These last few weeks, my obsession with warm, crisp audio tones has been overtaking my mind. This isn’t necessarily new– it all started about 6 months ago when I picked up a pair of entry-level Grado SR80 headphones from Amazon. They blew my mind. I wanted to know what made them so much better than anything I’d ever heard. I also wanted more.
I’m still a complete amateur when it comes to most of this stuff. However, before I owned these headphones, I had no idea what I was missing. “Audiophiles”, folks who strive for a better sound, will throw around terms like ‘soundstage’ and ‘imaging’ that, if you’d never put on a decent pair of headphones, you’d have no idea about. These words refer to an experience of listening to music that can cost thousands of dollars to perfect. Though the SR80s certainly aren’t the end-all-be-all of headphones, you’d be surprised with what you hear from them. My girlfriend’s first words after having heard She & Him’s Volume 2 through them were “Wow. It sounds… 3D.” The word she was searching for was what folks familiar with the matter call ‘soundstage’. It isn’t just right and left stereo sound, there is actual depth and detail you haven’t picked up on before. Individual instruments are more discernible than they were on previous listens, and subtle tones ring through much clearer. The sound is provided by carefully engineered headphones and audio components that optimize the listening experience in a way that lots of off-the-shelf equipment can’t match. The world of “audiophile”-grade components is quite expansive, and one that I’m just beginning to explore. Literally every piece down the line of an audio system can be upgraded for optimal sound. We’re talking everything from $200 speaker cable to $3,000 turntables.
It’s quite easy to hear the difference between a pair of Apple stock earbuds and nearly anything made by a company like Grado. I’ll use the well-worn car analogy here- it’s the difference between driving a 1990 Geo today and a 2011 S-class Mercedes. There is such a striking difference that I sometimes have a difficult time listening to music through anything else. But there are many brands that have similar awesome-ness, and to further complicate things, there are different brands and models of headphones that are better for certain genres of music. Here is a great article about the frequency response of headphones, and here is another great one for newbies looking to get a good pair of headphones.
The solution to the problem you’ll run into when trying to decide on a new pair of headphones is just to try them. An old buddy from high school had the SR80s before I did, and once I heard them I knew I had to get a pair. Search your area for any place that offers high-end audio equipment, and chances are they have some sweet headphones you can go in and audition. It’ll be worth it if only to hear what you’re missing.
Though headphones are critical to the chain, there’s more to the equation. Many setups have a DAC (digital to analog converter), an integrated amplifier, headphone amplifiers (desktop or portable), and multiple different source components like turntables, computers, and CDPs.
File Formats & Software
Though I’ve used iTunes happily for years, the other night I stumbled on a new app that really struck my fancy. It’s called Fidelia, made by Audiofile Engineering and available on the Mac App Store for about 20 bucks. Though I wouldn’t really push this on someone for everyday listening (I really do think iTunes is a good app for that), this app really shines in its ability to play back FLAC, something that iTunes just can’t do. Say what you will about the skeumorphism- the app is designed to look like an integrated amplifier- the functionality here is nothing short of well done. Plus, if you’re running a dedicated music Mac in your house, they even have a great iOS remote app to control playback over your home network.
Truth be told, if you’re going to bother having a ridiculous hardware setup, you really do need to consider the source of your music as well. If you’re using a killer turntable or CDP, your sound is still only as good as your weakest link allows it to be, whether it’s the rip, the record, the sound card, the cabling, or the speakers/headphones. If you’re using a computer for your source, it’s a great idea to have lossless-quality audio. FLAC files are bit-by-bit reproductions of the original rip. There is no compression or signal loss whatsoever. If you ripped it perfectly from a pristine vinyl and a great turntable, the FLAC file you rip it to will be exactly what came through- not so if you rip to an MP3 or similar format, as there will be some signal and quality loss. Other formats have minimal quality loss, like MP3 V0. Most will tell you that the audible difference between a file encoded with MP3 V0 and a FLAC file is not noticeable to most people. Whether that is true or not, playing music encoded at anything below 256kbps on high-end components is going be disappointing, as it will bring out the flaws in the rip. I usually go on the safe side and grab a 16bit FLAC rip if I can, that way I can down-convert to a lower setting if I want to save space in the future or put it in my normal iTunes library. Remember, you can always re-encode your music to a lower bitrate for more casual listening and to save space, but if you trash your FLAC, that quality is gone for good unless you re-rip. For encoding to MP3 V0 or the like, I use Max. The same developer also has a great app called Tag that is a FLAC metadata editor.
If you’re interested in all this and you’re worried that it’ll be expensive…well, you’re absolutely right it’s expensive. But the main idea is to start with what you have, and slowly build a good setup from there. Do your research. Upgrade your components one at a time and don’t worry about having the greatest stuff all at once. In fact, I think that’s half the fun. I’m pretty certain that if I had my dream setup right away I wouldn’t know half of what I do about this stuff (granted, it’s still not much), and it definitely would have taken the fun out of conversing with other people interested in the same things and getting advice on where to go and what to buy. Also bear in mind that there’s nothing wrong with buying used components. Especially with turntables and amps, you’ll save a bunch of money if you can find one on Ebay from someone who just upgraded themselves.
You do need to find a good place to start, though. I recommend starting with headphones. You can’t go wrong with a pair of SR80s or even SR60s to start out with. From there, move along the line to a DAC and then to an integrated amp or whatever pushes your buttons. It’s really important, however, that you do your homework. Head-fi and Stereofile are great resources to find product reviews, information on frequency response and other topics that deal with the minutiae of sound reproductions that I won’t discuss in this post.
Have a look over at head-fi.org and stereophile.com for some great forums and blog posts by people who know what they’re talking about. For the most part, everyone at these sites is good-natured, helpful, and generally non-snobby.
It’s Worth It
Sure it’s expensive. But it’s so, so worth it once you get a setup that works for you. There’s nothing like winding the day down with a cup of tea, plugging your headphones in, and putting on a wonderful-sounding record. At the end of the day, that’s what it’s all about.