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How to Get the Most From Your Digital Music

Dave Bar worked for Crutchfield from 1981 until his retirement in 2016. After a 23-year stint in the sales department, he joined the home A/V writing staff. Dave's expertise and good humor will be sorely missed.

More from Dave Bar

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.

Our picks for speakers and headphones


Audioengine 2 (A2) powered desktop stereo speaker system


Klipsch Image S4i portable earbud headphones for iPhone®, iPod®, or iPad®

Other great upgrade options


Bose® Companion® 2 Series II multimedia speaker system


Polk Audio UltraFit 3000 in-ear sports headphones for iPhone® and iPod®


Bowers & Wilkins P5 portable on-ear headphones with in-line remote and microphone

Little box, big sound

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.

Our digital-to-analog converter picks


Musical Fidelity V-DAC II stereo digital-to-analog converter


Nuforce Icon iDo™ digital-to-analog converter/headphone amplifier for iPod®, iPhone®, and iPad®

More outstanding DAC options


NuForce uDAC-2 USB DAC


NAD DAC 1 wireless USB DAC


NuForce Icon HDP headphone amp/USB DAC/stereo preamp


Musical Fidelity M1DAC A stereo DAC with asynchronous USB input

See how good digital gets

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.

Our room-filling setup


Apple iPod touch® media player


Wadia 170iTransport iPod® dock with digital output


Peachtree Audio Nova stereo integrated amplifier with built-in DAC


PSB Image T5 floor-standing speaker

Better sound starts with better ingredients

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.

Ask an expert advisor

No pressure, no commission — just lots of good advice from our highly trained staff.