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Under $400 Holiday Buyer’s Guide Part 1: Headphones and Speakers

Welcome to your completely unnecessary and wholly unsolicited Part-Time Audiophile guide to the holidays, Part 1 of a bazillion. You’re welcome.

Headphones

This category is something of a cheat — there’s quite a lot of “portable/personal audio” that falls under this arbitrary threshold. So, that’s why I’m gonna focus on not just the good stuff, but the stuff that screams value.

Massdrop AKG K7XX: $199

Massdrop AKG K7xx: $199

I wanted to love the AKG K701 that Stereophile loved so much, but I never quite cottoned to them. Great detail, terrible bass. The new AKG K7xx, a collaboration with Massdrop, re-made my not-favorite cans into my go-to recommendation. And that price is sick. There is nothing at that price that even comes close to the build or sound. Absolutely amazing value.

I bought three sets!

The kicker? You have to get them through Massdrop — which means you have to wait for the next ‘drop to start, sign up, and then wait. That is — not instant gratification here, sorry.

For those that miss out on the latest ‘drop, Part-Time Audiophile is giving away a pair of these at the end-of-the-year. All you need to do is add your email (off to the right side of the page, here) to register/”Follow” the us, and you’re done!

Focal Spirit Pro: $349

Focal Spirit Pro: $349

One of the best-sounding, completely neutral, closed-back headphones you can get. Sound quality is fantastic, isolation is pretty damn good, and the build-quality is strong. These are some great out-and-about cans, too, even if you’re not into studio work.

Note that these are not the Spirit One — not a fan of the sonic flavoring there — but instead are the Pro. This means that the bling-factor is a little on the low-side, but the rough-and-tumble finish is actually quite durable. You know. For when you fall into that ditch because you’re walking around wearing headphones.

OPPO Digital PM-3: $399

OPPO PM-3: $399

Another brilliant closed-back headphone, this one a bit more musically oriented, and a whole lot more bling. Also comes in red or black.

This is the headphone I’d happily recommend to a fan of Beats. In my not-so-humble opinion, the OPPO not only looks and feels way more expensive than the Beats, they beat the snot out of them sonically.

Massdrop Fostex TH-X00: $399

Massdrop Fostex x00: $399

Another exclusive, Massdrop has taken feedback from the Head-Fi community and asked headphone master Fostex to create a custom headphone, blending some old styling cues with some requested “adjustments” to the Fostex house-sound. The result? I have no idea — the cans have yet to ‘drop. But … if their success with the AKG K7XX is any barometer, these will not only be “good”, they may well be class-beaters. And since it’s a ‘drop, you’re getting a screaming good deal on them.

But don’t take my word on it. Take Part-Timer John Grandberg’s word for it — he’s gotten to play with a pair and is tossing around phrases like “best $400 in existence”. Hmmm!

And for the record, those ear-cups are Denon original — I use them on my TH900, and they’re all that and a bag of chips. Of course, I have beautifully delicate ears, unlike Monster John, so YMMV.

Again, this is a Massdrop offering, so you snooze, you lose. At least, until the next drop.

RHA T20 and T20i In-Ear Monitors: $240/$250

RHA T20 in-ear monitors: $240

“Built Like A Tank” is probably the most common description for these top-flight ear buds. Which is true. Assuming your tank is made out of metal.

I think the “tuning filters” (one to bring out the treble, one to bring out the bass, one to “balance” the two) is gimmicky, but the neutral filter is quite enjoyable and the entire package really looks like you give a damn. The sound quality is quite good, too. Yes, you can get better — but you’re paying double to get there.

Add $10 and get the “iPhone” T20i version — which adds a microphone. My suggestion? Do it. Then you can use your stock earbuds for for their original purpose — a garrote.

OPPO HA-2 portable headphone amplifier: $299

Oppo HA-2: $299

Portable Audio is a bit of a sliding scale. You can get a great pair of headphones, but it might not sound all that awesome with your iPhone. A stand-alone amplifier still needs a source. So, is the answer a portable amplifier that you can use with your iPhone? Maybe. How about one wrapped in fancy leather? Nice to the touch, and won’t scratch your phone’s finish, the HA-2 is a portable dreamboat of an amp. 300mW should do it for all but the most un-portable of headphones.

The HA-2 is also a digital audio converter, capable of supporting all of the current crop of high-res file types, and comes with the ability to pull digital natively off of your phone.

Best of all, it’ll also charge your phone.

Bravo Audio V2 Headphone Amplifier: $68

Bravo Audio V2 Class A 12AU7 Tube Multi-Hybrid Headphone Amplifier: $68

It almost doesn’t matter if this amp is a hot mess or not. Who cares? Look at this thing! It just screams “awesome” and “we’re all gonna die” all at the same time. What’s not to like?

The Bravo is only an amp — so you still need to feed it from a DAC, DAP or disc-player of some kind, but it does feature a common and highly upgradeable dual triode 12AU7.

