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How to improve your digital sound
Compression is not always bad. Uma Thurman zipped into her leather Kill Bill bodysuit is one good example. Sausage – one of the top five foods on earth – is another. But stuffing a lot of music into a confined space produces a less desirable result.
The convenience of carrying 1,500 songs around in your phone is made possible by digital compression, which literally removes some parts of the file to make it fit. The result is music that sounds flat and antiseptic to the ear. Ideally, we'd all like to enjoy the full, warm sound of a classic LP, but still be able to carry our entire music library in our pockets; fortunately, sound engineers have been hard at work getting these strange bedfellows together.
If you're looking to improve the sound quality of your digital library, these are the technologies you'll want to invest in:
Audiophiles are now downloading their music in FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec) or Apple Lossless files. These protocols still reduce music files by nearly 50% of their original size, making them easier to store, but rather than throwing out the removed info, as in MP3 files, the Lossless protocol restores the information for playback, kind of like adding water to a sponge.
The information that is removed is probably better expressed as resolution. In a digital image, it would look like pixelation – using bigger blocks of data makes it look/sound chunky instead of smooth and detailed. And you have to reduce the wave to rough form to get it small. We have to make the sound fine-grained again so it smoothes out.
It is possible to rip your own CDs and albums into lossless format. You can also directly purchase and download lossless tracks through sites like HDTracks.com, Rhino.com and Magnatune.com, to name a few. One caveat, though: not all audio devices are set up to handle lossless files. Make sure your home receiver or handheld device is compatible with the format before you go hog-wild with downloads.
DAC (Digital to Analog Converter)
All digital music is converted back to analog before we hear it. Your handheld device has a small, inefficient DAC in it. Your CD player (if you still own such a dinosaur) has a slightly better one. But sound engineers are cooking up ever better converters that go the extra mile – the best DACs can reproduce the expansive sound of classic vinyl from the crushed up ball of digital data we call a music file.
When you're shopping for a new home receiver in the future, look for units that have built-in DACs that bypass the one your other components and devices are using. DACs made by Burr/Brown, Sabre and Wolfson are high-quality options that most companies will boast about in their literature.
If you're attached to your old receiver, many companies are now making component DACs that can be added to an existing system. Audiophile companies like NAD, Cambridge and Peachtree are creating component DACs that look and sound oh, so sexy.
Finally, even travelers or desk-bound paper-pushers can get in on the act. Compact DACs currently on the market work as combination amplifiers/converters to improve your listening experience via headphones and desktop speaker systems.
Don't put cheap tires on a Lamborghini. If you're going to invest in a quality DAC, buy quality cables. These can be high-markup items at many retail stores, but Monster and Audioquest products are well-made and merit the expenditure.
Getting cables out of the way altogether is the ultimate in luxury. Unfortunately, wireless technology is still more of a convenience measure than a quality listening option. Variables like bitrates, bandwidth, transfer speed, etc. will not only affect the quality of your sound, but trying to figure out what the heck they mean will make your head spin.
Apple, naturally, has come up with convenient and highly functional products like AirPlay, Apple TV and AirPort to help your music travel invisibly. Sonos and Bose have leapt to the forefront in terms of making wireless speaker systems that actually sound good. Bluetooth is becoming a more common feature for home and car audio systems, allowing for flexible streaming options that let you take your music with you everywhere you go.
In all honesty, wireless streaming is just emerging from the crawling stage into walking. The popularity of streaming media means that audiophile companies are working day and night to make your music files run and, eventually, fly.
Right now, I get the sense that it’s more finding a way to get the DACs into the machines. They’re pretty darn small right now (see the Dragonfly), so I don’t think they’re going to be getting better, maybe just smaller and more common as customers grow to embrace them as necessary for good quality.
There's no one-size-fits-all solution to the various challenge presented by digital audio, but there's one product that does such an elegant job of putting big sound in a small box that it must be mentioned.
The Dragonfly, made by Audioquest, is a digital to analog converter, a pre-amp and a headphone amp all in one. It is the exact size and shape of a thumb drive, with a USB connection on one end, and a minijack output on the other. The tiny but powerful Sabre DAC inside does the audio equivalent of turning a TV dinner into Cordon Bleu, and it's small, flexible and good-looking. It has been rightfully lionized by the techie press.
Dragonfly is the latest mini-marvel in the world of digital sound, but it won't be the last. Keep your eyes peeled and you ears open for the latest way to let the genie out of the bottle in style.
Audiophile magazine named the Dragonfly as their Computer Audio Component of the Year: http://www.stereophile.com/content/istereophileis-products-2012-computer-audio-component-year Money quote: “It’s a thumb in the eye of those tea-pinky tyrants who would tell the rest of us what is and is not high end. I can think of no more recommendable product in digital audio.”