After decades of continual improvements in audio recording and playback technologies, the average 21st Century listener will hear most music at lower fidelity than before the millennium.  How did this happen, and can anything be done about it?

While audio technology continues to advance, the listening experience for most consumers, especially those just entering the market for recorded music, has devolved for a number of reasons:

  • compressed audio from mp3 files, YouTube, and other digital sources
  • playback through low-quality earbuds and computer speakers
  • low quality components in portable music players
  • a shrinking market for audiophile gear

This series will consider the factors contributing to the general decline in audio quality, and consider the following questions:

  1. Why does music from my iPod sound so bad, even when played through a high-quality sound system?
  2. Do CDs sound better or worse than the LPs they replaced?
  3. Why have premium audio formats such as SACD and DVD-Audio failed?
  4. What is HD Audio, and how do I get it?
  5. MP3, FLAC, LAME, lossy, lossless: I’m lost – what does all this mean?
  6. Where did all the audiophiles go?

Along the way, we will translate all the acronyms, define important specifications, and let you know how they affect what you hear.  Let’s start with the first question:

Why does music from my iPod sound so bad, even when played through a high-quality sound system?

Well, it may sound bad because it was poorly recorded, incompetently mastered, or horribly butchered when converted to an MP3 or other digital file.  But assuming it made it to your iPod in decent shape, the relatively cheap electronic components — especially the DAC (digital-to-analog converter) and headphone jack — will suck out any remaining quality left in the music. The only way around this is to bypass the iPod’s internal circuitry completely, and there are several solutions available.

Each of the products below will take the digital bit-stream from the iPod’s multipin connector and feed it to an external DAC, which may be integrated with the product, available as an outboard component, or contained within your amp or A/V receiver. Not every product is compatible with every iThing: some will not work with iPhones or iPads, and none will work with an iPod prior to the iPod Touch or iPod Classic.  You will also need to make sure that the output format and connections are compatible with the rest of your gear.  [Note: all Amazon links are affiliate links.]

Editor’s Choice: Cambridge Audio iD100 Digital iPod/iPad Dock

HRT iStreamer Outboard DAC for iDevices

Wadia 171iTransport iPod/iPhone Dock

Peachtree Audio iDecco Gloss Black Stereo Integrated Amplifier With Built-In DAC and iPod Dock

So is it worth $200 to $1,000 to improve the sound you get from your iPod?  That depends on a number of factors, including how and where you listen to music, your available audio sources, and the quality of your home hi-fi system.  Here’s a simple A/B test:

  1. Take a CD and rip a high-quality (320 kbps MP3 or lossless) audio track to your iThing.
  2. Get a 3.5 stereo male to RCA male Y-cable like this one (should be around $3 at Radio Shack), and connect your iDevice to your hi-fi system.
  3. Start playing back the CD through your stereo speakers, then switch to your iPhone. (Or better yet, have someone else switch back and forth for you, without identifying the source for each test.)

If you don’t hear any difference, or if the loss in quality doesn’t bother you, you’re done.  In my listening tests, it almost doesn’t matter what resolution you use to rip your audio files – the iPhone’s internal DAC and headphone jack circuitry will degrade the sound of everything – even lossless files.