This article will cover the different components of the hi-fi audio setup I use with my PC. The setup described below offers excellent quality audio without breaking the bank.
When building a PC based hi-fi audio setup, the following main components will be required:
- A DAC
- An Audio Switch
- A Headphone Amplifier
- Audio Cables
- Studio Monitors (Speakers)
We will now cover each of the components mentioned above for my setup.
A DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) converts digital signals that computers use to audio we can hear. A DAC is one of the most significant determining factors with regard to audio quality. Although most motherboards and laptops have onboard audio solutions, they tend to be mediocre at best, and using a dedicated DAC is the quickest way of gaining a significant bump in audio quality.
For a DAC, I selected the SMSL M100 DAC. The M100 utilises the AK4452 DAC chip and implements the XMOX 2nd generation Audio USB interface. It supports PCM signals of up to 32bit 768kHz and DSD up to DSD512.
For inputs, the M100 offers optical, USB and coaxial inputs, and for output RCA. If the DAC is not connected to the PC via USB, power will have to be provided via a USB micro power port.
The M100 is a fantastic little DAC, offering sound quality that would have cost a fortune five years ago. The M100 currently sells for $80 (USD) on Amazon.
An audio switch allows you to switch between different audio inputs and outputs, for example, selecting if you want audio to play through speakers or headphones with the flick of a switch.
For an audio switch, I use the NobSound Little Bear MC403, which is a 4 to 3 out audio switch. For input, it offers a 3.5mm jack, two sets of RCA jacks and Bluetooth, and for output, it has a 3.5mm jack and once again two sets of RCA jacks. The MC403 implements Bluetooth 4.0, and in order to use it as a Bluetooth receiver, it must be powered (5V DC). However, none of its other functionalities requires it to be powered.
It is imperative to select an Audio Switch that has complete audio line isolation. I have previously used an inexpensive switch that did not properly isolate all its audio lines, and that resulted in a great deal of line noise.
The MC403 offers excellent audio line isolation, with no noise interference between different inputs. The NobSound Little Bear MC403 sells on Amazon for around $70(USD).
For a headphone amplifier, I selected the Sabaj PHA3 Vacuum Tube Headphone Amplifier. The PHA3 utilises two 6J9 Vacuum tubes. A headphone amplifier obviously amplifies the sound delivered to the headphones (a must for high impedance headphones as the DAC will not be powerful enough to play sounds over these headphones at a reasonable level). However, an additional benefit of vacuum tube headphone amplifiers specifically is that they enrich the sound quality and widens the sound stage. The effect of Vacuum tubes on sound quality is very subjective, and it is not an effect everyone enjoys, however personally, I find it makes the audio playback sound more natural and makes the listening experience more enjoyable.
The Sabaj PHA3 Vacuum Tube Headphone Amplifier can be purchased on Amazon for around $50(USD).
Not all audio cables are made equally. There is no point in spending a fair amount on money on an audio setup and then using inexpensive low-quality cables to connect everything together, as this will have a negative effect on the overall audio quality.
I use the Seismic Audio Premium Red RCA Audio Patch Cables to connect the different parts of my setup. They are amazing quality cables that offer spring strain relief, and 24K gold plated RCA connectors. It is very difficult to explain the quality these cables offer until you hold a set of these cables in your hands and then becomes apparent why they are different from your average RCA patch cables. They are available on Amazon for around $10(USD).
I have four sets of headphones\earphones I frequently use for a variety of use cases. I have two primary headphones I use with my hi-fi setup, and they are the Samson Z55 and the Phillips SHP9500. Let us have a look at these two headphones first:
My daily use headphones are the Samson Z55 Professional Reference Headphones. They are closed-back headphones that offer best in class sound quality and excellent sound isolation. The headphones use 45mm neodymium drivers and have an impedance of 32 ohms. The Z55 offers a frequency response of 10Hz-25kHz.
The Headphones have a detachable cable (as all good headphones do), and the cable has a locking mechanism to ensure a secure fit.
