Those mass market Bluetooth buds are OK for everyday use, but you shouldn't have to settle for subpar sound quality or deal with annoying glitches and phone pairing problems. You deserve a better sound setup in your home office, particularly if you work from home. In this post, we'll share some ways to improve your audio gear so you can be more productive when you're working and enjoy your music while you're kicking back.
Put the Needle on the Record
Digital can’t be beat for convenience and accessibility. But there are plenty of reasons that analog audio has made a comeback in recent years (as chronicled by David Sax in his book The Revenge of Analog) and gathered steam during the pandemic. Not least is that vinyl produces a warm, rich sound that digital – try as it might with higher bit rates – just cannot replicate. Plus, there’s something special about putting on a record and listening to a whole album in the way the artist intended without the opportunity to skip or shuffle tracks.
To get the very best out of your record collection, you’ll need a high-fidelity turntable. If you can afford to go with what the pros use, the Technics SL-1200 has been the gold standard for DJs since 1972 because of its bomb-proof build quality, stable playback, and steady tonearm. Technics was also the first to perfect a direct drive mechanism that doesn’t need maintaining like belt drive models. Due to its reliability, you should be able to find a used SL-1200 that works just as well without the sticker shock.
If you need a more budget-friendly option, the Audio-Technica AT-LP60X-BK makes up for its clunky name with newbie-proof features like automatic stop and start buttons and a slim profile that’s perfect for even the smallest of home offices. Unlike the Technics SL-1200, it also includes a phono pre-amp, so you can plug it right into any amplifier that has an AUX input. Whereas if you buy a turntable that doesn’t have a pre-amp, you’ll have to get a multi-function amplifier that includes it or a separate one like the Pro-Ject Phono Box S2 before hooking your turntable up to speakers. If you need somewhere to put your turntable, Line Phono’s handy stand will hold it, your headphones, and up to 200 records. Just the kind of motivation you need to go crate diving at your local thrift store.
Sort Out Your Speakers
Once you’ve made your turntable and amp selections and bought a few records, you can turn your attention to finding the right speakers to broadcast your favorite songs. If you’re used to the old kind that plugged right into a computer or the bass-muddling abomination of most portable Bluetooth speakers (side note: what possesses people to bring these hiking and to the beach?), then virtually any kind of bookshelf units are going to be an upgrade sonically and visually.
Non-powered speakers require an amplifier to act as a middleman between them and the turntable. The Cambridge Audio AXR85 will do an admirable job, let you plug in your old tape deck and CD player, tune in to AM/FM radio, and boost your turntable’s signal with a phono pre-amp. Team them up with a pair of passive speakers like the Klipsch Reference R-51M – which also look great, thanks to their copper woofer – for a sumptuous sound experience.
Or if you don’t care about all these inputs, you could just get a set of powered speakers instead, which include their own internal amp. A pair of Audioengine A2+ can fit on your desk with ease and deliver a bigger sound than their small size initially suggests. If you have more space, the A2+’s big brother, the A5+, provides a wider soundstage and packs a bigger bass punch. And yes, if you absolutely must, both Audioengine models will also stream music from your phone. If you’re building a setup from scratch, you can bundle these speakers with the Audio-Technica turntable.
Up Your Headphone Game
Another way to immediately improve your home office audio setup is to upgrade your headphones. This will also be much appreciated by your significant other if they work from home, your neighbors if you share walls, and your kids if they think your musical taste is stuck in another century (we’re sure those old disco records have nothing to do with it). Many home office workers are still wearing whatever headphones came free with their cell phone or have just followed the masses and bought AirPods. These have their uses for sure, but if you’re listening to music for several hours a day, you’re overdue for an upgrade.
Most people fall into one of two camps with headphones – over-the-ear or in-the-ear. With the former, wireless options like Bose’s QuietComfort 45 and Sony’s WH-1000XM5 boast active noise cancelation, offer different sound modes, and allow you to take calls. But Bluetooth audio can still be a bit spotty, so if you want to keep the tunes coming and avoid embarrassing can-you-hear-me Zoom situations, you might want to go with a wired option instead. When Crutchfield’s staff tested over 50 models for comfort, the Meze Audio 99 Classics were a clear winner because of their lightweight headband and soft leather earpads. For a cheaper option that still sounds great, look no further than the Sennheiser HD 560S.
In-the-ear headphones, or IEMs as sound geeks call them, still trend toward celebrity-endorsed brands that try to blow out your eardrums with bass. The trouble with these is that the bass drowns out the mids and highs so that any track you wouldn’t hear in a club (see: dad rock, classical, folk, and so on) is going to be muddled and lopsided. That’s why it’s better to go with a brand that puts all their focus on engineering. Periodic Audio’s Carbon features a lab-grown diamond diaphragm that eliminates distortion and delivers clear highs and punchy lows (the blemished option will save you $120 and be as good as new). The company’s Magnesium model cuts the cost but keeps the sound-isolating design, rich acoustics, and five-year warranty.
If you want to get the most from your headphones, consider adding a portable digital-to-audio converter (DAC)/amp into the mix. This will improve the sound quality of your phone, laptop, or tablet, which can hiss, pop, or distort during music playback because it has the cheapest DAC around. Periodic Audio’s Rhodium is a fine low-cost choice, and the AudioQuest DragonFly v1.5 is another headphone helper that will plug into all your devices to make them sound more like your home stereo. Or just dust off your old iPod, which already has a built-in, high-end DAC and will give your desk a dose of retro Apple cool.