Getting The Best From Your Music On The Move

iPod familyNot so long ago, thanks to Apple and Steve Jobs, we all bought MP3 players…more often than not an iPod. While many of us still use these – the concept and tech involved is a bit dated as we all have many other devices that are capable of playing music.

As we all know, a smartphone is a far more convenient method of listening to music than an MP3 player. We always have our phone with us, its always charged, we know where the charge cable is when it needs charging…its part of our everyday life. The MP3 player doesn’t fit this level of convenience any more, it needs charging and it needs to be synced with extra software from a computer.

What has accelerated this shift is the rapid growth of subscription based streaming services that can be accessed by a wide range of devices including smart phones, tablets and regular computers through a web browser.

Whilst the quality of MP3 files many moons ago was somewhat suspect. The quality of the modern day streaming services are fantastic. While some audiophiles may argue that they can here the encoding process in the audio – I think that most of us will be more than happy with the end result…I know I am.

Coloured headphonesA side effect of this streaming music boom, is that the earphone and headphone markets have seen a huge growth in demand. This has lead to loads of new companies entering the market place, with some newcomers creating some really interesting and different products.

It is pretty safe to say that the earphones that came with your smart phone are bad, really bad. If you are at all serious about your music, you need to upgrade them sooner rather than later. Budget is always a concern – £30 will get you a great set that most people will find amazing. Anything that costs less than £20 will probably lead to disappointment.

Finding a good set of earphones is straight forward these days. Most of the best in ear headphones come with silicone tips (the noise isolating type) and are capable of producing some of the best quality sound you can get at an unbelievably low price. With so many to choose from, its not hard to find a great set – with several examples winning numerous awards such as the Soundmagic E10s.

Once you have a decent set of earphones, you can still improve the sound further. Where mobile devices have the edge over computers playing audio through their web browser, is that the music players on mobile devices have a built in equalizer.

As all earphones sound different, everyones ears a slightly different and the amplifiers in different mobile devices also sound different…an equalizer allows you to adjust the way that the music sounds as you listen to it. This really is the icing on the cake.

The golden rule when tweaking the sound is generally that less is more – try turning frequencies down before turning them up. If you turn up a lot of the frequency bands, you are just making it all louder – this will distort the internal amplifier and sound pretty awful. Take it slowly & use your ears.

It is also worth considering that earphones and headphones wear in over the first few hours of use. This means that the sound will change a little – it may be very subtle or it could be quite dramatic, it depends on the headphones in question.

Portable audio really has never been this good before – get out there and enjoy your music.

Pump Up The Volume – Is Louder Better?

Wall of speakersIt seems that there is a common perception that music sounds better when played loudly. In a club for example the bass can make you chest thump or trousers flap. The mid range of a heavy metal band in an enclosed venue can leave you with ears ringing for days after the gig. These examples help create the atmosphere for that event, but should we follow these examples when listening at home, on the move or in the car?

There is of course a lot more to the fidelity of audio than volume. Electrical components need to be carefully matched with each other, the speakers need to have the correct power rating & positioned correctly within the listening environment.

Harmonic distortionIf an amplifier is asked to power speakers that aren’t correctly matched, you can end up with a strangled, distorted sound that really isn’t very pleasant to listen to. Any kind of amplification turned up to its higher levels will induce harmonic distortion to the audio signal. Likewise if an amp is way too powerful for the speakers that it is connected to, the amp won’t be able to show its true colours or operate within its most efficient range.

When matched correctly, an amp will produce the correct level of output for the speakers without any induced distortion or excessive colouring of the sound. If done correctly, there is a sweet spot where the sound fills the room and you can still talk over it.

The room you listen in will also influence the quality of the sound and the volume required to get the best from it. Different rooms have different acoustic properties – different frequencies that resonate or echo. Adjusting the volume as well as the EQ can help keep these under control.

Another factor that many people don’t consider is that our ears have a natural compression. Apply excessively loud noise to them & our eardrums actually distort…at this point, the sound levels are pretty unpleasant & any music sounds pretty awful.

More care needs to be taken when listening to music on headphones – the sound is being produced within such a close proximity to our ears that even small changes can make quite a difference.

Smart phones now warn us for listening to loud music for extended periods of time & give warnings if we try to turn the volume up. While this is a good guide – it isn’t necessarily correct because the phone doesn’t know the power rating or sensitivity of the headphones that are plugged in. Full volume for one set of headphones may sound excellent & comfortable, while another set may only require half the volume setting to get the same results…operating systems can’t tell the difference.

Listening by any means for an extending period of time can also lead to ear fatigue. Ears become tired when they have been exposed to music for a while, this is often when you start feeling that you want to turn up the music louder. This is normally a good sign that you should give your ears a rest & have a break.

So as you can see, music doesn’t necessarily sound better when played louder. It sounds better when its played at the right volume for the equipment being used & the environment that its in. So in actual fact, you may need to turn your music down to get more from it – your neighbors may thank you as well!

The Digital Age – What Has It Done For Us?

We live in exciting times, right in the midst of a digital revolution. The earlier were a little iffy at best, but now times have changed.

In its infancy, digital audio was often considered inferior to analogue audio. Much of this was based around the lack of warmth in the sound and no tape compression. Early digital audio also often lacked bass and sounded quite flat without any character – it took quite a bit of effort to get it to sound good.

Radar hard disk recorderIn recording studios, equipment manufacturers started increasing bit depth and sample rates, the sound gradually improved. Whilst the sound quality was now on a par with 2″ tape in recording studios, the equipment was still extremely expensive. Some 16-24 track hard disk recording systems such as Radar cost in the region of £20,000.

