I love "cost is no object" high-end audio, but I'm equally passionate about finding audio bargains. I try to review as much cheap stuff as I can, and my readers and friends are always on the lookout for outstanding gear. Here's a Top 10 list of great-sounding audio products, and most selections are priced under $100.
The Tivoli Audio PAL is a tiny audiophile-grade table radio, and I've had my PAL for going on 10 years, and still use it every day. At $219.99, it's not cheap, but it's worth it. (It's also known as the "iPAL" -- which just means that it includes a small patch cable for connecting any iPod or phone to the
Great-sounding under-$100 phono cartridges are hard to find, but Tone Audio's Jeff Dorgay turned me on to the Shure M97xE. Dorgay knows his way around super-high-end cartridges, so if he loves this one, it must be good.
Parasound Zphono Phono Preamplifier
If you're getting serious about getting the best sound from LPs, you need a high-performance phono preamplifier, like the Parasound Zphono ($200). It'll work with any receiver or amp and give you a whole new appreciation of how good LPs can sound.
Koss PortaPro On-Ear Headphones
Koss has been making the PortaPro headphones since 1984, and they're still selling in big numbers. Listen and you'll know why: They sound great, they're comfortable, and at $49.95, they're inexpensive.
Apparently, the designers at Fluance think different. Most $600 docks are made out of plastic, but Fluance makes its FiSDK500 iPod speaker out of wood, and the company makes it sound good enough to stick around and become my "reference" iPod dock. 'Nuff said. It's $229.99.
Judging by the number of e-mails I get from readers championing the Klipsch Image S4, this in-ear headphone ($79 or less) must be the cat's meow. I have to admit, I've never used them, but I've loved so many other Klipsches. It was the first speaker company to really make a headphone with mass appeal. In addition to the original S4s, these Klipsch in-ear headphones are also available in $99 headset (with microphone) versions optimized for the iPhone/iPod (S4i) and Android phones (S4A).
My friend and headphone guru Tyll Hertsens at Inner Fidelity gave an enthusiastic thumbs up to the $99.99 Creative Aurvana Live, saying, "The sound quality from these cans is terrific, delivering lively highs, potent bass, and good balance overall. They are bound to satisfy many listeners with their happy sound." CNET's David Carnoy has since agreed.
Hifiman Express HM-101 USB Digital-to-Analog Converter and Headphone Amplifier
I wasn't expecting much from the Hifiman Express HM-101; it's just a $39 outboard USB digital-to-analog converter and headphone amplifier. Well, this tiny USB-powered (it doesn't need batteries or an AC power supply) device definitely pumped up the sound of my Audio Technica ATH-M50 headphones and Audioengine A 2 speakers.
This is a $99 tube preamplifier kit, and it's very cool. It's also superbasic, and Bottlehead claims it's ideal as a "starter" kit, and goes together, well, quickly. My friend Brent Butterworth at Sound & Vision magazine built it and loves the sound.
Blue Jeans Speaker Cables
I know a lot of people don't believe cables can make a difference in the sound of a hi-fi, but I do. Blue Jeans sells good-quality cheap cables and it can weld (not solder or crimp) banana plugs or spade connectors to speaker cables. Prices start at 99 cents a foot for wire, and banana plug prices start at $2.25 a pair.
Looking for more headphone deals?
The preceding list of top audio bargains is just a start. Check out CNET's roundups of headphones and portable Bluetooth speakers, all available for under $100.