My (ideal) Audio Setup January 23, 2012
When you’re a geek and a music lover, the quality of the hardware matters. Here is a quick run down of the options I chose for now, after a few years of incremental research. I distinguish three different needs:
- Mobile, as in not at home. It can be anywhere: during commute, shopping, traveling.
- Office (actually home office): sited at my desk, needing a focused sound, just for me.
- Home, or more precisely living room. This is the part that inspired this post.
Talking about hardware is always a delicate task: quality is usually related to the amount of money you put on the table. As important as music is to me, I try to stay in reasonable limits. Of course, if you have tens of thousands of dollars to spend on a speaker, my setup will feel savourless.
Mobile should be easy. Apple solved the question of the player some times ago. You just have to pick your size. I go with an iPod Nano 6G, 16GB. The perfect ratio between size and capacity, and the sound is as good as you can expect from any portable player. The battery life is just amazing, I can spend weeks between charges.
The headset is another matter. There are literally hundreds of models, dozens of them are very good. My first headset was a Koss Porta Pro and I have changed pretty much every years since then insearch of the Holly Graal. I think I had a few unmemorable Sonys, then I stick with the Senheiser HD200 and switched to Audio Technica (ATH-Pro5V and ATH-A900). Those last two were very good. Recently I bought an Ultrasone HFI780. I’m quite happy with it, considering the reasonable $240 price tag (Ulstrasone sell $1,500+ headsets… One day, maybe). This post is not supposed to be a review. Especially with headsets, there are too many criteria. Size, weight, cord, plug, and of course sound quality. If you are shopping for mobile use, you need closed (sealed) headphones. Portability matters, but not as much as durability. A good review website would be HeadRoom.
My home office needs are as simple as precise: I need a small set of speakers, wired to the Mac, just in front of me, so I get a very focused and direct sound. I discovered the perfect set thanks to my friend Hakeem, sound engineer by day and sound engineer by night. The Genelec 6010A. Genelec is a professional brand, their products are mostly used for monitoring purpose in recording studio. Yet, they have a very decent price range (for professional hardware). This pair will cost you approximatively $400. These speakers are nothing short of amazing. (Very) heavy, amplified and gorgeous. The sound coming out of it is crystal clear, basses are deep, and the stereo is perfect: stand in the middle and you will hear the sound as if it was just in front of you, not coming form the sides. Amazing. The result is perfect for working: focused, as if music came from the screen. This led, naturally, to the main room audio setup.
Here comes the pièce de resistance. Actually, it’s more of a pièce montée, a set of combined technologies leading to what is my perfect setup. Let’s start with the beginning: The Storage. Nothing fancy here, just a Mac mini, but a tuned one: HD changed to SSD, for OS and apps only, so the Mac is perfectly quiet. External fan-less HD to store data and a second one for backups (you do backup everything all.the time, right?). iTunes is in charge of managing the collection. Then, The Source. Enters the Sonos ecosystem. I already blogged about it. It’s just THE solution for multi-room, remotely controlled, music system. I use it to fetch my iTunes library, but I could as easily get music from one of the many online music services it supports. It’s real magic. Then, there’s Another Piece of Magic. A DAC. DAC stands for Digital/Analog Converter. It does just that, convert the digital signal from the source and converts it into an analog one to the outputs. There are, of course really expensive DACs, but also some affordable ones that makes wonder. In my case, I chose the DacMagic from Cambridge. For approximatively $300, you give a second youth to your mp3s. All the layers of the tunes gain in depth and accuracy. The final piece, once you’ve laid out 20m of XLR cable, are The Speakers themselves. I stick with Genelec here, already convinced by the office setup. Just a little larger: Genelec 8040A. These are strong babies, 8.6kg, 2x90W each, and will lighten your bank account by a little less than $2000. It’s not cheap, but considering the professional quality, it’s not that expensive either.
The result of the setup is simple. I now hear the songs like I never did before. I hear them the way they were designed to sound. All the little subtleties, new sounds and tracks, everything comes back to the surface. And all this, controlled from the sofa, at the touch of a finger.
This setup didn’t pop out suddenly. It’s born from slow iterations, each one improving upon the other (as often in life). Also, it might not fit your needs or taste ; don’t rush to the next webstore, yet… But if you’re a music lover, I hope it will encourage you to search for your perfect setup, and maybe give you the beginning of the solution.