More music or better sound?

An idle thought I toy with now and then, usually when reading reviews of hi-fi equipment:

Putting aside issues of price etc, if offered a binary choice, would you go for more music to listen to, or would you choose new gear to make the music you have sound better?

Let’s assume that what you currently have is around the same level as a typical smartphone with decent headphones, so nothing too specialist but also not a basic MP3 player with crappy earbuds.



At that point which you describe, I’d go for better equipment I think.
Something not headphones. But I am really not an expert on that. I can listen to the same few good pieces over and over. But if the sound quality is crappy my enjoyment is lessened, even though my hearing is not great.

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I’m the opposite, give me a bunch of new music. I’m very uneducated about music sound quality and once we go past smartphone-with-decent-headphones I can’t tell the difference or at least don’t think about it much. Once it reaches a level of good-enough-to-not-be-distracting, I’m too ignorant to care about sound quality.
Reminds me of coffee drinking habits. Until last year I had been drinking instant coffee, but since switching to a cafetiere over the lockdown I won’t have instant coffee at all. Until you know any better, ignorance is bliss.


I think with the setup you described, I’d sooner have better quality - something with at least a decent amount of base and room-filling ability. I would not try for top-of-the-range perfect fidelity, because my ignorant ears wouldn’t appreciate it, but I’d like something better than a smartphone. I very rarely just sit and listen to music with headphones, however, so YMMV - I find it constricting to think ‘right, I’m sitting and listening to music now’ - it makes me twitchy and impatient thinking off many other things I could be doing, so I almost never do this nowadays (I don’t really read either; I’m basically constantly sad about my impatience and impulse-driven approach to entertainment nowadays).

Generally (in most things in life) I will usually go for convenience over quality (and this makes me sad and disappointed in myself most of the time). Consequently, I’m perfectly happy to stick with MP3 files or internet streaming. Given that this is relatively cheap/ free, I’m happy to spend a teeny more on my audio equipment. I am also dreadful at investigating things before I buy them - I’m incredibly impatient, and I just want to make sure I’m not buying something completely disastrous by skim-reading roughly 1.3 reviews of whatever before I’ve jammed it in to my Amazon cart. Then I feel guilty about using Amazon, and my consolatory cheese sandwich makes me feel guilty about still eating cheese. Why is life so hard? Why am I so inpatient with everything, including myself? Why do I pointlessly browse the internet for an hour before I sleep every night and wake up exhausted every day? What is the point of everything, cosmically speaking? Does any of it even matter?

Er… sorry that I had a teeny breakdown during that reply.

TLDR gear.


Most modern headphones, even earbuds, are pretty decent (good speakers are harder); and with YouTube lots of music is functionally free. So, um.

Hi-fi gear rapidly moves through diminishing returns into active scams like the $399 ethernet switch and the little wooden constructions to lift your power cable off the floor. Key indicator of scammers: they actively argue against blind testing or measurement of any kind.

But I think I’d probably go for decent gear first.

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Case in point, there’s a 1 m ethernet cable somewhere (duck duck go is failing me) supposedly optimised for sound if you’re doing audio over network that they’re selling for £575!

Yeah, marginally better gear. Although I tend to use my 5 driver IEMs in my smartphone anyway.

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This is me exactly.


I strongly recommend you don’t look into the pricing of high level audiophile speaker cables :grin:

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I have a degree in music tech and I absolutely couldn’t care less about fancy music equipment. If I listen to music these days, it’s generally through my laptop speakers, my TV, or my earphones that cost £7.

If I were producing/mixing music, I’d want a decent setup for that, but that’s a world away from what you’d want for casual listening.

And it’s kind of pointless for modern music where it’s been recorded digitally, compressed like crazy (loudness war, yay!), and then gets compressed into an mp3 or delivered via Spotify, etc. There’s a ceiling of quality there that stops long before you’re shelling out for even slightly fancy equipment.

So, yeh, more music every time. Which I guess is why I pay for a Spotify subscription rather than buying any kind of stereo, despite owning a lot of CDs …


And better analogue cables work to a point.

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We have a bunch of smart speakers in the home if you want to wander around listening to the same stuff in sync everywhere (audiobooks, radio, podcasts are particularly suited to that, music is nice too). They sound good enough to me. A bit on the expensive side and I am sure by now there are several different options for app connected speakers. For me those are more than enough.

One of them is even battery operated so I can take it outside to the terrace…

My partner is much more of an audiophile than I am (we have a bunch of big speakers around our TV and a giant sub-woofer behind the couch because someone likes to let all of the neighbors know that the Empire has just arrived with blazing guns. Even he thinks the smart speakers were a good idea.


