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Consumer Reports

Make your music sound better

There’s been a bit of a paradox in the world of consumer audio for the past few years, says Consumer Reports. Customers are springing for pricey headphones and wireless speakers that are capable of providing great sound.

But at the same time, they’re ditching CDs and high-quality digital downloads in favor of streaming audio, which can be lower quality, from services such as Pandora and Spotify. Audiophiles have rebelled and are now embracing new high-resolution digital-audio formats and players that promise to deliver greater fidelity.

So what does it all mean to the everyday music lover willing to spend a little money to get great sound, but confused by all of the formats, services and crazy lingo of the audio world? Consumer Reports crunched the numbers on streaming services and found some great gear.

THE $10 UPGRADE

Even if you’re not interested in buying into a new audio format, you can still improve your listening experience. One of the most effective steps you can take is buying new headphones or speakers.

Just $10 can get you earphones that did well in Consumer Reports’ tests (Panasonic RP-TCM125), offering a big upgrade from the cheap earbuds that come with many devices. For $100 or so, you can get headphones with excellent sound (Onkyo IE-FC300). Just don’t get suckered into buying special “high-res” headphones; any great-sounding pair will do.

A good wireless speaker system will range in price from less than $100 to several times that. But you don’t need to go too high-end to get high-quality sound.

There are two types of wireless speakers: Bluetooth and Wi-Fi. Both will let you play music from mobile devices, and some provide direct access to streaming services and Internet radio stations.

Each type has its advantages. Bluetooth speakers have a 30-foot range. Many have rechargeable batteries that let you take them almost anywhere. All smartphones and many tablets support Bluetooth, and some have NFC (near field communication) technology for pairing devices simply by tapping them together.

Wi-Fi models are designed primarily for home use and are able to play songs from multiple devices on your network. Wi-Fi speakers have a greater range than Bluetooth models, and you can send music to several speakers at once, even in different rooms. But configuring a Wi-Fi speaker to work with your network isn’t as easy as pairing Bluetooth devices. Also, there are competing and incompatible wireless standards (Apple’s AirPlay, Sonos and proprietary systems from LG and Samsung), and once you buy into one, you’re stuck with it.

In the end, there is no perfect audio source or setup (except, perhaps, a band sitting right in front of you). Just spend your money wisely, and have faith in the best audio equipment you already own — your ears.

COMPARING STREAMING MUSIC SERVICES

Online services differ in audio quality, musical offerings, features and price. See which is the best choice for you.

— Beats Music. Android, Apple iOS, Windows Phone. Beats’ initiation process analyzes your musical tastes based on age, gender and the listening choices you make. Beats was acquired by Apple, so expect a revamped launch soon.

— iTunes Radio. Apple iOS, PC with iTunes. Subscribing to iTunes Match lets you get iTunes Radio without advertising.

— Pandora. Android, Apple iOS, BlackBerry, Kindle Fire, Nook, Windows Phone. “Discovery” feature finds artists and songs similar to those you like. Can create up to 100 unique stations.

— Rdio. Android, Apple iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone. Rdio users can now choose among streaming bit rates of 64 Kbps, 96 Kbps and 192 Kbps in the settings menu.

— Spotify. Android, Apple iOS, BlackBerry, Windows Phone. Lower 96-Kbps option for mobile users wanting to limit usage. Free mobile users can’t listen to songs on demand and can skip only five tracks per hour.

— Tidal. Android, Apple iOS. This CD-quality audio streaming service lets you save songs to your device for listening offline.

Which frequent-flyer program is best for you

About 100 million consumers belong to one or more airline frequent-flyer programs, according to Consumer Reports. If you’re one of them, you know how many hoops you need to jump through to get where you want to go.

Consumer Reports suggests you judge the various programs based on the following:

— How good is the airline? Don’t let award-seat availability wag the dog. Look for an airline highly rated by Consumer Reports. Among the five biggest carriers, JetBlue and Southwest had the best overall score for such factors as cabin service, seating comfort and overall satisfaction. That’s according to over 16,000 subscribers who assessed more than 31,732 domestic round-trip flights taken from 2012 to 2013.

— What’s the value of your points? The miles or points you earn are a currency. But unlike euros or dollars, not all miles are created equal. Their value varies by airline and is usually based on the number of points charged for a particular flight, travel dates and advance purchase.

What you don’t know about the value of points can hurt you. For example, in fiscal 2014, about 12,200 American AAdvantage members each redeemed 12,500 to 30,000 miles to fly each way between Los Angeles and San Francisco, the No. 3 award route. But because the cheapest average airfare for that short-hop route was $104 each way, they obtained a value of only 0.3 to 0.8 cent per redeemed mile. You should get more for your miles than that, but the frequent flyer pay-with-miles pricing schemes can make it difficult to know whether you’re getting a good deal.

Consumer Reports solved that problem for you by figuring out the dollar value of the points you pay for each trip. With mileage reward credit cards, the most common method by which infrequent flyers earn miles, you usually earn one mile or point for each dollar you spend. The value equals 1 cent per mile. Consumer Reports used the lowest average airfare of an airline serving each route — that was Southwest’s or JetBlue’s, usually — as the bottom-dollar benchmark of worth. It then divided the benchmark price for each route by the average number of miles needed for an award to get the cents per redeemed mile value. With 1 cent per mile the break-even point of value, it recommends that you try to come out ahead of that by using your miles on trips worth 1 cent per mile or greater. Of course, the fewer miles needed for a saver award, the greater the per-mile value. But airlines also tightly limit the number of saver awards, so that better value is actually more difficult to get.

There was good news and bad: JetBlue awards provided a good value on all of the routes it serves, but it operates only on 10 of the 25 top routes. Southwest gave customers a good deal on 88 percent of its routes; United did so on 60 percent. Delta and American, on the other hand, provided good award value on 38 and 36 percent of their routes.

— Breadth of service. The more destinations served by your airline, the more award options you have. American, Delta and United take the title here, with their huge networks of U.S. and international service traveling to 326-373 destinations worldwide, plus international partner airlines. JetBlue and Southwest are puny by comparison, with service to fewer than 100 mostly U.S. cities and some Caribbean and Mexican destinations; international award options are significantly limited.

— Extra fees. United ladled on the most, with charges for making reservations by phone, booking last-minute, changing plans, canceling a trip and redepositing points after you cancel–a whopping $475 if you had to pay for all of them. Southwest charged no fees, and the others racked up a couple of hundred dollars’ worth.

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