Everything, Everything

Thank you Moldova for making me laugh tonight. Ridiculous and upbeat. This is what #Eurovision is all about. You won't win, but this was fun.
11 days, 20 hours, 22 minutes ago
Great start to the game! Fantastic movement by ESR. #COYG
246 days, 22 hours, 52 minutes ago
Two red cards for Arsenal, 2-1 down, and now Runarsson is in goal on a very wet evening. I don't think we're going to win this one.
487 days, 19 hours, 29 minutes ago
What a great save by Martinez! #COYG
683 days, 31 minutes ago
New Adventures in Hi-Fi
Tuesday 26th April, 2022 13:56
Over many years I've bought increasingly expensive Shure In-Ear Monitoring (IEM) headphones, from the awkward fitting and slightly fragile E2c (via the E3c and SE535) to my beloved and rugged SE846 that have lasted over 6 years and are still going strong, but it's only recently that I've had suitable equipment and source material to really hear the imperfections and poor mastering in my favourite songs... I mean, hear how good the music should sound. I hadn't really planned on doing it, I'd always used IEMs for their convenience (typically in my coat pocket, ready to plug into a phone or laptop at any moment), but enjoyed the great sound from them even from average source material. My journey really began a few years ago after I got into gaming and ended up with a gaming headset with built-in microphone. It worked fine, but it wasn't exactly a great experience, and the microphone was pretty mediocre. I knew I could do better.

I decided to get a "proper" microphone. I ended up getting a Shure SM58 dynamic microphone which has an XLR connection, which is a "legendary cardioid vocal microphone tailored to deliver warm and clear vocal reproduction" according to Shure. I got one with a switch, for easy muting while gaming. That meant getting a DAC with an XLR input, as well as a short XLR cable. Much like the microphone, I went with an entry level device that seemed to be good quality: Focusrite's Scarlett Solo 3rd Gen. At first I paired this with my Shure SE846 IEMs, and they felt much more comfortable than the gaming headset I'd previously used. The microphone sounded good (I paired it with a TritonAudio FetHead, which is partly why I got the Solo for the 48v Phantom Power that the FetHead needs), but it still picked up the keystrokes on mechanical keyboards. The headphones sounded good on it, but I couldn't turn the volume up very far due to the Shure SE846's stupidly low 9 ohms impedance (the SE535s I still have lying around somewhere were 36 ohms), so there was also a bit more noise than I'd like.

I solved the keystroke problem by using NVIDIA's RTX Voice Beta with my GTX 1060 graphics card. The software was a bit buggy and using it affected my framerates, but it felt like magic being able to tap away on my keyboard without anything being heard in Discord. Despite the GPU shortage, I checked daily and managed to find an NVIDIA RTX 3060 card, and then tried NVIDIA Broadcast. The software is more stable, and with pragmatic video settings I can max out the monitor's refresh rate while filtering out unwanted noise and barely using the card's full potential. I also discovered what the AIR button does ("breathes life into vocals, adding unique high-end detail" according to Focusrite), and gave that a try (although I can't really hear much difference, especially with NVIDIA Broadcast in use).

This still left the issue of the DAC's audio output. I talked myself into open-back headphones in the hope of a wider soundstage. I chose the Beyerdynamic Amiron Home, partly based on What HiFi's review, which described them as "comfortable", claiming "you could easily wear these headphones for hours on end" due to the the Alcantara microfibres. On the plus side the impedance is 250 ohms, allowing me to turn the Scarlett's volume to around halfway before I begin to deafen myself. I no longer have that little bit of noise at low volumes. The soundstage is also great, and it makes it much easier to hear where opponents are while I'm gaming.

The Scarlett isn't portable. While I can drive the Amiron Homes using my Android phone, it turns out that Android converts all music to 48KHz, including 44.1KHz CD-quality audio. For the best experience on the move with sources such as Tidal, I'm using a Chord Mojo as a DAC (when I remember to charge it and bring it places).