At this time while we had CD’s there were few other options. DATs and Minidisc were attempting to find their way into consumer homes, but both failed miserably.

Apple LogicAs the recording industry continued to lead the way with digital audio – big technical advances were made in leaps and bounds. The primary big advances were mostly due to Protools & Logic Audio, both software platforms providing digital audio recording, editing, processing and mixing in a computer environment. Logic Audio was originally created by a company called Emagic. As this was the time of Apple’s huge growth with the iMac and early gen iPod etc, they were always on the search for new technologies to buy. Apple bought Logic Audio (now known as Logic Pro) and set their place at the forefront of digital audio music production.

With Apple now having the iPod out in consumerland and owning one of the premium studio audio platforms, progress was inevitable. The early iPods, in retrospect didn’t sound great at all – couple that with the actual hard drive inside them & the performance was pretty poor. How much of a coincidence is it I wonder, that the quality of the following generations of the iPod improved so dramatically after the purchase of Logic Audio. You have to assume that some of the technology they bought was instrumental in changing the way in which we all now listen to music.

Obviously since then we have moved on yet again – smart phones now rule the high street & the MP3 file that the early iPods pioneered are now everywhere along with streaming audio.

<h2>But what has this actually meant for us, the consumer?</h2>
Tangled cassetteBecause we take our tiny portable devices for granted, I think we forget just how much they have impacted our daily lives. If you dropped a smart phone loaded with music and a streaming service in the lap of someone sat in 1987, how do you think they would react? They would be absolutely blown away by it. Back then cassettes were the only option – hissy tape with very little bass that would often get tangled or unraveled…which would then need to be carefully untangled and rewound by hand. This unbelievable accessible modern audio is of a far higher quality than was available back then. The depth and details that can now be heard in music is exceptional – and it all comes from something that sits in the palm of you hand!

While our modern digital audio is fantastic high quality – we haven’t yet had the equivalent of the 1080P HD TV revolution in audio. Hopefully this will happen one day – but it is probably still a long way off. CD’s are now possibly our limitation – they have a sample rate of 44.1kHz – DVD’s and Blu-Ray both use 48kHz given extra depth and definition, but at the cost of file size and disc space. MP3 files can be generated at both 44.1kHz and 48kHz – but they do essentially compress data to save file space. This means that even at the highest sample rate and available bit rate, audio data is still removed – so the MP3 will never truly be hi fidelity.

There is still room for our audio world to expand in the mainstream and yes there are other audio file formats out there like AAC, but these aren’t common place & the storage space on smart phones isn’t yet big enough to really use them.

Only time will show us what the next step in home or portable audio is. Right now, any improvements, however minor will be major milestones and it will be incredibly exciting to hear the results!

Has The Home Stereo Had Its Day?

There was a time, not so very long ago, when positioned within pride of place in the home, you would find a Hi-Fi, stereo or entertainment centre. These days with the ever developing world of gadgets and video game consoles the stereo as we know it is a dying breed.

In my parents day, the stereo, or given its proper name, the entertainment centre was positioned in full view on the sideboard. It was a huge flat thing, covered in wood veneer and sported a green backlit radio tuner along with its turntable and cassette deck. The speakers were pretty small in the scheme of things & really didn’t sound great at all. Looking back at it, I suspect that it probably wasn’t a cheap item &amp; was a reasonable investment at the time.

1980s Hi-FiSpool on a few years and we saw an influx of cheaper Hi-Fi’s coming in from overseas. Varying trends saw us filling our homes with either silver or black stereos that were ugly and tended to be pretty monstrous in size. These cheaper, mass produced imports made home Hi-Fi affordable for everyone. The humble Hi-Fi was a very common sight – with many homes having multiple stereos.

As vinyl died off and CD’s became more mainstream, we finally saw a significant reduction in size. Book shelf Hi-Fi’s were all the rage, seemingly covered in as many blue LEDs as possible. It is at this point that the Hi-Fi no longer had such a prominent place in the home. It was now tucked away, out of sight and out of mind.
The next dark cloud to creep over the horizon came in the shape of the demise of the cassette. It took a while for CD’s to become widely accepted, and many still continued to use cassette despite the drastic improvement in sound quality. Perhaps the main reason that they survived so long was because it was so easy to copy CD to a cassette.

Steve Jobs - the iPodSeemingly out of nowhere, Steve Jobs popped up and rocked our world. In walks the iPod and with it the invasion of the MP3 file. This single event has probably changed our lives more than we give it credit for. Without doubt, MP3 finally killed of the cassette with CD’s once again being easy to copy to a new digital format and an iPod was smaller than a portable cassette player.

From here we have moved on a little further. We now have many different types of digital devices including MP3 players, smart phones, tablets, laptops, desktop computers, smart TVs and games consoles. All of these can play MP3 files without a stereo in sight. Increasingly we are listening to music on earphones and TVs.

Some may argue that the home cinema setup has replaced the stereo – while this may be true in part, it doesn’t give the whole story. A home cinema setup is just that, it is for watching films and playing games – immersive audio experiences. What it is not intended for, is listening to music. Regular stereo music recordings don’t play back well through multi-speaker setups like a 5.1 surround sound. It just doesn’t work – bass is lost &amp; the stereo image disappears as most of the sound comes through the centre speaker. Until music is mixed in 5.1 on a more regular basis, the home stereo is, i’m afraid, dead and buried. Long live portable audio, the MP3 file, earphones and headphones – you are the future!