The iPhone (and the iPod before it) has completely changed the way the majority of people experience and appreciate music. The ability to carry a huge amount of music with you wherever you go, and now to access streaming music services such as Spotify or Tidal, means that the iPhone (or other smartphones) are now the primary way people consume music.
How many times have we pulled out our phones to share a song with friends on the streetcar or used a phone in a cup as the jukebox at a party? The undeniable convenience compels everyone to do this at times and it’s colouring how we experience music, especially for the first time.
Can you imagine Dark Side of the Moon or Kind of Blue ever becoming popular if they were first heard by the world on one of these 3mm speakers? The reality is that any kind of natural or non-beat-oriented music sounds positively terrible on such a limited range speaker. As a society we’re now missing the bulk of the sound of most music.
As audiophiles, this idea might be sacrilege, but let’s not lose hope, because there are some really easy ways to get all this great music out of the phone in a whole lot better quality.
The first step is to look at the settings in the iPhone itself. While the iPhone does have one of the better speakers on the market, it, and the standard earbuds are pretty atrocious in absolute terms. The included EQ setting can help slightly to improve the built-in speakers and earbuds but it ruins the purity of the sound if you are going to look at any of the options we’ll talk about here. Turn it off.
Secondly, Sound Check and Volume Limit adjust the volume of every track and restrict the maximum output of the phone which reduces what you can get out quality wise. We just want the pure music at the volume it was recorded at, not louder, not quieter. Turn these options off as well.
UPGRADE THE SPEAKER
Now that we’ve got the iPhone set to output unadulterated sound, let’s look at alternate ways to hear the music. One of the most popular ways to sidestep the built in speaker is to go for an external speaker which you can connect with either a wire or via Bluetooth. Basic speakers such as the Elac’s Z3 are leagues better.
These types of devices are very portable and range in price up to about $300. The bluetooth 4.0 AptX transmission codec used by the best speakers is very close to CD quality and does a very good job at maintaining most of the sound of your files and some of these little speakers will surprise you. Check out the ones we’ve selected. They’re the good ones. For slightly higher quality sound you can connect via Wi-Fi to the many AirPlay compatible speakers such as the Peachtree Audio’s DB3, or M24 and M25 stereo Speakers. These offer high quality “boombox” size sound for moderate sized rooms and are very simple to set up to play directly from your iPhone with almost no setup. While not hi-fi, this next level of sound is pleasant enough to give you good bass and at times even a nice natural midrange. Investing in any of these basic upgrades will massively improve your music enjoyment and save you from the party blahs of phone-in-cup-sound.
UPGRADE THE EARPODS
The other built-in sound of the iPhone comes from the standard earpods. These are improved from the originals, but they’re still atrocious compared to the best earbuds on the market. For $99, the Mies e200 are 5x better sounding, and they fit much nicer in your ears with their range of soft rubber pads. They’re so good sounding, that in absolute terms, a good music file and an iPhone with the Mies will outperform most $2000 stereos. Since so many people spend their time listening to their phone, this $100 upgrade can be life changing and will start many people on the audiophile path. You might consider giving a pair to some of the young people you know so that they can see what they’re missing.
GO FOR HIGH END HEADPHONES
For those looking for the next level up in headphones, you might wonder just how good the headphone jack on the iPhone is. We’ve compared to many other phones and are pleased to say that it is one of the best of the phones on the market and even compares favourably against “audiophile” portables like the Pono (there are a lot of similar findings across the web recently). This opens the door to using a wide range of really good headphones. Pairing something like a Grado SR225i ($329) or Master & Dynamic MH40 ($499) yields such great sound that you will wonder why you didn’t do it sooner. For those that haven’t owned a good stereo, or don’t have the room for one, this can become a great solution for top quality sound.
If you want to take headphone listening to the further degree, an external headphone amp like the Graham Slee Voyager provides enough gain and proper output impedance to use even top tier headphones like the Sennheiser HD800. This might sound ridiculous, but come listen and hear just how amazing the iPhone can be.
WHAT ABOUT FILE TYPES?
Many people at this point ask “well, all these upgrades are pointless if I don’t use uncompressed music files right?” We’ve done the tests and we encourage you to test yourself too by asking someone else to play AAC at 192 vs MP3 at 256k vs Apple Lossless without telling you which is playing. The difference can be heard on top tier headphones, but it’s not the degree you might expect. In practical terms it might be 1-5% between each level. If you’ve got lots of storage space, sure, go Apple Lossless every time to guarantee perfect fidelity. But, the choice of an initial headphone upgrade or spending even $50 more to go to a higher model headphone (or speaker) is a factor of 10x more noticeable than the file type. Don’t get caught up in the techno hype. Invest in what makes the actual sound.
