We know that music is a big part of peoples lives (myself included), so what better way to learn the ropes than putting together a definitive guide on how to maximise the sonic potential of your headphones and mobile device.
10,000 songs in your pocket can seem like a pretty awesome thing at times but there’s a lot of drawbacks to cramming so much music into a small place. One of them is compression and it’s the primary reason why most audiophiles tear up when you talk to them. MP3 files are lossy formats, meaning that data is lost to preserve space. While most of this is stuff that you don’t hear, it can make songs sound lifeless and dull. In extreme cases IE. a 128 kbps MP3 file, you can even hear that compression in the song! Add to this a £10 pair of cheap earphones and that low quality, noisy headphone jack on your mobile device… It’s a recipe for disaster. So that’s exactly why we’ve put together a huge guide on how to get the best out of your music collection.
Buy the right pair for your ears
It may sound simple but you’d be amazed how many people buy a crap pair of cans or some in-ears that don’t fit snug enough and leak out huge chunks of the frequency spectrum. When you’re shopping for headphones, there’s a few key things that you should look out for before putting down the cash.
- Brand: Being ‘brandist’ is a bit of a silly thing to do, though there’s a few trusted names that you can always rely on. Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic, Grado, Denon, AKG, Shure and Audio Technica are always worth a look. Don’t just rush out and buy a pair of Beats for the sake of being cool, any true audiophile will know they suck.
- Driver size/type: For over-the-ear headphones especially, driver size is quite a big deal. The driver refers to the physical speaker itself, or the thing that is ‘driving’ the sound. Bigger drivers will be able to deliver a much fuller sound that extends far deeper than something small. 50mm drivers are typically reserved for the giant headphones that encompass your head, while most modest sized will stick to 40mm. For in-ear headphones, the driver size itself is less of an issue and it’s instead more about the type of driver used. Budget to mid-level in-ears will typically use ‘dynamic’ drivers, which are essentially a miniaturized version of what you get in standard speakers. More expensive models will likely opt for an “armature” driver which is typically used in hearing aids and capable of more detail, since the treble, mids and bass can be separated. That said, if you’re floating around the bottom of the mid-level and fancy a pair of in-ears, we’d nearly always advise that you opt for a set of quality dynamics over a pair of cheaper armatures, since the former will sound much better. For proof, check out our review of the excellent Focal Sphear in-ear headphones.
- Frequency Response: Music (and sound in general) is made up of waves that vibrate the little drum in your ear, these waves come in different lengths and ultimately cover a whole spectrum. Bass waves are much slower, compared to the treble which is very quick. We can plot this in graphs to show the total sound field that a headphone can reproduce; this is the frequency response graph. You’ll likely have to go on-line and dial in the model for yourself, but there’s plenty of reputable sites out there who do scrutinous tests and map it out. Human hearing doesn’t exceed 20,000Hz; if you can hear anything above that then you’re essentially a sonar. Some headphones can produce above 20,000Hz, which may sound redundant on paper but there is validity to doing so. The rated range of a headphone is typically it’s upper and lower limits, IE. the absolute points of what it can reproduce. By extending this beyond the capabilities of our hearing, the idea is that they can better reproduce the sounds that we can hear.
- Total Harmonic Distortion (THD): This one is pretty simple, as it just refers to the noise floor that your headphones have. Nothing is completely distortion free and to be honest, if they were, it would likely sound unnatural as we are accustomed to some form of background noise. The lower the number, the less distortion and noise that will produced from the cans.
- Ohm rating: We all did science, so can you remember what an Ohm is? It’s a measurement of current… But that’s all you really need to know about the science bit. When it comes to headphones, just know this: a higher ohm rating will have a lower noise floor and output a cleaner signal, at the expense of needing a pretty beefy amplifier. A lower ohm rating will carry a little more noise but is easy to drive by everyday music players and smartphones, hence the reason why most portable headphones go for the latter.
Get hold of a preamp
No, we’re not talking about a huge brick that needs a wall socket and 300 watts… We’re talking about a portable one that you can carry around. Most smartphones have pretty shoddy audio converters and this has a very negative impact on sound. Unless you’re lucky enough to have a smartphone with a quality built-in Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) such as the HTC 10, you’ll be needing a preamp to really get the most from those expensive headphones. You see, when the volume is cranked up on a crappy DAC, it introduces all sorts of distortion into the signal, which is never a good thing. By keeping the volume on the device low and using a decent preamp, you can avoid that. They also have the benefit of warming up and enhancing the sound, which is an added bonus.
- Gain: Fairly self explanatory, the gain controls how much the amp boosts the signal. In the case of a preamp, you’ll want it to be doing the majority of the gain, leaving the noisy smartphone preamp at the most minimum setting possible.
