Great Gifts for the Budget Audiophile
If you, or someone you love, wants to get better quality audio devices into your lives, you end up having to spend some money. However, there’s a point of diminishing returns where you can pour lots of money into some devices, and get such a small improvement in sound quality that it may not be worth it. For the start of the holiday shopping season, I wanted to offer up some choices to budding audiophiles who want better sound without breaking the bank. Most of these are products I own, and use on a regular basis.
Massdrop x Sennheiser HD 6XX Headphones
These are, without a doubt, my go-to pair of headphones for sitting at my laptop doing work. They are based on the original Sennheiser HD650 speakers which are still beloved in audiophile circles as being some of the best cans under $1,000.
Good news for fans of the HD 650: In this revision, the driver structure and sound signature haven’t changed a bit. You’ll get the same smooth, laid-back presentation, with a balanced midrange and natural-sounding bass. The HD 650 is considered more refined and better damped than its predecessor, the HD 600, with less energy in the upper midrange (which some listeners may find less fatiguing) and an overall balance that’s a bit warmer and bassier. Its neutral response provides a pleasant listening experience with any musical genre from a range of sources. Plus, it responds well to improved sources and amplification, and headphone amplifiers of any output impedance could potentially make a good match.
The HD 650 models aren’t being made anymore, and the next generation version sells for around $500. These cost $200. You can get them right now at Massdrop (which has some great deals on excellent audio gear). Follow this link to find the Massdrop x Sennheiser HD 6XX headphones. Note – headphones purchased with this deal won’t ship until March. If you want something that’s on par, but that’s available as a holiday gift, check out the Massdrop x AKG 7XX Audiophile Headphones, also $200.
Creative Sound Blaster E5 High-Resolution USB DAC 600 ohm Headphone Amplifier with Bluetooth
Something that can augment a great pair of headphones, and kick any listening session up a notch is a DAC/Amp combo. The DAC (digital audio converter is the thing that takes the digital audio files on your computer and turns them into the analog impulses that drive your headphones, and they’re not all created equally. And a good amplifier helps drive high quality headphones much better than the paltry power that comes through a normal headphone jack. I’ve been using the E5 for a while now, and I love its portability and quality. If you need to take your quality listening environment with you, it stuffs into a backpack easily. It runs off the power of a USB port, and can even be charged and run off an internal battery, if you’re using it via Bluetooth for your phone. But it you can plug it into your laptop, it really shines, because it come with custom software that lets you tune your listening to get it just right for your headphones, your music, and your personal preferences. Available at Amazon for $190.
Fostex HP-A3 32-Bit Digital to Analog Converter/Headphone Amplifier
If you have a bit more of a permanent spot to set up your listening station, then you can get a slightly more powerful desktop DAC/Amp combination. Fostex is one of the most famous names in high-quality audio gear, and their DAC/Amp combo will drive your headphones to the next level.
- 32bit D/A converter with USB bus power
- Works with up to 24bit/96kHz audio source
- High quality analog headphone amp to drive any type of headphones
- USB/digital (optical) input selector; headphones/RCA (analog) output selector
- Doubles as D/D converter from USB digital audio to optical
RHA T20 High Fidelity Noise Isolating In-Ear Headphones
This is where being an audiophile can be conflicting. You just can’t get as good a listening experience from in-ear headphones as you can from on-ear or over-ear headphones (IMO). But sometimes the demands of portability say you have to use them (for example, I walk a few miles every day, and wearing heavier headphones would make it a chore, and they’d get sweaty and gross). These heavy-duty buds from RHA are really nice. They’re made from machined aluminum, so right off the top they feel degrees higher in build quality. The fit for noise isolation is excellent, and the sound is really good (again, for the size). Everything about them says rugged quality. They’re certainly not cheap at $193, but they’ll probably last you 5x a long as any cheap earbuds you’ll buy, and they’ll sound 10x better.