Improved music while you work

Sometimes in the office I find it helpful to listen to music. Simply the process of putting on a pair of headphones helps me zone out of the distractions of the office, and concentrate better on the task in hand.

My problem was that I wasn’t convinced the quality of music produced by the work laptop, and so I tried to see what I could do to improve the sound quality.

High Quality Streaming

The first thing was to ensure the source of the music was as good as it could be. There are music services like Tidal that offer lossless audio – but they charge double the price of other streaming services, and its debatable whether you can tell the difference unless you have very high-end audio equipment.

I use the Spotify premium service, and they offer a high quality streaming option in their desktop app (see Edit->Preferences). The high quality option doubles the bit rate from 160 kbps to 320 kbps, which should improve the quality of the music.

Better Headphones

Music through a €5 pair of ear-buds is never going to sound as good as through a €500 pair of audiophile headphones. But again, there’s a balance to be made here – and a law of diminishing returns. As you spend more, the incremental improvements get smaller and smaller. As such, I’d say don’t spend over €200 for headphones in a noisy office environment.

When buying new headphones, you’re looking for good noise isolation. You don’t want your music interrupted by the conversation across the room, and similarly you don’t want your music to leak out and annoy your colleagues. Look for closed (or closed back) headphones to avoid noise leakage.

For very noisy offices, you might want to consider noise-cancelling headphones, which alter the audio to try and actively block out ambient noise. They are useful if you do a lot of air travel, as they are designed to block out low frequencies (such as airplane engine noise) – but there are disadvantages to using them. They are often more bulky, they need battery power to operate, and the noise-cancelling effect can reduce the audio quality.

Bulldog clip providing a handy place to hang the headphones
Bulldog clip providing a handy place to hang the headphones

External DAC

Once you have a good quality source of music, and good quality headphones, the only thing that can let down the music is the thing that sits in the middle – the computer. The headphones socket of your PC can often let you down in terms of sound quality, and an external DAC (Digital to Analogue Converter) will go a long way to improve the quality.

I have a DacMagic XS which has provided me with a noticeable improvement in sound quality. It’s tiny – smaller than a matchbox – and plugs into one of the USB ports of the laptop. I then plug my headphones in the other end. It’s small enough to look unobtrusive on my desk, and can also be used to improve the sound output of a smartphone or tablet.

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