Since I’ve had a big interest in audio gear, quality, etc. for a long time now, I always like to help out and share my experience/knowledge in the field when I can. Interest in my introduction topic made me realize that offering some general advice would be a good idea for those of you looking to improve your audio/listening/music situations.
So let’s get started, then!
The first thing I should tell you is my personal philosophy behind why audio quality is important. Say you have an MP3 on your desktop and you want to listen to it, so you open it up. But wait… it doesn’t sound like you think it will - the bass is all muddy, the high frequencies are tinny and almost hurt like they’re piercing your ears, and the midrange is nonexistent. On top of that, when the song gets loud or changes drastically, you can hear distortion - and maybe the volume of the song is even “squished” at high volumes, or doesn’t change even though the song is “supposed” to be quieter.
This is the unfortunate reality of the vast majority of people’s audio setups today - they just don’t have the knowledge, equipment, or music sources to be able to listen at any meaningful quality.
The idea with anything that reproduces or handles an audio signal is that the original source audio should not be altered in any way - that way, you are (ideally) hearing EXACTLY what the source sounds like. It is a very hard task for audio equipment to reproduce sound to that level of accuracy, which is why so much cheap crap exists in the industry.
So hopefully, with my post here, I’ll be able to help some of you combat the terrifyingly low standards of the masses and get you to be listening to some real good stuff.
Audio Bit Rate and Sources
Digital audio has what’s called a bit rate - that is, the rate at which bits of audio data are delivered to the output device. If you were listening to tape or vinyl, the bit rate would technically be “unlimited” - however, with digital, you have to worry about codecs, file size, etc. One of the most common codecs is MP3 - perhaps you’ve heard of it - and it has a maximum bit rate of 320Kbps (Kilobits per second - 1 kilobit is 1000 bits). That means that exactly 320,000 bits of digital audio data are being delivered - every 1 second - from the file to the audio circuit inside your computer.
That may sound like a high number, but it’s actually right in the middle. Most people who aren’t thinking about it can’t really tell much of a difference between 320Kbps and anything higher than that - partially due to lack of knowledge, but also majorly due to the lack of equipment that would be able to reproduce the actual fidelity of a higher quality bit rate.
WAV format is usually at 1411Kbps, for example, and FLAC/ALAC formats are technically lossless, meaning that they (supposedly) do not omit any audio data from the original source.
The easiest (and cheapest - it can be free) way to immediately improve the quality of whatever you’re listening to is to listen to higher bit rate source audio! Here’s a breakdown of popular audio services and their audio qualities:
- YouTube SD (480p and below): 128Kbps AAC VBR (variable bit rate, which means that it is not always the same bit rate and frequently drops way lower), compressed and limited for volume normalization
- YouTube HD (720p and above): Anywhere between 128 and 160 Kbps AAC VBR, compressed and limited for volume normalization
- Spotify (free tier): “Normal” = 96Kbps MP3, “High” = 160Kbps MP3, both compressed and limited for volume normalization (noticing a trend here?)
- Spotify Premium: 320Kbps AAC
- iTunes Music Store: 256Kbps AAC
- Google Play Music: 320Kbps AAC
- Amazon Prime/MP3: 256Kbps VBR, with a hard-to-find, non-permanent setting to stream at constant 256 Kbps
- Soundcloud: 128Kbps MP3
- Discord: Default = 40Kbps Opus, Highest = 96Kbps Opus, both extremely compressed for voice only (partnered Discord servers are able to go up to 128Kbps, but it’s still compressed/processed in a really weird way that degrades quality)
- Pandora: 128Kbps AAC, very compressed for low bandwidth usage
As you can see, there are few services that actually get anywhere near “listenable”. Choosing one that is will instantly improve the audio quality of your listening source material.
A couple of great places to buy digital music that is of high quality are HDTracks, Bandcamp, and Beatport. All offer at least WAV downloads, with HDTracks and Bandcamp also offering FLAC (lossless). You can, of course, always buy a CD (WAV) or vinyl (analog, uncompressed) copy of what you want to listen to as well.
Output From Your Computer - What’s a DAC, Anyway?
The next step in improving the metaphorical “audio chain” that the audio signal takes from its source (a file) to its destination (your ears) is the actual output of the audio itself from your computer. Let’s explore what could be happening to the signal on its way.
The vast majority of people just plug their headphones into the nearest available 3.5mm jack and call it a day. However, they never think about the quality of…
- the jack itself,
- the actual circuitry that is generating the signal at the jack,
- the circuitry that is doing the conversion from digital audio to analog electrical signals for your headphones to reproduce,
- anything that could be interfering with said signal/circuitry.
Think about it… Do you REALLY trust the headphone jack inside your “gamer keyboard” or “gamer monitor”? You shouldn’t. The ONLY expectation with built-in headphone jacks in things like PC cases, keyboards, etc. is that “it makes sound”. That’s it… and that’s scary. The quality of said sound makes absolutely no difference to the people making it, since the expectation is so low.
So what if there were a way to bypass said jack, circuitry, etc., and instead use an audio circuit you CAN trust? Turns out there is! It’s called an External DAC, and it’s pretty accessible and affordable. DAC stands for Digital-Analog Converter, and it does exactly what it says - it will convert the digital audio (being read from the file on your computer) into an analog electrical signal that can be sent through your headphone wire to the electromagnetic coils inside the headphone drivers.
After all, that’s how headphones and speakers work - an electromagnetic coil is producing DC and causing a magnet to rapidly attract towards/repel away from it, at EXACT frequencies, and due to it being attached to a diaphragm in the headphone it will cause said diaphragm to vibrate and produce sound.
