I fully confess to musical hedonism, believing there’s one ultimate reason for audio systems and recorded music to exist – to generate the most and best musical pleasure and enjoyment for listeners. Listening enjoyment is my guiding principle for audio. This article offers that vision and various means for achieving it. The audio hobby is not about constantly chasing the latest gear or finding bargains in used components or collecting rare old LPs or CDs. If it's really the listening I care about, several other factors matter far more than these other activities.
It’s All About Music – At the core of its value, audio is not about nostalgia for lost youth, the size of one's media collection, or making a statement with the biggest and most powerful stereo. Competing with peers is natural but it's too easy to let relationships to obscure the real purpose of musical listening. Audio is about loving music, listening, and living the emotions encoded within the sound. Getting lost in music is simply the best.
Learn How To Listen – We hear naturally but listening is a learned skill. Enjoyment increases immensely when you listen to music actively rather than simply hear it passively. Listening is like the reverse of playing a musical instrument. Skills can be practiced to develop listening ability. Specific techniques apply the skills.
Much can be learned in college level courses in Music Appreciation and Musicology. Independent reading in this subject area helps. There’s a lot online about these matters. I highly recommend the TED Talks on Music as an inspiring starting point. Here's one about how to listen --
Seek Excellent Performances – You’ll naturally select what you like and collect the best you find. Make discrimination more conscious and follow the pleasure boldly. Assume you are entitled to the best sound and don’t settle for less. Seek out defining performances that convey exactly what a piece, or composer, or artist is all about. Streaming music web sites help you listen more broadly. Your music collection will improve.
Recognize Great Recording and Mastering – Not all recordings are created equal. Mastering of distribution files also varies. Here’s another area where good taste advances your progress in collecting what is most pleasurable to hear. For example, discriminating one label’s renditions of Erik Satie’s “Trois Gymnopédies” from another is excellent practice that will develop your ear and advance your listening pleasure. Keep trading up and collect your personal best of the best.
Treat Room Acoustics – Many audio lovers don’t realize how strong an effect their listening space has on musical fidelity. The more real your music playback, the more enjoyable it is. Music suffers in small rooms with hard, parallel walls and right angle corners. Such rooms interfere with natural sound reproduction. If you love music enough to acquire a great-sounding audio system, you also need to acoustically condition your listening space.
It’s not difficult or costly to make a large improvement in how your room sounds. Then you’ll hear performances as the composers and musicians intend. When you grasp how much acoustic conditioning changes your musical playback, you'll be able to stop constantly seeking new components in a futile quest for better sound.
Get an Excellent Playback System – We're better off to not bother with archaic stereo gear and physical media. Obsolete technologies don't measure up to digital systems that are properly implemented. It's possible to build systems that play music well by buying cast-off gear but many new digital systems now cost less than used gear and sound better. Some dealers offer audition periods and warranties. Be sure to discriminate value so you're not just sucking up the latest gadgetry marketing fluff.
Listen to Digital Files, not Plastic Media – Physical media were invented simply to facilitate profiteering in the music distribution industry. Nearly all music now starts as 24-bit digital masters. From there, musical fidelity goes downhill. Originals are mixed down in production and re-mastered for distribution. Music playback suffers from re-encoding onto any kind of physical media except digital memory. Reading physical media to play music back is also a lossy process. LP and CD technology, Bluetooth wireless, lossy file compression and the like reduce music quality.
Go with lossless digital files because they are close to the source. They’re insanely convenient, indestructible, and inherently immune to most issues that make plastic media inferior. Any must-have music on vinyl or CDs can be converted to digital format and software can remove many faults in the process. In the case of CDs, certain technologies can recover more music from a CD than you can hear through a standard player and save it to files. Consider Exact Audio Copy software for ripping CDs on a computer or an equivalent.
Get a Music Server – Digital bits are always bits however you store them or retrieve them, though some technologies are prone to faults that can be remedied. If it serves files, fits your budget, and performs to at least minimum level, you can get good results. I have used a Logitech Transporter, my MacBook Pro, and even my iPad 3, all with decent results. I plan to implement a dedicated Mac Mini running Channel D Pure Music software and a network NAS drive array.
Get a Great DAC – This means a functionally excellent one, not necessarily expensive. Manufacturers trying to lock you into their system and have an excuse to charge more for components are including DAC chips in every component possible these days. It’s a best practice to keep your DAC an entirely separate component rather than integrated into another device. Then it's easy to integrate into systems, keep isolated, and upgrade and you have better system configuration options.
Maintain Galvanic Isolation – This is a fancy name for a floating electrical ground in a component. Try to select gear that’s ground-isolated to avoid ground loop electrical noise that can arise when different components in your system have grounds at different voltages. Keeping the noise out achieves “deep black” silence in the background. That makes the music stand out with greater detail and vividness and it reduces listening fatigue.
