Previously, I made some recommendations for building a high-end setup under $600. Today we’re going to look at some options to build a similar setup – a couple steps up from that – for under $2500. That’s a pretty big jump, but the goal here is to pick earphones that could be mistaken for something that costs twice as much. You can also mix and match DACs or headphones from this list with some from the previous list to create a perfect balance of audiophile sound and price.
Bang for Your Buck IEMs
At $1099, the Campfire Audio Andromeda is the IEM that made me understand one of the defining differences between the “big boys” in Hi-Fi audio and your typical mass market headphones. For mass market headphones or earphones, you always have to make a sacrifice: you can have something that’s bassy, but it will lack clarity. And an earphone that feels somewhat sonically transparent will be boring and flat. The Andromeda manages to be exciting while also being clear and precise. It has punch on the low end, AND it’s detailed throughout the spectrum. There’s no sacrifice. Instead of having one thing be good and everything else bad, everything about the sound is excellent and certain aspects shine even brighter.
The Audeze LCD-i3 is a rare bird in the earphone world. It’s a semi-open back, planar magnetic IEM for $899. The design gives it the spacious feel of an open back headphone, but with the character and form factor of an IEM. It’s also designed for maximum portability and convenience. It comes with a Lightning cable for direct connection to Apple devices, a wireless Bluetooth attachment, and a standard 3.5mm adapter out of the box. It also has its own built in DSP for use with the Lightning and Bluetooth options to enhance the digital signal.
The Wild Cards:
Campfire Audio Atlas, Noble Audio M3
I was a bit skeptical about the $899 Campfire Audio Atlas at first. Bass is my guilty pleasure, but I was afraid the Atlas would be a one trick pony. On the contrary, not only is the bass great, but the whole rhythm section feels super detailed, and the Atlas gives the entire recording a raw energy you can feel coming from the studio microphone and through the wires to your ears.
On the other end of the spectrum, do words like “bright” and “detailed” or “clarity” catch your eye more than phrases like “there’s a deep punch to the visceral low end?” If so, you can’t beat the Noble Audio M3 for an impeccably crafted, bright, detailed IEM which gives you so much clarity you’ll swear you heard the bassist adjust his strap in the studio – for only $599.
Bang for Your Buck DAC/Amp Combos
You may find that this article contains multiple items that were revelatory for me. The $499 Chord Mojo is among them. The design is fairly minimalist: just a volume up button, a volume down button, and an on/off button, but the sound is taken to the maximum. Even compared to a decent built-in DAC like the one on a Macbook Pro, the Mojo is immediately identifiable as superior. It eliminated the congestion and compression in the signal, and added warmth and life to the sound that was missing even with other comparable DACs.
At $1299, the Astell&Kern SP700 might be cheating a bit: it’s primarily a digital audio player (DAP), but it was purpose built with a high quality DAC and Amp. Easily twice the thickness of most smart phones, it was designed to have the best possible components you could put into a DAP and output music at the highest possible quality for a portable system. If you want one audio device that can do everything, the SP700 is what you’re looking for.
Steve’s Top Combo
The Campfire Audio Andromeda is an incredible earphone and would be a great pick, regardless of its price. The Audeze LCD-i3 is unlike anything just about anything else on the market (aside from the rest of its family of products from Audeze). For maximum convenience and portability, with a touch of the feeling that you’re living in 2120, the SP700 paired with the Audeze LCD-i3 using the Bluetooth attachment is perhaps the ultimate pairing of cutting edge Hi-Fi sound and 21st century convenience. But right now, I’m in love with the Campfire Audio Atlas plugged into the Mojo. The warm, clear output of the Mojo coupled with the raw energy of the Atlas makes for a dynamic sonic duo.
- Campfire Audio Andromeda - $1099
- Audeze LCD-i3 - $899
- Campfire Audio Atlas - $899
- Noble Audio M3 - $599