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Audiophile Starter Kit for 2024

Learn how to build a budget-friendly audiophile starter kit in 2024. Our guide covers essential components, headphone choices, DACs, and amps.
audiophile starter kit

Introduction

For those looking to get into high-resolution audio, many are daunted by the misconception that entering the audiophile world necessitates a hefty investment. However, creating a beginner audiophile setup in 2024 is not only financially feasible but also rewarding. This guide will help you with assembling a high-quality, budget-friendly hi-fi system for use either at home or on the go. As we delve into the components of an audiophile starter kit, our focus will span from selecting the right headphones that align with your audio preferences and use cases.

This will be a live guide, meaning it will updated and added to as time goes on. Be sure to check back here occasionally for new and updated information.


Essential Components of an Audiophile Starter Kit

It’s imperative to understand the core components that form the backbone of high-resolution audio systems. These components include Digital-to-Analog Converters (DACs), amplifiers (Amps), and headphones. Each plays a pivotal role in transforming digital music audio into the rich, detailed sound that audiophiles cherish.

  1. Digital-to-Analog Converters (DACs): At the heart of every digital audio system lies the DAC. This indispensable device converts digital audio signals, which computers and smartphones output, into analog signals that our ears can interpret. While most modern devices come equipped with built-in DACs, their quality often leaves much to be desired. Investing in a high-quality external DAC can significantly enhance the clarity and depth of the music, making it an essential component for any audiophile starter kit.
  2. Amplifiers (Amps): Following the DAC in the audio chain is the amplifier. Its primary function is to boost the now-analog signal to a level that can drive speakers or headphones. For headphones, especially high-fidelity, open-back models, a dedicated headphone amplifier is crucial. These devices ensure that the audio signal is powerful enough to deliver the full dynamic range of the music without distortion.
  3. Headphones: The final piece of the puzzle, headphones are the conduit through which we experience our music. The choice of headphones can profoundly affect the overall sound quality of an audiophile setup. High-quality headphones can reveal nuances in music that lower-quality models might miss. When paired with the right DAC and amplifier, a good pair of headphones can transport the listener to an auditory landscape that’s as close to the artist’s original intention as possible.

DACs

Digital-to-Analog Converters (DACs) are pivotal in ensuring the high-resolution audio quality that audiophiles crave. A superior DAC minimizes noise and distortion that can muddy the audio signal, providing a clean, detailed sound. This clarity is especially noticeable with high-resolution audio files, where every subtlety in the music can shine through. Here’s what to consider when choosing a DAC:

  • Resolution and Distortion: Look for DACs that support high-resolution audio and have low distortion levels.
  • Connectivity: Ensure the DAC has the necessary inputs for your devices, such as USB, optical, or coaxial. Also, consider whether you need it to be compatible with specific operating systems or portable for use with smartphones and laptops.
  • Built-in Amplifier: Most DACs come with integrated headphone amplifiers, which can be a great advantage if you plan to use them primarily with headphones. This feature can enhance the overall audio quality and drive high-impedance headphones effectively.

Now, let’s get to my suggestions for a starter DAC for varying budgets and use cases:

Dongle DACs

iFi GO Link

  • $59
  • Up to 32-bit/384kHz, MQA support

FiiO KA11

  • $29
  • Up to 32-bit/384kHz support

Apple USB-C to 3.5 mm

  • $9.99
  • Up to 24-bit/48kHz support
  • Cheap, simple, surprisingly high-quality audio

Budget (under $100)

FiiO E10K-TC

  • $75.99
  • Up to 32-bit/384kHz support
  • USB-C connection
  • Decent built-in Amp

Fosi Audio K5 Pro

  • $79.99
  • Up to 24-bit/96kHz support
  • Multiple input/output connections
  • Solid built-in Amp

iFi uno

  • $79
  • Up to 32-bit/384kHz, MQA support
  • USB-C connection
  • EQ and power match (gain) features

Mid-range (under $200)

Topping D10

  • $139
  • Up to 32-bit/384kHz support
  • Both balanced and unbalanced connections

