Hifi Downsizing

My interest – and for a while, obsession – with hifi music began when I was still in school.  

Marantz Receiver
Marantz Receiver

I had been given a second-hand Marantz receiver (combined radio and amplifier), which looked very impressive, with lots of buttons and dials – but I quickly realised it didn’t really do anything on its own.

I would need to get some speakers, in order to actually hear some music. And if I wanted to listen to anything other than the radio, then I would need some other components – or separates.

So, at a time when most people were buying an all-in-one music centres or ghetto blaster, I was being indoctrinated into the world of hifi separates. The idea espoused by audiophiles was that a single-box solution was a compromise in terms of audio quality. The only way to chase the dream of true high fidelity music was to buy separate components, often from different specialist manufacturers.

And so it was, over time that I added more separates into my collection – a tape deck and a CD player – and I also replaced the second-hand receiver with a separate amplifier and tuner. However my quest for incremental improvements in audio quality wasn’t yet satisfied. To try and eke out the last drop of sound quality I would end up buying a separate DAC (digital to analogue converter) to try and improve the sound from the CD player. I would also upgrade all the interconnect cables, connect all the power sockets to a surge protector, and isolate each component from vibration on its own glass shelf.

hifiathome

Before the end of my 20s I had acquired a very impressive set up, which sounded amazing. And every time I moved house since them, over the last 15+ years or so, each separate was packed away in its original box, transported to the new location, and then faithfully reconnected at the other side. It was a labour of love to set up my hifi in each new living room, but in recent years I realised it was also a wasted effort.

With the advent of streaming services like Spotify, I had stopped buying and listening to CDs, and I didn’t even own any cassette tapes any more. Indeed for the last 2 or 3 years I had only ever used my hifi for playing back music on my phone or tablet. All my CDs had been ripped to MP3s, or the music was available on Spotify. And so everything except the amplifier and speakers fell into disuse.

Hifi Downsizing

It was earlier this year, as we were having a clear-out prior to moving out of our apartment, that I finally cut the cord (metaphorically) and got rid of the stuff I didn’t need. Gone was the tape deck for which I had no tapes. Gone was the CD player that didn’t really work properly. Gone was the DAC that never really added anything. And gone was big glass stand that it all sat upon.

I’ve kept the amplifier and speakers, as they’ll still be used – but for now they’re in storage while we live in temporary accommodation and hunt for our new house. And in the mean time, I’m making do with an old pair of shelf-mounted speakers powered by a tiny little amp called the Gemtune SA-36A. The amplifier is simplicity itself – on the front it only has an on/off switch and volume control, and on the back are sockets for speakers and a single music source – and it works perfectly with the Spotify playlists on my phone.

It’s not a true audiophile system, but for the amount of music I actually listen to at home (as opposed to the amount I imagine I will listen to), it’s good enough – and it also doesn’t take up half the room!

Gemtune SA-36A Amplifier
Gemtune SA-36A Amplifier

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.

Forbidden Fruit Sunday

Forbidden Fruit
Forbidden Fruit

We’re gathering a group together to head along to the Forbidden Fruit festival in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham on Sunday 2nd June to help celebrate Louise’s birthday. Are you going to join us?

The festival takes place over the bank holiday weekend in June, and runs from 2.00pm to 10.45pm daily. You can get a weekend pass for the Saturday and Sunday, but we’re just planning to be there on the Sunday.

Headlining on Sunday are Primal Scream and Chic (Le Freak C’est Chic!), and in the comedy tent are the genius trio Foil Arms and Hog. It should be a really good day, as long as it doesn’t lash with rain!

If you want to come along, tickets are available for €54.50 (plus booking fee).

BluAmp – HiFi Amp with Bluetooth

Have you heard of Kickstarter? It’s a crowd-funding website, whereby people can support creative projects by pledging money to help get a new product or service off the ground.

For a technology fan and early-adopter like me, it’s a great place to check out ideas for new products, and potentially get access to those gadgets ahead of the general market. And one thing that’s taking my fancy at the moment is the BluAmp – a bluetooth enabled hifi amplifier.

Picture of the BluAmp bluetooth hifi amplifier on Kickstarter
BluAmp Bluetooth Amplifier

I quite like the idea of a simple piece of hifi equipment that I could hook up to speakers, and then stream music from my MacBook/iPad/iPhone from anywhere in the room. Using wires to plug-in a device is a bit clunky and inconvenient, and so an amplifier that uses a bluetooth stream seems like a great idea.

I currently do some music streaming over wifi, using the AirPlay feature of an Airport Express, but that relies upon several different bits of technology (wifi router, airport express and hifi amp) all playing nicely together, and my experience shows they sometimes don’t.

The big draw for me about the BluAmp is its simplicity. I already have a decent pair of hifi speakers sat at home not being used, and I could plug them directly into the back of the BluAmp and have music straight away from my phone – or any other bluetooth enabled device I had to hand.

Of course, the BluAmp – or any other Kickstarter project – only gets built if it reaches its funding goal. And at the time of writing it’s only half way there, so it may not happen. But there’s another 2 weeks to go, and it looks like they only need around another 75 supporters to reach their target.

Publishing Music on iTunes

itunesA couple of years ago we decided to try and get the Mornington Singers albums available on iTunes and other online download and streaming services. If you record through a record label they can do all of that kind of thing for you, but if you self-publish your music then you need to sign up to a service like Tunecore.

For just $29 (for the first year, and $49 a year after that) you can upload your music to Tunecore, and they will distribute it for sale in all the digital music stores usually within a few days, and then collect all the sales revenue on your behalf. You can then withdraw the money you earn direct into your bank account.

The amount you earn from selling individual songs and albums seems to vary a lot, depending on which music store the buyer uses, and which country they live in. We seem to earn between $0.70-1.05 per download from iTunes, and maybe about half a cent per stream on Spotify.

Overall, it doesn’t bring a huge amount of money each year – maybe a few hundred dollars – but then again we’re selling choral music, which has a more narrow audience. However, it more than covers the costs of using the service, and earns us money with no ongoing effort. Plus it’s a great way to promote your music, and gives you a more professional image.