High-Resolution Audio On A Budget

Acquiring and setting up a great audio playback system can be time-consuming, expensive and frustrating. There are a lot of questions that need to be asked…and honestly answered before you make your first purchase. And of course, the establishment of a realistic budget is always a good place to start. Gone are the days when all you had to do is purchase “console” stereo system, move it into your listening room and sit back and enjoy your vinyl LP collection.

So how do we go about setting up a high-resolution capable stereo playback system? What components are required and how much should you expect to spend? These are just a couple of the questions that pop up when considering a new acquisition or when someone enters the world of great quality audio. I’ve been to trade shows that let vendors pitch complete systems that stay within a budget. So I thought I would write a few articles about the basics with a special focus on the “weakest link” in the playback chain. After all, you can download or acquire discs that have fantastic fidelity, play them through a good quality server and a state-of-the-art USB DAC, hifi amplifier into a sucky pair of speakers or headphones and suffer through lousy audio.

Great sound can only happen when you have good quality equipment at every stage of the playback process. We have to live the fidelity of the weakest link in the chain. And it doesn’t have to cost an arm and a leg…really!

So here’s my list of highly recommended equipment that will deliver high-resolution audio in full high fidelity. And the total cost will be quite reasonable. In fact, you could spend the same amount of money on a single power cord!

Let’s start with the main component of your system…a dedicated piece of hardware that can spin discs, play files, deliver great sound as analog or digital streams and connect to the internet. Of course, I’m referring to the Oppo BDP-103/105. I’m a big fan of their equipment and the way they stand behind their machines. If you have ever come by the AIX Records booth or demo room at a trade show, you will have seen me standing behind my Oppo hardware. And if I ask a passerby if they have a Blu-ray player, the chances are quite good that if they say yes, they will also indicate that they have the same machine that is on my table. Or they will say, “I’m considering an Oppo…I’ve heard great things about them”. So for $1300 (or $500 if you want to use a different external DAC), you can get an Oppo BDP-105. It’s a music server, great DAC, terrific BD player for HD-Video and has a great headphone amp. Highly recommended.

If you want a state-of-the-art DAC capable of almost 130 dB SNR, then the new DAC2 from Benchmark Media is the way to go. It supports all of the PCM rates and DSD as well. You can use it as a preamp and connect the balanced (or unbalanced) outputs directly to an amplifier or plug in a set of your favorite headphones and start listening to high-resolution audio systems right away. The Benchmark has a very nice remote control as well. The price on the Benchmark is around $2000. If that’s pricing you out of high-resolution audio, consider the original DAC1. It’s still a great DAC and you can get one for about half the cost of the new version.

To keep our budget as low as possible, I would opt for a set of headphones rather than amps and speakers. I’m personally not a big headphone guy. But there are some great headphones out there including the new Oppo headphones that I’ve been using lately. I can’t even tell you the model but they lent me a pair back in January and they’re unlikely to get them back. They are comfortable; the sound is extremely detailed and smooth…a perfect match for the high-resolution signal flow that I’ve described above. They haven’t finalized a price but I imagine they will come in below $2000…maybe well below.

That brings our total cost to around $5000 or less. Don’t spend your money on expensive interconnects and power cords…until after you’ve spent some time enjoying real HD-Audio files through this system. Heck if you’re on a very tight budget…wait on the Benchmark and simply use the Oppo’s headphone amp.

I recognize that there are other lines and manufacturers out there that make great equipment. But I can say that I’ve used the stuff mentioned above for many years and can honestly say I recommend it. And no, I am not paid by these companies to say nice things about them.

Dr. AIX

Mark Waldrep, aka Dr. AIX, has been producing and engineering music for over 40 years. He learned electronics as a teenager from his HAM radio father while learning to play the guitar. Mark received the first doctorate in music composition from UCLA in 1986 for a "binaural" electronic music composition. Other advanced degrees include an MS in computer science, an MFA/MA in music, BM in music and a BA in art. As an engineer and producer, Mark has worked on projects for the Rolling Stones, 311, Tool, KISS, Blink 182, Blues Traveler, Britney Spears, the San Francisco Symphony, The Dover Quartet, Willie Nelson, Paul Williams, The Allman Brothers, Bad Company and many more. Dr. Waldrep has been an innovator when it comes to multimedia and music. He created the first enhanced CDs in the 90s, the first DVD-Videos released in the U.S., the first web-connected DVD, the first DVD-Audio title, the first music Blu-ray disc and the first 3D Music Album. Additionally, he launched the first High Definition Music Download site in 2007 called iTrax.com. A frequency speaker at audio events, author of numerous articles, Dr. Waldrep is currently writing a book on the production and reproduction of high-end music called, "High-End Audio: A Practical Guide to Production and Playback". The book should be completed in the fall of 2013.

