My Audiophile dilemma…

So yes, I guess you could consider me an ‘audiophile’ in the sense I care a lot about the nuances and details that go into audio components in order to produce the best sound quality possible.

This goes back to my hobby as a guitarist. As a guitarist, I absolutely obsessed with over every component in the signal chain to make sure the tone was as great as it could be.

In a guitar there’s so many different variables, some differences could be:

-Tonewood used; ie. spruce vs mahogany vs koa vs alder vs ash vs basswood etc 
-the type of lacquer applied to the guitar; nitro lacquer is preferable to poly lacquer because it’s a thinner coat and allows the guitar to be more transparent and ‘breathe’
-the type of neck joint. Supposedly hide glue makes the best neck joints and dovetails are preferable to mortis and tenon and set necks have better sustain than bolt ons
-having the best sustain; to this end top loading bridges on Teles are preferred over string throughs, and the components of the bridge all matter. I actually changed out the standard stainless steel saddles on my Stratocaster for KTS Titanium saddles, and there’s also brass saddles on offer and the 2TEK bridge which you would need an entire guitar built around it to take advantage of it.
-Even the tremolo springs and block matters and I swapped out the standard zinc block on my Strat and standard springs for a KGC Brass tremolo block and Raw Vintage tremolo springs in order to get the best tone, so yes even small things like that matter
-The nut; I changed all my guitars to use Graphtech nuts from the standard bone or synthetic bone ones. Although I hear the Earvana Nuts can be interesting too. 
-The strings; I’ve cycled between MANY different brands in search of the best tone. Standard Fender, D’Addario and Ernie Ball ones, Dean Markley Blue Steel, DR Strings, and even some more boutique brands like Sonotone and Curtis Mangan, but my go-to has always been Elixir Strings.
-and of course the pickups; I’ve spent countless hours researching the best pickups for my guitars. There’s SO many different boutique brands. There’s bigger brands like Fender, Seymour Duncan, Dimarzio, Lace, Tonerider, EMG, bigger ’boutique’ handwound brands like Lindy Fralin, Bill Lawrence, Kent Armstrong, Jason Lollar, Joe Barden, Bare Knuckle, TV Jones, Throbak and smaller 1-2 man shops like Sheptone, D Allen, Klein, Curtis Novak, Don Mare, OC Duff, Tone Specific, Radio Shop etc so yeah there’s an entire cottage industry of pickup winders. My Strat has handwound pickups by Rumpelstiltskin pickups, who is a 1 man operation in Virginia – I specified 5.8k in the neck with Alnico 3 magnets, 5.8k in the middle with Alnico 5 magnets, and 6.3k in the bridge with Alnico 5 magnets. All with heavy formvar wire. Yes, I go down to that level of detail with my specs
-And that’s just the guitar itself. then my signal chain just goes on from there. I try to use the best guitar cables – Mogami, Rattlesnake Cables, Lava Cables, Bullet Cables are currently what I use. 
-All my pedals except for the first one in the chain (Boss Waza Tuner) and last one (Boss RC5 looper) have true bypass; the first and last pedals have buffered bypass to maintain the highs
-My guitar amp is a handwired (by one guy in San Francisco!) American style 6V6 Class A tube amp with tube rectifiers for more sag. I use Celestion Alnico Blue speakers for that beautiful bright sound. 

So yeah you can tell the level of detail I go into when it comes to tone with my guitars and equipment.

So it comes as no surprise that when it comes to my audio equipment I also have a similar level of meticulous attention.

For a very long time, I used soundbars for both my PC and my home theater. I used a Creative SoundblasterX Katana for my PC, which produced decent sound especially for the price, and could get very loud and was very versatile. I used a $200 Samsung soundbar and then later a pair of Klipsch ProMedia 2.1 speakers as my home theater sound system for a long time too.

I also cycled through a bunch of different music players. At first I used my phone for music – my iPhone 3G/4S, then my Sony Xperia Z3C and then after that I moved to some entry level DAPs like the Pioneer XDP, Sony Walkman A17, Fiio M7 and Sony Xperia XZ1C.

