You’ve just bought yourself a brand new pair of headphones, and you couldn’t be more excited to use them with your favourite playlist. You’ve carefully chosen the perfect pair that fits your budget, and has the sound signature that best fits your music listening preferences, and they sound fantastic. It can be very satisfying knowing that you’ve picked the perfect headphones for yourself, and listening to your music sound so good.
However, there are a few small things you can do make the experience even better. Headphones are, after all, the final piece of a long chain between the music and your ears. To make your music listening experience even better, here are seven things you can do to upgrade your personal listening experience.
Burn-in your headphones properly
All headphones and speakers are made out of moving parts. Just like putting on a brand new pair of sneakers for the first time, headphone speakers can be very stiff when used straight out the box. At first they can sound pretty shrill, shallow and nasty. After a few hours of use, they tend to loosen up and can sound dramatically different – full bodied, cohesive and warm. This process of loosening up your headphones to get them to sound the way they should is called burning In.
To burn in your headphones properly, I usually recommend to simply leave a brand new headphone overnight playing with your smartphone at 70 percent volume. By morning, they should sound good enough for you to listen to with your favourite tracks. It’s very little effort for a significant improvement in sound quality, and should be the easiest hack for you to improve your new headphone’s sound quality.
Start listening to high-resolution music
Your headphones are only going to sound as good as your source content. Think of it this way — no matter how good your 4K TV is, it still isn’t going to make Non-HD TV channels look as good as Ultra-HD. To be concise, there is no point getting a 4K TV without having access to 4K content as well. The same thought process applies to music listening.
In today’s quest for convenience, music streaming services have become our default source for music, but most streaming services still offer music at a fraction of the quality and resolution of an audio CD. While Apple Music and Spotify premium do offer music quality that is relatively better than others, most audiophiles would usually recommend using TIDAL.
TIDAL is a streaming service that offers lossless sound quality, which means equal to or better than an actual audio CD. High resolution music is also available for purchase and download from websites such as NativeDSD.com and HDTracks.com. The most common file format for high resolution music is usually FLAC but higher resolution formats such as DSD are also conveniently available online.
For a relatively small price, the impact on the final music listening experience makes this an essential upgrade on my list. A good pair of headphones will only sound as good as the quality of the content so upgrading to high resolution music should be your first step.
Get a good DAC for your smartphone
Our smartphones have become our default source of music. The convenience of streaming an unlimited number of songs from an infinite library of music is simply unparalleled. The only problem here is that while the convenience of using your smartphone for music listening is ideal, smartphones aren’t made to sound great.
A digital to analog converter or DAC chip, is responsible for converting digital music files to an analog signal output from your phone. All phones, laptops, and really any device with a 3.5mm output would have an inbuilt DAC. Unfortunately most smartphone DACs are woefully inadequate in giving you a good quality sound output. Audiophiles who use Hi-Fi equipment would certainly use a top-quality dedicated DAC instead of using a smartphone or a laptop on its own.
My recommendation is to simply use an external DAC along with your smartphone. They connect to your phone over Bluetooth or using a USB Type-C or Lightning cable, and bypass the in-built DAC in your smartphone. The DAC is capable of playing high-resolution audio up to the highest formats, and make a very big impact on the signal going to your headphones.
Often no bigger than a USB thumb drive, hi-resolution DACs for your smartphone such as the iBasso DC02 work well on a budget. Wireless DACs that connect over Bluetooth are also affordable, with popular models such as the Shanling UP2 priced at around Rs. 5,000. For the price, the impact on sound quality is very significant, and a dedicated DAC is a ‘must have’ product for anyone looking to upgrade the sound from their headphones.
Use a high-resolution audio player
A high-resolution audio player is every audiophile’s go-to device for listening to music. A dedicated device that is designed from the ground up to give you the very best sound quality, a Hi-Res Audio player is like an iPod on steroids. These devices feature top quality in-built DACs, and a highly optimised amplifier that is capable of driving the most demanding of full sized headphones comfortably.
Most popular audio players today support all the various high-resolution file formats such as FLAC, WAV and DSD and offer extensive playlist and library management features, and can even handle high-resolution streaming with apps such as TIDAL and Spotify. They offer a significant upgrade in sound quality as compared to just using your smartphone or laptop, and boast a variety of outputs to connect to other hi-fi systems and speakers.
High-resolution audio players come in a wide variety of price points, with affordable options such as the Shanling M0 (Review) priced at around Rs. 9,000, going up to Rs. 2,50,000 for premium options such as the Astell & Kern SP2000. It’s worth your while to use any premium headphones or IEMs with a high-resolution audio player instead of a smartphone, to bring out the very best that the headphones are capable of.
Upgrade your ear tips
Got the perfect sounding earphones but find them uncomfortable to wear? Or are your earphones falling out of your ears as you rock out to your favourite music? The easiest way of fixing that is to upgrade the ear tips. Ear tips, often mistakenly called earbuds, are the soft foam or silicon based coverings at the end of the earphones that go into your ears.
Upgrading the ear tips to premium ones promise a better fit and less ear fatigue. Ear tips that fit snugly yet comfortably ensure a better seal. This means more effective noise isolation, richer sound, and earphones that don’t fall out of your ears with every movement.
Some companies specialise in only making ear tips, researching and patenting technology to create the perfect ear tips in all shapes and sizes. Comply foam ear tips are made out of memory foam that expand to take the exact shape of your ear canal and can be found starting at Rs. 399 for a pair. Spinfit ear tips, on the other hand, come with a flexible core that allows the earphone to go deeper into your ears ensuring a perfect fit and a better flow of sound.
Upgrade your cables
The 3.5mm jack has been the universal standard for plugging in headphones for a while now. While the popularity of wireless headphones has soared since smartphone brands started dropping the 3.5mm jack (looking at you, Apple), wireless headphones are still not comparable to more traditional wired headphones when it comes to sound quality.
An often neglected and very important component of any wired headset is the quality of the cable. While most audiophiles debate the price-vs-quality aspect of cables, there’s a general consensus that using good cables can make a big difference to the quality of sound. Cables are of course best suited to use with high-end headphones and earphones that come with detachable cables, and have their biggest impact when paired with a high quality DAC or Hi-Res Audio player.
Cables come in a large variety of options with different materials, each having a unique impact to the sound signature. Using copper cables can make headphones sound warm and bassy, while silver cables can make them sound sharp and analytical. Hybrid blends of metals and more exotic alloys like palladium and rhodium cables are also sought after. Upgrade cables can be affordable, such as the ddHiFi BC50B priced at Rs. 3,999, while high-end options such as the Effect Audio Thor Silver II+ cable cost Rs. 1,24,999, and work with a variety of headphones and earphones.
Use a headphone stand
You probably use your headphones all day listening to music or taking calls, enjoying the premium sound and comfortable fit. Then, you toss your headphones on your desk or worse, a random drawer, and call it a day. Just as you need a comfortable pillow to get a good night’s sleep, your headphones need a place to call their own.
Headphone stands come in all different shapes, sizes, and materials. Not only are they a great way to store your headphones, they can also show them off nicely. Some have ergonomic designs that can preserve the shape of your headphones, thus extending the life of the headband. Stands can be minimalist or over-the-top, making your headphones a statement piece in the room. Investing in a headphone stand is inexpensive and a sure-shot way to organise and show off your headphone collection.
The author of this article Raghav Somani is the founder and CEO of Headphone Zone, an online retailer and distributor of headphones and earphones in India.
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