Digital music is moving beyond 'good enough' to high fidelity

By Adam L. Penenberg , written on July 29, 2013

From The News Desk

If you are of a certain age you probably knew someone in college who owned a smokin’ stereo. He – and it was almost always a he – lived in a dorm room the size of a storage unit, but that didn’t stop him from cramming into it an amp, pre-amp, state-of-the-art compact disc player (or, if of a certain age, a high-end turntable with a diamond stylus), and two monstrous speakers that pounded out enough bass to fill Madison Square Garden. A gaggle of friends would materialize, pass a bottle or a bong, and immerse themselves in an immersive aural experience. There’s a reason Pink Floyd has sold millions of albums.

It used to be that amateur audiophiles spent thousands of dollars of home systems, setting up listening rooms, speakers placed just so, a lone chair planted in the optimal location for optimizing the musical experience. But nowadays that’s not how most people listen to music. Instead it has become a soundtrack to our lives, an accompaniment to the relentless multitasking that characterizes our behavior. We don headphones to listen to Hip-Hop on the subway while we read The New York Times on our iPhone apps or listen to Frank Sinatra, Frank Zappa, and/or Frank Ocean while we cook dinner.

We now live in the time of ‘good enough,’ as in we don’t necessarily need a digital SLR when our iPhone cameras will suffice, or spend money on a Blueray player and matching discs when we have high definition cable TV, DVR, a Roku or AppleTV box, DVDs, and an iPad that streams movies, TV shows and videos wherever and whenever we want them. It’s the same with music. Convenience abounds but fidelity suffers.  Last week The New York Times ran a story that looked at this trend.

The knock against the digital music on your computer or on your iPod is that sound files are usually compressed, therefore contain far less information than compact discs, which hold less information LPs. As a result MP3s, etc. lack the life, color and vibrancy of CDs, which sound cold compared to records pressed on vinyl.

But the times are a changin’. A whole crop of companies have popped up in recent years that are focused on digital music, transforming the tinny music that has characterized the iPod-Bose dock experience into something even an audiophile purist might enjoy. Not only that but they’ve added an aesthetic element, because for many of us spoiled by sleek Apple offerings, not only must a product improve fidelity, it has to look good in our livings rooms, too.

Some of these digital-first companies include Peachtree Audio, AudioEngine, and Wadia, which sell music systems designed to transform digital music into something quite special. At home I stream music through an iPod Touch on a Peachtree iNova integrated amplifier with accompanying D5 speakers. Peachtree built in what’s called a DAC (digital audio converter), which converts digital information into an analog signal so it can be played on your iPod or through your receiver and speakers. (Your iPod also has a DAC, but the chip is cheap and so the sound that filters through it is pretty poor.)

If you don’t have a DAC you should consider getting one. As with speaker cables, you can drop a few thousand bucks on one, but you can find a DAC for less than $100 that does a pretty good job. At my office at NYU I use a $100 Pure 1-20 DAC to stream music into AudioEngine 5 speakers that have a built-in amp. (If you have an iPod or iPhone with the Lightning connector you'll need the adapter.) For a modest-sized office the AudioEngine/Pure DAC combination generates a crisp and lively sound.

One welcome trend is that DACs are becoming more mobile. A British company called Meridian recently started selling one for around $300 that replaces the sound card in your laptop. Plug it into your computer’s USB port then connect your headphones and your music takes on a whole new dimension. Another mobile DAC the size of a deck of playing cards is the Fiio E17, which is manufactured by a Chinese company. It’s not only a third of the price of the Meridian Explorer it doubles as a mini-amp for your iPod or iPhone when you are on the go (although the DAC only works with your laptop). Still, a mini amp on its own can improve the quality of your music. And if I could justify dropping $600 I’d buy V-Moda’s Vamp Verza for my iPod or iPhone, a truly mobile DAC that has gotten stellar reviews. The Verza is itself half the price of other portable headphone DACs. When the price drops I’ll be there to scoop one up.

The only bad part of becoming an amateur audiophile is that once you start listening to music through a DAC and a system designed to get the most out of digital music, it’s hard to cope with a run-of-the-mill car audio system. It happened to me this past weekend while driving in Northern California with some PandoDaily colleagues.

Good thing I had my Sennheiser PX-100 foldable headphones. I plugged them into my iPhone 5 and vegged out to The Greyboy Allstars. I didn’t have a V-Moda Vamp Verza portable DAC or the Fiio E17 mini amp, so the audio wasn’t perfect by any stretch – but it was good enough. Certainly better than the noise emanating from the car’s speakers. Now that was awful.

You see? I’m ruined.

Image: Meridian