app will see the device on the network and stream to it. I find the quality of streaming is better with a powerline adapter than over wi-fi, even for audio devices that have built-in wi-fi, since their antennae are generally not that good.
- You can also stream to a device that is then connected to your stereo; for example, an Apple TV, AirPort Express, or Chromecast. In this case, you’d connect that latter device to the stereo using one of the methods above. The Apple TV 4 only offers HDMI out, but the now-defunct third-generation Apple TV also supports optical audio via a Toslink jack. The AirPort Express has a headphone jack, offering analog and optical audio, as does the Chromecast Audio. Other Chromecast devices have HDMI out. There are also a number of other streaming devices, mostly designed for video, which may support audio. You can use any of these devices that connects via HDMI if you have an AV amplifier or receiver.
Have I left any out? If so, feel free to mention your alternate methods in the comments.