- Volume: This is usually separate from the gain, as the latter physically boosts the signal to louder levels. The volume simply controls the level, much like any other portable music device.
- Crossfeed: You can see it above on that FiiO preamp but what exactly does it do? Crossfeed is a circuitry that tries to simulate the experience you get from listening to an actual pair of speakers. You’ll find it in some headphones preamps but it really has nothing to do with the functionality. It’s all a matter of preference.
- Recommended brands: FiiO, iBasso
Get a proper music application
Now that you’ve got a decent pair of headphones and a preamp to go with it, you need an audio application with plenty of customisation options. If you’re on Android, bite the bullet and pay for Poweramp, it’s easily the best music application you can get on any device. iPhone users have it much easier since iTunes isn’t actually a terrible player to begin with and Windows users have Groove, which is another solid player. Still, We’ve outlined our top pick for each operating system below, to make sure you only get the best.
Price: Free Trial, £2.99 Full Version
Where Poweramp trumps all others is in the details; everything can be tweaked for maximum performance. You’ve got controls for everything including back-end functions such as audio priority and buffering, to ensure that everything works in the best possible way. You also have the ability to add custom skins, which completely change the look and feel of the application to suit how you want it to look. It also supports fully gapless playback; a big plus if you’re one of those that likes to be taken on a sonic journey. You’ll even be able to adjust the crossfade length if you want the transitions to be smoother or more abrupt.
Denon Audio (iOS)
Price: Free Trial, £2.99 Full Version
Although Denon Audio is actually made as a partner app to their new line of Music Maniac headphones, this is still an excellent application for anyone who wants to get the best from their song library. It features an excellent equalizer with the ability to adjust at any given frequency band, plus a simple menu design that is easy to navigate. Sure, the aesthetics are getting a bit dated but this still takes some beating if you want to really start tweaking things.
OneMusic (Windows 10)
Price: Free Trial, £2.99 Full Version
OneMusic was an excellent music app for Windows Phone users that probably eclipsed the built-in player by quite a margin. While we shed a tear over it’s apparent removal from the updated Windows 10 app store, let#s tale a minute to remember just why it was so great. Excellent, modern design? Check. Srubbing? Check. Good amount of customisation? That’ll be a check too. Rumour has it that the application is undergoing another redesign for Windows 10 and we can only hope that this great player makes a triumphant return.
Learn to use an equalizer
An equalizer is the first call for making your headphones sound better. Without proper EQ’ing, you’ll be fighting a losing battle and/or relying on the headphones themselves to naturally be on point. The sad truth is that most cans accentuate certain frequencies in an effort to make things sound more exciting, though this has the knock-on effect of hiding key details within the song. If you want true sonic fidelity, you’re going to want the flattest frequency possible so as to hear every minute sound within the song. This is where the EQ is your best friend.
- The first thing to do is always find the natural frequency response of your headphones. This is what your cans sound like without alteration and it will be represented on a graph; likely from 10Hz to 10,000Hz. A simple Google search of the headphone model is usually all it takes to find some solid results.
- Any good music application will have an equalizer and it should be easily accessible from the setting page or something similar. For our example we’re using Poweramp and you should see it quite clearly labelled at the top of the screen, above the album artwork.
- From here, you’ll see a bunch of bands which represent the different frequencies. The key thing to do is to match the bands with the readout on the data sheet that represents your headphones. For example, on the Focal’s we can see that the lower midrange takes a little dive between 300Hz and 1000Hz, so naturally you’ll want to raise it a little to compensate. It’s the opposite for the upper midrange, which appears to be a little high. In this case, we need to lower it slightly. You’re aiming for the flattest line possible in order to evenly accentuate all sounds.
- Once it’s set up correctly, some applications will let you save it as a preset to only be used under specific circumstances. In this case you could set it as a wired preset, so that it will only activate when the headphones are plugged into the jack. Some applications will also give you access to additional tone controls, so you can get the EQ balance and then shape it to fit with simple Treble/ Bass dial wheels.
At this point, you should be in a position where things are sounding a lot better than before. The key thing here is patience, as tuning the cans can take a little bit of time and few different styles until you’re comfortable.
There’s also a chance that they may sound a little tinny and bass-light at first; this is only because you’re used to hearing all those glorified bass tones drowning large chunks of the music out! Once your ears adapt to a balanced frequency spectrum, you’ll be noticing things you never heard before, so long as your cans are good enough to represent it. To recap, let’s outline the key points below:
- Get a solid pair of cans.
- Get a preamp (if your smartphone preamp is pants).
- Have a solid music application.
- Tune the equaliser to maximise headphone performance.
- Enjoy better music!