FiiO K5 Pro ESS

  • $149.99
  • Up to 32-bit/768kHz support
  • Excellent built-in Amp
  • Multiple connection options

iFi Zen DAC 3 (our review here)

  • $229 (yes it’s a bit above the $200 budget, but the value is extremely high)
  • Up to 32-bit/768kHz, MQA support
  • Balanced and unbalanced connections
  • Excellent built-in Amp
  • High quality audio output

Gaming

Creative Sound BlasterX G6 (our review here)

  • $119
  • Up to 32-bit/384kHz support
  • 7.1 virtual surround sound support, with proprietary surround tech (SBX)
  • Microphone support
  • Powerful built-in Amp

Creative Sound Blaster X4

  • $127
  • Up to 24-bit/192kHz support
  • 7.1 virtual surround sound support, with proprietary surround tech (SBX)
  • Microphone support
  • Solid built-in Amp

Schiit Fulla E

  • $136
  • Up to 24-bit/192kHz support
  • Microphone support
  • Solid built-in Amp

Portable

iFi hip-dac 3 (our review here)

  • $299
  • Up to 32-bit/384kHz, MQA support
  • XBass, Power Match, and iEMatch features
  • Solid battery life
  • Great built-in Amp
  • Balanced and unbalanced connections

Qudelix 5K (our review here)

  • $109
  • Up to 24-bit/96kHz support
  • Bluetooth with LDAC support
  • Amazing software features
  • Solid battery life

FiiO BTR15

  • $109.99
  • Up to 32-bit/384kHz, MQA support
  • Bluetooth with LDAC support
  • Balanced and unbalanced outputs
  • Great built-in amp

AMPs

Following the DAC in the audio chain is the amplifier. Its primary function is to boost the now-analog signal to a level that can drive speakers or headphones. For headphones, especially high-fidelity, open-back models, a dedicated headphone amplifier is crucial. These devices ensure that the audio signal is powerful enough to deliver the full dynamic range of the music without distortion. The right amplifier not only makes the audio signal louder but also preserves its fidelity. A quality amp ensures that the headphones receive a strong, clean signal, free of the noise that weaker amplifiers might introduce. Here are the aspects you should focus on:

  1. Volume and Power Needs: An amp that supports an impedance of up to 300 ohms is usually sufficient, whereas higher-end headphones might require more powerful options.
  2. Portability and Size: If you frequently move your equipment, look for smaller, more portable amps that are easier to transport without sacrificing sound quality.

You should only consider buying a dedicated AMP if your DAC or DAC/AMP combo doesn’t have enough power for your headphones. 

Here are my recommended options that combine quality with affordability:

Budget (Under $100)

Fosi Audio V3

  • $89.99
  • Powerful 300 Watts x2 Amp

iFi Zen Air CAN 

  • $85
  • Balanced and unbalanced connections
  • Powerful and clean sounding Amp
  • XBass and XSpace features

Mid-range (Under $200)

Topping L30 II 

  • $149
  • Powerful 560mW×2 amp
  • Lots of connectivity options

iFi ZEN CAN

  • $199
  • Balanced and unbalanced connections
  • 1600mW output power
  • XBass and 3D features

Headphones

When we’re considering the best beginner audiophile setup, understanding the difference between open-back and closed-back headphones is crucial. 

Open-back headphones are designed to allow air to pass through their ear cups from the rear of the speaker driver. This design helps to prevent resonances and low-frequency build-up, which can distort the sound, making them excellent for critical listening in quiet environments. This also contributes to a larger soundstage. However, they do not block external noise well, which makes them less suitable for noisy environments like commuting or office settings. 

On the other hand, closed-back headphones feature ear cups that are completely sealed, which helps in isolating music from your environment and preventing sound leakage. Due the the closed design the soundstage of closed-back headphones is typically more narrow than open-back, but the sound can be more immersive. This design is ideal for those who prefer to use headphones while commuting, or in noisy environments, as it allows for private listening without much disturbance from the outside world. 

