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Headphones

Let's make audio great again

It may be hard to imagine, but audio was once a much bigger deal in most people's lives than it is now.

When did you fall in love with music? Or should I put it this way, when did you fall in love with the sound of music. No one would doubt that the sound at a live concert changes the way you feel about a tune you've heard countless times on ear buds or the speakers in your phone. The music -- the notes, rhythms, and lyrics -- are all exactly the same on the 'buds, but the sound of the notes, rhythms and lyrics over great headphones or speakers changes the way you feel about the music.

Reading about good sound is a poor substitute for experiencing it. When you hear great sound you know it; it's not an intellectual trip, good sound makes you feel more connected to the music. Then again, if you never hear it you won't miss it. Of course, "greatness" is relative; it all depends from where you're starting from. Check my lists of great headphones and speakers to get started, and this blog regularly covers the good stuff, at every price range, from dirt cheap to crazy expensive.

Onkyo TX 8020 stereo receiver

Onkyo

The older you are the more likely it is that you remember when most people had "nice" audio systems; if you're under 35 you probably grew up without a "stereo" at home. You may have had a boombox, cassette or CD Walkman, a pair of cheesy ear buds, or listened to music in your car.

The sound of music was more important in the 1960s, '70s, '80s and '90s -- audio was more mainstream, and you'd see ads for turntables, cassette decks, speakers and electronics in mainstream magazines and media. Most towns and cities had lots of stores that sold audio; nowadays a lot of fairly large cities don't have a single audio shop. So most folks make do with cheap headphones and iffy Bluetooth speakers. Good enough has replaced great, and that's sad.

Sound is the thing, but.....

It's really a question of how and where we access music: at home or on the go. At home the possibilities for great sound quality are a lot better, you can play files, CDs, or LPs. You can listen to high quality (wired) stereo speakers, or headphones, with electronics powered by an AC wall outlet. Great sound at home, office, or dorm room is doable for very little money. For a starter system I recommend ELAC Debut B6 bookshelf speakers mated to an Onkyo TX 8020 stereo receiver, and a Schiit Modi 2 digital converter. Total cost of this system starts around $580, £430, AU$799.

Hifiman HE400S.

Hifiman

On-the-go audio is limited to battery-powered devices such as smartphones or portable music players, both of which are inherently pretty feeble, as far as amplifier power goes, but portable headphones can still be awfully good. I love the Bose SoundTrue Ultra in-ear headphones ($130, £130, AU$200), and better yet, the Hifiman HE400full-size headphones ($299, £190, AU$419).

As for a portable (lightweight, battery-powered) speaker, greatness, or even goodness isn't in the cards. True, some of these speakers make a decent amount of bass, but midrange and treble are harsh. They're good enough, not great.

If music isn't all that important to you, don't give great sound another thought, but if you love music it's worth a little extra effort to make your tunes sound great.