While Macs have better audio playback than most PCs, they still don’t compare to even a basic Hi-Fi setup. The problem is that, for most people, the days of having a dedicated audio setup are gone. It’s just easier to use a computer.
If you’re someone who cares about sound quality but doesn’t have the inclination, money, time or space to set up a Hi-Fi, then you need to take steps to make sure the sound you’re getting out of a Mac is the best it can be. In this tutorial I look at how to do just that.
Use High Quality Files
It doesn’t matter how good the audio gear is, if the files you’re playing are bad, the music is going to sound bad. GIGO: Garbage in, garbage out. Sorting out the files you are playing is the most important step.
Music files, like all digital files, can be compressed. In order to save bandwidth and storage space, the original file is analysed and data selectively thrown away. You’re left with a file that sounds almost like the original but is a fraction of the size. The more a file is compressed, the more data is lost.
There’re two kinds of compressed music files: lossless files like FLAC or Apple Lossless, and lossy files which are normally MP3s.
A lossless file is indistinguishable from the original while lossy files range from high quality 320 kb/s MP3s that sound almost perfect to 92 kb/s ones with audible compression artefacts.
Although lossless files obviously offer better quality, there are some drawbacks. First, most people can’t tell the difference between a lossless file and a high quality lossy one. I’m a huge audio fan and even with good equipment I just can’t reliably hear a difference between a good 320 kb/s MP3 and a FLAC file of the same song.
Second, lossless files aren’t readily available and when they are, they cost more. You can’t buy them in the iTunes Store; you have to use a dedicated marketplace like HD Tracks or rip your own from your CD collection.
Third, the size difference between lossless and lossy files is huge. A FLAC file can be up to 20 times the size of a high quality MP3. Remember, most people can’t even tell the difference between the two.
Finding High Quality Audio
Thankfully it’s never been easier to find high quality audio through streaming services. They’re the best way to get your hands on a large quantity of high quality files. Unless you already have a massive CD collection to work from, they’re the best bang for your buck.
I use Spotify’s Extreme quality streaming which is equivalent to 320 kb/s MP3s. It’s my favourite of the streaming services.
Tidal offers lossless streaming although it still has many of the drawbacks of lossless files. It’s also not doing well financially so it’s unclear how long they’ll keep going.
Apple Music currently only streams at 256 kb/s but it looks like it’ll get high quality audio streaming later this year.
Upgrade the Listening Gear
Once you’ve started using high quality audio files, it’s time to look at the sorting out the listening hardware.
The speakers that come built into modern Macs are great… for computer speakers. They’re designed to be functional, everyday speakers, not for great audio playback. If you’re just watching YouTube videos, playing a little bit of background music or receiving notifications they’re perfect, but for anything more demanding you need to upgrade the audio gear.
Headphones are the best solution for most people. A good pair of closed back headphones not only sound great, but also isolate you from external noises. You can spend anything from $50 to well over $1000 on a pair of decent headphones.
Even at the lower end, they’ll be far better than the Mac’s built in speakers.
The most important feature with headphones is comfort. You could well spend six or eight hours a day wearing them, if they’re not comfortable it doesn’t matter how good they sound.
Any decent audio store has demo sets of headphones you can try on. Visit one and see what kind of headphones fit most comfortably. You can buy them there and then or find a similar model online.
I really like Bluetooth headphones. The lack of wires makes them much easier to use. I can stand up, walk around, dance or whatever without worrying about cables. The downside is they cost more and you have to charge them occasionally. If you want the flexibility to move around, consider investing in a Bluetooth pair.
Active noise cancellation is also worth considering if you work in noisy environments like coffeeshops. They use a microphone to listen to the background noise and then filter it out with some clever waveform trickery. Again though, active noise cancellation increases the price.
If you’re using a Mac desktop, or a Mac as a media centre, speakers might be a better idea. They cost a lot more but the benefit is that a group of people can use them at once. If you plan on watching a lot of movies through a Mac, a full surround sound system is a great investment.
Use a Custom EQ
They both create a custom EQ setting for the Mac. This means that music playback will be better matched to your tastes, the Mac’s audio gear and the environment you’re in. They’re not a magic bullet but they are a good way to get a little bit more control over how music is played.
Boom 2 is more automated and aimed at increasing volume while Hear offers more control and is targeted at audiophiles. Both cost $19.99.
In this tutorial I’ve looked at how to get better sound from a Mac. I’ve only scratched the surface. If you want to go fully down the audiophile rabbit hole, you can invest in pre-amps, amps, soundproofing and all sorts of additional equipment.
All those extras, however, bring diminishing returns once you’re listening to good quality audio through great headphones.