Now that we all have thousands of songs on our hard drives, I'm tempted to import all my CDs onto my Mac and store the originals in a cool, dry place. While I have no problem saying goodbye to my discs, I won't sacrifice sound quality. I rip all of my tracks using hi-fidelity formats, and I circumvent my low-grade computer speakers by hooking my Mac up to the living-room stereo system. That's where the roadblock comes—when I connect the computer to the stereo, my tunes sound faded and distorted. How can you play music off your computer without it sounding like a faded cassette tape?
The trick is to bypass the built-in sound hardware. Your desktop's soundcard, not digital file compression, is the weak link in PC music. The audiophile writer Michael Fremer explained to me that out-of-the-box computer audio sucks for two reasons. First, the digital-to-analog converter—a circuit that translates binary bits into old-fashioned voltage—is low grade in most computers. Second, the converted analog signal is subject to all kinds of electronic interference from your computer's other hardware. That adds hiss, hum, and whiny robot noises to your music before it reaches the output jack.
Newer Macs and upmarket PCs solve the problem by punting on it. Both computers provide a fiber-optic output jack that runs a digital signal all the way to your home-theater console, where the digital-to-analog conversion gets done much better. If your machine or your stereo doesn't have a digital jack (and most don't), you're not completely sunk. Fremer's advice: If you can't splurge on fiber optics, at least relocate the digital-to-analog conversion process from the hostile environment inside your computer.
I put his counsel to the test by trying out a variety of add-on hardware devices for the past three months. It doesn't matter how old, slow, or crappy-sounding your PC is—these gadgets will bypass its internal hardware completely. Each unit connects to your computer via a USB port, which also provides all the power they need. For maximum bliss, run a USB extension cable as close to your stereo or theater inputs as possible. Park the USB audio converter there, then run a short analog audio cable the rest of the way to your hi-fi gear. This will reduce the amount of interference and degradation the analog signal suffers en route.
I ended up focusing on three simple adapters. Each of them noticeably improves your stereo sound without turning into a science project, and they all work on desktops and laptops, PCs and Macs. The only difference is price. Here's the best sound you can buy for $40, $100, and $300.
Size: Resembles a sand dollar.
Sound quality: 3 out of 5.
Best feature: No need to read the instructions.
Worst problem: Phone and Wi-Fi interference.
The iMic offers a cheap, instant upgrade for any computer. There's no software to install or switches to fiddle with—just a USB plug at one end and an eighth-inch audio jack at the other. Plug it in and your computer will recognize the device immediately. Then, find the control panel for sound output and make the iMic the default device. Once that's done, just use the iMic's output jack as you would use the headphone or line-out jack on your computer.
The iMic addresses Fremer's two gripes: It's got better digital-to-analog conversion than most computers, and it's less prone to computer-induced noise. The built-in amplifier is certainly strong enough to drive a pair of headphones at a reasonable volume. But the iMic doesn't deliver the same dynamic range (the span between the quietest and loudest passages in a piece of music) as the pricier units below. Both iMics I tested also sputtered loudly whenever my cell phone rang or my laptop's Wi-Fi card fired up.
Size: Friends mistake it for a cell phone.
Sound quality: 4 out of 5.
Best feature: Optical output jacks.
Worst problem: Flaky performance on Macs.
The Transit is the best buy for most listeners. It delivers better sound quality than the iMic, has a wider dynamic range, and is immune to interference from other gadgets. Its output is strong and noise-free, delivering a full-bodied punch to the bass-heavy tracks my computers used to wimp out on. One downside is that you'll need to install device-driver software—so much for my plug-and-play requirement. And if you have a Mac, you'll have to disable the sleep function: If your computer takes a snooze, it won't recognize the Transit when it wakes up.
If you've already spent a wad on a home stereo or theater tuner with digital optical connectors, the Transit is an even bigger winner. It has a digital optical output that bypasses not only your computer's audio electronics, but the Transit's own D/A converter as well. For under $100 you can link your computer to your stereo just like it's an optically connected CD player—but one with your entire collection already loaded up.
Headroom Total BitHead
Size: Same as the wallet you'll empty to pay for it.
Sound quality: 5 out of 5.
Best feature: Uncompromised audio quality.
Worst feature: Ugly black casing (and the clear version is even uglier).
In theory, the Total Bithead is a portable headphone amp. In practice, it's another USB-powered, digital-to-analog converter with an amplifier. Headroom's product page is a rambling paean to the merits of polyphenylene sulphide film capacitors. What they're trying to say is that they've packed the Total BitHead with high-grade electronics and thrown out parts that detract from fidelity. A company rep explained that the scratching and popping I hear whenever I adjust the volume knob is normal. They left out the circuit that quiets the knob because it colors the music.
I'd prefer the cheaper, better-looking Transit, but since I don't have optical jacks on my home stereo, I've been swapping in the homely BitHead. The price is steep, but the sound is fat, clear, warm, and full. I've run a USB cable from my Mac to the BitHead, and then a short audio cable from the BitHead to a pair of Mackie speakers. I control the whole thing from iTunes without looking up from work. Late at night, I plug my headphones into the BitHead's second output jack.
I'm most grateful to the BitHead for reminding me why I love forgotten favorites like Sloan's Twice Removed. I played this album hundreds of times in the '90s, but I'm just now discovering the breadth and depth of the whispered nuances, the sudden rock-outs, and the silences that follow. When I realize how much time and money I've spent amassing CDs, MP3s, iTunes tracks, and carefully digitized vinyl records, the 300 bucks it costs to bring out the best in them is a bargain.