It’s a horrible time to leave the house right now, and that makes it a great time to listen to music. Whether you’re realizing that you never bought any computer speakers, need some way to isolate from your roommates and family, or are finally dusting off that old record collection, here are some easy upgrades that will help you get the most out of your quarantined listening time.
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Free Home Audio Tips
Often times, big audio improvements just take some menu diving and feng shui.
Check Your Streaming Settings
I can’t tell you how many friends and family I’ve had check their streaming settings, only to realize that they didn’t have them set on the highest possible audio quality. Enter your music streaming app’s settings menu and make sure you set it to high quality. Both Apple Music and Spotify make the Music Quality settings easy to find. You can download your favorite playlists and albums if your home Wi-Fi cannot handle the fast stream.
Speaker Location Is Everything!
Bass loves to hide in corners, so try to setup your speakers far from them—ideally in the middle of a wall. If you’re wondering where to place them relative to your usual listening position, keep this in mind: The ideal stereo image (big, wide, live-sounding audio) comes when your head forms an equilateral triangle with the two speakers. Also, do your best to make sure that the tweeters (the smaller round drivers that put out the high notes on most speakers) are as close to ear-level as possible, because higher-end sounds are affected by direction the most.
Move Your Furniture to Deflect Sound
Your own room is one of the most important aspects of a speakers’ sound. If you put an amazing pair of speakers in a terrible room, you’ll have terrible sound. Most rooms have similar problems: They’re a bit too reflective, and a bit too bass-heavy. Flat walls and corners are the culprit. Sound is a wave, and if that wave ricochets straight back off a wall, it can interfere and cancel out other waves coming at it, making for weird frequency dead zones in your room.
Try putting a chair or other dense furniture in the corners because that’s where bass tends to congregate and create weird sound problems. Also, consider placing a bookshelf or other irregular furniture on the far wall that faces your speakers—where the sound reflects back into the speakers—so that the different sizes and shapes of books on the shelf bounce soundwaves in different directions.
If You Wanna Go Pro…
Alright. This tip isn’t quite free, but it can be cheap. If you want to get fancy and make a dedicated listening room, look for proper sound treatment materials. Do not buy those weird foam squares you see on Amazon. They won’t work very well. Broad-spectrum soundwaves are absorbed by dense, porous material, so while high frequencies are absorbed by the foam, the mid and low-end frequencies go nuts.
A Few Easy Upgrades
I get asked about affordable ways to upgrade sound quality a lot. Here are so of my go-to tips.
Modernize That Old Stereo
If you’ve got a stereo from the pre-streaming era, install something like an Amazon Echo Input. The cheap little dongle won’t quite compete with super-fancy streamers that cost hundreds (or even thousands) of dollars, but it sounds pretty darn good. It lets me easily stream my favorite new tunes without plugging anything in.
Get a Digital-to-Analog Converter
The soundcard in your computer is fine, but I always notice a significant difference in sound quality when I plug in a dedicated digital to analog converter (DAC) like the Audioengine D1 ($169) or AudioQuest Dragonfly ($99). You shouldn’t have to spend more than a couple hundred bucks for one, but you probably won’t find a good one for less than $50.
Computer Speakers, Remember Those?
If your PC could use some audio magic, I’m a big fan of the iLoud Micro Monitors ($300), which feature Bluetooth, and sound almost as good as speakers twice their price. If you’re looking for something more affordable, try the Presonus Eris speakers ($100), which offer a similar (though not quite as immersive) studio-style sound.
Try Some Studio Headphones
There are a ton of amazing, expensive audiophile headphones, but you’ll find the best value in studio headphones, or headphones designed for audio producers. They’re not the flashiest headphones, but they sound good for the money and are super durable.
You can find great studio headphones in the $100-150 range, like the Audio Technica ATH-M50xBT ($149), Sony MDR7506 ($145), Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro ($145), and Grado SR80E ($99) all sound excellent. Studio headphones also last longer than many models, with earpads and cables that are often easily (and affordably) replaced.
Get a Soundbar!
You don’t have to spend and arm and a leg to get awesome sound, either. There’s a 99 percent chance that your TV speakers really do sound way worse than a $100 soundbar like this Vizio.
