How to rehabilitate your lossy life by getting better sound from your digital audio files without breaking the bank.
In his piece, “Sailing By Ear,” novelist and music fiend Michael Chabon (his Pulitzer Prize winning 2000 book, The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay, is one of the best American novels of the past 20 years) shared a revelation he experienced after eight years of listening to MP3s through “a pair of small, attractive podules that connected to my iMac.” One day he thought to himself, “Dude, what’s with the Fisher Price speakers? ” and realized that despite music being one of the most important things in his life, his choices of convenience over quality made his music sound like shit.
This has been a common situation for a lot of people since the late 90s, even those of the generations who grew up amassing large collections of records and CDs. The ease of acquiring MP3s (and Apple’s AAC files) and convenience of listening to them on computers, iPods and other DAPs (digital audio players) have lured them, often without thinking or even realizing it, into a crappy audio hell where their favorite music is reduced to puny mewlings from feeble speakers embedded into laptops, earbuds, and cutely designed speakers that do indeed look, and sound, like Fisher Price toys. In defense of Fisher Price, their products do what they’re intended, to withstand savage beatings from slobbery throw-things-against-the-wall toddlers. The problem with speakers marketed to the Apple/iPod/laptop market, they claim they sound “surprisingly good for their size,” but they just don’t.
Many people burned out on their lossy lives have reacted by going completely in the other direction, back to collecting vinyl. More power to them, I fully support anyone willing to spend money on music and strive toward improved fidelity. However, there’s often a misconception that all digital audio is inherently inferior, which is simply not true. Vinyl has a distinct sonic signature related to the crossfeed of signals between the grooves and distortion that inspires nostalgia for those who grew up with the sound. While I grew up with it, I’ve never really fallen under the vinyl spell. Those who think buying vinyl versions of new releases will sidestep problems with over-compression due to the loudness wars will be disappointed to learn that pretty much all new vinyl releases are cut from the exact same digital masters as CDs and digital downloads. I discussed the analog vs. digital debate back in 2007 here. Basically if you rip your CD collection to lossless (FLAC or Apple Lossless), you can get as good or better sound quality than when you played CDs. Digital-to-analog conversion technology has come a long ways since you bought your first CD player in the 80s or 90s. Some receivers even have features that can improve on sound quality of lossy MP3s. So there’s no reason to give up on your compressed audio collection.
In “Sailing By Ear,” Chabon tells the charming story of how his mother bought him his first stereo system via her audiophile ex-boyfriend, and how the Yamaha receiver, Technics turntable and Genesis speakers opened his musical world wide open. Being about seven years younger than Chabon, my audio experiences were more focused on cassettes. I started with a little AM radio from Radio Shack, and one of those tiny record players that fold up into a plastic white suitcase. In retrospect, the designs of Apple’s iPod and various accessories seem to refer back to the design of those items with their simple looks and rounded corners.
I started using cassettes before a lot of people when I made my first mix tapes by turning the balance of my mother’s Montgomery Ward stereo to one speaker and recording into the mono mic of an old cassette recorder. My grandparents’ stereo was from the 50s or early 60s, came with a shortwave radio, and resided inside a cabinet that also housed cocktail glasses. But it wasn’t exactly hi-fi. My first exposure to halfway decent component stereos were two of my uncles, Jim and Chuck. Both kept them in the downstairs family rooms, and both wired them to drive a second set of speakers upstairs. There were several occasions when I’d turn on the speakers upstairs during family gatherings and blast something like Electric Light Orchestra, resulting in someone yelling downstairs for me to turn it down. “Soorrry!” I also remember listening to uncle Chuck’s great collection of 50s and 60s rock ‘n’ roll singles on giant headphones, truly getting lost in the music.
