Affordable audio – how low can you go?

  • Where to start with entry-level audio hardware? Is getting into vinyl financially prudent? Does Spotify really sound that bad? Can we make Bluetooth audio sound any good? Does good sound only arrive via a fat wallet or deep pockets?

    These questions provided the jumping off point for the Affordable Audio seminar held at RMAF ’16 and moderated by yours truly.

    Much of my audio-related thinking centres not only on the entry-level but high value propositions of all stripe. For the second year running, RMAF had given over a selection of rooms to system compilation at US$500 and up.

    How low can we go? Below half a grand? To take aim at laptop speakers or a smartphone is a cheap shot that misses the point.

    At what point does it become not worth the effort to invest in a higher quality streaming service or dispense with Bluetooth connectivity? I’d contend that proper stereo separation from left and right loudspeakers should be the first point of call before addressing the quality of one’s source.

    Joining me on this year’s panel were Steve Silberman of AudioQuest and AudioStream editor Michael Lavorgna. MIA (with apologies) were Roon Labs’s Enno Vandermeer – who’d succumbed to a bout of altitude sickness – and the most personable guy in audio, Peachtree’s David Solomon – who couldn’t escape his demo room.

    Regardless of what you think of these seminars, the subject matter for this one was laid out in advance and was closely adhered to on the day. I’d call that a win.

    Concentrate not on the prefab room or the missing persons but on the ideas floated and points made.

    Yes, I believe Bluetooth can sound pretty darn good. No, Spotify isn’t the work of Satan. No, you don’t need deep pockets to get good sound but you do need a few hundred bucks – perhaps a thousand – from which a lossless streaming subscription makes more financial sense than getting into vinyl.

    Watch the whole thing here.

    No doubt the YouTube comments section will bring the boys (not men) to the yard.

    Further information: RMAF Seminars


    John H. Darko

    Written by John H. Darko

    John is the editor of Darko.Audio, from whose ad revenues he derives an income. He is an occasional contributor to 6moons but has previously written pieces for TONEAudio, AudioStream and Stereophile.

    Darko.Audio is a member of EISA.

    Follow John on YouTube or Twitter


    1. I personally can’t hear much difference between Spotify and Tidal, using an AudioQuest DragonFly Black to run an Audio Technica ATH-M50 through my iPhone 6. Spotify also is far friendlier to use, and does a better job of introducing you to music you might be interested in, and haven’t heard.

      This is a killer budget head-fi setup, several of my non-audiophile colleagues now understand why someone would want to spend $99 on a DAC. These are people who originally never even thought of getting a DragonFly, so its important to give them a taste of what’s possible.

      High-end audio needs more people like you to ask this question, John. I remember a columnist in Positive Feedback saying that $5000 speakers are affordable (they are not, for a lot of people).

      • This site and it’s coverage, in many ways, is becoming a reflection of my desire to bridge the audiophile world with the mass market, hence the importance, as you’ve discovered, of DACs reaching the $99 tipping point AND being applicable to ALL devices. This is real world hifi, not man-in-a-shed stuff. And I can well imagine that paired with the ATs the sound you get for grand total of $250 and being able to use it with your existing phone is as compelling as it gets in bring others over to the notion of better sound. And I agree with you re. Spotify’s UX – it’s the best in the business and one that DAP makers in their wildest dreams will never get close to.

      • With ATH-M50, Dragonfly Black and iPhone 6 – there will be very little if any perceivable difference between Spotify and Tidal Flac streaming. To truly appreciate the difference you need to install Audirvana+ and have $500.00+ DAC and very good headphones, speakers and an amplifier. Than the difference is staggering!

        • I am visiting Audio Connection in Verona, NJ tomorrow to listen to the Ayre Codex hooked up to the Belles Aria driving a pair of Vandersteen 2ce signature II’s. Should be an eye-opener. I am leaning towards Bluesound Node 2 for a streamer

      • many people can’t even tell the diff between spotify premium and tidal hifi on expensive equipment…i posted a comment with recent blindtest reviews done by both ‘the verge’ and cnbc…hopefully john will post my comments with the links.

        • Why is it that when a reviewer claims sonic differences between speaker A and speaker B, no-one bats an eyelid? In fact, readers are grateful for the intel. Ditto amplifiers, DACs and streamers. Heck, even software gets a pass now. But when it comes to (some) digital cables or streaming media, the DBT brigade start their march into battle, ready to imply that the reviewer is lying and must be on the take?

          Look back into the past. Years ago, it was speaker cables that solicited reviewer derision. Nowadays it’s generally accepted that speaker cables can and do sound different to one another. Then it was USB cables. Then playback software. Then Ethernet cables. If I’ve learnt anything from the last 6 years of writing about audio, it’s that broader opinion generally takes time to catch up to that of early adopters.

          To those who can’t live without DBT, I’d suggest a visit to Hydrogen Audio or similar for your daily audio info fix.

          If you hear a difference between Tidal and Spotify (as I do) then there IS a difference. If you can’t, it could be that your hardware doesn’t resolve those differences. And that is fine.

