Better classical audio made easy

By Sebastian Mitchell

In a departure from the stalwart items of The Gathering Note, I’d like to present this simple guide to understanding and getting good sound quality for recorded classical music.

Things can get far more sophisticated than what I intend to explain here, as some (or most) super-audiophiles might (more likely will) tell you. If you’re searching for the non-plus-ultra of aural experiences then perhaps this isn’t for you; on the other hand, if you want moderate improvements in sound quality without too much effort then read on!

Now, one thing to recognize is that you have complete control over how you listen to recorded classical music, as opposed to when it is performed live. You can alter every step of the process, from the source to the output. I hope this sends a pulse of megalomania through you! So, to start off on a good footing, I strongly encourage you to seek out the best quality recordings you can. The effect of everything else in your hi fi setup is reliant on the foundation of a high quality source for the music.

For classical music, with its rich nuances and precise beauty, there is no source format too good. I recommend a bare minimum of some sort of lossless format such as FLAC, or the gleaming apotheoses: 192K/24-bit or 176.4K/24-bit , which are so high quality they may fry your synapses.

Linn‘ audio claim to have the highest quality downloads available anywhere.

I’m assuming that most of you are listening to your music using either CDs or digital formats. So probably the easiest thing you could do to improve the quality of your sound would be to invest in a higher quality formats such as the ones I talked about above, or Super Audio CDs. Next in the chain comes the device which actually converts the source into a little electrical signal. If you’re listening to your music on your personal computer, then this will be the sound card inside. Usually these are actually cheap and low quality – you’d be much better getting a dedicated ‘Digital Audio Converter’ or DAC. These aren’t all that expensive, and can give you a huge boost in sound quality pretty easily.

If you listen to CDs, then you might find it worthwhile to upgrade to a higher quality CD player (look for one that can play Super Audio CDs). Or if you have an older CD player, and it has “digital out” sockets, feed it into a modern DAC. This will greatly enhance the sound, as DAC technology has advanced the most in recent years, compared with everything else inside a CD player.

So, contrary to what a lot of people think, you don’t need to waste sacks of cash on imposingly expensive, towering loudspeakers to get improvements in your sound quality. In fact, it’s the much cheaper and smaller elements, close to the start of the audio chain, which build up to deliver a mind-meltingly high quality listening experience. Excellent! The next element in the sequence is the amplifier, which comes right before the actual loudspeakers. The amplifier’s job is to convert the small signal from your CD player or soundcard into something you can actually hear! A simple rule regarding amplifiers is that the more components the signal must travel through, the more its quality gets degraded. So avoid those amplifiers with loads of shiny bells and whistles – go for something plain. How plain? An on/off switch and a volume control are all you really need! You can divide amplifiers into two types: integrated amplifiers (where everything is in one box), and separated amplifiers (where the pre-amplifier and the power amplifier are in separate boxes). The pre-amplifier deals with the tiny signal that comes from the source, while its big brother the power amplifier boosts the signal into something which can actually drive a loudspeaker. The power amplifier sometimes causes distortions in the pre-amplifier. If you physically put them apart though, like in a separated amplifier, you can vitiate the distortions. Amplifier manufacturers actually recommend keeping the music source close to the pre-amp, and putting the power amplifier next to the speakers. This is automatic in ‘active loudspeakers‘, where the power amplifier is stuck on the back of the speakers themselves.

Ahhh, we’ve finally reached the speakers themselves! As I subtly hinted at earlier, these are the least important part of the chain. Really, if you do everything else well enough, you can have some relatively cheapy speakers and still get great sound.

So don’t worry too much about these. Although I would say try to find some which don’t ramp up the bass too much, since this ruins the fine balance of an orchestra! Finally, if you listen to classical music in a listening room of some kind, you can make a few simple adjustments to improve the acoustics. Eliminating hard, flat surfaces, like mirrors and coffee tables, and putting in thick cloths like a rug or a curtain can have a noticeable effect on the sound. Otherwise, if you use headphones, get noise-cancelling ones (which block out ambient noise). My personal favorites are the in-ear ones made by Sennheiser. perfect for the subway! If you implement even just one or two of the above tips, you should notice an improvement in the quality of your sound. Happy listening!

For more information see ‘The Best Home Audio System for Classical Music‘.


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