Question: I recently purchased a second home in Pennsylvania. My two favorite local FM stations (KCSM and KQED) both offer streaming radio programming. I can receive these signals on my home computer but the sound quality is terrible, especially for music. I would like to receive these stations back East and I am going to buy an iPad or laptop to use there. What equipment can I use to get decent Internet radio sound quality? - L.B., Belmont, Calif.
Answer: The two most likely causes for the bad sound quality are poor speakers or a poor signal. It could be one or both. Here are some ideas for you.
Much like flat-panel televisions, most computers have poor sound quality. Your first step is to connect better speakers to the audio output or headphone port, or use a Bluetooth speaker. One Bluetooth speaker that would be an especially good match for your tablet or a laptop is the Definitive Technology Sound Cylinder. It has a grip that attaches it to your tablet to make it seem all one piece. You can carry the tablet around with the Sound Cylinder attached, or use its built-in kickstand to hold the tablet vertically for watching television and videos. I use Dish's Hopper with Sling DVR to transmit live and recorded television to my iPad with a Sound Cylinder to use as my kitchen television. If your TV service offers remote streaming this is a wonderful way to enjoy TV everywhere in the house. The Sound Cylinder's grip also can attach to the top of a laptop. It's a beautiful sounding, beautifully made peace of gear for $199. (definitivetech.com/
It also could be the signal the stations are feeding through the Internet is low bit rate sound. I've heard wide variance in the sound quality of Internet radio stations. At their best they can sound quite good, but the worst are horrible. You can look up the bit rates of the specific stations you are interested in on the Shoutcast Radio directory. There you will see bit rates from 32mbps (awful) to 128mbps (equivalent to an iTunes music file). I have seen a few stations using 192mbps bit rate streams (virtually hi-fi). The AAC+ stations may sound even better if your hardware supports it. (shoutcast.com)
If the station is using a low bit rate you won't be able to achieve great sound. Regardless of the bit rate you can make sure that the gear you have is wringing the maximum fidelity out of whatever is there. If you want to take it beyond a portable speaker and listen to Internet radio on a home sound system, check out the Mass Fidelity Relay. Relay is a convenient way of having access to all the music on the Internet as well as the music on your smart device, putting music selection and volume control in the palm of your hand. Best of all, Relay is a true high-fidelity device with premium components such as expensive, high-end digital-to-analog converters (DACs.) Using these DACs and premium circuitry, Relay preserves sound quality to a degree that other Bluetooth wireless systems cannot. It's a great way to add Internet radio to a high-quality sound system. Relay is $249 with a 60 day risk-free trial.
Contact Don Lindich at soundadviceblog.com and use the "submit question" link on that site.
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