Now that we’ve looked at the basic ways of improving upon the built-in sound options, let’s go to the next step. Can an iPhone be an audiophile device if you already own a stereo? You bet! Many people are shocked to know that the old stereo they thought was obsolete can be easily connected to their iPhone for almost no cost!
A simple $10 3.5mm to RCA cable, can be connected to the headphone jack on the iPhone and the other ends to your old receiver/amp. Just put the red and white connectors into the Tuner, CD, or AUX input (but NOT input labeled ‘Phono)’. Set the volume on your iPhone to maximum and adjust the volume on the receiver to the desired level. Voila, your phone is now playing music with the full sound of your stereo. If you already own a stereo, you’d be silly not to look at this great value option. If your files are at a higher quality such as Apple Lossless, or you have a better stereo, consider spending another $100 on a better sounding cable. It does sound better.
DIGITAL & ANALOG DOCKS
Some manufacturers offer another way of getting sound from your iPhone — through the 30-Pin or lightning connector via an external dock. These docks, such as the Pro-Ject Dock Box, provide an optical or RCA digital output that can be connected to external DACs (digital to analogue converter). A Upgrade DAC will bring a huge improvement in audio quality because they use far superior digital conversion and analog output than what is built into the iPhone.
USB ENABLED COMPONENTS
Some other models of equipment allow you to connect an iPod Touch, iPhone, iPad or USB device via a standard USB cable for either an analog or digital connection. An example using the superior digital connection is the Peachtree Audio nova Series integrated Amps. Just plug your iPhone into the DYNEC USB input using the USB cable and the Peachtree Audio will take care of the sound conversion instead of the iPhone. It will sound much better. Since manufacturers have put a lot of effort into these digital components to ensure quality playback from a CD, why not utilize that for your iDevice!
The term ‘wireless’ is thrown around a lot these days it’s still not common on full size stereos. The two standard wireless methods are Bluetooth and AirPlay. With Bluetooth, a signal is sent directly between the phone and audio with no need for a WiFi connection or router. Bluetooth was not originally intended for high quality audio playback and earlier versions sounded far inferior to a wire connection, but with the upgrade to the AptX codec, it now sounds almost as good as CD and is widely supported. It’s featured on most recent devices. If your audio component or amplifiers doesn’t have built-in Bluetooth, you can add an adapter that connects to one of the inputs for under $50. Some even have digital outputs for use with a good DAC.
The other main way to wirelessly stream music is from a device is via AirPlay. This is an Apple technology which transmits full CD quality audio via Wi-Fi from newer iPads, iPhones, iPod touch and Macs. There are now many receivers/amps that have Airplay built in such as the Peachtree Audio Decco or nova series amps. If you use uncompressed source files, it’s exactly the same quality as playing a CD. If your receiver doesn’t have Airplay built in, you can use an Airport Express (about $120) with either an aforementioned 3.5mm to RCA cable or an optical digital cable or try better 24-192 performance from brands such as iEast. iEast streamers are no slouch and sounds as good at the best $300 CD player. They will also work with many consumer level DACs for much better sound but offer internal High resolution DAC for immediate use in your existing system. However, because of the high jitter of the AirPort, higher precision audiophile DACs usually don’t work. You need a dedicated streamer component like iEast or Elac Discovery and Audio Alchemy music servers.
Our favourite streamer at the moment is the Elac Discovery. For those looking for a combination of amazing user interface with ROON and adding a USB input, Airplay connection, plus a great DAC, the Discovery offers top value.
For audiophiles, it goes much further. The Discovery DAC is the first reliable hi-res music streamer. Hi-res music has about 5 times the data of a CD and can potentially sound leagues better than regular MP3 or CD. If you are looking for the ultimate digital audio based system for now, and with an eye to the future, this is a great choice.
When you graduate beyond the iPhone as the music source it will even let you access all the music stored on a computer or a NAS (Network Attached Storage) Hard Drive or even another device connected to your network. This can drastically expand the amount of music you can store while also opening the door to “mastertape” quality. Best of all, you can simultaneously use the simpler methods of connecting to it and even use your iPhone as a remote control for your huge music collection. It’s brilliant integration for a comparatively low price.
Finally, as a nod to some of the streaming services, Spotify, Pandora and Sirius, the Marantz can play all these at higher quality than on the phone because of the built in DAC. Over time, as new services are available, it can remain the central streamer in your system as Marantz is one of the world’s largest and most supportive audio companies.
As you can see, there are a lot of ways to improve the sound of your iPhone, from simple cables, to the newest hi-res streaming boxes. Most of it can be done for a very respectable budget to transform the humble iPhone into a real powerhouse music device.
With music-listening increasingly happening on smart phones like the iPhone, most people have no idea how much more they could be hearing with such simple upgrades. The difference is really easy to hear and will dramatically transform your enjoyment of music. Come in and let us show you the options today!