I love listening to music but being a bit of a geek I want my music to sound great: so I have always been willing to invest in audio equipment where the focus is on the sound that is produced and not on how it looks, or whose name is on the front. Soon after I got my first paycheck (or more correctly pay cheque) I visited an audio store in Belfast, and after several sessions and a lot of different combinations, I purchased an Arcam CD player and amplifier as well as a pair of Mission speakers. They stayed with me through Geneva, Dublin and even a change of voltage when I moved to Seattle: always producing a beautiful warm sound.
Unfortunately, several years ago, I hit a mid-life crisis which resulted in me being unfaithful: I discovered large screen TV’s and 5.1 surround sound - and so my Arcam components and the original Mission speakers were banished to storage and were replaced by a mixture of Sony, Yamaha, and a new shiny set of Mission 5.1 speakers. Listening to music was replaced by watching stuff blow up on the big screen.
Listening to music was increasingly banished to the computer - first through playing of CDs, then ripping them, but once iTunes came along the computer quickly became the tool of choice for listening to music - and as the amount of music I stored on my computer increased so did my dissatisfaction with the speakers. I was always trying to find ways to improves the sound - with very little success - most speakers that are designed for computers seem to focus first and foremost on playing games and/or watching movies - in other words stuff blowing up sounds great everything is secondary.
So over the last few years I have been following every link, reference, hint, review I can find on the Internet trying to find something that will:
1. Make my music sound better
2. Not take up a lot of shelf space (we downsized to a condo a few years ago so I don’t have room for large speakers)
3. Not cost an arm and a leg
4. If possible, look good
Well, thanks to a great website I found what I was looking for. What I have done is to combine two separate products.
The first is an external DAC (The HRT Music Streamer II USB DAC) or digital to analog converter: the music on your computer is in a digital format but your speakers require it to be in an analog form - so inside every sound card (and indeed CD player) is a DAC - unseen and usually cheap and only doing an average job. If you want great sound you need to invest in a DAC that someone has put some thought into. Luckily there are now plenty to choose from and they are (usually) small and relatively inexpensive. I ended up getting this little beauty. It plugs into a USB port and sits out sight quietly doing its job.
The second component are speakers and I must admit I feel in love with these as soon as I saw the review on Audiophilia. They just look so cool: and the focus on design even extends to the packaging – our cat loves the string that held the box together.
You can see the DAC to the left of the image above – this is before I moved it to a quiet location under my desk.
So, how to they sound? One advantage of having the DAC plugged into a USB port is that it has been trivial for me to A/B test these speakers against my current speakers – a set of Bose speakers. The first thing that I noticed was that the new new speakers sounded so much more warmer: the Bose speakers have a much thinner more metallic sound – I notice it especially on the strings. The next thing I noticed is that there is much more detail with the new setup: listening to Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach’s Goldberg Variations it really does sound like you are sitting beside him – there is a clarity of sound I didn’t have before (of course I also get to hear a lot more of this humming and muttering – I suppose you can’t have everything). The final Act of Die Walküre (Solti) on the Bose speakers sounded like they were singing in a large box and it was also much more metallic (there was also some evidence of hiss that I hadn’t heard before) on the new system it was warmer and both the brass and strings sounded much more forward (for some reason the Bose speakers seem to emphasis the singers at the expense of the orchestra). Hans Hotter has never sounded so good.
Note: I haven’t yet tried the comparison without the DAC (it would require a lot more fiddling with cables etc.) but I suspect that the Ceramic Speakers would beat Bose even without the DAC.
So, I am definitely happy with the new setup.
One final comment – this whole process was powered pretty much by Twitter: from first hearing about the products from @audiophilia to asking @JoeyRoth some questions and thanking him for the speedy delivery.
Jonathan Caves is a Microsoft employee, opera lover, wine imbiber, technology enthusiast. He blogs at Opera Geek