Do you want to know what to get that special someone that loves music, has a high-end home system, and travels a lot? Audiophiles know that great gear and recordings invoke emotion and deliver an experience, but you can’t take it with you. While portable audio can’t quite recreate the amazing experience of placing live performers in front of you, but the gear listen in this guide is some of the best of the best that will get the audiophile in your life as close to the realism as possible in a convenient form factor for on the go.
This isn’t your typical gear, and some of it isn’t available at just any store, but what it does bring is impressive audio performance. The 2014 traveling audiophile holiday gift guide is a list hand picked products that stand out among the massive amount of gear we have heard and tested.
Portable headphones can sound quite good, but earphones, also known as in-ear monitors, are much more compact and offer higher performance than any headphones designed for portable use we have come across. Earphones make the biggest difference in on the go sound quality, so this is the place to start shopping for the gift of the audiophile sound.
Top of the line
Lear LUF BD4.2: This specialized earphone is available from Hong Kong and a hybrid driver setup with 2 dynamic and 4 balanced armature drivers resulting in amazingly precise yet natural sound with plenty of dynamic range and a spacious sound. An adjustment knob changes the bass from light to bone jarring. This unique design offer top of the line performance with a beautiful look, but it is large. You can get a custom look if you don’t mind the wait. $1200 from Lear Hong Kong
EarSonics S-EM6: Hailing from France, this earphone offers a warm and fun sound while still conveying micro-detail and nuances left out by all but the best audio gear. A hallmark of EarSonics is their exceptional imaging, and the S-EM6 has it in spades helping to recreate the magic of live performances and perfectly places instruments in studio recordings. $1099 at Amazon.com
EarSonics Velvet: While there are many options in the world of high-end earphones, EarSonics performance for the price is top-notch, earning another entry for the just released Velvet. Offering exceptional sound with fantastic detail for an immersive experience, the Velvet adds the ability to change the tuning with a dial, going from accentuated bass and treble to neutral to a midrange focus: perfect for adjusting the sound to the music or preference. This versatile earphone, while not having the resolution or quite the level of realism of the above two earphones, is an excellent choice for a gift due to the ability to change the sound signature. $749 at Amazon.com
EarSonics SM64: Taking after the S-EM6 in many ways, the SM64 is a high-performance earphone that is on the warmer side with a fun sound signature that doesn’t have any real competition in the price range. More of the same creamy goodness from France, and while the detail level and precision doesn’t compare with the Velvet and S-EM6, the sound is still special and annihilates stock ear buds and just about any other consumer earphone in the market! $449 at Amazon.com
StageDiver 2: With a smooth-sounding in-ear that has very good end-to-end extension and a slightly warmer than neutral tonal character. It makes for a great upgrade for several popular mid-range IEMs such as the HiFiMan RE-400 and TDK BA200. The custom-come-universal housings can be a bit big for some but a smaller variant, the StageDiver 2S, is meant to remedy the problem for those with smaller ears. $449 at ALO Audio
Sure, a phone can play music back, but phones just don’t power high-end earphones well and play high-resolution music. This short list of media players consists of two at quite different price ranges that stand out from others when considering performance, ease of use perspective, and portability.
iBasso DX90: With the ability to play high-resolution music in just about any format as a stand-alone player or from a computer, over 8 hour battery life, and one of the best digital to audio conversion chips (DAC) available, the DX90 packs a lot into a small size. While performance isn’t as good as the AK240 or the iBasso DX100, combining the DX90 with a quality interconnect cable such as the Effect Studio Piccalono and a quality portable amp such as the Portaphile Micro with MUSE 2 op amps makes for a killer modular setup. $359 at Amazon.com, $479 with 128Gb memory card and premium leather case
Astel & Kern AK240: Improving upon the AK120, the larger AK240 is the ultimate in portable media players with a complete feature set, one of the best user interfaces we at THL have used, and of course excellent sound that doesn’t typically need an amp. Sure it is pricey, but there is nothing else with this combination of ease of use, elegence, sound quality, memory capability, and battery life. $2199 at Amazon.com with 128GB memory card, optical audio connection kit, and premium leather case
How do you make a portable media player better? Add an external amp of course. This isn’t about power, but control, and these two amps both offer something different, but uniquely special for on-the-go use.
