1 – Using a streaming service on your phone for music (part one) – Unless you’re paying for Spotify Premium and opting for the “high quality streaming” setting, when you stream music, you’re probably listening to compressed files at 96 kbps. Without going into too much detail, basically it’s “the more, kbps the better”. If you’re using a free streaming service, there’s also a pretty good chance you’re listening to it on crappy headphones or over a Bluetooth connection as well, but we’ll get to that later. Plus every time you get a text or a call or a push notification your music cuts out. Annoying.
In the early days of digital music, files were compressed to save hard drive space. Storage was expensive then. A fully uncompressed song in high-quality WAV format is about 300 times the size of the same song in 44.1kHz MP3 format.
Over the past fifteen years, the gigabyte has gotten cheaper and better, lossless file formats have come along to make files smaller. A 16GB iPhone really has about 12GB of available storage; that’s enough room for about 60 uncompressed, audiophile-quality songs in FLAC format. Sure, it’ll hold a THOUSAND crappy MP3 files, but 60 uncompressed pop or rock songs is about 3 1/2 hours of music. How damned long do you think it’ll take to listen to 1,000 songs?
If you really must have access to a huge amount of tunes you’ll never play, spend the ten bucks a month on Spotify Premium. The files are streamed in Vorbis format, which is considered “lossy”, but it’s pretty tough to tell the difference in casual listening. Remember to select “high quality” in the audio settings.
2 – Using a streaming service on your phone for music (part two) – Back to what I said before regarding — incoming text from yo mama — interruptions causing your songs to cut out. You can stop all that nonsense by scoring yourself a lossless audio player. Sony calls them “Lossless Walkman” and theirs start at about $220 for a 16GB version. The well-regarded Fiio X1 can be had for just under a hundred bucks and supports MicroSD card storage up to 128GB. For the cheapskate in you, SanDisk’s 8GB Clip Jam can be had for about $36. If you’re a baller, go for the 64GB Pono player for around $400.
3 – You spent a crapload of money on crappy headphones – If when shopping for audio gear the first question in your head is something like, “How much bass do it got?” nobody can help you. For the rest of us, do you know when you’re sitting at a stoplight and you hear – no feel – someone’s subwoofer from six cars back, and when that clown passes you the body panels of his car are vibrating like a hippo’s marital aid? Beats by Dre are the headphones equivalent to that.
You’re nuts if you spend more than a couple hundred bucks on headphones anyway, but if you’re going to be nuts, grab something like the Bowers and Wilkins P7 set. Your ears will be in ecstasy and you’ll look so much classier than the poser with the bright red “me too” bling. If you’re in it for looks over function, the B&W set will get you more cache with audiophiles, more respect from upper-crust snobs, and more attention from gold diggers. Otherwise, shell out just $130 for a set of Audio Technica M50 for pure audio bliss.
4 – You’ve declared your love of vinyl, but bought a Crosley – A hand-finished wood cabinet, novel flip-up wooden lid, and built-in full-range speakers harken back to the good ol’ days of hi-fi, right? Regardless of how well-written that Urban Outfitters ad may be, Crosleys suck. You’re better off sticking with MP3s than buying one of those heaps. By the way, that Crosley’s “wood” is just a crappy veneer over MDF.
There are three basic things you want in a good turntable; a solid platter (NOT plastic) to prevent wobbling and feedback, a stiff tonearm (NOT plastic) with a counterweight to ensure constant tracking force on your records, and a magnetic cartridge that tracks at much less weight than the ceramic ones in the cheapie all-in-one units.
What is a potential vinyl junkie to do?
First of all, get it through your head that you’re not going to find a really good new turntable for less than a couple hundred bucks. If you want vintage looks, buy vintage gear. A quick Craigslist session should find a number of good options from brands like Dual, Pioneer, BIC, Sansui, Yamaha, JVC, and Technics for under $100. You might even find something “almost new” for cheap; currently there are two Pro-Ject Debut Carbon units for less than $150 in the San Francisco Bay Area. Those retail for $400 new! One of the most highly-regarded vintage turntables is the Technics 1200 series, but do your research before buying one as many of them have been worn out by amateur DJs. Keep in mind that any vintage turntable will need a preamp (which can cost as little as $25) or an amplifier with a grounded phono input.
If the vintage route scares you, or you must have something new on a budget, scrape together $175 and get the Stanton T55USB. Is it hideous? Yes. However, it checks a lot of boxes for the vinyl newbie and it’s reasonably solid. It has a line-level output, so you don’t need a preamp (although you can select “phono out” and use one), it has a USB output and recording software so you can do digital transfers to your computer, it has strobe adjustment for accurate speed controls, and a pretty decent cartridge. If you buy this, for the love of everything holy, please learn to set up a tonearm and set the tracking for two grams (the minimum for this setup). There are plenty of YouTube videos to show you how.
The best “bang for the buck” turntable on the market right now is the Audio Technica AT-LP120-USB at $250. It has all the stuff the Stanton has, but with a better tonearm, a much better cartridge, and a cueing lever, plus it’s direct drive and has a better signal-to-noise ratio. With the Audio Technica or the aforementioned Stanton, you can plug straight into a soundbar or any stereo with a line input because of the built-in preamps they have, but you’ll find an external preamp will probably give you better sound.
For another c-note, you can score the Teac TN-300 for $350 and be on the ground floor of “audiophile quality”. The Teac also features a built in preamp and USB output, plus it’s a hell of a lot classier looking than the Audio Technica or Stanton models.