Audiophile on the Run: Hi-Fi Solutions for Your On-the-Go Life
When someone describes themselves as an audiophile, it is easy to immediately imagine an elaborate home setup, with expensive speakers, pricey amps and cables, audio receivers, and turntables. However, listening habits change over time, and for those with long daily commutes to school or work, more and more time spent listening to music is spent while on the go. Thankfully, there are a number of solutions that can help you capture a truly Hi-Fi audio experience, whether you are at home or traveling. Ranging from portable headphone amplifiers to DACs and ultra-high-resolution media players, as well as high-quality headphones, it is easier than ever to bring the audiophile experience out of your home, with many options that do not bear the typical audiophile price tag.
Headphone Amplifiers and DACs: True (and Loud) Sound
One of the first devices to consider for a better sonic experience while you’re out and about would be portable headphone amplifiers. While you would be hard pressed to find a mobile device (such as a smartphone) that does not have an integrated amplifier, in many cases they deliver adequate but lackluster performance, distort easily, and cannot easily power high-impedance headphones.
The Fiio E6 stereo headphone amplifier provides a straightforward amplifier that does not break the bank. Simply connect the output of your device (at a low volume) to the input of the E6, and then connect your headphones to the E6. It gives you cleaner, lower-distortion amplification, and also includes bass and treble controls to EQ your output.
The next step you can take to improve the sound quality of your existing device is to look to an external DAC, or digital-to-analog converter. Basically, a DAC connects to your device digitally, and provides more accurate digital-to-analog conversion than what comes stock in most smartphones or MP3 players. Generally, most portable DACs will also feature an integrated headphone amplifier as well.
The Fiio E17 USB DAC and headphone amplifier provides just that functionality, giving you USB, S/PDIF, and analog line inputs for a bevy of connection options. Its headphone output supports a wide variety of headphones from 16 to 300 ohms. If you are sporting a recent Android device, the Fiio Kunlun E18 can even control playback and charge your device (if compatible), all while supporting resolutions up to 24-bit/96 kHz.
If you take your laptop on your commute, you also have a few options for improving your audio. The AudioQuest DragonFly DAC (version 1.2) connects directly to an available USB port on your computer, and looks just like a USB flash drive. However, it sports a 24-bit ESS Sabre conversion chip, and a 1/8" headphone output.
Digital Audio Players and Next Generation Digital Audio
So much about digital audio has changed since the original iPod was released, and most audiophiles will testify to the fact that high-resolution digital audio (as opposed to compressed MP3 files) provides a superior listening experience. While some of your favorite tracks are recorded at higher-than-CD-quality resolutions, not every smartphone or MP3 player is capable of playing back these higher-resolution files, which are becoming more and more common.
CD-quality digital audio tracks, high-resolution WAV files, FLAC files, and DSD files have become some of the file formats of choice for the Hi-Fi community. The AK240 from Astell&Kern serves double duty as a high-resolution media player and USB DAC, featuring an independent DAC for each ear. It plays back WAV, FLAC, MP3, and DSD files (among a long list of others), and features 256GB of internal flash storage that can be expanded with microSD flash storage for an additional 128GB. The company’s AK100II gives you a slightly streamlined version of the AK240, featuring a single DAC and only 64GB of internal memory, but with the same microSD expandability. Both models feature touch-screen controls and support streaming tracks from your computer via Wi-Fi.
From Fiio, the X5 Portable Music Player and DAC boasts a long list of file-type compatibility, including DSD, FLAC, WAV, and MP3, among others. It is powered by a duo-core CPU and boasts dual 128GB microSD slots, for up to 256GB of storage.
Headphones remain the most important part of your mobile listening experience, and will have the largest impact on how your music sounds during playback. Gone are the days of the “little white earbuds,” as even casual listeners are demanding better-sounding headphones. Regardless of your preferences for earbuds or headphones, there is no shortage of Hi-Fi options.
On the earbud front, the Etymotic Research ER-4S noise-attenuating earphones feature the in-ear design for which Etymotic Research has become known, providing up to 42 dB of passive attenuation, which allows you to listen to your music at lower volumes since it will not be competing with outside noise. Etymotic Research includes a variety of swappable filters that shape the frequency response of the earphones.
Ultrasone IQ in-ear headphones boast balanced armature and 8mm drivers that have been tuned for balanced and accurate sonic reproduction, as well as comfort for those extended commutes. They have a metal die-cast body to withstand the rigors of daily use.
Shure has long been a go-to name for earphones, and the SE846 sound-isolating earphones are a good example of why. Designed to be at home on the stage (serving as in-ear monitors for live performers) as well as for general listening applications, the SE846 earphones provide 37 dB of noise isolation and feature quad micro drivers with a subwoofer, providing ample bass response in a small package. Their frequency response can even be customized by swapping the included nozzle inserts. The cables are Kevlar reinforced and detachable, allowing you to select the length that best suits you (45 and 60" cables come included), which provides the added benefit of not having to replace your earphones if your cable fails.
The Sennheiser HD 800 open-back headphones are familiar to many Hi-Fi enthusiasts, as well as audio professionals, as they have been the headphones of choice for listening and monitoring playback for many. Their open-back design helps provide a natural listening experience, and their dynamic transducers are tuned for a highly-accurate, non-hyped frequency response.
Audeze is a name that’s familiar to many audiophiles, as well, and its LCD series headphones employ a unique magnetic planar driver system (as compared to the dynamic driver system typically found in most headphones and speakers) to produce incredibly accurate frequency response with an impressive stereo field. Check out this B&H Explora hands-on review of them for more details.
Focal is another name that’s familiar to audio engineers, as the company’s line of monitors can be found in countless recording and mastering studios around the world. Focal has expanded its line into Hi-Fi headphones, as well, with the Spirit Classic. Designed from the ground up to give a continuous experience in the vein of their monitors, these headphones provide a natural frequency response and stereo field.
As you can see, it is becoming increasingly easy to bring the Hi-Fi experience with you when you’re out and about. Whatever your preferred playback format or mobile device, there are numerous solutions for increasing the quality of your audio and enriching your listening experience, whether you are at home or on the road.