For earphones and headphones I’ve ran through a gamut of Etymotic, Sennheiser, Shure, Klipsch, Monster, Beats, Audio Technica, Denon, Fender and Master&Dynamic ones ranging from $50 to $300 but never really had a truly high end one. 

And for a long time, I thought this was good enough for me. But until this year I finally decided to give everything an upgrade, both my home sound system and my portable sound system. It only seems right given the level of attention I give to my musical equipment.

So gone are my soundbars and in comes a dedicated 5.1 system for my home theater and 2.1 system for my PC. And the choices are many again. I thought about so many different speakers, especially for the bookshelves.

My budget was $3000 for the home theater system and $3000 for the PC system so I looked at the Triangle BRO3s, KEF LS50, Dali Oberons, Monitor Audio Bronze 100, Wharfedale Diamond 12.2, MartinLogan 15is for the home theater setup (I had less budget per speaker for the HT setup since there’s more speakers that’s needed). In the end I settled for the MartinLogan 15is ($450 MSRP ea, got them for $280 ea refurb) for the front, a MartinLogan 8i for the center channel ($450 MSRP, got them for $320). And MartinLogan 2is for the surrounds ($200 MRSP ea, got them for $150 ea). Just to complete the MartinLogan package I added the Dynamo 400 sub ($500 MRSP, got them for $400).

For receivers, I looked at Denon, Onkyo, Marantz, Yamaha, Pioneer, Sony and went with the Marantz NR1510 ($800 MRSP, got it for $700) mainly because of its smaller frame, which made it easier to fit under my TV (I actually had to buy a TV stand to raise my LG C9 up a bit more though). In addition it had the streaming services support and all the I/O I was looking for. If I had a bigger budget and used my HT more, I might gone for an Anthem receiver though for the ARC room correction. I decided I didn’t need a dedicated streamer like the Blusound Node or more expensive options like the Naim Uniti or Simaudio Moon ACE since I would just play music mostly from my PC using my desktop system. 

So in total I got a $3k system for $2300. Fit under my $3k budget and still had money to spare. Home theater upgrade done.

Total cost of home theater system: $2300 ($700 Marantz NR1510 + $300 ML 2is + $400 ML Dynamo 400 + $300 ML 8i + $600 ML 15is)

Then it comes to my PC system. There was ALOT of bookshelf speakers and integrated amps I contemplated.

For bookshelves, I looked at the Monitor Audio Gold 100, Bowers&Wilkins 706 S2, Focal Aria 906, KEF R3, Dynaudio Evoke 20s for the PC setup. I also looked at some near field monitors like the PMC DB1 Golds and looked hard for some Harbeth P3ESRs (but they were beyond the budget). I ended up settling for the PMC DB1s (MSRP $1500, got them for $1100 open box) for their combination of smaller size (which made it easier to fit on my desk) and great near field listening experience. It was a substantial upgrade over the Klipsch R-41PMs I was using before.

Edit: I have since bought a pair of Neat Acoustics Ministras (MSRP $2500, got them for $1500), a pair of Klipsch R40Ms (MRSP $280, got them for $200), a pair of Triangle Borea BR02 (MSRP $300, got them for $230), Monitor Audio Bronze 50s (MSRP $600, got them for $400), Dali Oberon 1s (MRSP $600, got them for $450). I ended up using the MA Bronze 50s for my desktop setup. 

For subwoofers there’s really only two brands I looked at which was SVS (very well known and good value) and REL (maybe not as good value as SVS but well known). I ended up going with the REL Tzero Mk3 ($500 MSRP, got them for $400) due to their small size and simple operation. 

For integrated amps, I looked at the NAD C368, Marantz PM8006, Rotel A12, Cambridge Audio CXA61, and PeachTree Audio Nova150 – and ended up going for the Rotel because of the substantial I/O, phono input (for my Fluance RT85 turntable), Class AB operation (I liked the Peachtree’s power but it was Class D), the dedicated DAC/PC input and it was on sale (MSRP $1000, got it for $750). 

So in total I got a $2100 setup for $1600. Fits under my $3k budget with lots of money to spare. Done.

