Have hi-fi, will travel. Get more from your mobile music

Some cite the 2001 arrival and subsequent stellar rise of Apple’s iPod as an apocalyptic event, dooming music to a hellish world of compressed downloads and limited choice.

As someone who’s always hated to leave home without music, I prefer a more progressive view. With a turn of its white click-wheel, Apple’s player cued up a digital world where both quality and convenience – from music files to headphones to home hi-fi – has increased.

Sceptical? Maybe you’ve forgotten just how far mobile music has come. For those of you too young – or radically revisionist  – to recall, travelling with music in tow used to mean carrying bags bulging with cassettes and batteries (then discs and batteries). That was to feed a relatively limited line-up of decent portable players and a slim selection of suitable headphones. The few ‘pro’ models that did exist were astonishingly expensive in real terms.

Today I just need my mobile phone and my pick of top-grade headphones to enjoy thousands – potentially millions – of songs on the move in superior sound quality. Add a laptop – rarely far from my side – into the mix, and some software and hardware tricks come into play that make true portable hi-fi possible.

Picking your perfect headphones

First up, some ways to get more from that basic combination of player plus headphones. For starters, if you’re still using the buds bundled with your phone or player, upgrade to more capable pair. This is particularly true of Apple’s flimsy freebies, which – though improved from earlier incarnations – are still better put in the bin than your ears.

Whether you prefer in-ear, on-ear or over-ear designs, there’s never been a broader choice of quality headphones. Take time to find the pair that best suits your ears, head and music.  A snug fit means you’ll hear the headphones at their best. It’ll also better isolate you from outside noise – good news for both your sanity and your hearing; there’ll be no need to turn up your music to potentially ear-damaging levels.

Through technology and different-sized tips, the best in-ear designs can be adjusted to suit your ears. Still can’t find a fit to suit? You can have custom tips created from a perfect cast of your ears. DIY kits are available, but for an easier experience you can visit a professional audiologist; Google ‘custom earphone sleeves’ and you’ll find plenty of options.

Proper-fitting headphones also stop your music leaking out to annoy others. If you opt for over- or on-ear headphones, make sure to pick a closed-back design to keep your sounds to yourself.

A smarter choice of player

Right, that’s your headphones sorted: now onto the player. Whether you’re buying a dedicated music portable or a multimedia mobile phone, it’s worth reading the reviews before you buy (Whathifi.com assesses the audio qualities of smartphones as well as players), but rising quality standards mean it’s rare to find a truly bad-sounding device.

You don’t have to go the Apple route: alternative players and many top Android smartphones typically offer support for a wider range of music-file formats (including FLAC), but the iPod Touch and iPhone remain great portables, and the iPad, – often overlooked for its musical potential – sounds better still.

But providing you’ve chosen a decent player and headphones, feeding it with great-quality music is of more importance than any brand name. I’m going to assume you’ve ripped your own music at a reasonable bit-rate – preferably higher than the default, 256kbps level of iTunes. Not that you’re limited to your own library. Sign up to a music streaming service, and via an app – Apple or Android – you have access to millions of tracks, from classic cuts to the latest releases.

Get appy, get streaming

The best option for both quality, features and choice is Spotify – specifically its £10/month Premium service (available on 30-day free trial), which allows you to mingle your own music collection with its unrivalled track selection, creating playlists you can listen to anywhere – even when offline. It’s easy to find favourite tracks, plus discover new delights via shared playlists or Spotify’s radio-style streams. Its app runs on Apple (including a great new iPad app) and Android portables.

Spotify Premium will stream at bitrates of up to 320Kbps – an acceptable compromise for all that choice and convenience, and a superior quality to any current UK rival. Much fuss has been made about Spotify’s Facebook integration, but you can disable this option if you don’t want your online friends knowing what music you’re listening to.

Another streaming service to look out for is MOG, which offers 320Kbps streaming across its impressive music library, plus the option of an optimised iPad app.  MOG is due in the UK soon.

A sound software upgrade

If you want to get closer to hi-fi performance on your travels, look to your laptop.
A new breed of pocket-sized headphone amplifiers and digital-to-analogue converters (DACs) can deliver an instant upgrade to the music and movies you either store or stream on your computer. The best can handle high-resolution music files and be simply powered from your laptop’s USB socket: no mains required.

Keeping things laptop based also means you can easily listen to high-resolution, better-than-CD quality downloads- such as this own site’s excellent Society of Sound offerings – plus explore the latest generation of audiophile music-player software.

From J River to Pure Music to Amarra (Stereophile’s 2011 Computer Audio product of the year; recently available in a new cut-price version), these leave iTunes far behind for format flexibility and playback quality potential. All are available on free trial: get downloading and have a listen.

How to benefit back home

Whether it’s subscribing to a music streaming service or upgrading to better computer audio quality, you can of course also reap the benefits at home, via anything from iPod dock to desktop speakers to your main hi-fi system.  Perfect for anything from party playlists to lazy weekend listening.

Because even at their best, headphones can only get you so far – listening out loud and sharing songs with friends in person (not just via Facebook) remains a real pleasure. I may no longer tote a ton of discs, tapes or batteries on my travels, but I did recently fly off on holiday with a high-end iPod speaker system as my hand luggage…

 Clare Newsome

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