Click to view our Accessibility Statement or contact us with accessibility-related questions

Audiophile 101: Essential Gear Overview

more_vert
search


Image credit @zhugunic https://drop.com/talk/67372/gl-2-k Do I need an amp? What are these acronyms like DAC, DSP, or DSD? What even are all the components that make up an audio chain? Let’s take a beginner’s look at the core, essential building blocks of a digital audio chain, and lay it plain what each piece does. We can cover the major pieces separately, but I’ll still include a few tips to optimize playback here. Please hit the little bookmark button and feel free to check and share this guide whenever you need a reference! For people who need a visual and audible explanation, or are worried it would take too long to get a working knowledge of the audio chain, here is my YouTube video on this subject that is just 7 minutes long!  I like writing though, so let’s get started with an overview, then break it down into what each piece does and how an upgrade would benefit the final sound quality. Signal Path
search
Image credit @SpeleoFool https://drop.com/talk/30183/when-you-spend-all-your-on-your-dap In the order that your music takes through your system, digital audio starts with the type of storage file. The files are stored or streamed to a Player, Digital Signal Processing (DSP) is applied, then the digital audio is sent to a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) which then creates an analog output; the analog signal is then amplified to proper power requirements for headphones or speakers, which then have an electrically controlled “motor” called a transducer or driver which vibrates and causes pressure waves in the air — sound! Phew! Each of these pieces is present in EVERY digital audio playback system, and each piece can be a discrete, separate piece of gear, or their functions are combined and integrated inside one piece of equipment. A laptop with headphone jack includes the storage/internet access to retrieve audio files, the playback software which also usually has DSP options, and the DAC and amp are tiny things integrated directly into the motherboard or logic board. A smartphone dongle contains a DAC and Amp. A bluetooth headphone or true wireless earbuds actually contain basic playback software, DSP, a DAC, and an amp inside!  So, what does each piece do, and what are the benefits from upgrading each component? Let's expand a bit on each component of the audio chain, again in order from start to finish. Audio Files (not audiophiles)
search
Image credit @livingspeedbump https://drop.com/buy/massdrop-x-nuforce-edc3-in-ear-monitors/talk/1978073 There are many Acronyms at the start here with audio file types. MP3 is familiar (Origin: Motion Pictures Experts Group + Audio Layer 3), and so should be AAC (Advanced Audio Coding, it’s basically MPEG-4 audio) and FLAC (Free Lossless Audio Codec). These are all ways of encoding audio data and there are many more not described here, but AAC and MP3 are common lossy compression formats that are small for storage, streaming, and less of a load to decode for playback control and battery drain; FLAC is lossless compression that can be at CD-quality or going past that to HiRes (High resolution). We can create a follow up article if we want to have a 101 level look at coding formats (including DSD… Direct Stream Digital, which is its own ball of wax!). If you’re using Bluetooth, you may notice that AAC is also very commonly used to stream, so unlike other formats it doesn’t need to be re-encoded. Playback Next, there’s the playback software. Have you ever used iTunes, Spotify, Foobar, VLC, or downloaded other “music software” to play music? This software catalogs and retrieves the music files, decides the order to play the audio and gives the user controls over the playback, and finally decodes and decompresses all the different storage formats into Pulse-Code Modulation (PCM), which is the data that describes the pulses of sound vibrations in computer bite-size slices. Premium playback software, like Roon, offers nice extra features like the backstories of songs, albums, band bios, reviews, and other listening suggestions and music discovery. Signal Processing Players perform Digital Signal Processing (DSP) functions… like Digital Equalization, Spatial Audio, digital volume control, upsampling, and other effects, but this can also be a stand alone component as well that adds additional effects to PCM audio. This can be an app, an audio card that is slotted into your computer similar to a graphics card, or even a stand-alone unit that sits in its own box. A really good DSP can add effects like help music volume sound more dynamic, prevent different music tracks from sounding louder or quieter than the last song, add or decrease emphasis to different music tones to add fun or reduce fatigue, or even make headphones sound like surround-sound speakers or give a holographic sense of a musician singing in front of you instead of emanating from somewhere between your ears! Similar to DSP, you can also apply Equalization (EQ) or crossfeed (feeding some of the left and right ear signals to reach both ears) to an analog signal, but once the signal is analog it’s not digital processing! Digital to Analog Conversion
search
Image credit @NinjaPirate https://drop.com/talk/24740/photo Next, the PCM audio is continuously streamed to the Digital to Analog Converter (DAC). DACs have firmware built in to change the jagged steps of digital audio into smooth continuous analog sine waves using scientific theory, and emitting that analog as pulses of electrical power with different strength and rhythm. This is a computational process, so it improves as the software and filtering techniques improve, and the analog half is better when it’s shielded from interference and noise that changes the signal. Better DACs more accurately and precisely recreate the analog signal (and protect that analog signal) so songs sound clearer, present better separation of notes, more natural/less digital due to less errors and smearing of fine details. Sharper focus and clarity here helps reveal spatial cues from the recording and help a speaker or headphone reach more of its soundstage and imaging potential (size and direction of the musical performance space). I have found that nicer DACs are also less fatiguing on long listening sessions (at moderate listening volumes). Amplifier
search