          No DBT on DAR, not now, not ever. [/discussion]

    2. Left and right speaker is a base for any quality system. Headphones can be more immediate, detailed and transparent if compared to similarly priced loudspeakers. Step it up and headphones cannot compare with the listening experience a proper two channel set up can offer in terms of dynamics, transparency, detail, texture and more importantly soundstage. Have 5 sets of high quality headphones from AQ, Denon, Beyerdynamics, Grado, Sony and Sennheiser and while they serve great purpose when evaluating gear, voicing gear and evaluating recordings they are no match for goo left and right speaker. A pair of good full range drivers from Fostex, Tang Band, Scan Speak, Seas (in proper enclosure) with a Lepai amp is a perfect budget start for a budding audiophile. Forget those all in one bluetooth speakers for any serious listening.

    3. JBL LSR305 ($250 USD pair from Amazon)
      Schiit Fulla2 ($99 from Schiit)
      Laptop/tablet/phone ($0 – you already own it)
      Streaming service of your choice

      That’s $350 of capital investment for something that’s very listenable in up to medium sized rooms, smallish, not too many boxes.

      Very hard to do better without spending more, this gives set up gives you active monitors with DSP crossovers, a waveguide descended form the $25k JBL M2, bass down to 43 Hz, max SPL of 108 dB, and a latest generation Schiit DAC/Amp with an awesome big ass knob.

      Add a pair of headphones, IsoAcoustics stands, or matching LSR310s subwoofer when budget permits.

      • On my desktop, which features a pair of JBL LSR305 monitors spread about 1m apart, I’d say the Iso Acoustic stands make such an enormous difference in positioning and clarity from the mids on down that I recommend waiting on the 305s until one can afford the IsoAcoustics, too. Essential, they are, and only USD100. These monitors work quite well in an entry-level regular hifi set-up, too. I’ve heard them do amazing things even in larger rooms.

        • Completely agree (I also use the LSR305 on a desktop with IsoAcoustic stands).

          My only fear is that an audio newbie would balk at $100 on stands and call the whole project off as audiophool nonsense.

    4. Just reached the half way point. I’ll need to come back to the other half later as I’m out of time right now, but I do want to say something before I forget.

      That bit at around 24:30 where you say that with all the very cheap (or free) music available in the world, there’s more money available to be invested in the hardware. That’s not entirely reflective of the market, imho. The average young person has to save for his computer or smartphone these days, and those are not cheap either. Sure, computers augment our lives in many other ways as well, unlike that walkman or turntable we saved for in our formative years which only played music, but to the average lad in school, or even one who just got his first job, it’s still a significantly expensive entry point (that and the need to pay for monthly broadband/data plans). Heck, the majority of young people in the developed world spend their year’s entire savings on a computing device (usually smartphone) in order to remain connected.

      The music might be more accessible, but the entry cost mostly remains the same. In our time, music and school might’ve equaled a roughly $1000 (in today’s money after inflation) investment in walkman + casettes + books + school stuff, but nowadays it’s still $1000 for that computing device and internet connection. I don’t subscribe to that “you already own it so it’s not part of the cost” thing that some say about including the computing device into the total price, because it’s clearly not the case for most people.

      • “Heck, the majority of young people in the developed world spend their year’s entire savings on a computing device (usually smartphone) in order to remain connected.”

        Does this not suggest that one buys a smartphone to make calls and texts and connect to social media? Music access might also be a part of that spending decision but I’d doubt that it’s the leading factor. One doesn’t buy a phone *just* for music streaming. Ditto laptops and PCs.

        Furthermore, whist laptops and smartphones CAN cost a grand, they don’t have to. One can easily snag a Spotify capable laptop for US$250 and a smartphone that does likewise for not much more.

        • I’m not necessarily saying that adding the cost of the source device makes it an unaffordable all of a sudden – using your $250 as a base source price, we can still get a decent conversion/amplification device (DF-Black = $100) and transducer (ATH-M50 = $150) and make the $500 entry point pricing suggested in the article – but If we want to introduce people into the hobby, we need to be honest with them about what they’re spending in total, regardless of whether music access/playback is the leading factor or not. This is especially relevant in this era where, thanks to “planned adolescence” being engineered into OEM manufacturing techniques and operating system requirements, we get computing devices that don’t last all that long.

    5. RE: “Bluetooth”

      My biggest fear with Bluetooth transmission is basically this:
      We’re already seeing things starting to go south with the Bluetooth pairing process. Apple just introduced the W1 chip, while everyone else is using Qualcomm’s NFC. It’s stupid how the iPhone has NFC capability but Apple limits it to Apple Pay functionality only.

      Though to be fair, we have the same issue with analog jacks – ie; various types of balanced connectors for portable DAPs, or the multitude of different plugs for in-ear monitors. I guess we haven’t learned anything from our past douchewaffleness.

    6. i am a hoary old boomer,and a 6moons certified audiophile i hear it spotify on my 2nd generation dragonfly and air book with the unflappable senn hp100 is bona fide hi fi for pop’s not so bad on the main rig want adult music,you need adult gear.
      from rome

    7. Hi John,

      There’s no question that there are pitfalls to selling a DAC at $99, but I’m still disgusted by this:

      Having lived in Asia and visited many times, I believe its easy to spot fakes on a shelf, but someone buying online doesnt have that luxury. The people behind this wont stop – its up to the paper tigers to start prosecuting the middlemen to the full extent of the law. Boxing Day sales have just started here in Darwin – 30% off the inflated prices – but I doubt there’ll be any USB DACs in the ‘Clearance’ bins 😉


    KIH #39 – Listening modes

    DAR’s favourite bits of 2016