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Can we improve the streaming audio experience? Sure we can - here's how to do it

By  Adrian Wall 


 

Streaming is here to stay. And let's face it, we love it! Having access to pretty much every recording ever made, on a device like a smartphone that fits in the palm of your hand (or on a desktop computer) is a really cool development, whether you're a musician, engineer, or fan.

Most streaming services use bit rates of 256 kbps or above, and many smartphones, laptops, tablets and computers have decent built-in headphone outputs and Bluetooth interfacing. Yet very few of us take advantage of the sound quality on offer—it seems most people don’t bother to listen to their streamed services and MP3 collections through decent systems, and instead stream through low-quality devices that aren’t up to the task.

So, what are we doing wrong?

 

Our Headphones Suck

Many smartphones have capable headphone outputs—as good or better than the previous generation of portable music devices like the Walkman, Discman, and MiniDisc players, but those earbuds that came with the phone are terrible. And the overpriced, poorly designed, and shoddily built “fashion accessory” headphones that are all the rage right now aren't any better. Seriously, they're terrible.

For a fraction of the inflated price that comes along with that big lowercase 'b' logo, you can get a quality set of cans from one of the long-established pro/hi-fi companies like AKG, Sony, Technics, KRK, Audio-Technica, and Beyerdynamic that will make the most of your phone's output, and can also double as tracking/reference headphones when you're working with your DAW. Why settle for less?

 

Our Speakers Aren't Producing a Stereo Image

With Soundbars or Docks, you probably love how easy it is to connect with Bluetooth or the proprietary docking slot. But we’re never hearing a true stereo image from these devices. Even if the system actually wires two speakers in stereo, once you’re more than a couple feet away, you're hearing everything in mono.

Similarly, our nice little desktop computer speakers, and even some laptop speakers, can sound fine when we're sitting right in front of the screen—but that's the only place in the room where you'll hear a stereo image.

 

Many Modern Sound Systems Aren't Designed for Music Appreciation

Artists, engineers and producers spend countless hours in the studio creating a lot of really great-sounding music that is intended to be listened to in stereo with a fairly flat frequency balance. Yet, none of the devices mentioned above were designed to produce any kind of stereo image in your room. Neither was your home theater/gaming 5.1 surround sound system. Even if you can switch it to stereo mode, which should send the stereo program information directly to the left and right speakers while muting the satellites and center speaker, you end up using two speakers and a sub that were designed to deliver a rather large amount of bass and hi-mid presence to every square inch of the room.

Worse yet, most of these home entertainment systems are engineered to do this with pretty small speakers that are often not up to the job of reproducing full-range audio accurately. Not to mention that the hyped bass is probably shaking your neighbor's living room, as well as your own! That bass is great to hear a few times during a movie, like when the Death Star explodes or whatever, but not when it's pounding along non-stop at 128 BPM.

“But, what about my Brand X nearfield monitors? They sound superb – so flat and detailed!”

Yes they do, but most nearfields are far too focused and stringent for everyday casual and social listening situations. Once you leave the confines of that equilaterally-sweet listening position that you work from, you'll lose the stereo image, and probably end up pacing the room trying to find spots with the best frequency balance for comfortable listening.

We should of course listen regularly to reference material on our work monitors to remain aware of what great mixes sound like on them, but sometimes you need to get away from the workstation and enjoy your favorite music for what it is. It's important to have a decent system for casual and social listening, and for real-world testing of your mixes. Your average home entertainment system or kitchen sound dock isn't going to cut it.

 

So, What's the Solution?

To be fair, retailers stock plenty of systems that sound great. But who would seriously consider spending a grand on an amp and speakers to go with their $200 smartphone? However, if you're over a certain age you'll remember a time when every home had a music center, or component hi-fi system. These were pretty big pieces of kit, and were usually housed in a cabinet that came in a flatpack that the buyer had to assemble, long before Ikea made such furniture so popular.

Some of us still keep an old hi-fi system in our kitchen or living room for casual listening to FM radio, CDs, and whatnot. But remember, you can also plug your smartphone into these old systems, and some people are starting to realize that compared to other means of listening to streamed music and MP3s, many of these old hi-fi systems have some serious sonic mojo.


In an age when you see earnest questions in Internet chatrooms and on Facebook feeds asking about how to get better sound from smartphones, laptops, tablets and desktop computers, it seems ludicrous that so many of these old hi-fi systems are gathering dust in attics and garages. The real irony is that during the 30-odd years of the digital recording revolution, while the sound quality and fidelity of recorded music has gotten better and better, the sound quality of consumer devices has been declining. Now that streaming media is finally catching up to the CD’s fidelity, why should we continue to listen to music through substandard systems?

Our multi-channel home entertainment boxes have “evolved” to where they're trying to do too much with too little, so maybe it's time we started looking for affordable yet high-quality two-channel amplifiers that do stereo only, and do it well. Don't be afraid of speakers that look more like small pieces of furniture than mantle ornaments! Put an old pair of 3-way, front-ported, 19x10 inch speakers in the corners at one end of a room facing the opposite wall, put on your favorite music, and tell me you don't prefer that to what you usually listen through. These larger, lower-powered speaker cabinets are naturally less tightly-focused, and are perfect for filling a room with a balanced stereo mix. You'll still have to find the sweet spots for listening in the room, but they'll be much bigger. And with a speaker that's only rated for 40 watts, you'll rarely exceed 10 watts at normal listening levels.

It's time for manufacturers to integrate some of the older, simpler amplifier designs into devices that accept Bluetooth and USB inputs, and incorporate decent digital-to-analog converters. Maybe it's time see how innovations in speaker design, efficiency, and materials can be harnessed in cabinets that reflect the simple balance and stereo image of a superb mix. While they're figuring that out, I'll mainly be listening to my MP3 collection and the very latest streaming music releases through state of the art, 1980s hardware.

 

Do you have questions or comments about this article? Want to discuss the details, or tell us your thoughts? Then head over to this thread in the Sound Studio and Stage forum and tell us what you think!

 

 

Adrian Wall graduated from Poppyhill School of Recording in 2005, and has worked extensively as a sound engineer since then, including touring and venue FOH management, as a studio technician/consultant, and has provided award winning sound design for theatre. You can visit his web page at http://kitharodemusic.wix.com/kithara

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