Tuesday, March 27, 2012

A Signal to Noise

Do you hear what I hear?
Do you hear what I hear?

A few tips people who don't want to spend a bundle on music gear but still  want great sound.

Recently I shared a few laughs with fellow Google Pus user Mari Thomas who created a post about a $300 pair of headphones. She joked about wishing she cared that much about sound. Which got me thinking..."What are most people using to listen to their music?" While I've always considered myself an audiophile, I never really understood the technical details of the components I purchased or how/why they made my music sound so good. I just knew I wanted the best sound I could get for my price range.

A few days later I found myself in the store with my daughter who desperately needed a new set of ear buds. This is right up my ally. I can advise her on which buds would be best for her. And after all, there is some audiophile gene that gets past down in the DNA right? Wrong. She chose as set of low cost, hot pick ear buds that from a no name manufacturer. After giving my best shot of explaining why that set would not be a good choice she simply looked at me and said, "Oh daddy, you just don't get it." I could not overcome the power of pink.

So I'm going to make an assumption that you're looking for a few tips on buying a decent  pair of ear buds, become a  pseudo-audiophile and that you'd want to bypass of of the technical mumbo jumbo (that's actually a technical term. No really. It is.) and get to the good stuff. That cool with you? Great.

Looking for a good set of ear headphones eh? Well, I've got some bad news for you all. Those ear buds that your friend just bought at the convenience store for $4.99 really suck. I mean they suck so bad that it breaks several  international trade laws just describing how bad they suck. So I actually can't tell you anymore. But here's the good news. With a few small upgrades you can be as cool as Dan Auerbach of The Black Keys jammin at the Catalpa Festival. Well, maybe not that cool. But first let's discuss why some of those low cost ear buds do not produce the best sound.

(A quick DISCLAIMER- I realize that  the term "good" is subjective one. What might sound good to me may sound like crap to you. But for the sake of this article we need to agree that there are ways to measure the quality of sound reproduction and there's good  reason why certain components cost more than others.)

Let's assume that the average person uses the ever popular Skullcandy ear buds at an average price of $19.99. They are marketed well, have killer packaging and are priced at under twenty bucks for a good reason. Without bringing up technical specs let's try to explain why a set of ear buds at this price range may not be the best choice.

Say you and I are going on a long drive in your car. We both enjoy the same music and we're looking forward to some good jams along the way. But we have the windows open the entire time. What's that? You can hear the bass but not the can't hear the rest of the music over the noise from the windows? Most ear buds in this price range work in the same way. They do not filter out the noise (same as the noise from the windows) they generate simply by trying to recreate the music. As a result the music is  muddled and the quality is definitely less than optimal. Now I ask you, How are you going to listen to Brooklyn Funk Essentials with all that funky bass on a set of ear buds like that?

Now let's say we have rolled up the windows. We've just removed the source of the noise and we can hear the music much better, right? Check out that kick drum....nice huh? Upgrading your current set will help you in a similar way. They are engineered to remove the signal noise, do a better job of reproducing the music and provide deep bass while delivering a nice tonal balance.

I've tested some mid-priced ear buds and most of them do a fairly good job of music reproduction, have decent sound quality and bass response. There is a very wide range of mid-priced ear buds costing between $40-$60 on the market today and as you would expect, manufacturers offer models at all different price ranges. So the best approach is to go out and test some for yourself.

Here are some brands that you may consider on your search for the perfect fit.

  1. Klipsch- You really can't go wrong with Klipsch. (Sets ranging from $40-$300) 
  2. Bose - Good sound quality, excellent bass. (Sets ranging from $100-$400)
  3. Monster - New to the market but places well in tests.  (Sets ranging from $70-$150)
  4. V-Moda - Not one of my favs but included a call answer button (about $130)
  5. Sony - Basic stuff. You can find them in a variety of models. (Sets ranging from $20-$450)
  6. Sennheiser - A very good set for the money. (about $45-$60)
  7. Shure - You absolutely won't be disappointed. (Sets ranging from $50-$650)
  8. Paradigm - Very, very good sound quality.  (Sets ranging from $50- $99- $130)

(OK. A quick aside: I use Bose IE ear buds. They are not what you would call "best on the market" but they do perform very well for the money and provide some kick ass range. As anyone will tell you, I do love my music. I listen to my iPod whenever I go food shopping and one day I happened to be listening to a live version of Peter Gabriel's Blood of Eden while I was standing in line at the check out counter. So around the 4:40 mark in the song, in case you listen to it, Peter sings about "a perfect moment, a moment of forgetting, a moment of bliss." And then...lets out this deep seated lamentation. I have to admit, a single tear made its down my cheek. I'm not sure I would have been so move had I been wearing a low end set of buds. And maybe I could have bypassed the inevitable awkward "Hey mister...are you OK moment with the 16 yr old check out girl.

The payoff? By spending an a few extra bucks you will open yourself to a whole new level of sound and get a better groove on to your favorite tunes.

Hear's the Bad News

At this point of the game, MP3 files are used by almost every person on the planet. What you may not know is that this is what's known as a compressed lossy file format. These music files are great for reducing the amount of data needed to produce your music which allows you to store more music on your favorite MP3 device. MP3s provide a fairly good reproduction of the original uncompressed file and is largely based on what's known as "Perceptual Coding". Which means this file format attempts to provide the best sound quality by removing certain points of fidelity within the music which are considered to be beyond the auditory perception of the average person.

Bottom line: You're not hearing all of the music you are intended to hear. Think of it like watching a movie on your neighbor's old television set and then coming home and watching another movie on your brand new HD TV. You see?

If you are so inclined, you may look into other digital music formats that are called "Lossless". Some of the more popular file extensions are:

- FLAC ( Fee Lossless Audio Codec)
- WAV (The Windows Standard)
- AIFF ( Audio Interchange File Format)

As mentioned these file formats require much larger disc space but do provide higher quality sound reproduction. Your iPod will not be able to play FLAC or AIFF files. So if you want to improve the quality of your music you will need to look for another portable music player.

So tell me: What are you using and why?

Signal to Noise - the ratio of the power or volume (amplitude) of a signal to the amount of disturbance (the noise) mixed in with it. 

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