My Digital Music Setup

I want to begin this post with a disclaimer: I’m not an audiophile, and I don’t
claim to be particularly knowledgable when it comes to music technology. If
I sound like I don’t have a clue what I’m talking about, that’s probably because
I don’t. That said, perhaps this article might provide some use to people
looking to get a better handle on their digital setup: I know I would have
certainly appreciated a post like this when I was setting out.

Background

I listen to a lot of music. Last year I logged over 70,000 minutes of listening
time. That’s almot 50 non-stop days. 90% of that listening is digital audio from
Spotify. When I’m on the move I’m almost constantly plugged into some music.
This is usually in the form of Spotify offline playlists, but over some decent
quality earphones (see below). At home, I’m used to just
streaming Spotify through an Amazon Echo.

Here are my top five most-played tracks of 2017’s 70,000 minutes:

However, after recently discussing one of my all-time favourite tracks with
a friend, and, bizarrely enough, with
Nu:Tone himself, I decided that
I wanted to start taking my listening a little more seriously.

Hey man!
Looping back round to this (almost 4yr later 😂). Know anywhere I can get hold
of a ‘dubious’ copy of this track? I’ll donate £25 to a charity of your choosing
(DMs are open). Cheers!

— Harry Roberts (@csswizardry) 18 March,
2018

If you want to listen to the track—of course you do, it’s stunning—then you’ll
have to make do with the YouTube version. Couple it with some good headphones
and a decent amount of volume and you’ll still get the picture:

After falling fully back in love with this track (and managing to track down
a quality version of it) I decided to ramp up my home digital music setup to
something a little better than my current one. I guess this one track kicked
everything off.

Requirements

As I currently do listen to almost exclusively digitally streamed music, it was
important to design a solution that was appropriate. With streaming music,
particularly any lossless formats, you’re quickly going to hit diminishing
returns where even the best equipment in the world fails to make any noticeable
improvements to the music’s quality.

With this in mind, I set about my research: I needed a high-quality speaker that
would work well with streamed media, but that wouldn’t be overkill. I didn’t
necessarily want to use Bluetooth as its lower throughput would mean lower
quality: I wanted a wifi enabled speaker that I could stream to directly.

Further, I needed to be mindful of space. I live in a city-centre apartment
that,unfortunately, doesn’t leave me with much room to play with. Oh and I guess
whatever I was going to buy needed to look nice—I’m really fond of my apartment
and spent a lot of time furnishing it, so I wanted something that would look
good.

Finally, while I was also prepared to spend some cash, I didn’t want to lay down
thousands for mere digital listening. When I’m rich and I’ve got a huge house,
then I’ll start spending!

Hardware

Technics OTTAVA™ f SC-C70 – £799

Technics OTTAVA in-situ. See full size/quality (2.7MB)

One of the units that kept getting mentioned was the Technics OTTAVA (or the
Technics OTTAVA™ Forte SC-C70 to give it its rather catchy full name). It
certainly looked stunning and seemed to tick all of the right boxes. On
a whim—whilst I was technically just nipping out for coffee—I decided to drop
into Richer Sounds to see if they had one in
stock that I might be able to look at.

Nipped
out to grab a coffee; came home with this @technics OTTAVA
SC-C70 😍 Thanks for the help, @RicherSounds.
pic.twitter.com/2Pm6Gt7NXq


Harry Roberts (@csswizardry) March
20, 2018

They did.

The guy at Richer Sounds (cheers, Roger!) got his colleagues to set the unit up
in the demo room for me while we chatted about my needs and requirements. Once
it was set up, I was sat down and allowed to listen and play around with it.
After listening to some tracks from a CD (remember those?), I hooked up my
phone’s AirPlay to the OTTAVA and blasted out the Nu:Tone track (above). It
sounded unreal. I was sold!

I bought the unit right there and then and then took it home to set it up
immediately. It turned out to be a pretty expensive coffee break, but I’m
absolutely convinced that it was worth it. It was an incredibly simple and
straightforward setup: plug it in, connect it directly to your router, and
that’s it. I played around with a suitable location and settled on placing it on
a bookshelf near an external wall. This had two benefits:

  1. The wall behind the speaker helps to project sound outward into the room.
  2. There are no neighbours on the other side of the wall.

The listening quality of the OTTAVA is sublime. Rich yet incredibly clear. Bold
without being aggressive. Nuanced but not tinny. It feels incredibly immersive,
and tracks I’ve known for years suddenly sounded so much more complex and
impressive than I’d ever been used to. It has a huge presence, and manages to
fill the room even on a modest volume setting.

I would wholeheartedly recommend it.

Shure SE425 – £219

Shure SE425 in-ear monitors. See full size/quality (3.6MB)

I’ve always taken music semi-seriously, so I’ve always owned good quality ear-
and headphones. I’ve tried many brands and styles over the years, from in-ears,
to on-ears, to circumaural, to monitors, and finally settling on the Shure
SE425s a few years ago. They are by far my favourite.

Sound isolating (not cancelling), incredible clarity, and unusually comfortable
for in-ear ’phones, they’re one of my favourite things I’ve ever owned. You
should buy some. I can comfortably wear these for hours on end, their durable
construction means that they travel well, and their clever design means that the
earbuds themselves detach from the cable, meaning any damage to a specific part
of the entire earphone can be replaced independently.

In fact, about two years ago, my then-pair of SE425s suffered some damage and
the earphone nozzle sheared off of the earphone main unit. I could have put in
a warranty claim to get a replacement, however that would have meant several
weeks without the earphones while they got sent off. I love these way too much
to go two weeks without them, so I just went out and bought a whole other pair.
Unfortunately, I forgot to send the damaged unit off to Shure for repair, which
is pretty bad of me. (Shure, if you’re reading this, maybe you can send me
a replacement left-hand driver?)

