I’m in an audiophile group chat at my day job, and someone new to audio asked a very simple question, which to me, the musician, audio, and tech geek, was not easy to answer with just a few words.
“How can I improve my ear when comparing things like headphones and speakers? How can I tell the difference between things and have something to refer to or think of when listening to music?”
I could have just said that they should listen to the different instruments in the track and try to compare them. Or that they should just listen to a $1,000 piece of gear and a $20 one to compare the obvious differences, right?
But for someone new to audio, they may not understand audio in the same manner that I do. They may not know the difference between bass, midrange, treble, understand audio terms like frequency and reverb, or know the right audio jargon to even begin to appreciate the differences between a good pair of headphones and a mediocre one.
So I decided toapproach my answer to the question by starting with the fundamentals – without knowing much about audio and music production, how can one claim to truly discern and understand the differences in different audio gear itself, and appreciate the value that better gear will bring them in terms of sound quality and sonic differences?
So I decided to look deep into my knowledge and experience in this area, and start with the basics. My answer follows:
So an introduction on my audio experience so you know where I’m coming from: I originally started as a musician, where I produced and mixed my own music, played keyboard, and sang vocals for choir and my own music, as well. I think that experience forced me to learn the difference between sounds and understand them fundamentally, as well as then pick audio gear that would be high-quality and accurately present the sound (without overblown, boomy bass and distortion at high volumes like cheap consumer speakers), and would let me do my job properly. This experience led me to recognize the difference between different instruments/sounds in music and all audio, and then led me to separate bad gear from good. I’ve always valued a “richer” sound, and so once I started having my own cash to spend, I started doing research and experimenting a bit with higher quality audio gear. My original goal was to get gear that improved my audio for music production and mixing (I previously used a Bose Companion 3 speaker set which sounded good to me, but was not up to pro standards), and then that split off into me just buying new gear so I could enjoy my music and gaming audio more and be more immersed in it. So for the last few years, that’s where I’d say I really came to understand myself as an audiophile.
So onto my advice on someone just starting out in this world… This will all probably be overwhelming at first, but when I thought about it, to anyone with an untrained ear and not too much knowledge/experience on audio itself, I think it’d be very hard to be a discerning audiophile right away.
So I think for someone to really be able to understand and appreciate how to pick good gear for music/audio, you have to understand some fundamentals on music and audio too. So I’ve divided my reply into two sections, Section 1 for understanding fundamentals on audio and music, and then with all that knowledge in mind, Section 2 for then knowing how to pick audio gear (and my recommendation for a starter pack).
If you don’t want to learn too much about audio itself or already know about music production basics, you can just skip to Section 2 for a more direct answer to your question – but if you’re not too familar, then I really recommend going through Section 1 and watching the linked videos first to be able to understand how to listen properly and appreciate different audio differences and understand all the terms that the videos in Section 2 will mention.
So without further ado:
Here are my thoughts on everything you can learn and practice to become discerning in music, after which you can then start listening to different higher end gear and start to understand how better gear lets you hear your music or other entertainment in better quality.
First, some general starting resources. These will answer this question in a simple form, but will contain some terms you may not understand. This is why I would recommend reading through and watching all the videos in section 1! But check it out, and if all this checks out for you, good, move to section 2! If not, keep on reading 🙂
https://www.reddit.com/r/audiophile/comments/2xpqku/becoming_an_audiophileear_training/ (good suggestions in the replies)
Getting Deeper Into It
The more you learn about the composition and different instruments within music, the more you’ll start hearing distinct things in tracks. I think the most essential thing to learn about first is the difference between the different frequencies that make up sound and music. There’s bass (lowest on the frequency spectrum), midrange (the vast middle of the spectrum), and treble (highest sounds in the frequency spectrum). Bass is the low roaring parts of a track (kick drums, bass notes), mid is the vocals, piano, guitar, main drums (makes up the majority of the sound you hear), and treble is the highest on the audio frequency spectrum (drum cymbals, hi-hats, very high notes on instruments or vocals).
Understanding Frequency in Audio
You should watch these videos to understand this before you can know how high-end audio gear would improve frequencies in your music:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jveKIYyafaQ (frequency 101)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sho0elN1Pm8 (frequency demo)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=amAzRbasAmI (frequency demo on a real song)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XbMAnnNe4ME (difference between frequency of different instruments and effects)
Understanding Music Production and Arrangement
It also depends on the level of your familiarity with music production itself, in my opinion. I suggest to listen carefully to music and pick out all the different instruments on a low quality pair of headphones or speakers, and then listen to a higher end pair and compare – you should notice there is now more space and separation between the instruments, you can hear more details or sounds in the tracks you’ve never heard before, and the sound might sound warmer and richer overall.
I think the best type of music for learning this is jazz music or classical. If you can learn the differences between all the different instruments in an orchestra, then you’ll have a much easier time picking them out separately while they are all mixed together in a recording.
Here’s a couple videos to watch to learn this in the context of the orchestra:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eATjBwGDQzY (ignore his assignment at the end)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Sr-l2m8twX0 (listen to each instrument and pick out which ones are bass, mid, treble)
Now watch this and try to recognize all the different instruments and which ones are low, mid, high:
What you learn from analyzing the orchestra (the most complex genre to learn, in my opinion), your learnings here will apply to every other music genre.
