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From zero to great sound on the go in $40

Just thought I’d share my recent thoughts on bang-for-the-buck portable audio and answer the simple question – is it possible to spend next to nothing on a complete audio chain and still have pretty good sound?

Sansa Clip Zip

I was recently involved in an argument with my friend, who is convinced that his iPod Nano (latest gen), used with apple iBuds, of course, is a great-sounding “budget” setup. Well, I consider the $150 he paid to be quite a lot of money for something that sounds, in my opinion, mediocre. Obviously the question had to be asked: how much could I beat that by and still have something that sounds better for casual listening?

The point wasn’t to match the iPod feature-for-feature. The emphasis here was only on the sound quality per dollar, as my friend does not use any of the features anyway and only has a few hundred songs on the Nano. Here’s what I came up with:

4Gb Sansa Clip Zip, refurbished. $29.98 on ebay

Xiaomi Piston 3 Youth Edition, $7.99 shipped from

Bonus points for getting both in white.

I used the above rig as my primary setup for several days, and I can say that I enjoyed every second of it. I never felt like a huge chunk of the music was missing like I did when I listened to my iPhone 6 with stock EarPods for a day. Yes, it might be harsh and lacking in detail and extension compared to even my everyday “grab-and-go” setup (iPhone 6 and Xiaomi Crystals), but it is still hugely enjoyable with better bass, separation, and even soundstaging compared to the EarPods – and all at just about 1/4 of the cost. If I ever needed money so badly I had to sell all the gear I have and just keep that setup, I wouldn’t be much worse off for it.

Xiaomi Piston 3 Youth Edition

I honestly think that with the above setup, one could get much, much better sound than what lots of people listen to. Combine that with the fact that 90% of us already have a viable mp3 player in our phones and we see that portable “Hi-Fi” (and I use the term loosely, to signify sound that had to be “Acquired” by switching out stock components) has no entry cost at all these days – one could simply skip lunch and get started in the hobby.

My complete setup comes out to less than $40, and it sounds great. As a final test I had my friend listen to it and his response, ironically, was that while mine may sound better, the stock buds on current-gen Apple products are “good enough” to save some money by not replacing them.

Yes, people often say that hi-fi as a hobby is a terrible drain on the wallet. But thanks to knowing where to look and what to buy, I can enjoy wonderful tunes for under $40 total. I’d say that’s a good deal.











Olga's love of music started with her father's 200-album vinyl collection and Radiotehnika S-90 stereo system, and her love of portable Hi-Fi - with the AKG K3003 and noisy college dorms. The college dorms are gone, but the passion for headphones has remained. Luckily the other love in her life - her dog - gives headphones a wide berth so she can work in peace.


3 Responses

  1. Both Clip+ and Clip Zip are either out of stock or 2x/3x it’s original price. Does the new ones Clip Sport ($40) and Clip Jam ($32) have same SQ as that of clip+ ? Will I find a degrading sound quality (coming from rockboxed clip+)

    My previous Players
    Ipod Shuffle 1st Gen
    Sony NWZ-B142
    Galaxy S + Voodoo
    Fiio X3 1st Gen
    Clip+ / Clip+Rockbox

  2. Thank you!

    I had planned to keep it under $30 total but just could not find a cheaper mp3 player with good reviews. I could have sworn refurbished Sandisk players were cheaper a year or two ago.

    Finding a good earphone, on the other hand, not very hard as you said! Many people would just use their phone these days if on a tight budget so that is the most important part.

  3. Welcome to THL Olga! Nice blurb

    My trusty clips (own and still use the first three generations) are the best investment I’ve made in my audio journey.
    Slap some Rockbox goodness on there and you’re dealing with a level of functionality that borders on silly. (Yes, it comes with a 213 page manual)
    But like the FLC8 you choose the bits you like and stick to it. Personalized simplicity.

    It’s not that easy (relatively) to find really crap sounding IEMs nowadays(I’m sure ljokerl would agree). The budget segment has been learning and a very healthy price:performance competition has delivered quite a few IEMs (like the Piston 3/Titan1/RE400/Ostry) that really do make us stop and think “I could actually live with this”

    It’s a great time for personal audio. Budget IEMs that aim higher but cost lower, the ongoing DAP war, interesting IEM deigns, tuning systems, expanding accessory lists, better availability, more direct involvement with the community. And THL to help us experience it all 🙂

    PS: The xDuoo X2 is also a great little player at the same price. FiiO is coming out with the M3 aimed squarely at the nano and Sansa clip.

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