This article is not a review. The equipment discussed herein, is merely the gear I'm using and why I chose each piece. At the end, I'll talk about audio gear that I've had to return, and thus would not recommend.
The challenge with researching HiFi audio gear online is of course that you can't actually test any of it out or hear it! Moreover, I don't believe any amount of adjectives can accurately describe sound reproduction. My goal with this article is to share what works for me and hopefully save you from some of the buying mistakes that I've made.
For my particular use case, I mainly listen to music when I'm sitting in my den, at my computer desk. The speakers are just a few feet away from me, so there's no need to fill the room with sound. I don't need the music to be loud, but I do want it to be clear, bumping, and enjoyable.
Audio Source - The Internet
Vinyl and CD's might be great, but you can't beat the convenience of modern day streaming platforms. Type in any song or artist, click a few icons, and you're listening in no time!
24-bit / 192 kHz Hi-Res Lossless Music Streaming Services
The ultimate audiophile goal is to have THE best sound quality possible. To achieve that, you'll want to bypass any and all computer processing and have the external DAC do any all of the decoding. This is much easier said than done. Being that a MacBook Pro is my main interface for this HiFi setup, you need to choose your music streaming service carefully. There's pros and cons to each one, but in the end (as of the time of this writing), there's one clear winner for me. Let's discuss each one:
We subscribe to the family plan since everyone in our household uses an iPhone. The selection of music is fantastic. Siri integration makes it super convenient to verbally interact with the phone and play music while driving.
When using Apple Music on a Mac, there's no such thing as a straight passthrough to your DAC. Instead, the audio is resampled to whatever the settings are in the "Audio MIDI Setup" app built into OS X. That means if you're playing a 24 bit / 192 kHz song, but forgot to change the output format in the MIDI app from 16 bit / 48 kHz to 192 kHz, then your music will be downsampled when output to your DAC. If you've got the output set to a higher setting than the music being played, then it upsamples the music. That being said, I just leave the MIDI settings set to 192 kHz and deal with it.
Here's the annoying thing though. When you plug a DAC directly into an iPhone or iPad, it sends out the correct bitrate out without needing to do anything! When you play music to an external DAC with an iOS device, the volume control on the iPad or iPhone does nothing. On a Mac, this is not the case. This leads me to the conclusion that any and all processing of the audio when using an iOS device is done solely with the DAC. Is there a sound difference? Maybe? I don't know. From what I read, upsampling shouldn't reduce sound quality, but what do I know. I can't prove it, but I think music actually sounds a little better when an iPad or iPhone is directly connected to the DAC than routing through the Mac. Regardless, I use a Mac anyways as it's just the most convenient option for me.
I've thought about connecting my iPad permanently and using that as the solution to this dilemma. I could keep my iPad open and next to my computer. However, that's super annoying! Not only that, I want my HiFi setup to be the sound output for any and all sounds from the Mac. Whether it be from YouTube, Final Cut, DaVinci Resolve, etc., I want all the audio coming out of the HiFi. I supposed I could move the USB cable from one device to another depending on which application I'm using, but it's not worth the hassle.
As of the time of this writing, Apple music is my preferred choice vs all of the other options I have tested for a few main reasons:
- Largest library vs the competition.
- Works great on all Apple Devices and my car.
- Bluetooth compatibility - you wouldn't think this is an issue, but it can be.
- Already paying for it for the family. Anything else would be an extra cost, which I'm not opposed to, but the other platform better be something extra special.
- M1 ARM native app = better performance.
Amazon Music HD
Amazon Music's app exhibits the same bitrate non-switching problem as Apple Music. This issue persists even if you've enabled the "exclusive mode" setting in the app.
Also, I've noticed some blips/gaps/buffering issues on my 1GB internet connection that just shouldn't happen. This has happened multiple times. It's inexcusable - that's an immediate "no-go" for me. It's not just me, here's a Reddit thread with others dealing with the same issue. Perhaps this is because the app is not optimized to run on ARM, but instead runs using Rosetta emulation.
During my trial of Amazon Music HD, I didn't see any reason to switch away from Apple Music.