The Sony Walkman emerged in the 80s, and my knockoff from Sears with cheap foam headphones was a far cry from my experience with my uncles’ stereos. When I got a mini stereo for my bedroom with a double cassette deck, it was actually an improvement over the old Wards stereo in the living room with the blunted needle that would mercilessly shred new records, amplifying every pop and click to distract me from the music enough to give me a nervous twitch. People of my generation probably were unfazed by the limited quality of MP3s and tiny earbuds because it was still better than the hissy tapes and Walkman knockoffs we grew up with. When I was 15 I scraped together allowance and birthday money to buy a boombox from JCPenney for about $50, probably on sale. It had a double cassette deck, but was a size you could carry around. One of the decks broke within a week, so I took it in to exchange. Because it was a catalog order, I had to wait a couple excruciating weeks. When it was time to pick it up, it was this huge box. Someone made a mistake (or was being very generous), and substituted an actual mini stereo system with around 80 watts per channel and detachable speakers. While still a far cry from real qualiity gear, it sounded ten times better than the previous small boombox, and was certainly sturdy, as it served hard labor for 9 years, and was still going strong when I left it with an ex-girlfriend. It was my first surprise taste of upgrade-itis.
When I got to college I had opportunities to hear recorded music in more ideal circumstances. I started doing a show at the college radio station, and in the studio with the professional quality monitors, I found my church. My dorm roommates and summer housemates usually had pretty good stereos too. When I moved to Chicago with a girlfriend into a fairly large apartment, the first thing I bought when I got a job was a Sony home theater receiver, Infinity speakers and subwoofer. I had those for over 15 years before they wore out and forced me to upgrade.
Like everyone else, I started acquiring MP3s in the late 90s. I didn’t use computer speakers though – I wired my computer to the stereo. Nevertheless, after one of my Infinity speakers got blown, and the Sony started failing, I upgraded to Harman/Kardon receiver with Rega R3 speakers, and AKG K701 headphones, and realized I’d been missing out big time. Infinity make good speakers, and I’ll still recommend certain models. Mine were small stand-mounted home theater speakers, and were no match for the Regas.
I learned that most people don’t bother connecting their computers to the stereos to listen to their digital files. When I read that Michael Chabon’s solution was to upgrade to Harman/Kardon Soundsticks, my response was, “oh noes.” I actually have those speakers at work. I play them at low volume as I’m in an open workspace, and they’re okay. They’re certainly ten times better than those clock radio-quality speakers you see everyone docking their iPods to. But despite the fact that they feature a very cool jellyfish-like subwoofer, there is giant mid-range hole if you ever want to turn them up for some focused listening. After 5:00 I can sometimes turn my music up, but I usually don’t bother. I’m better off using my headphones. I’d love to have better speakers, but not having an office I can lock up, I wouldn’t want to risk them getting stolen. For their list price ($170), you can get exponentially better sound. Like Chabon, Simon Reynolds, one of my favorite music writers and author of the new book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, had a similar experience and also bought the Soundsticks. While he’s as successful as a music writer can be, he’s likely on a budget just as restricted as my non-famous friends, but he’s still a professional music writer. Comic writer (Transmetropolitan, Planetary) novelist (Crooked Little Vein), mad genius and music fan Warren Ellis listens to Altec Lansing computer speakers (crap). For people who truly love music, Harman/Kardon Soundsticks, Cambridge Audio Microworks, Logitech Weesticks and Altec Lansing Smurfwicks are not much of an upgrade. Whether we write about it or not, music is a huge part of many of our lives. So why not give it the respect it deserves?
Here’s the big secret revealed. You don’t have to be an audiophile to enjoy good sound, you don’t have to be an expert to find good equipment, and you certainly don’t have to spend thousands of dollars to vastly improve on what you’ve got. While I’m picking on some of my favorite writers on their choice of speakers, I don’t mean to taunt those who can’t afford much. I obviously couldn’t afford much myself for much of my life. But there a lot of people spending a good amount of money on iCrap, when there are better solutions at similar prices, starting as low as $151 (used Yamaha receiver and new Yamaha NS6490 speakers or powered M-Audio Studiophile CX5). Similarly, I see tons of people wearing Beats by Dr. Dre headphones. They must have used a genius marketing plan on the level of Bose to sell such bog standard gear for so much, because those suckers are not cheap (Beats Solo $200, Monster Beats $230, Beats Studio $350). Beats the heck out of me why more more people don’t get better cans for half the price. I cover that further down the page.
