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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)


    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.


    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)


    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)


    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 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+)


    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)


    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)


    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)


    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)


    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)


    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)


    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


    1. platitudinously …heck that was worth the price of admission alone to reading this article. Love it….btw John…I just bought the df red…now thinking I have to at least try the mojo too esp with the accolades.

      • Spot on, Jc; excellent article, Darko.
        I’ve just spent 10 days with the Dragonfly Black attached to my iPhone; heck, it’s good.
        It does a particularly good job of resolving the lower frequencies in symphonic works -basses, cellos and timpani- and casting a bit of width into the orchestra pit.
        Look, I only bought a Black ’cause I was fed up waiting for my Red to arrive from the East (Perth WA, here). Any day now, any day…
        Oh, and do you find the Fostex’s comfortable over lengthy listening sessions…?

    2. Thanks for doing this. Now for what might be a very dumb question: If you’ve gone asynchronous usb, like dragonfly red, or a dedicated nas designed to alleviate this problem, etc, is the ipurifier irrelevant? This is a fix for cleaning up other signal paths, or substandard usb.
      Basically, anything but a good asynchronous usb?
      Sorry for any ignorance on this.

    3. There is a Hugh amount of reclocking dodads in the market Chris now. Using IFI other reclocker in usb ipurifier 2. What changes depends on what you have and can you tell a difference.
      WYRD SCHITT. IFI and power modules. Wyred for sound reclocker. Uptone regen. Intona reclocker galvanic isolation….. It’s getting crazy.

      Using the above budget an IFI IPURIFIER 2 May be a budget saver for usb.

      My money is on Ethernet to USB devices.

      I am sure Mr D will be doing a few reviews later this year.

      I run the IFIP2 and intona but the intona kills my phone battery.

      Good luck

    4. Great article. Any idea when/if Tidal plans to integrate Chromecast into its app?

      Good choices here. I think headphones are the understated audiophile accessory especially when it comes to bang-for- the-buck. Awesome audio quality for a fraction of the price of a good pair of (powered) speakers

    5. John, I have a Chromecast Audio, and with the optical out I can put it through a W4S Remedy for great impact. But saying you can use a iFi dongle confuses me – does the iFi have an optical input too?

      The SB Touch just keeps going on and on with some of these improvements. Next stop – Roon endpoint.

    6. I am an Audirvana user myself and I do think it has the nicest balance between feature set and usability of all the iTunes alternatives (unlike HQPlayer which is a cornucopia of confusion). I do wish Damien would implement ReplayGain support.

      Schitt and iFi are fantastic brands for beginners and advanced audiophiles alike! Can not go wrong.

      Great list but I do feel a TT should be in here as well just to round things out a bit.

        • For this list, Pro-Ject’s Debut Carbon certainly comes to mind. But at $399 that might be too pricey for this list.

          What about an U-Turn substance? I know people report some speed issues, but at $179 bucks just to get your feet waxed, why not?

          • Yeah – and the U-turn comes in a little cheaper. I think Pro-Ject offer a US$200 ‘table too. One of the main reasons I didn’t include one in this list is that I don’t think many of the super-affordable ‘tables sound all that good. In fact, put a $200 table + Schiit Mani up against an AQ DragonFly Red running Tidal from a smartphone and I suspect one would come away utterly demoralised about getting into vinyl from pure an SQ perspective. That said, if one’s sole aim is get with the tactility of vinyl then have at those cheapies.

      • thanks for this, guys:
        i’m actually just getting into an interface for my material and so will check it out…a bit overwhelming out there now: foobar, roon, still jriver…etc.

    7. John….talking of the xiaomi company…their partner 1more released the e1001 this yr too…getting good reviews for kicking well above its price point as per $100 iems

    8. Other really good cheap stuff: Audioengine 2 powered speakers for your desktop computer, ~$200. Little Dot tube headphone amps.

      Personally I don’t like using my phone for music, wastes battery. I suggest a dedicated portable player – the Fiio’s are excellent. X1 is $99. X3 is $199.

      Finally, the absolutely best way to get into vinyl is to buy a used turntable. The technology hasn’t changed in 40 years, and an older one that’s not plastic and rickety can be had for the same $100 as the new cheapies.

      • Second that emotion, Audioengine 2+ = amazing bargain for complete system. Warmer sounding audiophile quality for entry level pricing. Using with AntiCable to connect the two speakers. I was pretty happy with the KEF X300A but these are such a pleasantly surprising value.

    9. Making a good deal even gooderer, the Fostex headphones can be had in the US with a $50 rebate through the end of July.

    10. I think the Lepai LP7498E is a better recommended amp than the dayton, its 100wpc @ 8ohm and can even do 4 ohm loads. It lacks a headphone jack but makes up for it in sound quality.. it was even a stereophile 2014 recommended product, and for the same price as the dayton, $99

      also worth mentioning, although a much different form factor than the lepai/dayton is the dayton apa100 is a 60wpc class a/b with a torodial transformer for $99… I haven’t heard it but the build quality looks very impressive

      • Good tips both, Rick. Thanks. 🙂 I know Steve Guttenberg is a fan of the Lepai.

    11. I use Audivirana+ and Roon the only problems I have with Audivirana+ it takes quiet a while to synchronise all my various music files were Roon is much faster !

