Putting Together a Budget Audiophile System

By Daniel McAdam.

There are an almost infinite number of ways to listen to recorded music, with a correspondingly vast range of costs. Fortunately for the audiophile, a term we define as, "one who highly values the listening experience," modern technology has made it possible for one with a modest audio equipment budget to hear recorded music in a manner that is far superior to what was possible in the recent past. In this article, we will discuss a very specific system that we set up approximately eight months ago and that is working exceptionally well, with specific information on prices paid and, where appropriate, what alternatives one might have.

Here are the components:

One modern personal computer. For this item, we are not specifying a price, because the assumption is that you already own such an item. We are also not specifying a make or model, as any personal computer will do so long as it has at least one available USB 2.0 plug. (Our computer has USB 3.0 plugs as well, but they are not necessary for our purposes here and do not offer any benefit in this particular setting - a surprising assertion, perhaps, but nevertheless true.)

One pair of full-size over-ear planar headphones that are comfortable for extended wear. We chose the HiFiMAN HE-400i. Why planar, rather than traditional (and often cheaper) driver headphones? Simply put, they are easier for an amplifier to drive and just sound better. We make this assertion based upon actual comparison testing with our old Sennheiser HD 280 Pro headphones. The HE-400i headphones cost $499. You could certainly spend more, but you are getting good value at this price. We bought our headphones directly from the HiFiMAN site; if you do not, you may run into warranty issues. Caveat emptor.

One headphone amplifier. Ours is the Pro-Ject Head Box S, which cost $149. It's a small black full-metal box with a volume dial on the front. Also on the front is a 1/4" jack input (we like 1/4" jacks) and an on/off button. If you think having an on/off switch is trivial, try living without one. The back has standard RCA input and output jacks, and it comes with a power supply.

One DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter). We own the Schiit (yes, it's pronounced that way) Modi 2 Uber, which also cost $149. According to the manufacturer, the "Modi 2 Uber offers USB, Toslink, and RCA inputs, each individually selectable via a front-panel button. It also has a more sophisticated analog section, with DC-coupled output. And, it’s ready for all sample rates, from 16/44.1 to 24/192." The round selector button on the front is a "floating" button, which feels wobbly, but that's the way it's supposed to be. We purchased ours directly from the Schiit website. You might be wondering whether you need an external DAC, because your computer actually has something that already converts digital to analog; otherwise, you wouldn't be able to just plug headphones into your computer and hear sound. The answer, or at least our answer, is that the external DAC provides significantly better sound quality.

While we were at the Schiit site, we also bought the Pyst (not making up these names) USB cable, for $20. We also bought good quality RCA cables but, candidly, we can't recall what we bought or where we bought them.

And finally, we purchased the AudioQuest Jitterbug USB filter, for $49. This is optional; we splurged, and we think it makes a difference.

So, here's how everything works:

  • The Jitterbug gets plugged into the empty USB 2.0 plug on your computer;
  • The Pyst USB cable gets plugged into the Jitterbug, and the other end gets plugged into the Modi 2 Uber DAC;
  • A pair of good-quality RCA cables run from the back of the Modi 2 Uber to the back of the Pro-Ject Head Box S headphone amplifier;
  • The HiFiMAN HE-400i headphones get plugged into the front of the Pro-Ject Head Box S headphone amplifier, then go on your head;
  • You play music from your computer and enjoy it through your headphones.

A few more points

The power supplies for the electrical components are plugged into a Furman SS6B 6 Plug Surge Protector, which we purchased from Amazon for about $27.

The quality of what you are listening to will, obviously, make a difference in your listening experience. We could listen to MP3 files with this system, and sometimes do, but prefer when possible to rip CDs to a FLAC format, which is 16bit / 44.1kHz and then listen to those files via foobar2000, a free download. Since the DAC can handle up to 24bit / 192kHz, we could purchase even higher-quality files, like the Studio Master downloads sold by Linn Records, and enjoy those.

We keep our headphones on a Woo Audio HPS T Adjustable Height Headphone Stand, which is nice and heavy and cost about $89. If you're going to have nice headphones, take care of them.

The headphone cable is not that long, so we keep everything mentioned above, including the computer, on a Pangea Audio RV400 Four Shelf Audio Equipment Rack that sits right next to our desk. The computer is on the top shelf, along with the headphone stand and headphones and the DAC. The headphone amplifier is on the next shelf down. The surge protector is on the bottom shelf.

The system described above is by no means the only way to accomplish what we set out to do, but we believe it is a good starting point to consider, and it works great for us!




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