2021 Portable Audio Buyer’s Guide

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The Headphone List is always reviewing high-quality audio gear, and it is that time of year again to let you know our recommendations of the best audio gear heading into 2021, providing the best value at various price ranges. These hand-picked in-ear monitors, both universal and custom, headphones, source equipment, and accessories selections are can’t miss items that will add to any collection or be a great entry into the world of hi-fi audio. As an added bonus, we included a can’t miss speaker!

Want to find out more? Reviews are linked, when available, as some of the listed product reviews are still in the works, expected in Q1 or Q2 of 2021. But rest assured, the entries sans reviews are still worthy and we will be happy to answer specific questions you may have.

In-Ear Monitors (IEM) and Headphones

Under $500

Fiio FH3 Earphone ($129): Cracking clean and dynamic sound from an affordable hybrid. Recommended by Ryan Soo | Launch Announcement

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon

1More ANC True Wireless Bluetooth Earphone ($179): A detailed and exciting TWS earphone with an effective adjustable ANC that doesn’t break the bank.  Recommended by Ryan Soo

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon

LEAR LCM-Skyline Custom In-Ear Monitor (HK$1,488; ~$190 USD): The LCM-Skyline from LEAR is one of the most affordable pieces in my arsenal, and one heck of a gateway into the world of custom IEMs. Its warm, bulbous sound is a treat for lovers of jazz and lounge music. And, LEAR’s superb customization will give you options for days on end. If you’ve always had cold feet jumping into the realm of CIEMs, LEAR’s LCM-Skyline is as good a first go as it is a worthwhile keep. Recommended by Deezel

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy

Penon ORB Earphone ($259): One of the most unique sounding IEM of this year. Let it be the organic toanlity, thumpy and deep lower end or natural and fatigue free listening, the ORB is simple fantastic. Recommended by Suman Sourav Meher | Review

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy

DUNU DK2001 Earphone ($299): Fun, full, and grand-sounding IEM on a budget. No big compromises are made with sound quality and the stock cable is excellent. Recommended by Suman Sourav Meher | Review

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Music Teck

Audiofly AF140MK2 Earphone ($249.99): Not only is Audiofly’s three-driver hybrid a massive bang for the buck, but it’s also one of the most well-tuned, bass-emphasized IEMs I’ve heard in its price bracket. Complete with an ergonomic silhouette and stacked accessories set, it’s comfortably my no. 1, audio, Christmas buy, whether you’re looking for your first pair of top-quality monitors, or a veteran after a casual, yet natural-sounding everyday-carry. Recommended by Deezel | Review

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon

Moondrop Blessing 2 Earphone ($319): Harman target tuning and a technically impressive driver setup at an accessible price. Recommended by Ryan Soo

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Apos Audio

Audeze LCD-1 Headphone ($399): Comfortable, coherent, and balanced planar at a reasonable price. Recommended by Ryan Soo

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Apos Audio | Buy on Amazon

Jomo Percussion 3 Earphone ($449): A prime example of what a simple hybrid system is capable of. Thumpy bass, natural midrange, and sparkly treble with a W shaped sound. Excellent for those who want a fun sounding IEM for around $500. Recommended by Suman Sourav Meher | Review

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy

Ollo S4X Headphone ($490): An elegant and classic looking headphone meant of monitoring purposes has one of the best accuracy and details. This is the headphone to beat for under $500. Recommended by Suman Sourav Meher | Review

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon UK

ADV. M5-TWS Custom Bluetooth In-Ear Monitor ($499): We’ve fans of innovation here on THL, but if you’re passionate about sound quality, I’m sure the TWS form factor has been something to avoid. Enter the ADV. M5-TWS Custom, featuring a reference-leaning tuning and 3D printed, custom design. It currently lies at the pinnacle of TWS sound quality, tuning, and fit, but expect to pay a hefty premium to obtain it. Recommended by Ryan Soo | M5 Universal Review

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy


$501 – $999

Dunu SA6 Earphone ($549.99): Dunu’s BA lineup has a praiseworthy flagship with a tuning switch. Unless you are a very analytical listener, keep the switch on and enjoy excellent details and clarity without compromising on anything let it be sound, fit, accessories or cable. Recommended by Suman Sourav Meher

