Ever since Édouard-Léon Scott de Martinville recorded an almost undecipherable version of the French song “Au Clair de la Lune” in the mid-19th century, it’s been clear that the technology that you use to produce and listen to sounds can affect your experience. Even now, about 150 years later, the quality of your gear can mean the difference between a tinny, nearly unrecognizable noise or a fully realized aural experience.
As you can imagine, the people here at The Verge spend a lot of time listening to a variety of digital sounds — whether it’s online meetings, music, podcasts, videos, or sound checks of their own multimedia productions. We asked the staff what their favorite devices were to either listen to, enhance, or produce their digital sounds. Here’s what they talked about.
Plantronics Explorer 500 Bluetooth headset
About six years ago, I reviewed a midlevel Bluetooth headset from Plantronics (now Poly) called the Explorer 500. It was a small, nicely built, single-ear headset, and it came with a short USB cable with ends that magnetically snapped together to become a loop. I thought it was a pretty good piece of tech at the time, so I bought one — and I’m still using it. Of course, it’s not great for music (it uses only one ear, after all), but it’s incredibly convenient to have it hanging on a loop in my bag so I can grab it for a quick phone call or if I want to listen to a podcast. And surprisingly, the battery still holds a reasonable charge. One of these days, I’ll have to invest in a fully wireless headset so I can have fully mobile music as well — but until then, my Explorer 500 serves me well. — Barbara Krasnoff, reviews editor
AudioQuest Dragonfly USB DAC
AudioQuest’s Dragonfly portable digital-to-analog converter (DAC) brings higher-quality audio to your devices. Most laptops, tablets, and smartphones don’t have great DACs or don’t natively support hi-res files like FLAC (nor tell you when they don’t), but with the Dragonfly, you’ll be able to listen to uncompressed audio up to 24-bit / 96kHz. There’s also an LED light on the device that changes colors to indicate which sample rate is being supported at the moment. AudioQuest makes three separate models: the basic Dragonfly Black; the Dragonfly Red, which uses a higher-performance DAC chip; and the Dragonfly Cobalt, its highest-end model.
In order to take full advantage of the Dragonfly, you’ll also need an adapter for your phone with a Lightning-to-USB-A adapter for an iPhone or a USB-C-to-USB-A adapter for an Android device. Portability is the biggest feature here — swapping between my phone and my laptop is the reason I’m recommending this for anyone who wants one gadget that will let you listen to hi-res audio on any device. — Andrew Marino, audio engineer
Audio-Technica ATH-M50 headphones
Alright, yes, I’m aware that these are pretty much already the internet’s favorite pair of wired, over-ear headphones. But seriously: I’ve had mine for six years now, and they’ve held up great. Sure, the pleather on the headband is starting to flake off, and I had to replace the ear cups a while back, but they sound just as good as the day I got them. I find that music just sounds fun with them — not too analytical, like my DT-770 Pros can sometimes be. The Audio-Technicas are for sure not reference headphones, but that’s probably not what most people are actually looking for.
They were also a great price, especially compared to their Bluetooth counterparts. And honestly, I’ve been falling out of love with wireless headphones for anything other than working out, though that’s probably a problem with me, not them. Either way, the newer version, the ATH-M50x (the ATH-M50 has been discontinued), has a removable cable so you don’t have to worry about being saddled with the ridiculously long cables that sometimes come with fancy headphones. (Another version, the ATH-M50xBT, disposes of the cable entirely.) — Mitchell Clark, news writer
Antlion Audio ModMic USB microphone
It seems like everyone’s getting big standalone microphones for their desks during the pandemic, but I don’t want to give up any precious real estate. A solution that works better for my needs is Antlion Audio’s ModMic USB microphone. It’s cleverly designed. First, you adhere a small circular base (about the size of a large chocolate chip) to the side of your headphones, then the microphone itself can be magnetically attached and detached at will. I like being able to quickly turn my headphones into a gaming headset, or to get ready for a meeting appearance, then back to regular headphones by detaching the mic. I use one with my Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro open-back headphones and it helps me get more out of the kit I already own.
This particular microphone has two modes you can switch between: omnidirectional (made for broadcasts) or unidirectional, which helps to capture just your voice if you’re in a noisy environment. The sound quality of a voice recording made with the ModMic is very good — far better than most of the gaming headsets I’ve tried. The microphone is compatible with Windows, macOS, Linux, PS4, and PS5.