Total cost of desktop speaker system: $1600 ($750 Rotel A12 + $400 REL Tzero MKIII + $400 MA Bronze 50)

For my turntable setup, I decided to use the Triangle Borea BRO2s I had (MSRP $300, got them for $230), along with the Fosi Audio Box X4 phono preamp ($70) (I used to own a $200 Cambridge Audio Solo preamp but ended up selling it), Edifier T5 subwoofer ($130), and Dayton Audio HTA100BT hybrid tube amp ($200). Along with the Fluance RT85 turntable ($500). I really did do a lot of thinking over whether to get a full tube amp (Reisong and Monoprice made some cheap ones and there was a Drop/Caiyin one too) or a hybrid one (the Dayton Audios beat the Monoprice options in terms of features) but the hybrid amps were able to output more power than the tube amps did at a fraction of the price plus added more features like BT connectivity and subwoofer out that the pure tube amps didn’t have, so I went with the Dayton Audio which seemed to have the most features for the price (and looked cool with the tubes + VU meters to boot!). So in total this setup came out to around $1200. A little bit over my $1k budget, but still relatively low cost compared to all my other higher cost setups lol.

I actually decided to upgrade my turntable setup a bit.. for turntables there’s a lot of choices the most popular tables that are under $1000 are Pro-Ject, Audio-Technica, Rega, Denon. Technics SL-1200 50th anniversary and Rega Planar 3 (both $1000 USD MSRP) were my top 2 choices, both legendary turntable designs dating back to the 70s. The Technics obviously is direct drive, which has the advantage of having a consistent motor speed, and also the 50th anniversary blue/gold colors look nice. But I managed to snag the Planar 3 for $50 off and the Planar 3 especially is known for its fantastic tonearm (which is an important part of turntable sound). Also it looks minimalistic which I like. Then for the amp, I initially had a hybrid tube Dayton Audio HTA100BT ($200) which is a fantastic value. But then saw the Leak Audio Stereo 130, it’s retro looking, also has BT and digital connections… yes it’s quite a bit more expensive (got it for $1000, MRSP $1200), it’s not particularly high wattage (45W for solid state) and it’s not tube in any way, but I just fell in love with the design, feature set and aesthetics. Also, Leak is one of those brands I feel needs more attention and love. It’s an old school UK brand that just recently got revived and I wanted to add it to the Rega to make it a nice English pairing. And for the speakers.. why not keep the UK theme and use my Neat Acoustics Ministra ($1500, MSRP $2500) with them – a fantastic speaker that doesn’t really need a subwoofer since it’s isobaric design and bass response is so good for a bookshelf speaker. And for the cartridge, there’s so many options by Ortofon, Grado, Rega, Denon, Audio-Technica which are some big names as well as some nice specialty japanese makers like Hana, Sumiko and Nagaoka. I went with the Hana SL ($600, MSRP $750) which has gotten stellar reviews on every site I’ve read. For the phono preamp I went for the Cambridge Audio Duo ($200, MSRP $350) which I found for a great price. Originally I wanted a Schiit Mani 2 ($150) but had issues ordering from their website. Plus, now the entire setup is all British. 

So in total I got a $5800 setup for $4200. Yes it’s by far my most expensive setup.. but I’m using this setup for both vinyl and BT to provide my main source of music in my living room so it makes sense. 

Total cost of turntable setup: $4200 ($950 Rega Planar 3 + $600 Hana SL + $1000 Leak Audio S130 + $1500 Neat Acoustics Ministra + $200 Cambridge Audio Duo)

for my desktop headphone setup, I wanted to go with a nice headphone amp + nice open back headphones to really get the best sound. I used to own the Schiit Audio Vali 2 ($150) and Focal Elear ($400) but ended up selling that setup. After considering many options – I also tested out the $150 Little Dot MKII pure tube amp, the $200 Drop/THX AAA 739, the $200 Parasound ZDAC V2 – I decided to go with the $300 xDuoo TA-26 it had an obscene amount of power on tap and sounded so great with organic natural warmth on vocal tracks. 


For the open back headphones, I tested out the Focal Elexs ($700 MSRP, got them for $450) and the Beyerdynamic DT1990Pros ($600 MSRP, got them for $500) and while I liked the clarity of the Elex’s, I liked the bass push and soundstage of the Beyers more. But I decided also to try out the Beyerdynamic T1 2nd gens too ($1000 MRSP, got them for $450) since they are the highest impedance consumer headphones on the market (600ohms) and perfect pairing with tube amps.