Again, my lack of research into the Scarlett Solo shows (although I did buy it well before having a Tidal account and knowing about MQA), but it turns out the Tidal application on Windows 10 supports "Passthrough MQA" with this device so I lucked out there! Without passthrough, you can hear a slight difference in the sound compared to software decoding (I think the Scarlett does it better, but it might be my imagination).

Would I recommend this setup to anyone? Yes and no.

A gaming headset with built-in microphone is way more convenient and can be far cheaper.

There are arguably better microphones you can use, such as the Audio-Technica AT2020 cardioid condenser microphone that lots of people recommend (the AT2020 has a better frequency response, but requires 48V Phantom Power - which the Scarlett supports - and may be more fragile). However, the SM58 can be dropped repeatedly, is less susceptible to picking up unwanted noise, and has a built-in shock mount and pop filter. While the AT2020 can do up to 20KHz, the SM58 only goes up to 15KHz, but both are somewhat overkill when vocals only go up to about 300Hz, and anything above 10KHz is into the "AIR" range (that some music producers will filter out in songs). If you feel like spending (2-3x) more than the SM58, the Shure SM7B Vocal Microphone is meant to be really good; but if you're just getting started I definitely think you should consider a less expensive microphone. There will be diminishing returns if you're using it for something like Discord.

There are better/different open-back headphones (headphones are a somewhat subjective thing). I like the Amiron Homes for their comfort as I can game for hours on end, but you may find similarly priced headphones that sound better (but might be less comfortable). Open-back headphones also let in surrounding noise, and everyone around you will hear what you're listening to, which could be annoying for them. If you don't mind a narrower soundstage or you need better isolation then consider a close-back headphone. Or even an IEM (although avoid the SE846 if you plan on pairing it with the Scarlett). The cord on the Amiron Homes is also very long. Almost annoyingly long. I'm sure you can find a shorter cable somewhere though, and you can easily replace the cable as they're detachable.

There are better/other DACs. The Solo is entry level and while it's even better than I'd first realised it's also got a lot of competition. Focusrite have a small range of premium-quality USB audio interfaces called Clarett such as the Clarett+ 2Pre, which is unsurprisingly more expensive. If you don't need MQA support or need "AIR" to improve your vocals, you may be able to find a cheaper DAC with XLR support. Or find yourself a microphone with a USB input that you can plug in and use anywhere without having to use a fancy DAC.

Chord finally released the Mojo 2 recently, which comes with USB-C connections for easier connectivity with modern kit. I'd suggest getting that instead of the original Mojo.

Both DACs (Scarlett and Mojo) support insane output rates, above and beyond any source material you might have. Absolute overkill.

If you like Shure IEMs, consider the SE535 over the SE846 if you plan on using it with a DAC for gaming. They're half the price, and should pair better with the Scarlett due to the higher impedance.

You should also check out DankPods on YouTube. He regularly points out that older (used) headphones still sound great and can often be picked up for good prices. He also recommends some good budget headphones.

Do you need Tidal's HiFi Plus subscription? Probably not. Unless you want MQA or Dolby Atmos (presumably best with an Atmos amplifier and surround sound setup) or can definitely hear the difference between 24-bit/96KHz audio versus the cheaper HiFi subscription's FLAC's 16-bit/44.1KHz CD-audio quality, you might as well save some money. The HiFi Plus subscription is twice the price, but you probably can't hear the difference compared to HiFi, especially if you don't have the hardware to support it (I sometimes use my gaming monitor's crappy speakers due to their convenience). You're likely better off taking that £120 annual saving and buying a better pair of headphones.

I came from using Spotify (and still do use it!) which costs the same £9.99 per month (despite only offering lossy audio), but unless you can hear the difference between lossy and lossless audio (most people can't - even Eddy Cue, the boss of Apple Music, has openly said that - and those that can basically trained themselves to look for the differences), if you're already using Spotify you may want to stick with it. If you have a partner, or family, or you're a student, you can get better value Premium Spotify plans too; although Tidal also offer discounts on HiFi Plus for students and family that's competitively priced. Maybe Spotify will finally make better quality audio available someday.
© Robert Nicholls 2002-2022
The views and opinions expressed on this site do not represent the views of my employer.