Free Your Ears With an Audio Upgrade
How to ditch your earbuds and headphones to rediscover musical passion
When I was in college, one of my favorite things to do was buy a new album — the latest from Dire Straits, Pink Floyd, Steely Dan, Talking Heads, Stevie Ray Vaughan or whoever — place it on my Technics SL-1200 turntable, lie down on my garage-sale couch, close my eyes and listen to the music.
Listen, that is, by paying active and intense attention to every detail of a song, from the thick rolling bass lines to the shimmer of crashing cymbals, immersing myself in a 300-watt sea of chest-thumping, plaster-loosening, audiophile-quality rock.
Alas, like many of us, I eventually sold my utterly awesome college stereo, got married, had kids, bought an iPod, and spent 25 years listening to music in the car or through a pair of tinny white earbuds. Like everyone else I know, I let my musical life get overtaken by iTunes, and never had the time or wherewithal to fight back.
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But then the kids left and the house was quiet. Too quiet. So I started researching what it would take to recreate a facsimile of my old stereo system. What I ended up getting was a serious sound upgrade — and a whole lot more.
Big Sound, Small Money
Things have changed dramatically in the world of audio electronics since Graceland came out, mostly for the better (though certain cranky audiophiles would argue otherwise).
In the old days, a powerful receiver and turntable formed the core of a good sound system and you attached the biggest, best speakers you could afford. That formula still applies, but speaker technology over the past 20 years has improved dramatically.
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Small, so-called “bookshelf” speakers can now crank out the kind of sound that used to come from speakers the size of a dorm fridge. And the advent of powerful but svelte “tower” speakers now means you can get huge, clean sound from a speaker you could easily mistake for a Sharper Image air purifier. (No one has yet thought to combine the two, but that day can’t be far away.)
Costs have come down as well. For under $1,000, it’s now possible to buy a full 5.1 or 7.1 surround-sound system that delivers astonishing audio quality, especially if it’s paired with a Blu-Ray or DVD/CD player. The range of beautiful-sounding sub-$500 speakers is simply extraordinary, and more fun to listen to than anything you can stick in or around your ear.
Despite technical tweaking, speakers work pretty much the way they always have. Where technology is really making things interesting (and bringing costs down) is in the area of components.
While you can still buy a stereo receiver, most people these days opt for “home-theater” receivers that do the music thing, yes, but can also power a full surround-sound system (with five or seven speakers) to go along with their big flat-screen TV, and as a home-entertainment nerve center for connecting a Blu-Ray player, Xbox, Apple TV or whatever.
Musical World at Your Fingertips
From a music lover’s standpoint, the best thing about the newest generation of AV receivers isn’t the number of inputs, but the fact that you can connect them to the Internet and control them wirelessly through your tablet or phone. This isn’t just a cool feature; it’s an amazing, world-changing triumph of entertainment technology. I kid you not, it has completely changed my music-listening life. Here’s why:
Yes, it’s fun to blow the dust off albums you haven’t heard in 25 years, but being able to play anything you bring up on your iPad or computer — through Pandora, Spotify, LastFM, iTunes, or Mog — means you have access to the entire musical world at your fingertips.
Spotify alone gives you the ability to search and play all those thousands of albums you could never afford to buy, and all that “essential” listening music that you never actually listened to.
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Plus, with a high-quality stream — which, alas, you must pay for ($36/year for Pandora, $10/month for Spotify) — the sound quality is surprisingly great. Spotify’s highest-quality stream is virtually indistinguishable from a CD, allowing you to listen to your favorite band in all its full musical glory — not the compressed, miniaturized MP3 version that passes for music in the earbud generation.
Even the Old is New
Now that my new sound system is up and running, everything sounds new. I am hearing things I’ve never noticed before in songs I’ve heard hundreds of times, and the clarity and quality of the sound makes it feel as if the artists are in my living room, not just in my eardrum.
The only downside is that it’s now almost impossible for me to listen to anything through earbuds, because they sound so comparatively horrible.
The strange (and, I think, inspiring) thing about this tale of musical rediscovery is that I started it with the intention of reconnecting to my music-loving past, but now am more excited about my music-listening future.
Sitting on my couch, iPad in hand, I can now summon with my fingertip virtually the entire history of recorded music, and can listen to anything I want, at any time, at a level of quality that is frankly astonishing. It’s a little overwhelming, to be honest — but it means that the next 25 years of musical exploration are going to be a heckuva lot of fun.
10 Tips for the Geeky Audiophile in You
1. You can’t get the sort of sound I’m talking about from an all-in-one “home-theater-in-a-box” system or from a television soundbar — though both of these will dramatically improve your TV’s sound quality. Instead, you need to graduate to a system with a dedicated AV receiver and separate speakers (anywhere from two to seven speakers, including a subwoofer).
2. The current crop of wireless, Bluetooth speakers won’t get you there, either, as they are essentially glorified boom-boxes — though they are getting better every year.
3. High-end audio has become such a niche commodity that in most cities, the only place to listen to decent speakers before you buy them is in a Best Buy Magnolia showroom. Some audio-friendly websites understand this dilemma, however, and will let you order and try out speakers in your house either free or with a nominal shipping charge.
4. Because of the WAF (Wife Acceptance Factor), I set my personal budget for a new sound system at $1,000. This is what I eventually set up:
Pioneer VSX-1022K AV receiver ($300)
Front R&L: Definitive Technology Studio Monitor 350 bookshelf speakers ($149/pair, on sale)
Center: Definitive Technology Studio Monitor ProCenter 1000 ($200)
Rear R&L: Polk TS100 ($100/pair, on sale)
Subwoofer: Energy 10-Inch Subwoofer ($150)
Speaker wire, HDMI cables, etc. ($50-100)
Maybe it goes without saying, but I’ll say it: The more you’re willing to spend, the better the sound is going to be.
5. If connecting your sound system to your iPad or iPhone appeals to you, look for a receiver that has Apple “Airplay” capabilities. Pioneer “pioneered” this capability, but receivers from Denon, Yamaha, and Marantz have it too. You can also add Airplay functionality to a non-Airplay receiver for $100 by buying an Apple TV streaming device.
6. Some of the best websites for buying audio equipment are:
7. Sign up for newsletters and sale alerts, because amazing audio deals crop up all the time. Seriously amazing deals.
8. If you’re pinching pennies, eBay and Craigslist are the hottest hunting grounds. And used audio equipment, particularly speakers, can be a steal.
9. The reason Bose isn’t mentioned in this article is that, for the money, you can do a lot better. So sayeth the audio experts.
10. Yes, I have a turntable and occasionally listen to my old vinyl records. But these days, it’s more fun to discover music I haven’t listened to yet.
Tad Simons is an award-winning journalist whose writing has appeared in Variety, The Washington Post and Mpls.St. Paul Magazine.