21 thoughts on “High-Resolution Audio On A Budget

  • April 8, 2014 at 12:01 pm
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    Thank you for your insights. This is very helpful.

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  • April 8, 2014 at 1:50 pm
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    The Oppo headphones are the PM-1, will sell for $1,099 but are not yet shipping.

    As a DAC/preamp, I’d like to suggest the B.M.C. PureDAC for $1,790. I own one and it is a fantastic piece of equipment. I used to own a NAD M51 also a fine piece of equipment. In the much cheaper department, I am very familiar with the Arcam irDAC, also a very fine DAC.

    As for music players, I found that the best solution was to build one myself following the guidance of the C.A.P.S. designs on the Computer Audiophile web site. I run JRiver on it and could not ask for a better music player.

    Marc

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    • April 8, 2014 at 2:02 pm
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      As a MAC guy, I’ve set up both Amarra and Audirvana on my laptop and enjoy both. I’ll write about servers in a future post. Thanks for the update on the Oppo phones…they are truly wonderful.

      Reply
  • April 8, 2014 at 1:55 pm
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    Interesting post. I agree about your view about headphones being an introduction to good hi-fi on a budget, especially the new Oppo planar dynamics which you’ve tried (I have HiFiMan Planars which blow dynamic headphones away and are only just beaten by electrostatics, a comparable pair of speakers would cost a small fortune). I would also recommend a good headphone amplifier, if you’re going down the headphone route. In fact I recommend to any audiophile Head-Fi, if they haven’t discovered it already.

    BTW the cynic in me says your post today was to promote your sponsors:-)

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    • April 8, 2014 at 2:05 pm
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      Thanks Dave. I’m usually the cynic as well…and it would be different if these companies paid for the banner…they don’t. I haven tried a lot of different pieces of equipment and have Meridian down to Dragonfly…but the Benchmark and Oppo stuff has proven to be very solid AND affordable.

      Reply
  • April 8, 2014 at 1:59 pm
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    Most newbie or budget minded Audiophiles would quit reading once they see $1,000. Majority of people who want a Hi_Rez setup won’t recognize the minute difference between a $500 DAC and a $1K DAC.

    Oppo’s are great, I’ve owned 4 of them the past 7 years. I only switched to Denon this past year due to a great deal on a Denon Universal Player—I miss my Oppo’s.

    Here’s what I tell college students to look for who want Hi_Rez on a budget:

    1. Schiit Loki . Will play DSD and Convert PCM to DSD . ($150)
    2. Aune T-1 Headphone Amp and DAC ($150)
    3. Audio Technica ATH-M50 headphones ($150)
    4. Better to start with a Mono Price USB cable then when you upgrade you can decide for yourself if the difference is worth it to upgrade. This type of gear listed above won’t require a USB cable over $40, IMO.
    5. Audirvana media player $49 (This is key, IMO. And should be purchased before a DAC or Headphone Amp. Once you get the amp and DAC you can then gauge how much of an improvement they make.)

    If you don’t want DSD, just drop the Loki and you’re set for under $400. All are highly reviewed and I’ve used all of them and the differences between the Aune and Schitt against the Benchmark 1 or 2 is minimal to untrained ears, when using equal loss less files from a reputable distributor. The headphone amp could be better, but again—minimal difference and people need to move up in this hobby—not feel stuck because they blew their wad on expensive gear.

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    • April 8, 2014 at 2:08 pm
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      Thanks Mike…a good list.

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      • April 8, 2014 at 4:04 pm
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        Better yet wait for the Oppo HA-1 headphone amp and add in the high efficiency speakers if you like, as this unit will act as a preamp and amp in such a setup. A good laptop with a Dragonfly USB KEY will get college kiddies where they need basic “HiFi”

        Reply
        • April 9, 2014 at 2:34 pm
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          Forgot about that Oppo amp. Looking forward to that. Good call.

          Reply
  • April 8, 2014 at 4:27 pm
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    I would suggest the Schitt Gungnir with USB for $850. Without USB it is $700 and does up to 24/193 on all inputs. It is sensational sounding DAC, insanely so for the money. I am running it in a Spectral/McCormick/Vandersteen 3A Signature system and couldn’t be happier. It does not do DSD but I can play DSD files at 24/176.4 via the Audirvanna lLus with superb results thru the Gungnir.. It is modular and fully upgradeable and all made in the USA.

