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Top 10 Audiophile Upgrades for Under $300

Our top 10 audiophile upgrades for 2021 feature a variety of affordable products that we’ve used all year and merit serious consideration.

Sumiko Ranier Phono Cartridge Playing on Turntable

Affordable high-end audio is booming and that’s a very good thing for an industry that has struggled to attract new blood. You don’t have to spend a fortune on headphones, phono cartridges, Dongle DACs, or accessories to upgrade your current system or build out something new. We’ve had success with all of these audio “bargains” and think they represent excellent value for the money.

Analog Restorations Cork Platter Mats

Record Lady Platter Mat

Have you ever wondered where people on Instagram are getting those fantastic custom cork platter mats? 

There’s a company in New Jersey that makes them and how they got here is a bigger part of the story.

Most new tables come with cheap felt mats and older tables have dried up rubber mats that need to be replaced. Analog Restorations offers incredible custom cork platter mats that have ended up on thousands of platters in 2021 including 5 members of our team. They also offer cleaning wipes for your records that work really well on dirty records from garage sales and used record stores.

For more information: 10 Questions for Analog Restorations

IsoAcoustics zaZen Isolation Platform

IsoAcoustics zaZen I & II Isolation Platforms
IsoAcoustics zaZen I & II

The zaZen is a new isolation platform designed for turntables, tube amps, and other sensitive audio equipment. The combination of the platform mass and the integrated IsoAcoustics isolation technology allows audio gear to reveal greater acoustic clarity and detail. The zaZen will be available in two sizes: zaZen I with a weight capacity of 25lbs (11.3kg) and the zaZen II with a weight capacity of 40lbs (18.1kg). The zaZen features an elegant medium gloss black finish over a dense fiber construction. 

Isolation products come in many different shapes and sizes and while they certainly have an impact on the sound – the results are not always what you expected. Improvements in one area of sound reproduction are offset by a negative change elsewhere. 

We took delivery of a zaZen II platform and experimented with three turntables; a Thorens TD-145, NAD C 588, and Thorens TD-160 Super. The NAD C 588 weighs substantially less than either one of my restored Thorens tables and benefitted the most from the zaZen which lowered its noise floor, tightened up the bass response, and improved the overall transparency of the sound.

The presentation moved slightly forward with the zaZen installed which was a benefit with the Q Acoustics 3050i loudspeakers in my system.

Placed underneath both a Croft RIAA phono pre-amplifier and Naim Uniti Atom network amplifier (see review) had a very positive impact on the sound; the Croft which suffers from a tiny degree of hum was quieter than usual (I’ve always suspected that its thin metal chassis was the cause), and the Naim’s midrange was more transparent sounding. 

Is the zaZen more effective underneath lighter equipment that is more susceptible to vibration or footfalls (in the case of a turntable)? Unquestionably so. 

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For more information: IsoAcoustics zaZen Isolation Platform

Where to buy$199 / $229 at Amazon

HiFiMan HE400se Headphones

HiFiMAN HE400se Open-Back Headphone Angle
HiFiMAN HE400se

I’m slightly amazed that HiFiMan can sell the HE400se for only $150 but they also manufacture them at home in China where they have a lot more control over production costs. 

The HiFiMan HE400se feature an adjustable lightweight headband that is 100% not real leather. I have a rather large head and I’ve figured out (after 5 pairs of HiFiMan headphones) how to make them sit properly and create a decent seal. 

The earpads are comfortable for longer listening sessions and I never felt that they were allowing too much bass to leak out. I did have to wipe them down after sitting outside in the hot NJ sun but a very comfortable material for indoor listening.

The HE400se deliver the trademark midrange resolution and color that makes HiFiMan headphones so good, but not with the same degree of clarity or detail that you would find with the more expensive Sundara.

For more informationHiFiMan HE400se

Where to buy$149 at Amazon

Helm Bolt DAC

Helm BOLT Portable USB DAC/AMP Adapter

The Helm Audio Bolt is definitely my favorite Dongle DAC available. 

Not only is it very affordable, but it delivers more than enough power for a lot of entry-level audiophile headphones and it sounds very pleasing in most desktop and entry-level systems. 

The Helm Bolt is a DAC for your high-res FLAC or WAV files, and it will improve audio quality while streaming Qobuz, Tidal, Apple Music, Spotify, Amazon, and others. This tiny DAC supports playback of PCM files with sampling rates up to 384kHz, or DSD files with sampling frequencies up to 5.6MHz.