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon

itsfit Lab Fusion Custom In-Ear Monitor ($950): One of the year’s breakout stars, itsfit Lab’s Fusion remains one of the most technically-capable in-ears I’ve heard in the sub-$1000 category. It’s fun, dybamic signature and stellar imaging will make it a thrilling listen for most. And, itsfit’s outstanding cosmetics and build complete the package excellently. Those after a crisp, airy sound with separation in spades will find little to fault in itsfit’s Lab flagship. Recommended by Deezel | Review

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy


Above $1K

Avara EST-6 Earphone ($1,100): Masterful timbre and tone while undercutting most competitors. Recommended by Ryan Soo | Review | Review by Deezel

Manufacturer’s Page | Authorized Dealers

Ultrasone Edition M Plus Headphone ($1,150): Small, lightweight, yet perfectly durable, with true audiophile clarity. Edition M Plus is the entire package for reference-grade, portable monitors. Recommended by Pinky Powers

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon

Custom Art FIBAE 7 Custom In-Ear Monitor (4,400 zł; ~$1,190): Yet another giant-challenger beneath the $2000 price tier. The in-ear’s warm, yet refined sound ensures smooth, organic, yet clean listening. And, the company’s signature FIBAE tech ensures a consistent tonality across all listening devices too. The FIBAE 7 is a top pick if you like your in-ears smooth, full, yet airy, with good oomph in midrange presence too. Recommended by Deezel | Review

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy

Metal Magic Research Gáe Bolg Earphone ($1,199): MMR’s newly-released Gáe Bolg is in contention to be one of 2020’s top everyday-carry IEMs. With a warm, full-bodied and well-layered sound, as well as an aesthetic and build quality to die for, the Gáe Bolg is a great versatile pick if rich, smooth, yet precise listening is your kind of jam. Recommended by Deezel

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy

Campfire Audio Solaris 2020 Earphone ($1,499): Balanced and highly resolving hybrid with a gorgeous design that fixes complaints about the original. Recommended by Ryan Soo | Review

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy

Vision Ears EVE 20 In-Ear Monitor (€1,300, ~$1,580): The window’s closing on Vision Ears’ punchy, intimate and engrossing EVE 20 universal IEMs. The first in the Exclusive Vision Ears line-up, the six-driver packs guttural, rumbling lows, warm, enveloping vocals and an articulate, well-curbed treble within its appropriately-Christmas-y, red-and-green shells. Again, it’ll only be available ‘til the end of 2020, so don’t hesitate to give it a go if it sounds like the in-ear for you. Recommended by Deezel | Review

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy

Metal Magic Research Homunculus Earphone ($1,699): Smooth, airy, rich, and wholesome… and built like a tank. Homunculus is a remarkable, top-grade IEM with a brilliant balance of musicality and neutrality. Recommended by Pinky Powers | Review

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy

HEDD HEDDphone Headphone ($1,899): One of the most technically impressive headphones bar none with a smooth, balanced tuning on top, just watch the weight. Recommended by Ryan Soo | Review

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon


Speakers

Kanto Audio TUK Speakers ($799): Kanto Audio made a name for themselves with their minimalist yet feature-rich designs. The TUK is the current flagship of their speaker range and by far both their most sonically accomplished and visually distinct model yet. It sports AMT tweeters and Alu woofers to create a highly resolving, extended sound for great musical enjoyment. Add on extensive connectivity, an integrated preamp, and the latest BT standards and you certainly have a winner! Recommended by Ryan Soo

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon


Portable Source Gear

Radsone EarStudio HUD100 mk2 DAC/Amp ($90): One of the clearest and highest detailed sounding DAC/Amp which can be used with mobile phones and PCs. Easy to carry around. Recommended by Suman Sourav Meher | Review

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon

Cozoy TAKT C DAC & Headphone Amp ($115): Cozoy’s TAKT C is a superb little dongle that’ll boost your on-the-go audio without much of a hassle or cost. The clean, neutral audio it provides is sure to work well with your in-ear of choice, and its solid, CNC-aluminium chassis is sure to survive the hustle-and-bustle of everyday life without a fuss. Recommended by Deezel | Review

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon

Lotoo PAW S1 USB DAC/Amp ($165): The Lotoo PAW S1 is a USB DAC/amp, elevated. In addition to all the features you’d expect from a high-end USB DAC/amp, it throws in an OLED display, a balanced output, a gain switch, a selection of 16 EQ presets, and a detachable cable system as well. With the optional Lightning cable attachment and upcoming MQA support, the S1 is truly more than just a dongle. Recommended by Deezel

