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This post has nothing to do with photography, per se…but if you enjoy playing music through your computer, and have ever wondered about ways to increase the quality of the sound output, read on…
Recently, I’ve taken an interest in attempting to maximize the quality of the music I listen to through my computer, without permanently scarring my wallet. At my desk, I’ve always used iTunes via my Mac Pro to play music…and when I’m not at my desk, I use an iPod Touch.
I have about 3,000 CDs I’ve acquired over the years, and occasionally I’ve purchased some music through the iTunes store. A few years ago, I went through the painful process of ripping all of my CDs into iTunes, by using the Macintosh “Superdrive” (which is basically just a bare-bones CD reader/writer with an annoyingly short USB cable):
I had to manually place each one of my CDs into the Superdive, which ripped each CD onto my hard drive in AAC file format. What’s “AAC” format? Read on…
I like think about the difference between various types of music files they way I would think about digital photography: When you take a picture with a digital camera, you can usually choose between creating two different file formats: 1) uncompressed RAW files, or 2) compressed Jpeg files. Inexpensive digital cameras only allow you to record compressed Jpegs, while more advanced cameras let you choose between RAW files or several different types of compressed file formats, including Jpegs.
Uncompressed RAW files essentially show you exactly what your camera’s sensor saw the moment you took the picture (save for minor adjustments your camera will make). A Jpeg, however, since it’s compressed, will shave off some of the information contained in the RAW version of the same file. Jpegs are smaller files, and are therefore significantly more ubiquitous in online media. They are easier to send, receive, and view, and you can store many more of them on a hard drive than larger RAW files.
But, with that compression, you tradeoff quality. The quality of the Jpeg depends on how much compression takes place. A higher quality Jpeg file will shave off less of the information contained in the RAW image than a lower quality Jpeg file. Obviously, the lower the quality of the Jpeg file, the smaller the footprint of the file on your hard drive.
If you do any kind of editing, cropping, or wish to create large prints, you probably work with RAW files, because they contain more information about the image (i.e. a wider color gamut) than a compressed Jpeg version of the same file.
Digital music files basically work in very much the same manner. In iTunes, you can choose to rip a CD in uncompressed format (i.e. an “AIFF” file), which essentially creates an exact digital replica of the music on the CD (it’s music’s version of a digital RAW photograph file). You can also choose a variety of compressed music files (i.e. AAC), which shave off some of the information contained in the music files on the CD in order to create smaller files. The ever-popular mp3 format is an example of a compressed music file.
An AAC file is sort of similar to a Jpeg in digital photography; they are both compressed versions of the original uncompressed file. Since an AIFF file is uncompressed, typically it will sound better than the same file saved in AAC format (provided that: 1) the original recording is good enough to hear the difference, and 2) your hardware is capable of playing higher quality, uncompressed music…more on that later).
If you want to really dig into learning about the differences in various audio file formats, check out this article:
When I ripped my CDs via iTunes a few years ago, I wasn’t really concerned with the quality of the sound (nor was I aware of the differences between compressed and uncompressed audio files), and chose to rip all my CDs into the compressed AAC format. Furthermore, whenever you buy music in the iTunes store, you’re purchasing a compressed audio file. iTunes does not sell uncompressed file formats.
Well, a couple of months ago, when I became interested in extracting more detail and clarity out of my listening experience, I did a lot of research on the various file formats, their advantages and disadvantages, and the hardware/software required in order to help your computer churn out higher quality music files.
I eventually concluded that ripping CDs into an uncompressed format (such as AIFF) will pretty much create the highest quality music file my ear is capable of hearing. Higher quality uncompressed music files are available for download in online music stores which technically contain more information about the music than a standard music file on a CD. However, there is intense debate over whether the human ear can hear any difference between those better-than-CD quality files, and the exact replica of the same music file on a CD.
So…guess what I decided to do? I satiated my Obsessive Compulsive Disorder by starting all over again, re-ripping every single one of my CDs on that damn Mac Superdrive, this time recording them in uncompressed AIFF format, instead of compressed AAC format.
Quick side note: Just like converting RAW files into Jpegs is a one-way street, the same holds true for uncompressed music. Once you compress a music file (i.e. converting an AIFF file into an AAC file), you cannot reverse the process. You can’t convert a compressed file back into the original, larger uncompressed file. Once you shave off that info to compress the file, it’s gone forever. That’s why I had to re-rip all of my CDs.