    12. Hi Darko
      Aim an old men but not grumpy and still enjoy music and yes you spend some money but mainly to change music systems as from CASSETTE-LP-REEL TO REEL-DAP-MINI DISC-CD’s-HR downloads .As I worked in over 20 countries and had to pay most of my own luggage /shipping cost you can imagine it was not a cheap hobby (today it is easy).Reel to reel and LP’S which are heavy and I had to let them go the shipping cost just got to expensive . Equipment wise I never went crazy except for the Nakamichi Dragon (which I purchased in Dubai for half the price ) In 1980 the Middle East was wild west in regards of Audio and you could import anything without paying taxes ! What I have learned is the following : If you choose good equipment for a reasonable /affordable price it will last for quiet a while and one has not to follow the latest trends ! I agree that now we experience a golden age of audio plenty to choose from and in general the quality is pretty good even at the lower end .I enjoy to read and follow the developments of the audio industry and your side is one of them .Thanks

    13. I’ve been using a Chromecast Audio through my W4S remedy to stream Tidal into my system and it sounds better than my dedicated audio laptop running all the bells and whistles..and it’s a lot simpler. (I’ve been powering it with an ifi iusb I wasn’t using anymore which helps it a bit more) It’s good to see the ipurifier come along as the W4S unit is a bit expensive now – especially in oz dollars.

      Another good dac for the money- Henry Audio usb128 mkII – $249 US – I think I prefer it’s sound over my NAD M51..I’m starting to feel a bit of delayed onset buyer’s remorse kick in with some of these new products coming along.

    14. May I respectfully suggest Superlux HD668B as well? At some point I called them the best headphones 50$ can buy, I’m wondering what your thoughts are 🙂

    15. My recommendations:

      DAC: Ifi Nano‑iDSD. In my experience it is clearly superior to most sub $500 DAC’s (such as Schiit’s Modi 2 Uber – a popular recommendation in the budget DAC space). It gives you none of that “digititus” that is so common in this price point, and does DXD, quad DSD, etc. $199 US

      HP: NAD’s HP50 – detail detail detail, yet without lower and upper end bloat/emphasis. I strongly suspect you have to spend in excess of $1k to get a better sounding headphone (not that I have tried them all). $250 US

      Speakers: Elac’s Debut line, particularly the B6. After auditioning them against several $700 to $1500 bookshelves I gave up and realized they were (overall – one can nitpick particular areas) just as good. $280 US

    16. John, fun column here. I always enjoy reading about gear I might actually be able to afford. With that said, a few weeks ago I bought the AQ Dragonfly Red (your review was too convincing to resist) and it sounds amazing. Would the Red properly drive the Fostex phones you mentioned? I use the Red with my Samsung phone. I even copied your little Velcro trick. Thanks.

      • “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”
        Just read that above…
        (Mister D doesn’t like repeating himself!)

    17. Very fun article! I’ve enjoyed my three schiit products: mani, magni 2, and fulla. My free trial month with tidal was also very enjoyable. The Lenco L75 turntable and Technics 12xx can be had under $300 in the U.S. but it requires some patience, especially the lenco. The technics would be more readily available with potentially fewer problems to fix right off the bat, but I preferred the sound of my stock (1970ish) lenco to my stock (2010 purchased new) technics because of perceived base, depth, and weight to the music. I tried the Denon DL103($229 or less) on both tables and also a kabusa concorde sty30 ($299) on the technics. On craigslist I saw a fairly new nad d3020 for $250, and I’ve seen on multiple occasions pioneer sp bs22 speakers for $50 for the pair.

    18. BitPerfect, $9.99. I really like Audirvana especially for playing DSD but BitPerfect’s simple, unobtrusive interface sounds equally great especially considering the super value price. Add on ability to play DSD for $29.99, if needed.

      Schitt Fulla, $79. DAC and headphone amp in one. Sounds fantastic, especially that silky smooth analogue volume control knob. Add Wireworld Chroma .5 meter USB cable for approx $30. Add Audioquest Jitterbug for $49. Awesome sounding computer headphone interface.

      AntiCables, $6/foot per cable for Level 2. Following the same line of thinking as Mapleshade cabling: minimize shielding and reduce dielectric effect. Whether you buy into dielectric effect as a factor in shorter ‘cable’ runs or not, you cannot deny the clarity on display here across the whole spectrum.

    19. Great choices and one can get good sound for affordable prices ! Particular the young crowd which sometimes have a limited budget can get good sounding equipment ! Nice to see that you care about reasonable priced audio equipment as well and not only top end !

    20. Even though we’re unlikely to see the good times when the AUD was at (or above!) parity with the USD, I still think Grado’s entry level headphone is a stone-cold bargain at 119AUD – as is it’s Alessandro equivalent, given the slightly milder treble. Also difficult to go past the Porta-Pro / KSC-75 / KSC-35 : no idea if the scuttlebutt re drivers is true, but they all sound vastly superior to anything I’ve heard from Sennheiser under 100AUD. Anyone who raves about the PX100-II really needs to spend some time with the Porta-Pro. Finally, the greatest IEM bargain in the universe has to be the Philips SHE3580/3590, particularly when you could walk into a Dick Smith and pick up a pair for less than 15AUD. I’m on my 3rd pair and all 3 lasted longer than the ~$100+ geewhiz IEMs I’ve bought from HiFiMan (RE0, RE262, RE-ZERO). The latter sound great, but quality control just doesnt seem to be a factor in HiFiMan gear at that price point.

    21. You say to upgrade the Dayton amp if you have extra funds, do you have any recommendations in the $150-200 range?

    The provenance issue that plagues hi-res audio (HRA)

    Global feedback: others before self?