Best Musical Enjoyment = Proper Playback.
Here’s how to fix your music making machines:
- Rate the quality and identify the weakest link in your signal chain
- Research the prices and ability to upgrade the weak links
- Purchase the most sensible upgrade(s)
- That’s it!
Remember, signal chain for playback is:
Source file quality
Critical — in the signal chain nothing can affect what came before it, only after it. That’s why good source files and a good DAC will go a long way to improving your sound, much more than new speakers playing bad source, or dumb expensive cables.
That said, major improvement can be made in #7 for little or no cost, because it is not based on electrical hardware but on room acoustics.
How to upgrade items in your signal chain:
1 – Stop using MP3 and AAC files, when possible. Industry should not be encouraged to sell 10% source files. Listen to music as FLAC 16/44 minimum, and buy HD music from stores like ProStudioMasters, PonoMusic, and HDTracks.
2 – To get a good quality DAC, you need a dedicated Player such as a Fiio or PonoPlayer (basically a modern iPod) or an external USB DAC. There are many DAC’s for sale online that are superior to anything found in a phone, tablet, or laptop.
3 – Thousands of companies make quality stereo amplifiers of every shape, size, and price point. You can also get one integrated with a nice DAC and hook it to a player with storage, or get 2-4 in a DAP like PonoPlayer. Don’t forget there’s also great amps from the last 40 years sitting around collecting dust.
4 – Output staging is something not easily upgraded and usually part of the amplifier. You want flexibility in outputs and enough power to drive most systems. If shopping for an amp, look for features here.
5 – Interconnects are the speaker wire, an old debate amongst audio nerds. Good cables can be had for cheap (check monoprice) and people will sell you crazy things in cable land, so avoid the hype and buy sensibly here. Wireless speakers will sound worse than cheaply-wired speakers because the wireless protocol cannot move full stereo audio as accurately as wires can. Wireless speakers have to apply another round of lossy compression, and latency issues degrade the stereo image.
6 – Speakers are where most people start when they upgrade, and they shouldn’t. Assuming you have near-average speakers or better, they probably aren’t the weakest link in your playback chain. You might be amazed what they are capable of when fed better source.
7 – Too often ignored, this includes speaker placement, room treatment, and headphone fit. Much of this is free and should be tried before any purchases are made.