|Alesis iO2 Top Panel|
Come ahead 20 years, and we find that audio gear, just like camera gear, has changed completely. Although CD's still have a place in the audio chain, and vinyl records are making a huge comeback, and, no surprise at all, vacuum tube amplification, made in China, has become very popular and affordable, the main source of music is now the on-line download of music files. The most popular file format is the .mp3, but one can also subscribe to superior download formats like .wav and FLAC, if you're willing to spend more money.
But as it is with my camera gear, so it is with my audio - I want to spend less money on everything, because, well, I still like the hobbies, but I'm living on a pension.
So let's begin. In or new age of digital downloads, the main source of audio has become the personal computer. The beauty of this is, it can be any computer - the most lowly Chromebook laptop will download audio files just as well as the most expensive gaming computer - there's absolutely no difference, and this is still true if you're downloading mp3, wav or FLAC - the computer used makes absolutely no difference, whereas 20 years ago, the CD or Record Player used certainly made a huge difference in sound quality - in fact, the "source" playback device was considered the mot important link in the chain.
However, there is no computer available off the shelf - except maybe a Mac, that is optimized for boutique or high end audio playback of the files you download. A Mac is better than most, especially the Mac Pro, or the older Power Mac, but even with these, or any other personal computer, you can make two basic modifications to better optimize for audio. First, you'll need a better DAC (Digital-Analogue Converter), and second, you'll need a low latency operating system. Your computer already has a DAC and an OS, but neither are up to the job, except maybe a Mac, but we're on a pension here remember?
|At Home on Top of my HP P6720 Case|
Now, what do I mean by a low latency operating system? "Low latency" means having a system which is fast enough to decode audio data without any glitches, making the analogue sound output as smooth as possible. Audio latency is the delay between that time that sound is created and when it is heard, and normally, a computer's Operating System is a bottleneck that has to be dealt with. If you insist on using Windows, here is an article that talks about tweaks that you can do to make Windows more audio-friendly. My preference is to use a low-latency version of Linux - the most well known and easiest to deal with is the Ubuntu Studio Edition. This OS will look after all of your computing needs, including the best possible playback of audio, (and recording if you're into that).
I don't have the golden ears I had 20 years ago, but trust me - this issue of audio latency is important, and I can hear the difference between my un-optimized Windows 7 and Ubuntu Studio - my computer will dual-boot between the two systems, and so the hardware chain is identical. I can't comment about how well the Windows tweaks work, as I have no use for them.
|Realistic Custom Pro Headphones (Koss, USA Made)|
|Centrios Powered Monitors|
A great solution is to try and find a set of "powered studio monitors", sometimes also known as "active speakers".. In a sense, these are nothing more than high quality computer speakers, but with a more powerful built-in amplifier, and the lack of a headphone jack. Overall build quality of Monitors compared with computer speakers will be far superior. My monitors are branded "Centrios", which is an old brand used by "The Source", which in Canada took the place of Radio Shack. So these aren't the best, but at the time, back in 2006, these were discounted in "The Source" local store by 70%, so I got them for around $45.00. Ken Rockwell has a review for something quite similar.
Another solution is to go back to the god old Vintage Electronics section and shop for some of the tremendously great amplifiers and speakers of yesteryear. This is the upgrade approach I would take, probably using pure single-ended Class A tube power and vintage single driver speakers. This would work very well for me, as my room is very small and I normally sit about 1 Metre away from the speakers.
Finally, if you're so inclined, you can go with a full Dolby Surround system which begins with installing a good high-end sound card in your computer from Sound Blaster, Creative, or Asus, with all the appropriate home theatre hardware downstream. I would not take this approach for two reasons - 1) high cost and 2) Dolby Surround has nothing to do with the way we normally hear music - normal stereo is far more real sounding (and there are many audiophiles who would argue that monaural ("mono") is even more like the real thing).
I would love to write a lot more about this - what would be my most significan upgrade - to subscribe to higher quality downloads, or go with an amplifier / speaker upgrade?