The downside is this model costs about $70. Also, if your headphones are wired, introducing this mic’s wire into the fray can get a little tough to manage. For me, the price is worth the effort. Antlion also makes an all-wireless rechargeable microphone for $120, if you want to go that route, which also has dual mic modes and can stick to your headphones with adhesive. — Cameron Faulkner, writer
I love my AirPods and I have since my first pair. They’re lightweight, they charge up quickly in their case, and they sound good enough for what I need them for, which is mostly hearing notifications, listening to podcasts, and watching YouTube videos. It helps that I’m an iPhone and a Mac user, as they work really well with both devices.
I think I like the original AirPods more than the Pros, though. While the Pros offer some welcome upgrades like active noise cancellation and water and sweat resistance, they just don’t fit my ears as well. The original AirPods never fell out, but the AirPods Pro will slowly slip out if I’m talking or eating, and sometimes when I’m running. That means I’m constantly readjusting them if I’m doing anything besides sitting completely still. (To be fair, I’m sitting completely still a lot of the time right now.)
Here’s hoping that the next version of the Pros will fit my ears just a little bit better. If they do, they’ll likely become one of my favorite Apple products ever. — Jay Peters, news writer
The last-gen AirPods Pro improve upon the regular AirPods with better sound quality, excellent active noise cancellation, and immersive spatial audio.
Rode RodeCaster Pro podcast production
This four-mic input audio interface by Rode makes it significantly easier to set up a full podcasting session with a design that mimics a live mixing board. You can record multitracks onto your computer or internally on a microSD using a USB-C connection.
As someone who mostly mixes podcasts after they’re recorded, this setup is more appealing to me for live streaming on Twitch or YouTube. You also get built-in customizable sound banks, compression and EQ settings, multiple outputs for monitoring, and an intuitive design for traditional live mixing.
Fun tip: it’s also a great way to record phone call interviews by pairing the RodeCaster Pro with your smartphone via Bluetooth. — Andrew Marino
HyperX QuadCast microphone
I’d been looking to upgrade my microphone for a long time, but I was unsure which product to go with. A few friends recommended the HyperX QuadCast, and that’s what I ended up buying.
Previously, I used a Blue Yeti microphone, but I felt the audio quality was unsatisfactory on my end. I wanted to make sure I was buying a microphone that was not too cheap and not too pricey and, most importantly, had a nice cable lengthy so I did not have to rearrange my desk. Compared to the Blue Yeti, I found the HyperX QuadCast had great clarity and picked up the subtle details from my audio output.
I really enjoy the somewhat unconventional design of the QuadCast; it comes with straightforward controls, a stand, and a shock mount adapter for boom arms if you want to mount the microphone closer to you. I also find it convenient that the mute button is on top of the microphone. It makes it easy to mute myself quickly while on Zoom or Discord. —Taylor Lyles, writer
A USB condenser gaming microphone compatible with PC, PS4, and Mac.
Sonos Five speaker
I’ve never found a single smart speaker that sounds better, and I like that there are no microphones inside. Those are the main bullet points for why I’ve had a Sonos Play:5 — recently refreshed as the Sonos Five — on my desk for several years now. For a speaker that doesn’t have a 360-degree design, the Five still produces a very satisfactory soundstage that can fill most rooms. It can kick out ample bass without overpowering the highs and mids of your music. It takes two of most other smart speakers paired together to come anywhere close to what the Sonos Five can deliver. (Granted, it had better sound damn good for $500.)
Pretty much every audio app under the sun is supported through the Sonos app, including hi-fi options like Tidal and Amazon Music HD. The Sonos Five works with Apple AirPlay, and there’s a 3.5-millimeter aux input for wired playback. (You can also use this to get a turntable hooked into your Sonos system.)
No, there’s no built-in voice assistant like Alexa or Google Assistant included here. But some people will appreciate the absence of always-listening mics. And adding an assistant to the mix after the fact is easy, either via another Sonos speaker like the One or simply by hooking up an Echo Dot or Nest Mini.
It’s just a shame that the white and black combo Play:5 colorway is no more; I think that was the best-looking speaker Sonos ever made. — Chris Welch, news editor