My picks for starter audiophile headphones based on budget and use case:

Budget Closed-back (Under $100)

Sony MDR7506

  • $98
  • Great neutral sound profile

Sennheiser HD 280 Pro

  • $89.99
  • Excellent value

Koss Pro4S

  • $99.99
  • Accurate, detailed sound profile
  • Detachable cable

Budget Open-back (Under $100)

Koss Porta Pro

  • $39.99
  • Small and portable
  • Amazing sound quality for the price

Philips SHP9500

  • $79.99
  • Long, detachable cable
  • Great imaging and soundstage for the price

Superlux HD 681

  • $43
  • Lightweight and comfortable
  • Dynamic, clear sound profile

Mid-range Closed-back (Under $200)

Meze 99 Neo (our review here)

  • $199
  • Light and comfortable
  • Great for most genres and even gaming

Sennheiser HD 569

  • $149
  • Good imaging and soundstage for a closed-back

Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO 80 Ohm (our review here)

  • $169
  • Comfortable and light
  • Excellent imaging and soundstage
  • Clear, detailed sound profile

AKG Pro Audio K361

  • $148
  • Very comfortable and lightweight
  • Good sound profile for most genres and gaming

Mid-range Open-back (Under $200)

Philips Fidelio X2HR

  • $139.99
  • Detachable cable
  • Great overall sound profile
  • Excellent build quality for the price

HIFIMAN HE400SE Stealth Magnets Version 

  • $149
  • Great soundstage
  • Comfortable fit

Sennheiser HD 560S

  • $179.95
  • Clear, neutral sound profile

Beyerdynamic DT 990 PRO 80 ohm

  • $169
  • Excellent imaging and soundstage
  • Perfect for critical listening
  • Treble might be a bit too harsh for some

Gaming with microphone

Beyerdynamic MMX 100 (closed-back)

  • $74
  • Great imaging
  • Bass and sub-bass response perfect for gaming
  • Soundstage is a bit more immersive, but still expansive for a closed-back

Beyerdynamic MMX 300 2nd Generation (closed-back, our review here)

  • $229
  • Excellent imaging and soundstage
  • Similar sound profile to the DT 770 Pro but less with slightly less sub-bass
  • Solid microphone quality

    Audio-Technica ATH-GL3BK (closed-back)

    • $99
    • Good microphone quality
    • Great overall sound profile for gaming

    EPOS PC38X (open-back)

    • $180
    • Detailed, clear sound profile
    • Excellent spatial audio performance
    • Amazing bass performance

    Sennheiser GAME ONE (open-back)

    • $179
    • Similar to the PC38X, but with less emphasis on the bass and sub-bass
    • Requires more power to drive than the PC38X

    Gaming no microphone

    Beyerdynamic DT 770 PRO 80 Ohm (closed-back, our review here)

    • $169
    • Great spatial performance due to excellent imaging
    • Soundstage is wide for a closed-back, lends itself to an immersive gaming experience
    • Sound profile is clear and detailed. Excellent for both open-world games and competitive shooters

    HIFIMAN Sundara 2020 (open-back, our review here)

    • $299
    • Wide, open soundstage
    • Can be used with both balanced and unbalanced cables
    • Requires an amp to get the most performance

    Beyerdynamic TYGR 300 R (open-back)

    • $199
    • Similar performance to a DT 990 Pro
    • Slightly more bass emphasis than the DT 990, but also less treble (should be less fatiguing than the DT 990)

    Beyerdynamic DT 900 PRO X (open-back)

    • $269
    • Clear, detailed sound profile
    • Wide soundstage and accurate imaging performance

    Conclusion

    As we conclude, let’s reaffirm the essence of building a beginner audiophile setup: it’s an investment in experiences that enrich our lives through the power of audio. The recommended strategies and components offer a roadmap to navigate the world of high-fidelity sound without daunting investments, ensuring that the audiophile journey is accessible to all who dare. Keep an eye on this guide as I update it continually as new products and technologies emerge.

    If you like this guide, be sure to check out our other guides.

    Also be sure to check out our buying guides to help you get the best audio experience possible!

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