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Macs are known for a lot of things, but great sound isn’t one of them. The speakers that come standard on most Apple computers are tinny, don’t have much power, and produce a very flat sound. As a result music, movies, and TV shows just don’t sound as good as they should.

In order to fix this, we’ve taken a look at all of the things you need to do to give your Mac’s sound a boost.

Headphones

A nice set of headphones Don't Break The Bank: 6 Of The Best Headphones You Can Buy Under $200 Don't Break The Bank: 6 Of The Best Headphones You Can Buy Under $200 For most people who are particular about their tunes and are looking for a new pair of headphones, $200 is that sweet spot. Read More should be the first thing you invest in if you’re looking to improve the quality of what you hear on your Mac, especially if you’re on a laptop and listening to music away from your desk. You may be tempted to go out and buy the latest pair of Beats by Dre that you find, but it’s worth doing a little bit of research first.

sennheiser-momentum

Make sure you know the terms manufacturer’s use to describe headphones 10 Terms You Should Know to Identify the Best Headphones 10 Terms You Should Know to Identify the Best Headphones In this guide we'll cut through the jargon and show you what the key headphone specifications actually mean, and why — or if — they matter. Read More , for a start. Understanding how driver size and impedance affect sound will help you find the best headphones for your budget. There are a lot of factors that determine which headphones you should buy How To Make Sure You Buy The Best Headphones For Your Budget How To Make Sure You Buy The Best Headphones For Your Budget How do you determine the "best" pair of headphones then? Here are some things to keep in mind before you commit to a purchase. Read More , and it’s always worth trying out a number of pairs before you buy. Certain styles of music will sound better on different models of headphones, particularly acoustic performances and rock which can sound especially muddy on bass-heavy models.

And while spending $200 on a pair of headphones might seem ludicrous, trust me: it’s worth it. My Sennheiser Momentums have been rockin’ for a long time, and they completely changed my listening experience. I had no idea how awesome a lot of my music was until I bought the Momentums (coupled with the right software, which we’ll get to in a moment). Generally speaking you’re not only paying for sound quality, but build quality — and an expensive pair of headphones is likely to be a better investment than constantly replacing cheaper models.

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Speakers

Obviously, having a good set of speakers is going to help improve sound quality. Just like with headphones, you get what you pay for when it comes to speakers. The $500 Bowers & Wilkins MM-1 speakers are going to sound a lot better than a $12 pair of Amazon Basics speakers. The goal is to find something in the middle that works for you.

soundsticks

One highly regarded set of speakers is the Harman Kardon Soundsticks series. The latest model can be had for $170, and includes a subwoofer. There’s also a Bluetooth version available for $230, in case you’ve already got enough wires on your desk. Polk Audio Hampden ($200), though it doesn’t include a subwoofer, is another popular high-quality option that includes Bluetooth connectivity. There are a lot of options out there, but it’s generally true that just about any after-market speaker you might buy will sound better than built-in laptop speakers.

If you’re hesitant about dropping $200 or $300 on speakers, your best bet is probably to buy used vintage audio equipment and the few parts you need to make them work with your computer (Tim wrote a great article on how to do this Quality Sound On The Cheap - Buying Vintage Audio Equipment Quality Sound On The Cheap - Buying Vintage Audio Equipment For the money you put in, an old amp has the potential to provide way more bang for your buck than a modern active speaker system. Read More a couple years back). You’ll need to weigh the pros and cons of buying used gear Should You Buy Second-Hand Tech? The Pros and the Cons Should You Buy Second-Hand Tech? The Pros and the Cons Tech is expensive, so buying second-hand is always an option. But is it a good idea? We take a look at the pros and cons of buying pre-owned gear. Read More , but for most people, this is a more affordable option for improving sound quality.

