For some audiophiles, nothing beats vinyl played through vintage tube amplifiers — it’s all about the warmth, they say. Of course, these days most of us keep our music collections in our pockets. There are clearly benefits to digitally-stored music — portability for starters. But sound quality can suffer, especially if the music is highly compressed, enabling you to store more songs per gigabyte of storage. In the ongoing analog vs. digital debate, there are myriad measurements involving frequency response, distortion levels, and dynamic range that both sides cite to “prove” that the other is misinformed, unscientific, or just plain wrong. One path to consider is playing your digital tunes through an analog stereo, ranging from a headphone-to-RCA cable to a high-end digital-to-analog converter. Some might say that’s the best of both worlds; others would say you’d be better off with an AM radio. Ultimately though, it’s all about personal perception. So with that in mind, here are several products for bridging the gap between your digital music and your analog ears. The irony of running lousy and lossy mp3s through high-quality tube amps isn’t lost on me. But at least the enchanting glow of the vacuum tubes will distract you.
The most immersive way to hear recorded music is through a pair of high-quality headphones. I’ve previously written here about my favorite models at a range of prices. Boing Boing‘s publisher, Jason Weisberger, pairs his $2,000 Audeze LCD3 cans (with ear cups of Zebra Wood) with Schiit’s Bitfrost Digital Audio Converter and Lyr 6W Hybrid Headphone Amplifier . The combo is just short of $1,000 but its 24/192 sample rate converter delivers the best solo listening experience I’ve ever had. The Bitfrost has coaxial and optical inputs and, importantly, a USB 2.0 input that’s upgradeable. That means when USB technology improves, a new DAC/Analog Card can be dropped into the rig. Schiit offers other lower and higher priced components as well, including the $349 Valhalla amp pictured here with the Bitfrost.
There’s a long tradition of do-it-yourself home audio engineering that stretches back to the earliest days of amateur radio. If you’re a maker and ready to be delightfully overwhelmed by a hobby of mods, tests, kits, and experimentation, S5 Electronics’ Tube Amplifier Kits are a great place to start. Once it’s completed, you can plug your digital music player, laptop, CD player, or tuner right in. The kit is packed with four tubes, resistors, capacitors, tubes, connectors, transformers, and a circuit board. All you need is time and patience.