So my setup (xDuoo TA-26 + Beyer T1p 2nd gen) ended up being around $750, under my $1k budget.

Total cost of headphone setup: $750 ($300 xDuoo TA-26 + $450 Beyer T1p 2nd gen)

and for my portable system setup, I gave myself a smaller budget of $2k since in general headphones/IEMs don’t cost as much as speakers do. 

For this I was again in a dilemma. So many choices on DAPs and IEMs. I wasn’t going for an over ear or on ear headphone because those are not as portable. For home use, I would rather just use speakers and for traveling, IEMs are fine and can cancel noise passively. So I decided to look for a good pair of IEMs instead of full size headphones. 

For DAPs, it’s always a tradeoff between focusing on great sound performance and having a lot of features, for some reason. All the really good sounding DAPs like the Caiyin N8, Dethonray Prelude, Hifiman R2R2000, Luxury&Precision LP6, Astell&Kern SP2000T, Lotoo Paw Gold Touch are very expensive – but lacking in non sound quality related features. The AK SP2000T and Caiyin N8 are especially intriguing due to having nutubes inside them! But they are all over $2k (except for the Dethonray but its features are really basic). Meanwhile other Chinese DAPs like the FiiO M11 Pro / Plus, Shanling M6 Pro, HiBy R6 2020 are all very fully featured Android DAPs that have all the bells and whistles, but I feel maybe they are lacking something in sound quality compared to the first group I named (of course they are cheaper so its to be expected). I currently have the Astell&Kern SR15, and was thinking about upgrading to the Astell&Kern SR25, but then I actually saw a really cool Gundam limited edition Astell&Kern SE100 model online – it’s from 2.5 years ago so it’s a dated model for sure, but it’s original MSRP was $1700, and selling for $1000. I was so close to pulling the trigger on the HiBy R6 actually due to the features but also thinking about the Dethonray Prelude DTR+ because of the great reviews about the sound quality but then remembering that it doesn’t even have a touch screen or analog click wheel. I was also thinking about the Caiyin N6ii, iBasso X300 and Lotoo PAW 6000 which are great Chinese DAPs but cost a bit over budget at $1200. So then I saw the SE100 and was like this is the great in between pick because it (probably? hard to find comparisons online) has better sound quality than the HiBy R6 / AK SR25, but it also has a more modern interface than the Dethonray Prelude, while not costing so much more than them. And it’s right within my budget. Yes, I know it’s dated, but still. This was the best in between for me for good UI + good sound quality within my budget, and I pulled the trigger on it. Plus it’s a limited edition, so it looks cool and I didn’t have to pay extra for that.

IEMs around the $1000 budget are many – there’s well known brands like JH Audio, Noble Audio, Audeze, Meze, Empire Ears, 64 Audio, Campfire Audio, Sony, Westone, Shure and more obscure Chinese brands like TSMR, See Audio, THIEaudio, Kinera etc I must admit the Audeze Euclids really intrigued me but couldn’t find any good deals on them. I focused on a few in particular the well known Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020s and the 14 BA driver THIEaudio Voyager 14. Both are around $1000 – in terms of specs the Chinese brands can’t be beat for the price, but the Western brands have their dedicated following as well. Previously I was using the 3BA Astell&Kern Michelles (collaboration with JH Audio), which were fine since I got them at a discount, but wanted something more. Then I discovered that Astell&Kern recently did a collaboration with Campfire Audio, and released the Solaris X. This was also at a discount online for $1200 (MSRP $1500) and it was perfect since it pairs very nicely with the AK SE100, so I got that one too. 

