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Gadgetverge writes about sound. We also live it.
This time we wanted to show you how to make headphones sound better. For this reason, we have written this little guide with four ways that will improve the sound quality of your headphones.
You can try one, several, or all the options simultaneously. This way, you will improve the sound quality of your music headphones and enjoy a harrowing experience when listening to a song, watching a movie, or playing a video game. Are you ready?
If the raw material is not good, getting a dish from a Michelin restaurant isn’t easy. The same thing happens in the world of audio. If the format of your music files is of low quality, then don’t ask Elm for pears.
The quality of your music files is the basis of what is known as the signal chain in the world of sound. This term essentially refers to audio’s path from when it is created until it enters our ears. The signal chain comprises software and hardware that convert audio into sound waves that we can hear.
If we want to perceive good audio in our headphones, we have to have a strong signal chain. It means that every member of the chain, equipment, and program that we use will have decent quality. This also includes the music that we are going to play.
If we play poor-quality audio files, it won’t matter if you have the best headphones or speakers on the market. Therefore, to create a good audio experience through our headphones, we must play files with good compression.
The music that we find on vinyl records or CDs is of excellent quality is superior to most of the files that we will see in our digital library. The issue is that today almost all of us give a lot to digital audio files, either using an online playback platform or files saved on our hard drives or players. These can come in highly compressed formats that sacrifice audio quality to take up less space when saving.
We must consider the compression format in which the files we will use are located. Obtaining a good compression quality is not very complicated. We can do two things: import our music without low-quality compression (the import options of most players will not have problems when playing good quality files), or, on the other hand, start listening to high-quality broadcasts.
The easiest way to do the latter is to subscribe to a service like Spotify or Tidal. Its premium versions cost little and offer various levels of quality when it comes to playback, all of which are good. Tidal is probably the best service in terms of sound quality. At its highest quality option, called Tidal HiFi, it offers 16-bit / 44 FLAC audio files, which is very good indeed.
On the other hand, Spotify is somewhat cheaper, and while it doesn’t offer as good audio as the Tidal HiFi, its options are also excellent. It has 320kbps Ogg Vorbis files. There are also other services, such as Apple Music, although from our point of view they are not as good as those mentioned above.
The next member of the signal chain is already built into all digital players: an analog-digital converter, or DAC. What is a DAC for? Before sound enters our ears, it exists only in digital form: the zeros and those containing the information in an audio file. The DAC is responsible for converting this digital data to analog. It is like a translator that converts digital data into authentic sound. Every computer, phone, or tablet comes with a built-in DAC.
The point is that most of the DACs that are already installed at the factory, especially in computers, smartphones, and players, are of poor quality. They work, but they don’t provide impressive sound. Suppose you want to increase the audio quality of your headphones. In that case, the next step is to get an external DAC, which will bypass the internal analog-digital converter of the devices we have, to work through this specialized external unit.
Most external DACs are in a small box that connects, for example, via USB. Although it is possible to find large units that cost thousands of euros, we can get small, inexpensive, high-quality units. The controls are usually simple, integrating an on / off switch and volume control. They also have different ports for connection. Typically, although not always, we can connect our headphones directly to an external DAC. In general, a DAC is a simple and easily connected device that instantly increases the audio quality we hear. We can get very cheap units, like the Fiio A1, for about 40 EUR.
Increasing the resolution of our audio files and adding a quality DAC are elements that will considerably improve our signal chain. But it is not the only thing you can do. Playing the audio through a headphone amplifier will give you superior quality. In general, an amplifier performs two things: increase the power of our audio, allowing us to obtain greater clarity in low volumes, comparable to the best headphones market. And on the other hand, add textures and deepen the sound.
There are a few factors to consider when choosing a headphone amplifier. First, they are designed in three formats: tube, solid-state, and tube / solid hybrid amplifiers. Tube amplifiers handle the audio signal through a vacuum glass tube that burns electrons from a special plate to transmit sound. This gives the audio a distinctive quality: it feels long and warm, with slight distortion. Solid-state amplifiers, on the other hand, don’t have the same warmth, but they do improve the level of sonic precision. Tube amps can be expensive, although we can find some inexpensive ones. They may not be for everyone, given their specific sound profile, which is why solid-state amps are more popular.
As for the purchase of headphones, we can find costly models (even thousands of euros) such as the Audeze LCD-2, which provide an excellent sound and cover a wide range of frequencies. However, if we choose well we can find a good quality pair of headphones reasonably. You can find many options among our articles; some are very cheap and offer excellent sound quality.
As with amplifiers, there are a few things to consider when choosing good headphones. The first is the difference between closed or open headphones (closed-back / open-back). This refers to the outside of the headphone cups. The closed models have superior sound isolation; the people around you will not be able to hear what you hear, even when using high volumes. They are also generally cheaper than open models, which provide different sound characteristics by allowing more air intake. These have a lot of depth in the sound range, although they are poor when isolating the sound.
It also makes sense to choose noise-canceling headphones or wireless headphones. If we travel a lot, these can be perfect options. These headphones will almost always be closed, which does not mean that the audio is poorer. Also, in the case of noise-canceling headphones, they will come with their built-in amplifier. In this case, you won’t have to worry about additional amplifiers or DACs.
It is also worth knowing the differences between the types of drivers. A driver is essentially the speaker’s part inside each ear cup that produces sound. Dynamic drivers are the cheapest and most common. Planar magnetic ones sound better and are larger and more expensive, while electro-static drivers cost a lot and require special amplifiers to use them.
It isn’t easy to make a simple table to choose the ideal headphones, but we can adhere to some basic principles according to the use we will give them. If we listen to most of the music at our desks and have some money to spend, HiFi headphones may be a good choice. We can opt for models with dynamic, wireless, and noise-canceling drivers if we travel a lot. On the other hand, if we listen to music at home, around other people, a closed model with a dynamic driver and wiring can be ideal.
We might think that we need to spend a lot of money to get a good pair of headphones, but it is not true.
If you want a good pair of headphones to use at home or on the go, with wireless connectivity, you can consider the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 . They are sturdy, comfortable, and have easy-to-use controls.
Additionally, they have NFC capability for fast syncing with source devices and highly effective noise cancellation technology. They provide an excellent wireless connection range and a high-performance battery. The Avantree Bluetooth headphones are another perfect option for a smaller budget. They have a 40-hour battery life, good sound quality, and a durable and comfortable design. They also have NFC and aptX technologies.
We also have to talk about putting our headphones together with amplifiers. This process is not complicated, although we have to know the impedance term. Impedance means the amount of electrical resistance that a piece of equipment has. This is expressed in ohms (Ω). Before connecting a pair of headphones to an amplifier, we must look for the impedance capacity of the headphones. This will appear both on the production company’s website and in the user manual of the helmets. We must first check if the amplifier can support the indicated capacity. However, most headphone amps can handle any headphone capacity, so this is not a problem.
A practical example:
You may think that getting the entire chain that we have been talking about can be pretty expensive, but it is not like that. First of all: we can join Spotify Premium for only 9.99 euros per month. If we reproduce through our computer, we can connect an external DAC to it. The Optoma Nuforce uDAC seems like a good value for money option.
This is a great sounding and performing DAC at a very fair price. Another option is to go directly for the Fiio e10k, which costs about € 80 and is a DAC / Amplifier. Finally, if we buy some Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2, ideal for most occasions, we will have a complete sound chain of high quality.