While a lot of people believe the music is itself the most important part of listening to music, there's no denying that good listening equipment can enhance your experience. Finding the right devices to bring the best out of the music will make it that much more enjoyable, and today we're going to try to help you put together a basic starter kit to enhance your listening experience.
In this guide, we explore everything from headphones to source devices, as well as the source of the music itself. Assembling a kit from scratch is possible, but if you already have certain equipment in place — such as a smartphone with a good DAC (wondering what a DAC is? Read on!) and software — that makes things a lot easier. We will tell you what you need to put together your starter audiophile kit, and also take a look at our equipment recommendations for setting up a basic kit on a budget. But let's start with a basic question.
Who is an audiophile?
An audiophile is a person who is enthusiastic about high-quality sound reproduction, and takes joy in listening to sound that has been reproduced to the best possible level. As many marketing pitches will put it, the goal of an audiophile is to listen to music the way the artist intended for it to be heard. An audiophile will therefore want the best possible sound with the equipment in hand. Furthermore, the accurate reproduction of the music may be as important — or even more important — than the music itself.
A lot of audiophiles look for neutrality in equipment, so that it can bring out the best in the recording. However, a lot of good kit may even have a bit of ‘flavour' or ‘colour' to the sound, which helps bring out elements that may improve the sound for many listeners. Furthermore, different listeners have different budgets, so the definition of ‘audiophile-grade' equipment is quite subjective and opinion-driven.
Why you should probably look beyond your phone and cheap earphones
Regardless of whether you're looking at neutrality or a little bit of flavour in your sound, there are advantages to investing in good equipment. Capable kit will help you bring out the best in your music, and you don't necessarily need to spend a lot of money to get that bump in quality.
If you listen to a lot of music, whether at home, at work, or on your commute, you'll appreciate an increase in audio quality. It will help you enjoy your music more, make the listening experience something to look forward to, ad also help you understand the nuances and finer details in sound that might help you understand your favourite tracks that much more.
What should I have in my audiophile kit?
The core components of any listening setup are the source and the output devices. The source can be something as simple as your smartphone, but you can also improve your kit with a dedicated high-resolution audio player. The output device can be a pair of headphones or earphones, or a speaker setup.
Audiophile equipment can range from a few hundred rupees to products that cost crores. Obviously, you want to select equipment that fits within your budget. The higher you go, the better the sound, although we do believe that the quantifiable returns from spending more diminish as you go higher.
For example, Rs. 10,000 could buy you very good equipment, but spending Rs. 1,00,000 won't necessarily get you equipment that is ten times better. The important thing here is to do your research — read reviews, take into account user opinions and specifications - and, whenever possible, audition your kit before you buy.
We've listed the typical equipment that you could include in your audiophile setup below.
Headphones/ speakers: This is the final output device, and is one of the two most important devices in your setup. Both of these have their advantages and disadvantages; headphones offer you privacy and the ability to listen without bothering anyone around you, while speakers are louder, offer a fuller listening experience, and allow you to share your music with others.
If you typically listen at home and have the means to play your music out loud, a good speaker set might be better for you. However, headphones do offer a more private, interruption-free experience, along with the benefits of portability.
Smartphone: This is usually the simplest source device you can use, since most of us already have smartphones, or even ordinary mobile phones, already at hand. Most smartphones have the ability to play back high-resolution audio files in various formats, as well as stream music from online.
While all smartphones with a 3.5mm jack have a digital-analogue converter (DAC) built in, some smartphones have better quality DACs that output a better audio signal to your headphones or speaker. Many new smartphones don't have 3.5mm jacks, but do allow audio output through a USB / Lightning port. These can be used with headphones that accept a digital signal and have an internal DAC, or with a standalone DAC in between.
Audio Player: The successor to what was popularly known as the MP3 player, modern audio players do much of the same as what the iPods of the past did. However, a lot of these are now focused on giving users the ability to play high-resolution audio. A good high-res audio player will feature file format support for a wide range of lossless audio formats, and will often also have a DAC — digital to analogue convertor that turns digital signals into signals that can drive your earphones — that is significantly better than the run-of-the-mill options available on most smartphones.
Apart from portable audio players, you can also have dedicated source equipment in your home, such as a CD player, network or storage-based audio player, or even a decent computer. What you invest in largely depends on how you intend to listen to your music.
DAC/ amplifier: At its simplest, a dedicated DAC is a somewhat fancy piece of kit that can boost sound quality while serving as a bridge between your source and headphones. Although most computers and smartphones have their own digital-analogue converters, using a dedicated DAC can improve the quality of the analogue signal going to your headphones or speakers.
While many portable DACs have their own amplification, in some cases you may need to add an amplifier to the setup. Using separate equipment would likely enhance sound, but that will also drive the price of your setup considerably.
High-resolution music: After you've invested in the hardware, you also need to pay attention to the music itself. This includes getting a hold of good-quality audio tracks, or signing up for the right streaming service. If you're using a CD player as a source device, this would mean buying audio CDs.
While services such as Spotify and Apple Music do offer high-quality streaming, you can also step up your music quality by using a high-resolution streaming service such as Tidal. Many sites such as Acoustic Sounds, NativeDSD, and HDTracks do offer the ability to purchase and download high-resolution audio files officially and legally as well. Although FLAC is the most common of the high-resolution formats, looking at better formats such as DSD, PCM, AIFF, ALAC, and M4A might be advantageous.
Our recommended audiophile equipment under Rs. 15,000
Best audiophile earphones
1More Quad Driver: At Rs. 12,899, this pair of earphones offers excellent sound quality thanks to its hybrid combination of one dynamic driver and three balanced armature drivers. If you already have a decent smartphone such as the LG G7+ ThinQ, this is all you need to get started on the audiophile path.
Best audiophile headphones
Audio Technica ATH-M50x: This classic pair of headphones is a fan-favourite, and is currently priced at Rs. 9,800. The headphones have a relatively neutral sonic signature, offering a studio-like sound experience at a relatively affordable price.
Best high-resolution audio player
Fiio M6: Priced at under Rs. 15,000, the Fiio M6 is loud, lively, detailed, and open. It promises a big bump in sound quality over your smartphone, and is a good start for anyone looking at a proper source device for audiophile listening. It can also serve as a standalone DAC with a computer, increasing its utility.
Best portable DAC/ amplifier
Ultrasone Naos: The Naos is priced at Rs. 13,999 serves as the ideal portable DAC/ amp for a smartphone, offering superior signal conversion with a small form factor. If you already have a good smartphone or computer, along with decent headphones, this is a good way to improve sound quality a bit further.
Best music streaming service on a budget
Spotify: If you're looking at an affordable and easily available streaming service to get started with, Spotify Premium is the best option in India right now. With pricing starting at Rs. 13 per day and going up to Rs. 1,189 for a one-year prepaid subscription, Spotify offers an excellent catalogue of music, along with decent stream and download quality.
While Apple Music scores just as high as Spotify on price, catalog, and quality, the latter offers a better user experience on Android. The extremely useful Spotify Connect feature that lets you use the service across various devices including soundbars and TVs is a nice bonus.