Tips to improve audio quality of your headphones
In culturasonora, we write about sound. We also live for it. This time, we wanted to show you some tricks to improve the audio quality of your headphones. That's why we've put together this short guide with four ways to improve the sound quality of your headphones.
You can try one, several, or all options at the same time. This will improve the sound quality of your music headphones and you will enjoy a powerful experience when listening to a song, watching a movie or playing a video game. Ready?
Improve your music quality
If the raw material is not good, it's difficult to achieve a Michelin restaurant dish. In the audio world, it's the same thing: if the format of your music files is of low quality, then don't ask for anything from the elm tree.
The quality of your music files are the basis of what is known in the sound world as the signal chain. This term essentially refers to the path that audio takes from the time it's created until it enters our ears.
The signal chain comprises both the software and the hardware that converts the audio into sound waves that we can hear. If we want to perceive good audio in our headphones, we must have a strong signal chain. It means that every link of the chain, every piece of equipment and every program we use, will have to be of decent quality.
This also includes the music to be played. It will not matter if you have the best headphones or the best speakers on the market if you're playing poor quality audio files. To create a good audio experience through our headphones, we must start at the beginning: play files with good compression.
The music we find on vinyl records or CDs is of excellent quality, superior to most of the files we will find in a digital library. Nowadays, almost all of us use digital audio files, either using an online playback platform, or files stored on our hard drives or players. These may come in highly compressed formats that sacrifice audio quality so that they take up less space when saved.
We must take into account the compression format of the files we are going to use. In this report, we bring you up to date on the most important audio formats. Obtaining a good compression quality is not very complicated. You can do two things: import your music without low quality compressions (the import options of most players will have no problem playing good quality files), or, on the other hand, start listening to high quality streams. The easiest way to do the latter is to subscribe to a service such as Spotify or Tidal. Their premium versions cost little and offer various levels of playback quality, all of which are good.
Tidal is probably the best service in terms of sound quality. In its highest quality option, called Tidal HiFi, it offers 16-bit/44 FLAC audio files, which is very good indeed. Spotify, on the other hand, is somewhat cheaper, and while it doesn't offer audio as good as Tidal HiFI, its options are also very solid. It features 320kbps Ogg Vorbis files. There are also other services, such as Apple Music, although from our point of view they are not as good as those mentioned above.
Get a DAC
The next member of the signal chain is something that is already built into every digital player: a digital analog converter or DAC. What is a DAC for? Before the sound enters our ears, it exists only in digital form: the zeros and ones that contain the information in an audio file. The DAC is responsible for converting this digital data to analog. It's like a translator that converts digital information into real sound. Every computer, phone or tablet comes with an integrated DAC.
The thing is, most DACs that are already factory-installed, especially in computers, smartphones and players, are of terrible quality . They work, but they don't provide impressive sound. If you want to increase the audio quality of your headphones, the next step is to get an external DAC, which will bypass the internal analog digital converter of your existing devices to work through this specialized external unit.
Most external DACs are in the form of a small box that connects, for example, via USB. Although it's possible to find large units costing thousands of euros, we can also obtain small, economical and high quality units. The controls are usually simple, typically integrating an on/off switch and a volume control. They also have different ports for connection. Usually, but not always, we can connect our headphones directly to an external DAC.
In general, a DAC is a simple and easy-to-connect device that instantly increases the quality of the audio you listen to. You can get very inexpensive units, such as the Fiio A1, starting at around 40 EUR. You can check out our article on the best DACs on the market if you want to see some in-depth reviews on this or other analog digital converters.
Get a headphone amplifier
Increasing the resolution of our audio files and adding a quality DAC are elements that will considerably improve our signal chain. But it's not the only thing you can do. Playing the audio through a headphone amplifier will give you superior quality. In general, an amplifier does two things: it increases the power of your audio, which allows you to obtain greater clarity at low volumes, comparable to the best headphones on the market. On the other hand, it adds textures and deepens the sound.
There are a few factors to consider when choosing a headphone amplifier. First, they are designed in three formats: tube, solid-state and hybrid tube/solid amplifiers. Tube amplifiers drive the audio signal through a vacuum glass tube that burns electrons from a special plate to transmit the sound. In doing so, it gives the audio a very characteristic quality: it's perceived as being extended and warm, with a slight distortion.
Solid-state amplifiers, on the other hand, do not have the same warmth, but improve the level of sonic accuracy. Tube amplifiers can be expensive, although we can find some inexpensive ones. They may not be for all tastes, given their specific sound profile, which is why solid-state amplifiers are more popular.
