You deserve better audio: A Layman’s Guide To Better Sound

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Don’t waste your money on a new set of speakers,
You get more mileage from a cheap pair of sneakers.
Next phase, new wave, dance craze, anyways
It’s still rock and roll to me ~ Billy Joel

Funny lyrics telling you not to buy speakers, especially ironic coming from a musician. But I’m sure Billy Joel was joking.

I’ve been wanting to write this post for some time but I didn’t really know how to phrase it without coming off as self-serving or materialistic.But I do want to share a little about why I love good audio reproduction, and why you should consider it as well.

Thanks to decent audio gear, I’ve gained much enjoyment from my music collection over the years but if you’ve never tried it, you wouldn’t know it. Also, if you start it off the wrong way, you’ll probably never enjoy it either.

You don’t have to spend wads of money, because many of the finer things in life (good food, good health, etc) are well within reach of most people. It is those who go to the extreme and spend too much of their income on these things that give the “finer things” a bad reputation.

Today, we have far better access to music than any time in history, and things will continue to improve as music goes more digital and more available to everyone around the globe.

I do have some nostalgia regarding CDs, but I much prefer the ability to buy any digital versions of songs off iTunes (you’ll need a USA or UK account) at far more reasonable pricing.

Needless to say, good music needs to be paired with a good sound system. A sound system can range from anything like a good pair of earphones to an uber-high end home theatre system.

Now to make it clear, I’m not an “audiophile” in the traditional sense. I recently stepped into The Adelphi (the centre of all high-end audio in Singapore) and felt so lost with all the latest receivers, speakers and audio technicalities on display. If you ask me which brand of speakers is better than the other, I will just give you a blank look. I also feel nervous when I walk in front of $20K speaker pairs!

It’s simply not my kind of thing to be caught up with the technical aspects of audio gear, largely because I learn the violin and I find no speaker system capable of reproducing the rich sound of an actual instrument. But I do know enough technical terms to get by – HDMI, watts RMS, biwiring, optical TOS input, DAC – and I do have a good idea which product is worth paying for when I give it a good listen.

Also, I can’t afford (and even if I could, I don’t wish to pay for) the ridiculous prices of many audio equipment out there. Some people say they don’t like the snobbery associated with audiophilia, but most of the audiophiles I’ve met aren’t snobs, but are just extremely well-versed in the technical bits just like I am in photography and they don’t necessarily spend a lot on their gear.

START WITH DECENT EARPHONES

I guess I started young when I discovered the joys of using decent $30+ earphones during my secondary school days-  till today, I don’t understand how people can use the bundled white earbuds that come free with their iPhones or iPods. Those are the worst possible ways to experience your own music as these cheap earphones cost very little to make and reproduce sound poorly.

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You see those white earphones in this picture? Throw them away please.

But most people don’t realize it, you see. They think that this is the way that the music should sound and thus accept that music probably can’t sound any better.

Or they are used to listening to poor quality audio from crackling FM radio sets. So when told that they should invest in a better pair of earphones, they might think that it’s just being extravagant and some even say : “I probably can’t hear the difference anyway.”

That’s an insult to your own ears, because our ears can discern a wide range of sounds and aural textures. Poor earphones produce sound that lacks depth and inaccurate across the low, mid and high frequencies.

Also, many poorly-designed earphones allow much of the sound to escape into the open air instead of transmitting directly into the eardrum – this causes people nearby to be disturbed and the user ends up increasing the volume on the music player, inadvertently damaging their own ears in the process.

A great earphone upgrade would be to get a standard in-ear earphones like the Sony ones displayed below, and you can get one around $50 and above these days. The rounded earbuds fit snugly into your ear passage and prevent sound leakage. At the same time, they cut off environmental sound by a great deal so you don’t have to drain your MP3 player battery because you can use low volume settings and still hear plenty.

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You don’t have to pay hundreds of dollars for a good earphone. To those who like to, I say go ahead, it’s your money. But for the rest of us, there are diminishing returns once you breach the S$150 barrier for earphones – the differences are subtle and our ears get accustomed to the small differences after some time.

So what’s after earphones?

Here’s where it gets fun or scary.