That said, they do lack a little depth in the bass, and they’re not the most
handsome things I’ve ever seen. Still, I do absolutely love ’em.

AudioQuest DragonFly Red DAC – £170

AudioQuest DragonFly Red plugged into my MacBook. See full size/quality (3.3MB)

When listening to music from my earphones rather than a speaker, I’m most likely
listening on my laptop or my phone. In order to improve sound quality,
I usually use an external digital-to-analog converter (DAC). Most basic
machines’ DACs aren’t really geared toward high-quality listening: they’re more
functional out of necessity. From What
Hi-Fi?
:

The biggest problem is the DAC circuits used in many devices are just not
efficient enough to do justice to the original recording, so a DAC upgrade can
be the simplest way to improve your digital music and really get the most from
your system.

I’ve previously owned and loved the AudioQuest DragonFly v1.2
(review (★★★★★)),
but their new DragonFly Red offers the ability to use the DAC with your phone,
which means better quality listening on the move.

AudioQuest DragonFly Red plugged into my iPhone. See full size/quality (3.1MB)

The DragonFly is tiny—the same size as a conventional USB stick—but there’s no
denying that it does bulk up your phone somewhat. I have to plug my Shure’s
3.5mm jack into the DAC, then the DAC into an Apple Lightning to USB Camera
Adapter, then the adapter into your phone. When I’m on a flight (as I am right
now) or a train, this extra bulk doesn’t bother me too much—I get settled in
anyway, so I don’t mind the extra room it takes. When I’m out and about, it’s
too much to really stuff into a pocket, so I do just tend to forgo it entirely.

The improvement that the DAC provides is subtle, but definitely noticeable. The
extra clarity you gain (particularly in tracks like Kygo’s
ID
)
is pretty amazing and opens up parts of tracks that you’ve probably always been
missing.

When listening on my laptop, it simply plugs into my Mac’s USB port and adds no
real overhead. This is a great bit of kit, and if you’re listening to high
enough quality audio then I’d recommend picking one up.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x – £130

Audio-Technica’s ATH-M50x hooked up to Tidal. See full size/quality (3.6MB)

These get a lot less use than my Shures, but they are a great pair of
headphones. A wonderfully comfortable pair of over-ear monitors that offer great
clarity. I’m including them because, although I don’t use them so much any more,
if you’re looking for a great pair of long-listen ’phones for work, these would
be great.

Software

Spotify – £9.99/mo

I’ve been a loyal Spotify user for eight (what?!) years now. Although it isn’t
perfect, I am a huge Spotify fan. My only concern is that I never really own any
of my music, which is a frightening thought at times—if Spotify disappears then
I’m lost. What I do love about Spotify is its reliability, its vast catalogue,
and its discovery options.

Something I like a little less about Spotify is that it only streams MP3
formats, which is kind-of annoying. They teased mention of a Spotify Hi-Fi
service but that soon disappeared, and they’ve gone very quiet on that front
since:

That’s
four years old 😔

— Harry Roberts (@csswizardry) March
21, 2018

If Spotify launch a hi-res service I would happily pay whatever extra cost and
close down my Tidal account.

To mitigate this issue, I stream and download all music in the 320kbit/s
Extreme format. This still sounds pretty nice when combined with the DragonFly
DAC and my SE425s.

Tidal – £20/mo

With my move to better quality listening, I became more interested in Tidal for
their lossless and
HiFi
offering.

I was pretty hesitant about moving to Tidal. I’ve got such a long history with
Spotify that I was put off the idea of swapping, even if Tidal does provide
lossless streaming. Another blocker was that I had no way of finding out which
songs in my Spotify library would be available on the Tidal service. I decided
to take the month’s free trial and find out.

The good news is that the Tidal catalogue almost exactly mirrors Spotify’s, so
plenty of the tracks I’d saved elsewhere were available. Unfortunately, though,
not all of them: only about 80% of my Starred playlist is available on Tidal.

The practical upshot of which is that I’m unable to switch over fully, leaving
me in a slightly uncanny valley where I use both services depending on what
I want to listen to. Not the end of the world, but it does make everything feel
a little incomplete. Plus, like I said, if Spotify begin offering a hi-res
streaming service then I will swap fully back immediately.

Tidal streaming lossless FLAC audio. See full size/quality (437KB)

SongShift – £3.99

Because I have eight years of history with Spotify, I was very hesitant to begin
moving to Tidal: that’s a lot of music to transfer. It turns out that
SongShift for iOS is the perfect tool to help with that process.

SongShift allows you to transfer playlists from one streaming provider to
another. The Pro version will keep tracking playlists across services and keep
them all in sync, which means anything I add to my Spotify Starred playlist will
automatically be replicated in Tidal (provided the track is available). That’s
such a neat feature, and makes the £3.99 asking price seem unjustly low.

Sidenote: Always buy the premium version, even if you don’t need it. It’s
important to support independent app developers.

What Next?

I’m pretty happy with this setup for the vast majority of my listening, but
I guess if I were to do a few things next, they’d probably be…

Own My Music

I’d like to start owning more of my music. I should really pay for digital
downloads: it will better support the artists but will also allow me to own my
own library and give me access (hopefully) to multiple file formats of my
choosing.

If I go down this path, I’ll need to start considering many other things such as
storage, backups, compatible media players, and maybe even dedicated hardware.

Combine Libraries

I’d like to eventually coalesce all of my music into one provider, but that will
depend on Spotify’s decision to offer hi-res streaming, or on Tidal matching
Spotify’s catalogue. I’m not going to hold my breath for either.

Custom Sleeves

It would be pretty cool to get some custom sleeves made for the SE425s. I’m not
really sure how to go about getting that done, but I’m sure it can’t be that
complicated.

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