My mini review of the AK / Campfire Solaris X:

“Granted, I haven’t tried the Andromedas or Solaris to compare to, the only comparisons I have are to my AK (JH Audio) Michelles and Tansio Mirai LANDs. Compared to the Michelles, the Solaris X is noticeably richer and more detailed with the layering, with a wider soundstage with more detailed and prominent mids. Compared to the LANDs, the Solaris X is a more relaxed, laid back presentation and the soundstage to me is slightly wider and deeper as well, whereas the LANDs are more forward and lively. They are both very detailed IEMs and about the same when it comes to imaging. The main issue that me and my audiophile friend noticed with the Solaris X (using an AK SE100 DAP as the source) is the trebles are recessed a bit, they’re still there but we would have liked it if AK / Campfire would have added some more treble – but this might have been AK’s goal all along is to create a more smoother presentation as I’ve never tried the original Solaris. The TSMRs (and maybe the Michelles too from memory) definitely have more prominent treble and are a nice balanced pair of IEMs overall but I find the TSMRs trebles can even be overextended a bit and if the volume is turned up can become slightly sibilant as well. The Solaris X never has those issues and of course in Campfire tradition are easily amongst the most sensitive IEMs on the market, but because of the laid back delivery I have a hard time believing they will ever get harsh even at higher volumes. Note that the stock cable that comes with these are pretty nice and sell separately for $200 by themselves. My friend doesn’t think the Solaris X is necessarily better than the TSMR LANDs or his FLC8s (Chinese IEM from 10 years ago), and thinks his Noble K10s are more neutral, but personally I do prefer the relaxed and warm sound signature of the Solaris X a bit more than the Michelles or LANDs. I have not tried the FLC8s or the Noble K10s that my friend talks highly about so I cannot comment on those.”

Edit: Upgraded to the Hiby RS6 DAP because I was very interested in its unique R2R DAC architecture, which is very different from the traditional delta-sigma DACs used by Cirrus Logic, AKM and ESS. And it’s also the fastest DAP on the market UI wise (maybe only the FiiO M11 Limited can compare) compared to the much slower AK interface. And it has support for Android apps and LDAC. So yeah went for this over the AK. It retails for $1400 MSRP but got it for $1260 meaning I paid $260 premium for this over the AK SE100s. 

Edit: I also upgraded to the Noble Khans which were a nice improvement to the AK Campfire Solaris X because I felt the Solaris X was a bit too mid dominant, and the Khans are just much more balanced. The Solaris X has nice detailed mids, but the Khans have that AND add in much improved treble and bass presence as well. Of course, the MRSP of the Khans were $2400, and I paid $1700 for them, that’s a premium of $500 over the Solaris X.

So far, this is the most expensive and the best sounding IEM me and my friend have ever heard. It’s balanced on the trebles, mids and bass. Nothing is too excessive or recessive. The mids might be the most prominent but its not too forward sounding and done tastefully right. Compared to my AK/Campfire Solaris X, the biggest difference I notice is the Khans having better bass extension and much better treble extension whereas the Solaris X was very mid forward, the Khans just has everything in the right amount. Props to Noble.

Edit #2: I downgraded a bit from the Noble Khans to the ThieAudio Monarch MKIIs which I think are not quite as good as the Khans but definitely still better than the Solaris X and for $1000 much cheaper than the Khans. 

So I went from a setup with AK SE100 + AK/Campfire Solaris X (MSRP $3200, got for $2200) to a Hiby RS6 + Noble Khans (MSRP $3800, got for $3000) to Hiby RS6 + Thieaudio Monarch MKII (MSRP $2400, got for $2200). Although the Hiby+Thieaudio setup is around the same price as the AK+Campfire setup, I like it a lot better. The Hiby interface is much more usable, sounds just as good as the AKs did, and the Thieaudio’s are more balanced sounding than the mid-forward Solaris X.

Total cost of portable audio setup: $2200 ($1200 Hiby RS6 + $1000 Thieaudio Monarch MKII)

I also decided to get a pair of over ear closed back headphones (Focal Elegia, MSRP $900, got for $315) as well as a pair of wireless earbuds (Master&Dynamic MW08, MSRP $300, got for $130) for portable use. I’m planning to use the Thieaudio IEMs when I normally go outside, but the M&D earbuds for easy listening with my laptop without disturbing anyone, and the Focals for traveling on a plane or train or long trips. 

Alright, shopping done. That’s a lot of money spent, but I felt like because I’m an ‘audiophile’ these were actually upgrades years in the making that needed to be done…



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