PC SPEAKERS

If you listen to a lot of music on your computer, then get a decent pair of computer speakers from the likes of Creative or Altec Lansing. While Creative has seen its fortunes decline once it tried to take down the iPod in the past decade, it still makes some pretty good speakers.

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I’ve been using the Gigaworks T-series speakers (above is the S$159 T20) for the past few years and they project a good and clean sound, and most importantly, has not broken down after several years of use like other cheaper Creative speakers I’ve used in the past.

I personally dislike buying 2.1 systems (2 speakers plus one subwoofer) because the subwoofer takes up a lot of space on the floor and the bass is booming in the way that young gamers or techno fans like it, but the bass is not “tight” nor pleasing to the ears. 5.1 sound systems for computers are often more impractical than not.

I’m also suspicious of all these tiny mini-speaker systems that are the rage these days – I have one that I got as a freebie and the sound is okay for travel use, but the sound can be largely characterized as “loud but tinny”.

One issue with computer audio is that PCs may generate a lot of signal noise (the little electric background hum when you listen closely in a quiet room). I hear it when I plug my earphones into my office laptop (which is obviously not designed for great audio).

It drives me crazy, and there are many smartphones out there which present the same signal noise issue through their headphone jacks. That’s why if you’re using your smartphone to listen to music, you’re probably getting crappy audio as well.

That’s why some people invest in a notebook audio interface like this to overcome the motherboard signal noise. I don’t get the same problem on my home desktop PC though, because the desktop motherboards these days offer pretty high quality onboard audio and even optical/coaxial digital outputs to be connected to high-end audio systems.

WHAT ABOUT IPOD DOCKS?

iPods have become the de facto standard for portable music players and there are so many iPod docks these days. I’ll be honest, most docks I’ve heard are not worth the money. In some cases, they are pure junk.

One rule usually holds true: the smaller or flatter the dock, the lousier the sound.

This is because all audio reproduction is based on the same principle : sound is formed from the movement of air, and the smaller the speaker, the less air it moves externally or within a speaker chamber. That’s why a small child’s violin sounds less impressive than an adult-sized violin. And in recording studios, they often use monitor speakers of a certain size to ensure accurate sound reproduction.

Note: Computer 2.1 speakers have subwoofers that move most of the air and overcome the lack of low notes from the tiny front speakers.

And that’s possibly why the best-reviewed dock out there today is the huge BnW Zeppelin – it features far larger speaker drivers (cones) than conventional docks. However, it is very pricey at approximately S$1200. Here’s what it looks like:

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Z1--Sound--Mids

And although Apple killed it one year after its 2006 release, the original iPod Hi-Fi  (below)  was good audio stuff and featured big speaker cones as well. It probably died because it was big, bulky and expensive at USD349.

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The bottomline is that it’s hard to find an iPod dock that sounds great and is relatively affordable.

If you’re looking to get an iPod dock, consider instead a good mini-hifi system which comes with separate speakers and iPod compatibility.

Most of the ones on the market are mediocre goods (oh well, you know how it works with mass market consumer electronics), so do make sure you take time to test them with your own iPod. Don’t buy a sound system just because it offers a docking station! I was at the shopping mall this weekend trying out different mini-hifis for fun and my poor sound collection sounded terrible when I plugged in my iPod into different models.

Traditionally, I’ve had good experiences with Denon mini-systems during my CD-only days, but I’ve yet to try out their latest iPod-enabled systems like the CEOL which also does Internet radio and DLNA music streaming from your PC. Denon does try to differentiate itself from the other mass market brands with solid speaker construction and really classy component design.

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AVOID ALL-IN-ONES FOR HOME THEATRE

When you step into a consumer electronics store, you’ll see plenty of 5.1 sound systems that are integrated with the DVD/Blu-Ray player. Generally I avoid those like the plague. They are sometimes bundled free with mid-range HDTVs, which gives you an idea of their real monetary value.

While they may seem sexy with tall and thin speakers + stands, you also have to consider how easily these speakers topple over when placed in a normal living room. The sound quality will appear pretty good in the showroom, but that’s because they’re blasting movies loudly and maxing the subwoofer out.