Portaphile Micro with MUSE2 op amps: This small amp packs a punch and is designed to work with high-sensitivity earphones. Sure, the battery life isn’t the best, but easy USB charging from the readily available high-power ports and exceptional sound make this an excellent choice for keeping your portable device small and sounding amazing. While I haven’t yet completed my review, it is none the less a staple in my best system setups. $499 + $50 for the Muse 2 op amps at portaphile.com (special $50 Black Friday discount)
ADL X1: Hailing from Japan, the ADL X1 is a portable DAC/amp that conveys detail, power, and punch, but the true magic is just how musical the presentation is, adding life rarely heard in portable gear. The DAC section works with computers and phones, improving the experience with any playback device. $479 from Amazon.com
With regular gear, cables are more art that substance, but audiophiles know cables can bring out that little something special in top-end gear resulting in better recreation of the nuances that add to the emotion and realism of music. Cables are an excellent add on for peak performance.
Whiplash Audio – Designed for any of the in-ear monitors (earphones) listed above, the bulky TWag v3 & TWcu v3 Hybrid IEM replacement cable ($550) sounds extremely impressive by tightening up the bass and adding clarity to go with the rich look while the TWau Reference Gold IEM replacement cable ($525) offers a great ergonomic feel, a more refined and better controlled sound, and impressive looks. For connecting a player to an amp, the Reference Mini-Mini ($280) is an excellent choice to get the most out of your players.
Effect Studio – The Thor Silver IEM upgrade cable ($190) fits all the in-ear monitors (earphones) listed above and provides exceptional performance for the price, not to mention the classy look. The Picconlino interconnect cable ($200) improves systems performance for components that need to be connected such as a media player and amplifier.
i just got f11 on thursday, but so far it sounds great, still try burning it in.
i should listen to you, i got the acrylic instead of
of the silicone. Maybe I’m not use to wearing a CIEM. I feel like it loose up whenever i move my mouth.
On the portable amp, the f-35 lightning amp by Ray Samuels, have you heard of it. i was wandering your thought on it compare to the Micro.
How do you like the Fusion 11? Are you talking about the RSA F-35 as I am not sure who makes a F-35 DAC.
i got my Perfect seal fusion 11, i am looking at getting a DAC. I am thinking about the Portaphile Micro paired with IBasso x90.
i am also looking at the F-35 DAC(have you tried this one), both at same price. which one would pair well with my fusion 11 and Ibasso, in your opion.
I really appreciate your advice.
Looking forward to your Velvet review 🙂
The X1 does hiss with the Velvet as can easily be heard by unplugging the Velvet from the X1 with no music playing, but the level of hiss to my ears isn’t bothersome at all normally. However, hiss is a personal thing as the tolerance to hiss varies person to person.
Will you hear a difference from the iPhone 6 and AK120? I think there is a relatively large difference between the iPhone 5 and AK120, even with the X1 as the iPhone 5, regardless of the bit rate, just isn’t as resolving as the AK120. I am not sure why, but the X1 isn’t as good with the iPhone 5 as when the X1 is used as a stand-alone DAC.
Thanks for the reply Joe.
The AK120 does sound like a more convenient option despite having a source + amp combo producing better sound.
While the AK120 plus the X1 would sound like a killer system, my pockets aren’t deep enough :s
Would you know whether the X1 would produce hiss with the Velvets?
Another question for me to consider would be whether 320kbs files sound better on the AK120? or would they sound essentially the same on the iphone 6 plus, as I’d imagine the differences would only be discernible with lossless files like FLAC.
Hi James, thanks for the questions. The AK120 is better from an ease of use standpoint while the DX90 + Portaphile Micro combo sounds better, especially across a wide range of headphones. The X1 can be interchanged if you already have it, and while I love the X1, it does have hiss with some of my CIEMs, which is why the Micro was recommended.
You could always pair the AK120 with the X1 for a really killer system as the AK120 DAC is slightly better than the DX90 DAC.
Let me know if you have any additional questions.
Awesome guide btw!
I was just considering getting the AK120, as current prices are not too bad, and your past review highly recommended it.
However with that amount, it’s possible to purchase the ibasso dx90 plus a recommended amp (e.g.portaphile micro)
Would the AK120 sound equal to the source and amp combo? Or would it be better in terms on convenience to opt for the overall package of the AK120?
You also recommended pairings with the portaphile for the dx90 rather than the ADL X1. Is that because that combination runs better?
I currently use an iphone 6 plus, so the ADL X1 seems to be a good option.
I would be using them with my soon to arrive Velvets.
Nothing like some french velvet for that special someone.