Apply Optical Isolation – Even after arranging ground isolation between components, keeping noise out of the amplifier must be achieved in the connection between your DAC and your computer, which is a very noisy place where a lot of digital “hash” is flying around. It sounds like a beehive in there to an analog amplifier. Just use optical interconnect between the DAC and the computer, when possible. Then the electrical ground of the computer is not carried across a data cable sheath and isolation is sustained.
Optical interconnect also helps reduce any clock jitter error which also helps the sound. Most quality DAC components offer the option to connect to the computer optically. Optical interconnects are cheap whereas high quality electrical interconnects are spendy.
Take Advantage of Wireless – Some DACs connect via wi-fi protocol wireless channels. These components are quite convenient for achieving whole house audio easily and inexpensively. However, on the subject of wireless, avoid any audio scheme that incorporates Bluetooth for transmitting sound between data storage and the system. Bluetooth is both lossy and compressed, which degrades sound quality.
Another benefit of a wireless DAC is additional isolation. When the DAC is disconnected electrically from the amplifier by a wireless data channel, a similar effect to the optical isolation mentioned above is achieved and ground separation from the digital section is sustained.
Include a Vacuum Tube Buffer – Adding a vacuum tube “buffer” or preamp to an otherwise all solid-state system may seem frivolous until you hear the difference it makes in your music. The vacuum tube buffer stage is a key secret of enjoyable sound from digital sources. Buffering the music signal through a good-sounding tube removes many faults that led to early criticisms of digital music. Even a single tube can warm, smooth, and sweeten the sound, removing harshness and etched or overly analytic qualities. The result is wonderfully neutral-toned and fast, articulate sound.
Include a quality tube preamp or the minimalist can use a tube headphone amplifier which also provides a convenient place to plug in headphones for private listening and another active input. Decco systems use this vacuum tube approach and even AMR’s super-pricey amplifier uses tube technology.
Take Advantage of Amplified Speakers – Here again, simpler is better. Solid state technology has advanced tremendously. I abandoned my all-tube approach and I can still call myself a serious music lover. The best amplifier is one that sounds wonderful but you don’t even see it because it’s inside the speakers. These days, a preamp is not usually needed unless you're connecting multiple sources. If you have one based on vacuum tubes, there's your buffer stage.
Know Your Speakers – The "business end" of your system is still the most critical component because speakers are most prone to sonic distortions. Develop your ear -- if you’re serious about audio, make the rounds of quality stereo shops in your town and listen to a lot of different speakers. Even if you’re not planning to buy speakers soon, this will help you learn to discriminate so you can pick what sounds best. When it’s time to pick speakers you'll be able to do so with your ears. Some of the best choices available today are powered models with the amplifier(s) inside.
Tap Some Streaming Music Sources – Even if you are ready to lay out major cash for a big sound file collection or take a long time to amass a library by word of mouth, be sure to explore streaming music services now available online. Streaming sites offer more music that you could listen to in your entire lifetime. They are perfect for feeding the hungry ear a lot of variety and that helps develop your tastes. HD (high definition) formats are available and easy to stream if you have 4 or 5-megabit Internet service.
The iHi-Fi Blog mentions two streaming services over and over (MOG.com and Qobuz.com) because they are thoroughly checked out, known good values. Streaming music will help broaden your musical horizons by introducing you to a lot of new music. It’s like having many friends with similar tastes who keep feeding you tips on new music they recommend.
How Is Your Hearing? – Many people think they don't hear well when the issue is really that they have not learned to listen. It’s better to strategize with facts than with assumptions. Consider having your hearing tested so you know where you stand. In many cases, truly challenged hearing can be assisted by adjustments in the playback process or your room acoustic treatment.
Also, it’s vital to protect your hearing. It will be damaged by exposure to sound that’s too loud for too long. So don’t take a job in a nightclub or work in a loud industrial operation or any place where you might be exposed to constant noise. Wear ear protection when needed like at the shooting range. Forget the motorcycle with straight pipes. Avoid loud ear buds and earphones or playing music at high volumes in your listening space. Don't turn up volume to compete with ambient noise. Rock concerts are bad news. If “loud” is part of your musical aesthetic, leave that behind if you like your hearing intact and want to enjoy listening long term.
Summary -- The smart audio enthusiasts focus on music. They put together a simple but powerful computer audio music system and play lossless digital files. If they build a music library, they also listen to streaming services to find more great music. They avoid being seduced by the Sirens of marketing hype and install acoustic room treatment. They do things that make sense, save cash, and advance their musical listening enjoyment. The rest is details.
Deeper listening pleasure can be blocked when physical media, stereo gear, nostalgia, ego gratification, social competition, or anything else replaces focused listening or distracts us from fine performances that are recorded and mastered well, and played on a high fidelity audio system, in acoustically transparent space. When you really listen, you forget all about how the recording is encoded and the physical system that plays it. You are free to deeply enjoy musical pleasure and that enjoyment is what you seek, not it’s external trappings, symbols, or mere accessories.
Enjoy Your Digital Music!