I bought a used Yamaha HTR 5730 years ago that was just supposed to be temporary, but it’s so simple to operate, and sounds so good, I still use it in my bedroom. They have plenty of power and have driven both my Rega R3 and Wharfedale Evo 20 speakers with no problem. Yes, that’s the same company that makes the motorcycles. Yamaha began making reed pianos over 124 years ago, and are the largest manufacturer of musical instruments in the world. They claim they invented high fidelity audio, and they certainly had to have been one of the first. I certainly wished I’d gone with Yamaha instead of Sony when I bought my first receiver in 1992. The suggested models below can be found pretty easily for under $100. While they are home theater receivers, these suggestions are just for an inexpensive way to get good sound from your audio files on your computer. They don’t have all the latest and greatest HT technologies (HDMI 1.4, auto EQ, etc.). For that, I’d recommend a more current (and pricier) offering from Yamaha, Denon, Harman/Kardon, Marantz, Integra, Onkyo, Outlaw or Emotiva.
Yamaha HTR Series (Discontinued: 5730, 5750, 5830, 5930, 5950)
Google Search: HTR 5730 ($75), HTR 5830 ($83), HTR 5930 ($99)
Stereo Receivers/Integrated Amplifiers
HTRs (Home Theater Receivers) have dominated the market for over 20 years now. For most people this makes sense. Some audiophiles keep both an AVR, and a 2-channel processor with two mono-block power amplifiers dedicated to music. Folks like that went down the rabbit hole a long time ago and have no use for this article! I’m not quite there yet. The brands listed above can handle 2-channel audio just fine. However, I do a lot of my listening in my office while I work on my site, and there is no TV in that room. When I recently upgraded my living room HTR to a Marantz AV8003 pre-amp/processor, I moved the Harman/Kardon to the office and hooked it up to my Rega R3 speakers for a nice listening room dedicated to music.
In the 2-channel world, some people enjoy hunting for vintage equipment. While companies like Marantz, Harman/Kardon, Rotel, Cambridge Audio, NAD, Naim and others made some great pieces in the 70s, don’t get sucked into paying too much for them in auctions. With that age comes a greater chance of something being wrong with it. I found that again, recently discontinued Yamaha models are widely available for the most consistently good values.
Yamaha R/RX Series (Current – RX-397, R-S300, RX-497, R-S500, RX-797, R-S700)
Google Search: RX-395 ($90), RX-495 ($47)
Someday I might upgrade to an Outlaw RR2150. NAD, Rotel and Rega make receivers in a similar price range, but Outlaw is the only high-end piece to include a USB input. Emotiva offers an XDA-1 DAC Preamp that can be coupled with an amp if you don’t need a radio receiver. For an entry-level pre-amp/processor and amplifier combo, Emotiva can’t be beat at it’s price point. Both Outlaw and Emotiva are internet direct companies, so prices are closer to wholesale than the MSRP of other regular brands.
Marantz PM5004, $358
Outlaw RR2150, $700
Emotiva XDA-1 Digital-to-Analog Converter/Digital Preamplifier, $399
Emotiva USP-1 Stereo Preamplifier, $449
Emotiva UPA-2 Two Channel (125×2) Power Amplifier, $389
Desktop Audio Systems
For those who don’t have space for a full size receiver and want something that can fit on a desktop, they ironically will have to pay more for comparable quality, though the Denon and Marantz do include nice features like WiFi capabilities, iPod docking and Internet radio. These don’t include speakers, but can drive most bookshelf speakers nicely.
Yamaha CRX-330 CD receiver, $300 MSRP ($250)
Yamaha DRX-730 CD/DVD receiver, $450 MSRP ($330)
Denon RCD N7 Network CD receiver, $600 MSRP ($444)
Marantz M-CR603 Network CD Receiver, $700 MSRP ($562)
Peachtree Audio Decco, $800 MSRP
Depending on your sound card, and whether your audio out jack has any noise interference from the computer, you may want to get a separate DAC (digital-to-analog-converter). It will send a better quality analog signal to your receiver’s RCA jacks. Or if your computer has a digital optical or coaxial output, many receivers can take that signal and use its own DAC. Computers come and go so often, I prefer to keep my upgrades external, but this soundcard can do the job:M-Audio Revolution 5.1 & 7.1 ($70).
