why do some headphones/speakers sound better than others? i've never understood that, it seems like the microphones used to record would be more important

ding ding ding

you are absolutely god damn right. in my last post i outlined how speakers/headphones work. how carefully you build your speaker cone (diaphragm) and coil, as well as a trillion other considerations, plays a role in how well your speaker can reproduce audio true to the signal that is sent to it (fidelity/accuracy) as well as what the minimum level of detail your speaker can accurately produce (precision). these sorts of things can be important to you if you are in the music business or really love your music

the goal people have in mind when they buy expensive audio equipment is to somehow make their listening experience more enjoyable. the problem is that there is no “magic” involved in accomplishing this & “enjoyability” isn’t a linear scale. for the most part, we have already solved this problem: anything better than dollar-store chinese earbuds will be able to accurately and precisely reproduce audio to within 99.9% of what your ape ears are able to ascertain. if you spend $40 on the right buds you are golden for the most part. anything more expensive is shaving hairs & you end up spending hundreds of dollars on shit that will only make a minute difference to extremely trained ears

the other problem is that accuracy/precision/fidelity isn’t the only factor. a brand new pair of $1k denon headphones would be great for listening to very heavily produced electronic music but would be crap for listening to, say, old ramones tapes. people into punk rock spend their money instead on “vintage” speakers that produce a grainy & warm effect on the audio signal sent to them. this effect is a result of imperfections that detract from the accuracy/precision/fidelty but still provide a coveted “sound”

now let’s get into the meat of your question

the quality of your audio is largely out of your control. the file you play on your computer or the CD you put in your player or the vinyl LP you place on your turntable is the result of the work put in by the original artist, recording studio, publishing company, and anybody that has had a chance to tamper with the audio file in the case the music is delivered in that medium. if absolutely anybody in this chain fucks up along the way, you’re screwed. you cannot do any better than the bits in the audio file or CD nor the groves in a vinyl record. your $800 audio-technica headphones will still sound like shit if you’re playing a 128kbps youtube rip

let’s take a look at how music is made and delivered from start to finish:

first, the artist has to perform well. the only “perfect” version of their song exists in their heads, and they are tasked with actualizing that idea in the most physically perfect way when they record. your $800 DAC cannot help the fact that jack white half-assed his recording session

next, the recording studio quality. this is possibly the most important step along the way. not only do you need to use incredibly high quality recording equipment, you need to know exactly where to place mics and pop filters and such to best record. you need to know whether to record all instruments at once or to do them all separately, and what the best recording settings are for each instrument, out of the truly countless settings available. you need to have the artist perform in an environment that facilitates the “best” recording, this can be anything from a empty, windless stretch of land out in the middle of nowhere to a small tight room that echoes noise. usually most recordings are done in sound-proof rooms that do not echo at all, but getting rid of that echo is an incredibly hard task and obviously the studios that kanye west uses do it better than the ones some shitty garage band uses. and even kanye’s studios don’t look like this:

(this is a RF-proof room used by defense contractors or NASA or somebody to test radio equipment, you can see how far they go to solve this problem)

so once you have everything recorded properly, you go into the unfathomably difficult and open-ended subjective problem of how to mix and master all the audio samples properly. this is kind of a lost art most people do not give a shit about these days. the “golden age” of mixing/mastering has already passed and you’d be surprised at how much better-sounding old steely dan or hall & oates are than what you listen to today, even if you do not like that kind of dad rock

then you get into publishing. the big wigs at the top decide how the music gets to you and how much they want to fork over at whatever price. they can offer a normal CD with original wave files from the publisher (best case scenario) or they can offer 240kbps MP3s via a download. if you’re running vinyl, you have to understand nobody has built any of the equipment to manufacture vinyl LPs since the 70s and all new vinyl is built with aging equipment. you have to factor in the serial number of your LP as the copper masters used to press your LP deteriorate over presses & you get less fidelity. this is the stage where most fuck-ups occur and where you are most likely to get hamstringed

finally, you have people that come between the publishers and you. these are usually torrent or usenet or whatever types of sites. people love to take shitty low-bitrate MP3s and transcode them to huge flac files and put them up. this, obviously, does not help the quality of the audio at all, it only makes the file size needlessly larger. you have to look at a spectrograph of your songs to actually see if they are indeed unmolested files

at the end of the day, your ten thousand dollar home audio setup is only helping you out more than apple earbuds do if everything along this chain of supply happens properly, which it rarely, rarely does.