Computer Audio is Frustrating
My audio hardware used to be simple: Bose Companion 5 desktop speakers from 2012 that came with a volume puck and a subwoofer to place under the desk. The speakers and puck were plugged into the subwoofer; the subwoofer into the back of my computer. When I needed to use headphones, I plugged generic computer headphones into the jack on the front of my cabinet. The equipment wasn’t high end and I expected no miracles, only reasonable quality.
The initial upgrade
I replaced all of it in 2019. The plan back then was move to into audio and video production. I knew the environment around me was more important and I had no isolation, but I thought I’d do what I could on the hardware front. I did some research, seeking ‘reference quality’. Sennheiser HD660S headphones: very neutral tone, high quality. JBL 308P MkII speakers: neutral tone, good quality. Schiit Jotunheim 2 USB audio interface: neutral tone, high quality. I ordered the headphones from a local shop, the speakers from Amazon, and the audio interface from the manufacturer in America.
Much confusion ensued when the Jotunheim eventually arrived (which took a while), because I had understood the outputs on the back where I would plug in my speakers to be pre-amplifier, and bought a separate volume control to amplify the sound, but they were in fact pre-amplified. The speakers needed to be connected directly.
It was another matter that the single volume dial controlled the headphones output and the speakers, both of which were active simultaneously. I would have to unplug or power down whichever one I didn’t want to switch between them. On top of all that, I had a lot of trouble getting the right cables.
I went back to looking for a high quality USB audio interface that could automatically mute the headphones or switch outputs on demand. I couldn’t find anything of the same calibre, so I gave in and bought a second interface just for the speakers a couple of months later: the Focusrite Scarlett 4i4. I connected the JBLs and taught myself to use SoundSwitch to constantly switch output devices in Windows. I also bought a Shure SM58S and a desktop stand towards the end of the year.
My desk is large and somewhat modular but placed in the corner, in the shape of an L. I no longer have much space for desktop speakers. I don’t really have space below, either, but I squeeze the JBLs in and make do with uncomfortable positions where the desk and keyboard tray block half of the sound. The smart thing to do would have been to mount the speakers on the wall above my display, but I spent the entire nine months between when I purchased the speakers and the first Covid-19 lockdown expecting to move house.
The microphone stand just about works. I have to be careful not to tilt it too far since the clasp isn’t very tight. It doesn’t normally reach my mouth even half hanging off the desk, so I have to lean far forward to speak, because the SM58S is a dynamic microphone that hardly picks up my voice unless I’m practically swallowing it. Because of the unique, thick design of the desk—which I love otherwise—I can’t drill holes and add a microphone boom arm. Nor have I found arms with clamps that are wide enough to latch onto it. The stand is the only solution.
Audio in the time of Covid-19
On a friend’s recommendation, I bought an Audeze Mobius headset in March 2020, in anticipation of whatever ‘temporary’ Covid-19 mayhem lay ahead. The mic was obviously much more usable, what with being right next to my mouth. The headphones weren’t too comfortable, but I could tolerate them, and I disabled the worthless special processing features. I was satisfied for a while, until I put the Mobius down on my desk one day, five months after buying it, and came back to see the mic end had broken.
In those early days of the pandemic, I didn’t feel comfortable sending it in for repair, so I reluctantly wrote it off and went back to using the Sennheisers and the SM58S. This was especially problematic during my DotA period, when I’d be simultaneously leaning back with my torso to comfortably use the keyboard and mouse, and pushing my neck forward to put my mouth next to the mic. What’s more, with my neck so far forward, my face was far too close to the display. A year of gaming like that had a significant deleterious impact on my eyesight and the entire chain of muscles from my neck to my waist. In hindsight, I should have just bought another headset.
The strain was greatly lessened once I quit DotA. It was now just a matter of a few regular calls where I’d have to assume the same position as before: less than ideal but not the end of the world. Nevertheless, the situation continued to frustrate me. Meanwhile, my headphones developed that oh-so-familiar behaviour of undesirably panning the audio between left and right as I turned the volume control, usually cutting one side out entirely, which required constant fiddling every time I changed the volume.
Making an abortive attempt at a second upgrade
A couple of months ago, around the same time as I was planning my other recent upgrade, I took another stab at working out the best options. I started by asking in r/audiophile’s ‘Shopping, Setup, and Technical Help Desk Thread’:
I’d like to replace my computer audio setup from 2019 :
- Schiit Jotunheim (Multibit DAC) + Sennheiser HD 660 S headphones
- Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 + 2 × JBL 3 Series Mk II speakers (on the floor, severely limited as a result)
There’s also a Shure SM58S microphone that I plug into the Scarlett. I don’t think I can replace that with a condenser in my noisy environment. I’m no longer chasing any ‘reference’ sound—the audio & video work I anticipated back in 2019 is irrelevant now and I’ve accepted that hardware is a much smaller factor than my environment.
I use my computer for everything from Zoom calls and playing games to listening to music and watching movies, so flexibility is more important than excelling at any one thing. I currently switch between the headphones and speakers by switching output devices in Windows. This is my wishlist:
- A single USB audio interface that can handle the microphone and easily switch between speakers and headphones.
