Category Archives: Audiophile

Altec Lansing M650 iPod Speaker Dock

After enjoying the Philips Revolution speaker dock for a while, I started to look for a better sounding iPod dock. I found that in the Altec Lansing M650, which is a 2.1 channel system (yes, stereo speakers plus a tiny, down-firing subwoofer!) in a compact, triangular case, with a 30-pin iPod/iPhone dock on a ledge in front.

I thought, and still think, that it sounds great. Its sound is warm, rich, and natural. While I wouldn’t consider the bass response to be very tight, or there to be any stereo separation at all, it does sound really nice, and can fill a small bedroom or a home office with a pleasant sound that I could listen to for hours on end.

I used one as my main desktop stereo system for a couple years while I worked from home. It replaced my Harmon Kardon Soundsticks, which sounded better for music, but were not as easy to connect to my iPhone. It sounds great for music, podcasts, and for TV—thanks to its line-in jack, I often plugged an iPad into it for better audio when watching baseball or Netflix. I liked this speaker so much that I bought another one for the kitchen, where it was a great base station for phone charging and playing internet radio for several years.

Unfortunately, while this speaker sounds great, its 30-pin dock is poorly implemented. After several months, both speakers emit annoying static from the 30-pin connector unless the iPhone is seated just right. I think I’m the only one in my house who knows how to fiddle with it until the sound clears up. Plus, of course, the 30-pin connector was made obsolete by Apple’s change to the Lightning standard.

I still use both of my M650s in my children’s rooms to play white noise while they sleep, and occasional music while they are awake, through our old iPhone 4 and 4S. It has gotten increasingly difficult to seat an iPhone on them without getting static through the 30-pin connection, but it is still possible. However, because the 30-pin iPhones that drive them are old and barely work at this point (software-wise), these speakers’ days as iPhone docks are numbered. They have a line-in jack in the back, however, and are prime candidates to pair with an Amazon Echo Dot (or something similar) sometime in the future.

Philips Revolution Motorized Portable Speaker Dock for iPhone/iPod

The iPod had a monumental impact on how people listened to music. Not only did it turn people onto digital music downloads, rather than CDs, better than any preceding product; it also made listening to playlists and to shuffled music simple and extremely popular. The iPod’s 30-pin connector had a huge impact on home speaker systems as well. Suddenly, it became the default connection option for a bevy of home speakers. In stores, many speaker systems were repealed by iPod speaker docks.

While I had iPods since the first iPod Mini was released, shortly after I got married, I got an iPod Touch. It came for for free with my wife’s first MacBook Pro, and she had no interest in it. Of course, as a non-iPhone-owner, I found the iPod Touch to be an incredible upgrade from my iPod Nano. Around the same time, I got my first iPod speaker dock for free as well, in exchange for writing a review. It was a Philips Revolution speaker dock that looked somewhat like a boombox, could be driven by a bunch of D-cells or a power cord, and had a rotating dock that could accommodate (in portrait or in landscape mode) every iPod created to date and the first generation iPhone.

For sound, it was perfectly adequate. I liked it a lot at the time, but I thought of it like a boombox rather than a room-filling speaker system. It lacked a subwoofer, and thus had lackluster bass, but it was small, battery powered, and brought music into places in our apartment that it previously didn’t reach. My wife and I enjoyed using it with the iPod Touch for streaming music—mainly Pandora or streaming radio from WNYC—in the dining room while we ate dinner. I really enjoyed using it for background music during meals or for news radio, for which having the richest and best audio quality was not terribly important.

In the same way that my computer, once I got a CD-ROM drive, supplanted the stereo system as my main music player, this speaker system solidified the iPod’s (and later the iPhone’s) prime position as the source for music in my house. It also got me into the habit of streaming audio into the house, rather than only playing previously downloaded (or ripped) music. My wife and I used it in our kitchen for years to stream WNYC news and music. When the iPhone changed from the 30-pin connector to the Lightning connector however, this speaker dock’s days were numbered. And when that original iPod Touch’s software support was dropped by Apple, this speaker dock’s days were done.

Harman Kardon Soundsticks II Speaker System

In my mid 20s, I decided to move from boring (but nice) suburban Connecticut back to the Boston area where I went to college. It was a chance to reinvent myself, which is something I really needed to do at the time.

