3 Budget Audiophile Headphone Setups That Will Blow Your Mind!

3 Budget Audiophile Headphone Setups That Will Blow Your Mind!

This article first appeared in HIFI Trends,”the journal of accessible hi-fi!”.

Prices listed are in US$.

If you don’t have the cash, space, or inclination to build a full-on, 2-channel hi-fi system with speakers, then a good audiophile headphone setup can provide much of the same enjoyment.

As I progressed in my audiophile journey, I initially found it easier to afford and set up a capable headphone system before investing in a quality, full-sized system. In addition, a headphone rig better suited my tiny North Jersey one-bedroom apartment lifestyle.

Now that I have a decent house in the suburbs, I have a lot more room, and I have more than one high-end two-channel setup in my home.

That said, I still haven’t relinquished my adoration for a good headphone system, and I consistently keep one on my desk where I work. As a matter of fact, I’m listening to it as I write this.

Like a 2-ch system with speakers, you need three things to assemble a headphone system.

That would be a source, like a digital audio player or computer with DAC, an amp (in this case, a headphone amp), and headphones (instead of speakers).

Additionally, like a 2-ch system, you can get combination units that combine the source and amplification, so then all you need to do is plug in the headphones. This can simplify setup, save space, and also save you money.

On the other hand, just like full-sized stereo separates (with their more robust components and individual power supplies) can sound better than combination systems, a headphone setup with separates can sound better as well.

In the Headphone world, we call desktop-based separates “stacks,” They are usually made up of a DAC and a Headphone Amp, which are typically stacked on top of each other.

Not sure where to start? Well, check out our article: Best Headphone Amps For Audiophiles On A Budget (2022)

Conversely, if you want some quick suggestions, then check out our list of 3 excellent affordable headphone systems:

1. Value Pack: iFi Zen Air DAC + Sennheiser HD 560S ($299)

If you’re looking for a complete audiophile headphone system that costs less than many full-size headphones, then you need to look at this combo.

With its sleek design and comfortable fit, the Sennheiser HD560 S is one of the best headphones under $200. They have a fantastic soundstage, along with remarkable clarity and accurate bass. However, even though they are super affordable, they have a high impedance, so you need a decent headphone amp to get the best out of them.

That’s where Ifi Audio’s new ZEN Air DAC (full review) comes in. It’s the perfect starter component for those looking to get their feet wet in head-fi. If you want to experience the enhanced sound you can get from a quality DAC/Headphone Amp (without spending a ton of cash), grab one. Since it’s compatible with MQA, It’s a must-have for TIDAL listeners.

Most importantly, it has enough gusto to power the Sennheiser HD 560s with full clarity and dynamics, making it an excellent match.

The Gear:

The Headphones: Sennheiser HD 560 S Over-The-Ear Audiophile Headphones ($199)

The Dac/Amp: iFi Zen Air DAC – High-Resolution DAC/AMP & MQA Renderer ($99)

2. This One Is Stacked: SMSL HO100/DO100 + Hifiman Sundara. ($687)

As alluded to earlier, DAC/Amp separates usually sound better than an all-in-one solution at the same price. That’s because they have more discrete components and individual power supplies.

To that end, if you’re looking for compact DAC/Amp separates (otherwise known as a stack) that won’t break the bank, the HO100 Headphone Amp + DO100 Hi-Res DAC (full review) stack is an amazing value.

Both components are remarkably well built and provide depth, separation, and clarity beyond what you’ll get from DAC/Amp combos at the same price. They also have great features like CD-Quality Bluetooth and a Full-Function remote.

Until the Hifiman Edition XS (next on the list) came out, the Sundara was hands down the best headphone under $500. The Hifiman SUNDARA has detail, soundstage, and separation that competes with headphones above $500, and the tuning is damn near perfect. It’s neutral through the midbass with a gentle lift in the bottom end to keep things interesting.

These separates will make the Sundara shine with plenty of detail and separation, giving bargain-hunting music lovers tons of enjoyment.

The Gear:

The Dac/Amp Separates: HO100 Headphone Amp + DO100 Hi-Res DAC ($388)

The Headphones: HIFIMAN SUNDARA Over-Ear Full-Size Planar Magnetic Headphones ($299)

3. Dynamic (Planar) Duo: Hifiman EF400 + Hifiman Edition XS ($1098)

Prices listed are in US$.

If you’re looking for affordable (under $500) yet high-quality headphones with superb sound quality, then the HIFIMAN Edition XS is one of the best options. Detail, dynamics, and imaging are off the charts for a $500 headphone.

This, combined with the vast soundstage, make them class-leading for headphones $500 and under. Wearing comfort is also excellent. (read our review)

We have spent a lot of time with an EF400 DAC/Amp review unit on our desktop, and we have to say it impresses us more every day. The combination of build quality, looks (check out the thick aluminum faceplate), powerful balanced head amp section, and smooth-sounding R2R DAC make this a killer desktop component for $599!

In addition, it brings the best out of the Edition XS Headphones mentioned above, enhancing the smooth treble and firming up the dynamics. The EF400 also pairs well with Hifiman’s Ananda ($699) and Arya ($1299) headphones, each providing additional realism and depth as you step up. Get the best you can afford.

The Gear:

The Dac/Amp: HIFIMAN EF400 Desktop Balanced Headphone DAC& Amplifier with Himalaya R2R DAC ($599)

The Headphones: HIFIMAN Edition XS Full-Size Over-Ear Open-Back Planar Magnetic Hi-Fi Headphones ($499)

For more, visit HIFI Trends,”the journal of accessible hi-fi!”.

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