“Digital audiophile” used to be somewhat of an oxymoron, but today digital music is gaining the respect of many diehard audiophiles. Unfortunately, digital music will sound pretty bad if you aren’t careful. You may also be under the impression that a good audio setup will cost you an arm and a leg. Have no fear. There are several simple and relatively affordable ways to dramatically improve the sound of your digital setup. Here are some recommendations to improve your system and maximize the quality of your digital music:
1. Buy Decent Headphones
This is the first step. If you don’t have headphones capable of producing great sound, don’t bother following any of the following steps. You won’t be able to tell the difference. Based on my limited experience and research, I recommend the Sennheiser HD580 audiophile headphones. They will run you about $150, but you won’t be disappointed. I recommend headphones over speakers because you would have to spend close to $1,000 to get comparable sound out of speakers.
2. Use an Amplifier
Now that you have decent headphones you need to make sure you can give your headphones a quality signal. That means you need an amplifier. While this has the potential of breaking the bank, you can actually get by pretty cheap if you shop wisely. For portable use I use a homemade amplifier that I bought off Ebay for about $25. Do a search on Ebay for “CMOY headphone amp” on Ebay. For home use I have an old Sony Receiver that I got for under $50. If you feel ambitious, you can [build your own tube amplifier from a kit](http://www.retrothing.com/2006/05/build_a_stereo_.html) for under $200.
3. Encode in Apple Lossless
Dump all the MP3s you downloaded off Kazaa. Not only are they illegal but also the quality of most “Free” music is not good enough. This is because the bitrate of those files is often kept low to provide smaller file size for quicker downloads. If you want better files, your best bet is to re-encode your cds in a lossless format. ITunes defaults to 128kbps if I remember right, so you will have to change some settings to get the “lossless” format. To change your import settings in iTunes, simply go to your preferences and under “Advanced” you can select “Apple Lossless Encoder” in the importing section. The downside is your files will be pretty large. Another good method is to use the AAC Encoder and set a custom bit rate of 192kbps. That will make somewhat smaller files without sacrificing too much quality.
4. Listen to your iPod Instead of iTunes on Your Computer
Your music will sound much better going coming out of your iPod than if it were coming out of your computer – even when playing the exact same music files. I was very surprised to learn this fact, but it is very true. The reason is that computers are noisy places. The iPod is remarkably quite and has a very high rating for giving a clean signal. Using the battery power is better than plugging the iPod in. When your iPod is “docked” noise will be introduced. This is another reason to use an amp because it will preserve battery power since you won’t need to have the volume maxed out.
5. Simplify Your Setup
It is possible to listen to my turntable through my computer, but the sound suffers because the setup is so complex. The rca cord of my turntable connects to an rca to mini jack cable which connects to my iMic. The iMic goes to the USB jack on my computer. After passing through some software, it goes out of my computer and into my amp. Finally it ends up in my headphones. By the time the music goes from my turntable to my headphones it has passed through so many components, the sound sucks. In fact, when I used this setup I actually picked up a radio station with the signal. I have no idea how, but it during the silence I could clearly hear an AM station. When compared to the turntable going straight into my amp, it is a night and day difference in sound quality. The lesson is to simplify your setup as much as you can. Don’t use any more cords or adapters than you have to. For the cords and adapters that are necessary, it also a good idea to invest in the premium ones.
6. Trust Your Ears
Your setup will be different, and it will take plenty of testing to optimize your setup. Trust your ears, and have fun. These are the things that have worked for me, and I hope they help you. If anyone has some additional tips, I would love to hear them.