If you buy and use an external DAC, you can effectively circumvent the built-in audio circuit(s) of your computer and instead use one that is guaranteed to be of high quality. I’ve made a couple recommendations below, but by no means is this an exhaustive list.
- FiiO D03K: This is the smallest and least expensive high-quality DAC I’ve ever seen. I have one myself and use it at my TV for my console play. It does require that your motherboard be able to output either S/PDIF coaxial or TOSLINK digital optical, which look like this and this, respectively. It also only has a left/right RCA output (the “red and white” audio cable), so you’ll need a separate headphone amp if you plan on using this. More on headphone amps later.
- FiiO E10K: This is an all-in-one DAC and headphone amp from FiiO, and it’s a very, very good one for the price. Volume control, 3-position gain switch for headphones of varying wattage sensitivity, and even a BASS switch for those of you who need some extra “oomph”.
- Audioengine D1: The D1 is great if you have both headphones and speakers; it has outputs for both. A little more expensive, but if the application works out for your setup, it’s great.
Now we come to the most hotly contested subject in audio - the actual thing that makes the sound! I am likely going to present a few somewhat “controversial” points here, just to warn you. And the first one of those is…
If your headphones are marketed as “gamer” in any way, they are not high quality. That’s right- Turtle Beach, Steelseries, Razer… you name it. Most of these headphones/headsets’ marketing techniques consist of how cool you look when you wear them, or how easy they are to plug in, or how many buttons they have built into sides of the earpieces. None of those have anything to do with how well they accurately reproduce sound.
No, Beats are not good. Monster has been known for a very long time now to be horrendously overpriced for what they deliver, and Beats are no exception. The fact that they got bought by Apple has made no difference in their quality. I’ve tried a few pairs and it’s sounded like I’m stuck in a large, echo-y bathroom with water blocking my ear canals. No joke.
Bose isn’t good either. Even Bose’s half decent stuff, like their Model 301, 501, and 901 speakers, have a large percentage of the audio community hating them. Again, they’re horribly overpriced for what you’re getting (which isn’t much). Sure, the noise cancellation can be nice if you’re traveling… but that’s what you aren’t hearing, not what you are hearing. The actual audio reproduction of Bose equipment is bad. The same goes for Logitech - sorry, but those dinky 2-inch PC speakers just aren’t going to cut it.
That being said, it is NOT difficult and NOT expensive to get yourself a pair of respected, high-quality headphones that will sound SO much better than anything you’ve ever heard before. You’ll actually be hearing things in the music you listen to that you’ve never heard before - including the poor quality of any low bitrate files you may have! Below is a (again, non-exhaustive) list of some inexpensive highlights for headphones.
- Sennheiser HD202 II: I don’t know how they do it. These things are actually pretty good for how cheap they are. Far, far better than any “gamer”, Beats, or Bose headphones.
- AKG Pro K77: Again. I have no idea how these are so inexpensive. I am an AKG fanboy through and through, and these do not disappoint.
- Grado SR80e: If you like rock music, you sure will love a pair of Grados. They’re great for the type of audio processing that the typical rock song has on it. Also, Grados have a very “cult” following and there is LOTS of modding that you can do to a pair, so if you like tinkering and upgrading you will want to own, destroy, repair, upgrade, etc. some Grados.
- AKG K240: The original revisions of the K240 are still in use in radio stations around the world. They are a truly legendary headphone and continue to be such today. I was speaking with a radio engineer at Interlochen Public Radio (in northern Michigan) a couple years back, and he had this to say about his personal K240’s: “They just don’t lie. You hear what’s there and nothing more, nothing less.” That’s a pretty good compliment. They also have a detachable, replaceable cable.
- Beyerdynamic DT-990: These are some big mamas but they do the job extremely well. Accurate sound reproduction is no problem for them, given adequate amplification.
- Etymotic Research MC5: These are an in-ear monitor (also known as “earbuds”, kinda), so they’re better for on-the-go or more subtle, portable applications. But they are no slouch and reproduce very well. You can pay a bit extra to get a pair with a smartphone remote integrated into the cable.
- thinksound rain2: Another in-ear, and a really, really good-sounding one too. I have a pair of thinksounds (the MS01 to be exact) and they sound so wonderful and warm, with absolutely no distortion. The company also uses all green materials and packaging. A fantastic choice for in-ears.
Chances are if you buy a pair of headphoens and a DAC you’re going to need decent amplification to adequately drive them. Otherwise, with an underpowered pair of headphones, they will sound very tinny and unpleasant, with no real dynamic contrast in the sound (a.k.a. everything will sound very “compressed”, as though there are no louds or softs).
If you just have a small pair of in-ears plugged into your phone, that’s really all you need - but if you’re trying to drive a big pair of headphones with a signal coming out of a DAC you’re going to need something heftier.
- Little Dot I+: I had to start with Little Dot because I own the MkII. It’s a really great little tube amp and makes my AKG K702’s sing with all types of music and sound. The I+ is a fantastic option as well and is a little more “accessible” in terms of what headphones you can use it with, while still giving that warm tube sound.
- FiiO A3 Portable: That’s right, this one is portable, which means you can easily use it with a laptop, tablet, or phone, and also with some in-eras.
- CMOY Portable: This thing is hilarious. It’s made inside an actual Altoids tin and is completely portable as well. Curiously strong.
- Bravo Audio V2: Another great little hybrid tube amp, and a bit less expensive than the Little Dot models, although not as rock-solid in terms of build quality. Bravo’s higher-up offerings are a little less DIY in feel.
Anyway… that’s about it. I hope my sharing of experience and knowledge is able to get some of you folks into some higher quality audio, since I have a real passion for it that I love to share. Let me know if you have any questions or need recommendations for something.