I was bitten by the audiophile bug at a relatively young age. When I was in my early teens, my parents purchased me a high-end stereo system complete with tuner, equalizer, dual cassette deck, 25-disc CD changer and massive three-way floorstanding speakers. Some 25 years later, I haven’t the foggiest why they gifted me the system as I hadn’t shown much interest in music up to that point and I know without a doubt that they couldn’t afford it. Nevertheless, I listened to it faithfully and eventually developed both a love for music and an ability to tell when something sounds good and when it doesn’t.
I never got around to exploring the ins and outs of audio equipment as console gaming, computers and photography consumed much of my free time over the past two decades. Recently, however, an opportunity to further tinker with my sound system presented itself and I couldn’t pass it up.
I recently picked up a set of the same floorstanding speakers I had as a teen. As a side project, I turned my attention to my Logitech G51 PC speakers. This was a very popular gaming speaker setup years ago when I bought it, but have been using them in a 2.1 channel configuration connected to my desktop for a while now.
The Logitech satellite speakers feature dual two-inch drivers with a maximum power output of 20 watts at 8 ohms. The subwoofer packs a 5.25-inch driver rated at 56 watts at 2 ohms. The system also includes a handy control pod for your desk to adjust master volume, subwoofer level, center and surround levels and to mute the setup. There’s even an integrated headphone and microphone jack. Logitech says that as a whole, you can expect a frequency response of 36Hz to 20kHz.
It’s your run-of-the-mill desktop speaker setup. I like it because it sounds good and the control pod is quite helpful. But like all systems, there’s room for improvement and with this article, I aim to piece together a “DIY” system to see if I can compile something that sounds even better without breaking the bank.
You'll need a few key components when assembling an audio system of this nature -- namely, a set of passive speakers, an amplifier to supply power to the speakers, and preferably -- especially if you opt for smaller bookshelf style speakers -- a subwoofer to furnish those deeper bass tones. Passive speakers simply means they don't have a built-in amp like active or powered speakers do.
It's worth emphasizing that a DIY setup is absolutely not necessary. All-in-one systems from the likes of Logitech, Creative and Bose are perfectly suitable for most people and most uses. But if you're like me -- the hobbyist type that strives for "above average," you really like music or you just can't help but traverse the next rabbit hole -- well, you'll understand.
When I purchased my home A/V receiver (a Pioneer VSX-519V) about 11 years ago, I also picked up a pair of Insignia NS-B2111 bookshelf speakers and a Polk Audio SW110 subwoofer. They were all on sale as a package deal so I figured, why not, it’ll be great for console gaming.
As it turns out, it was a bit too much for someone living in close proximity to others. Alas, I had to put the sub in storage and tune out all of the bass from the bookshelf speakers to appease the neighbors. They essentially became glorified TV speakers for the next decade.
Now that I’m in a house without neighbors living on top of me, I wanted to see what the Insignias could really do.
Unbeknownst to me until years later, the Insignia bookshelf speakers developed a bit of a cult following within the audio enthusiast community for their sound quality compared to categorically similar -- but much more expensive -- speakers. Heck, there are even guides on how to upgrade the internals for even better performance, but perhaps I'll save that for another time.
I don’t recall how much they sold for at the time but I believe the bundle with the receiver, sub and speakers was around $400 total.
Insignia has long since discontinued these speakers although you can pick up a pre-owned pair on eBay for around $70. They feature a 6.5-inch carbon fiber woofer and a 1-inch silk dome tweeter with a frequency response of 50Hz to 20kHz, sensitivity of 90 dB and maximum power handling of 120 watt at 8 ohms.
Next, I had to figure out how to power them. The logical solution would be to move the Pioneer A/V receiver from the living room to my office but that presented a few issues. The receiver would take up a huge chunk of space on my desk but as I confirmed through auditioning the floorstanding speakers, it was lacking in the power department.
I looked around for a receiver with more power but the results were disheartening. Most of the A/V receivers I found prioritized channel count over power output. Other candidates were out of my price range. And really, none of them would work well for this project as they’d consume a lot of real estate on my desk.
What I needed was a purpose-built device that was both compact and affordable. What I needed was a mini amplifier and that’s exactly what I got.
The Fosi Audio BT20A is a mini Class D power amplifier with built-in Bluetooth connectivity. It’s rated for 100W RMS x 2 and features a front-mounted power switch as well as volume, treble and bass dials. Around back, you get left and right RCA source inputs, left and right speaker outputs, a 24V power jack and an antenna for Bluetooth... all in a chassis that’s hardly any bigger than two decks of playing cards and all for less than $80.
To say that I was highly skeptical was an understatement. How this tiny box was going to supply the power I needed was beyond me and even if it could, it was probably going to sound like absolute garbage. I found solace in the nearly 375 Amazon reviews and average 4.4-star rating, however. If it stunk, I could just send it back, I told myself.