Not only is it THX-certified, but it also supports MQA and is designed with a USB-C input and 3.5mm headphone output. iOs requires a Lightning to USB Camera Adapter.

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For more informationHelm Audio Bolt DAC/Amp

Where to buy$99 at Amazon

iFi ZEN DAC V2

iFi Audio Zen DAC V2 Front
iFi Audio Zen DAC V2

Fi Audio have been introducing new products in 2021 at a rather fast clip and we’re not surprised to see an update to its best-selling ZEN Series of products. The iFi Audio ZEN DAC V2 ($159) will be of great interest to those who use Tidal and want to experience their TIDAL Masters streams in hi-res audio. 

The ZEN DAC was already an excellent DAC/Headphone Amp but the iFi Audio ZEN DAC V2 looks like a significant upgrade. It also falls below the new iFi Audio ZEN Signature ($249) lineup which was just released. 

This ZEN DAC V2 is the same award-winning hi-res USB DAC/headphone amp as before but with additional decoding power and a cleaner sounding headphone amplifier.

The iFi Audio ZEN DAC 2 also features a balanced headphone output (rare at this price point) and has more than enough power for planar magnetic headphones. 

The DAC/Headphone Amplifier has both variable/fixed output settings so you can use it with active loudspeakers or run it directly into an integrated amplifier or preamp as a stand-alone DAC.

For more informationiFi Audio ZEN DAC V2 (ifi-audio.com)

Where to buy$189 at Amazon

Goldring E3 Phono Cartridge

Goldring M3 Phono Cartridge

Some cartridges fly under the radar because the brand doesn’t get them into the hands of enough members of the press or because the price doesn’t create enough buzz in comparison to rivals. Goldring have been in business almost as long as Danish rival, Ortofon, and that puts them in rather elite company. 

The Goldring E Series are natural rivals to anything Audio-Technica and Ortofon have to offer below $180 and the E3 might best them all. I’ve been listening for the past two weeks (the E3 replaced both the Ortofon 2M Red on my NAD table) and it’s not even close. 

The E3 has an aluminum cantilever with an elliptical tip (0.3 x 0.7mil) while the base E1 model swaps the aluminum for carbon reinforced ABS and the tip for a 0.6mil spherical design.

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The E3 is impressively clean sounding at the price, with excellent pace and just enough top end energy to keep things interesting.

Unlike the 2M Red that can sound quite etched at the top, the Goldring E3 is far more balanced sounding and demonstrates better control within the grooves. This is an affordable MM cartridge that sounds quite poised with all genres of music and one that has permanently replaced the Ortofon 2M Red on my table. 

For more informationgoldring.co.uk/goldring-e3.html

Where to buy: $169 at Amazon

Grado Labs SR-80x Headphones

Grado Labs SR80x Prestige Series Open-back Headphones Angle
Grado Labs SR80x

The story of the SR80x holds a special place for not only myself, but the ears of hundreds of thousands of listeners. The first pair was built in 1991 and the SR80x is worthy of being the longest running Grado headphone.

My first pair of audiophile-quality headphones were the Grado Prestige SR-80s and I schlepped them around the globe for almost 5 years. They vanished during the Second Intifada in Israel when I had to evacuate a bus in the Negev out of fear that a terrorist was trying to board a bus in the area. 

My laptop bag was unattended for hours and when I finally got it back — the headphones were gone. I hope whomever took them enjoyed them; I had another pair in my suitcase. 

One of my complaints about the Prestige Series was that the cable would kink a lot and I constantly had to untangle it. The new Grado Prestige X headphones utilize a new cable design offering more durability and flexibility. Nylon-braided sheathing that prevents kinking and twisting.

The Grado SR80x also utilize the new 4th generation Grado 44mm drivers which are specifically tuned for the SR80x; this new speaker design features a more powerful magnetic circuit, a voice coil with decreased effective mass, and a reconfigured diaphragm.

For more informationGrado Labs Prestige X Headphones

Where to buy$125 at Amazon | Crutchfield

Andover Audio Songbird Network Player

Andover Audio Songbird HiFi Music Streamer
Andover Audio Songbird

Affordability is one of the best ways to get new people interested in high-end audio and this streamer delivers. It doesn’t do 24-bit/48.1kHz or higher but it sounds so good for the money with almost everything that who really cares. 

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The Andover Audio Songbird (review) offers high-resolution digital audio playback for the paltry sum of $149; making it one of the least expensive digital streamers available. The digital output of the Songbird is limited to 16-bit/44.1kHz so it will not pass 24-bit or higher to an external DAC.

