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.