In the process, I replaced a lot of my belongings—cheap things or hand-me-downs that I had since my college days—with newer, better versions. I replaced nearly everything I cooked with and ate with: dishes, pots and pans, and small appliances. I bought a new wardrobe and got rid of my ratty old T-shirts and jeans. I traded up from a slow and struggling Dell tower PC to a sleek, fast, white MacBook (my first Mac!). I also traded up from my old, busted Altec Lansing computer speakers to the cool, futuristic Harman Kardon Soundsticks II that I saw in the Apple Store.

The Soundsticks’ clear plastic construction made them almost invisible. Their clear, light-up subwoofer looked like a bioluminescent jellyfish floating atop the tangle of wires under my desk. Their capacitive touch volume control was futuristic, too, but really hard to control; I mainly relied on my MacBook’s volume control instead.

In my cool, urban apartment, I played music through these cool, stylish speakers for hours and hours each day as I worked on my new MacBook (and on my work laptop, side-by-side). They sounded much better than my prior Altec Lansing computer speakers, but mostly they just looked better. I found that, at loud volumes, they didn’t really fill the room how I would have liked them, but I rarely played them that loud anyway, considering they were sitting on the desk I was working at.

During this time, I stopped buying CDs and started buying music online. I got into indie rock very heavily, mainly because I could get their tracks at great prices (25 cents per track) though eMusic. I first heard Okkervil River, Spoon, The Avett Brothers, The Apples in Stereo, Bright Eyes, Rilo Kily, Rainer Maria, and many, many other artists through these speakers.

I happily used these speakers for five years or so—even after moving from my hip, urban apartment to the suburban house I live in now—but I eventually tired of the mess their wires made atop and beneath my desk, and moved them into basement storage. Someday I hope to find another use for them, perhaps as a bookshelf system driven by a Raspberry Pi, but I would need to figure out a way to hide all the wires, so the great looks of these speakers shine through.

Altec Lansing Computer Speakers

Over winter break, during my sophomore year in college, I bought my first new computer: a beige Dell tower with an Intel 486 processor. When pricing out systems—and this was done over the phone back then, rather than over the internet, because my parents did not have internet access in 1997—I configured nearly identical systems from Gateway and Dell at the same price. The only difference between them was in the peripherals: the Gateway came with a 19-inch monitor, rather than a 17-inch monitor, and the Dell came with a USB-connected, 2.1 channel Altec Lansing speaker setup. I bought the Dell, to get the better speakers.

At the time, I thought the trade-off was completely worth it. The speakers were tiny, stylish, had some fancy USB connectivity (USB was brand new then!), and came with a subwoofer, which I had never had before. The subwoofer added a new dimension to my music that I had never experienced before. It could shake the room if I wanted that, or just add some sub-bass dimension to the music. Its presence inspired me to pair this speaker set with my old, 2-channel Altec Lansing computer speakers, to create a 4.1 channel setup that I used to watch DVDs in my dorm room in 1999 and 2000. I had to upgrade my sound card to a Sound Blaster Audigy to get that to work. (I think that is the last dedicated sound card I ever bought!)

Their USB connection was not all I had hoped for, however. It did not carry the audio signal; it only allowed you to control the volume and EQ from a Windows menu bar application. It was pretty sophisticated for the time, but it was superfluous, and, I discovered after a year or so, the drivers that made it work caused Windows to crash all the time. So I disabled the USB feature and continued to use them for about 10 years, through college, grad school, and beyond. Eventually they wore out so badly they could no longer play at a proper volume. By that point, though, I had moved onto using an iPod for most of my music playback.

My first computer speakers

I got my first computer when I was in seventh grade. It was an IBM AT/XT that we upgraded several times over the years. By the time I was in high school, my dad bought me a SoundBlaster sound card and some 6-inch computer speakers. I actually do not remember who made them: it was either JBL, Creative, or Altec Lansing. What I do remember is that they were the generic beige color of all PC hardware of the era, the right speaker had knobs for balance and volume, and, as a pair, they could go very, very loud. No one else I came across had computer speakers that large or that loud.

Sound quality-wise, however, they were not great. Back then, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, it was still rare to hear any sounds at all coming out of a computer. It was enough to be able to hear the beeps and blips coming from my DOS-based productivity software and games.

Due to lackluster sound quality, and the fact that CD-ROM drives were too expensive for me to buy until the mid 1990s, these computer speakers never replaced my CD system’s speakers as my main playback system. They are important to me, however, because they enabled me, for the first time, to use the computer to record and mix music.

Sony CFD-510 Boombox

A week before I left for college I bought a Sony boombox to use as a bookshelf stereo. It had detachable speakers, so you could actually achieve stereo separation, and, of course, “mega bass”, which was pretty much mandatory for good sound in such small speakers.