The Samson Z55 comes with lambskin ear pads and has a very tight clamp, which can cause a bit of discomfort after prolonged use, especially in a warmer climate.
I have made two customisations to my Z55 headphones. Firstly, replacing the earpads with the Brainwavz Hybrid Memory Foam Ear Pads, which are incredibly comfortable and a massive upgrade over the standard earpads from a comfort and sound isolation perspective.
Secondly, I use a headband cover, the LTYIVABHTTW headband cover, as my headband started showing signs of wear and tear after more than a year of daily use. The LTYIVABHTTW headband cover is made from durable stretchy material and uses a zipper to attach over the headphone headband. It is incredibly comfortable, and you do not even notice it is there.
The Samson Z55 Headphones can be picked up from Amazon for around $100(USD).
The Brainwavz Hybrid Memory Foam Ear Pads cost around $25(USD) on Amazon.
Lastly, the LTYIVABHTTW headband cover sells for under $15 (USD) on Amazon.
The Phillips SHP9500 are open-back headphones that are unbelievable value for money, costing only $70(USD) on Amazon, the sound quality they offer rival headphones that cost four times more. As they are open-back headphones, the SHP9500 offers little to no sound isolation, but they do offer a large sound stage.
The Phillips SHP9500 uses 50mm neodymium drivers, with a 32 ohms impedance and a frequency response of 12Hz-35kHz. Additionally, the Phillips SHP9500 has a detachable cord.
These headphones are hands down the most comfortable headphones I have ever tried and can easily be worn all day without causing any discomfort. This is the main reason why I alternate between them and the Samson Z55, as especially in a warmer climate, the Z55 can become uncomfortable after long listening sessions. In contrast, the SHP9500, with its light clamping pressure, can be comfortable used even on the warmest summer day without any problems.
Additionally, to the two headphones mentioned above, I also use the JBL Under Armour Sport Train Headphones while at the gym (the only time I would typically use wireless headphones) and then I also use the Sony MDRXB50 Wired Earbuds when out and about on my Amazon Fire 10 tablet and Nintendo Switch. Let us have a look at these now:
JBL Under Armour Sport Headphones
The Headphones I use in the gym is the JBL Under Armour Sport Headphones. They are Bluetooth headphones specially designed to be worn while physically active. They have a tight clamp on-ear design to stay on while moving around. They are sweatproof, and the earpads and headband are made of Under Armour’s breathe material. The headphones have a folding design and come with a sturdy carry case, which is ideal for protecting the headphones while they are in your gym bag.
From a technical specification perspective, the JBL Under Armour Sport Headphones implements a Bluetooth 4.1 interface, has 40mm Drivers with an impedance of 32 ohms, and an estimated battery life of 16 hours.
The headphones offer good sound quality for Bluetooth headphones, and they are very comfortable while working out.
The JBL Under Armour Sport Headphones is available from Amazon for $160(USD).
Sony MDRXB50 Wired Earbuds
I use the Sony MDRXB50 Wired Earbuds when I’m am out and about with my Amazon Fire 10 tablet and Nintendo Switch. They are high quality, relatively inexpensive earbuds available for around $30 on Amazon.
The MDRXB50 uses 12mm dome-type drivers along with high-energy neodymium magnets, which deliver excellent sound quality for their small size. The earbuds have a frequency response of 4Hz – 24kHz and a 16ohms impedance.
These earbuds offer great value for money and come with a carry pouch and flat tangle-free cable, making them an excellent compact option for when traveling or just out of the house.
Studio Monitors (Speakers)
Samson Media One BT3
For speakers, I use the Samson Media One BT3 powered studio monitors. They are good quality speakers offering Bluetooth as well as 3.5mm and RCA inputs. They are sturdily constructed stereo speakers, and each of the two speakers contains a 3-inch copolymer woofer and a 1-inch silk dome tweeter. They offer excellent sound quality and 15 watts per channel RMS (30 watts peak) that can easily fill a large room.
They are available from Amazon for around $100(USD).