Music legend Neil Young is dissatisfied with current-generation digital music formats.
“The MP3 only has 5 percent of the data present in the original recording,” said Young at the recent Dive Into Media conference. The performer went on to suggest that standard CD audio reproduces just 15 percent of that data (though other sources have cited a 30 percent figure for CDs). Young’s mission: develop a new consumer audio standard with fidelity equal to that used for recording in the highest-quality studios.
Unfortunately, this hi-fi digital format is only theoretical at the moment as Young awaits “some rich guy” to support it. But, as you await Young’s hoped-for standard, there are tons of things you can do to bring your home listening experience closer to the experience Young hopes for.
The studio experience
If you’re a music fan, consider visiting a recording studio. They are often beautiful spaces that can change the way you think about music. A good studio also provides a listening experience unmatched by almost any other environment. It’s a space tailored to reproduce sound in a very predictable, honest way. The studio listening experience is what Young wants to deliver to consumers.
Though you probably don’t have access to a studio environment for everyday use, adopting some of a studio’s features can really improve how your listening space sounds. Here are some ideas to consider, roughly in order of ease.
Improve your digital files.
The MP3s you made of Weezer’s Blue album for your Nomad Jukebox in 2001 probably sound pretty terrible today (mine did). Digital audio used in recording studios is up to 20 times the quality of what you listen to at home. If you want to stick with MP3, 320 kbps LAME-encoded files may be your highest-quality bet. If you want even greater fidelity, other formats are available. Wired recently provided a useful overview.
Most audiophiles prefer the sound of good vinyl to any other medium. Playing high-quality records on a good audio system is probably the easiest way for the home listener to achieve the sound quality Young is advocating. Vinyl is also the preferred release medium for musicians desiring to keep their sound totally free of digital influences. Records provide access to music that you’d otherwise miss and offer a listening experience that digital audio can’t match. They also make you cooler.
The positioning of speakers relative to each other and to you can have a big effect on what you hear. Audio engineers strive to create an equilateral triangle between themselves and the monitors they’re listening to. The tweeters on your speakers should be as near ear-level as possible. The closer you can get to this position, the better your listening experience will be. This and other online tools can help with the math.
Upgrade your hardware
Though everything from the source of your signal to the wiring used for connections can have an effect on what you hear, the greatest improvement will probably come from replacing your speakers. Mixing monitors like KRK’s Rokit 5s ($300 a pair) are a good, affordable option. For $500, Paradigm’s A2 floored our reviewers. If you really want to break the bank, some of the most prized loudspeakers available cost several thousand dollars each and have tweeters made from real diamonds.
Rearrange your room
Just as speaker positioning affects what you hear, so too does your position within the room. Engineers position themselves according to the “38-percent rule,” which states that the optimal listening positions in rectangular spaces are 38 percent of the room’s length into the room from either the front or back wall. This helps to minimize the room’s effect on what you hear.
Studios use acoustic treatments of different designs to further reduce room effects. Though professionally made treatments for even a mid-sized room can cost hundreds or thousands of dollars, DIY plans are available and 2 x 4 panels can be produced for as little as $20 to $30 each. Whether bought or built, panels can easily be applied to minimize first reflections or tame troublesome bass frequencies. For the absolute best sound, panels should be installed in parallel with this next tip.
Consider room measurement
The best way to position acoustic panels is to analyze your room’s acoustic characteristics first. The cheapest way to do this is with software like Room EQ Wizard and an omnidirectional microphone like Behringer’s ECM8000. You’ll need other equipment — notably an AD/DA interface of some sort — but if you’ve done any home recording you’ll probably have already what you need. This is a pretty involved process, though, and gains beyond simpler panel positioning may be slight.
Remember, what you hear is the ultimate test of whether your improvements have been effective. There may be diminishing returns as difficulty increases. Not everyone will have the listening skills to perceive more subtle changes.
If you are not Neil Young
There aren’t a lot of things that Neil Young can do to improve his listening experience. He has greater access to better listening environments than you or I, or even most musicians, ever will. The list of upgrades provided above is useless to someone like him — he’s done all that already!
If you’re Neil Young, digital audio files of extreme quality may be one of the only ways left to improve your listening experience. Luckily, if you aren’t Neil Young (and, let’s face it, you almost certainly aren’t) many other options are available.
Closing note: This recent article from Lifehacker provides further guidance on audio upgrades, especially regarding your signal chain. Highly recommended!
Guest contributor Louie Herr runs Banana Stand Media, a live music venue and record label in Portland, Oregon.