Vinyl Audio Gear
Vinyl is a great way to physically connect to your favorite music. Just don’t let your friends (or the folks at r/Audiophile on Reddit) tell you that analog always sounds better than digital. It can sound better, but you’ll need a good turntable, amplifier, and speakers—and you need to make sure your records are clean and your turntable is properly set up. If you’re looking to use this time to get into the hobby, here’s some starter gear I recommend.
Record Brush ($15): A cheap and decent record brush should be your first purchase if you don’t already have one. Get that dust off your vinyl! I like this Audio Technica brush, but nearly any brush will do.
Record Cleaning Kit ($30): Can you hear clicks and pops? They really shouldn’t be there. They indicate that your vinyl needs to be cleaned, even if it’s new. (A very dust-friendly solvent is used in the pressing process.) Unfortunately, the grooves on a record are so small that a simple wet wipedown or spin on one of the “record cleaning” machines you find on Amazon won’t do the job. You’ll need something with vacuum suction to pull the cleaner out of the grooves (no cloth is fine enough to really get in there). Lucky for you, there’s a cheap shop-vac attachment called the Vinyl Vac that does just this. Make your own cleaner, brush it on your records with a cheap paintbrush, and suck up the crud. You’ll be amazed how much better your records sound.
Stylus Scale ($15): This is also great to have around for setup. It lets you set the weight that the stylus presses onto the record to exact factory recommendations. If your stylus is too heavy you might damage your records, and if it’s too light the needle might jump out of the groove.
Record Weight ($21): Record weights sit on top of your records while they play, and are great for adding mass (and therefore tighter low-end) to your tunes. I like this cool-looking one from Hudson Hi-Fi.
Turntable ($200-$400): I think $200-$400 is the sweet spot for a quality turntable. I’ve been a big fan of models like the Fluance RT81 ($250), U-Turn Orbit Plus, and Audio-Technica LP120 ($250). If you don’t have one, make sure that the turntable has a built-in phono preamp, which allows you to plug the turntable straight into the stereo.
All-In-One Speakers ($799): In the past few years, we’ve started to see better and better compact speakers with built-in phono inputs. My favorites so far are the Kanto Tuk, which feature ribbon tweeters for excellent high-end, and built-in Bluetooth and RCA inputs. You can even add a subwoofer ($250), if you’re all about that bass.
Avoid Bad Audio Advice
As with all technology, there are a number of myths and misunderstandings in the world of audio. Here are some big ones to know (and avoid).
You Don’t Need Expensive Cables
There are companies out there that will attempt to convince you that cables can make a huge difference in your sound. They don’t. If you need some speaker cables or a power cable for your amplifier, just buy anything that doesn’t seem super flimsy—the only real concern with dirt-cheap cables is that they aren’t durable enough.
Don’t Take Any FLAC
Don’t let the audiophiles who swear by FLAC and other lossless audio formats fool you. Sure, they sound great, but the very smart, very well-paid engineers at Apple Music, Spotify, and most every other streaming service have done a fantastic job of making sure artists’ music sounds as close as possible to CD quality when streaming in high quality. You won’t get full CD resolution, but unless you’re listening to extremely subtle music (things like live acoustic jazz or orchestral music), it is very unlikely you can hear the difference.
Sometimes Cheap Is Better
Like all tech, there are fantastic affordable audio products that easily compete with luxury options. You do not need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to hear your favorite music the way the musicians on the record intended. Many modern recordings are made with relatively cheap gear themselves—and even in pro studios, they’re nearly always mixed on relatively affordable speakers.
A Higher Bitrate Is Not Always Better
Let’s get nerdy for a sec. Most music is recorded at 44.1 kHz. That’s very high resolution already, but modern digital converters and powerful processors mean that music can now be recorded at bitrates up to 192 kHz. The thing is, most studios don’t do this because it takes way more hard drive space and processor power to record this way. The higher bitrate is also essentially inaudible—the human ear can’t hear the difference.
Just because your fancy new digital media player, streamer, or other product says it does 192 kHz (I’ve even seen ones claim they do more!), the music that you’re listening to probably wasn’t even recorded at that resolution. Don’t worry about it.
Headphones Can Sound Better Than Speakers
Because rooms have such a big (and often negative) impact on sound quality, a good pair of headphones is an excellent way to get great sound no matter where you listen. They’re great for smaller spaces, where you don’t want to deal with tons of gear.
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