I chose this particular model because it had an analog 3-band equalizer, as opposed to several genre-specific settings; I relied on the EQ to pick out guitar and bass parts I would transcribe. As a bonus, it didn’t have a crazy light show like the many of the other boomboxes on sale in 1996.

I don’t remember very well how it sounded, to be honest, because I wasn’t able to use it that much. My freshman year roommate and I did not share musical tastes, so I had to play my music through my computer using headphones. (My computer’s CD-ROM drive actually had a dedicated “play” button and its own headphone jack.) I didn’t realize it at the time, but all those hours listening to music over headphones (the cheapest headphones possible, I’d say) in my dorm room were the very beginning of my headphone-centric music listening preferences.

My first speaker system

My parents bought me my first CD player at the JC Penney Outlet. It was a damaged, open-box, no-name system that resembled a single, tall unit. It contained, from top to bottom, a turntable (though the clear cover was broken off and missing), an AM/FM radio, a five band equalizer, a dual deck cassette, and a single cd player at the bottom. The only reason I asked for it, and thought my family could afford it, was because it was damaged and was being sold at a steep discount. I also told my parents I would listen to classical music on it, which was my intent, but didn’t actually happen too often.

It came with two bookshelf speakers with RCA inputs that plugged in the rear, that I set up about ten feet away from the receiver. I couldn’t tell you how good or bad the sound was. All I knew at the time is that it was amazing compared to what I had at the time: my mom’s 20-year-old transistor radio, and a cheap, toy-like boombox with a dual cassette deck. The most important upgrade, of course, was upgrading from records and tapes to CDs. CDs didn’t have tape hiss, had high dynamic range, and didn’t wear out over time or get eaten by the plater sometimes.

I blasted music through this no-name system for hundreds of hours through middle school and high school. I measured my school papers by how many album listens it took to write them. I used it to practice singing, to transcribe songs with my guitar, to play back 4-track recordings, to lie back on my bed with CD liner notes while my favorite new song played on repeat.

I amassed an enormous CD collection, mostly through the Columbia House and BMG Music clubs, and partly through weekly trips to my local record store (which is long gone now).

Now that I’m a parent, I am amazed that all my loud music playing didn’t drive my parents crazy. They never complained to me about my music blasting from 3 PM to 10 PM every day. My kids are too little to listen to music on their own, but I’m already thinking about which headphones to get them, so we can all coexist in the house.

I have no idea where this system went or who made it, but, based on it being my first CD player, it is probably the most important speaker system I have ever owned.

Speakers over the years

I love music, and I love headphones, but, oddly enough, I have no special love for speakers. The reason, I suppose, is that, since I was a broke teenager living with my parents, I have never had the opportunity to listen to loud, room-filling music at my home. Roommates, sleeping children, and close neighbors have always prevented it. That said, my love of music has always depended on speakers, and, as I got older, they got a little better over the years.

I’m going to publish a short series of posts about the various speaker systems I’ve had over the years. After that, I will post a short series of posts about all the headphones I’ve had, and loved, over the years, as well.

My slide into audiophile territory, Part 3

This is the third in a series of posts about my realization that I have become an audiophile. The prior post examined what it means to me to be an audiophile.

It’s about spending money, right?

Calling yourself an audiophile is a little like calling yourself a rube and not realizing it. That’s because being an audiophile is a hobby marked far more by spending large amounts of money on speakers (I include headphones here, of course)—speakers that sound only a tiny bit better than much less expensive speakers, than on anything else. At worst, it’s conspicuous consumption wrapped in a superiority complex, or an obsession that has gotten embarrassingly expensive. At best, however, it’s about finding new ways to enjoy the music you love, enjoying that music an awful lot with the equipment you have, while keeping a level head about your budget and equipment’s price-to-performance ratio.

I, of course, include myself in the latter camp. I’ve spent a good amount of money on headphones at this point, but I am mostly interested in extracting as much value out of them—as many listening hours and as much enjoyment as possible—rather than on what the next better set of headphones will be.

But why spend a lot more money on a tiny improvement in sound quality?

I care an awful lot about music. I’ve found, quite accidentally, that there is more detail to be heard in the recordings I love, provided I have better speakers or headphones to listen to them with.

I never thought I was missing anything when I listened to everything through $10 Sony earbuds that I would have to replace every three months or so. When I got my first pair of over-ear headphones, though, it opened a new world for me. I heard details in the music I had never noticed before. The soundstage sounded wider. Instruments sounded more distinct, realistic, and separate from each other than I had ever heard before. Drumbeats had a more visceral impact, due to headphone drivers being much larger than those I was used to. On a more basic level, the over-ear headphones had better isolation than the earbuds did, blocking out outside noise, allowing me hear my music even better. Listening to music, something I loved already, became more fun and more exciting than ever before.

