10 Ways to Connect Your Computer to a Stereo

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:

Rx v679

Here’s a list of 10 ways you can connect your computer to a stereo.

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.)
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.
  10. 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.

22 thoughts on “10 Ways to Connect Your Computer to a Stereo

  1. I use a couple Airport Expresses, one connected directly to the stereo, and the other connected to an FM transmitter. How will Apple’s abandonment of its networking hardware impact the ability to stream through these (or similar) devices?

    • I currently use AirPlay over Ethernet to my office receiver, which is where I listen the most. It sounds a bit better than over copper wires, because of the DAC in the receiver. I chose this option to not have a cable from my iMac’s headphone jack to the receiver.

      • thanks – my current receiver is old JVC with TOSlink input that I use AirPlay to Apple TV (3rd gen). The “soundstage” of the TOSlink vs. the HDMItoTV,opticalToReceiver is different and better. Too many ways to skin the cats. Vintage 2000 DAC is probably not so hot either.

  2. Hi, regarding #10, the Apple TV 3rd gen has a full size Toslink jack. I don’t think it has a 3.5mm headphone jack. Google ‘Apple TV toslink’ for images. I’ve bought two in eBay specifically for this feature.

  3. Kirk, I am in the market right now for a new 2 channel stereo receiver or a Pioneer XC-HM86 network player but here is one thing I’m unsure of.

    If you take the Yamaha RN602, it has a dedicated front USB and in the manual it lists all of the Ipod devices it is compatible with, basically all of them and adds the ability for you to control the music through the Ipod itself and not the receiver which is what I am seeking, I want to use the receiver’s DAC to improve the sound but control things on the Ipod Classic 7th gen itself.

    However on the Pioneer XC-HM86 it only has a USB port on the back and nothing in the manual about direct connections and control to an Ipod.

    This is true of many other receivers as well, only a small minority actually mention the direct Ipod connection as a feature, even ones that have that front facing USB port.

    I believe even the Yamaha 402 you reviewed does not specifically mention an Ipod direct connection. So my question is if the receiver only has a rear facing USB port or a front/rear one but does not mention Ipod support, can you still connect your Ipod Classic through any USB and utilize the receiver’s DAC? And would you still have the ability to control the music through the Ipod itself?

    Perhaps the only difference with the Yamaha 602 is that it offers one the ability to connect the Ipod and control it through the receiver or control the music through the receiver’s remote?

    Thanks.

    • I reviewed the 301; it has no USB, front or back. As far as I understand, a front USB connector is for things like an iPod or a flash drive, and a rear connector will allow you to stream music via the internal DAC. They work differently, in that the one that can read from a device shows its director tree, and the other just accepts an audio stream. But confirm with the device’s manual to make sure.

  4. Kirk, I’m trying to improve the sound on 256 kpbs mp3’s, 3.5mm to red/white analog connection to my stereo, if the new receiver does not allow a direct connection to utilize its internal chips, do you have two recommendations, expensive and budget type of external dac that Icould connect to the receiver?

  5. I’ve used the line output and the Mac TOSLINK and USB outputs into a DAC local to the computer. All work well. I’ve moved from using Airport Expresses for streaming to Raspberry Pi single board computers with directly-connected DACs or digital converters. After experimenting with a number of OS/software approaches on the RPi, I’ve settled on piCorePlayer with Logitech Media Server. You can build a streamer based on the Pi Zero and a JustBoom PiHAT for less than $40 USD.
    Rather than a receiver in my computer room, I now have powered speakers with a coaxial S/PDIF input. I was using a USB-digital converter with both TOSLINK and S/PDIF outputs, but am now using an RPi with a HFiBerry DigiPlus. This allows me to control those speakers using the same software as the rest of the house.
    The beauty of the piCorePlayer/LMS system is that it remains compatible with iTunes and even supports AirPlay using Shairport Sync if desired. It also works with Airfoil if you have sources of music on your computer outside of iTunes and want to use Airplay. There are also iOS and Android remote control apps for LMS. I use a combination of both WiFi and Ethernet for network connections, although Ethernet is preferred due to the reliability of the connection.

  6. I have a wired Gigabit network in the house and a Network Switch connected to the Router. I have a NAS on the network and it contains all my music files. I’m looking to buy a receiver with an internal DAC and Ethernet port. I also plan to buy a computer running ROON ROCK. Can I stream my music to such a receiver through the network (I don’t want to use WiFi) or am I missing something?

  7. I wish t connect my laptop (windows 10) to external DAC which is connected to my stereo system I will us USB connection. I believe that the laptop with need a “programe/app”. Is this correct? If so does, can I utilise Windows Media Player or do I need to download another program< such as?r

  8. in response to kirkmc:
    There are many ways you can send music from a computer to your audio system.

    Yes i know there are. My question is what program(s), Could you give me some examples?

    Thank you.

  9. Looking for advice on how to proceed with my Audio Server setup.

    Here is the current status:
    1. My house is wired with CAT6 going to a 16-port Gigabit Switch. I also have the house fully wired with RG-6 for video (and possibly audio, see below)
    2. I have just acquired a Synology DS218+ NAS which is to be used as storage and back-up.
    3. I have an almost new Denon AVR-X1500H Receiver and do not intend to replace it. This what I know about it:
    • The receiver has a Digital Audio (Coax) input
    • The receiver has an Ethernet port.
    • Can receive audio (in my case FLAC files) streaming from a DNLA compliant server.
    4. I also happen to have an Intel NUC7i3BNH with 64GB SSD, 8GB Ram and a built -in 500GB HDD. I could use that and also keep my music (about 25,000 FLAC files) on it.

    I have been thinking of using Roon ROCK on the NUC but I’m not sure yet due to the fact the software license is almost $500. I understand there are other Media Player software out there that could serve me well and cost less?

    Q1. I assume if I use the NUC setup that I can stream my music directly to the receiver via Ethernet and using any compatible device such as my Android tablet to select music and view music information?
    Q2. I’m also contemplating getting a Raspberry Pi3 Model 3 and connect with an ALLO DigiOne Signature so that I could connect to my receiver’s digital coax input via my CAT6 coax cable. Cost is very reasonable for this hardware at $239! Is this a better idea?
    Q3. Or could I perhaps use the NAS (installing the music files there)? If so which Media Server software will work well on my NAS and does not cost a fortune.
    Q4. Which of the above approaches would you recommend?
    Q5. Which is most future proof or flexible (I do not wish to make a lot of equipment changes later)?
    Q6. Which one is most flexible in regard to selecting and providing information on the music played to a portable device and/or perhaps also showing it directly on my TV screen (a brand new LG OLED)?

    Thankful for any advice/ Bjorn

  10. Thanks for advice! That’s fine but I’m looking for the better setup given the equipment I already have or can get in addition as indicated in my post.

    I’m a bit technically oriented but I’m not willing to spend a great deal of time testing out different ideas. Thus I’m looking to get something that works well for a long time and not so inclined to test something and then “advance” to the next option. That may very well be my only option but I rather spend my time listening to music.

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