17.2 C
New York
Sunday, October 1, 2023

How to Upgrade Your Home Audio for Music or Movies

Sounds are like smells—you might get used to bad ones, but you never regret upgrading. Maybe you've recently found a gaping hole in your music or podcast listening setup—you don't have noise-canceling headphones to tune out the toddlers, or you're trying to make your speakers sound better in your living room. Whatever your problem is, we've got you covered. These are our tips for upgrading your home audio.

This isn't the only list of audio-related stuff we have. Be sure to check out our guides to the Best Gifts for Audiophiles, Best Headphones, and Best Bluetooth Speakers for more. Need other work from home gear? We have an Ultimate Work-From-Home Gear Guide.

Updated July 2021: We've added a few new picks, updated tips, and tweaked language.

Special offer for Gear readers: Get a 1-Year Subscription to WIRED for $5 ($25 off). This includes unlimited access to WIRED.com and our print magazine (if you'd like). Subscriptions help fund the work we do every day.

If you buy something using links in our stories, we may earn a commission. This helps support our journalism. Learn more. Please also consider subscribing to WIRED.

Free Home Audio Tips

Most big audio improvements just take some menu diving and feng shui.

Check Your Streaming Settings

I can't tell you how many friends and family I've had check their streaming settings, only to realize they didn't have them set on the highest possible audio quality.

Enter your music streaming app's settings menu and make sure you set audio to high quality. Apple Music, Spotify, and YouTube Music make the music quality settings easy to find. You can download your favorite playlists and albums if your home Wi-Fi cannot handle the higher bitrate stream.

Speaker Location Is Everything

Bass loves to hide in corners, so try to set up your speakers far from them—ideally in the middle of a wall. If you're wondering where to place them relative to your usual listening position, keep this in mind: The ideal stereo image (big, wide, live-sounding audio) comes when your head forms an equilateral triangle with the two speakers. Also, do your best to make sure that the tweeters (the smaller round drivers that put out the high notes on most speakers) are as close to ear-level as possible, because higher-end sounds are affected by direction the most.

Move Your Furniture to Deflect Sound

Your own room is one of the most important aspects of a speaker's sound. Just like a terrible singer using a fantastic microphone, if you put an amazing pair of speakers in a terrible room, you'll have terrible sound.

Most rooms have similar problems: They're a bit too reflective and a bit too bass-heavy. Flat walls and corners are, by and large, the culprit. Sound is a wave, and if that wave ricochets straight back off a wall, it can interfere and cancel out other waves coming at it, making for weird frequency dead zones in your room.

Try putting a chair or other dense furniture in the corners. Also, consider placing a bookshelf or other irregular furniture on the far wall that faces your speakers—where the sound reflects back into the speakers—so that the different sizes and shapes of books on the shelf bounce sound waves in different directions.

If You Wanna Go Pro

This tip isn't quite free, but it can be cheap. If you want to get fancy and make a dedicated listening room, look for proper sound treatment materials. Do not buy those weird foam squares you see on Amazon. They won't work very well. Broad-spectrum sound waves are absorbed by dense, porous material, so while high frequencies are absorbed by the foam, the mid and low frequencies go nuts.

Instead, snag some rock wool insulation and some fabric so you can make your own panels. Be sure to place them in corners and at reflection points, and you'll notice wildly improved sound. Seriously, if you're going to do one thing to improve your sound, do this. Better gear doesn't matter in a bad room!

A Few Easy Upgrades

I get asked about affordable ways to upgrade sound quality a lot. Here are my go-to tips.

Modernize That Old Stereo

If you've got a stereo from the pre-streaming era, check out the Audioengine B-Fi ($189). It's a little box that can connect to any stereo via optical or RCA cables and allows you to stream your music via Wi-Fi, so you don't have to change out your whole system. I use one in my living room, and it works more reliably than many other streaming devices I've tried.

Get a Digital-to-Analog Converter

The sound card in your computer is fine, but I always notice a significant difference in sound quality when I plug in a dedicated digital-to-analog converter like the Audioengine D1 ($169) or S.M.S.L. SU-9 DAC ($460).

Unless you're rocking a really nice system (read: your system costs more than a used Honda Civic), you don't have to spend more than about five hundred bucks for one. That said, you probably won't find a good converter for less than $100.

Computer Speakers, Remember Those?

If your PC could use some audio magic, I'm a big fan of the iLoud Micro Monitors ($300), which feature Bluetooth and sound almost as good as speakers twice their price. If you're looking for something more affordable, try the Presonus Eris speakers ($100), which offer a similar (though not quite as immersive) studio-style sound.

Another option, if you've started to find yourself podcasting, streaming, or doing any other kind of home recording, is to snag a cheap audio interface like the Focusrite Scarlett 2i2 ($170), which serves as both a digital-to-analog converter, microphone or instrument input, and a hub where you can connect powered, studio-style monitors like the JBL 305P MkII ($155 each) or Yamaha HS5 ($200 each). These powered speakers are bigger than typical computer speakers and are what musicians and mixing engineers use to create tracks. Needless to say, they sound better than nearly any comparable computer speakers.

Try Some Studio Headphones

There are a ton of amazing, expensive audiophile headphones, but you'll find the best value in studio headphones (headphones designed for audio producers). They're not the flashiest, but they sound good for the money and are super durable.

You can find great studio headphones in the $100 to $200 range, like the Audio Technica ATH-M50xBT ($179), Sony MDR7506 ($155), and Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro ($159), all of which sound excellent. Studio headphones also last longer than many models, with ear pads and cables that are often easy and affordable to replace.