Image Credit @Hemini https://drop.com/talk/32509/runs-warm Next up, it’s the amplifier (also known as an amp)! There can be a pre-amp, which boosts the analog signal to the 2 Volt “line level” so that the signal doesn’t sound weak and anemic, and it does so with the best possible signal to noise ratio (lowest distortion). Some preamplifiers include analog EQ tone controls. After that, there is the power amp, which sets the signal level to whatever is appropriate to reach the desired output volume on your speakers or headphones. Most headphone amps are “Integrated Amplifiers,” meaning they are both pre and power amps at the same time, and usually have low enough distortion that you could use them as pre-amps with a speaker’s power amp. Different amps have different distortion profiles, as well as electrical interference shielding and hopefully a nice power supply to provide clarity and focus, as also mentioned in the analog section of a DAC. Some types of distortion are pleasant and make music more pleasurable or exciting, while some amps have vanishingly low distortion, and an amp that is too weak will sound anemic and have a strange unnatural timbre (“the character or quality of a musical sound or voice as distinct from its pitch and intensity,” New Oxford American Dictionary), as well as compressing the volume range and seeming to hit a “ceiling” for how loud the loudest sounds can get. Not all headphones need a more powerful amp for proper volume, but a clearer amp with a “blacker” quieter noise background benefits any headphone! Speakers
search

Image Credit @mrsallee https://drop.com/talk/88486/schiit-modi-dac-thx-aaa-one-amp-pre-sonus-eris-e-5 At the end of the signal chain are the speakers! Whether they be floorstanding loudspeakers or tiny in-ear headphone speakers, they feed the pulses of analog power through an electromagnet to push, pull, or flex some kind of transducer or membrane back and forth to create vibrations in the air, eventually reaching our ears. As evident by the many models sold on Drop, these can be designed to suit different tuning tastes, ergonomics, environments (such as closed Headphones to prevent sound from leaking in or out), amplification requirements, and of course offer different levels of performance in unmasking detail, separating sounds (often described as more “air” between instruments and notes), and giving the listener a sense of space. Many of these attributes are perceptible in speakers as well, though speakers additionally vary in their ability to “fill a room” with sound, and the room’s walls become just as much part of the sound reproduction as a horn around a speaker. Cables and Connections
search

Image Credit @Haulien https://drop.com/talk/24612/photo Lastly, there are all the interconnections between these components, the links in the audio chain. I didn’t forget cables! For digital interconnects, there are optical cables, coaxial (coax) cables, BNC connector cables, USB cables, I2S cables (they look like HDMI cables, definitely worth putting a label on them), and even the copper traces embedded in computer silicon to connect internal components. Analog cables can be single-ended or balanced (which we can discuss more in an article about amplifiers!). Single ended cables can be terminated with RCA plugs, 1/4 inch or 6.5mm plugs commonly seen on studio headphones or guitars, 1/8 inch or 3.5mm plugs commonly seen on portable headphones and headsets, XLR3 for single-ended connections or XLR4 for balanced, and also 4.4mm Pentaconn or 2.5mm plugs for balanced; speakers often connect with banana plugs, spades, or bare wire! Balanced connections need 4 connection surfaces like the 4 pins on an XLR4 connector or the tip - ring - ring - sleeve (TRRS) segments of a Pentaconn connector, while Single Ended connectors only need three connection points: one for feeding the right channel, one for left channel, and then the circuit is completed by summing the positive connections into a single common ground connection. Whether digital or analog cables, all metal cables send signals using pulses of electricity that surge and ebb (with optical being the notable exception, which has a red light brighten and dim rapidly along a fiber or glass optic cable like a really thick lens). High school physics teaches us that electricity and magnetism are dimensions of the same thing; all electric currents create magnetic fields, and wires act as antennas, so they must be shielded from other signals and can interfere with each other to some extent. Audible upgrades from cables is definitely worth a separate 101 article to clear up what cables can and cannot do, but it suffices to say here that you need the right cables to connect your components, and picking cables that are up to specification standards is not expensive but can be beneficial. It's also worth mentioning wireless connections. These include Bluetooth, Wi-Fi, and proprietary infrared and 2.4 gHz radio transmission! Bluetooth can be conveniently tangle-free and extend further than would be practical with wire, but the codecs and technology used for Bluetooth have improved substantially with each passing year. Not only can Bluetooth carry the full quality of Spotify, we now have codecs supporting near CD-quality levels of information! Check out my article where I argue that the time of quality bluetooth is finally here! WiFi and 2.4 gHz wireless use more power, but also can stream HiRes FLAC, and can be better optimized for gamers with low latency and quality chat audio. Analog-Only
search