When I moved in with Tina my stereo went into storage, not only due to space issues in a small house but because she doesn’t appreciate the idea of a room organised around listening to music. It can be a problem, certainly, and there’s no denying that having a nice pair of speakers on stands a foot or so from the wall does get in the way. It’s a compromise, although improvements in other ways to enjoy music - primarily digital devices - make it bearable.

I can happily immerse myself in music, sit and listen to it for hours, whereas watching the telly rarely grabs me as something I want to do (when living alone I never bothered with one and didn’t miss it). Because of that the quality of sound matters, as sooner or later you start to feel the boundaries: the slight lack of spaciousness; the instruments hiding in a crowded midrange; the unfocussed bass lines. Audiophile approaches to music, though - a combination of critical listening, wandering imagination, self-deception and a desire to turn hardware into a hobby - are a little beyond me, for reasons of finance, temperament and the acknowledgement that I’m in my fifties and my hearing isn’t exactly going to improve. I want a presentation of music I can enjoy in order that I can get on with loving the music.

With all that preamble in mind, I could probably manage with my current 'phone and earphones - a Google Pixel 3a and a pair of Shure SE215s. Ideally I’d want my external DAC… and the earphones are a bit lacking in places… and I suppose I do already have enough wonderful music to enjoy for a lifetime, especially when better kit means discovering more in each piece… This is why I over-research and over-think things, I’m really quite poor at simple decisions.

I do try to put together the best system I can on a very modest budget, but the music probably wins. Then again, I also research the best versions of an album, trying to avoid the ridiculously compressed offerings which came into vogue a few years ago (General finding: look for old West German CD pressings if they exist for the music you want, which are often quite cheap), which is one reason why I don’t use streaming services.

So, the answer for me is more music. Probably. I think.

My current setups:

By the bed: a pair of Logitech speakers, driven by a Raspberry Pi
Main room: four smallish speakers built in by the previous owner, driven by an Intel NUC
In the car: headphone cable from a tiny little portable MP3 player
Everywhere else: headphones from phone or computer

Sound is played off the great big audio server, using mpd streaming in flac. (I should probably set up an mp3 stream too because flac is a bit much for wifi in the garden.) I highly recommend having a great big audio server; I certainly listen to a lot more music than I did when I had to rootle out individual CDs and cassettes. mpd streams don’t have the synchronisation that you get with smart speakers such as yashima mentioned, so I can’t go from one room to another with the speakers going, but I don’t find I particularly want to.

The thing that damages audio quality more than anything else, at least in my experience, is Bluetooth headphones: most of them only seem to work with very lossy codecs, and unless that’s what your music was encoded with you get double-compression damage. I don’t currently have any: wires all the way.

I got a pair for Christmas and they’re excellent for one application - remote calls in the lab with colleagues and clients. The slight lag when watching a video annoys me no end.

There’s a huge topic in itself. I was quite surprised to discover only this week that Apple don’t use a terribly advanced codec, despite having a generally good reputation for their portable sound quality otherwise and having removed the headphone socket from most of their products.

I think I’d like to have a better set of speakers. I have a ton of music already and I keep getting more anyway, but since I’m currently working from home I don’t get to listen on headphones very much anymore (no commute).

I listen mostly to metal, so with less solid speakers, everything tends to blend in together and it’s hard to make out individual parts, especially with more underground bands that may not have access to the best recording equipment/techniques.

MP3 with regular ear-buds works fine, though, but speakers are a different story, probably a question of acoustics in my home office.

I listen to music via bluetooth in my car, sometimes; mostly, I plug the phone in, and listen over the usb interface, whatever that actually means. I can’t tell the difference.

At my desk, I have a pair of small powered speakers, of modest price and decent quality. They’re connected to a mac, music comes from no-longer-itunes, over usb. that was fine, and vastly nicer than wearing headphones (it took me months to realize I’m the only one home most of the time, I can make noise!), but they have very little low end. So I got a powered sub woofer, which makes a huge difference.

An acquantance elsewhere on the net, whose a mostly retired sound engineer (he’s done a bunch of film, and has album credits from lots of jazz stuff, Prince, Taljking Heads, and other people who care what their music sounded like) complained about this. You had to make sure your mix sounds good on a crappy mp3 player, not just on good equipment, which is often to the detriment of making it actually sound good on good equipment.

I’ve heard from other sources the rise of streaming services means there are different mixes for different media, with physical recordings getting less squashing, on the assumption that these days anyone listening to a CD or a record cares about it sounds like (or, in some cases, at least pretends to care…)