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Guide to high-fidelity computer audio

How to get better sound and hear it throughout your home

Ralph Graves is one of Crutchfield's blog editors, and part of the company's social media team. He writes about home audio/video gear, specializing in Apple-related and wireless technologies. Ralph holds a master's degree in music composition, and his works have been released on various labels. He's served as product manager for an independent classical and world music label, produced several recordings, and worked extensively in public broadcasting. Since 1984 he's hosted a weekly classical music program on WTJU, and is also active as a blogger and podcaster.

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Your computer is a versatile audio component. It’s great for storing your digital music files and for discovering new music online. Here's how you can get great sound from your computer, tie it into your home audio system, and improve your user experience.

Computer Audio

High-performance computer speakers make a huge difference.

A computer-based audio system can be ideal for an office or den. Add a pair of high-quality speakers to transform your work computer into an audio system.

You can also tie your computer into your high-performance home A/V system. And you can even make your computer part of a wireless multi-room audio system

Optimize headphone listening

Plugging a set of headphones into your computer is the simplest way to hear music from it. With a few additions, you can get high-fidelity music through your ‘phones.

Inside your computer is a digital-to-analog converter (DAC). This translates your music files into analog signals for your headphones. An external DAC bypasses your computer’s inferior DAC. You get sound that's more accurate and detailed.

Small portable DACs are a great option for laptops and travel. Plug the DAC into your computer, then plug your headphones into the DAC for great sound.

Audioquest Dragonfly Red DAC

The AudioQuest DragonFly® Red v1.0 DAC/headphone amplifier plugs into your computer's USB port.

Use better quality headphones

There's another easy way to get more from your computer’s audio files. Upgrade to high-performance headphones. Such headphones are more responsive and can reveal more detail. But they need more power than a headphone jack can supply for peak performance.

A headphone amp can provide that extra power. With it, your high-performance headphones sound the way they should. An external DAC/headphone amp combo gives you better sound and more power.

Audioengine D1 headphone amp/DAC

The headphone amp inside the Audioengine D1 DAC delivers rich, detailed sound.

Upgrade your desktop speakers

A computer connected to two speakers makes a great audio system for an office or den. But don’t settle for the speakers that came with your computer. Many computer speaker systems deliver great sound without taking up a lot of space.

Some systems have built-in DACs for higher quality decoding (and thus better sound). For speakers without one, using an external DAC can have the same effect.

Most computers come with Bluetooth® and Wi-Fi® built in. A wireless speaker system eliminates cable clutter.

If you use your computer for gaming — or want bigger sound — you might consider a sound system with a subwoofer. Computer audio subwoofers are compact enough to fit under a desk. And like their companion desktop speakers, made for near-field listening.

Audioengine computer speakers

Powered home stereo speakers make great computer speakers, too.

Computer-to-home-A/V-system options — wired

There are several ways to integrate your computer into your home audio system. You can use a simple 3.5 mm-to-RCA cable to connect your computer’s headphone jack to an aux input on your receiver.

For improved audio, use a USB DAC. The DAC plugs into your computer’s USB port, and has analog output (often RCA stereo output) for your receiver.

Computer-to-home-A/V-system options — wireless

Can your receiver and your computer connect to your home Wi-Fi® network? You should be able to stream music from your computer to your receiver via the network. And you don’t need a multi-room system for this.

Or you can use a wireless USB DAC. This device has two pieces. A USB DAC with a wireless transmitter, and a signal receiver with analog output. The transmitter connects to your computer via its USB port. The signal receiver connects to your stereo receiver or speakers.

Multi-room audio

Wireless multi-room audio systems such as Sonos, and Denon HEOS can access music stored on a computer that's connected to a home network.

Does your digital music library include high-resolution audio files? Consider a multi-room audio system designed to play them with all their sonic detail. Bluesound has such system, as does Yamaha MusicCast. Play-Fi® is also compatible with high-resolution streaming. See Wireless Multi-Room Audio Systems for more information.

MusicCast app

With a multi-room audio system such as Yamaha's MusicCast, you can play music stored on your computer throughout your home.