As of the time of this writing, Spotify still doesn't offer songs in as high of a quality as the competition. Furthermore, you can't download just one song at a time from an album. How stupid is that? Due to a lack of high fidelity audio, at this time it's out of the running for me. Like Amazon, it's also running using Rosetta.
That being said, I do use the free version of Spotify to listen to various podcasts.
There's a lot of controversy around Tidal's high quality music tech. It boils down to their own proprietary format known as MQA. The TL;DR of countless tech articles slamming MQA is that it adds to the cost of licensing from music companies, adds to the cost of consumers needing to buy DACs that feature this proprietary codec, and it is a lossy format that doesn't sound as great as it could. In addition to all of that, their best plan to obtain the highest quality audio that they offer in more expensive than the competition. Because of these reasons, I'm not interested in Tidal. Promoting MQA as being superior to other formats, is dishonest and not in the best interest of anyone except Tidal.
Here's some references on the subject of MQA and Tidal that do a much more eloquent job of explaining this controversy than I can.
- Schiit Audio - "WHY WE WON'T BE SUPPORTING MQA"
- Golden Sound - "Tidal ‘HiFi’ is NOT lossless"
- Seach the web for "MQA is a scam"
- Golden Sound - YouTube Video
Controversy aside, they do have a free tier (which sounds awful), but I tested out their Mac application. Its exclusive mode was no better than Amazon, and wouldn't change the outgoing bitrate to the DAC on the fly. Lastly, it too isn't ARM native.
The Qobuz Mac app just works! It automatically switches the output in the MIDI settings to match the music source. It works better than Apple's own native Music app and service. Inconceivable!
I've tried comparing it to Apple Music using a Mac and iOS device. I've tried listening for a difference. Sometimes I think Qobuz sounds slightly better, other times they seem to be the same. Is it the auto changing of the bitrate that makes Qobuz sound better? Does it even make a difference? I know it's not sending out unaltered bits because the volume control in the app still is functional.
One thing that's for sure, the interface and published playlists aren't as user friendly or as robust as Apple Music. Also, the Qobuz music library isn't as vast as Apple's either. There's many times that I'm looking for a particular album or track, and I end up going back to Apple Music to play it. Their search feature leaves quite a bit to be desired, it's rudimentary, and nowhere's near as robust as Apple's. Finding a particular track or album can be a real chore.
The Qobuz app isn't ARM native, it runs on Rosetta, but I haven't had any issues when playing to an external DAC. Still, it would be nice to see an ARM processor optimized application.
The Mac app has built in Chrome Cast support which works well with my home theater. Unfortunately, the receiver I'm using can only play up to 48 kHz, so the music is downsampled.
In regards to iOS, the app outputs bit perfect audio to an external DAC - just like Apple Music does.
If you are using an M1 MacBook with the AirPods Max, there is a compatibility issue between the Qobuz Mac app and these and some other headphones as well. The app works fine with my older pair of Sony WH-1000XM3 headphones. However, when I tried with a newer pair of headphones, the Bang and Olufson H95 (good headphones, but not worth the price), there was crackling at the beginning of nearly every track. On the AirPods Max, the music playback is always distorted and ruined, it's not subtle either, you'll know after a split second that something is wrong. A workaround is that you can play music using a web browser, but then it doesn't auto switch the bitrate for you.
I've asked them about the Bluetooth issue out of the M1 Macs, and they seem completely confounded by it. Tech support didn't have access to an M1 or AirPod Max to even try it out to see if they can replicate the issue.
I'm still in a trial with Qobuz, and if they can fix their issues / improve things, I would consider paying for it in addition to Apple because I think it might actually sound slightly better than Apple Music based upon my testing. That being said, as I type this, I'm listening to Apple Music.
There's one feature that I really like with Qobuz though, and that is that it'll autoplay a song that their algorithms think you might like. Quite often, I do! It's a great way to find new music.
My trial ends in March, so I plan on doing a lot more testing before my trial expires, and I really do hope they or Apple can fix that Bluetooth issue.
