Cans, Cambridge and Qobuz: the quest for great sounding music

I couldn’t hear the soul in Aretha Franklin’s voice.  And when Aretha sounds like she’s got no soul, it’s not Aretha’s problem – it’s yours.  I was listening to Spotify on my Macbook Pro, through a pair of Nocs NS400 in-ear headphones, and Aretha had no soul.  I had to find it.

Nocs NS400 in-ear headphones
Nocs NS400 in-ear headphones

My music setup was fairly typical, if not above average. I subscribed to Spotify Premium, which streams music in 320kb per second. The MacBook Pro is an expensive and well-made computer. And the Nocs headphones are an order of magnitude better than the laptop’s built-in speakers or the white earbuds that come by default with Apple products. But still, Aretha had no soul.

Most modern listening setups limit the quality of the sound

Emotion is key to enjoying music in all its fullness. You need to feel how a vocalist feels while she sings, and how a musician feels while he plays. All of that emotion should be there in the sound: in the painful trembling of a singer’s voice or in the rage of a guitar well and truly thrashed. The problem is that most modern listening setups limit the quality of the sound that reaches your ears so that the emotion is nowhere to be found.

Spotify Premium - not as good as it sounds
Spotify Premium – not as good as it sounds

It turns out that Spotify drops a lot of the high frequencies to fit its music into 320kb per second. The MacBook Pro’s digital-to-analogue converter (DAC) provides only a loose approximation of the sound and the headphone port adds a background hiss.  I struggled to get the Nocs headphones to fit properly in my ears and feeling the sound reverberate inside my head felt more unnatural the longer I listened to it.

I immediately had a very good impression of the X1 headphones.

I wanted better sound so that I could better feel the music. I started my quest with the interface between the system and my ears: the headphones. After comparing models from Sennheiser, Beyerdynamic and AKG, I settled on the Philips Fidelio X1 headphones.  The key features of these headphones are:

  • A circum-aural design (they sit around the ears) for maximum comfort
  • An open back to let the sound move more naturally
  • Large 50mm drivers for a full, warm tone
  • Low 32ohm resistance for high sensitivity, so they can be driven by any output

I immediately had a very good impression of the X1 headphones. The packaging, materials, and the fit and finish are excellent and ooze quality. The pads are made of memory foam covered in velour, and they sit comfortably around my ears. The band is wrapped in beautiful calf’s leather, and suspends a breathable fabric strip that rests lightly on the top of my head.

Philips Fidelio X1 headphones
Philips Fidelio X1 headphones

I noticed the difference in sound right away. Where before the soundstage was narrow, it was now wide with clear separation between instruments. Vocals sounded richer and possessed greater range. The overall tone felt mostly even, with a just pleasant touch of warmth. The sound had come a long way, but the better headphones revealed deficiencies elsewhere.

The sound was occasionally loose and wobbly, and there was sometimes a hiss behind the music. I decided that the next step was to get an improved DAC to clean and tighten the sound.

The DacMagic is small enough to sit unobtrusively on my desk

I considered the Fiio E10 (which became unavailable before I made a decision) and the Audioquest DragonFly, but finally went for the Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS.  The key features of this DAC are:

  • High-resolution DAC
  • Headphone amplification
  • USB power and data with plug-and-play setup
  • Small size

The DacMagic is small enough to sit unobtrusively on my desk, in the path between my computer and my headphone cable.  It’s finished in black brushed aluminium. After connecting it to a free USB port, all I had to do was go to my computer’s settings and change the audio output.

Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS
Cambridge Audio DacMagic XS

The difference in sound quality was not as stark as when I added the new headphones. The biggest differences were in attack, consistency and noise. The attack (how aggressively new sounds are begun) was handled more accurately, making everything sound “tighter” in the right places, especially bass notes. The tone and volume were more consistent between songs and within individual songs.  And there was no longer any hiss behind the music.

Online music is largely still stuck in the MP3 era

Still, the combination of good headphones and a good DAC revealed Spotify’s “extreme quality” for what it truly is: a muddled mess that cuts out the high end and leaves the low end a quagmire of muddy distortion.  I needed a better source than Spotify.

So began the final leg of my journey, and in some ways the most difficult.  There’s no lack of options in the headphone market, and even quality DACs are plentiful, but online music is largely still stuck in the MP3 era.

I wanted a streaming music service (because I want to be able to access music anywhere without storing files), I wanted a large catalogue of music (old and new, all genres), I wanted full albums and playlists, and I wanted it all in at least CD-quality (16-bit, 44.1 khz).

Qobuz high-definition streaming music
Qobuz high-definition streaming music

Spotify won’t do it.  Apple’s iTunes won’t do it.  Pandora and Rdio won’t do it.  But a little French outfit called Qobuz will.  The key features of Qobuz are:

  • Streaming music with option for local downloads
  • Comprehensive catalogue of music (including a lot of French music, which UK and US audiences might not normally hear)
  • Access to full albums and playlist options
  • “Hi-Fi” premium service for CD-quality sound at £20 per month
  • Desktop and mobile apps with Airplay support
  • Based in France but (mercifully) with English language support

Calvin Russell has just the right balance of weariness and hope

With “Hi-Fi” streaming on Qobuz, I had the final piece of the puzzle.  Fed a diet of high-bitrate sound, my DAC and headphones came alive with detail and force.  Wanda Vick’s sexy voice bursts through her sultry album “Bluegrass Girl”.  Rough hip-hop album “Illmatic” by Nas grinds along with the freshness and vigor of someone having fun with their lyrics and production.  Calvin Russell strums and growls his way through his blues-inspired country-and-western album “Crossroad” with just the right balance of weariness and hope.

Aretha Franklin: got soul to spare
Aretha Franklin: got soul to spare

And Aretha Franklin?  In “Live At Filmore West”, the way she belts out her numbers feels like a slap in the face and a kiss on the lips.  She croons, she breathes, she whispers, she moans and she shouts.  She commands your attention and your R-E-S-P-E-C-T.  Aretha’s got her soul back.

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