Let’s be real: we would all love to be on the road with a custom fit 64 Audio A18s plugged into an Astell&Kern SP2000, but most of us don’t have $6,000 to invest in the absolute top end of portable audio. Maybe you’re just getting started on your audiophile journey and you’re looking for a sort of “starter pack” to get your feet wet. Maybe you’re looking for the absolute best price to performance ratio in the midrange of Hi-Fi audio. Or maybe you’ve heard all the rest, and you ARE ready to invest thousands in a system perfectly tuned to your ear.
To help you figure that out, I’ve put together some IEM recommendations at different price points. For each price point, there are a couple options for varying sound signature tastes, and different DAC/Amp combos with different levels of portability and utility. Today we’ll talk about some options to build a setup for under $600.
Budget IEM Picks
The oBravo Cupid is one of our best sellers, and for good reason: they pack a ton of sound into a $269 package. The hybrid design, with a mix of planar magnetic and dynamic drivers, works for any genre but really excels with pop, hip hop, and rock. The slightly bassy, v-shaped tuning, and the clear treble perfectly accentuate driving beats and highlight the emotion in vocal performances.
Do you love listening to complex music? Do you want to hear every part, every note, and not miss a single nuance of the original performance? The Rai Solo delivers with a dynamic driver IEM at $249. It’s not as ear-catching as the Cupid, but it’s a bit more versatile and provides a more precise, detailed sound.
Wild cards: Final F4100, Campfire Audio IO
Not sure about either of those? At $279 the Final F4100 is a balanced armature earphone which falls somewhere in between. It has warmer mids than the balanced and precise Rai Solo, and features more of a shallow “u” tuning as opposed to the prominent “v” of the oBravo Cupid. And at $299, you’ve got the Campfire Audio IO, which – as the sonic little brother of the Andromeda – is a bit closer to the fun-factor of the Cupid.
Budget DAC/AMP Picks
You know that if you’re going to upgrade your headphones, you can’t keep listening straight out of your Samsung Galaxy’s headphone jack (we’ve got some more info about that in our articles about DACs and Amps), but you don’t want to have to carry around a backpack full of gear just to enjoy your music. This is where portable DAC/Amp combos come in.
Released earlier this year, the iFi hip-dac has quickly become the “daily driver” portable DAC at the Bloom Audio office. In addition to having a great sound, it has useful features like a high/low impedance switch, and an analog bass boost which can be activated if you feel that your earphones are lacking some low-end punch.
Note: if you want to pair your hip-dac with an iPhone, you’ll need a USB to Lightning cable.
The DragonFly series of DACs from AudioQuest is as minimalistic as you can get. Even though it’s only the size of a compact USB thumb drive, the DragonFly Cobalt provides a massive improvement in sound quality over the built-in DAC in most devices.
Steve’s Top Combo
If you prefer classical, the detailed, versatile Meze Rai Solo might be your style, and jazz listeners might find that the Final F4100 has a little more soul, but my pick for the best budget pairing is the oBravo Cupid with the iFi hip-dac. As someone who listens primarily to various types of vocal rock and pop, the Cupid’s tuning and particularly the vocal delivery is best in class. And, while you can’t beat the DragonFly Cobalt on portability, the iFi hip-dac, is the right mix of portability and utility with a great sound to go with it.