Personally I’m partial to tower speakers. If you have to buy stands for the bookshelves, towers often have the same size footprint, and you often get a wider frequency range for your money. However, the lowest price point does start with the bookshelves. If you want to do 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound, I don’t recommend getting any of the all-in-one sets that go for $500 or less, similar to HTIB (home theater in a box). The speakers are so puny and disposable, if you like music at all, you’ll be disappointed by their performance. It’s better to start with the best front speakers you can afford, and get the other pieces later. It’s better to watch TV and movies in two channel mode for a while than to sacrifice sound quality (and aesthetics).
The best brands for good but inexpensive speakers usually also make some high-end audiophile quality transducers, and trickle down some of the build quality and technology of their flagship series to their mass marketed consumer level products. Boston Acoustics and Cambridge Soundworks are good, but the most consistently good deals can be found with Infinity (owned by Harman group who owns Revel), Yamaha and Polk Audio. A good rule of thumb is that if speakers look too small to sound good, they probably are. Despite marketing claims to the contrary, no speaker manufacturer has been able to break laws of physics. We’re looking at you, Bose. A speaker needs to be able to physically make enough air vibrate to sound good. To hell with the trend of trying to make speakers disappear into walls or cutesy, skinny sticks or little balls that could be mistaken for Pokemon droppings. Speakers are beautiful, man. They should be proudly displayed in a room, like art, a grand piano, or furniture that will be gladly inherited by grandchildren.
Yamaha NS-6490, 70 watts, $150 MSRP ($80)
Polk Audio Monitor 30, 100 watts, $200 MSRP ($90)
Infinity Primus P152, 100 watts, $220 MSRP ($150)
Infinity Primus P162, 150 watts, $280 MSRP ($170)
Without full range towers, you may miss some low end. These subwoofers can extend your range nicely.
Yamaha YST-SW216BL Advanced YST II Front-Firing Active Subwoofer, 100 watts, $150 MSRP ($60)
Polk Audio PSW10 10-Inch Monitor Series Powered Subwoofer, 50 watts, $240 MSRP ($77)
Infinity PS38 8″ Powered Subwoofer, 150 watts, $300 MSRP ($199)
If you absolutely don’t have room for a receiver/amp, then M-Audio Studiophile and Audioengine series are the way to go. I normally don’t like anything rated under 30 watts, but for those with an open cube space at work, the 20 watt Studiophile AV 40 should do nicely, or even the 15 watt AV 30 ($98). These are professional studio nearfield monitors created in partnership between Avid and Digidesign. They offer many other models, but be aware that the BX Deluxe and DSM models only have balanced (XLR) and TRS inputs. Even the AV series will sound ten times better than your typical Soundsticks and Altec Lansings. The Cakewalk MA-15D are much lower power rating than I normally recommend, but they come with a built in DAC and other handy features that could be an acceptable compromise in an open workspace cube. Remember that nearfield monitors are designed for just one listener, with a small sweet spot. If you want music for the entire room for others to enjoy, get a receiver and bigger speakers.
If you decide to venture into the audiophile arena, there are dozens of brands to choose from. Some popular ones include B&W (Bowers & Wilkins), Vienna Acoustics, Revel, Paradigm, Klipsch, JAS, Dali, Rega, NHT, Dynaudio, Salk, Definitive Technology, Axiom and Magnepan. The beauty of speakers is that a well-made pair could last a lifetime. This also expands your options for finding deals on used ones. Here’s a great article on some of the twelve most significant loudspeakers of all time.
For value and performance, I like the English brands Wharfedale and Mordaunt Short. They’re pretty easy to find in the U.S., with several series at different price points with a full range of sizes for surround sound options. The Diamond and Carnival bookshelves from those two brands will blow away any consumer brand stuff or your crappy Logitech computer speakers. If you’re patient, you could move up to towers and/or to the Wharfedale Evo or Mordaunt-Short Aviano series and hunt for bargains on eBay or Audiogon. For more info on subwoofers and other speakers, see my updated piece on home theaters.
Wharfedale (Diamond 9.0, 9.1, 9.2, & 10.1 Evo & Evo 2)
Diamond 9.0 Bookshelf, 75 watts, (MSRP: $250, $120 eBay)
Mordaunt Short (Carnival, Alumni, Aviano & Mezzo)
Carnival 1 Bookshelf, 80 watts, (MSRP: $200, $170 Wild West)
If you have the luxury of a relatively soundproof listening room, then you’re probably not reading this piece. Most of us have spouses, kids and neighbors that would be bothered by our rocking out after a certain time at night. There’s no reason you have to stop, though. A good pair of headphones can reveal more details in music than you might normally notice.
