My new audio setup

For a number of years headphones were my only option for watching a film or listening to music, largely because I was living with other people. I was okay with that – despite the discomfort that using headphones for prolonged periods can bring. But a few years ago I got a mid-range set of PC speakers. They’re from Logitech, which is a good brand in my experience, and they’re USB-powered. And for several years they’ve been good.

When I got a new television a couple of years ago I hooked up my PC to it for a more enjoyable film-watching experience. Having a bigger screen as opposed to a small PC monitor has significantly improved my entertainment experiences in that time. But I kept the same set of speakers – the TV’s own speakers being pretty poor in comparison, as a lot of modern slim television speakers are.

Recently, though, I started looking into audio equipment again. What I really want – one day, when budget allows – is a 5.1 or 7.1 surround sound system. That’s the “gold standard” of home cinema setups, but of course a decent one is prohibitively expensive. Or at least it is on my budget!

So I started to look at headphones again.

Initially I thought maybe I’d get some kind of wireless or bluetooth setup, but after reading a lot of reviews and trying some out for myself I came to the conclusion that even the more expensive ones – £200 or more – weren’t all that great. They might be okay for some uses – gaming, for example – but when it came to having a good all-round entertainment experience – for listening to music, watching television and film, as well as perhaps gaming too – the wireless devices that I could find all felt inadequate. In addition, one of the biggest features on modern wireless and bluetooth headphones is “noise cancellation”, where the headphones will use a combination of a microphone (to measure noise in the environment) and additional processing to try to cover up external noise. But I have no need for that, so it would be an additional expense for no reason.

I’m not an audiophile by any means, and my ears aren’t as finely-tuned as many people’s seem to be, but I found myself drawn more and more toward headphones marketed to audiophile consumers. What I really wanted, at the end of the day, was a listening experience that would be as true-to-life as possible, without distortion, interference, or anything of that nature. The noise-cancelling technology I mentioned above has a noticeable effect on audio quality, as a background of white noise or hissing is often present as part of the way it works. I didn’t want any of that; I wanted a sound that was as neutral as possible.

As I looked at various headphones, one recommendation that came up again and again was to get an external DAC – a digital-to-audio converter. PC motherboards have one by default in order to translate a digital file into an analogue audio signal that can be then used by speakers or headphones. But DACs in computers often suffer as a result of being too close to other electronic components, which can lead to noise interference, as well as generally being of lower quality.

After looking at a number of options, I chose a DAC by a company called iFi. This device, called the iFi Zen, is a combined DAC and amplifier – an amplifier being important to get sufficient volume in lots of headphones which draw more power.

The iFi Zen DAC-amplifier.

The DAC on its own doesn’t do much, obviously, so pairing it with a nice set of headphones was important. After much research into different types of headphones, different technologies, and of course different brands, which took me a solid couple of months, I nailed down my choice – the Sennheiser HD 600. These headphones were originally released in 1997, and to my mind they’re very fancy – even if some audiophile gear sells for ten times the price!

What attracted me to this model was its reputation for being a truly neutral headphone – there are no artificial attempts made to boost the bass, or otherwise distort the sound produced. In fact Sennheiser HD 600s are often used by sound engineers and editors for that very reason. It doesn’t mean that listening to a recording of someone speaking is the same as hearing someone standing next to you, rather that the reproduction of the sound is as close as possible to the way it was recorded. And I have to say I did notice a difference.

It took a little while to get used to it, partly due to the directional nature of the sound. My two speakers sit either side of the screen and face towards the room. Because the headphones are positioned on either side of my head, and because there’s less distracting noise within the room, sound comes from one side or the other, or in the middle, instead of straight at me in an unspecified direction. That was a new experience for me, really, something that I hadn’t noticed with previous headphones and headsets I’ve owned. It’s hard to explain in words, but the headphones do a great job with positioning the sound; if two characters on screen are speaking, for example, they sound different depending on where they are standing. You can even tell when a person is closer or further away, as well as positioning where they are – how far left or right.

My Sennheiser HD 600 box.

When listening to music this isn’t so much of a factor, but watching television is definitely a different – and I think much more enjoyable – experience. I trialled my new setup on last week’s episode of Star Trek: Picard and I was really impressed. Since then I’ve experimented much more, playing many different kinds of music, watching a few different series and films, and of course playing Age of Empires II. I wrote a post the other day about how much fun it has been rediscovering that game – you can find it by clicking or tapping here.

I’d also been used to a more bass-heavy sound, just because of the way my speakers work. And the first few things I listened to on the headphones sounded flat in comparison. But it was only after using them for a while then going back to my speakers that I realised that the speakers were distorting and over-emphasising the bass. The headphones, as I had hoped, were much closer to a neutral sound.

It’s worth noting that digital audio files, like MP3s and the audio tracks on many digital/streaming videos, are compressed. And the compression process reduces the overall quality of the audio. I would love to be in a position where I could afford to go out and buy the highest quality of everything; 4K Blu-Rays and a Tidal subscription to listen to so-called “master quality” audio. But as I said, I’m not sure my ears are sufficiently finely-tuned to notice a difference!

For my purposes, though, my new setup – modest though it may be – is a great improvement over the speakers, and while I won’t be using it all the time or even every day, when I’m sitting down with a film or television show, or wanting to rock out to some bangin’ tunes, it’ll be my go-to.

This is not a sponsored post or ad. This article contains the thoughts and opinions of one person only and is not intended to cause any offence.