Audiophile Sound on a Budget

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Audiophile Sound on a Budget

Post by CelloGuy » Sat Mar 03, 2007 3:16 pm

I recently became interested, once again, in being able to hear audiophile-quality sound reproduction from my home stereo. At various times in the past, I have rather haphazardly pursued this goal, but always trying to stay within a rather low budget (as I am now).

I have a fairly large pair of Pioneer speakers that produce very good sound, but for various reasons, they were not hooked up to my stereo during the second half of 2006. (They now are hooked up again, as of a few weeks ago.) During that hiatus, I started thinking about obtaining a high-quality pair of stereo headphones. I did a lot of reading and research on the internet, and in addition to considering some good AKG's, I was also tempted by the model of Grado headphones that can be had for around $100. I ended up getting a pair of AKG's, specifically the K240S ("studio monitor") headphones. These usually cost between $100. and $130., depending on the merchant. (Guitar Center stores probably have these in stock, and they will match internet prices if you bring in a printout from another internet merchant. It might be kind of a shock for a classical music aficionado to go into a Guitar Center store, but where I live, they had the best selection of headphones.)

I have been extremely pleased with the sound quality of the AKG headphones. So, now that I had those, I wanted to figure out a low-cost way I could use them in my bedroom, so that I could on occasion stretch out on the bed and listen to high-quality sound. Our main stereo is in the living room, and consists primarily of a low-cost Sony stereo receiver, the one that most retailers sell for around $150., and a modest Sony CD player, one that is similar to the Sony models now being sold in the $100. to $150. price range. (By the way, regarding full-size CD players, I prefer one with a headphone output on the front panel, just for extra versatility, but a lot of people now are buying DVD players to play compact discs, and even the really nice Panasonic or other brands that are $200 or $250 don't seem to have headphone output jacks, as far as I can tell. Of course, most stereo receivers have a headphone output jack on the front panel.)

For a while I was considering just buying another full-size CD player (with a headphone output) to put in the bedroom, but I knew my wife would not be too crazy about this component taking up substantial space on top of a bureau (or her makeup table ??) in the bedroom. Then it occurred to me to experiment with small portable CD players (the "walkman" type). I had one of these sitting around ... namely, an Audiovox that I purchased about 3 years ago, probably at Wal-Mart, and probably paid around $20. for it. I had never really used it to listen to music ... rather, I used to sometimes use it in the car to listen to "books-on-cd".

Most headphones that are sold today, even ones going into the "audiophile" price ranges, can be used on both sizes of headphone jacks, i.e. a "mini-jack" or a 1/4 inch jack. The AKG headphones I purchased come with a "mini-plug" molded onto the end of the headphone cord, and there is also a screw-on type 1/4 inch adapter plug (which you would just leave in place on the headphone cord, if you always used your phones on a full-size stereo). Most less-expensive headphones are similar, except that instead of the premium screw-on type adapter, they come with a push-on type adapter, which accomplishes the same purpose.

Now ... getting to the issue of the portable CD player. I was amazed at how good the inexpensive Audiovox player sounded on full-blown symphonic or other classical recordings, when used with a high-quality pair of headphones. (Keep in mind that some CDs will not sound good through headphones, because certain anomalies or deficiencies in the engineering of the CD or the original recording will become extremely noticeable when heard through high-quality headphones.)

One caveat ... an issue you may encounter is that the audio amplifiers in small portable CD players are not very powerful, and with some headphones, some recordings may not be loud enough, even when turned up all the way. With my AKG headphones, I have found that I usually end up having the volume up all the way to achieve an acceptable listening experience, and it is usually adequate, although occasionally I would wish for just a little more output, to get that extra sonic impact that you occasionally need when listening to music. (With the audio setup I am describing here, I have so far listened primarily to some modern recordings of Bruckner symphonies, mainly on DGG, and a few recordings of organ music and Beethoven symphonies.)

Actually, there are all kinds of expensive headphone amplifiers that can be purchased, but I am currently looking at an inexpensive one called the "Boostaroo", which costs around $30 including shipping. (To read reviews of this item, go to Amazon and search on "Boostaroo".) Evidently Radio Shack sells the same item under their brand name, and it is $25. in Radio Shack stores. (Look for it in the headphone accessories section, i.e. near the adapter plugs, etc.) I will probably purchase a Boostaroo sometime in the next 2 or 3 weeks, and try it out with my small CD players.

I did purchase another portable CD player, just to see if a major brand-name player would produce even better sound than my Audiovox. Both Sony and Panasonic offer good, all-around CD players at prices between $30. and $40. I decided on the Panasonic (maybe they'll stay in business, before Sony actually takes over the whole world!?). I spent well under $40. (it's the Panasonic one that plays all CD formats and also MP3 files that are on a CD, but it doesn't also have the FM radio tuner built in, which adds around $10. to the cost.)

This Panasonic CD player also sounds very good, but I am not sure it is noticeably better than the Audiovox. Also, I tried it on my main stereo system, using the appropriate patch cord, and I think it produces essentially the same sound quality as the component-style full-size Sony CD player. (There is one thing, also, when using these portable CD players in a stable environment. For even better sound, you can turn off, or "step down", the buffer for the "skip protection". Look in the product instruction manual for how to do this. My Panasonic sounds better when the skip protection is stepped down to 10 seconds of skip protection, as opposed to the default of 45 seconds, or 120 seconds, or whatever it is.)

I am frankly amazed at how good these small, inexpensive portable CD players are. I noticed at the Wal-Marts around here that they are now selling their bottom-end, house brand portable CD player ("Durabrand") for $7. (yes, seven dollars). Even with the economies of scale, I don't quite understand how a high-tech device can be sold for that kind of a price.

So, there you have it ..... I now have a near-audiophile quality sound system for a cost of not over $150. (namely, Panasonic portable CD player and AKG K240S headphones). Just the thing for occasionally lying on the bed and experiencing great music!

Holden Fourth
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Post by Holden Fourth » Sat Mar 03, 2007 10:24 pm

There are two far better headphone amplifiers than the Boostaroo, in your price range and both are by Behringer

They are the MA400 and the HA400. The difference between the two is that with the HA400 you can listen to up to 4 sets of phones, all with their own separate volume controls. The quality of these little amps is amazing and brought out the bass in Sennheiser HD280 Pros quite unbelievably.

You can access either of these little wonders at your local musicians shop (they are used by professional musos all the time to monitor what goes in and comes out) or on the web.



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