How to get the best sound from your computer
Your computer may have woeful built-in speakers, but with a few simple upgrades you can enjoy audiophile quality hi-res recordings, says Chris Haslam
Most of us spend a disproportionately large amount of time in front of a computer. There’s the nine-to-five, the online searching, reading, shopping and binge-watching, but one thing many music lovers forget is the fact your laptop has the power to be a high-quality music system.
Yes, your computer may have woeful built-in speakers, but with a few simple upgrades you can enjoy audiophile quality hi-res recordings. If you don’t need to worry about disturbing co-workers, a pair of desktop speakers will let your computer sing. Ruark’s superb-value MR1 Mk2 (£349) connects over your computer’s Bluetooth, optical or 3.5mm inputs. Alternatively, KEF’s all-in-one LSX (£999) offers wireless hi-res streaming support and sensational performance.
Unlike many smartphones, most computers and laptops still have a 3.5mm socket, which gives you the chance to plug in and enjoy a really good pair of wired over-ear headphones. Your computer’s built-in DAC (digital analogue converter) might not be brilliant – more on that below – but quality headphones from brands such as Audeze, Audio Technica and Grado will pull out as much detail as possible from whatever you’re listening to.
Wireless headphones can sound great too – especially if you’re in a noisy office and they have active noise cancellation – though audio quality will only ever be as good as the Bluetooth connection. Combining a great pair of wired over-ear headphones with an external DAC or headphone amp is the easiest way to enjoy good quality audio without investing in a high-end hi-fi. There’s something for every budget, from the iFi Zen DAC V2 ( £140) to the desktop Audiolab M-DAC+ (£700) and the class-apart collection from Chord including the £500 Mojo and £1200 Qutest.
The quality of the recordings you’re playing will also have an impact on the final sound you hear, with compressed MP3 songs streamed over the internet sounding positively filthy – if you’re listening using good headphones and a DAC – compared to a CD-quality or better hi-res recording like FLAC, AAC or MQA. Tidal, Deezer, Qobuz, Amazon and Apple all now offer lossless recordings – with Spotify Hi-Fi also coming soon – but if you had the foresight to burn all your CDs, or download hi-res digital copies to a hard drive, you’ve got superb-quality recordings ready to play, without the pressure of needing a strong internet connection.
What we recommend to improve your PC and laptop sound quality
Impressively compact, stylish and loaded with features, these 60W desktop speakers have a quality DAC built in and can connect via 3.5mm, USB, RCA socket or Bluetooth.
Grado SR325x £330
Being open backed, these wired headphones leak sound – not great for a shared office – but in your workspace at home, they offer a remarkably detailed, articulate and joyously entertaining listen.
Prepare for a huge audio upgrade with this ESS Sabre desktop DAC. It can play digital audio files up to 32bit/768kHz and connect to most audio sources, including Bluetooth, while sounding phenomenal.
Chris Haslam is a freelance consumer technology journalist, specialising in tech, audio, lifestyle, health and interiors. He is the monthly audio columnist for BBC Music Magazine, rounding up the best audio equipment on the market for classical music lovers. He is also a contributing editor for Wired UK.