Audio Archives

March 25, 2008

Earbuds, Schmearbuds

I'm betraying my age by saying that during my college days, the coolness of your stereo was judged by the wattage of your power amp and the size of your (stereo) speakers. But headphones were what we used for studying in the dorm at night, and there Koss reigned supreme with its PRO4AAs -- originally introduced in 1970, and amazingly still made and much in demand today.


We also spent hours debating the merits of turntable cartridges, adjusting our tone arms for the best pickup, and carefully making mix tapes for the car using the then-revolutionary Dolby noise reduction system. We knew all about dynamic range and "clipping," and normalized our tapes manually by watching the signal meters and cueing and recueing each song to get the perfect gaps on tape. Making a cassette mix tape was easily a weekend job, and making the even higher-quality reel-to-reel tapes we used for parties was a group effort of the entire floor. We rearranged song lists ad nauseam, and delivered the requisite vinyl to the guy with the best system, who then spent a week making the tape under the watchful eyes of the rest of us constantly dropping by his room to listen and critique.

Our never-ending quest for sonic superiority seems light-years removed from today's "good-enough" culture of $20 earbuds and highly compressed music formats. Price and convenience seem to have dulled our sense of music appreciation. You rarely see a portable music player actually evaluated for its sonic fidelity, rather than its capacity and user interface.

But I'm here to tell you that your musical experience can and will be greatly enhanced by paying attention to reproduction quality. Really, there's nothing more mind-blowing that listening to great music through an equally great sound system. Fortunately, you don't have to compromise or spend a lot of money to enjoy both convenience and brilliant sonics. You can rip music from CDs in lossless quality in several formats: Apple lossless, FLAC and Monkey's Audio and Windows Media Audio lossless are some of the most common. The best one to choose depends on what is supported by your ripping tool and player of choice. (Easy Media Creator and Toast support most of these.) The basic point is that they preserve CD quality (hence the term "lossless") while reducing the space needed by about half. Thanks to freefalling hard disk prices, you can store a 3000-disc CD collection in lossless format on a single $250 terabyte hard drive.


Once you've ripped in lossless format (and note that I'm not buying a digital download until they come in lossless -- the local used CD shop is cheaper anyway), all you need to do is listen through a top pair of headphones, like those from Koss, Sennheiser, Grado, Shure, Bose and others. ( has recommendations.) You'll hear a big difference even on a portable player, but for true audiophile action, run the optical audio output from your computer to a good receiver, and thence to your headphones. The quality of the digital-to-analog conversion circuitry matters a lot, and it will be much better in the receiver.

Have some other tips for getting the best sound out of your music player? Or think your MP3s sound just fine the way they are? Tell us in the Comments!

June 18, 2008

Dancing with My USB Turntable

I've already written about my ongoing project to rip my 2,500+ CDs onto a network hard drive. But that's actually an easy task compared to that of digitizing the almost 300 vinyl record albums remaining (from my original collection of 1,000 or so) that I have not been able to find and repurchase on CD.

At this point, 25 years after the introduction of the audio CD, it's unlikely that any of those remaining albums are ever going to get released in digital form. So it's time to get them digitized and converted to CD format for posterity. However, my beloved 26-year-old Bang & Olufsen turntable has not been usable since my last move, when the tonearm got literally bent out of shape. And I'm reluctant to buy a new standard turntable when my new AV receiver doesn't even have a phono input. After all, I'm probably only going to be using it long enough to digitize all my records and then retire it.

So I spent a lot of time researching solutions before I found the Audio-Technica AT-LP2D-USB turntable, a very reasonably-priced USB turntable that you can plug directly into your PC or Mac. While there are a number of USB turntables out there, the Audio-Technica stood out for several reasons: it comes from a manufacturer with a long and illustrious history of producing quality turntables; it includes a very good dual-magnet replaceable diamond cartridge on a damped tonearm and a balanced aluminum belt-drive platter; it's fully automatic so you don't have to lift the tonearm; and it has a built-in Phono pre-amp, so you can plug it into any audio input in your AV system as well as into a USB port in your computer. It even comes with three types of cables so you won't need to run out and buy them.


I received the Audio-Technica a couple weeks ago, and have since been playing with it using Creator 10 on my Vista PC and Toast 9 Mac with my MacBook Pro. I could not be happier with both the sound quality and ease of use. While the turntable comes with a couple software CDs, if you have Creator or Toast, you don't need to install a thing -- I like to keep a clean system and not having to install software is always a good thing. Quite literally, all you have to do is plug it in, put on your record, and press play to begin digitizing it with Creator or Toast.

In Creator 10, using the LP & Tape Assistant, the turntable shows up as the default "Microphone (USB Audio Codec)" input in the "Capture From" list:


And in Toast 9, the turntable shows up similarly as USB Audio CODEC in the list of recording devices to choose from:


I've now digitized about 10 albums, taking it at a leisurely pace to listen (and in a couple cases, dance!) at the same time. After all, I've been unable to enjoy those 300 records for quite a long time now. Creator and Toast can automatically identify tracks digitized from LPs, so I don't even have to type in many song or artist names. I've also been experimenting with the handy noise reduction and sound enhancement filters in both programs, and highly recommend them to maximize your sound quality.

I've posted complete tutorials on digitizing your LPs for both Creator 10 and Toast 9 in the Hot Topics area of MyMoments. Take a look and tell me about your own experiences with digitizing your musical past.

About Audio

This page contains an archive of all entries posted to MyMoments in the Audio category. They are listed from oldest to newest.

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