Millions of Americans will be working remotely in the coming weeks and one way to make that time less stressful will be listening to music.
We have both some set-up advice and buying suggestions based on our day-to-day experience with products regardless of budget.
If you spend a lot of time listening to music via headphones there are two ways to go; either invest in a portable headphone amplifier/DAC that you can take with you when you’re not at home and want to listen to music during your commute or something more permanent that can also drive loudspeakers on your desktop.
Invest in stands. Professional recording engineers utilize desktop loudspeaker stands to angle the drivers at their ears and the impact is not subtle; bass will tighten significantly, and the music will sound more cohesive, detailed, and transparent.
A desktop audio system creates a near field listening situation; your listening position is much closer to the loudspeaker which will minimize the impact of the sound reflecting off surfaces like your desk, computer monitor, ceiling, and walls beside and behind you.
With that in mind, experiment with pointing the loudspeakers straight ahead or pointed directly at your listening positon. The tonal balance of your loudspeakers will change as you alter the degree of toe-in. Move the loudspeakers at least 1-2 feet from the side of your computer monitor to improve the solidity of the stereo image.
The Starter Setup (Under $650)
Audioengine has been one of our favorite loudspeaker brands for many years for the simple reason that they have not strayed from their mission of offering affordable high-performance loudspeakers. The HD3 Wireless are a perfect example of a wireless active loudspeaker that sounds dramatically better when hardwired to a superior sounding DAC and pre-amplifier like the Schiit Audio Modi 3 and Magni 3+; the Schiit Audio components compliment the warm presentation of the A5+ by improving the resolution, adding more detail, tightening the low end response, and improving the overall transparency of the sound. The Magni 3+ also delivers a lot of power for your headphones, has a very low noise floor and can drive high-sensitivity IEMs with zero audible noise. The Modi 3 features multiple digital inputs (USB, Coaxial, Optical) and the 24-bit/192kHz DAC will elevate the sound quality of all of your favorite streaming services like Tidal, Qobuz, or Spotify.
The Upgrade Setup (Under $1,100)
The Q Acoustics 3020i work well with a variety of amplifiers and source components making them a versatile choice for most listeners. The warm tonal balance takes the edge off poor recordings, and the slightly laid-back presentation allows you to experiment with different DACs and sources to find the sonic balance that works for you. The recessed binding posts facilitate placing them close to the wall if used on a desk and the included foam bungs can be inserted in the rear ports to turn them into a sealed design that won’t interact with the wall and excite bass nodes in your room. The AXA35 integrated amplifier has more than enough power to drive the 3020i on a desktop and the included headphone amplifier and moving magnet phono section only adds to its versatility. Where this system takes a serious step forward is when we insert the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC in-between your smartphone or laptop and turn this rig into a 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution audio system that supports MQA with streaming services like Tidal.
The Serious Setup (Under $2,700)
Wharfedale's retro-looking Linton loudspeakers have garnered a lot of attention from music lovers who love their 1970s vibe, but we think you’re better off focusing on their new EVO Series. The EVO loudspeakers have a somewhat restrained presentation which begs for something robust and dynamic sounding like the 60 watts/channel Ragnarok 2 integrated amplifier. Schiit Audio has packed a phono preamp, Multibit DAC, and world-class headphone amplifier inside of the chassis making this one of the most versatile amplifiers for your desktop or home audio system. The headphone amplifier can drive any pair of headphones available and with adjustable levels of gain, you can tweak the output to match your specific headphones.
If Cost Is No Object (Under $10,000)
Personal audio has taken gargantuan strides over the past few years with the introduction of planar magnetic headphones, and desktop headphone amplifiers designed to make them a genuine alternative to full-range high-end systems in your living room. Extraordinary planar magnetic headphones like the Meze Audio Empyrean require an amplifier that can drive them properly but also compliment their breathtaking transparency, and warm tonal balance. Get the amplifier correct and the Empyrean can transport you with your favorite music to a place inside your head that most loudspeakers only hint at.