And if the central part of the system – the DVD player – breaks down for good, you might have to swap out all the speakers too.

This will lead you into the strange and unknown territory of component hi-fi audio. “It’s inevitable, Mr Anderson.”

LET’S GO HI-FI!

In the 1950s, the term high fidelity began to be used by audio manufacturers as a marketing term to describe records and equipment which were intended to provide faithful sound reproduction.

While some consumers simply interpreted high fidelity as fancy and expensive equipment, many found the difference in quality between “hi-fi” and the then standard AM radios and 78 RPM records readily apparent and bought 33⅓ LPs, such as RCA’s New Orthophonics and London’s ffrrs, and high-fidelity phonographs.

Audiophiles paid attention to technical characteristics and bought individual components, such as separate turntables, radio tuners, preamplifiers, power amplifiers and loudspeakers. Some enthusiasts assembled their own loudspeaker systems. In the 1950s, hi-fi became a generic term, to some extent displacing phonograph and record player. – Wikipedia

I won’t go very much into this, because there are many resources on the web and in your local library. Make sure you do your research beforehand because you don’t want to test the patience of audio shop owners.

And contrary to popular belief, it won’t make you go broke and the components last a very long time. My current home theatre and bedroom setups have lasted a decade and are still going very strong, so they are great investments for the long run.

It’s easily to get blown away by expensive gear when reading modern magazines like What Hi Fi? or Stereophile, but you’ll see that they do feature a lot of value-priced products too (after all, they don’t want to alienate most of the population).

The simplest setup requires the following (for convenience, I just cut and pasted visuals from NAD, but there are dozens of brands out there like Yamaha, Onkyo, Marantz, Sony and more)

1. The Amplifier : Integrated stereo amplifier or home theatre receiver

This is what powers your speakers and that’s why it’s so big because it has alll sorts of big transisters and coils inside. Most of the time, the bigger the speaker, the more powerful the amplifier has to be in order to amplify the audio signal.

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An NAD integrated stereo receiver meant for just stereo music reproduction. It needs to be connected to a music source (eg. CD player) in order to output the signal to speakers.

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An NAD home theatre receiver that does stereo music, surround sound music, FM radio and connects to everything from PCs to phonographs. That’s why it’s called a “receiver” as it receives all the different signals from different audio devices.

Integrated stereo amps for strictly music playing tend to be simple to use, but home theatre amps/receivers tend to look very complex with all sorts of buttons. Audiophiles sometimes have both, because stereo amps do reproduce music somewhat better than do-it-all home theatre receivers, but the latter is needed to do surround sound for movies.

I use an integrated stereo amp in the bedroom, and the home theatre receiver in the living room.

2. The Music Source: CD player/Radio Tuner/iPod Dock

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While CDs are on the decline, there are modern CD decks that come with iPod docking or the ability to stream audio from your PC. Radio tuner decks are nice if you still like to listen to radio stations.

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As I’ve stopped using CDs, I’ve replaced my CD player with a tiny 2010 Apple TV, which streams music from my PC using iTunes. The nice thing about Apple TV is that it offers Internet radio as well. The not so nice thing is that I have to switch on my PC all the time.

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Or you could just get the official iPod Universal Dock and use it to connect your iPod straight into the amplifier.

3. Speakers

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Bookshelf speaker from Mission or 5.1 surround sound systems with floorstanders from Klipsch?

You can either get a pair of small bookshelf speakers or large floorstanders depending on your needs and tastes. They range from anything from a few hundred dollars to tens of thousands, so do plenty of research here.

Satellite systems with small speakers look cool (and in many cases, do sound good), but audio enthusiasts will focus on getting a really good set of stereo speakers first for their music. You’d ask me at this point if you should buy Bose, and I’d say no because it’s really overpriced.

I also have a 5.1 speaker system, but guess what, I hardly use the surround speakers or the subwoofers when I watch movies. So if I had a chance to do it all again, I’d just stick to stereo speakers.

4. The necessary cables to wire everything up.

This is where shops like to overcharge everyone so be careful what you buy. You’ll need speaker cables, digital audio cables (coaxial or optical), Ethernet cables, and HDMI cables. The good thing is that the red/green/blue component cables are on their way out, so it’s a little less messy. The first thing to remember is not to buy Monster cables, which are well-marketed and severely overpriced.

