How to Fix Your Computer’s Terrible, Terrible Audio Output
I don’t want to think about how many hours I’ve spent listening to music with a pair of headphones plugged into my laptop, either because I’ve been on the road or because I’ve been too lazy to pull the CD or LP and go sit in front of my good speakers.
This hit home because I’ve been spending a lot of time with Cambridge Audio’s DacMagic XS. It’s a $189 DAC (digital-to-analog converter) that plugs into a USB port to bypass your computer’s sound card.
This is a portable version of the kind of standalone DAC that we all should be using to play digital files through our home audio systems. The unit draws its power from your computer instead of its own plug-in power supply (not the idea setup: ask an electrical engineer) but it delivers a startling improvement to my MacBook Air’s audio output.
There are a lot of options for computer-friendly DAC devices under $300. Macworld just did a roundup where they liked pretty much all of them. The DacMagic got dinged on the rating because the AudioQuest DragonFly is $40 cheaper. The DacMagic does handle higher-resolution audio files (up to 192 kHx), which should be of interest to pros and a small sliver of the audiophile market.
I’ve also been thinking about this because I got quite a few of my students at SAE to admit that they’re now editing and even mixing on their laptops. Back in the day, we all had to have outboard processing to run Pro Tools and that also led to having a fixed studio setup which led to good monitors.
Now that we can run most audio software on any laptop, the temptation to pull out the laptop in bed, on the bus, in front of the TV is ever-present. No one (including me) had been thinking twice about plugging headphones into the audio port and getting to work.
Stop it. Now. Get something if you care about audio and listen on a computer. I know people aren’t going to stop mixing on their laptops. A USB DAC isn’t as good as a proper studio setup but it’s infinitely better than what you’re doing now.
I love the DacMagic XS so much that I’m now lugging around my laptop so I don’t have to listen to music from my iPhone (next up: find some kind of usable and portable DAC option for iPhone and iPad). Is streaming from Spotify or Beats Audio the best way to listen to anything? No, but a proper DAC makes a big difference. We’re not all going to sit around in $100,000 (or even $1500) listening rooms to maximize our experience. This at least starts to address the problem.
Ease of use became a bad habit and I’ve ended up spending way too many hours listening in a substandard way. I apologize to myself for not paying attention to this before.
I wrote about The Loop over at Military.com. It’s a simple device designed to keep earbuds from getting tangled in your pocket. It works beautifully.
They were designed by Scott Rodwin, a guy who wanted to keep his own cables from getting knotted up. He spent a lot of time working on the design and presumably a lot of money working out the kinks with some prototypes. He then decided to manufacture them in Colorado inside of farming out the work to China.
Those decisions mean the Loop doesn’t exactly come cheap: you’ve got to buy at least three and they cost around $7 each. I’m sure a big chunk of the price goes to pay for manufacturing startup costs.
Of course, after wandering through acre after acre of the most shameless knockoff products at CES, I can think of another reason to keep the manufacturing close to home: send your manufacturing to China and any patent protection you thought you had is out the window. The value of the Loop isn’t in the plastic (although the plastic on the actual product is of a higher grade than you might expect if you’ve been shopping at Walmart for the last couple of decades). What you’re paying for with the Loop is a great idea that solves a problem. If the product succeeds and sells in large numbers, the price will likely drop but that moment will come after Scott has recouped his initial investment of time and creative energy.
Or he’ll get knocked off.
So I’ll admit this: I’ve spent a lot of time looking at the Loop thinking about a world where traditional ideas about intellectual property and copyright are shot to hell.
When technological advances have allowed supply and distribution networks to reach a mind-bending level of efficiency, what’s the value of one great idea?
The Loop is a great idea that’s also well-executed. It’s also the product of a small business that chose to design and manufacture its products here in the United States. It’s also a lot better than almost all of the speculative nonsense getting hyped on Kickstarter because it’s, you know, real.
In the 20th century, creative people (writers, musicians, designers, filmmakers) didn’t usually get paid for their actual work. They got a cut of the money companies made because people had to pay a lot to access whatever delivery system (CD, DVD, magazine, etc.) required to experience their work.
When my friends and colleagues struggle with the questions of how creative people get paid, I’m not sure they’re thinking enough about why we actually used to make money.
I talk about this stuff a lot in my classes at SAE and I’m going to start writing about more about it here.
So, The Loop: if you look at their video and think it might solve a problem in your life, I’m offering up my endorsement. It’s a fantastic object. You deserve one.
It’s weird that the Nuggets aesthetic has fallen so far out of fashion that only one other person voted for the Jacco Gardner album and I’m the only person who paid attention to the Night Beats.
I saw the Night Beats playing in the front room at Barbarella in the middle of the afternoon during SXSW this year. They were every bit as ferocious as when I discovered them the year before playing in a parking lot on East 6th St.
Parquet Courts are lucky/smart enough to live in NYC and have some high-profile advocates (Hi, Rob!), but the Night Beats are exiled in the Pacific Northwest without an advocate in what’s left of the rock press. (Have they been to the UK? I know plenty of people over there who would flip for the show.)
The Jacco Gardner thing is even more surprising to me. It’s a remarkably accomplished recording, full of really sophisticated production choices and songwriting that plays to the Zombies/Kinks/Left Banke/early BeeGees/Billy Nicholls taste profile that used to dominate the white-guy music press.