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This chapter is from the book

Improving Your Device’s Sound Quality

When you play music on your portable music player or smartphone, you’re playing back audio files encoded with lossy compression, typically at a midgrade bitrate. That means the music isn’t that great to start with, but probably good enough for listening on the go.

That said, there are ways to make your iPod, iPhone, or whatever device it is you’re using sound better when you’re listening to your favorite tunes. I’m not talking about encoding at a higher bitrate or using lossless compression, both of which will increase file size and let you store less music on your device. Instead, I’m talking about improving playback by changing what you use to listen to your portable player.

Upgrading Your Earbuds (or Headphones)

Let’s start with the obvious. Whatever type of portable device you’re using, even one of Apple’s, the little earbuds that come from the factory are fairly low grade. Oh, they’re fine for most folks who just want background music, but they don’t have the fidelity that audiophiles and other serious music lovers are accustomed to.

To that end, the quickest and easiest way to improve the sound quality of your iPod, iPhone, or whatever is to upgrade from the stock earbuds. You can choose a better pair of earbuds or replace the buds with a set of good headphones. The difference in fidelity will be impressive.

How easy is it to switch from the stock earbuds? Very easy, since all earbuds and most headphones sold today either come with a mini-jack plug or with a mini-jack adapter for the traditional 1/4-inch plug. This makes it easy to connect just about any buds or phones to your portable device.

What kind of earbuds can you choose from? Here’s a short list of some of the more popular models—excluding low-end replacement items:

FIGURE 27.21

FIGURE 27.21 Koss’s affordable Porta Pro KTC headphones, complete with microphone and controls for iPhone use.

FIGURE 27.22

FIGURE 27.22 Bose’s QuietComfort 15 noise-canceling headphones.

FIGURE 27.23

FIGURE 27.23 Beats by Dr. Dre Studio headphones.

Of these units, the hottest on the market today are the various Beats by Dr. Dre. Listeners love the enhanced fidelity (and slightly pumped bass) you get from all Beats models; the higher-end Studio model is true audiophile quality. (My book editor got some Beats for his birthday and says he’s in nirvana—and not the grunge type.) They’re definitely worth a listen.

Adding an Outboard DAC

The other way to improve music playback on your portable device is to use an outboard digital-to-analog converter (DAC). That’s because most portable devices, especially smartphones, have fairly mediocre internal DACs. Bypassing the internal DAC with an external one provides much better conversion to analog, which will improve playback over either earbuds or headphones.

The challenge is finding an outboard DAC that is compatible with the iPod’s digital audio output, via the dock connector. There are only a handful, including the following:

FIGURE 27.24

FIGURE 27.24 The Fostext HP-P1, designed especially for iPod/iPhone use.

The question is, is it really worth it to add an outboard DAC to your iPod or iPhone? It certainly does up your total expense. To be honest, you’ll get more immediately noticeable results by spending that same money (or less!) on a good set of headphones. But past that, if you really want the best sound possible, an outboard DAC does deliver—albeit subtly. Frankly, if you can notice the difference from an outboard DAC, you probably should be encoding your audio files at a higher bitrate, which also improves the sound quality.

It’s all a matter, I suppose, of how much effort and expense you want to go to maximize the sound quality of your portable playback. For some music lovers, no effort should be spared. For others, upgrading from the stock earbuds is effort enough. As with all things musical and digital, let your own ears be your guide.

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