Image Credit @kgebhardtdesign https://drop.com/talk/122676/fantastic-turntable An all-analog setup skips the DAC and everything before it. Sound waves are stored in vinyl grooves or on magnetic tape, and converted into electrical signals by either a turntable or tape player; in the case of the turntable it is followed by a special pre-amp called a Phono amplifier. The Phono amps the electrical signal up to line level, but it also applies an analog EQ called the RIAA Curve. The Recording Industry Association of America created this standardized curve to improve sound quality, permit longer recording times to fit on a platter (because otherwise bass tones would need to be really wide cuts into the vinyl), and reduce the wear and tear from vinyl playback. This EQ had to be an industry standard, so that a phono could be used with any turntable or vinyl from any record label, but the Phono itself is subject to all the same performance upgrades possible with any other amp. More to Come Whether you use an all-in-one combo or are planning a series of upgrades to your system, I sincerely hope that this article laid a good foundation for what goes into an audio chain. A big thanks to everyone who posted some fantastic customer images! Again, bookmark this in case it comes in handy as a future reference, share it if you think it would answer someone’s question, and leave a comment or question if you want me to shine a light on something as I write future articles expanding on each individual component. As I wrote on Head-Fi a dozen years ago, I’m still learning new things, but I’m happy to make use of what I’ve learned to give audio enthusiasts a shortcut to working knowledge!
(Edited by moderator jsonjason)
Vote
10
remove_red_eye
31.1K

search
close
dm94aq7
0
Jul 5, 2023
@Evshrug When is Drop going to address the constant spam instead of writing community articles? Spam posts stay up for weeks, Drop employees are lazy as hell.
dm94aq7Drop is a big enough store to become a target; it’s not my job but I flag the spam I see and the site admins clean it up pretty fast. I’m sure they appreciate the help.
TravellingJay
10
Mar 24, 2023
Enjoyed the article. One follow up question: When is a pre-amp necessary in a chain with headphones? I'm using Hifiman HE-X4 planars plugged directly into a laptop and it sounds fine - actually, better than fine...pretty dang good in an admittedly low end entry level set up. Is there an edge missing without a pre-amp, either SS or tube?
TravellingJayA pre-amp can be used to raise the volume to 2 Volts (for line-level power), to adjust volume, or to add a coloration such as EQ or the euphoric effects of some tubes. A headphone amp basically would be serving as a pre-amp. In fact, some people use headphone amps as pre-amps for active speakers, because headphones have much higher sensitivity than speakers and thus the headphone amps typically have really low noise. I wish I had heard the HE-4x specifically, but I have heard the HE-4xx, 400i, and 400, and all of those had richer timbre and more enjoyable mids with a discrete headphone amp. If you’re happy now, I’d say a discrete headphone amp is a want rather than a need, but it should also provide a nice upgrade if you ever want to try an amp, and that amp will probably be nice to have if you explore other headphones too.
(Edited)
TravellingJay
10
Mar 24, 2023
EvshrugThanks!
(Edited)
timwat
8
Mar 22, 2023
Some great stuff, very well laid out. From my anecdotal experience as a professional musician and recovering audiophile, it seems to me the one element that makes the most significant difference to the listening experience is your choice of transducer - your speakers. Choose wisely, and realize at the higher end of things, your choice of speaker may dictate the best options further upstream (for example, choosing large format planars like Magnepans will dictate amplifier choices). Also, folks often underestimate the impact of the listening room itself upon the entire experience. But Drop doesn't sell room treatments, so it is left to the discriminating listener to DIY their research on that topic.
timwatYes, system synergy can really make a difference, thus it makes sense to start planning based on the “end” of your audio chain and work your way back. I would argue that the end of the audio chain (apart from your ears) is the room or space you’re listening in… which is why I mentioned it in the Speakers section! If you’ve got a tiny box room, it’s probably better to use small nearfield speakers than getting big floorstanding loudspeakers. And if you can’t treat the room (or you share a wall with other people) it might be best to consider open or closed headphones before setting up the rest of the chain! However, people can start with simple setups and upgrade parts of their chain over time. People may start with an HD 6xx + Apple Dongle + smartphone, and those will contain all the parts people need to start hearing music, video audio, games, etc. But if someone wants better focused clarity and tighter punchier bass, hopefully this article will help guide them towards possible areas to focus on.
timwatAlso, I’m still experimenting with room treatments myself… I only just moved out of apartment living and speakers have become a viable option. I’m hoping to self-produce a video about DIY room treatments really soon/next, starting with dirt cheap options because I have a super low “fun funds” budget 😂
PRODUCTS YOU MAY LIKE
Trending Posts in Audiophile