- A pair of small, high-quality speakers with more power than the 3 Series. I’ve only ever considered floor speakers because of constrained desk space, but if there are comparable-yet-small speakers I can put on my desk, consolidating the interfaces might give me enough space to squeeze them in.
- Comfortable, non–noise-canceling headphones. Since mine have developed issues and I’m no longer chasing some ideal ‘reference’ sound, I might as well switch to something designed to create a pleasant listening experience.
This comment was almost immediately deleted by a bot for being ‘off-topic’. I followed the link in the bot’s comment and asked the mods to review it. It was approved, but the very confusing mod response suggested asking in assorted subreddits and didn’t seem to understand I wanted to replace everything:
I’ve approved your post. I suggest posting your headphone questions in r/HeadphoneAdvice. I also suggest posting your stereo setup questions in r/StereoAdvice. For the mic and interface questions, you might try r/LiveSound, or one of the computer subs (I’m sorry I’m not more familiar with subs for this area).
Overall, I think you have some good choices laid out. I have the HD600 and find them the most comfortable, and best balanced sounding headphones I’ve tried.
My comment reappeared in the thread to great silence. A few days later, I tried asking a slightly more specific question in r/StereoAdvice as suggested:
I’d like to replace my computer audio setup from 2019. What I have:
- Schiit Jotunheim (Multibit DAC) + Sennheiser HD 660 S headphones
- Focusrite Scarlett 4i4 + 2 × JBL 308P speakers (on the floor, hence severely limited)
I use my computer for everything from Zoom calls (using a Shure SM58S plugged into the Scarlett) and playing games to listening to music and watching movies, so flexibility is more important than excelling at any one thing. I currently switch between the headphones and speakers by switching output devices in Windows. This is my wishlist:
- A single USB audio interface that can handle the microphone and easily switch between speakers and headphones. I could consider switching to a USB microphone like the Rode NT-1 so the interface only needs to handle output, but it’d be nice to have it all in one place.
- A pair of small, high-quality speakers with more power than the 3 Series. I’ve only ever considered floor speakers because of constrained desk space, but if there’s something with good sound that wouldn’t need more than 6″ of width and depth per speaker, I might be able to squeeze it in.
I’d also like to get a pair of comfortable, non–noise-canceling headphones, but I understand that’s more a question for r/HeadphoneAdvice.
…and it was removed immediately again. I messaged the mods again. It was approved again, with no accompanying suggestions this time, and got no replies again. I dropped the whole idea.
My hand is forced
Fast forward to early January. One fine night, the Scarlett suddenly stopped working. Upon powering up (whether by rebooting the computer or reconnecting the USB cable), it would flash its lights for a moment then switch off. No audio was sent to the speakers. This looks to be a common issue. I was really frustrated this time: after deciding to let it go, now here I was having to reconsider all of it, since my unit was too old to repair or replace under warranty.
I spent four hours researching audio gear again. I was willing to be flexible about some requirements, but the whole affair was exceedingly confusing. There are so many kinds of inputs and outputs, so many functions to combine or isolate, and so many variations in size and purpose. I looked at SoundBlaster sound cards with breakout boxes, multi-thousand–dollar audio interfaces, separate DACs and amps, USB and XLR microphones, headphones with XLR cables and headphones with TRS cables… it’s all needlessly complicated now that I’ve grown accustomed to better quality.
I just wanted a good DAC-amp combination that could handle both my speakers and my headphones, allowing me to switch between them, and ideally but not necessarily allowing me to use my microphone as well. I really didn’t want to clutter up my desk with ten pieces of equipment to handle different parts of the chain. The SoundBlaster AE-9 does nearly everything, but the quality would be nowhere near the same as my current equipment.
Compromises and moderate success
Rather than drive myself insane by spending even more time on it, I settled on simply replacing the non-functional Scarlett with a (smaller) 2i2 from the same range, replacing my malfunctioning headphones with the much-lauded HIFIMAN Ananda set, and adding a Blue Yeti USB microphone. I thought I’d replace the Jotunheim with the HIFIMAN EF400 DAC-amp, but realized at the last minute that I should try the Anandas with the Jotunheim.
I’ve been using this new combination for a couple of weeks. The speakers sound the same as before and the 2i2 takes up a little less space than the 4i4, allowing me to move to it to a more convenient location. I don’t like the sound of the Ananda headphones as much as that of the Sennheisers and find them somewhat uncomfortable; I’ll give them time to adjust, and could conceivably get that EF400 in hopes of improving the sound, but I might have to resume the search.
The Blue Yeti microphone is wonderful. Now, this is a condenser microphone, meaning it’s incredibly sensitive compared to the SM58S. It picks up all background noise and has slightly worse audio quality. I can’t use it in my preferred configuration in calls, where I’d speak through the microphone and listen through my speakers, because it effortlessly picks up the sound from the speakers (although Discord, at least, has an excellent Echo Cancellation feature). Nevertheless, with my headphones on, I can sit fairly comfortably at my desk, mic firmly planted on the edge, input volume turned down in Windows, and be clearly audible from a foot away. So far, the tradeoff seems worth it.
- To think, five months in was still ‘early days’.↩