As much as I love music, I don’t understand people who can walk around wearing earbuds for hours and hours at a time. While I usually listen to music five to fourteen hours a day, I don’t wear headphones when I run, and rarely when I walk or commute in the city, unless it’s a particularly long train ride. I prefer to be aware of my surroundings when I’m out. It’s healthy to be alone with your thoughts once in a while! There’s also the risk of hearing damage with extended time with headphones. Why waste your hearing on shitting sounding earbuds?
I tend to limit headphone time to between 30 minutes and an hour and a half for some quality listening sessions. Without the use of a crossfeed filter, most people experience audio fatigue after a certain amount of time anyway. Jan Meir has a good explanation of the need for crossfeed. Basically your brain is used to being able to locate sources of sound. The separation from cramming different signals into your left and right ears creates an unnatural soundfield with no reverberation or crossfeed. Your brain has to work harder to make sense of this information, which creates stress that is subtle or subconscious for some people, obvious and intolerable for others. Great headphones can give an amazing experience, revealing intimate detail you’ve never noticed in songs you’ve known all your life. It’s also the closest you can get to experiencing the sound of a $10,000 sound system at a tiny fraction of the cost. But like most good things, moderation is key.
While the majority of the population prefers IEMs (inner ear monitors) for convenience, I do not recommend them to start with. You can get good quality and dynamic range with brands like Etymotic, Shure and JH Audio, but only starting at prices of around $300. In keeping with the spirit that music deserves just as much focus and attention as a TV show or a movie, I’m recommending starter high-end headphones that are full size. You won’t want to jog in them, but they are comfortable to wear, and don’t need an amp to sound good on an iPod/DAP.
AKG (K81), Sennheiser (HD 518), Beyerdynamic (DT 235), Sony (MDR-7506), and Grado (SR 60i) all make good headphones that can be found for under $100. You can browse most of them at HeadRoom. Most of these are sealed so the sound doesn’t leak and annoy people around you, and keep out a fair amount of ambient noise. They sound better than any noise cancelling headphone, which I would recommend only if you use in the noisest of train rides/planes with screaming babies.
My top recommendations would be for the Denon AH-D1001 and the Audio-Technica ATH-M50 (MSRP $160). Unfortunately the AH-D1001 is discontinued. For a while, you could get these $150 headphones for under $80 at Amazon. They are the most comfortable headphone I’ve ever worn. I keep them on on my nightstand and listen at night. They’re so comfortable I’ve dozed off in them if only briefly (be careful, you do not want to leave headphones on all night!). They were replaced by the larger and pricier AH-D1100 (MSRP $200). They’re probably just as comfortable, with a deeper range, and themselves have been discontinued, and replaced by the much different on-ear AH-D340 (MSRP $330, available for $148) which does offer a removable iPod/Pad/Phone compatible cable with microphone, but not the same comfort. Fortunately, the AH-D1001 was reincarnated in 2011 in the Creative Aurvana Live! (MSRP $99, available for $74) with nearly the exact design, but slightly improved sound, and a shiny rather than matte black finish.
The Audio-Technica ATH-M50 are heavier and sturdier than the Denon and CAL!, thus slightly less comfortable for extended periods. I use them at work and on vacation. They’re extremely popular and highly rated because their sound quality is probably the best you can get at this price point, though at $160, that argument would be fiercely debated at the Head-Fi forums. While I got mine for under $100, demand has increased the past couple years, and the best price right now is around $118, which is I still one of the best headphones you can get at that price.
There’s always better headphones of course. I felt the best overall performance and value could be found in the Denon AH-D2000 (MSRP $349) which I got used for less than half that, and used in the home office where I always listen to music while writing. They’re included in HeadRoom’s guide for their 10 Best Headphones. The most expensive of their recommendations is the Sennheiser HD 800 (MSRP $1,500). There’s some beautiful headphones in that range, and I’d love to someday find a nice deal on a used Audeze LCD-2 (MSRP $945) or the Beyerdynamic Tesla T1 (MSRP $1,295), but the improvements in performance per dollar diminishes greatly after that $350 price point. I’ve owned the AKG K701 (MSRP $349) for about seven years, and currently use it in the living room, as it’s soundstage is great for movies. It also seems well suited for classical, acoustic and jazz. It doesn’t quite have the bass punch for rock and heavy reggae like the Denon AH-D2000.