RME ADI-2 DAC - Digital to Analog Converter
This particular DAC is what I replaced a Schiit Stack with. Its price was "around" the $1,300, and from what I've read online and watched in YouTube reviews, that seems to be the average price of a good quality DAC. Everywhere I looked, this DAC has good reviews, I'm happy to say I agree with them. Here's a list of it's pros and cons:
- DAC/Headphone Amp/EQ/Preamp - all in one.
- Quality sound from all ports - no complaints.
- Display is fantastic - shows bitrate, EQ, etc.
- Auto switches to your customized settings depending on whether or not the headphones are connected.
- Many configurable options to tweak the sound to your preferences.
- Preamp has a lot of leeway and plenty of clean gain is available if needed.
- Ridiculously convoluted controls and menus. Changing the EQ settings is an exercise in frustration.
- Confusing options and poor documentation. Once you learn the controls and get the hang of them, you'll want to leave most of them alone and never touch again.
- No MQA - It would be nice if it had this feature whether I plan on using it or not.
Bottom line, aside from the terrible controls, the audio quality is great. It fixes all of the issues I had with the Schiit Stack (see below) that I returned. Are there better options out there that sound just as good or better with less confusing controls? I don't know, but this works for me, and I see no reason to return it and go a different direction.
If you're interested in an enjoyable review of this DAC, then I recommend you check out this YouTube video from John Darko. He's eloquent, slightly pretentious (what else would you expect from an audiophile), and fun to watch.
Marantz PM8006 - Integrated Amplifier
It's a full sized amplifier which takes up quite a bit of my computer desk, but I've tried less expensive options that didn't work out. This amp is solid, powerful, not too complicated, doesn't have any extra fluff, and just works.
I ended up buying the Marantz for a few different reasons:
- No built in DAC - being that I already have the RME ADI-2 DAC, it didn't make sense to pay extra for an amplifier with a built in DAC.
- Plenty of power for my system. As I'm listening to it right now, the volume is at about the 8:00 position.
- Preamp out for my subwoofer. A lot of amps don't have a sub or pre-out.
- Marantz has been in the audio component industry for many years. It's one of the only brand names that I recognize. Admittedly this doesn't mean much since I haven't purchased any audio gear in years.
- I couldn't really find any negative reviews or complaints about this amplifier at all - a very good sign.
- "Source Direct" feature allowing you to completely bypass any additional sound equalization performed by the Marantz. That way you're getting the purest sound out of your DAC.
KEF Q150 Bookshelf Speakers
When I was researching bookshelf speakers, one of my main requirements was that they be shorter than thirteen inches. This was necessary because if they were any larger, the cabinet doors of my desk wouldn't be able to open.
Having never heard the speakers prior to purchase, I read and watched quite a few reviews online. One point mentioned in multiple reviews was to purchase these speakers when they were on sale. That's exactly what I did. I bought these when they were on sale from Amazon for about $350.
The speakers have a port in the back to enhance their bass responsiveness. KEF also includes some foam plugs to block the port hole if you want less bass. I originally tried without the plugs and the speakers by themselves - they have some bass, but they are bookshelf speakers. From my limited experience and knowledge, bookshelf speakers aren't known for their bass.
After using the speakers with my subwoofer, I determined that the two didn't sound well together - at all. The bass from the KEF was nowhere's near as pleasing as the bass from my sub. Thus, I inserted the foam plug into the Q150s to mitigate their bass output and filled in the lower end with my sub. Doing this, the combo sounds quite nice, and I'm pleased with the KEFs. Perhaps if they were positioned better - not just on my computer desk, they would sound more impressive.
They're nice, not the greatest speakers I've ever heard, but nice. I can honestly see upgrading to something nicer within the next year, but I'm not really in a rush.
I'd have to agree with the reviews that say they're worth the sale price I paid for them. Now that I think about it, these speakers are the least expensive part of my system. They're growing on me though. I have boosted the mids and high ends using the ADI-2's EQ to make the sound more to my liking.
Bowers & Wilkins ASW608 Compact Powered Subwoofer
Unquestionably, I needed a subwoofer to round out the sound from the KEFs.
