Stock earbud headphones and computer speakers are essentially an afterthought, so it's no surprise that they're low quality. Same goes for the audio circuits found inside most PCs, which aren't designed with hi-fi in mind. To see if we could find ways to improve the situation — and sound — we headed into the new Crutchfield Labs.
Upgrade your speakers and your headphones
Without a doubt, one of the easiest and most cost effective ways to enjoy better sound is to upgrade your speakers or headphones. We tried several models for both on-the-go and desktop listening, and found some excellent choices.
A digital-to-analog converter, or DAC for short, translates the digital information stored on CDs, MP3 players, computers, or streamed from the Internet into analog music signals that can then be amplified and sent to your speakers or headphones.
Unfortunately, the cheap DACs found inside many components and computer sound cards can rob your music of its realism. Adding a high-quality outboard DAC to your system is an easy way to help breathe new life and excitement into your tunes.
Above, we found that playing even highly compressed music files on high-quality portable headphones or powered desktop speakers can yield pretty good sound. But how well would those same tunes hold up when played through a full-sized home audio system? To find out, we set one up using the components shown below. The results were impressive — surprisingly rich, full, and room filling. If you’re passionate about music, want the best sound possible from your PC or iPod®, and have the available space, then this is the system for you.
Compressing music into small digital files saves space, but it can also negatively impact sound quality. If you’re ripping CDs into your music library, your music ripping software may be set by default to remove up to 90% of the information found on the original CD. If you’ve got enough storage space on your iPod or computer, try selecting a higher “bitrate” setting in your music software for better sound quality.