For decades, I wanted a kick-ass stereo system. I’d visit emporiums to hear glorious setups that were priced like down payments on McMansions. I’d attend audiophile expos to gawk at glistening speakers that cost more than luxury sedans.
I really, really wanted to buy into this world of great sound. But somehow the cheap part of me always prevailed—while I loved hearing such wonderfully rendered music, I also detested the heavy cost. So for years I lived without luxurious audio.
That is, until this year.
As I write this post, I’m hearing Fritz Reiner guide the Chicago Symphony Orchestra through Respighi’s The Pines of Rome. The sound is light years ahead of my college-poor stereo from the 1980’s. And to my ears it comes very close to what I’ve heard at high-end stores.
This new system cost $740.80—a pittance that lifts me into the sonic stratosphere without exposing me to stratospheric expense.
How did I sneak into audio chic so cheaply?
I did it by resorting to one of the oldest entries in the frugal playbook.
Instead of speakers, I chose headphones. Instead of a house-shaking amplifier, I chose a smallish headphone amp. Instead of a CD player or phonograph, I chose a FREE media player to install on my laptop.
My lilliputian setup delivers spectacular sound at a spectacularly low price—hear now the blissful details!
Sennheiser HD600 Headphones: $224.50
These top-rated headphones are a long-time audiophile favorite. I bought my pair used on eBay. They arrived with two sets of cables: one with a standard ¼-inch jack and the other with a balanced XLR four-pin plug. My ears prefer the four-pin, which does a slightly better job of keeping the sound separated into two distinct channels.
Schiit Jotunheim Headphone Amplifier: $516.30
Pronounced just like you think, Schiit is the baddest word in headphone amps. I picked the Jotunheim model with an on board Digital Audio Converter (DAC). The amp measures 9″ by 6″ by 2″ and delivers plenty of power to the headphones. To protect my hearing, I never crank the volume knob more than half-way up (so in the future my ear drums will still hear drums).
MediaMonkey Music Player: FREE download
Media Monkey organizes my music and plays tracks from my hard drive. I ripped a big chunk of my CD collection onto my laptop as WAV files. I also downloaded higher density FLAC files from HDTracks.com.
Don’t Take My Word For It
I think my setup delivers amazing value, but I’m no audio expert. So instead of blogviating about how awesome everything sounds—my grateful ears have never been happier—I refer you to this video review of my exact system, i.e., the Schiit Jotunheim and Sennheiser HD600 headphones.
The reviewer, a headphone expert who goes by the name Zeos, uses a Go-Pro camera that makes me seasick as he moves his head from port to starboard. But the good new is that he’s entertaining and persuasive. Now that I’ve listened to the equipment myself, I think his conclusions are spot on.
Dubious About Risking $750 for Equipment You Might Dislike?
I share your trepidation.
Unless you happen to know someone who owns this particular setup, there’s no free way to try before you buy.
However, if you buy this setup and don’t like what you hear, you can still get most your money back. As to the Jotunheim, Schiit allows returns within 14 days for a 5 percent restocking fee plus mailing costs. On the DAC model this means you’d pay about $40 for a home audition that lasts a full fortnight. As to the HD600s, there’s a healthy demand for used models so you can always sell them back on eBay at little or no loss.
Helpful Hints for the Cheapish Audiophile
HQ Music on YouTube. Search for “HQ,” “HD,” or “audiophile” music. This is FREE listening with infrequent ads that you can bypass after five seconds. Some of my favorites for fantastic sound:
- Through the Eyes of Love–Sarah Morgan
- Dusty in Memphis [Full Album]–Dusty Springfield
- Creep–Radiohead [skip this if the F word offends you]
- What’s Up–4 Non Blondes
- In the Digital Mood [Full Album]–Glen Miller Orchestra
- Take Five–The Dave Brubeck Quartet
- Dance of the Seven Veils–Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra
- High End System vs Percussion Band–Isophon Ensemble
2+ Million Collected Songs. This obscure Amazon Prime feature is a great bargain. And unlike YouTube, there are no ads. To learn more, click here.
Free Downloads at HDTracks.com. Among audiophiles, a fierce debate rages over whether the human ear can discern any difference between CDs and the higher density files that HDTracks peddles. Decide for yourself by downloading these FREE samplers:
Hi Rez from HDTracks.com. I purchase online only when there’s a big sale. Because even discounted downloads are expensive, I preview the full albums on YouTube or Amazon Prime before I buy. Here are my favorites:
- Jazz at the Pawn Shop–Arne Domnerus et al. Wikipedia reports that this live album “is widely regarded by audiophiles as the best jazz recording of the 20th Century.” For good reason. I feel I’m actually in the room on one of those cold Stockholm nights in December, 1976 when the music was played. In addition to the fantastic combo, I hear snippets of audience conversation, waiters shuffling about, and clinking glasses—Brännvin anyone?
- The Master–Candido Camero. This 92 year old conga player still gets after it—fascinating rhythms. Incredible sonic detail.
- Mussorgsky Pictures at an Exhibition–Fritz Reiner, Chicago Symphony Orchestra. Once upon a time, Chicago’s Orchestra Hall was a recording paradise, but a 1966 renovation killed the acoustics. Fortunately, in this 1950s recording the brass section blares with outstanding clarity.
- Afro Bossa–Duke Ellington. The Duke is so cool!
- What’s Going On–Marvin Gaye. Marvin’s magnum opus.
- LA Woman–The Doors. In Riders on the Storm, you’d swear the Hammond organ is getting drenched in a downpour.
- The Raven–Rebecca Pidgeon. Many wonderful tracks, the most popular of which is Spanish Harlem, a song penned by Phil Spector.
- The World Is a Ghetto–War. Very clear separation on a wide sound stage. Sounds like a dozen or more percussionists are playing.
- Some Other Time–Bill Evans. I’ve enjoyed other recordings made at this small recording studio located in the Black Forest of Germany (for the well-respected MPS label). A mellow jazz combo takes on 21 American standards.
- Getz-Gilberto–Stan Getz and Joao Gilberto. One of the best selling and best sounding albums of the 1960s.
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Frugality not only delivers great life satisfaction, it also delivers small victories whenever you score incredible values. So it’s been with my desktop stereo. I feel like I’ve paid for an economy seat and suddenly been upgraded to first class. I could go on about this, but it’s time to take another listen to the great Duke Ellington.
Photo by alexkerhead