There were two deciding factors that led me to the decision of this particular sub - size:
- I needed a subwoofer cabinet that was less than eleven inches wide. This requirement was because the subwoofer was going to fit into a compartment of my desk that was originally designed for a mid size computer tower. It's specifically to the right of my legs when my chair is pushed in. It's an actual wooden compartment with wood on all sides.
- It needed to be a front facing subwoofer since that's the only place the air could really go. If it were down, side, or rear facing, the sound would be hitting the walls of my computer desk.
The only subwoofer I could find online that fit these requirements was this particular B&W. I'm happy to say, that the sound is very much to my liking. I don't feel the need for it to be any louder or push out more bass. In fact, I'm barely pushing it as it is.
There's not a lot of reviews out there for this sub, but I'm very pleased with it.
Audeze LCD-X 2021 Headphones
I ended up in an audio shop in Seattle where I had the chance to test various Grado, Focal, Audeze, and other headsets. The Audeze (contrary to what I read online) is very comfortable on the head, feels premium, and has a very nice sound. However, it definitely sounds differently on my home audio than it did in the store. Who knows why.
Out of the box, it sounds fairly flat. Once it's been equalized, they sounds great. That's pretty much the consensus of the reviews online. Luckily, the RME ADI-2 DAC allows for many adjustments to get it dialed in just right.
I fully expected the headphones to sound better than the KEF Q150 and B&W sub, but I prefer the sound of speakers to the headphones. However, these headphones sound awesome. When the house gets noisy, or when I need to keep things quite the Audeze headphones are a pleasure to use.
Apple AirPods Max
As much as I love sitting in my comfy computer chair, listening to music, and geeking out at my desktop listening to my HiFi, sometimes I don't want to be tethered to the desktop. Now, I could go out and purchase a portable DAC, but they're not without issues. First, you'll be dealing with wires, dongles, and being tethered to your device. Second of all, I wouldn't be able to obtain the same type of equalization that I prefer on my desktop system.
I was able to pick up a pair of the AirPods Max for less than $500 since they are now more than a year old. How do they sound? Really good. They play well with all of my Apple devices too.
There's countless reviews out their of the good and bad of these, but I like them. Could there be improvements? For sure, but if you can get them on sale, they might be worth a look.
Cables and Wires
Do cables and wires make a difference in audio quality? I'm sure they do to some degree. I know that cheap cables can pick up RF and electrical noise from various devices near them. My entire system is next to multiple devices using wifi and bluetooth, in addition to my nearby cellphone. As such, I decided to invest in some premium wiring and cables. If nothing else, they look nice and I know I didn't cheap out on any part of the system.
World's Best Cables - RCA Cables
Without going crazy in terms of cost, I went for some fairly expensive cables (for Amazon) that were available with prime shipping. How expensive? $30-$50 per. I know there are cables that a lot more too!
The brand I used for RCA cables is WBC which stands for World's Best Cables. They seem to be thick, made well, and have good reviews. I gotta say, I have no complaints - they feel premium and my system sound nice.
Im using two pairs. One is connecting the DAC to the amplifier, and the other is connecting the amp to my subwoofer.
Blue Jeans Cable Canare 4S11 Speaker Cable
This has to be the thickest and most premium feeling speaker cable I've ever purchased. They are thick cables with locking banana cable terminators at the ends For $55 for each speaker cable, they are expensive. They feel and look high end too. The sound from the speakers is just fine too - as it should be for that price! I'm sure they'll last for many years to come, and I don't regret the purchase. They'll definitely be up to the task of supporting higher end speakers when I eventually upgrade.
Without truly knowing if the premium cables make a difference in audio quality, I figured there was no reason to cheap out when it came to the wired connections.
Stay Away From These Products!!!
I've had to return a few products that just didn't cut the mustard for me. Unfortunately, sometimes you just don't know what you don't know. That I do know, I'm hoping I can help you avoid some of the mistakes that I've made.
