Editor’s Choice Under $500 – AudioStream 2019

2019 was a year that saw the further growth of digital audio as it continued to be embraced by streaming platforms for mass-market consumption. There’s plenty of upshot for audiophiles from this, not the least of which is the burgeoning budget DAC and digital-convenience sector crossover boom that the hobby is experiencing.

With that said, here are AudioStream’s Editor’s Choice in the Under $500 USD category. Look for picks in the $500 – $2,500 USD and Over $2,500 USD categories still to come.

$500 USD and Under

The Roon Labs digital music player application – $119 USD for a year membership

If you’ve got a laptop, iPhone, Android device, Mac or PC and you’re into serious streaming music services like TIDAL or Qobuz that cater to the high-res audiophile crowd (16-bit/44.1kHz or better), then Roon is going to take your digital-audio listening experience to a previously unimagined level of interaction, convenience, education and enjoyment. Listening to TIDAL or Qobuz off your laptop and their apps or via web browser? Cool. Link those accounts to Roon and add whatever locally-stored high-res downloads, CD rips or even mp3 files you picked up along the road of life and kick back to see what all the fuss is about, because I can tell you once go Roon it’s alomost impossible to go back. With algorithm music suggestions more on par with what your best friend would recommend to you and high-quality radio services, Roon not only gives you the most feature and visually-rich browsing experience for digital music that’s currently available, it makes you feel like computers really do get you.

The Ifi Zen DAC – $129 USD

Whether you’re primarily a speaker listener looking for a nifty DAC/Amp to use with headphones or get a basic digital setup running, or are a headphone enthusiast looking for a cheap, transportable solution, the new Zen series from iFi is an excellent choice. The Headphone amp is powerful enough for most headphones you’d want to take with you, and includes a 4.4mm pentaconn connector for a little extra juice and true balanced goodness. The DAC is surprisingly capable for a unit of this price, and has a sweetness that you’ll find with a lot of other iFi gear. At this price point something that’s not harsh or overly digital sounding with a competent headamp is really hard to argue with. And if you’re on a tight budget and this is your only unit, it really does run a wide variety of headphones very nicely. Add in a few extra features like Xbass processing and this is a lot of value in a little package.

Google Home Mini – $29 USD

My son spends more time talking with his Google Home Mini then me when it’s university exam time. I don’t take it personally, he’s trying to maintain focus and get the work done, and dealing people is far more time-consuming than dealing with AI, but it’s also been a machine-learning moment for me. While I may be cutting edge in my high-fidelity technology, I’m well behind the curve when it comes to basic consumer tech like ‘Hey Google,’ Siri or Alexa. I just don’t use them that often. Perhaps it’s because I’m trying to keep life more analog in my digitally-drenched world, but it’s hard to argue with Smart TVs, refrigerators, home heating systems, or voice-activated all-in-one music systems. I think 2020 will be the year the Google Home Mini finally finds it’s way into my personal lexicon.

The Soekris 1321 DAC – $499 USD

Heard about the recent craze for R2R DACs (Ladder DAC) but not sure if you want to dip your toes in the multi-thousand dollar realm of high-end DACs? Soekris is a great introduction to what many think of as the ‘R2R sound.’ It’s on the warm and soft side, but it has a kind of inner depth and pleasing, fatigue-free top end. You may enjoy greater dynamics form higher up the Soekris lineup, but this unit is excellent for the price, and does well in both headphone and speaker setups. There’s a December 2019 sale going on currently as well, so it’s even easier to give this unit a try.

The Vibrapod Cone – $32 USD for a set of four

Isolation. Not the Joy Division song (a favorite), but rather, the act of separating something from its surroundings. This happens in various degrees and manners with high-fidelity and in my experience digital-audio equipment like DACs, servers, streamers or even routers (along with phono stages for the analog minded) benefit the most from not only electronic and RF isolation, but vibrational isolation as well. Enter the Vibrapod Cone. At around $8 a piece, grab four and throw theses under your delicate electronic equipment and see for yourself what a difference a minimum of vibrational isolation can make in allowing your gear to let more music through to your ears. There are much more expensive alternatives, but if you’re looking to see if spending any cash on this type of isolation is worthwhile, then try Vibrapods.

AudioEngine B1 Bluetooth Receiver – $189

I see most Bluetooth products as the sonic equivalent of a modern-day Aux cable. This one is for those times when you’re feeling just plain lazy, or have guests who’d like to play music on your system. Yes, those may be words of audiophile sacrilege, but for those who’d like a straight-forward plug-and-play wireless solution, it doesn’t get a whole lot cheaper than this without trading reliability for price. The internal DAC won’t wow you on this unit, but it’s Bluetooth. You don’t use Bluetooth because it’s high-rez, you use it because it’s convenient. it has optical and analog, and there’s something to be said for such bare bones implementation, as you can’t really break or screw-up anything. It’s a small victory, but this keeps my well-meaning but distinctly non-audiophile roommate from playing Spotify through our wifi-enabled refrigerator or Chromebook speakers, while also leaving my DAC and digital setup unmolested. No, I’m not joking but I wish I was.

Everclear's picture

iFi Zen DAC/headphone amp ($129) probably deserves 'product of the year (ear?) award' in both Inner/Fidelity and AudioStream :-) ........