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What's More Important for Better Sound: Music Quality or Hardware?

Headphones, amplifier/DAC and audio files are the three crucial links in the audio chain. But which is most important?

schiit audio magni
Schiit Audio

We're all looking for ways to improve our work-from-home setups. For some of us, that centers around music. How can I listen to higher-resolution audio while working from home? Your music files, your amplifier, and your headphones are the three crucial factors for delivering music to your ears, and which one you should upgrade first depends on what you already have.

The most important link in that chain is, perhaps unsurprisingly, the headphones. "A quality headphone or earbud can produce better sound quality from even the most basic music playback device such as a smartphone [or laptop]," explained Owen Kwon, the president at Astell&Kern.

But it's not a nailed-on guarantee that more you more spend on headphones, the better sound — but it's generally the case. A pair of $300 headphones like the Grado SR325e ($295) is going to sound better than a $30 headphones like the Monoprice Premium Hi-Fi ($30). This is the more expensive models have better, more powerful drivers that a can more accurately able to separate frequencies (low, high and midrange) so the sound has depth. Instead of sounding muddled or scratchy.

grado sr325e
Grado SR325e

Next up is the headphone amp. It's capable of upscaling the audio file so that your headphones make the music sound way better than it should. According to Kwon, this "will really show listeners what they have been missing all these years listening to the same songs with subpar equipment."

Your laptop or computer already has a built-in amp (otherwise it wouldn't be able to play music), but its sound is often flat and grainy — a far cry from the detailed and expansive audio you want. This is due to the space and cost constraints of the computer manufacturer. An external headphone amp, like AudioQuest's Dragonfly Red ($200) or Schiit Audio's Magni ($99), comes with a superior integrated digital-to-analog converter (DAC), both of which will help the audio be more accurate and less harsh. A headphone amp can also upsample compressed music files, essentially helping your low-quality audio sound more hi-fi.

schiit audio magni 3
Schiit Audio Magni 3
Schiit Audio

Last, but certainly not least, is the resolution of your music. Most of the digital audio files you listen are greatly compressed, and compressed files exaggerate high and low frequencies, which sound worse and induce ear-fatigue. If you listening to a streaming service like Spotify, Apple Music or Amazon Music Unlimited, you can make sure you're listening to the highest-quality audio files possible — here's how — although you typically have to be a premium subscriber to this. For the best audio files (24-bit/192kHz is the highest-resolution audio for streamers), you can subscribe to a more lossless streaming service, such as Tidal, Deezer Music, Amazon Music HD or Qobuz. The last option is the going pure analog, which is going to take way more effort as you'll have hook your headphones up directly to a turntable, CD player or hi-fi system.

But more important than any abstract hierarchy is the question of your specific setup. Specifically, what is the weakest link in your chain. "Your money would go farthest by upgrading the weakest performing elements first," says Kwon.

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