Tips on How to Improve Audio Quality in Headphones

In BestXpot, we write the sound. We also live it. This time we wanted to show you some tricks to improve the audio quality of your headphones. For this reason, we have written this little guide with four ways to improve the sound quality of your headphones. You can try one, several, or all the options at the same time. This way you will improve the sound quality of your music headphones and enjoy a brutal experience when listening to a song, watching a movie, or playing a video game. Are you ready?

Improve your music quality

If the raw material is not good, it is difficult to get a dish from a Michelin restaurant. The same thing happens in the world of audio: if the format of your music files is of low quality, then don’t ask Elm for pears. The quality of your music files is the basis of what in the world of sound is known as the signal chain. This term essentially refers to the path that audio takes from when it is created until it enters our ears. The signal chain comprises both software and hardware that convert audio into sound waves that we can hear. If we want to perceive good audio in our headphones we have to have a strong signal chain. It means that every member of the chain, every piece of equipment and program that we use, will have to have decent quality. This also includes the music that we are going to play. If we play poor quality audio files it will not matter if you have the best headphones or best speakers on the market. To create a good audio experience through our headphones, we must start at the beginning: play files with good compression.

The music that we find on vinyl records or CDs is of excellent quality, superior to most of the files that we will find in our digital library. The issue is that today almost all of us give a lot to digital audio files, either using an online playback platform, or files saved on our hard drives or players. These can come in highly compressed formats that sacrifice audio quality so they take up less space when saving.

We must take into account the compression format in which the files that we are going to use are located. In this report, we update you on the most important audio formats. Obtaining a good compression quality is not very complicated. We can do two things: import our music without low-quality compression (the import options of most players will not have problems when playing good quality files), or, on the other hand, start listening to high-quality broadcasts. The easiest way to do the latter is to subscribe to a service like Spotify or Tidal. Its premium versions cost little and offer various levels of quality when it comes to playback, all of which are good.

Tidal is probably the best service in terms of sound quality. At its highest quality option, called Tidal HiFi, it offers 16-bit / 44 FLAC audio files, which is very good indeed. Spotify, on the other hand, is somewhat cheaper, and while it doesn’t offer as good audio as the Tidal HiFi, its options are also very solid. It has 320kbps Ogg Vorbis files. There are also other services, such as Apple Music, although from our point of view they are not as good as those mentioned above.


Get a DAC

The next member of the signal chain is something that is already built into all digital players: an analog-digital converter, or DAC. Before sound enters our ears, it exists only in digital form: the zeros and ones that contain the information in an audio file. The DAC is responsible for converting this digital data to analog. It is like a translator that converts digital information into real sound. Every computer, phone, or tablet comes with a built-in DAC.

The point is that most of the DACs that are already installed at the factory, especially in computers, smartphones, and players, are of poor quality. They work, but they don’t provide impressive sound. If you want to increase the audio quality of your headphones, the next step is to get an external DAC, which will bypass the internal analog-digital converter of the devices we have, to work through this specialized external unit.

Most external DACs are in the form of a small box that connects, for example, via USB. Although it is possible to find large units that cost thousands of dollars, we can get small, inexpensive units and also of high quality. The controls are usually simple, usually integrating an on / off switch and volume control. They also have different ports for connection. Normally, although not always, we can connect our headphones directly to an external DAC.

In general, a DAC is a simple and easily connected device that instantly increases the quality of the audio we hear. We can get very cheap units, like the Fiio A1, for about 35 USD. You can check out our article on the best DACs on the market if you want to see an in-depth review of this or other analog-digital converters.

headphone amp

Increasing the resolution of our audio files and adding a quality DAC are elements that will considerably improve our signal chain. But it is not the only thing you can do. Playing the audio through a headphone amplifier will give you superior quality. In general, an amplifier performs two things: increase the power of our audio, allowing us to obtain greater clarity in low volumes, comparable to the best headphones market. And on the other hand, add textures and deepen the sound.

There are a few factors to consider when choosing a headphone amplifier. First, they are designed in three formats: tube, solid-state, and tube / solid hybrid amplifiers. Tube amplifiers handle the audio signal through a vacuum glass tube that burns electrons from a special plate to transmit sound. By doing this, it gives the audio a very distinctive quality: it feels long and warm, with slight distortion. Solid-state amplifiers, on the other hand, don’t have the same warmth, but they do improve the level of sonic precision. Tube amps can be expensive, although we can find some inexpensive ones. They may not be for everyone, given their specific sound profile, which is why solid-state amps are more popular.