Those first over-ear headphones, which I credit for opening my eyes to the benefits of higher-end gear, were nothing special. They were a SteelSeries 7H gaming headset, which I received for free in exchange for writing a review. At the time, it was a $130 headset; today they are being sold for $21, proving that you don’t have to spend outrageous amounts of money to get better audio quality. I’m not saying they are the best headphone ever. Compared to Apple and Sony earbuds, though, they sound fantastic. I never would have realized it, if I hadn’t picked them up.

The headphones I’m wearing right now cost a lot more than those SteelSeries cans, and they reveal details in the music that the SteelSeries cannot. They are objectively better. But the much cheaper headphones are still just fine, and sound way better than whatever free pack-ins you got with your smartphone. I enjoyed them and would probably still be using them to this day if they had not broken. (Headphone durability is a separate issue from sound quality, and can be worth spending more money on.)

The jump from $10 headphones to $130 headphones was definitely worth it to me. Each jump up in price I have made since then was worth it, too. (I didn’t get all my headphones for free!) If I hadn’t tried headphones better than the ones I was used to, I never would have known that better sound was even possible.

What about the law of diminishing marginal returns?

After a certain dollar amount, each additional dollar spent on audio equipment buys you less and less of an improvement in quality. This is the law of diminishing marginal returns, and it’s a very real thing.

Audiophiles can spend stupid amounts of money on headphones and speakers. (To me, the “stupid” threshold is over $400; it may be way higher or way lower to you.) Some headphones cost well over a thousand dollars. Still other models, designed, I think, for for people with more money than sense, retail for three thousand dollars or more. Some speakers cost tens of thousands of dollars. In addition, some people spend hundreds or thousands on receivers, amps, DACs, and whatever other signal processing they want to use to drive their headphones or speakers. The audiophile hobby can get extremely expensive, if you have the money and are never satisfied with what you have. It doesn’t have to be, though.

In my opinion, you have to stop spending money on audio equipment at some point. If you are never satisfied with what you have, the problem may be something other than not having spent enough to buy decent hardware. You can still be an audiophile without buying new equipment all the time or going broke (or merely being ripped off) on over-expensive gear. It’s about the love of the game—the love of music and the gear it plays on—not the love of spending or the fear of missing out on an even better thing.

My slide into audiophile territory, Part 2

This is the second in a series of posts about my realization that I have become an audiophile. The prior post examined why I think of myself as an audiophile now.

What does it mean, to me, to be an audiophile?

So, I’m an audiophile now. What does that even mean? Am I just an overexcited consumer with enough disposable income to blow a lot of money on headphones? Hopefully there is more to it than that.

A lot of people, when talking about speakers or headphones, preface their comments with “I’m not an audiophile, but…” They do so out of humility, to admit their own limitations of hearing, and their own lack of experience discerning good sounding speakers from mediocre ones. What it is really about, however, is saying that you are not a snob. I used to do that, too. But I’ve given myself leeway to put myself in the audiophile camp, despite my lack of ear training and my lack of sophisticated acoustical measuring equipment. I want to take the term “audiophile” back from the snobs.

I call myself an audiophile now because I love sound. I love sound so much that I listen to music hours and hours each day. I love sound so much that I will listen to types of music I didn’t like before—EDM, hip-hop, country, standards, soundtracks—just because they sound good. I love sound so much I will spend large—but not obscene or unlimited—amounts of money on decent equipment.

My love of sound itself is a relatively new development. While I have loved music as long as I can remember, what drove that love was always the melody, the song structure, the lyrics, and the performance—all the normal things people enjoy about music. The production, on the other hand, was not important to me. In fact, over-produced recordings turned me off, because studio slickness betrayed, in my opinion, the authenticity of the music.

Now, I think differently. I admire the craft of studio engineers in a way I never appreciate before. Some recordings just sound great, and that is part of the pleasure of listening to them. Similarly, some singers have have beautiful voices, and it doesn’t matter if they are singing the same old songs (ahem, standards): the sound of their voices brings life to the music and helps make it worthwhile to listen to.

To me, being an audiophile is about appreciating the distinction between the sound and the music, and deriving pleasure from it, far more than it is about spending vast amounts of money on expensive equipment, or believing the hokum perpetrated by high-end audio equipment manufacturers and sellers.