Your first good audio system: three alternatives

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We covered the essential, conventional configuration for your first music system in the previous page. We described such a system as including a CD player, an integrated amp, and a pair of speakers. However, that's not the only configuration possible for your first system. There are alternatives.

Alternative 1: Replace amp and speakers with headphones

One alternative is to replace amp and speakers with high quality headphones.

Why? Because a pair of headphones costing Rs.15,000 will be more accurate than a pair of speakers costing five to ten times as much.

How do headphones do this? Easy -- they are smaller, have less material, and need to move much less air. So, to generate the same sound waves in your ear, they barely whisper like a butterfly's wings. This makes it far easier to make accurate transducers, lower their distortion.

Which headphones should you buy, and from where?

  • Don't go cheap. Now that you know that headphones are far more accurate than speakers costing equal amounts, don't go looking for cheap Rs.200 earphones. Budget at least Rs.7,000 for your headphones.
  • Check online forums. A good place to start is They don't make headphones, only resell them. So they've built a reputation for detailed reviews and impartiality.
  • Two types: There are broadly two types to choose from in headphones. One is the in-ear monitor (IEM) which reproduces perhaps the most accurate sound among all transducers known to humankind. For Rs.15,000, you can get some of the most accurate and natural sounding sound reproduction devices ever built. The second type is the conventional headphones. These too can be awesome, but will cost more money to reach similar quality levels. Do not rush out and buy a pair of expensive IEM --- they can be uncomfortable. Try out some models, and make up your mind at leisure. Conventional headphones can be much more comfortable.
  • A headphone amp. If you are spending more than Rs.5,000 on a good pair of headphones, you'll never get it to sound its best unless you get a good headphone amp to drive it. The headphone socket in most amplifiers and CD players do not do a good job. To look for headphone amps, check out again.
  • Drop that amp. If you decide that you'll do all your music listening exclusively on your headphones, then you can actually get rid of both amps and speakers. You can directly hook up the CD player to a good headphone amp, and then connect your headphones to them. All the money you save by eliminating speakers and amp can be diverted into getting a good headphone amp and a great pair of headphones. The budget which appeared tight for amp and speakers now will appear luxurious for headphones and headphone-amp.
  • No wireless headphones. We do not know of any wireless headphones which reproduce music half as well as wired headphones costing half as much. Wireless headphones are great to watch TV with, late at night when everyone else is sleeping. Forget high quality music.
  • Import. It is not easy to find a good choice of high quality headphones in any retail outlet in India. You may have to import the ones you want. This is increasingly becoming a simple affair.

Remember that listening to music through headphones is not to everyone's tastes. Some people just want that room-filling sound. Headphones feel artificial and clinical to them.

Alternative 2: Replace CD player with digital music server

Computers have changed our homes, not just our work. Many of us are now comfortable hooking up a computer to our music systems, and keeping all our music as digital files on a computer's hard drive. You can then get rid of your CD player. This means that you have keep your computer switched on whenever you listen to music, and you have to connect the computer to the music system. If this means that the computer is in the same room as your music system, the sound of the cooling fan in the computer can be quite irritating.

But these problems are now solved. There are things called digital music servers, and these servers can pull music files straight from a storage device.

The most famous of these digital music servers is the SqueezeBox (Wikipedia page, product page). They can pull music out of your computer or from Internet radio stations (if you have a good broadband Internet connection), and pump them into your amp.

These devices have pretty good digital-to-analog converters. At least the SqueezeBox has a D-to-A converter which can easily best inexpensive DVD players. They sound far superior to cheap audio cards in laptops or PCs.

What's even better is that many of them can pull music files out of storage devices. You do not need to keep your computer in the picture. Two very well-known storage appliances which can feed the SqueezeBox directly are the Netgear ReadyNAS and the Linksys NSLU2. Using these devices instead of a general-purpose PC saves space, eliminates PC fan noise, and reduces electricity consumption.

So, with one of these devices, you replace the CD player of the conventional music system with a music server and a compatible storage appliance, and you have a more high-tech music system which can play your digital music collection, pull music off Internet radio Websites, and impress visitors. A 1-Terabyte disk drive can hold all the music that we can imagine collecting in our otherwise confused and pointless lives, and the whole system remains quite affordable.

Remember not to use lossy compressed music files for good audio quality. Do not use MP3 files. If you must compress, use the FLAC file format. MP3 files and other lossy audio compression methods add clear high-frequency distortion and bring about listening fatigue, which becomes quite apparent during long listening sessions. And why should one bother to save disk space and lose audio quality when disk space is so inexpensive?

There's nothing stopping you combining one of these music servers with a headphone amp and headphones, for the ultimate in light-weight, intimate, high-tech music playback.

Alternative 3: Replace CD player with portable digital music player

The portable music player combines digital audio playback (like a SqueezeBox) with a storage appliance, all in a cigarette packet sized form factor. The most famous portable digital music player today, in terms of market infatuation is, of course, the iPod and descendants. However, the iPod is no longer the most popular option: practically every modern smartphone can act as a good digital music player. Some smartphones are well known for their high quality of audio output through their headphone jacks.

Many portable music players have reasonably good DACs built in, but almost all have very limited headphone amps. In other words, they convert their digital music into analog signals quite well, but when it comes to driving a headphone, they run out of breath. This of course does not cause problems when you hook them up to a domestic audio system's amp.

Like the digital music server, this approach replaces the CD player or DVD player from the signal chain. The amp and speakers remain in your system as before. And you load up the portable music player with all the music you want to listen to. Many small diskless players (like the iPod Nano) can hold 16 GBytes of music, which is a lot of music for many people.

As with the digital music server, do not use lossy compressed audio files if you care about the quality of your system's sound.

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