Get a Soundbar!

We've been shouting this from our rooftops for years, but an affordable soundbar can be a huge, huge upgrade to your home TV and film viewing experience (these are our favorite soundbars). Many modern soundbars, especially those with separate subwoofers and surround speakers like the Vizio Elevate ($800), sound as good as comparably priced wired systems with dedicated speakers and traditional A/V receivers.

You don't have to spend a lot for a noticeable upgrade from regular TV speakers, though. Unless you're still rocking a monstrosity from the '90s, there's a 99 percent chance your TV speakers sound way worse than a $90 soundbar like this one from Vizio.

Vinyl Audio Gear

Vinyl is a great way to physically connect to your favorite music. Just don't let your friends (or the folks at r/Audiophile on Reddit) tell you that analog always sounds better than digital. It can sound better, but you'll need a good turntable, amplifier, and speakers—and you need to make sure your records are clean and your turntable is properly set up. If you're looking to use this time to get into the hobby, here's some starter gear I recommend.

  • Record Brush ($20): A cheap and decent record brush should be your first purchase if you don't already have one. Get that dust off your vinyl! I like this Audio Technica brush, but nearly any brush will do.
  • Record Cleaning Kit ($30): Can you hear clicks and pops? They really shouldn't be there. They indicate your vinyl needs to be cleaned, even if it's new. Unfortunately, the grooves on a record are so small that a simple wet wipe-down or spin on one of the "record cleaning" machines you find on Amazon won't do the job properly. You'll need something with vacuum suction to pull the cleaner out of the grooves (no cloth is fine enough to really get in there). Lucky for you, there's a cheap shop-vac attachment called the Vinyl Vac that does just this. Make your own cleaner, brush it on your records with a cheap paintbrush, and suck up the crud. You'll be amazed by how much better your records sound.
  • Level ($8): If your turntable isn't sitting evenly, it can play back records slightly out of balance. Use a level to check.
  • Stylus Scale ($15): This is also great to have around for setup. It lets you set the weight the stylus presses onto the record to exact factory recommendations. If your stylus is too heavy you might damage your records, and if it's too light the needle might jump out of the groove.
  • Record Weight ($25): Record weights sit on top of your records while they play, and are great for adding mass (therefore a tighter low-end) to your tunes. I like this cool-looking one from Hudson Hi-Fi.
  • Turntable ($200 to $400): I think $200 to $400 is the sweet spot for a quality turntable. I've been a big fan of models like the Fluance RT81 ($250) and Audio-Technica LP120 ($279). If you don't have one, make sure the turntable you're looking at has a built-in phono preamp, which allows you to plug it straight into the stereo. Check out our full list of the best turntables here.
  • Phono Preamp ($99): If you have a turntable without a built-in phono preamp and you're looking for sonic improvements, get one. I like the Pro-Ject Phono Box.
  • All-In-One Speakers ($900): In the past few years, we've started to see better and better compact speakers with built-in phono inputs. My favorites are the Kanto Tuk, which feature ribbon tweeters for excellent high end, plus built-in Bluetooth and RCA inputs. On the higher end, I love the KEF LS50 Wireless II ($2,500), which look just about as beautiful as they sound.
  • Shelving for Your Records ($40): Looking for a spot to store your records? I use this basic crate from Crosley, which looks great (and can be painted!). They're even stackable for when your collection expands beyond the 40 albums they hold.

Avoid Bad Audio Advice

As with all technology, there are a number of myths and misunderstandings in the world of audio. Here are some big ones to know (and avoid).

You Don't Need Expensive Cables

There are companies that will attempt to convince you that cables will make a huge difference in your sound. They don't. If you need some speaker cables or a power cable for your amplifier, buy anything that doesn't seem super flimsy—the only real concern with dirt-cheap cables is that they aren't durable enough.

Don't Take Any FLAC

Many streaming services recently added lossless formats to their catalogs. But don't let the marketing hype around FLAC and other lossless audio formats fool you. Sure, they sound great, but very smart, very well-paid engineers at every streaming service have done a fantastic job of making sure artists' music sounds as close as possible to CD quality. Unless you're listening to extremely subtle music (things like live acoustic jazz or orchestral music), it is very unlikely you can hear the difference.

Sometimes Cheap Is Better

Like all tech, there are fantastic affordable audio products that easily compete with luxury options. You do not need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to hear your favorite music the way the musicians intended. Many modern recordings are made using relatively cheap gear—even in pro studios, they're nearly always mixed on relatively affordable speakers.

A Higher Sampling Rate Is Not Always Better

Let's get nerdy for a sec. Most music is recorded at 44.1 kHz. That's very high resolution already, but modern digital converters and powerful processors mean that music can now be recorded at sampling rates up to 192 kHz. The thing is, most studios don't do this, because it takes way more storage space and processor power to record this way. The higher sampling rate is also essentially inaudible; the human ear can't hear the difference.

Just because your fancy, new digital media player, streamer, or other product says it does 192 kHz (I've even seen ones claim they do more!), the music you're listening to probably wasn't recorded at that resolution. Don't worry about it.

Headphones Can Sound Better Than Speakers

Because rooms have such a big (and often negative) impact on sound quality, a good pair of headphones is an excellent way to get great sound no matter where you listen. They're great for smaller spaces, where you don't want to deal with tons of gear. Read our Best Cheap Headphones, Best Wireless Headphones, Best Noise-Canceling Headphones, and Best Wireless Earbuds guides for recommendations.

Related Articles

Latest Articles