Just a few years ago, I was one of those who would just plug whatever earpieces that come with the purchase of their phones into their phones/laptops/desktops/tablets or whatever else to listen to music. My journey to becoming an audiophile I am today started when my cousin bought me a pair of Sennheiser earbuds (a CX 300 if I am not wrong) just a little under 5 years ago. Back then my knowledge on audio quality was very limited but one thing I started to notice was that after listening to music on the Sennheiser earbuds, I found myself being unable to go back any of those earbuds that came with Samsung/Motorola/Apple smartphones anymore.
Fast forward to today, I have a pair of Audio Technica ATH-M50x (check out my review of the M50x here), Sennheiser Urbanite On-Ear (for listening on mobile devices) and my go-to daily driver pair – Sennheiser HD8 DJ, which I use with Objective 2 + ODAC Digital to Analog converter/amplifier combo for daily music listening at my desk while working. I also carry around Jaybird Bluebuds X with me all the time for wireless listening on the go. With a Sennheiser HD 650 shipment on the way within the next week, I believe my quest for high-fidelity audio setup is complete (at least for this year).
What Is A Hi-Fi Audio Pipeline Made Up Of?
Headphones, however, are just one of the three main parts that make up a high quality audio setup. In a so-called “Hi-Fi audio pipeline”, all three parts play an equally important role in determining how your music will sound like:
- The Sound Card
- The Headphones
- The Music Files
1. The Sound Card
Sound cards can be found in every connected device that we use today – be it mobile phones, laptops, iPods, tablets, to name a few. The main function of a sound card in these connected devices is to transform the digital audio signal (coming from mp3, flac, the likes) to analog before the sound can be outputted to the headphones through the audio jack.
Because 90% of the population is not audiophile by any means, the choice of sound card by various manufacturers tends to lean towards the mediocre to low quality side. This is also the main reason you get marginally (or sometimes drastically) different sound qualities from one device to another when you plug the same headphones/earbuds in. For example, I used to use a Macbook at work, which works just fine with my ATH-M50x without any external DAC attached to my laptop. But since I switched to a Windows machine for work-related purposes, attaching a DAC is a MUST no matter what kind of headphones I am using.
My current audio setup is the Objective 2 + ODAC DAC and Amplifier combo from Mayflower Electronics. Coming from an entry-level Fiio DAC/amp, O2 + ODAC is really quite a big step-up both in terms of price point and sound quality. At US$ 270 (S$ 370), it’s not exactly a cheap option, but if you do intend to pursue a perfect audio setup that you’re going to enjoy day in and day out, I believe O2 + ODAC will be more than worth it in the long run. For starters, it’s very very well-built and at its price point, O2 + ODAC offers a no-nonsense approach to a hi-fidelity audio setup all packaged into a rather small and portable DAC/amp combo unit. You can read the story about the origin of Objective 2 and ODAC here.
The bottom line here? The maximum price you’re willing to pay for your headphones should be around the same price point you should be paying for your DAC/amp unit. In my case, my go-to headphones cost in the range of US$ 250 – 400 and Objective 2 ODAC unit costs about US$ 270.
2. The Headphones
In choosing the perfect headphones, I could go on and on about which stats to look out for, but I’d prefer to take a more practical consumer approach on this, since everyone’s taste of music is different and what’s nice to me may very well sound like rubbish to you.
I came to the choices of headphones I have today by doing super extensive listening tests at the major headphones concept stores in Singapore. I believe that is the most accurate way of determining what kind of sound signature, sound stage you would like to enjoy in your headphones.
One thing to note here is that if you’ve already decided to buy a DAC/amp unit (no matter entry-level or professional grade), you would be better off looking out for headphones that have > 100 ohms impedance to benefit from the higher amplification volume, which also means adding clarity and details to the sound at reasonable listening levels. Low-impedance headphones require little power to drive and thus only work well with weak amplification devices (think smartphones, portable music players, etc).
3. The Music Files
The music files that you listen to also play a determining role in whether or not you’ll get maximum return on your investments on the previous 2 items. The highest quality music files you can get are CD-quality, also known as lossless, which means you’ve to either rip the CDs for the music files or you’re going to have to download FLAC files to enjoy lossless quality.
Lossy mp3 files that are available in most streaming services today offer up to the maximum of 320 kbps (lossless FLAC files come in at 1,411 kbps). Now the question is, can you tell the difference between 320 kbps and 1,411 kbps music files? I’ve answered that in my Tidal blog post, so be sure to check it out as well. The bottom line here is to go for lossless 1,411 kbps files as and when it’s possible for you. Otherwise, I am pretty much making do with Spotify’s 320 kbps on most days, due to the better convenience and music collection.