The analog output, however, sounds better in our honest opinion and it’s what we use to listen to Qobuz or Tidal through a number of excellent integrated amplifiers. 

Another useful addition to the Songbird is the Optical TOSLINK input which users can connect to something like a Roku streaming box. 

Wireless connectivity includes support for AirPlay and Bluetooth. The Songbird does not offer gapless playback with Tidal or Qobuz just yet through its own control app. AirPlay is also limited to 16-bit/44.1kHz.

Where to buy$129 at AndoverAudio.com

Sumiko Rainier Phono Cartridge

Sumiko Rainier Phono Cartridge
Sumiko Rainier

Sumiko offers an extensive lineup of both moving coil and moving magnet cartridges; a number of models come pre-installed on Pro-Ject tables being distributed in North America and there is a lot to like about the Rainier at under $150. This 5.0mV moving magnet cartridge is in the lower tier of the range and possibly the smoothest sounding of the bunch. The Rainier has excellent channel separation and tracks exceptionally well. 

The design enables upgrading in the future to the Moonstone or Olympia stylus. The 6.5 gram weight makes it compatible with a lot of tonearms and it’s not the hardest cartridge to mount. 

For more informationsumikophonocartridges.com

Where to buy$149 at AmazonTurntable Lab

Schiit Audio Magni 3+ Headphone Amplifier

Schiit Magni 3+ Headphone Amp
Schiit Magni 3+

$99 for a discrete audiophile-grade headphone amplifier made in America. That isn’t a typo on my part but the reality in 2020 thanks to the clever folks at Schiit Audio who are based in California. The Magni 3+ is designed for your desktop; it fits easily in the palm of your hand and there is nothing little about the sonic presentation with even demanding planar magnetic headphones.

The Magni 3+ can output between 1.6 – 2.8 watts per channel (50 ohms to 16 ohms) which represents a lot of power for a pair of headphones. 

It offers very low levels of distortion and a presentation that is free of background noise. Is it the quietest headphone amplifier I’ve ever tried? No – but for $99 there is nothing in its league. It does require an external DAC like the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt or the Schiit Audio Modi 3 ($99.00) which you connect to either your smartphone or laptop. 

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The Magni 3+ does well in the boogie department and offers a level of transparency with your headphones that will make you question why you didn’t splurge on this before. This isn’t cheap audio but affordable audio that sounds way better than it should for the price. 

For more information: Schiit Audio Magni 3+

Where to buy$119 at Amazon

8 Comments

8 Comments

  1. vincent mchale

    December 21, 2021 at 5:21 pm

    Did or can you compare the Goldring E3 to the Sumiko Rainier? Thanks

    • Ian White

      December 21, 2021 at 6:41 pm

      Vincent,

      I have one incoming in January to do just that. I have both tables ready to go.

      Ian White

      • Scott Harris

        February 20, 2022 at 8:24 pm

        Thanks. I am curious as well on these two

        • Ian White

          February 20, 2022 at 8:55 pm

          Scott,

          On the Rainier and Goldring?

          The Rainier is the warmer sounding of the two cartridges. The Goldring has better pace and is definitely more transparent sounding so far.

          Best,
          Ian White

  2. Mark McCoskey

    December 30, 2021 at 9:57 pm

    After moving cross country this last summer, with only what could fit in the car (ie NO stereo), I picked up the iFi Zen DAC V2, and paired it with the Sennheiser HD 560S headphones for an under $400 system.

    I recently expanded that by using the iFi’s output to an XTZ Edge A2-300, feeding a pair of Walnut KLH Model 5’s. It’s all working quite nicely in my small beach condo.

    • Ian White

      December 30, 2021 at 10:44 pm

      Mark,

      That sounds like a cool system.

      We have a review of the KLH coming in January.

      Ian White

    • Jason

      May 10, 2022 at 3:19 pm

      Check out the Massdrop x Sennheiser HD 6xx
      I just upgraded from 560s to them, and they are only 240 bucks. They are legitimately the HD650s but 150 cheaper. And better made. Check them out for sure!

  3. Asa

    February 18, 2022 at 7:45 pm

    Glad to see Helm made your list. I’ve been using mine for the last 6 mos or so and it’s works well, especially with Tidal tracks. I use it with BD DT700 Pro cans (80 ohm), but with the 700 Pro X released at 48 ohms, I might have to try those out after Jenning’s latest review.

    Thanks for all your excellent/timely reviews.

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