Not many people think very hard about the way they listen to music. Most people plug their earphones in, fire up Spotify, and go from there. That’s OK! There’s nothing wrong with that. But there are lots of ways to make your listening experience even better.
I purchased a FiiO e05, which is a cheap, £20.99 headphone amplifier, on Amazon to see if it would make any difference to how I enjoy music.
What you may not know is that every smartphone and laptop has an amp in it already. In fact, you probably own several headphone amplifiers without realising it.
But some music fans buy specialist headphone amps because they’re designed to make your music sound great. Laptop and phone manufacturers have to cram amps into a tiny section of their product, so the sound quality and power isn’t the best that it could be. But you can buy external ones for a better experience.
I paired my little headphone amp with a pair of Sennheiser HD 280 PRO headphones. Here’s what my listening setup looked like:
The first thing you’ll notice when you plug in a specialist headphone amp is how loud it can get. If you’ve ever tried to listen to music through headphones connected to a laptop, you’ll know that it’s easy to hit maximum volume and still not have it loud enough for you. But the tiny FiiO headphone amp is super loud, and there’s no way you’re going to hit the limit.
I could hear the difference
I decided to start off with a song I knew very well: “Big Pimpin'” by Jay Z. I had a 256 kbps AAC version of it on my iTunes, which is an average recording. The first thing I noticed was the bass: it sounded much louder than normal. This was unexpected. I assumed that a headphone amplifier would generally intensify the entire song, but the bass was the only thing I could hear that was different.
I decided to try out a 320 kbps file, which is the maximum quality that iTunes can support. I fired up a Dr. Dre classic.
I could hear a slight difference in quality, and the track sounded clearer with a deeper bass. It’s tricky to describe the effect of half-decent headphones and a headphone amp, but in general it helped me to concentrate on different parts of the music more. Instruments in the background sounded clearer than when I listened without the headphone amp.
Going deep into the rabbit hole
Trying out the headphone amp got me thinking: what would happen if I try to listen to really good quality music? The music you listen to on iTunes goes up to 320 kbps, which is an OK quality for music. But it’s not the best. I searched around the internet and found a release of “Thriller” by Michael Jackson which claimed to be ultra high-definition.
The files downloaded in .dff format. I didn’t know what that was. I fired up trusty media player VLC and waited for them to load.
I waited a long time. It turns out that VLC can’t play .dff files, which was a first (it can pretty much open anything). I looked around online and found out that the album was in DSD format. Direct Stream Digital is a niche file format supported by Sony and Philips which is used for really good quality audio records. I downloaded a specialist program called VOX and used it to open “Billie Jean.”
Can you spot what shocked me? 5645 kbps! The music I had been listening to was only 320 kbps. This album was over 17 times bigger. That explains the insane file size for the album: 1.66 GB. A standard MP3 copy was around 100MB.
I stuck my headphones on, sceptical of whether it could make a difference. After five minutes of listening to DSD files I walked into the kitchen, grabbed my flatmate, and told him all about them. The difference was startling. Tracks were incredibly clear, and it felt like I was in the recording studio with MJ.
I even noticed something in “Billie Jean” that I’d never heard before: Jackson clicks his fingers a lot. Sure, I’d heard the obvious ones over the quieter parts of the song, but now I could hear him clicking his fingers along with the chorus and the rest of the song.
I downloaded a high-definition recording of Chopin’s Nocturnes. I already knew the tracks well, so this would be a good comparison. The piano sounded clearer, and I could hear the pianist breathing as he played. It was unnerving.
A different way to listen to music
Combine a decent headphone and amp setup with ridiculously high-resolution music and the experience of listening to music changes. It wasn’t something to do in the background anymore, instead it became more like watching a movie. I could concentrate on the music and notice lots of different things: Michael Jackson clicking his fingers, the pianist breathing, the drums on Dr. Dre tracks. It sounded clear, and I could focus and listen to different instruments pretty easily. If I stopped concentrating then I’d miss all those little things — just like I used to when listening to MP3s.
The headphone amp certainly made a difference to the quality of the music I heard. Things sounded clearer, louder, and bassier. That made me think about how I listened to music. I used to just fire up iTunes and Spotify and press play. Now I seek out high-resolution files where possible, and make sure that I concentrate on the music I listen to.