Schiit Stack - Not Recommended and Returned
Originally, I purchased a Schiit Stack with the Modi 3 DAC, Magni 3+ headphone amplifier / preamp, and Loki Mini+ EQ. I purchased them directly from Schiit's online store. The three unit combination was about $350, and I bought it based upon aesthetics and various reviews . Ultimately, I returned them for a few reason:
- The volume knob on the Magni 3+ was finicky. At low volumes, the audio was only on one channel. After increasing the volume knob to about the 9:00 position, the channels evened out, but at that point the audio was way too loud. You could lower it on your computer's output, but that degrades audio quality.
- The Loki EQ seemed to add distortion and I wasn't happy with the results.
Audioengine A5+ Speakers - Cheaply Made, Broke, and Returned
Since everything here is for my computer audio, I wanted to go with a set of bookshelf speakers. I crowd sourced via an audiophile Facebook group asking for recommendations. Quite a few people recommended the A5+ speakers. Furthermore, I had a few requirements that also led me to purchasing the A5+ speakers:
- They needed to be fairly short so that I could still open the doors above my desk.
- They needed to have preamp outputs to go to an external subwoofer in case I wanted to add one.
- Generally good ratings across the board.
- They needed to be powered as I didn't want to purchase a separate amplifier at the time.
Given those requirements, the Audioengine A5+ speakers seemed to fit the bill. Unbeknownst to me, I expected the speakers to push out more bass than they actually did. That's the problem with watching YouTube and reading reviews, pretty much all of them said the bass out of these desktop speakers is quite good. Perhaps they are for their size, but I was expecting more.
Now in all fairness, a few reviews mentioned that you would probably want a subwoofer to compliment them, so I wasn't entirely surprised - just disappointed. The speakers actually sounded quite nice, until they didn't.
Why did I return them? After less than a month of use, the speakers had a high pitched noise emanating from the tweeters when the speakers were on - no music playing. I tried different outlets, different wires, unplugging this, plugging in that, moving them, etc. They were just faulty. After researching more online, it's been a known issue with these speakers for years, and the company has done nothing to correct the problem. Bottom line, they're just made cheaply, and Audioengine won't publicly admit there's a problem, nor do they care to fix the design flaw. They've cut corners to make an inexpensive product, and that's just the way it is.
HIFIMAN Ananda Headphones
The price dropped $100 a few weeks after I purchased them, and the only way to recoup that money was to return them. Silly, had they just credited me back the $100 I would have kept them. As such, I ended up returning them to Amazon.
Don't get me wrong, they are very nice headphones, and aside from their terrible cords, they're very nice.
Prior to this article, I made a couple of YouTube videos discussing why I originally purchased the HIFIMAN Ananda headphones. Rather than re-hash it all here, feel free to check out the videos below. A quick note, at the time of the video, I was using the Schiit Stack, not the RME ADI-2 DAC.
The asinine thing about the Ananda headphones though is the audio cable HIFIMAN included - it's garbage! How bad is it? So bad that I made a YouTube video about it and replaced it with a third party solution!
NAD 3020 v2 Amplifier - Absolute Garbage and Returned
I returned this after one day. Like the Audioengine A5+ speakers, there was a faint, but definitive noise coming from my speakers using this amp (with no music being played). I tried every wiring configuration imaginable, different outlets, a UPS battery backup not connected to the wall, different speakers, contacted audio professionals, and the conclusion was that the unit was faulty.
Furthermore, the amp wasn't strong enough to power my fairly inexpensive KEF Q150 bookshelf speakers without the volume almost being to 50%. Everything sounded anemic.
Now that I have the Marantz PM8006, the quality of the audio between the inexpensive NAD and the Marantz is noticeable.
My experience with the Audioengine and the NAD have taught me that small and inexpensive amplifiers are plagued with problems and can introduce noise into the system. Furthermore, that one place you don't want to skimp on cost is your amplifier.
Here's what I've learned through building my system:
- Don't cheap out on your amplifier.
- Test out headphones for comfort as well as sound.
- Having a quality DAC/EQ/Preamp with lots of options can make a world of difference to the final sound.
- Your streaming service of choice matters.
- Don't be afraid to return gear that doesn't do what it's supposed to do.