Intro to Personal HiFi Audio: A Beginners Guide, from a Beginner

So, you want to enter the wonderful world of HiFi? You’ve come to the right place. I am (mostly) a beginner myself, so it wasn’t too long ago that I was browsing everywhere, looking for this exact article. I’m going to be doing a bit of a dive into how and where to start within the realm of HiFi, in addition to giving my picks as to what products I would check out first within certain budgets, which I will get into a bit later. Now then, let’s begin!

Wait, what does the HiFi in HiFi Audio stand for again? 

Let’s get the basics and boring out of the way. HiFi audio, short for high fidelity audio, is simply a broad term to describe stuff engineered to produce “great sound,” typically to differentiate it from more common consumer audio products from brands like Beats and Bose. Buying the proper equipment within this hobby will allow you to get the most out of your music and experience the many wonders within the vast world of HiFi. 

Can I buy a pair of headphones now?

Hold your horses! Let’s first find out what you’re in the market for. I believe the best place to start is identifying whether you’d prefer to begin your journey with a set of over-ear headphones or IEMs. Don't know what IEMs are? Don't worry, I didn’t either when I first heard the term! Often called earphones, IEMs stands for “in ear monitors,” and they go directly in your ears for a more intimate listening experience. 

Now, we need to establish a budget, and identify what you’ll need to begin your journey. There is certainly a wide range of options out there, spanning from fifty bucks to five grand, so you’ll want to think ahead before going out and spending money in a blaze of glory.

Now that that’s out of the way, start breaking down your readily accessible funds and seeing how much you’re ready and willing to spend to supercharge your music listening experience. Keep in mind that you’ll most likely want to upgrade various components over time, and/or hear different products, before you pinpoint a certain “endgame” setup. This will give you the best idea of what to expect from a $1,000 to $6,000 dollar headphone or IEM, rather than jumping in and buying the first top of the line product you see and being confused as to why you don’t like/understand the sound of that headphone or IEMs.

Once you determine that, then you can begin narrowing down the options for getting your first pieces of equipment. 

Alright, I’ve decided what I’d like to start my journey with! How can I hear them before I buy them? 

This is where things get tricky. I can recommend all the headphones in the world to you, but unless you schedule an audition with a local dealer or attend an audio show, you’re not going to be able to hear them before you purchase them. If only there was a way to see what a headphone sounds like…WAIT! There is! 

Headphone graphs are the best way to gauge whether a headphone has a sound signature that you prefer or not. The listening test will always, without a doubt, give you a more accurate experience in determining whether you’d like to purchase a headphone, but this is the next best thing. My colleague, Steve, has prepared you a beautiful guide in which he breaks down the many intricacies of a headphone graph, which is linked here: Understanding Frequency Response and Equalization.

In addition to headphone graphs, the HiFi community is filled with fun and passionate people who care a lot about audio. That’s why they often come together in celebration of all the amazing products this hobby has to offer, and get together at events or meetups (like CanJam), to share and experience all of the many different products consumers and suppliers carry. This is the very best way to not only try so many different headphones and IEMs, but also bolster your knowledge and experience within the hobby. I highly recommend attending a CanJam if you imagine yourself thoroughly investing a lot of time and money into this hobby. You can hear more about CanJam and our experience at a recent one here: Headphone Cafe: CanJam Chicago 2022.

As you read more reviews and talk to more passionate enthusiasts within the hobby, you are most likely going to run into terms such as “bright,” “muddy,” and “soundstage” that confused me when I first entered the scene of HiFi. You’ll want to brush up on some of these terms before attending an event or meetup such as CanJam. It’ll make conversations from peers and information from dealers much more digestible, allowing you to get the most out of your experience. Luckily for you, we have another fantastic article that’ll get you caught up to speed in no time! Check that out here: Understanding Audiophile Jargon.  

Once you’re done checking out those resources, come back here and we’ll breakdown some of my best starter HiFi products for beginners! 

Finally, the fun part! 

Time to start browsing your options. I’m going to recommend complete headphone and IEM setups for 3 different tiers. Budget, Midrange, and High-End. Remember, even the high-end options will still be more aimed towards beginners and your first high end purchase, so keep that in mind. Also, I would never recommend a product I haven’t listened to, so rest assured, these are all products I could see myself purchasing with my coin as well. Now then, let's have some fun! 