Controlling your system

Virtually all multi-room audio systems are controlled with smartphone and tablet apps. Third-party apps can also add to your experience, and make your system even more manageable and fun to use. Roon, for example, helps pull together all your music from various sources. It provides bios, discographies, related artists and other info to enrich your listening experience.

Roon

Roon puts your music files and songs from the Tidal streaming service into the same fun-to-use interface.

High-performance sound for high-resolution audio

The secret to getting the optimal sound from your computer’s music library is simple. Build your digital music collection using the highest quality song files possible.

When you rip CDs, for example, take a moment to check the settings of your music or editing software program. The default file settings aren’t usually the highest resolution possible. Changing them is pretty simple. In iTunes, for example, you can access the import settings through “Preferences.” AudioQuest has a helpful guide for setting up a high-performance computer audio system.

Bluesound Vault2

The Bluesound Vault 2 Streaming music player has a 2TB storage drive. You can set its built-in CD ripper to save to FLAC or WAV formats.

Hi-res downloads

If you download music, check for high-resolution format options. High-resolution downloads often deliver better than CD-quality sound. There are sites that specialize in high-resolution downloads. HDTracks, ProStudio Masters, and Acoustic Sound Super Res are good examples.

High-resolution files are usually large. An external hard drive, music server, or NAS drive usually has more memory than a computer. Plus, it helps keeps the computer’s memory freed up for other functions.

Hi-res streaming

Most music streaming services offer two tiers. There's a free, ad-supported service, and a subscription ad-free service. Most free services stream at 128kbps. The sound quality is usually adequate, but not exceptional. Subscription services can stream at 320mbps. Some are transitioning to higher-resolution streaming formats.

TIDAL recently announced their premium subscription and download service would use MQA encoding. MQA allows high-resolution files to stream without requiring extra bandwidth.

It’s a significant difference in sound quality that you should be able to hear. Especially if you use high-performance speakers, headphones, or your A/V system.

Is your network ready for hi-res streaming?

Plan to stream high-resolution audio files from your computer? Make sure your home Wi-Fi network can handle them.

One way to improve performance is to hardwire your computer and your receiver to your router. You can do this with Ethernet cables.

You also might want to upgrade your router. A multi-room audio system streaming high-res audio requires more bandwidth. A high-performance router can handle that increased demand.

Netgear Orbi AC3000

A high-performance Wi-Fi router, such as the NETGEAR Orbi AC3000 Tri-band, can ensure reliable high-res audio streaming.

  • Cobi

    Posted on 10/5/2015

    This article is biased towards iTunes. What about Android s???

  • Warren Marshall from Sydney

    Posted on 11/21/2015

    This article is NOT about hi-fi (high fidelity music reproduction) - it is about very compromised fidelity music reproduction. I was hoping for something which would actually be helpful, especially with regard to alternative audio processors, power supply regulation, etc, which all dramatically affect the resulting quality of music coming out of the PC or laptop.

  • MICHAEL POSTALWAIT from GRAPEVINE

    Posted on 12/9/2015

    I'm still looking for an article that outlines all the facts completely and objectively. For example, what do you get when you stream from your iMac to your Airport Express or Apple TV? It took too long for me to find this setup is limited to CD quality sound, and doesn't reflect the potential improvements offered by the high-resolution files I bought from HDTracks and other online vendors. Surely these facts have been compiled, and you offer a well-known forum to share them and save others like me from spending so much time on research. Keep up the great work...take the next steps...

  • mark from terre haute

    Posted on 12/25/2016

    how about recommending some "apple free" hi fi music file programs.

  • Bob from Dallas

    Posted on 1/1/2017

    Yeah, stop hating on Windows! Besides, Apple are the proprietary jerks who don't play well with others.

  • Les Anderson from Stanwood, WA

    Posted on 8/13/2017

    Thank You...I always take something away from your articles. I've alway considered myself to be somewhat of an audiophile but admit I'm also a bit old school. The new tech changes very fast and it's hard to keep up. But your articles help me stay in touch with what's out there. Thank you for that !!! All the Best, Les Anderson

  • Keith from Winchcombe, UK

    Posted on 9/11/2017

    A very useful overview for me, I am struggling to find headphones to listen to classical music on my PC (with iTunes), while I work. This article gives me a bit more information to help with that search.

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