AIFF files are significantly larger than AAC files, roughly about ten times larger. Fortunately, the 2 TB Lacie Rugged external hard drive that I used to hold all of my AAC files was still more than enough space needed to hold all the AIFFs:
After that catastrophically boring process of re-ripping my CDs, I finally had my all of my music saved in the best possible file format for audio quality. Next up on the agenda was figuring out what hardware I needed to buy in order to process the detail and clarity of the AIFF files…without needing to take out a HELOC on my house.
Basically, there are three very important pieces of hardware required to pump out high quality sound from a computer: A DAC (Digital Analog Converter), an amplifier, and a set of speakers and/or headphones.
The DAC takes the digital music files and converts them into an analog signal. Don’t ask me to explain why the DAC is needed, or how it works…because I have no clue…that’s way above my pay grade. All I know is that a DAC is required if you want high-fidelity sound. Most Macs (and other types of computers) have a built-in DAC. Your computer has a built-in DAC if it has a headphone jack…if it does, then congrats, your computer has a DAC. However, most external DACs do a far better job of processing the digital information than a computer’s internal DAC. The price of external DACs range from under $100 into several-thousand dollar territory. My search for an acceptable combination of affordable price and good quality led me to the Schiit (yes, Schiit is really the name of the product…I laughed too) Modi 2 Uber DAC, which costs under $200:
The amplifier is somewhat self-explanatory: it takes the analog signal created by the DAC, and amplifies the sound waves. This not only makes the music louder, but it also enhances the detail and clarity of the audio. It “cleans up” the sound. Like the DAC, the price of an amplifier ranges from around $100 into the several-thousand dollar range. I stuck with Schiit products and purchased the Schiit Magni 2 Uber amp, which also costs under $200:
You can purchase Schiit right from the Schiit website:
What I really liked about the Modi and Magni is that they are exactly the same small dimensions; stacking them on top of each other was a breeze, making organization of the system extremely simple next to my computer:
Hooking up the Modi and Magni couldn’t be easier: All you need is a USB cable from your computer into the Modi, and a standard two-prong RCA cable from the Modi into the Magni. Then, another two-prong RCA cable runs from the Magni into my desktop speakers. The Magni also has an audio jack if you wish to listen to headphones instead of your desktop speakers.
The desktop speakers I chose are the Audioengine A5+, with the Audioengine S8 subwoofer. High quality speakers run well into the thousands of dollars (see the trend here?), so I needed something that balanced good quality with a decent price. A pair of A5+ run $499 on Amazon…and they sound pretty good:
Like I said previously, when I’m not at my desk, I use an iPod Touch to listen to songs. To pull more detail and clarity out of the music the iPod plays, I purchased the Chord Mojo portable amplifier. It’s literally the size of a credit card, and it does a FANTASTIC job amplifying the sound into my headphones:
Last, but definitely not least, are the headphones. Absolutely no single piece of hardware can improve the sound quality of the music more than a good pair of headphones. I spent weeks trying to find the ideal set of headphones that balanced affordability with quality. I settled on the Sennheiser 800. They aren’t cheap, but I can’t come up with the words to explain how good they sound. They literally take listening to music up a whole new level for me:
With the Sennheiser 800, I can actually hear instruments in the background of some songs that I had never been able to pick up before. And, if the quality of the recording is excellent, I can sometimes actually hear things like the guitarist’s pick pluck (say that fast 5 times) the guitar strings.
If you’re looking for a more sensibly-priced set of headphones, I would recommend the Sennheiser 650. They are really good, as well.
Now, one very important point I should make is that, regardless of what type of music file you use, and regardless of what hardware you use to listen to the music, if the original recording of the music in the studio wasn’t great, then the music will never sound great. Great audio equipment is all about fidelity…in other words, all it can do is reproduce the existing sound recorded in the music file. If the artist wasn’t able to or didn’t want to create a high-quality recording in the studio, then all good equipment can do is faithfully reproduce the sound of the low quality recording. But, if the artist made a high quality recording in the studio, then good equipment will faithfully reproduce that excellent recording.
Again, I think of it the same way I would a photograph: A great computer monitor won’t make a poor quality digital image look great…the monitor can only faithfully reproduce the level of quality of the original file. It’s all about fidelity.