Budget (sub-$400) Headphone Setup:

Meze Audio 99 Neo 

iFi GO blu

Both fan favorites here in the office, this setup will introduce you to HiFi in the most comfortable, portable, and financially friendly way possible. With a fun sound signature, the 99 Neo will be sure to knock your socks off with its bass presentation, while providing you with lengthy listening sessions due to the amazing comfort from its build quality. 

The GO Blu is small…but you can’t measure heart! This bad boy packs plenty of power for being both light and portable. I was seriously blown away when I saw and heard the GO blu paired with the 99 Classics. 

Midrange (sub-$700) Headphone Setup:

HiFiMan Edition XS

iFi Zen DAC V2

Now, most audiophiles in the know would tell you to buy a Sundara and move on. While I do like the Sundara, I think spending the extra $150 for the Edition XS is well worth it. With exceptional tuning and imaging, this is the closest you’ll get to a HiFiMan Arya without breaking the bank. I personally love this headphone.  

Is the iFi Zen DAC V2 gonna blow you away with power? Maybe not. But is it gonna drive *most* headphones in this price range without breaking the bank, allowing you to spend a little extra on a good set of headphones? You better believe it! I think this is an incredible value purchase for anyone who is thinking about getting a great pair of headphones, while still getting a more than capable DAC/AMP to power them.

High End (sub-$1400) Headphone Setup:

Audeze LCD-2 Classic

Burson Playmate 2

This is quite the price jump from the mid range, but oh baby, what you’re getting in the Audeze LCD-2 Classic might just make you forget about the price tag after hearing one song. With a superb low end, and extremely well textured bass, these cans will certainly have you excited about your journey in HiFi personal audio. My highest of recommendations within this price range. 

The Burson Playmate 2 is one heck of a DAC/AMP. With plenty of power, its impressive build quality, and the ability to achieve different sound signatures through Burson’s interchangeable opamps, I can’t imagine choosing many other options ahead of it. It’s certainly a DAC/AMP that I would love to own in the future.

Budget (sub-$400) IEM Setup:

Kinera IDUN 

(Optional) Questyle M12

The Kinera IDUN really impressed me when I first listened to it, then, to my surprise, I found out it was only $139 dollars. I was sold. With an impressive soundstage, well-tuned highs, and decent bass, I really can’t find another IEM that rivals it at this price range. A great pickup for newcomers to the hobby. 

I included the Questyle M12 due to how affordable it is, and its ability in driving higher end IEMs, however, my ear is not experienced enough to really value the differences from a portable DAC/AMP over listening straight out of my phone with a decent adapter. I know, I’m sure that sentence sounds like nails on a chalkboard for most audiophiles, however, I needed to get it off my chest. If it helps you sleep better at night, pick yourself up a M12 and call it a day. You can’t beat it for the price. 

Midrange (sub-$700) IEM setup:

 

Meze ADVAR 

(optional) Astell&Kern HC2 Portable DAC/AMP

With another big jump in price from the low end to medium end, you may be asking yourself, are they really that much better? Yes. The answer is yes. The Meze ADVAR is my highest recommendation on this list. In terms of price, comfort, and tuning, I can’t recommend anything above it. It’s technically great, while still being a fun listen, however, I do wish it had a slightly larger soundstage. It makes up for it everywhere else, especially with how comfortable they are. 

I can confidently say that I did enjoy listening to Astell&Kern’s HC2 Portable DAC/AMP. Am I going to sit here and say you need it? No. I think you’d be more than fine listening to these on the M12 or straight out of your phone. Just something to keep in mind. 

High End (sub-$1400) IEM Setup:

Thieaudio Monarch MKII

(optional) Astell&Kern HC2 Portable DAC/AMP

Oh boy, what is there to be said about the Monarch MKII that hasn’t been said already? With technical ability that is among the best in this price range, in addition to incredible bass, you have yourself a fantastic IEM. I love the Monarch MKII, from the fit, to the value, to the beautiful outer shell, you have the complete package all for a great price. Thieaudio, give yourself a pat on the back, you made an amazing IEM. 

So, am I an expert now? 

Well… maybe not, but you’re certainly more informed than I was when I first started! Everyone was a noob in this hobby at one point, so try not to feel overwhelmed. I hope this article was able to help you take your first step into the vast world of HiFi Audio. There is certainly a lot to be listened to and loved, so what are you waiting for? Go out and explore it! 


Matthew DiFazio joined the Bloom Audio team earlier this year. He handles all the shipping and takes pretty dang good photos and b-roll. He can also be found regularly destroying his coworkers in ping-pong. While new to the audio hobby, he’s enjoyed immersing himself in it and jumps at every chance to listen to new stuff floating around the Bloom office.