Once you’re in that range, well, sorry about your wallet, because then you’re on the road to getting a dedicated headphone amp to properly drive them. Some exploration of the Head-Fi forum will reveal a sort of cult of vacuum-tube amplifier afficiandos. I think they’re lunatics, but some of the amps do have a certain aesthetic appeal.
I’ll mention briefly what I use, but won’t get too deep into amps as it’s beyond the scope of this piece, where mainly I recommend entry-level headphones that will work fine on an iPod or any decent receiver with a headphone output. I keep it fairly simple, with my portable Practical Devices XM5 portable amp with crossfeed ($245) that I use at work. My Audio-Technica doesn’t necessarily need an amp, but the headphone out jack on my computer is cursed with awful static, so I use it mainly for the USB DAC and crossfeed features. In my home office I use the Meier Audio Corda Cantate.2, which is discontinued. Jan Meier is a highly respected German engineer who makes the amps himself. Listening fatigue was a big problem for me to the extent that I couldn’t listen for more than 30-40 minutes, even at low volumes, until I got the XM5 and Meier Corda with crossfeed features. Meier in particular is a pioneer in this technology, and has improved it in recent models. He has a good explanation of how it works, which is basically simulating the natural crossover you hear in a room, so your brain doesn’t have to do the extra work to make sense of the separate left and right signals. The Corda Classic features extended frequency, better imaging and three intensity levels.
My Lossless Digital Life
Having a digital collection does not have to mean a compromise in quality of fidelity or enjoyment. It seems like a lot of people I know don’t make much use of their digital collections because they’re unorganized. Any sizeable collection requires some upkeep, just like records and CDs had to be organized and reorganized and shifted to make room for new acquisitions, shelves purchased and built, etc. With my FLAC files, I have to spend a certain amount of time cleaning up tags, organizing folders, indexing and updating playlists. After much thought and research, I began the daunting task of ripping my collection of over 7,000 CDs in 2009. I used dBpoweramp, an excellent program that ensures your lossless rips (FLAC or Apple Lossless) are accurate, and uses PerfectMeta™, which cross-checks databases between five providers to automatically produce the most accurage meta tags. I finished the project in just under six months. I use MediaMonkey to create playlists, make some manual adjustments to tags, and play music in my offices at home and work. I store my collection on a 5-bay, 6TB QNAP NAS (network attached server), and back up my entire collection on external 2TB drives at work. I use Squeezebox to play my files via wireless router to receivers in the living room and bedroom, connected to my processor and receiver via optical cables.
My system has helped me get reacquainted with my collection and enjoy it like I never have before. I’m hearing albums that I hadn’t played for ten years. I can listen to music in every room in the house, and control it all with a remote. This sort of multi-room setup used to involve a contractor doing custom wiring for $10,000 to $30,000. Previously if I was in bed reading and got the urge to hear something in particular, I would have to get up and stumble through the dark to the other end of the house and turn on lights and pull the CD I want, bring it back, turn on the CD player and load it up and hope I don’t disturb my sleeping partner. That just wasn’t gonna happen. Now I can simply put on my headphones, press a couple buttons on the remote, and enjoy instant gratification.
Regarding digital audio players, I haven’t invested in any lately, as there has been an annoying lag in solid state memory technology. 60 to 180GB hard drive models have mostly been discontinued in favor of flash memory. The problem is that most players are still limited to 8 to 32GB of memory, quite a regression from the hard drives, considering lossless files and videos are used more and more. Back in 2008 it was announced that the new SDXC chip technology would be able to hold up to 2TB in a single chip. However, currently they’re only up to 128GB, and are extremely expensive. Currently the best deals in hifi flac players are the Telcast T51 8GB ($136) and the nearly identical Nationite S:Flo2 16GB ($169).
What to do with your Fisher Price and clock-radio i-crap speakers? Considering they were made to look better than they sound, I suggest using them in an art project, or donate them. Feel free to share pictures!
See also: Complete Home Theater Systems (V.3 Updated July 2011)