Decided that the one thing you want to do this year is to get a better audio listening experience, but don’t know where to start? Not a problem. The following tips should have you covered.
And we don’t just mean in term of looks. Literally every headphone manufacturer has different tunings for different lines of headphones, so be sure to get one with a sound signature that best fits the type of music you like to listen to.
Also, be sure to make sure it physically fits your ears well. Poor fitting in-ear headphones will just keep slipping out of your ear, while poor fitting over-ear headphones can give you a bad case of headphone clamp. In both instances, it’s almost impossible to truly hear how good the headphone can sound, so a good fit absolutely goes a long way.
It’s pretty simple. You can have the greatest headphones in the world, but if your source (i.e. the music you’re listening to) is bad, then all you get is the best version of bad. By this, we don’t mean the quality of the musicians or the bands here, but rather the quality of your source.
These days, most listening is done via files on our phones or streamed via an internet music service like Spotify. A lot of these files are highly compressed; sacrificing quality for space. As a guide, try not to go for files with bit rates lower than 192kbps. They might be slightly larger, but adding storage to your devices is cheap and relatively easy.
If you’re going to stream your music, then give the paid subscriptions of Tidal and Spotify a shot. Both offer various levels of streaming quality, all of which are quite a bit better than free internet streams.
Tidal HiFi also offers MQA Master streaming which sends MQA-compressed files that are slightly smaller than a 44.1kHz 16-bit WAV file but yet have all the information contained in a 192kHz/24-bit ones. Unfortunately, most mobile phones won’t have a MQA-decoder as yet, so you’ll either need a dedicated audio player to enjoy the format or stream it to a laptop at home.
Digital-to-Analog Converters exist in practically every device that plays audio files, but the ones that come with your phone, tablet or laptop generally aren’t very good. Good DACs don’t have to cost and arm and a leg, and some come with amplifier functions built-in, which will color the sound slightly to suit your preference and also allow you to use higher-end headphones.
Of course, this means you’ll have to spend some time testing out different DACs (and/or amplifiers) to find which one suits you best, but that’s all part of the fun. Alternatively, you could look at a dedicated Digital Audio Player, as this would come with a quality DAC and an amplifier to start.
Willing to spend money to get better sound? Here are some products you might want to check out, too.
One of the latest from Sony, the NW-A40 is a portable player that’s only about the size of your mobile phone. It comes with its own DAC and supports most of the audio formats out there, including the MQA format mentioned above.
Plus, it comes with a microSD slot so you can easily add more memory when the 16GB on-board space is used up. Use it with Sony’s LDAC compatible headphones, and you’ll able to get wireless audio streamed to you at a maximum rate of 990 kbps – much better than the usual Bluetooth rates.
Speaking of Sony headphones, the noise-cancelling capabilities of the WH-1000XM2 are great if you find yourself in busy environments a lot. These are over-ear headphones that have fairly large ear cups and a 30-hour battery life so you can really indulge in your music.
Pair it with the NW-A40 above, and you’ll have a great audio experience whether you’re listening wired or wirelessly.
If you must use your smartphone as your main audio device, check out the FiiO BTR1. This is a DAC that uses Bluetooth 4.2 aptX streaming for a better audio experience.
Basically, it turns any headphone into a wireless one, and feeds it better sound to boot. Given how more and more smartphone manufacturers are eliminating the headphone jack these days, the regular 3.5mm stereo headphone jack on the BTR1 means you'll be able to keep using your favorite headphones no matter what your phone comes with.