Audio Mixing in Music
Last for this section, I think learning about about mixing and audio effects would be helpful too, so when you compare audio gear, you can know how the mix can become clearer, and different audio effects within the mix may sound different:
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YEorsfZe4vU (Learn about the process of mixing music and identifying the different sounds and instruments within a mix)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UL73IwwBy5M (Learn more about mixing, and why most music is mastered after the mix, further affecting the final sound of professional music tracks)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NJ2WzLg5rDc (Learn about some common effects used in mixing, which you will hear in millions of songs)
Analyzing Music with an Audiophile Mindset
Before I move onto actual audio gear stuff, this is a great final video on how to analyze music to hear differences:
So now that you understand audio better and what to listen for in music, now you can learn about the benefits of buying higher-end gear (DAC, amp, cables speakers or headphones):
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pu8Q2P1Fi-A (good general overview video on how to get acquainted with audiophile stuff, that most directly answers your initial question. Most important point is for any of this to make a difference to you in the first place, it’s first and foremost important to listen to your music and focus in on the details, rather than having it on in the background)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=z6Aa-o6tAUA (explains types of headphones and how to choose the right one for you)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kUgGEQ4aDVc (choosing between dynamic headphones like Sennheiser brand and planar magnetic headphones like Audeze brand)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ovNqXKlDY-I (good to know, what soundstage is and benefits of getting better gear/headphones for wider soundstage closer to real life)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2RL-IumWJK8 (explains DACs and amps and why you will want better ones for better sound)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GUZhtQheELg (good vid on what’s important and what’s not in audio gear/media for a beginner)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MbnZamTMROw (importance of loudspeaker placement on the sound in your room)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cTnituQu8ig (learn about the importance of your room when using loudspeakers and treating it… this is why I prefer headphones for listening to music, which your room doesn’t affect)
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y8iiU0Vx8HY (great video on how to recognize audiophile terms and know how to describe your music, and thus the differences you’ll hear with better/different gear)
Lastly, it’s good to learn about the benefits of high-res audio. Not as important as the rest, because this will affect your sound less than anything else above, but higher-res versions of music will still also offer improved clarity, detail, and overall sound quality, and will also show you the importance of buying audio gear that can handle higher resolutions for sound:
Hi-res audio streaming services available to try are Amazon Music HD and Tidal HiFi.
As for what gear I recommend:
It’s going to vary from person to person, and everyone has different ears, so everyone will have different preferences for what they want in their sound. Ex: some may prefer warmer sound, while some prefer more neutral. Some prefer more bass, some prefer less bass that sounds more natural. And some headphones with less soundstage are actually better for some music (acoustic sets) and wider soundstage for others (orchestral, gaming). It varies by music or content genre.
But here’s an affordable list that I think anyone would be happy to start with:
1) DAC – Schiit Modi 3 (big improvement over cheap stuff that will sound good to start out with)
2) Headphone Amp – Schiit Magni (enough to power most midrange headphones)
3) Headphones – Sennheiser HD600 (accurate, neutral, and detailed)
4) Speakers/monitors – a pair of KRK Rokit 5 speakers (what I currently use for music production)
5) Cables – anything from Cable Matters, Monoprice, or AmazonBasics on Amazon. Cables are the lowest priority for audio, and while nicer cables do make a difference, it’s not as much as the speakers or other audio gear. Just don’t buy no-name brands with bad reviews and you’ll be fine in this area.
The audio you get here, even at these prices, will be miles ahead of the onboard audio on your PC or your headphone jack on your smartphone or tablet. Just by moving to dedicated components, it’s going to bring a big improvement in sound quality, as there is no electrical interference, or power/space confinements with stuff built into your devices. If you value the improved audio you hear with these, it may be all you need!
But for many of us, once you try more things higher up the range, you will start discovering new sound profiles you like, and moving up to higher end gear will have even bigger improvements in sound quality, richness, detail, clarity, soundstage, etc. This is where the “audiophilia” starts.
My recommendation is to try a couple things and if you think you can be happy with the cheap gear, great! You’ve saved a lot of money. But if you find the improvements with higher end gear worth it, then go ahead and spend more. But if you’re on a budget (most of us are), just do your research, and keep things reasonable! And remember audio is something you can build on over time – never feel like you have to get everything at once. I’ve never bought any one piece of gear over $1,000, but by doing a lot of research, learning what I value in my sound and in my gear, and only spending on what I’ll really use and makes sense for my situation, I’ve already built a sound system that, when I press play, sounds like a million bucks. Music and sound in entertainment, when done well, can be transformational and truly take you to new worlds. That’s why this is such a fun hobby! Just remember it’s still a hobby after all, so spend or save on what’s important in life first, and you can always spend your extra on your audio throughout your life, as you see fit. Just be smart and take it slow!
So I really hope all of that helps! Sorry I can’t give a TLDR, as there are just so many factors involved in sound from recording to gear to output, and then it’s important to understand different facets of audio itself so you can know what to focus on.
I know it’s a ton of stuff to take in, but you can take it all a bit at a time. I thought of all this based on all my experience and research I’ve done for years, so I don’t expect anyone to try to learn all this in one day. Also, all of us are always learning new things too, so even with all this, it’s important to note that we are never really done learning, no matter how comfortable we may seem about all this stuff.
Overall, the general benefit I take from being an audiophile and being into better gear is that in the end, better gear helps me get closer to the music (hearing more details, richer sound quality) and get more immersed in the music and forget the world around me (gear that lets me experience a wider, more realistic soundstage). Whatever helps me get closer to feeling like I’m in the middle of a concert hall in person, or in the middle of a battlefield in a videogame, is worth it to me – and I think, when it boils down to it, that’s the reason we are all here and love this hobby so much.
P.S. I had a lot of fun writing that, it took me through my own mini audio crash course and I actually learned a few new things myself by watching through some of those!
And this is just a note to the universe, I feel compelled to add this – in the end, remember this is all supposed to be fun, it’s really a hobby after all imo, and if at any point you’re not having fun anymore, whether that be learning something new, enjoying new content, or rediscovering old content anew, then it’s totally fine to step back or take a break and do something that is more fun at the moment. What you choose to fill your free time with in life is always best up to you!