Thursday, February 12, 2009

Which Way Up? [Part 2]

Chapter 2: The Source
As the backbone of the portable rig, the least you can do is make sure your source is up to common standard. If you already have a portable source at hand, you might want to take this part as your future buying guideline. If you are in market for a new source, here are a few advise.

First, read reviews from multiple sources. You might want to know that some big website prefer a certain brand while some reviewers bias against a certain brand - you want to read as much as you could when it comes to review (any kind of review!).

Second, do note that there are more than just sound quality to consider. You will want to know about the size, general build quality, customer support, firmware upgrade, capacity upgrade (like SD card support) and one of the most important: format support. I think it is needless for me to tell you that switching from iPod to a WMP11 (Windows Media Player 11) supported audio player means you will loss support for the iPod's music library you already built up. Vise verse, the songs you purchased online for your Creative or Sandisk player will have DRM that stop them from playing on iPod. This goes back to the previous chapter - you want to make sure the format of your music is compatible not just to your current player, but to your future player as well. It is still a very painful process to rebuild your music collection even if your next player sounds ten times better than you current one.


Chapter 3: The Headphone
Once you have yourself a good quality source and some high quality music, you can start to look into headphone upgrade.

First, set a budget. As audiophiles' headphones go, they can be very expensive. You want to make sure you are getting a headphone that well matches your source. You don't want something too expensive but you won't want to cut your budget too low either. For the current earphones' (earbud and IEM) market, $50 to $100 will give you a good start, $100 to $200 will give you a very good selection. Anything beyond $200 is targeted at audiophiles (= mad people that will do anything for sound quality). If you are in a tight budget, there are still some good option at the sub$50 market, but you will have to be extra hardworking to find them. Most of them are hidden pearl that you can only find in forum discussion, not big review site.

Second, make sure you know where/how the headphone will be used. As portable rig goes, you don't want earbud when you are in library, nor will you want IEM when you need to be in constant communication. Find out whether you can stand earbud or IEM before you purchased. There is no point to buy a headphone when you can't even used it more than 5 minutes.

Third, look for the best sound quality headphone that fit your taste. Reviews often only tell what the reviewer believes to have good sound quality. What most don't tell is that each reviewer has a unique taste of music, and most will not match yours. You want to be sure that you are getting something that match your taste, even when it is not the best sounding you can afford (as you might not enjoy it).

Chapter 4: The Headphone Amp
I have written an article ('To amp, or not to amp') a while back to put some points into the craziness in chasing amp, do read it. People often read too much into how a little amping can put them in the quick path to audio heaven, well that is simply not true. Amp is really for more advanced user who know what they are looking for to complete their setup. If you can barely understand the reason for amping, the meaning of LOD, line-level signal, or whether your current setup needs amping or not, you should NOT even consider buying an amp. The point is, there are easier way to get better SQ then getting an amp. Amping is for user who understand the limitation of their setup and willing to go the extra miles to squeeze out the last few % in their system.

Headphone amp is just an element for fine tuning a portable rig, not a magic cure for sound quality.

Chapter 5: The Other Factors
I guess the first 'other' factors that comes into mind is cable. If amping is a relatively small element for fine tuning, cable will be the one you should ignore most of the time. I am not saying cable has no effect on sound, but at the level of portable rig,  a few inches of cable, may it be silver or gold, really is nothing compare to the amount of copper in the wire and PCB circuit. It will be like placing racing-quality spark plug into a 30yrs-old car and hope it can compete in WRC racing, that is just too much of a wishful thinking.

One of another factor will be the eartips, or perhaps how to achieve an optimum seal. Different eartips (with different materials) can change the sound just enough to make a difference. So the basic idea is, don't stick to just the stock eartips, try as many aftermarket eartips as you can find.


Conclusion
As my closing comment, I want to point out that a portable setup is the rig you want to carry around. Thus it must be a solid solution that is practical to use. You will be foolish to assume the best sounding system will be the most practical - it is often not. Getting the best out of what you can and willing to carry is what tuning / upgrade is all about. Identifying the weakest link and finding a way to solve the most important issue should always be your first priority when it comes to determine the path of upgrading.  Don't just buy into the belief that you can get a magic cure that will fix everything, cause there is none of such thing!

3 comments:

o.k.w said...

Excellent article which gives a very balanced and well-thought perspective.

hzant6681 said...

went through your article...i've been downloading & listening to music mostly Flac and Mp3-320kbps.Flac for archiving and ripping mainly.Some people say 198kbps vbr sounds same or sometimes better than 320kbps Cbr.. i couldnt find the difference in SQ..Infact recently i tested the track Men at work-who can it be Flac and Mp3-256kbps Cbr n couldnt find diff in SQ ...is there really a diff in SQ between say 192kbps vbr-256kbps cbr-320kbps cbr which my ears cant find or are Vbr and cbr both same SQ except file size diff...what do u feel :-)

Tai / ClieOS said...

Not every gear can show you the difference between 192kbps and 320kbps. Similarly, not everyone can tell the difference between them. If you can't tell the difference between your current gears, it is always better to rip music in just a level higher in bitrate to be on the safe side. That way, you only wasted minimum space but better guarantee future compatibility. Of course, since you are using FLAC for archiving, you can rip it to the minimum spec to put more music onto your player.

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Important: All postings are my own personal opinion only and should not be treated as absolute truth. I do get things wrong just like everyone else. Always do your own research!

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