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10 stone cold bargains for the wannabe audiophile

  • So you want to be an audiophile? Good for you. And welcome!

    Before we get going, a couple of points of order.

    Be wary of those who platitudinously claim that being an audiophile “is all about the music”. It isn’t. Otherwise, we’d all be content with laptop speakers, convenience store-bought earbuds or a single UE Boom.

    Equally, don’t listen to the grumpy old men who send the message that being an audiophile is an elitist pursuit, the implication being you need big bucks to sit at the table. You don’t.

    As we shall see, becoming an audiophile isn’t a matter of being ‘in’ or ‘out’ but a position on a sliding scale as defined by you. After all, you don’t learn to swim at the deep end of the pool.

    All that is required is the right attitude: a desire for better sound quality.

    This list isn’t exhaustive or definitive. No reviewer on the planet has heard (even close to) everything. This is simply a summary of some of the best bang for buck audio-related items that I’ve encountered in the past two years or so.

    The price ceiling was set at US$300 with most items coming in at well under US$200.

    I’m not going to dig too much into audiophile terminology in justifying the suggestions that follow. Each item’s presence in this list indicates a high value quotient – one that’s a significant cut above the rest.

    Xiaomi Piston 3 (~US$15)

    xiaomi

    Some will tell you that the Apple Earpods are quite good for what they are. That’s fine. But what if I told you that you could get a much better sound from your smartphone or laptop for as little as US$15? That’s half the asking price of a replacement pair of those same Apple Earpods.

    Xiaomi is China’s biggest Android smartphone manufacturer so it makes sense that they would make an IEM with a 3-button in-line remote that works with most Android phones. (The play/pause button remains functional on iDevices).

    Even so, every time I wear the Xiaomi Piston 3 IEM (in ear monitor), I find myself seriously impressed by their sound quality, especially given the bargain basement price point. Forego three trips to Starbucks and you will have saved enough cash to buy a pair.

    The Piston 3’s non-throwaway packaging and high build quality points to what lies beneath – splendid sound for the money. A well balanced, clean and detailed presentation, and one that’s a very different beast to the previous generation – the Piston 2.1.

    The Piston 3 is a good match for softer sounding devices like the Google Nexus 5 but if you find your smartphone sounds too dry and bright, maybe the fatter, warmer, bassier sound of the Xiaomi Piston 2 will be more to your liking.

    Xiaomi_Piston_2_1

    The Piston 3’s noticeable sonic change-up over the Piston 2.1 comes from Xiaomi’s decision to move from a beryllium driver to a titanium one. The Piston 3 also brings a shift in look and feel. The second generation model offered a gold metallic finish whilst the Piston 3 is a more traditional matt black – a look that sits closer to the competition.

    Rightly or wrongly, enormous bang for buck is the reality of Chinese mass production and enormous economies of scale give this Chinese smartphone a clear advantage, sometimes even over more expensive rivals.

    Whichever model you choose, you won’t come away disappointed. Both Piston 2.1 and 3 are a huge step up from the earphones that come ‘free’ with your smartphone.

    Make sure you buy either the Piston 2.1 or Piston 3 from Banggood or a reputable eBay seller and beware of pricing that looks too good to be true. Even at their usual price of ~US$15, counterfeiters have found a way to trick consumers with a similar looking (but not similar sounding) IEM for as little as US$3.

    Fostex T50RP MKIII (US$159)

    fostex

    If you’re after a more impactful personal audio experience and from pair of headphones that could serve double duty behind the decks on the weekend, then you absolutely cannot go wrong with the MKIII version of Fostex’s T50RP – a planar magnetic headphone that’s been around since 2002.

    The MKIII iteration uses the same driver as the MKII but it has been re-tuned with changes to the filter and the earcup’s inner-damping. That’s the official line. Rumour has it that the MKIII incorporates some of the modifications applied to the MKII by California’s MrSpeakers. Modifications that resulted in the Mad Dog becoming such a rabid success.

    Dan Clark’s modded MKII is now discontinued whilst Fostex’s latest revision has been around for a under a year and looks set to run and run. Seek out the MKIII by looking for the telltale orange cable.

    The source of my enthusiasm is for the semi-open version – it doesn’t leak as much sound as one might expect which means the T50RP MKIII are AOK for all but the quietest trains, planes and…buses. But if you want more bass, go for the newly released open-back subversion. A fully sealed take is also offered but it sounds a little too tight and dry for my tastes.

    No doubt some readers will want to know how the Fostex compares to the all-sealed OPPO PM-3. On sound quality I’d call it a matter of preference rather than one being better than the other. On comfort, the nod goes to less tightly-clamping Fostex which in turn isn’t as sleek-looking or sleek-fitting as its Chinese rival. That the Fostex is half the price of the OPPO is irrefutable.

