Guide to high-fidelity computer audio
How to get better sound from your PC
Jim Richardson is the managing editor for home audio/video and pro audio learning content on Crutchfield.com.
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As an audio component, your computer offers a lot of advantages. With all your music in one place, you can easily find what you want to hear. You can create playlists to suit any mood or occasion. Or, if you get bored with the music stored on your own hard drive, you can tune in Internet radio or a subscription service, such as Rhapsody®. Your computer can also work as a super-convenient multi-room music source — imagine being able to access and play all your music from any room in your home.
A good pair of powered speakers can make your laptop really sing.
But what about sound quality?
If you listen to your music files only on the small plastic speakers that came with your computer or through your iPod's stock earbuds, then you haven't heard how good computer audio can sound. All the hours you spend with your computer can be much more enjoyable if you follow these two easy steps:
- Learn how to create high-quality music files (or where to buy them).
- Connect your computer to a good audio system (or use a good set of headphones).
"Lossless" files sound better, but they take up more room on your iPod or iPhone than heavily compressed files.
Step 1: Start with high-quality music files
If you use the iTunes default settings to import or "rip" CDs, you get compressed music files that can sound dull and lifeless when played on a good audio system. When choosing your file format (codec) and "bit rate" or resolution, remember that the higher the bit rate, the better the sound. For the highest fidelity, choose a lossless format.
Making iTunes sound better is easy
At the iTunes default setting of 256 kilobytes per second, ripped music files are relatively small, so you can fit lots of songs on an iPod or hard drive. But these days, most computers have enough hard drive capacity to accommodate bigger, better-sounding files. If you have a low-capacity iPod, file size is still an important factor. A 4GB iPod, for example, only holds about 150 songs in the Apple Lossless format. But you don't have to go all the way to lossless to get better fidelity. Try bumping the bit rate up to 320 kbps, and see if you can hear the difference.
The Apple Lossless format takes about half of the disc space as the uncompressed WAV or AIFF formats. Apple does not support album art with the WAV format. Apple Lossless files will play on most newer iPods. (Lossless files will play on iPod Classic models that can handle photos; they won't play on iPod shuffles or iPod minis.)
To learn how to change the import settings in iTunes, consult Apple's instructions for Mac and for Windows. Other music management programs, such as Windows Media Player, have similar controls for changing the file format and bit rate of your rips.
FLAC (the Free Lossless Audio Codec) isn't an option for iTunes, but claims to be "the fastest and most widely supported lossless audio codec." It's supported by many music management programs, including Windows Media Player, and plays on a variety of network music players, including Sonos™.
What about downloaded music?
There are many places on the web to download music files, but few that have high-resolution files. Most sites are limited to 128-256kbps files, but even those files can sound OK when played on a good hi-fi system. Choose the highest available bit rate in the format that works for all of your playback devices.
There are a few sites that specialize in high-quality downloads, such as HD Tracks and iTrax. Several labels and artists such as the Eagles, Dave Mathews Band, The Grateful Dead, Phish and Pearl Jam, distribute music in FLAC. You will also find online communities that share legal audience recordings of live shows in the FLAC format. See the FLAC site for links to these sites.
Step 2: You've got high-quality files — now what?
Your next step is to choose an alternative to the cheap speakers that came with (or were built into) your computer. The simplest way to upgrade is to buy a better set of powered computer speakers. For higher fidelity, you'll want to connect the computer to a home audio system.
Connecting to an audio system using an analog cable
The simplest way to make the connection is to run an audio patch cable from your computer's audio output to an auxiliary input on your A/V receiver. In most cases, you'll need a patch cord with a stereo mini-plug on one end and RCA plugs on the other end. Or you could use a regular stereo patch cord and a stereo mini-to-RCA adapter. The big disadvantage here is that you'll be using the digital-to-analog converter (DAC) inside your computer. Your computer's DAC won't do full justice to your high-quality music files.
Connecting via a USB or digital audio cable
If your computer has a digital audio output and your receiver has a matching digital audio input, you'll probably get better sound quality by using this connection.
If your computer does not have a digital audio output, you can connect an external DAC via USB. Then connect the DAC to an amp or a good pair of headphones. Some receivers and integrated amps have USB DACs built in.
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Playing music around your home
If you want to enjoy your computer audio in more rooms than just your den or office, you're in luck. A lot of components can connect to your home network and play the music that's stored on your home computers. This is a really convenient option when you want to listen to your favorite tunes through your best speakers, but you don't want to move your computer to the same room or run cables through the wall. An increasing number of components give you this capability: A/V receivers, TVs, gaming systems, and wireless music players. To learn more, check out our article on wireless music players.
Something else to keep in mind if you're planning to use lossless music files: When choosing a wireless music system, remember to pay close attention to the file format handling capabilities of the devices you're considering. If you've gone to the trouble to rip or download hundreds of lossless files, you'll be sorely disappointed if your networked components can't play them. Some devices may be able to "transcode" them to another compatible format, though it may well be a lower-fidelity format.
File storage and backup
If you're planning to rip a large music collection, especially if you're using a lossless format, you should strongly consider storing your music on an external drive. You may discover that you need to get the music files off of your computer to save space on its built-in hard drive. But even if you leave the music files on your computer's hard drive, an external drive can be used to back up the files. It's a small price to pay for the peace of mind the backup affords.
Networked storage drives provide another convenience, too. They can be set up to allow anyone on your network to access their files. That means you can listen to any song from any computer in your home, or from some compatible home audio components. They offer a great way to both safeguard and share your computer audio files.