From headphones to soundbars to subwoofers to software, CNET's audio expert shares his favorite gear for half a grand (or less).
We're all under more stress and spending a lot of time at home, and nothing eases the mind like some new music. But what if you want those tunes to sound seriously better? If you're looking to give your ears and soul a real treat during these troubled times, there's no better investment than upgraded audio.
Here, I've chosen audio products that represent the best of their respective categories under $500, with a heavy focus on sound quality. They include my favorite headphones, music players, receivers, speakers and more, and many of them cost way less than half a grand. I'll update this as I review new products. Enjoy.
Read more: Best Wi-Fi speakers of 2020
The Yamaha YAS-209 is the best-sounding smart soundbar I've heard yet. It performs equally well with movies and music, and the provision of HDMI ports and the ability to command Alexa along the way seal the deal.
Originally manufactured as the high-end Sennheiser HD 650, this $195 Drop-exclusive update brings the audiophile-friendly headphone to a more affordable level. The sound is smooth, yet still detailed and with plenty of bass, and the fit is crazy-comfortable. The HD 6XX would make a great addition to your home theater -- watching TV with these is like nothing I've experienced before, as the sound stage is so lifelike. The only thing to note is that they'll need a good headphone amp or high-end receiver to make the most of them. It pairs exceptionally well with the $175 Massdrop X Alex Cavalli Tube Hybrid Amp.
If you want a set of detailed speakers for not very much money, it's a toss-up between the Q Acoustics 3030i and the Elac Debut 2.0 B6.2. The Q Acoustics get a slight edge because they are a little more tolerant of budget equipment. Pair these speakers with the system of your choice and they will last you a decade or more.
With its excellent feature set, solid build and winning sound, the Pro-Ject Debut Carbon Evo is the turntable to buy for under $500. A great record player for the money.
The Sony STR-DN1080 is a former CNET Editors' Choice winner. It offers pretty much every feature you want from a modern audio hub -- Chromecast, Atmos, Bluetooth -- and it sounds great too. At the moment it's $130 cheaper than our current Editors' Choice, the Onkyo TX-NR696, and better still it's actually in stock..
I've written a lot about the Sonos One, it's a great little speaker, but things get even better when you pair two together. If you have a single One, adding a second is the most cost-effective upgrade you can make: The sound is bigger and the bass is punchier. Add in Alexa and Google Assistant capability plus a great app and you have a fully formed, easy-to-use system. (Note that pricing below is for a single speaker.)
I've used a lot of subwoofers in my time, but nothing has so far matched SVS in terms of value for money. I use the larger SB-4000 as part of the CNET test system, but the SB-1000 is a great little sub for what you pay. It's compact and offers satisfyingly deep bass for both movies and music. It makes a great companion to single soundbars with a sub out connection too.
If there's one audio product I use every single day it's Roon. It's a multiroom controller, desktop player, music collection aggregator and a music discovery service all in one, and it's excellent. Whether it's listening to music at work, testing a new audio component or putting sleep sounds on for my kid, I'm using Roon. It has gorgeous design and a high level of customization. It combines the contents of your NAS, iTunes and Tidal or Qobuz libraries and streams them to whichever wireless speakers you have -- Chromecast built-in, Sonos, Apple AirPlay or Roon Ready. Sure, at $120 a year the software costs more than any other comparable player, but that's because it's also the best.
AudioQuest makes three excellent USB DACs -- the Black, Red and Cobalt -- but as you'd expect the most expensive is also the best. It's able to drive any headphone you throw at it resulting in a powerful, confident performance. If you're working from home, it's one of the best upgrades you can make for listening to music.
It's not an audio product per se, but a universal remote improves the experience of using an AV receiver so much, it's pretty much a required accessory in my book. There are plenty of remote options out there -- Caavo, Amazon Cube -- but as a long-term Harmony user the one I like best is the Harmony Elite. Unlike the competitors it doesn't require you to rewire your system, just add a little IR hub and fire up your smartphone. It works with almost every product on the market, and it's easy to use.