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Portable Audio Lessons Learned - Upgrade Priorities

post #1 of 24
Thread Starter 
Hi,
I have not really posted around here, but taken up a lot of learnings and insights from this fabulous forums. Time to give something back I reckon.

As I was very unsure where to start I would like to share my experience in what matters more and what less if you want to get a great sounding portable rig. The below is ranked by priority, so I recommend to move through this list from top to bottom.

1. HIGH QUALITY FILES
Before you even worry about which gear to buy just make sure you have the best possible quality for your music files. You might not hear all the difference with your first set and discard this as an issue of lower priority, but believe me - as soon as your gear becomes sufficiently good - you WILL hear a difference. And the difference is there. And most of all it is virtually for free.
So rip your music in the best possible quality (ideally something like EAC), save it as lossless files (that gives you the possibility to later convert to any lossy file-type you wish and need) and then convert to the highest bitrate you can accomodate on your player (best universal software for those matters: DBPowerAmp).
My ears can tell a difference between all mp3 bit-rates up to 320kbit/s. However, I can hardly tell a difference between 320 and FLAC on my portable rig. As a minimum I would go for 192 or even 256. If you are below that do not waste your money on things like expensive headphones, portable amps etc.
Ah, and disable all those awful things like EQ, soundcheck etc. They kill good sound.

2. GOOD SOURCE
Now that is a chapter where I actually know little about
I have always just used an iPod, first a 5.5Gen 30gb video now the 160gb. I simply chose them because I want the maximum available space for my files. Not only because of quality, but because I just want to have as much music with me as possible rather than thinking of what I want every day I leave the house. Equally the wait to completely re-load the 30gb of my first iPod with new music was endless....
But actually this point is about quality. And this is a general experience I had in home based hifi gear: the source is essential. As they say, what is lost there cannot be recovered.
Just that I do not know of any other player than the iPod that offers me around 160gb... but if you do not need that much there is lots of choice.
I am still waiting (and saving) for the 128gb iPod Touch... that should should better the harddisk based 160gb iPod.

2. GOOD QUALITY HEADPHONES / IN-EAR PHONES
The headphones have the largest impact on the quality and character of the sound. This is very much the same as with speakers in home audio systems. Of course all other elements of the chain matter, but in comparison the differences are smaller. So dump those cheap phones that came with the player and invest at least the equivalent of Euro 50,- into good headphones. I would move up to recommend spending up to around Euro 200,- on phones before even thinking of amps and the like.
I started with Etymotics ER4 and they were great (though very bright). Then moved to Shure E4Cs, then Shure SE530, then had custom moulds done for them. And now wait for my Westone 3s... Each step so far was a significant change, mostly an improvement.
I heartily recommend in-ear monitors if only for the simple reason that they provide isolation from noise around you. If you hear less of the train noise / airplane engines / etc. you hear more of your music and will keep volumes lower - which is good for your ears.

3. PORTABLE AMP
Yes, they do make a difference on sound quality, but - at least with my Shure SE530 - I need to say that their contribution is rather small. My first amp was the RSA Tomahawk, but honestly I have difficulty justifying its existence. The RSA Hornet M is a marked step up for my ears - giving greater musicality, natural timbre and warmth over the headphone-out of the iPod.
But is it worth the money and the extra bulky block of aluminium? It is for me, but as their impact is smaller I could not make a universal recommendation.

4. LINE OUT DOCK (LOD)
If you have an amp you should certainly go for a line-out dock. That is a cable that connects the regular line-out of your player with the amplifier. Othewise, connecting from the headphone-out of your player still leaves the lower quality internal amp of your player in the path, which kind of defeats the purpose of an extra amp.
Fine, but does it pay off to spend 100 / 200... on these cables?
I have serious doubts. Again, of course there is a sound difference. I can hear a difference between my ALO Mini Cryo Dock and my recently acquired Qables Silvercab Pro, but the difference is not enormous. But most of all the return on this investment or 'bang for the buck' is rather poor.
Generally it evades me how ALO and other can charge these absurd sums of money for pretty basic cables. Already in home hifi/high-end there are absurd claims and prices around, but there we talk of cables many times the length, material value and complexity of these little bits of wire with cheap terminations...

5. BATTERIES
In a home set-up the quality of power supply is one of the key first things to get sorted, but in the case of portable amps do not worry much about which batteries to get. Quite some threads around here on that matter. In my experience there is a difference in sound quality, but you have to listen VERY closely! Just forget about and get environmentally friendly rechargeables.

have fun & enjoy the music
post #2 of 24
this reminds me that i have to get some better source files...I have some pretty low bitrate mp3's.
post #3 of 24
I agree with your assessment overall, but I think that in some cases adjusting the EQ (when you've done everything else you can to improve quality) can help you achieve a sound signature closer to the one you want for personal listening.

Granted, others will disagree with me here, but I'm personally not going to sacrifice enjoyment for the sake of "purity", or whatever the reasoning is.

Let me make a strong disclaimer by saying that EQ should never be used when reviewing a particular IEM. If the IEM is crap without EQ, then it should be reviewed as such. If you think it sounds good, or even phenomenally better with EQ (see: Super.fi 5 EB), say so, but listening with EQ shouldn't be the basis for a review under any circumstances, in my opinion.
post #4 of 24
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post #5 of 24
A source only sounds as good as the phones spitting it out. Most sources are at least respectable and take far less away from the sound compared to a good source than earbuds do compared to UE11s. Same goes for music files - 128kbit is on the low side, but it takes away much less than cheap earbuds. I would personally rank headphones/IEMs as #1, since they are almost always the biggest bottleneck. Only when you have good headphones/IEMs do the source and files become bottlenecks.
post #6 of 24
Ya, headphones come before files. Files come before source as long as your source is not utter garbage...but since this is head-fi, nothing here is utter garbage =).
post #7 of 24
Good informative post especially for newbies!
post #8 of 24
Quote:
Originally Posted by MaloS View Post
Ya, headphones come before files. Files come before source as long as your source is not utter garbage...but since this is head-fi, nothing here is utter garbage =).
not quite because without good files your cans will sound like crap so I understand his theology there... everything starts with the files and without everything else will hurt
post #9 of 24
But you have to have good cans before you can tell the difference between files. Thus, cans/IEMs come first.
post #10 of 24
well if you get good cans and bad files sound like crud there is no purpose in getting the nice cans in the first place
post #11 of 24
which is why after getting the cans you get decent files. but there is absolutely no point in getting decent files if the cans/IEMs you have will show no difference.
post #12 of 24
Quote:
Originally Posted by TacticalPenguin View Post
But you have to have good cans before you can tell the difference between files. Thus, cans/IEMs come first.
Counter-argument: If you're reading this on Head-Fi, you either have or will soon have cans which expose the faults in your source files.

Of course, if you're into budget-fi, this whole thread means nothing to you anyway. Dirty self-depriving grinches.

EDIT: Actually, files and cans should be on a sliding scale of importance if you want to get technical. The better your cans, the better the source files have to be in order to get the best sound quality. Yarr.
post #13 of 24
yes and also to counter his comment from before I can tell the difference between 128 and 256 bit on ipod buds therefore you don't need good cans to hear a difference it the quality of audio files
post #14 of 24
I tend to agree that headphones come first and that it soon exposes the quality level (or lack of) of the source. The source is perhpaps the most important, but most often overlooked component of any system. Speakers and power first, then source. Sources get less respect.
post #15 of 24
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