Hardware

If you have a good set of headphones and some speakers, you’re already going to have improved the sound of your Mac by a huge margin. But if you want to take it to the next step, you’re going to need some extra hardware. Because the sound card on a Mac isn’t of the highest quality, you may want to add something else to process your sound before it hits your speakers or headphones. An external sound card (also called a USB audio interface or USB sound card) will help, especially if you’re connecting your computer to a surround sound system to watch movies.

diamond-7-1-surround

An audio device like the Diamond Multimedia USB 7.1 Surround Sound Audio Box ($32) lets your computer interface correctly with a 7.1 surround sound system, making for more accurate, immersive sound. The Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Surround 5.1 Pro ($50) is another good example of a device that will give you higher quality sound from your movies. Now that so many people are streaming movies to their home theater systems The Raspberry Pi Home Theater: What You Can And Cannot Do The Raspberry Pi Home Theater: What You Can And Cannot Do If you’ve been following our recent articles about the Raspberry Pi, you’ll know that it can be set up as a media streaming client with a dedicated XBMC build and you should also be aware... Read More , these devices are becoming increasingly necessary for a great watching experience.

fiio

If you’re looking to get the best sound possible out of your headphones, you’ll want a digital-to-analog converter (DAC) and and a headphone amp. An external DAC eliminates interference that your sound card may experience from the inside of your computer, and an amp boosts the sound headed to your ‘phones (which is especially important with high-impedance headphones). Some amps also provide bass boost or equalization.

Fortunately, there are a number of devices that serve as both DAC and amp, like the FiiO E10K ($76), which offers driverless plug-and-play installation and a great bass boost. FiiO’s E17 Alpen ($140) is meant for portable use, and is easy to take with you for playing music from a mobile device. Generally speaking, the more you pay for a DAC the better the sound quality you’ll receive.

Software

In addition to all of the hardware listed above, software can also help improve your listening experience on your Mac. In fact, if you want to start listening to higher-quality audio, I’d recommend going with a pair of headphones and one or two of these pieces of software — it’ll make a surprising difference and won’t cost you an arm and a leg.

The first thing you’ll want is an MP3 volume equalizer. You’ve probably noticed that some albums — and even some songs on the same album — are louder than others. This does not contribute to a good music listening experience. So we’re going to look at a couple ways to normalize the volume across your tracks.

ivolume-adjustment

The software that I use for this is called iVolume ($30 in the Mac App Store), and it’s designed specifically to be used with iTunes. It doesn’t actually make any changes in the music files themselves; it just adds some metadata to the file that iTunes reads, causing an adjustment in the volume. Those files will also be adjusted on your iPod or iPhone as long as the Sound Check option is enabled in Preferences. There are a few more permanent solutions, like Audio Normalizer ($3.99 in the Mac App Store) and MacMP3Gain (free; check out our review of the Windows version Normalize MP3 Volume Levels with MP3Gain Normalize MP3 Volume Levels with MP3Gain Read More  from a while back).

boom-2

Possibly even more important than normalizing the sound of your music, though, is properly adjusting the sound systemwide. There are a few different apps that you can use to do this, and you’ll be amazed at the results. Hear ($20) and Boom 2 ($15) are two of the most popular options, and both will boost the volume of your computer and drastically improve the sound.

I downloaded Boom 2 when I found out that Spotify for Mac doesn’t have an equalizer; I wasn’t getting the pounding double-bass that I wanted out of my music. A quick installation and a little bit of customization later, and now I’m hearing depth in my music that I had never heard before, from double-bass to cymbals and bass guitars to vocals. It’s amazing.

One Final Tip

mac-volume

This is something I only learned today, but I need to share it immediately. Did you know that you can adjust the volume on your Mac by quarter increments? Hit shift+option+volume up/down and you’ll get an increase or decrease in volume that’s 1/4 the size of a normal press of the button. Very useful for when your sound is just a little too loud or too soft.

Let It Rip

With the devices, accessories, and software listed above, you should be able to make monumental improvements in the quality of sound coming from your Mac, whether you’re listening on headphones or using full 7.1 surround sound.

If you haven’t decided whether or not to invest yet, I urge you to do it. Even a pair of headphones and an audio enhancer will change the way you listen to your Mac. Be sure to check out our troubleshooting guide for Mac sound issues Sound Advice: Fixing Common Mac Audio Problems in OS X Sound Advice: Fixing Common Mac Audio Problems in OS X No sound? Glitches and noise? Audio coming out of the wrong speakers? Resolving your OS X audio problems can be a time consuming process. Read More if you have any problems.