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon

Earmen Sparrow USB DAC/Amp ($199): An excellent sounding portable USB DAC/Amp with a lot of power and details. Recommended by Suman Sourav Meher

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy

Earmen TR-amp DAC/Amp ($249): An excellent sounding DAC/AMP for transportable multipurpose use. Lovely tonality with up to the mark details. Recommended by Suman Sourav Meher | Review

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Moon Audio

Cayin N3Pro Digital Audio Player (DAP) ($459): Feature-rich, compact, awesome sound, and vacuum tubes! This is the coolest DAP I’ve seen in this price range. Recommended by Pinky Powers

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon

Shanling M6 Digital Audio Player (DAP) ($499): One of the most neutral sounding DAPs in the market with open source android. It can do all that an android device can do without compromising on sound. If Neutrality is the main focus, the M6 is the one to get. Recommended by Suman Sourav Meher | Review

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Apos Audio

Lotoo PAW 6000 Digital Audio Player (DAP) ($1,200): Though Lotoo found fame with their pricier PAW Gold and PAW Gold Touch flagship DAPs, they arguably found their breakout star earlier this year in their bang-for-the-buck PAW 6000 audio player. Featuring trickle-downs from their top-of-the-line model like the lightning-fast LTOS, the aluminium-alloy chassis, a 4.4mm output, and Lotoo’s superb tuning, Lotoo’s PAW 6000 is about as close a value-buy as high-end DAPs can get. Recommended by Deezel

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on MusicTeck

Cayin N6ii Digital Audio Player (DAP) ($1,320): Whichever module you go with, you will achieve audio nirvana. But for Pinky, the E02 module stands as the current pinnacle and is his reference player. Recommended by Pinky Powers

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Amazon


Desktop Source Equipment

Topping L30 Headphone Amp ($139): Topping cemented themselves as masters of objective audio when they released their NFCA-based A90 that topped SNR charts around the globe. The same technology can now be had at a vastly cheaper price in the form of the L30. That means, excellent driving power, a black noise-floor, and low OI for versatile driving power for all of your gear big and small! Recommended by Ryan Soo | Review

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Apos Audio

SMSL SP200 Headphone Amp ($289.99): Unquestionably SMSL’s breakout star this year, the SP200 is a no-frills, no-nonsense, THX-equipped amp that’s truly got it where it counts. It’s built exquisitely from front to back with an open pick of I/O. And, it’s got a crisp, clean, versatile signature to boot. For the price, SMSL’s SP200 is a stalwart-to-be in the desktop amp category, and it’s a stellar buy if you’re looking for one of your own this holiday season. Recommended by Deezel

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Apos Audio

SMSL M500 DAC ($399.99): The M500 from SMSL balances value and class incredibly well. At $400, the DAC/amp features a gorgeous, CNC-aluminium body, an LCD display, remote control functionality and a clean, powerful sound as well. Again, it’s one of the best-valued desktop sources you can get this year, and it’ll fit any clean, minimalist set-up seamlessly too. Recommended by Deezel

Manufacturer’s Page | Buy on Apos Audio


Accessories

FiR Audio The Headphone VAC Vacuum ($149): Highly praised industry-wide, the Headphone VAC is a must-have for any, serious in-ear collector. With its powerful vacuum motor and variety of tips, it’ll keep all sorts of debris out of your IEMs, and ensure factory-new performance for years to come. Recommended by Deezel | Review

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy

FiR Audio Cable Tester ($149): Take the guess work out of in-ear troubleshooting with FiR Audio’s Cable Tester. Whether it be intermittent cut-outs or channel imbalance, it’ll let you swiftly determine the culprit and, thus, which component to send in for repair. And, its compatibility with a wide range of plugs adds great versatility too. Recommended by Deezel | Review

Manufacturer’s Page / Buy


Let us know your thoughts and/or how this helped you with your buying decisions. Using the included affiliate links helps keep THL going. If there is no review linked, there is one in the works!

Happy Holidays from the THL team!

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About Author

Having a life-long love of high-quality audio and gadgets, average_joe got back in touch with his audiophile side after a hiatus caused by life. His focus became headphones and related gear as the size and price fit his life better than home audio. He believes the entire audio chain is important, and likes to continue to think past the headphone and on into the head, as he believes understanding the details of how we hear will lead to a better audio experience.

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