It's time to stop being a slave to the iPod, the shuffle button, and the cold, compressed sound of MP3s. There's a movement afoot to return to a warmer, more analog sound. (Think: tube amps and serious stereos.) The secret is to buy a few key pieces of audio gear—easy upgrades that allow you to listen to music the way it was meant to be heard
By Kevin Sintumuang
Photographs by Mitchell Feinberg
Step 1: Dust Off the Turntable
Take the record out of its cover. Place it on the platter. Lower the needle. Get up in about twenty minutes and repeat. We know—it would be a lot easier to press play. But that's the beauty of turntables. They force you to rediscover music as something that deserves time and attention as you listen to the crackle of the needle dropping into the first groove, the organicism of voices and strumming guitars, the dynamic way quiet moments are punctuated by loud ones. You can't get this from an everyday digital download. The Pro-Ject Debut III is a stellar starter turntable, but when you're ready, step up to the VPI Scout. Its unipivot tonearm and ultraquiet motor bring out so much detail that thirty-year-old recordings start to sound like new ones. In other words, it's what turntables are all about.
Step 2: Rediscover Your CD Player
When it comes to digital music, CDs simply bring more to the table than MP3s. That's because, for the most part, they hold more data than compressed audio files. And more data means more details; it's like the difference between watching Avatar in IMAX 3D and streaming it over YouTube on a laptop. Fortunately, not all CD players look like your college minisystem. The April Music Aura Note Premier doubles as an amp—just plug in some speakers—and it has a USB port for your iPod, if you can't resist. The way it plays CDs is an analog wink from the digital age; to load a disc, you slide over the glass cover and place it on top of the spindle as you would an LP.
Step 3: Abandon the Dock: Get Real Speakers
We know. Sound docks are convenient. They're compact, and they fit nicely on the desk or kitchen counter. But doesn't your music deserve better than something the size of a toaster? No matter how good you think that dock is, it just can't produce the full, nuanced sound of a pair of high-end speakers powered by an amplifier. These Bowers & Wilkins CM1 speakers feature aluminum tweeters and a bass/midrange cone made of woven Kevlar. And while they're bigger than most docks, they can still sit on a bookshelf. Think of these as an investment that will last as long as you love music—because whether you're listening to records, MP3s, or some future medium, you'll still need quality speakers.
The Path to Better Sound: How to Assemble Your System
There's an old mantra in the audiophile world: From the speakers in. That's how you build a hi-fi system. You start with a pair of passive speakers, meaning they need to be powered by an amp, which is the next component in your setup. An amplifier ignites your tunes, acting as the bridge between the speakers and the music's source: a turntable, a CD player (for the best digital experience available), or your computer (if you can't live without the convenience of thousands of albums on a hard drive). A hi-fi is more complicated than a sound dock, but the math is simple: Speakers + amp + source = kick-ass sound. As long as you choose the kind of quality components we've presented here, it'll all add up.
Step 4: Warm Up Your Digital Tunes
For someone who insists on storing all his tunes on his desktop, there's still a path to a more analog sound—the Peachtree Audio Nova. The Nova, which is both an amplifier and a digital-to-analog converter, processes your digital files in a more complex manner than your computer's soundcard (which has a bias toward smaller, less powerful speakers). It then goes a step further by augmenting the music with a tube, adding a touch of warmth to what was formerly 1's and 0's. Another tip for those serious about their gigabytes of tunes: Rip your CDs into higher-quality Apple Lossless or AIFF files. Yes, it takes a bit longer, but hearing them on high-quality speakers and an amp like this makes it worth the extra few minutes.
Step 5: Get Amped
Think of the amplifier as your sound system's engine. And just as with cars, it's not all about brute power. It's about the quality of that power: how it receives the signal from your source, be it turntable or iPod, and pushes it out to your speakers. A good tube amp, like this rock-solid twenty-nine-pound Cayin A-50T, can produce a more natural, lifelike sound than the colder, more precise variety a solid-state amp churns out. Plus, there's no denying that the glow the tubes emit is far more interesting to look at than an on-off switch.
10 Albums to Push Your Hi-Fi to the Limit
It doesn't always have to be a jazz record. (Not that there's anything wrong with jazz.) Here are the albums that will make you understand the difference between a sound dock and a real set of speakers
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