    You hear that? That’s the sound of a bargain alarm ringing in the distance.

    Pioneer SP-BS22-LR (US$129/pair)

    SP-BS22-LR

    Quasi-celebrity loudspeaker designer Andrew Jones might have moved onto greener pastures (ELAC) but his former employer Pioneer are still pumping out the wallet-friendly standmount designed by Jones back in 2012. And to run with a Steve Irwin-grade descriptor, they’re a ripper!

    The decidedly uncatchy SP-BS22-LR can be purchased from Amazon.com or Best Buy for US$129/pair but occasional flash-sale pricing can bring them home for less. Is there a more well-poised, even balanced loudspeaker available for that kind of cash? No Sir, there is not. Don’t hesitate – just buy ‘me.

    You’ll need an amplifier to drive them though…

    Dayton Audio DTA-120 (US$99+)

    dayton

    Never heard of them? Don’t worry. Few have. Amplifiers need power and power doesn’t come cheap (and neither does US production). Class D amplifiers don’t require feeding from a large transformer – a switch mode will do. This helps keep production costs on a tight leash. The Class D derivative Class T even more so. Companies like Trends Audio have taught us that T-Class amplifiers can sound very good indeed but the Dayton Audio unit comes in with more power and for less money than its Taiwanese rival. The DT-120 offers 40wpc into 8 Ohms from its binding posts and. Also on the rear panel a single twin-RCA analogue input. That’ll be enough to drag a half-decent sound from the Pioneers but this amplifier should be top of your upgrade list as more funds become available.

    Emotiva Airmotiv 4S (US$299/pair)

    emotiva-airmotiv

    Walk into any DJ or pro-audio store and powered loudspeakers, those with amplifiers built into the cabinet, are the norm, not the exception. And yet the home audio world has yet to catch on. Which is odd, especially at the entry-level where the need to bring down costs is seemingly more acute. Dispense with the usually external amplifier’s casework and then tailor the output to the speaker drive invariably means a better sound for less money. What’s not to like about that?

    Tennessee’s Emotiva have become synonymous with high bang for low bucks and their Airmotiv 4S active monitor is no exception. A ribbon tweeter means these actives will be hard to beat at their price point for detail retrieval and treble smoothness and a small footprint makes them ideal for desk workers and bedroom listeners alike.

    Another benefit of going active: no need to budget for speaker wire – it’s simply not needed. The two amplifiers located inside each speaker run in Class A/B mode so there’s precious little criticism for switching amplifier snobs to get a hold of.

    Then there’s that price again: US$299. Could you put together passive speakers, integrated amplifier and speaker cable for less and still have an end result that sounds as good? It’s not impossible but it’s unlikely; and what a hassle.

    AudioQuest Dragonfly Black/Red (US$99/199)

    dragonfly_black

    Once you’ve a nice pair of headphones sorted, you’ll need to feed them properly. You don’t put high street gas into a race car, now do you? USB DACs have become an abundant species but the AudioQuest DragonFly Black is not only one of the least expensive out there, it gives a killer sonic return on each of its US$99 AND – most importantly – offers compatibility with smartphones as well as computers. Use it at the office with your laptop and then plug it into your phone when you’re ready to go out and about.

    The DragonFly Black bypasses the low quality DAC and headphone amplifier found in your computer or phone by extracting digital audio via USB, thus taking care of D/A conversion and headphone amplification on its own terms.

    Listeners seeking either a little more grunt – especially for the aforelisted Fostex – or just another step up the sound quality ladder are directed toward the DragonFly Red. It’s twice the price but well worth the extra cash, even when feeding higher sensitivity IEMs like the Xiaomi Piston 2.

    Tidal Hifi (US$20/month)

    tidal

    Streaming services are ten a penny: Spotify, Apple Music, Pandora, Google Play Music, Soundcloud Go etc. However, only Qobuz, Deezer and Tidal offer a lossless “Hifi” subscription tier that use psycho-acoustic algorithms compression techniques (MP3, AAC or Ogg Vorbis).

    With lossless streaming you get access to CD-quality music. Just don’t call it hi-res (cos it isn’t). And at US$19.99 for access to the same 30M+ tracks as found on the lossy tier, Tidal Hifi therefore puts a CD store in your house.

    And whilst lossless offerings from Qobuz and Deezer Elite will sound just as good as Tidal Hifi, the Jay-Z-owned company is available in more territories than either of its rivals, hence getting the nod here.

    Tidal also has a proven track record for big ticket exclusives from the likes of Beyonce, Kanye West and Neil Young. And music videos. LOTS of HD music videos. Not enough for ya? Tidal is the only streaming service to offer the Prince back catalogue in its entirety. Let that sink in for a moment.

