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Video: Getting great sound with earbud headphones

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Dave, a Crutchfield audio enthusiast, tests in the Crutchfield Labs whether or not upgrading your earbuds and adding a  DAC/headphone amp makes low-res music on an iPod® sound better.

You can also watch his experiment upgrading computer speakers in the Labs.

Goal: Make low-res music sound better

Dave: Unfortunately, I think what a lot of people have done over the years is downloaded music at low bit rates and it's very compressed or they're listening to music over the internet like Spotify or Pandora or Rhapsody and any of those streaming services. And, you know, the music coming from those files and from that streaming is sometimes a little compromised in terms of sound quality.

Step 1: Earbuds that come with iPod®

And probably what makes it worse is the fact that a lot of people, when they get their iPod and download music to it, use the stock earbuds that come straight out of the box with the iPod. And we're not saying that these earbuds are really awful. They're not. They actually don't sound that bad, other than the fact that we had some difficulty getting them to fit in our ears.

Step 2: Step up to high-quality earbuds

But we thought "Can we make it a little better than that?" And I think we could. So one of the things that we tried first was some aftermarket headphones. These are the Klipsch Image S4i in ear headphones. And we tried them right after the stock earbuds, and all of us noticed an immediate boost in performance-much stronger bass response, the high frequencies were much clearer and easier to hear.

Step 3: Add a DAC or digital-to-analog converter

The next thing we did was use the Nuforce Icon iDo. It's an iPod amplifier for headphones with a built-in DAC that plugs digitally directly into your iPod. And what that does is it bypasses all of the made for earbuds circuitry inside your iPod — the headphone amp, the DAC. And then we connected our headphones into the iDo's front headphone jack and listened again to the same music. And what we noticed this time it also added to the sense of realism to a much greater extent. We were able to hear very fine details going on in the background much more clearly than we were with the headphones plugged straight into the iPod.

So, you know, there's an easy step up path, you know, from your basic out of the box earbuds to a pair of better headphones and then to an outboard headphone amp and DAC. Not too difficult to do, but boy does it make a difference. If you have any questions about headphones or headphone amps just give us a call.

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