Another thing to know is that every amplifier circuit integrates two things: a preamplifier and a power amplifier. Every audio signal, even after passing through a DAC, is poorly fed, and part of the amplifier's job is to bring it up to a level where we can hear it, amplify it. The preamplifier handles the switching between the audio sources and increases the gain of the signal just enough so that the amplifier can get it and raise the voltage gain.
The good news is that there is no need to buy two different pieces of equipment. Most amplifiers, especially those designed to improve the audio quality of our headphones, are known as integrated amplifiers. These contain the preamplification and power amplification circuits. We can build a system with these separate circuits, but for most people, integrated amplifiers work just fine.
Upgrade your headphones
Regarding the purchase of headphones, we can find very expensive models (even thousands of euros) such as the Audeze LCD-2, which provide a very cool sound and covering a wide range of frequencies. However, if we know where to look, we can find a good quality pair of headphones for a decent price. You can find many options among our items, some of them are very economical and offer great sound quality.
As with amplifiers, there are a few things to consider when choosing good music headphones. The first is the difference between closed-back/open-back headphones. This refers to the outside of the ear cups. Closed models have superior sound insulation, people around you will not be able to hear what you are listening to, even at high volumes.
They also tend to be less expensive than open models, which provide different sound characteristics by allowing greater air intake. These have a lot of depth in the sound range, although they are inadequate at insulating sound.
It also makes sense to choose noise-cancelling headphones or wireless headphones. If you travel a lot, these can be perfect options. These headphones will almost always be closed, and this doesn't mean that the audio will be inferior. In addition, in the case of noise-cancelling headphones, they will come with their own built-in amplifier. In this case you don't have to worry about additional amplifiers or DACs.
It's also worth knowing the differences between the types of drivers. A driver is essentially the part of the speaker inside each ear cup that produces the sound. Dynamic drivers are the cheapest and most common, planar magnetic drivers sound better and are larger and more expensive, while electrostatic drivers cost a lot and require special amplifiers to use them.
It's difficult to find the ideal headphones for everything, but you can adhere to some basic criteria according to the use you are going to give them. If you listen to most music at your desk and have some money to spend, a HiFi headset can be a good choice. If you travel a lot, you can opt for models with dynamic, wireless and noise-cancelling drivers. If you listen to music at home, around other people, a closed model with a dynamic driver and wiring may be ideal.
Now, you might think that you need to spend a lot of money to get a good pair of headphones, but that's not true. If you want a good pair of headphones to use at home or for traveling, with wireless connectivity, you may want to consider the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2. They are robust, comfortable and feature easy-to-use controls. They come with NFC capability, for fast synchronization with source devices, plus highly effective noise cancellation technology. They provide excellent wireless range and high battery performance.
They are priced at around 199,99 €. If you are on a tighter budget, the Avantree bluetooth headphones are another excellent choice. They have a 40-hour battery performance, good sound quality and a durable and comfortable design. They also feature NFC and aptX technologies.
We also need to talk about how to pair headphones with amplifiers. This process is not complicated at all, although we need to know the impedance term. Impedance means the amount of electrical resistance that a piece of equipment has. This is expressed in ohms (Ω). Before connecting a pair of headphones to an amplifier, we should look for the impedance capability of the headphones.
This will appear both on the production company's website and in the user manual of the headphones. We must first check if the amplifier is capable of supporting the indicated capacity. Most headphone amplifiers, however, can handle any headphone capacity, so this is not a problem.
A practical example
You may think that getting the whole chain we've been talking about right can be quite expensive, but that's not the case. First of all: You can join Spotify Premium for only €9.99 per month. If you play through a computer you can connect an external DAC. The Optoma Nuforce uDAC seems to us to be a good value for money. This is a great sounding and performing DAC at a very fair price. Another option is to opt directly for the Fiio e10k, which costs about 80€ and is a DAC/Amplifier. Finally, if you buy a Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2, ideal for most occasions, we will have a complete sound chain of high quality.
You can review these lists of the best DACs on the market, noise cancelling headphones, turntables, TV headphones and the best bluetooth codecs to get more information when choosing a link of the aforementioned sound chain. We wrote a separate article with in-depth reviews on the best options among headphone amplifiers, suitable for different situations and budgets, so we recommend you check our page. In the meantime, we leave you with a video about the different cables we can use to connect our headphones: