A cheap and cheerful 21st Century Audiophile


While the New York Audio Show coverage is chugging away over at The Audio Traveler, I wanted to step outside a bit and share some thoughts I had zinging around before and after the panel discussion I moderated with John Darko of DAR, Steve Guttenberg of CNet’s Audiophiliac and Art Dudley of Stereophile.

First, I want to talk about what an honor it was to share the table with these three gentlemen. All three are remarkably deep thinkers, and making their acquaintance in this way was a thrill. No, really, it was. I’ve been reading all three of these guys for years (in some cases, many years), so having them within choking distance was oddly exhilarating.

The topic at hand was something show co-organizer and media maverick Ken Furst asked me to pull together — what’s the future shaping up for the 21st century for the audiophile? We spent a long while talking about whether or not we’ve made much progress in the last 75 years or so, and segued into suckering bringing in new blood to the hobby. The upshot, there, was “get them to a turntable”. I’m gonna stick a pin in that one and come back to it another time, but that was a meaty conversation.

I redirected the conversation to talk a bit about the new, like the rise of crowd funding and the role of the audio dealer, and along the way, Steve steered us toward the topic of affordable audio.

This issue of “affordable entry” is something that’s been near and dear to his heart for years, and interestingly enough, it’s also the stomping ground that John pretty much cut his teeth on over at DAR. I’m going to venture that this isn’t really part of Art’s beat, but at the same time, I’ll offer that it most definitely has not been seriously on my radar. And thinking back on it, that’s pretty weird.

One of the things I found most interesting about personal audio, if you’ll pardon the segue, is the issue of relative cost. Specifically, the idea that you can spend a whole lot less in this segment and end up with sonic excellence that may even surpass all but the super-systems in “traditional” hi-fi. Given that I’m a cheap bastard (no, really — but it is something I’m working on), I found this hilariously true. To an extent. I was able to dump what turned out to be a very sizable budget into personal audio and end up with truly great gear piled up to my eyeballs. I now have enough personal audio gear to last me, content generation-wise, for the next year at least. And all that for less than a mid-level pair of loudspeakers.

And yes, in that wonderful pile of gear, there are truly incredible personal audio systems. Systems whose performance completely revolutionized my experience and my beliefs about this segment. I’m now a huge fan — but I’m still realistic. Even after living with the most truly incredible personal audio systems the world has to offer, I can safely rate the absolute best of these somewhere in the middle of what hi-fi is routinely offering. Summit-Fi level playback is still a long way off for personal audio. But it is coming.

But that’s relative. That is, personal audio is relatively cheaper than traditional two-channel hi-fi. The fact that it is cheaper by a lot in absolute terms, too, is interesting. And the further fact that you can spend radically less and still end up with a tremendously great personal audio system, was suggestive. But I still never bothered to explore what could be done in hi-fi. You know. When you’re not blowing thousands of dollars. When the budget is less. Much less. Like $100. Total.

This was Steve’s point, or one of them anyway, during the panel. He’s an absolutely fantastic panelist, too — he’s animated, passionate, and wickedly sharp. So when he started to detail some of the inexpensive bits that he’s treated to a review on The Audiophiliac, something finally clicked. Maybe this was actually do-able. Maybe I could talk about truly affordable audio. And maybe someone would want to read it ….

I know. I’m slow.

Anyway, I’ve taken the liberty of looking over some of Steve’s recommendations for high-end audio on the ultra-cheap and browsing the web for more of the same. The net-net is that I now have three sets of stand-mount loudspeakers on the way, and the most expensive is less than $150/pair. I also have three integrated amplifiers on the way, the most expensive of which is $200. Again, this isn’t random stuff — everything I’m getting has gotten rave reviews somewhere or other. So, okay then. Game on. Let’s see what’s what! Yes, basically, I’m going to pound the snot out of these guys. And then, I’ll tell you what you’ll get and what you won’t. And after that, well, I’m probably gonna just give most of it away.

I figured you’d like that last bit. Anyway, stay tuned. This should be fun.

Got any suggestions? Throw down in the comments. I’m gonna need sources to use with this stuff so I can build out some kick-ass budget systems. Not to set an arbitrary price cap, but gear should be $200 or less.

Ready? Go.

About Scot Hull 1039 Articles
Scot started all this back in 2009. He is currently the Publisher here at PTA, the Publisher at The Occasional Magazine, and the Executive Producer at The Occasional Podcast. There are way too many words about him over on the Contributors page.


  1. Cheapest source is a phone. Everyone has one so it’s free! Usb into fiio e18 dac. Total outlay $100.

    Offers line out / dig out / headphone out.

    Drives my senn 650s just fine.

  2. Although I do own a relatively expensive system I’m not into status symbols however I am detail oriented and keen on good design.

    Therefore I don’t mind cheap gear that sounds ”expensive” as long as it doesn’t look cheap.

    Unfortunately a lot of cheap Chi-fi gear either looks/feels tacky or sounds crappy.

    I like the idea of vintage gear but you need to have a reliable tech to service it should it start buzzing, smoking or simply not working.

    I think the PS Audio Sprout would look good in my office. I’m not buying into their cuddly ”feel good” publicity but I just might ”add to cart” when it finally becomes available. Ironically, in this case, I’m basing my decision mainly on looks. It would have to sound real crappy for me to return it.

  3. Scot,

    Check out Schiit’s gear. I know it gets reviewed everywhere, but I’ve been relatively happy with my Vali + Modi combination.

    I think the future of getting “the kids” into hi fi is USED gear. With sites like Audiogon and Ebay, you can pick up good quality stuff for pennies on the dollar. Feeding this is our view that even good high end gear is essentially disposable despite being made to last for decades, so there is decent supply of good quality gear on the market. Moreover, with basic amplification and speakers, it is possible to get gear refinished (even “vintage gear”) up and running close to as good as new.

    What I’d love to get a sense of is what used, vintage gear is worth getting involved with and building a system around.


  4. Picked up a Yamaha CR – 400 for $ 10, Sony PX-7 TT for $40, Rega Camber 2.2’s for $30, Yamaha YP-1 headphones for $20, Pioneer PD-S 501 for $15. No repairs needed. Just plug and play.When I listen to this decidedly non-megabuck system I simply close my eyes and enjoy the music. How much it did or didn’t cost me just isn’t an issue.

  5. Microlab Solo range of audio monitors – amplification built in. Just add the appropriate usb dac.

  6. Pretty much anything by iFi, suggest maybe the micro- iDAC as a starting point.

  7. This is a fantastic move. I’m young (late 30’s) by audiophile standards. Most of my friends just don’t get HiFi. They can hear the difference, but balk when I tell them how much my system cost, even when I fudge a bit a quote something a fraction of the real cost. When they ask for recommendations, I’m at a bit of a loss these days. I usually steer them toward HeadFi setups or AudioEngine A5’s. I do wish I had better info to pass as I’ve taken it as my personal mission to spread the HiFi gospel to the next generation. I have a few extra rooms in my house to set up some budget systems. Track me down if you’d like some help or a second set of ears on anything. Good luck!

4 Trackbacks / Pingbacks

  1. New York 2014: Audioengine cleans up your desk, smashes all your crap to the floor | The Audio Traveler
  2. New York 2014: The Monkeyhaus, the 21st Century Audiophile, and the End of Line | The Audio Traveler
  3. PS Audio Sprout talks to 21st Century audiophiles at RMAF '14 | Digital Audio Review by John Darko
  4. Global feedback: putting a $100 audiophile system on show | Digital Audio Review by John Darko

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