5. Research, research, research

The best place to start in Singapore is window shopping at The Adelphi, where you’ll see everything that’s worth buying on display. CE superstores have a very limited range, and they aren’t always equipped with hi-fi knowledge as they are focused towards the mass consumer.

Bring along some of your favorite CDs so you can hear how familiar songs sound like on different setups in the shops.

Find a friend who is interested in such stuff and he’ll go on for hours (most audiophiles are guys, for some strange reason). But always make sure you stick to your budget and not waver from it unless you’re feeling generous.

DIGITIZE YOUR MUSIC, PLEASE

iTunes Super Cover Flow

My MP3 collection, proudly catalogued in iTunes after 13 years of disorganization

It’s been over 10 years since MP3 technology became available to the masses for free, yet there are those who have yet to convert their CDs to MP3, AAC or some other digital portable format.

There’s no reason to continue using CDs – portable music players like the iPod offer the ability to store gigabytes of your your music, organize them by name and other attributes, and let you jump from one track to another effortlessly no matter how big your library.

Why are you still fumbling with CD jewel cases or scratched discs that refuse to play? And please don’t tell me you’re using MiniDiscs ok?

Just a few things to note when you rip your music:

1. Rip at the highest possible audio quality.

Audiophiles will go for lossless formats like FLAC or Apple Lossless, but that means each CD will take up hundreds of megabytes of hard disk space and you might not be able to squeeze your favorites onto your portable player.

I’m happy to rip or purchase files at 256kbps or 320kbps ripping quality, but PLEASE don’t rip at the old standard of 128kbps ok? The more compressed the music, the less full-bodied it’ll sound.

2. Ensure proper album info

Usually, your ripping software like Windows Media Player or iTunes will automatically download album info and artwork when you rip your CDs. But if they don’t, make sure you manually label each collection or else when your CD collection gets larger, it’ll be too cumbersome to manage your songs.

If like me, your MP3 library is already gigantic and disorganized, take some time off each day to update the album info because we’re entering into a new age where our content will continue to increase exponentially and will be streamed everywhere we go, and we need to know exactly where to find our files.

3. Back up twice over.

Seriously, after all that effort ripping your CDs, you don’t want to lose your file overnight when your hard disk crashes ok? HDDs can crash anytime, so don’t take your chances, and don’t happily give away your CDs thinking you don’t need them anymore.

ONE LAST BIT – CAR AUDIO

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Once you’ve digitized your music, you can happily bring it into your car too and throw away your 20 CD changer that’s taking up too much space in your boot.

Car audio is pretty expensive (basic setups start from about S$1500 including speakers and head unit), but the aural bliss you get is great for those days when you get stuck in some stupid traffic jam or on some long journey.

If you’re using the factory-fitted car audio system today, it’s probably mediocre and you’d be amazed how good music sounds in the car when you install decent speakers. That’s because a car is a small enclosed space and music just sounds more immersive when it bounces around inside the passenger cabin.

Try to get a head unit from brands like Alpine or Pioneer because they offer direct connections to iPods and other MP3 players with a USB port. And yes, they’ll play CDs and radio too.

And like home audio systems, you can add amplifiers, subwoofers, tweeters, calibration devices etc etc to your car, but go slow because I say again, car audio gets very very expensive quickly. And if you get into a car accident, goodbye sound system as well.

I’ve been going to Pin Liang at Zion Road to do my car audio for the past 6 years. They’re not the cheapest, but I like their customer service and their good advice.

Ok, that’s the end of my post. All the best with your journey to discover good audio, and I hope you get maximum satisfaction out of your music!

3 Replies to “You deserve better audio: A Layman’s Guide To Better Sound”

  1. Of all audio setup, I think the biggest draw to me is earphones — they are small.

    Previously was using the Audio-Technica ATH ANC3BK NoiseCancel Earphone. The quality is quite good. But now it’s broke and I replaced it with the Shure se425. Sounds as good (more expensive) but without that battery compartment for noise-canceling. I like that when you put it on, you can see people talking but not hear what they are saying.

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