I next turned my attention to the audio source. My dated PC is equipped with a Sound Blaster X-Fi Xtreme card supporting a sampling rate of 96KHz and a bit depth of 24 bit. There are far better cards out there but for the purpose of this project, this card should do just fine.
Setting everything up was a simple enough affair. Using 16 gauge speaker wire, I connected the Insignias to the mini amplifier with banana plugs. A 3.5mm-to-RCA wire handled the connection between my computer and the amp. I then connected the AC adapter, plugged it into my battery backup and was off to the races.
My initial impressions were mixed.
The Fosi Audio mini amplifier absolutely blew my socks off. It has power for days and is incredibly easy to set up and use, even for someone with very little experience with audio equipment. The bass and treble dials offer basic but meaningful control over the output. I keep the amp’s volume dial at about 35 percent and adjust accordingly using the slider on the PC or the volume dial on my keyboard.
I’ve only been brave enough to turn the amp to about 45 percent with the Insignias. That’s way louder than I’d ever listen to (it’s clearly audible on the opposite side of the house) yet remains crystal clear with no distortion or clipping. Even after extended listening sessions, the amp is never more than lukewarm to the touch. I do wish it had a remote control for use in non-desk settings (like as a A/V receiver replacement) but beggars can’t be choosers.
The issue I found – and it wasn’t entirely unexpected – is that the bookshelf speakers simply don’t put out much bass.
Cranking the bass dial on the amp does have a noticeable impact but it delivers more of a light, punchy effect at mid-range settings and an artificial, undesirable sound at higher levels. Either way, it’s not the booming bass the system is needing to make it complete and that was a problem.
Fosi Audi sells a 2.1 channel amp but that doesn’t really help me as it is for passive subwoofers and supplies only 50W x 2 on the main channels – half of what the BT201A is capable of. I racked my brain but the solution was staring me in the face the whole time – the Logitech subwoofer!
The subwoofer serves as the main hub for the Logitech system. Everything plugs into – and out of – the sub. And connection is dead simple – just run a 3.5mm cable from the audio out on the sound card, connect the control pod and plug in any speakers you wish to use.
Using a 3.5mm splitter, I ran one line to the Fosi Audio amp and the other to the back of the subwoofer, except I didn’t plug in the satellite speakers. Voila! I now had the deep bass the setup was so desperately lacking. And really, it works even better than I could have anticipated as the Logitech control pod lets me dial in the bass strength and volume without having to fiddle with any settings on the back of the sub.
I’ve used a handful of computer speaker systems over the years – the infamous Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 comes to mind – but this DIY setup is by far the best. From the clarity and separation of instruments to the lack of noise in the line and the sheer power, this Frankenstein system has it all. Everything I've queued up using Amazon's new high-end streaming tier sounds excellent. I absolutely love it which is why it pains me to not be able to recommend it to others unless you happen to already own most of the components like I do.
Assuming you are starting with a blank slate, the speakers would set you back about $70, the Fosi Audio amp is roughly $80 and a respectable sound card is probably going to be about $40.
With only these components, you’re almost at $200 and that doesn’t include a bass. Presumably, a powered subwoofer could be wired up using the line-in but I’m not certain. That’s easily another $100 or more if you don’t already have one. You can buy a pretty nice desktop audio system for $300.
If you’re the type that prefers a minimalist look, something like this may not be for you. The bookshelf speakers are roughly 8.5 inches x 13.5 inches tall and take up a decent amount of space on my large desk. Worse yet, the Fosi Audio amp has a lot of unsightly wires running out the back of it and in my case, the Logitech control pod is yet another accessory consuming real estate. Fortunately, I already owned most of the necessary components and only had to come out of pocket about $80 for the mini amp.
For some, the real appeal of a setup like this is in the flexibility of it all. With a pre-configured system, you know exactly what you are - and aren't - getting. When piecing it together yourself, the sky is the limit in terms of customization as there are a near infinite number of combinations you could go with.
Should the Insignia speakers featured here not be to your liking, you could just as easily substitute them for the Polk Audio T15 bookshelf speakers ($99), the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR bookshelf speakers (also $99), Klipsch's R-15M bookshelf ($158) or the more expensive Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2s ($224.98), all of which are highly regarded. Optionally, you could grab something used via eBay or Craigslist, if you're feeling that confident.
The same can be said for the amp and subwoofer. As mentioned before, Fosi has a mini amp to accommodate passive subwoofers and even a tube-style amp that no doubt offers a different sound altogether. Or heck, if you have the room, you could even swap out the bookshelf speakers for a pair of floorstanding loudspeakers and eliminate the need for a standalone subwoofer. It all boils down to how involved you get, what you already have on hand and how much money you want to spend.
If you are in a similar boat and like tinkering with audio equipment, give it a shot. This setup is leaps and bounds better than anything else I’ve auditioned and I look forward to the smiles it’ll bring me in the future.