At this price, this is almost audiophile stocking-stuffer material. Do it — and lemme know how it goes.

Schiit Audio Gear

Schiit Audio makes great audio gear. It’s inexpensive. Sounds good. Covers a lot of bases. In fact, it’s almost embarrassing how much sh*t Schiit makes. The Modi Uber ($149) is a full-featured DAC and Magni Uber ($149) is a full-featured headphone amplifier. That’s right — separates — and the full monty will only set you back three bills.

I call that a bargain, friends.

And don’t forget the Valhalla amp ($349) and Bifrost DAC ($349), for a more upscale sound.

As they say, this Schiit is bananas.

Woo Audio headphone stand

Woo Audo HPS-T (Double) Headphone Stand: $79

Headphones can be extremely handy. Some can even sound great. But having your favorite cans in a pile by your desk, bed or favorite chair is not only ghetto, it’s a bit unhealthy for your headphones’ long-term life. Set ’em up in style.

The Woo Audio headphone stand is big, heavy, and unlikely to get in the way. And it’s height-adjustable. Looks great, too. Can double as a home-defense weapon, too, in a pinch.

Take $10 off for the one-headphone version, if you absolutely must. Woo also makes a significantly cheaper one (about half price), but this big T-shaped one is the one I’d get.

Loudspeakers

Speakers in the sub-$400 price bracket are something of a rare bird. As in, almost extinct. Sure, you can find some DIY stuff. I reviewed a bunch of loudspeakers in the sub $100 bracket, and I’ll be honest, few of them are going to win the love of a die-hard audiophile. The fact of the matter is this — making an affordable, high-quality loudspeaker is not easy. Apparently.

So when it happens, grab yer wallets.

AudioEngine A5+ and B2 Bluetooth speakers

Audioengine A5+ Powered Book Shelf Speakers: $319

Audioengine is known for making affordable audio gear. It’s kinda their gig. For the last several years, the top of their pile has been the A5+, a $399 wunderkind (though Amazon is selling it for $319 right now). An active speaker, with a volume control (but no on-board DAC), the A5+ is a remarkable-sounding desktop system, and I haven’t found a more comprehensive solution for less that sounds better. Just add a source, and you’re off.

Interestingly, Audioengine has added two new speakers to their portfolio that are also worthy of note — the first, the HD6 ($750), falls considerably outside the the purview of this list, but is awesome — and it has a built-in DAC. So does the second, the B2 Bluetooth loudspeaker, which was reviewed here this past summer. The B2 has just about everything you’d want in a luggable loudspeaker — great sound, great looks, Bluetooth aptX, and more.

ELAC Debut B5 and B6

ELAC B5: $229/pair

Saw and heard these at RMAF this year, and lets just say I was impressed. Are they perfect? No. They’re a little dark, and sound best with a heavy foot on the gas. For this sound, they’re cheap. Happily, the build-quality is unusually high — which really makes any speaker in this line absurdly easy to recommend.

The B5 is the smaller of the two, with a 5.25″ mid/woofer. The B6 incorporates a 6.5″ mid/woofer. Other than the slightly larger box, this is pretty much the only difference. Both are crossed-over at 3kHz, both use the same 1″ wave-guided tweeter. I want to say that the B6 plays deeper, but it’s more subtle than that — the speaker seems to play a little bigger. But either way you go, you’re going to be amazed.

These speakers, to my ears, replace and supersede my reference affordable stand-mount recommendations, the Pioneer SP-BS22-LR ($99 at Amazon). It’s a bit of a jump up in price, but I think the build and sound quality more than justify the extra cash.

Sonos PLAY:1

SONOS PLAY:1: $199

It’s hard to not like the Sonos system, even after all these years. The newest speakers are much more streamlined (no “extra components” required), so all you need is this one speaker and you get access to all the streaming you have and want — including Tidal.

Sound quality is for shit, unless you opt for the much larger speakers, which I recommend. But that’s almost beside the point. This little buggers will get your tunes wherever you’ve got a wireless network. Pair the little ones with the big ones, scatter then appropriately, and you’ve got yourself some serious party sound.

I still prefer my “big rig” for “serious listening”, but streaming Pandora needs neither. And sometimes, that’s exactly the thing I want.

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About Scot Hull (975 Articles)
Founder, Editor and Publisher at Part-Time Audiophile and The Occasional Magazine.

3 Comments on Under $400 Holiday Buyer’s Guide Part 1: Headphones and Speakers

  1. John Grandberg // December 2, 2015 at 10:17 AM //

    LOTS of great stuff on this list. Massdrop is absolutely killing it with their K7XX and TH-X00. Seriously, look into those if you’re even remotely interested in headphones. Exceptional deals, the both of ’em.

  2. As an FYI, your Audioengine A5+ review states the powered speakers contain an internal DAC; they do not. Also you list their price in different parts of the text as $319 and $349 … the normal price is $399.

    • Amazon is selling them for $319 if you follow the link ….

      But I’ve updated the page ….

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