Winter Indecision

Hi-Res Starter Equipment for Your Audio Upgrade

Ahh, the holidays are coming on us, and instead of going to too much parties, you would want to stay home to watch Anime, have a Netflix marathon, play all those games you bought and had never time to play because work/school, listen to all your music albums, or whatever you like doing on the holidays. The previous week I mentioned on recommendations for starter equipment you will need.

Well, if you are planning to listen/play/watch and want some quality products to enhance your audio experience, but don’t know what to get (or have much money all that matter), here is a Hi-Res starter list of what I would recommend to start your listening experience upgrade. Many of these items has had favorable reviews, and there are a few I personally own (after reading everywhere about them). I also considered price-point as a factor for these components since they can add up.

The Hi-Res Starter List:

DACs (each unit is under the $200 USD mark):

The main heart of experiencing Hi-Res Audio. Many of these units are also headphone amps themselves:

NuPrime uDSD Portable DAC: $179.00 USD on Amazon
-My current Digital Audio Converter. Really pleased with the sound straight from the unit. Can play files natively up to 24-bit/384kHz PCM and 11.2MHz DSD. I can also use this DAC with my Sony Xperia Z3 phone as an external on-the-go DAC. Only weird thing is the side USB-in port, but not too much of a complaint since all the back side is occupied with RCA and Coaxial Out. More info from NuPrime’s Website.

iFi Nano iDSD USB DAC: $199.00 USD on Amazon
-Another highly-rated DAC I was considering before going with the NuPrime (I actually am waiting for a dedicated desktop unit they are planning to release later). Can play files natively up to 24-bit/384kHz PCM and 5.6MHz DSD. Can also be used as a portable unit. More info from iFi Audio’s Website.

LH Labs Geek Out: $189.00 USD on Amazon
-Very portable DAC and headphone amplifier. Can play files natively up to 24-bit/384kHz PCM and 5.6MHz DSD. Tried it out before and really liked the small-form factor. But I did not like that it would get rather hot (not good for when it is in your pocket). There is also the LH Labs Geek Out V2 Infinity but it is over the $200.00 limit I made this list. The first version of the Geek Out is not listed on the website, but you can get more info from LH Labs’ Website.

PCM-only DACs (capable up to either 24bit/96kHz or 24bit/192kHz):

For those who are not convinced of DSD, or would want to spend $100 or less on a DAC/AMP.

Schiit Modi 2 USB DAC: $99.00 USD on Schiit’s Site
-Dedicated Desktop DAC under the $100-range. Can play files natively up to 24-bit/192kHz PCM. Silver finish and a great addition for your home computer setup. More info (and direct purchase) from Schiit’s Website.

Schiit Fulla USB Dongle DAC/Amp: $79.00 USD on Schiit’s Site
-Another one from Schiit, this time a very portable DAC/Amp. Can play files natively up to 24-bit/96kHz PCM. Check the official product page at Schiit.com on how it compares to the size of a dime (and you can purchase directly too).

FiiO K1 Portable DAC/AMP: $39.99 USD from Amazon
-A rather new DAC (but FiiO has been in the audiophile radar scene for quite some time), this is the lowest priced one here. Can play files natively up to 24-bit/96kHz PCM. You might not find much reviews due to its freshness, but FiiO has built a name for itself. More info at FiiO’s Website.

Desktop Speakers (for 2-channel Desktop setup):

Since I come from a background studying audio-engineering, this list is for a stereo setup for those that want a flat (i.e. neutral across all music) audio and under $300.00 USD:

M-Audio Studiophile AV 40 Active Studio Monitor Speakers (Pair): $146.00 USD from Amazon
-My first pair when I started Audio Engineering, and considered a starting pair to many. These were my main listening speakers before I upgraded to the Equator D5’s ($500).

Mackie CR3 – 3″ Reference Multimedia Monitors (Pair): $99.99 USD from Amazon
-These speakers are from a brand known for their studio-grade speakers, Mackie, and these speakers according to reviews is a great deal.

