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 FiiO, the M6 is a portable player that’s maybe only half 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.
There's only 2GB of onboard memory, but a memory card slot that takes microSD cards up to 2TB in capacity means you can easily add the required storage needed. The M6 even has support for Sony's LDAC transmission as well as aptX HD, while the unique FiiO Link functionality allows you to control the DAP from an app on your smartphone, so you won't need to have both smartphone and DAP in your hands together.
If you find yourself in busy environments a lot, the noise-canceling capabilities of the WH-1000XM3 will help immensely in letting you block out the external noise. 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. Thanks to Sony's LDAC technology, use these with a compatible audio player like the FiiO M6 above, and you'll get wireless streaming at three times the usual rate for the best audio streaming experience possible. How good is it? Literally the best in the market by our mark.
If you're using a smartphone as your main audio device, check out the Creative SXFI AMP, a tiny DAC that provides what Creative calls "holographic audio" for a more immersive audio experience. This is a cabled option with a 3.5mm audio jack input on one end, and a USB-C port on the other, so you'll have to use wired headphones with it.
It's able to support headphones with high impedances of up to 600 ohms and contains a 128dB high-end AKM 32-bit DAC for better audio playback with or without the Super X-Fi technology enabled.
If you don't quite fancy toying with holographic audio, there are several compact options in the market such as the affordable and dependable Audioquest Dragonfly series of amps.