    If you’ve a nice pair of headphones or active loudspeakers and a decent USB DAC/amplifier then the next logical step is (to at least try) Tidal Hifi. Their now discontinued online test allowed interested parties to compare lossless and 320kbps AAC versions of the same song.

    A word of caution: the benefits of Tidal Hifi’s lossless audio aren’t only heard in a single A/B session. Go long with repeated A/B comparisons instead.

    Buyers of certain third party products can even avail themselves of a free three month trial. Talking of which…

    Audirvana+ (US$74)

    audirvana

    For the newcomer, hearing that software players can each sound different can be a bit of a head scratcher. Think of it this way: software that places less of a burden on the CPU during music playback will sound better than one that doesn’t give a flying fig about system resources. That’s probably why Audirvana+ sounds quite a bit better than iTunes. And since v2.0, Audirvana users now have the choice of iTunes library management or the software app’s own.

    Better still, the audible benefits of Audirvana+ can now be applied to Qobuz and Tidal content – that means every (lossless) song to which you have access, either locally or in the cloud, can be made to sound a little bit better.

    This French software app is strictly OS X (Mac) only – and there are no plans for a Windows version – but if you’ve a reasonably resolving audio setup then you’ll likely see the value in converting its 14-day trial into a full licence. The icing on the cake is a complimentary three month Tidal Hifi voucher which sees Audirvana+ almost paying for itself.

    And before you go off half-cocked, shouting about “AudioVarna”, allow me to help you with pronunciation: “Or-deer-varna”.

    Schiit Mani (US$129)

    mani

    Getting into vinyl isn’t cheap. Compared to lossless streaming its REALLY, REALLY expensive. One big black disc will cost you the same as a month’s worth of Tidal Hifi. Thankfully, the hardware doesn’t have to hit the wallet quite as hard as the software.

    Super-entry level turntables like the Audio Technica AT-LP60 (US$99) have a phono pre-amplifier built into the plastic chassis. Spend a little more on a better record player and that same phono pre-amplifier might be something you have to source yourself.

    What’s a phono pre-amplifier? In essence, it takes the low voltage output of a turntable and brings it up to a level that your speaker amplifier, headphone amplifier or receiver can ‘hear’. Before the CD revolution, a phono pre-amplifier circuit was a common feature inside entry-level integrateds and since vinyl sales have been strong for the last five years, they are slowly becoming a common feature once again.

    However, if your turntable or amplifier doesn’t sport a phono stage you’ll need to BYO. The good news is than many external models offer greater flexibility with configuration and better sound quality than their internalised counterparts.

    One solid choice plucked from a field of many is the Mani from California’s Schiit Audio. Schiit have a well established and incomparable reputation as manufacturers of high value DACs and headphone amplifiers. Their phono pre-amplifier is no exception. It sounds terrific, helping entry-level turntables compensate for the one quality they often lack: dynamics. Flip the Mani over to expose user customisation from six DIP switches: 47 Ohms for MM cartridges or 47 K Ohms for MC and four different levels of gain: 30dB, 42dB, 48dB, and 59dB.

    iFi S/PDIF iPurifier (~US$150)

    ifi_spdif_ipurifier

    This one’s a bit more niche than the other items in this list but it gets a doff of the Darko cap because there aren’t just many alternatives getting about, let alone for US$150. I’m talking about the entirely unglamorous world of S/PDIF re-clocking. Digital isn’t just digital. Bits aren’t just bits. Electrical noise emanating from a streamer can cause timing errors (jitter) in the downstream DAC leaving music sounding somewhat zombie-like.

    iFi Audio is essentially the brand name under which Thorsten Loesch of AMR designs and makes more affordable gear. His forthcoming S/PDIF iPurifier promises to improve the digital output of any digital audio streamer (or similar device) spilling ones and zeroes over coaxial or Toslink into a DAC. If only this product had existed at DAR’s inception in 2010 when this commentators most oft-used transport was a Logitech Squeezebox Touch. If only.

    In 2016, you have no excuse not to make your SBT or Sonos Connect or Apple TV or Apple Airport Express sound better. S/PDIF reclockers breathe life back into entry-level sources by dialling down the amount of noise and jitter reaching your DAC. You have no excuse not to deploy one.

    Now the sucker punch: imagine this iFi dongle applied to a Google Chromecast Audio – an audiophile grade streamer for less than two hundred bucks?

    What a time to be alive.


    Got a suggestion of your own? Hit us up in the comments section below.

    John Darko

    Written by John Darko

    John currently lives in Berlin where creates videos and podcasts and pens written pieces for Darko.Audio. He has also contributed to 6moons, TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Instagram

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