Another thing to know is that each amplifier circuit integrates two things: a preamplifier and a power amplifier. Every audio signal, even after going through a DAC, is poorly fed, and part of the amplifier’s job is to bring it up to a level where we can hear it, amplify it. The preamp handles changes between audio sources and increases the signal gain, just enough that the amplifier can get it and turn up the voltage gain. The good news is that you don’t have to buy two different pieces of equipment. Most amplifiers, especially those designed to improve the audio quality of our headphones, are known as integrated amplifiers. These contain the preamp and power amp circuits. 


Upgrade your headphones

As for the purchase of headphones, we can find very expensive models (even thousands of dollars) such as the Audeze LCD-2, which provide a very cool sound and cover a wide range of frequencies. However, if we choose well we can find a good quality pair of headphones for a decent price. You can find many options among our articles, some of them are very cheap and offer great sound quality.

As with amplifiers, there are a few things to keep in mind when choosing good headphones. The first is the difference between closed or open headphones (closed-back / open-back). This refers to the outside of the headphone cups. The closed models have superior sound isolation, the people around you will not be able to hear what you hear, even when using high volumes. They are also generally cheaper than open models, which provide different sound characteristics by allowing more air intake. These have a lot of depth in the sound range, although they are poor at isolating the sound.

It also makes sense to choose noise-canceling headphones or wireless headphones. If we travel a lot, these can be perfect options. These headphones will almost always be closed, and this does not mean that the audio is poorer. Also, in the case of noise-canceling headphones, they will come with their own built-in amplifier. In this case, you won’t have to worry about additional amplifiers or DACs.

It is also worth knowing the differences between the types of drivers. A driver is essentially the part of the speaker inside each ear cup that produces sound. Dynamic drivers are the cheapest and most common, planar magnetic ones sound better and are larger and more expensive, while electro-static drivers cost a lot and require special amplifiers to use them.

It is difficult to make a simple table to choose the ideal headphones, but we can adhere to some basic principles according to the use that we are going to give them. If we listen to the majority of the music at our desk and we have some money to spend, HiFi headphones for it may be a good choice. If we travel a lot, we can opt for models with dynamic, wireless, and noise-canceling drivers. If we listen to music at home, around other people, a closed model, with a dynamic driver and wiring can be ideal.

Now, we might think that we need to spend a lot of money to get a good pair of headphones, but it is not true. If you want a good pair of headphones to use at home or on the go, with wireless connectivity, you can consider the Plantronics BackBeat Pro 2 . They are sturdy, comfortable, and have easy-to-use controls. They come with NFC capability, for fast syncing with source devices, as well as highly effective noise cancellation technology. They provide an excellent wireless connection range and a high-performance battery. They have a price of around $180. If you have a smaller budget, the Avantree Bluetooth headphones are another excellent option. They have a 40-hour battery life, good sound quality, and a durable and comfortable design. They also have NFC and aptX technologies. 

We also have to talk about how to put our headphones together with amplifiers. This process is not complicated at all, although we have to know the impedance term. Impedance means the amount of electrical resistance that a piece of equipment has. This is expressed in ohms (Ω). Before connecting a pair of headphones to an amplifier, we must look for the impedance capacity of the headphones. This will appear both on the website of the production company and in the user manual of the helmets. We must first check if the amplifier is capable of supporting the indicated capacity. Most headphone amps, however, can handle any headphone capacity, so this is not a problem.

A practical example

You may think that getting the entire chain that we have been talking about can be quite expensive, but it is not like that. First of all: we can join Spotify Premium for only 9 dollars per month. If we reproduce through our computer we can connect an external DAC to it. The Optoma Nuforce DAC seems like a good value for money option. This is a great-sounding, high-performance DAC at a very fair price. Another option is to go directly for the Fiio e10k, which costs about $75 and is a DAC / Amplifier. Finally, if we buy some Plantronics Backbeat Pro 2, ideal for most occasions, we will have a complete sound chain of high quality.

You can review these lists about the: best DACs on the market, noise-canceling headphones, turntables, headphones for tv, and the best Bluetooth codecs, to obtain more information when choosing a member of the aforementioned sound chain. We wrote a separate article with in-depth reviews on the best options among headphone amps, suitable for different situations and budgets, so we recommend checking out our page. Meanwhile, we leave you with a video about the different cables that we can use to connect our headphones.

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