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First of all, I apologize in advance for this question: this forum may not be a perfect fit for it, but it is the closest I could find on Stack Exchange. Furthermore, the 'How to Ask' posting guidelines state that «we prefer questions that can be answered, and not just discussed», and this question is of the latter type. So, if you find this question too inappropiate, please tell me; I will take it down.


Now, the actual query:

Lately I've been caring more and more about audio quality and listening experience in general. As I researched into getting better equipment to improve the aforementioned elements, I realized, as a newcomer to the audio[phile] world, that there are much more factors (i.e. equipment, storage methods...) influencing audio quality than I thought, from the recording of the sound to its reproduction, going through its storage.

So, in this post, I intend to make an unordered list of factors that have an influence on audio quality which I would like more experienced and knowledgeable users to order, as they believe, by amount of influence on the overall quality of the listening experience: that is, if they believe that element x is the most important in achieving good quality, they should put that in position 1.; if they believe that element y is the least important, they should put it last; and so forth.

I'll divide the list in three main sections (I-III), each corresponding to a certain phase in the whole process that goes from recording to listening:


I. Recording:

  • [Acoustic properties of recording space]

  • Sound altering elements (e.g. pop filter)

  • Microphone (or other sound-to-signal transducer equipment)
  • Sound mixing equipment
  • Recording equipment
  • Cables (or other ways of transporting signals)

II. Storage:

  • Storage medium
  • In case of degradable media: State of maintenance
  • In case of digital recordings: Audio codec

III. Reproduction:

  • In case of digital recordings: DAC

  • Amplification [and other signal processing] equipment

  • Cables (or signal transportation methods such as Bluetooth)

  • Speakers/headphones/other transducers

  • In case of not listening through headphones: Acoustic properties of the room


There should be a fourth section, perhaps the most important: IV. Hearing ability (i.e. the actual biological factors that affect your listening). But since you can't do much about that one, I haven't added it.

Please note that I'm a beginner in this kind of stuff, so forgive my ignorance if I miss some important elements, misname them, group together elements that ought to be separate, etc. I'm sure there will be plenty of corrections, additions and updates of this list in the future.

Thank you in advance.

  • I would argue that you can do a lot to improve your hearing. It is impressive how much more a trained ear can hear than the untrained ear. It's like discussing the difference between hearing and listening. – Schizomorph Sep 9 '17 at 10:14
  • I would argue that they are all as important as each other, it only takes one thing to bring the 'quality' down. – Marc W Sep 10 '17 at 5:59
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I suggest maybe you take a step back for a moment from the detailed list of equipment related things, and just think about what all that equipment is trying to achieve. It may seem counter-intuitive, yet I think it is still true today (as in the past) that it is the engineering of classical music that has resulted in the highest quality signal chains to record and reproduce music. It is not easy to accurately record and reproduce a symphony orchestra that can get as loud as ~120dB with a wide variety of instruments that cover the acoustic spectrum. Most importantly, classical music recordings are trying to reproduce something there is a physical acoustical reference to compare against, i.e., how that orchestra sounds in a concert hall. Some halls are legendary for their sound or their natural reverberation times and acoustics.

This translates into roughly three physical parameters: dynamic range, frequency response, and accurate phase/timing relationships (or temporal cues as perceived by the ears). There's some overlap here because accurate temporal cues can also include accurately reproducing phase relationships. Or when phase relationships are wrong they can adversely affect frequency response or timbre, e.g., there are ways to space microphones for recording and speakers for reproduction w.r.t the room.

Now in pop music, some of this is artificially created. Sure, you want a good enough microphone to record the full dynamic range of the instruments or performers you're recording. But engineers pick microphones all the time for a certain sound when recording, e.g., drums, guitars, male or female vocalists, etc. Mix engineers add reverb - in different amounts with different pre-delays, delays, etc., - not so much to make it sound like the music is in a certain hall or venue, but so the mix at least hangs together well. But putting together a rock/pop (acoustically artificial) mix is all too easy to do (without really knowing what you are doing) with the wealth of equipment available today. But doing it to the standards of maximizing dynamic range, crafting and preserving the frequency range for overlapping instruments, and then dealing with any reverb or acoustical properties - is hard to do. Some of the same considerations that go into recording classical music (which strives for sonic realism) can go into pop or recording anything.

One thing to keep in mind is a "systems" point of view, or a "weakest link in the chain" perspective when trying to decide what gear to put in your recording chain. Or the one weakest link in the chain fidelity wise - can ruin everything else that comes before or after it in terms of audio quality. For example, its not a good use of your funds to buy an $900 microphone with a fantastic dynamic range specification - if you are going to feed it into an audio interface with a mic preamp and A/D and D/A converters that costs ~$300. It's often a better investment to spend more money on links in the system chain like the A/D and D/A converters, and not so much on a single microphone. Low quality/cheap converters in between your microphone(s) on the recording side - and your monitors on the reproduction side - should not be the weakest link in the system chain. (They will limit the quality of your sound no matter how good the mics and monitors are).

Try to match equipment to be the same quality levels; a good sales rep or audio engineer can help with this. Try to keep the pieces in the chain separate, e.g., mics, preamps , A/D D/A, amplifiers, monitors - then you have the freedom to upgrade the individual pieces as time and budget allows. This usually means that when you start out you have to make some tough decisions about how much money to spend, and what components to buy with it. I always advise to buy fewer pieces of high quality gear, then more pieces of lower quality gear.

Learning to be a critical listener is also important. I don't think it's a coincidence that some of the most highly regarded mastering engineers have classical music training, e.g., Bob Ludwig went to the Eastman School of Music. Just as musicians train their ears for relative and/or perfect pitch, you can try and train your ears to identify frequencies in mixes. I can recommend David Moulton's "Golden Ears" as one tool for this (http://www.moultonlabs.com/full/product01)

  • Yes, as a listener (and player) of classical music I now see that it helps to think in its recording as a paradigm of maximizing fidelity and preserving quality over the signal chain, since, after all, to listeners of classical music, recordings are [mainly] just a technological solution to the impracticality and scarceness of live listening, which therefore have to set sonic realism as the topmost priority. // Thank you for your time! – Anakhand Sep 12 '17 at 17:23

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