More Audio

Ever since the MLB trade deadline last week I’ve been meaning to write about all the moves the Red Sox made and my impressions of them. But, I think I will save that for the next episode of the podcast because I’m sure a discussion with Mr. Fish will be more interesting than a simple list of names and teams.

So, instead I’m going to write more about audio stuff. Previously I discussed analog versus digital audio and specifically the Pono player and what a waste of money it is – even so the Kickstarter got 18,220 people to donate $6,225,254. To sum that post up: the fallacy of “analog is always better than digital” is great for people who don’t understand that math does work.1 And just like with coffee – one of my other obsessions – it’s the source that makes the most difference. If you have stale beans, or badly mixed and mastered music, it doesn’t matter what equipment you use to enjoy it; it is going to be crap.

I am not going to continue that rant. If you want to waste your money on vynyl and stupidly expensive audiophile equipment you go right ahead. I waste money on stuff, too.

This post is about my audio setup and why I selected the gear I have. From file to ears this is my entire audio equipment chain.

Sources

The primary source for music in my office is my Mac Mini. It isn’t anything special for a modern machine: 2.6 GHz Intel Core i7, 16 GB RAM, almost 64 GB of music on the Fusion Drive (which works perfectly, by the way). And I am pretty diligent about keeping the OS and iTunes up to date.

When I listen to podcasts they’re playing on my iPhone or iPad and running through a switchable RCA box that I’ll talk about shortly. But for music, which is the primary focus of this post, I use my Mac. The reason for that is the digital-to-analog processing…

Digital To Analog Processing

You have to turn those files into an analog signal to hear them.

This is almost certainly the least necessary part of my audio equipment, but I have it so I use it. The Mac probably outputs audio just fine but instead of using the audio out (headphone jack) on the Mac I have a Meridian Explorer DAC plugged into the Mac via USB. I paid too much for it, sure, but the output does sound clean and I have no complaints about it’s function. That said, if I were to buy one today I would get the Schiit Modi DAC: it’s 1/3 the price and matches my other Schiit equipment. Hell, I may buy one of those before long anyway…

Amplification

From the Explorer the – now analog – signal goes over regular old RCA cable2 through a Schiit Sys Passive Preamp to a Schiit Asgard 2 headphone amplifier. Why this amp? Well, it sounds excellent for one. Before this I was using a regular old stereo receiver and no matter what I heard tons of noise. Didn’t matter what headphones I used. Didn’t matter if there was a signal coming in. If the amp was on there was noise. It was that analog noise you get on a lot of old recordings before Dolby. And as I got better headphones it became more noticable and more annoying.

The Asgard 2 has no noise. None. If I hit pause on iTunes there is no audible sound coming through the headphones. None. I can hear nothing at all in my headphones. For $250 I have an amplifier that produces no noise and sounds absolutely incredible. It’s a damn good deal, in my opinion.

The other thing about the Asgard 2 that made me get it over the cheaper Magni and Vali models is that it also has RCA outputs. So I can run the signal to that (crap) receiver to power my speakers if I don’t want to listen through headphones. From that original post:

I have a pretty inexpensive receiver, the Onkyo TX–8255 that powers my old, but still decent Sony speakers. I think the speakers came with a home theater system I got about fifteen years ago. They still sound great.

Yes. They did sound pretty good. But, I did upgrade them a bit.3 I took out the stock drivers and put in these tweeters and these midrange drivers. And I glued some sound absorbing foam in the cabinets, also. They sound pretty damn good now.

I mentioned the Sys Preamp above. I’m using that to switch between the RCA-headphone jack cable that I plug into the iPad/iPhone and the Mac. So: imputs to Sys to Asgard 2. Yes, it is pretty expensive for a RCA switch at $50 but if you’ve ever searched for a RCA switch online you know they’re all shit. This one works perfectly and looks great on my desk next to the Asgard 2.

Getting in my ear holes

I already talked about my speakers with the receiver. This is about my headphones. Previously:

I have two sets of headphones. A pair of decent closed ones, the Sennheiser HD 380 Pro headphones that I got last year on Black Friday for almost half-off. And a set of Grado SR80i’s. The 380’s are higher audio quality and more accurate. I hear everything in them. I have the recording of Ralph Kirshbaum playing Bach’s Cello Suites and you can hear him breathing on stage through the 380’s. The Grado’s aren’t quite as accurate as that but they have a warm, rich sound that I really like. And they were my first high end phones so there is some sentimental value there, too. I end up using the 380’s more often. They also get used for recording the podcast because they don’t bleed audio into my mic.

Throw all of that out. I put the Grado’s on the shelf and gave the Sennheiser’s to my Dad.4 I used a fairly big chunk of this year’s tax refund to splurge and buy myself some higher end headphones. After literally weeks of researching different brands and models I bought a pair of Beyerdynamic T 70 headphones. And, yes, as I’ve joked about on the podcast, they are probably worth more than my sixteen year old car, but man are they worth every penny.

They sound truly amazing. And for really well-recorded, well-mixed tracks (see all of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours) they sound like you are in the studio during the sessions. They are accurate and musical. However, I do find that with these it really depends on the quality of the recording. Crap recordings sound more crap. Good recordings sound even better. Truly, I cannot say enough for how great these headphones sound.

And being mostly metal construction they feel like they’ll last forever (they had better). Most importantly, being a glasses-wearer, they are just about the only headphones that are comfortable on my head for more than ten or twenty minutes. I have worn them for four to five hours straight and felt perfectly comfortable.

Bonus: They’re closed headphones so I can use them when recording the podcast. Mr. Fish sounds super nice in them.

Well?

My last post on audio told you not to spend money on equipment that won’t make any real difference in the quality of the music you listen to. This time I’m saying if you’re going to spend money spend it where it will make a difference.

Should you go out and buy a DAC and headphone amp and high-end German headphones? Well… No, probably not. I sit here in this office for eight hours a day listening to music and podcasts while I work. If you did that day after day for years you might be anal about the quality of the audio that goes into your ears, too. Most people aren’t going to care enough about the difference in sound to go to those lengths. They’d be able to tell that my setup is better, but they wouldn’t be willing to spend the money to get there. That’s reasonable.

But, if you are like me and want to get the most out of your audio collection you could do much worse than grabbing a decent DAC and headphone amp and some quality headphones. I think you would get more out of that than buying a turntable and a bunch of vynyl. Start with some good headphones. Then see if you might want to upgrade to a good amp. Then maybe a DAC if you are feeling audiophile-ey after that.

Great sound can be had without spending money for nothing.

Notes:

  1. I will link, again, to this great video about digital sampling and why it's as good actually better in many ways than analog.

  2. I usually buy Hosa cables. Why? Because I like the colors they come in. Any decent RCA cable is going to work fine. Please don't buy dumb audiophile cables.

  3. Quite a lot, actually...

  4. He listens to the podcast with them. Seriously.