According to a report by Edison Research, most Americans listen to four hours and five minutes of audio, every day. That’s about 1,500 hours a year, or 63 days’ worth of tunes — or “Billie Jean” on repeat 18,000 times between Christmas and New Year’s. Here’s another figure to wrap your head around: when you listen to Spotify or Pandora, you’re listening to roughly 30 percent of the quality (give or take) of the original studio recording. In other words, your taste in music may be great, but there’s a good chance you’re being fleeced by your taste in music playback. And that’s just the problem surrounding low-quality source material. Finding the right equipment to play it through is another issue entirely.
Fortunately, we’re in a sound quality renaissance. Thanks to cheap storage, more affordable hi-fi equipment and a desire by music labels to infuse life into an otherwise bearish music industry, it’s easier than ever to up your listening experience.
Don’t think you can tell the difference between high-quality and low-quality music? Now that high-quality streaming music is no longer at the mercy of nerds who know how to operate a Cray computer, you can easily test yourself through the high resolution streaming service like Tidal (hopefully on something better than your free Apple headphones). Or read this test by The Guardian. Like what you hear? Then it’s time to think about upgrading your gear. Allow us to suggest some options.
We’ve specified a lot of Apple gear here, which, it’s worth noting, does not handle the popular high-resolution audio file FLAC in iTunes out of the box (though that’s easily rectifiable), but you can easily fix that with your PC laptop or modern Android device.
The Portable Setup
Setup Price: $630 (not including computer and music) Who says hi-fi requires stuffy leather couches and huge speakers? You can listen to soaring tunes at the gym, on the subway, anywhere — and you don’t even have to be connected. Most of the setups below presume that you have access to a (fast) internet connection, but this setup is for the portable purist. Astell & Kern, makers of high-end portable hi-fi players, recently unveiled their most obtainable option to date, the AK Jr. At $500 it’s not exactly bargain-bin fare, but it will deliver fidelity to demanding headphones (with a 2-Ohm headphone jack) in an ultra sleek package no other portable hi-fi player can match. It also doubles as a USB DAC for your computer when you do finally sit down. Throw in 64GB of onboard storage with a MicroSD slot for up to 64GB more, and you’ll have plenty of storage for your tunes. Best part? Zero notifications — just on-the-go fidelity.
The Smartphone or Tablet Setup – On the Road
Setup Price: $400 Like the smartphone, almost any recent tablet from the past couple of years is all you need to get listening to high resolution audio. In fact, we like downcycling our own iDevices at home for music playback. Because we’re often using our tablets on the road we’ve set this kit up with a pair of Definitive Technology’s new Symphony1 ($399) audiophile noise-canceling headphones. They’re well balanced and have a wide-open sound stage, like listening to a pair of large speakers — which isn’t surprising considering Definitive Technology’s long-lauded roots in home speakers. They’re comfortable for hours too, so long as you don’t have a particularly big head, and the sizing is on the larger side, but if you’ve been looking at an alternative to the much-adored (by us too) Bose QC25s ($299), put these on your short list to try.
So, What the Hell Exactly is “High Resolution”?
It’s easy to equate high resolution music to the difference between standard definition and high-definition TV, but in practice, high-resolution is better defined as being as close to the original studio recording as possible. That may still not give you a lick of clarity, but behind the scenes there are some upsides. Until recently, high resolution audio has been a wild wild west of baffling definitions and fringe notions driven by parsimonious agendas in nerdish statecraft. In June 2014 though a consortium of brands and labels including Sony, Warner, Consumer Electronics Association and The Recording Academy agreed upon a standard to define “high resolution audio”. It’s still confusing as hell, but what really matters is there are standards and a semblance of consensus”. -Eric Yang (Image Courtesy: Cambridge Audio)
The Laptop Setup – On the Road
Setup Price: $700 If you tick off the “road warrior” box then you’ve probably got a laptop shoved in that bag of yours. The downside is it’s probably a bag in need of an upgrade; the upside is you can tap into that USB port for some interesting options like an inline headphone dac/amp. We’ve been using the Cambridge Audio XS ($289), an insignificantly weighted inline single that delivers significant sound. We loved it for its compactness and big performance per dollar. Sound and Vision had this to say: “For mere mortals using typical headphones, it brings enough pleasure to earn back its modest price several times over.” We’ve paired our favorite pair of noise-canceling audiophile headphones, the PSB M4U 2 which, though a touch pricey, perform brilliantly with a wide dynamic range. If you’re in an open office environment or frequently on the move (or in the air), you’ll be deeply impressed with its capabilities particularly in the bass department. Tip: though they work admirably with the onboard amplification turned off we recommend keeping them on
The Laptop Setup – Office or Home
Setup Price: $650 As with our previous setup, there’s a good chance you do a bulk of your computing on a laptop. If you use one at work or at home on a desk then you’ve got the luxury of a bit more space — which, if you’re willing to invest a bit more, can open up a wide world of excellent high-resolution audio peripherals. There are a lot of options here, but we’ve enjoyed our time with the Arcam rPAC, a simple, black puck of a device that delivers spacious sound that’s full of detail. It’s not the newest kid on the block, but unlike a smartphone, hi-fi DACs are practically enduring obelisks in the age of technology wars (unlike your damn smartphone, they’re not antiquated in a year). For a bit more money, consider the Meridian Explorer 2 ($399). We’ve paired another middleweight British contender, the Bowers & Wilkins P7 ($399) headphones. Not only are they beautifully designed, they’re also incredibly comfortable — in fact, a New York Times reporter found them so comfortable he fell asleep in them — and the sound, though at times too committed to purity, simply deliver time and time again, no matter what sonics you throw at them, which is why Digital Trends awarded the P7s their editor’s choice. We’re a sucker for their design too, which at once feels contemporary and classic. No cantankerous logos or confusing construction — the P7s fit right in at the office, backyard or in Monaco.