    Reply
  • April 8, 2014 at 4:43 pm
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    A Pono player and $100 for a set of Grado 80i’s should soon be able to deliver a very pleasing experience.
    Sal

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  • April 8, 2014 at 10:13 pm
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    Mike’s recommendation is good except one thing : Aune T1 does not support 24/192. Audio-Technica M50 is good closed headphone, but open-aire headphones can do much better with same price and M50’s bass response is too much. Also it is not that comfortable wear for a long time, too.

    My recommendations:

    1.) Cambridge Audio Azur Dacmagic 100 (300 bucks)

    2.) Schiit Audio Magni headphone amplifier (100 bucks)

    3.) Sennheiser HD558 (about 122 bucks on Amazon)

    4.) RCA monorpice cable (5 bucks including shipping)

    All of them are about $550 bucks. Schiit’s Magni is very versatile, powerful amplifier with 1W output at 32ohm with nearly zero output impedance and low noise floor. It can drive IEM to orthos. HD558 is very good headphones and probably the best buck for the money at that price.

    After you get these setup, then you upgrade headphones or get speaker system if you have enough money.

    Reply
    • April 8, 2014 at 10:26 pm
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      Or, a less versatile setup for saving 200 bucks further.

      1. Cambridge Audio Azur Dacmagic XS or Audioengine D3 DAC+headphone amplifier (both 200 bucks. Choose one of them. Dacmagic XS is more convenient to use btw)

      2. Sennheiser HD558 (122 bucks)

      Both usb-powered DAC/amp can do 24/192, and sound excellent with high sensitive headphones and/or low impedance headphones. But do not expect it to drive high-impedance ones like Beyers/Senn or orthos. No it does not have powerful amplification like Magni or other expensive dedicated headphone amplifiers have.

      Reply
  • April 9, 2014 at 1:01 pm
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    I also am not a “headphone” guy for one very basic reason… I value the “stage” presentation (in front of the listener or on the stage as provide by Marks 5.1 options, instead of the “in the middle of my head” presentation you get with almost all headphones. Until the Headphone “X” system is available or the Smythe Realizer comes down in price… I’ll stick with the necessary realism (for me) of traditional amp\speakers even at a potentially higher cost. My 2 cents.

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    • April 9, 2014 at 2:03 pm
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      I should put some Headphones[xi] versions up on the FTP site…you might find these great for “out of your head: phones listening.

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      • April 10, 2014 at 8:12 am
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        Fabulous… looking forward to those posts….

        Reply
  • April 10, 2014 at 1:25 am
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    Perhaps I’m a little confused… What happened to the huge “benefits” of surround sound? Or are these headphone configurations just a “poor” mans intro to hi-rez audio until you can afford the other 10K for amps, speakers, pre/pro etc.?

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    • April 10, 2014 at 10:55 am
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      I a big fan of surround and will be putting some of my Headphones[xi] mixes up on the FTP site today. Headphones are an easy way to get good sound with a dedicated space or big budget.

      Reply
  • April 11, 2014 at 10:39 am
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    Mark, an insightful article as always. It’s rather timely to something I regard as a related event: the kickstarter campaign for mobile and tablet versions of foobar2000. Just as you are breaking down old paradigms regarding traditional high quality music production and reproduction, I think in the mobile space head-fi and now foobar2000 are breaking paradigms in the mobile space, and I think the benefits accrue to all.

    Traditionally, mobile has been viewed as a high noise, distracted attention environment not worth the time or expense to offer high quality reproduction, and I think head-fi is leading the charge to change that both from a cost and quality perspective, and the no-nonsense foobar2000 approach does the same. Certainly the market has responded to agree with head-fi so far (the foobar2000 mobile campaign is only in Day 2, so jury still out on that).

    Might I suggest that high quality, affordable mobile listening only helps your efforts, in creating a huge audience that you and like-minded people might not otherwise reach, creating a bandwagon effect for your efforts.

    I suggest reaching out to Peter and/or “Spoon”, and the head-fi guru as I’ve previously suggested, for something on bringing high quality music to people on the go and around the house, in the form of articles here and video segment(s) on head-fi – I really think your combined (if not coordinated efforts) could really help accelerate quality improvements in the recording, mixing and mastering areas to dispel outdated paradigms that are used to justify loudness wars and other low quality methods.

    What comes to mind is a movie example: in “Gangs of New York” (one of my favorite movie soundtracks, BTW), DeCaprio’s character realizes that his power is not in his gang affiliation, but in his Irish affiliation and how many Irish come ashore in NYC each week.

    You have many “Irish” that think like you that lurk in non-traditional spaces, especially mobile. Go for it!

    Reply
    • April 11, 2014 at 11:41 am
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      Thanks…I’ll put this high on my priority list.

      Reply

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