What have you used to improve the sound quality on your Mac? Which headphones are your favorites? Which speakers are you using? Share your favorite products, tips, and tricks in the comments below!

  1. Rick
    August 11, 2016 at 7:01 pm

    Using powered, near-field monitors from a reputable music store is a much better option than any made-for-computer speakers. I use a pair of M Audio BX8a Pro and the clarity is unreal! I'm hearing so much more detail than I ever have before.

    • Dann Albright
      August 16, 2016 at 2:16 pm

      Yeah, computer speakers don't have a great reputation. They're way better than the built-in Mac speakers, though! (As is pretty much anything). I was very generously gifted a pair of Bowers & Wilkins M1s recently, and they've completely changed how I hear my music.

  2. Jamie Anderson
    July 23, 2016 at 2:10 pm

    16 bit 44.1 kHz files on Mac Mini via USB cable into Dangerous Music Convert-2 DAC connected directly to a pair of Geithain RL906 active speakers: so transparent it's like the musicians are in the room with me! (When you have highly resolving speakers you need an excellent DAC to do them and your music justice.)

    Spending around $5,000 USD (excluding computer) for sound this good is an absolute bargain - I think professional recording gear gives you the best sound for your dollar as standards are necessarily high and profits margins are usually much lower than for "hi fi" marketed gear.

    • Dann Albright
      July 25, 2016 at 7:55 pm

      Though I've never listened to professional-quality gear, I'm sure there's no comparison between it and enthusiast-level stuff. That makes perfect sense to me!

  3. BoB DoBBs
    July 20, 2016 at 5:15 am

    Audacity for equalization, Amarra HiFi for playback, AQ Jitterbug w/SoundBlaster, good quality cable.

  4. rodrigo
    July 18, 2016 at 8:24 pm

    Why would you recommend audio cards that are not compatible with Mac on this article? SPAM?

    • Dann Albright
      July 25, 2016 at 7:53 pm

      As soon as you let me know which cards aren't compatible with Mac, I'll give you an answer.

  5. Boom Volume Booster
    December 21, 2015 at 1:13 pm

    Thanks guys!

    • Dann Albright
      January 2, 2016 at 1:24 am

      You're very welcome—thanks for making such an awesome product!

  6. Stéphane Moureau
    December 20, 2015 at 8:47 am

    iTunes has a normalizer for imported files, though it modifies the file... too bad.

    Amazing Apple has never enhance sound cards on its devices... selling ipod... but computers are really outdated.

    • Dann Albright
      January 2, 2016 at 1:24 am

      I'm really surprised that Apple hasn't improved the quality of the sound cards on their computers; it might be hard to fit better speakers in, but sound cards shouldn't be that big of a deal, and I can't imagine that they'd drive the price up that much. They're really terrible.

      • Dark Leviathan
        March 23, 2016 at 9:57 am

        Really? Apple's built in sound cards are far superior than any of the ones in high end pc laptops.

        • Dark Leviathan
          March 23, 2016 at 9:59 am

          Well, i've used headphones on about 6 models and all are about $1 to $2 and they sound way worse than the macbook pro retina. Just my experience with mac DACs

        • Dann Albright
          March 23, 2016 at 1:41 pm

          Are they really? I would have thought that would've translated to better sound in my headphones than I'm getting. After installing Boom, the sound has been drastically improved. I thought that would indicate a not-so-great card.

        • Dark Leviathan
          March 23, 2016 at 4:57 pm

          Correction about last reply: $1k to $2k. And Boom changes the sound signature, which everyone has different opinions about. But the sound card is the thing that changes the sound quality. Sound quality on the Mac is basically universally accepted as one of the best in a laptop. It has 32-bit float and 96kHz output. An average computer's output is speced anywhere from 16-bit int to 24-bit int and 41kHz output (sometimes higher). So having Boom is great and I love it. But it is all preferences when it comes to sound signature. DACs can affect sound signature, but sound quality is more important as it is hardware based unlike sound signature, which can be changed with software. I suggest you check out the app: Audio MIDI Setup (it is built in). Go to Built-in Output or if you use Boom, go to Boom2Device and change the output format to the highest number. You will see a lot of improvements if your sound file's compression is low enough. :) Hope that helped!

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