I was always under the impression that I had an audiophile worthy setup especially considering that I’ve spent upwards of $300 on headphones like Beats by Dre or Skull Candy. I was wrong and this is why you should care.
Audiophiles are an exclusive group of ultra geeks who run around in pseudo high school cliques and brush up their brows when a newbie comes along. I could easier ask for spare change from a New Yorker on the subway than I could get questions answered about hooking up a high end headphone to my Macbook Pro.
Then I stumbled on ALO Audio‘s website which specializes in audiophile equipment but whose storefront is clearly designed for people like me. It has pretty photos of hipsters wearing the various pieces of equipment and a “get that look” section which tells you what you need to buy.
My goal was to hook up a pair of high-end headphones to my Retina Macbook Pro. I listen to Apple Lossless music files and watch a lot of movies on my notebook and I wanted superb audio.
But my headphones are great, why do I need more?
Have you ever listened to a $1500 pair of headphones? Until recently, I’ve never had that opportunity. There are apparently audio meet ups where you can sample them, but I’m not part of the clique, so that option was out. I was going to have to trust the word from various reviewers who spouted gospel about the quality of great headphones.
In order for me to achieve a great notebook to headphone audio setup I was going to need several components. A DAC (digital to analog converter), an AMP, headphones and cables to connect them all together.
I decided to start with a mid range Sennheiser HD650 headphone. I paired that with an FIIO E17 amplifier/DAC and a set of custom headphone cables from ALO audio.
Middle of the road setup
- Headphones: Sennheiser HD650 $450
- Cables: ALO Audio custom SXC $399
- DAC/AMP: FIIO E17 $249
I received the headphones and cables first and proceeded to plugin them straight into my notebook. The first thing I noticed right off the bat is how comfortable the headphones are, I could literally wear them all day. The headphones fit over my ear, they don’t rest on it, so they feel light and airy. The pads are a super soft felt and stay cool against my face.
I loaded up a few of my favorite tracks and immediately noticed a difference. “Holy shit, these sound great!”
Reviewers of audio equipment have a tough task, they need to summarize the quality of sound they hear coming from their cans which honestly for me is really hard. They use terms like soundstage and dynamics which to a non-audiophile means about as much as synergy does to a luddite. To me, this setup was easily worth the expense and I can clearly hear the difference between this middle of the road configuration and my previous so called high-end configuration.
Computer manufacturers in an effort to make your computer reasonably priced do not use top of the line audio equipment. Take for example the DAC inside your computer. This is one of the first things I’d recommend upgrading and will make a significant difference in the quality of the output.
By replacing the internal DAC with my E17 I had upgraded the sound giving my headphones much more to work with.
After a few months of listening I started getting curious about what a high-end audiophile setup would sound like. I found myself browsing ALO’s website again and wondering about the Sennheiser HD800 headphones which is the bar which all other headphones are measured.
High end setup
- Headphones: Sennheiser HD800 $1500
- Cables: ALO Audio custom SXC $399
- DAC: DacPort LX $399
- AMP: ALO Audio RX MK-3B $649
Clearly this setup is a lot more expensive, but it is considered to be one of the best possible sound experiences for your portable computer. While you might’ve heard a live track from Dave Matthews Band hundreds of times, when you first listen through your upgraded setup, you’ll hear things you’ve never heard before. Its like these new details were added to the music and it just blows you away.
The high-end setup is clearly better than the middle of the road setup. I didn’t think I’d notice that much of a difference, but I did. More details, richer sound, a bigger soundstage, just a hell of a lot of ear candy.
I’m not recommending that you run out and spend a boat load of money on upgraded audio equipment, for me this was more of an experiment (albeit an expensive one.) My music collection feels new to me, I look forward to alone time where i can put on my cans, and slip into a magical state where my mind drifts with the sounds floating in the clouds and not wanting to come back down.