KRK RP5G3-NA Rokit 5 G3 Powered Studio Monitor (Pair): $289.99 USD from Amazon
-These monitors I was considering upgrading from the M-Audio ones mentioned previously. Many attest the the quality of KRK Rokits, and are very good for their price.

Over-Ear Headphones:

Oh boy, since there is a myriad of choices, styles, colors, etc, let me just list some that are affordable, great to start your collection, and are also flat in response (and around less than $120 USD). I also considered IEMs (In-Ear Monitors) but to be honest I do not use that style as they hurt my ears, so I cannot give an honest answer on those.

Sony MDRV6 Studio Monitor Headphones: $49.95 USD from Amazon
-One of the most highly-rated over-ear headphones, there is a reason this pair and its studio variant Sony MDR7506 are in so many recording studios: accurate response and will last quite a while. Although the look is rather no-frills, this is a good starter set for listening.

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro Headphones: $99.95 USD from Amazon
-A great starter headphones, from famous headphone brand Sennheiser. They also have slightly cheaper headphones that are good quality, but I considered these first if you are more serious in your music listening.

Audio-Technica ATH-M50x Professional Studio Monitor Headphones: $117.00 USD from Amazon
-Pair I bought recently for a friend (and recommendation from another budding audio engineer). Great sound, detachable cable, overall solid and great to take around.

DAPs (Digital Audio Players):

If you have an android smartphone that is rather recent, it may be able to play 24-bit/192kHz natively without the need of a DAC. But, if you want a dedicated music player (that won’t break the bank like the Sony Walkman NWZX2 or Pono Player), here is a list for you.

Fiio X1 High-Res Lossless Music Player: $99.99 USD from Amazon
-Another entry for FiiO, this time on a portable music player. Great look, comes in many colors, color screen, has a built in amp, and can support files up to 24-bit/192kHz.

Airmate ® Xduoo X3 Music Player: $128.96 USD from Amazon
-New entry into Hi-Res audio players, this little device can play back PCM files up to 24-bit/192kHz as well as DSD 2.8MHz files. A player if you just want it to work and don’t need a video screen.

Seiun Player: $35.00 as of this writing on IndieGoGo (Campaign ends December 5, 2015)
-A player I recently bought and supported on IndieGoGo. Cannot tell you much, but for a slim, 24-bit/192kHz capable music player under $50.00? Yes please!

That’s It?!

Now this list is not a complete list of items, as there is always an ever-growing number of DACs, Headphones, Music Players, etc. made from major companies as well as smaller less-than-five people startups that have love for music and audio in general. This is just a starter pack recommendation; many who have started with these components then buy the next grades up in each component.

There are also a myriad of other types of components: Amplifiers, Subwoofers, IEMs (In-Ear Monitors), USB cables, Analog cables, Power Conditioners, Tubes for Tube AMPs, Blu-Ray Players, All-in-One player/AMP/DAC, car components, turntables, NAS devices, Preamps, what have you. These stuff gets into audio-otaku (or audiophile) realms and this list is meant to help you start out.

You can also rummage your grandfather’s attic or Goodwill stores if you are willing to fix up vintage equipment (speakers and amplifiers mainly, or anything that is non-digital audio).

If you think this list is inadequate, or are very keen on quality, here are some websites I refer to when I need to make some considerations before I buy my next music gear:

  • Head-Fi.org: Large online forum with many reviews on components (I frequent here often)
  • Any product page on Amazon.com
  • Zeos Reviews in Reddit: user Zeos has extensive buying guides on Audio components.
  • Massdrop: Other than finding deals, this is a good indicator of quality since the products listed are community-voted in.
  • Audiostream: Michael Lavorgna reviews a lot more higher-end equipment, but sometimes will review more affordable stuff.
  • The Poor Audiophile: Although I think I am poorer than usually his budget has, this site has reviews and blog posts on new Hi-Res equipment.

PS: Like the original art appearing here (and on most of the posts)? Feel free to go to the artist’s (Steve) DeviantArt page for more great art!