10 Songs, Selected by a Pro
We asked Ben Webster, a veteran of the music industry and cofounder of Mass Fidelity, to curate a playlist of 10 songs he would recommend for testing your home setup or for auditioning hi-fi components. Here are his selections and a few word about them.
1. The Three Degrees, Maybe – A great range of female vocals and great horns.
2. Bahamas, Lost in the Light – Male vocals. The back up singers have a great sound. In the first verse the back up singers haven’t kicked in yet, at least that you can hear on most systems. If you listen carefully they’re just very low in the mix. Great signal-to-noise test.
3. Michael Jackson, Man in the Mirror / Pink Floyd, Money – Channel separation – Both these tracks have bits where you hear hard left/right pans. If there’s poor channel separation they will kind of float around the middle of the sound stage, however, in a system with great channel separation you’ll hear the sounds appear on the hard left or right of the sound stage.
4. Buddy Guy, Thank Me Someday – Vocal track and electric guitar – In the intro to the song, Buddy is playing his guitar. It’s sounding rich. Just before he starts to sing you can hear the engineer fade in Buddy’s vocal track. An audible hiss is introduced into the mix. If your system has a poor signal-to-noise you won’t hear the track fade in.
5. Mos Def, Ms. Fat Booty – If you need to test mid bass this is the track.
6. Warren G, Regulate – This track highlights deep bass.
7. Gavin Bryars, Man in a Room Gambling – Strings – An incredibly natural recording of strings, and male vocals. Look for the presence of the man narrating the piece — he should sound like he’s directly in front of you.
8. Beck, Morning – A gigantic track.
9. Jack Garratt, The Love You’re Given – Reverse Bass notes demonstrate system control; look for how how “muddy” it sounds. There are a slew of interesting sounds in this track, difficult for many systems to execute accurately along with a sound stage with sounds that move around subtly.
10. Cowboy Junkies, Misguided Angel – The absolute purist recording for this genre of music. The album was recorded at a church in Toronto, Canada with the band playing live off the floor into one stereo microphone and recording straight to tape.
11. BONUS: The Band featuring The Staple Singers, The Weight – The organs, a range of male and female vocals, the clapping near the end, and the glorious way it was all mixed together.
The Desktop Setup
Setup Price: $1,800 Though any of the aforementioned setups will work handsomely, there’s a lot of headroom for a power user. There’s no way we can cover the vast market of peripherals, but for our desktops, we’ve taken the liberty to dive a bit further, think a little bigger, and spend a bit more. The centerpiece of this desktop setup is the impressively monolithic Oppo HA-1 DAC/Headphone Amp ($1,100). After you get over its sheer density — damn the flyweight tech, the HA-1 weighs in at 13 damn pounds — you’re provided features and performance galore that systems costing twice as much will struggle to beat.
Its Class A Amplifier — combined with a bevy of connectivity options including optical, RCA, XLR, Bluetooth and USB digital inputs for computer, plus a separate connection for smart devices — make it a versatile solution for all kinds of listening setups, such as being used a stereo preamp. Then there’s the glowing front panel display, which provides ample amounts of visual bling in the form of digital VU meters, or a more modern spectrum display, if you prefer.
It’ll make any pair of headphones shine better than they ever have before — like our now-discontinued Denon AH-D5000s, shown above — but it’s hard to beat the magic of pairing it with Oppo’s own headphone series or Sennheiser’s respected HD700s.
The All-Out Desktop Setup
Setup Price: $4,700 For our top-end setup we assembled a cadre of gear focused on performance, design and space. At this point you’ve made a deep dive into high-resolution audio yourself and boast a hard drive full of your favorite albums. Things are getting a bit tight on the hard drive and you’re ready to expand. Consider an external hard drive. Were long time users of LaCie gear (looks and performs great), so in this build we’ve included the 6TB LaCie BigDisk ($570). It uses the zippy Thunderbolt interface for quick file transfer and is plenty large and fast enough to be the storage hub of your burgeoning collection. If you need your music across a variety of platforms, consider Roon ($119 per year), a service that transforms all your downlaods, files and streaming services into a single comprehensive music collection you can access everywhere.
The centerpiece here is the Meridian Prime ($2,000) DAC and headphone amplifier. Aim incredible piece of kit we’ve been testing the prime for months and can attest to its acuity and presence. It can drive even the most demanding headphone, serve as a central DAC for external powered speakers and looks sharp to boot. Once you get past its staggering price — this is Meridian after all — it really doesn’t take many auditions to see just how much magic comes from this box. A close colleague who knows his way around a great set of headphones called it “money damn well spent” (there are two of these in our offices). If you’re itching for the full monte consider adding the the Meridian Audio Power Supply ($1,250). Also consider auditioning the Benchmark DAC2 ($1,995), which, in addition to delivering big performance also touts native DSD conversion. As for the cans well we saved the best for last. In the world of headphones Grado needs no introduction. The family business has been building world class headphones for decades here in New York and their flagship, the PS1000e ($1,695) are practically peerless. Once you get past their enormity (big drivers, big sound) you simply won’t find an audio experience like this — the headphones simply squeeze out every last bit of audio fidelity. We can boil them down to one word: sublime. Orchestral tracks come alive with pastoral delivery, Led Zeppelin practically performs in front of you, Sting croons with visceral grit.