Can You Build an Audiophile System for $500?

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Community is a big aspect of being an audiophile. Like cliques in a made-for-TV high-school drama, audiophiles love to find like-minded music lovers that believe in a common ideology. That clique then follows the path to what they feel is audio excellence. There is nothing inherently wrong with this if the love of music is firmly in everyone’s veins. Yet, regardless of the clique, one thing the greater audiophile community excels at is helping other music lovers start their journey. 

Most times, audiophiles on a budget, or those just looking to dip a toe into the hobby without going all-in, are limited to thrift stores, garage sales, Facebook Marketplace, or even dumpsters. This rarely bares fruit. Excitement over finding a piece of gear that is 25 years outdated, and likely needs some major work, is something I see all too often. 

Is it possible to build a $500 audiophile system
Is it impossible to build a $500 audiophile system? Not anymore.

Recently, though, I have been gobsmacked by a few pieces of budget gear that are not only a value for their meager selling price, but also work incredibly well together. These pieces also represent some future audiophile technologies we all should be paying attention to, and unlike that neato dumpster find, they will not start a structure fire within a week of ownership. The result of this $500 audiophile system is a true, audiophile musical experience… as imperfect as it may be. 

This $500 audiophile system is important because it opens the door to a young generation of audiophiles who typically have a tough financial road ahead of them (have you seen the cost of college and homes these days?) but can use the beautiful escape of music we all love so dearly. Maybe you are a little older and somewhat settled, looking to finally enter the hobby and unsure where to start? Well, this is a little audiophile system you should be excited about, too.

Here’s What a $500 Audiophile System Looks Like…

We are going to be looking to Chi-Fi (Chinese Hi-Fi gear) to solve a bulk of this $500 system conundrum. The system is going to be simple, and start with streaming from a cellular device as a source since that is what many people do these days. The idea here is to get the audiophile experience going so that it can be built upon later. 

  • The DAC/Streamer: Amazon will give you countless options for Wi-Fi/Bluetooth streamers, but they can vary in quality regardless of the price. One I have experienced that is a great start for a $500 audiophile system is the Lava Audio DS200Pro. Adding the word “Pro” always makes it sound better, right? This $99 buy has a 32-bit SABRE DAC chipset that is similar to those used in much more expensive gear. The DS200Pro also has Bluetooth 5.0 with LDAC, Nichicon brand filter capacitors, and a low noise output amplifier. The end result is clean, low-distortion, highly dynamic analog output to the amplifier. 
  • The Amplifier: This find comes from a conversation I was having with Eric Alexander over at Tekton Design. When setting up informal test systems around the shop, Eric uses a $79 Class-D amp that can deliver up to a massive 300 watts per channel with the right power supply. I was skeptical, so for the $79, I picked one up figuring it was and easy return if my skepticism was correct. As usual, I was wrong to be a skeptic, and the AIYIMA A07 delivers huge, low distortion power at a very meager price. The A07 does this by utilizing a Texas Instruments Class D chipset, and high-quality op-amps in its buffer section. 
  • The Loudspeakers: I recently received a pair of Monoprice Monolith B5 bookshelf loudspeakers for evaluation and I have been nothing short of blown away by their performance for $249 per pair. It is scary how little they give up compared to the Focal Chora 806 (buy at Amazon), whichI feel are a go-to bargain audiophile loudspeaker. 
  • The Accessories: Even this humble hi-fi rig should be shown more love than RCA cables that can be snapped by tugging on them and bilic copper-clad, aluminum speaker wire. Throw a pair of Monoprice Onix series RCA cables in your basket for $21 and, while at it, add a 12-foot pair of Audioblast high purity copper speaker cables for $45. 

What Are You Not Getting in a $500 Audiophile System? 

There is a great deal functionally missing from a complete audiophile system for $500. The gear is functionally limited by design to keep the cost down, regardless of quality, and you will be replacing the components before long if looking to expand this system’s capabilities. Even the laptop-charger-like power supply the amplifier comes with is not capable of delivering enough power to achieve its maximum 300 watt per channel output. Of course, this can be upgraded, but I found the power supply it came with to be more than enough for what I was listening to. 

This $500 audiophile system is not pretty. It is small, plastic and metal boxes that will appear to have no rhyme or reason visually, and while the loudspeakers have a handsome simulated veneer, they ultimately are just another set of black rectangles. Once up and running, the system lacks a lot of the fine sonic details and intricate, audible sophistication of a moderately-priced audiophile system, but that does not matter. We are talking about creating the audiophile listening experience in a $500 audiophile system, and here is how this system gets there. 

What does a $500 Audiophile System Sound Like? 

“I never miss a beat… I’m lightning on my feet… and that’s what they don’t see – mmmhumm…” That lyric from Taylor Swift’s song “Shake It Off” (buy at Amazon) represents the sonic performance of this system perfectly. I have found the key characteristics that make up the audiophile listening experience, at any price, are contained in this $500 audiophile system. Here are the key characteristics:

  • Low distortion, neutral tonality: Distortion in solid-state equipment is what makes guitars sound like nails on a chalk board, and makes the sound feel as if daggers are being shoved in your ears every time an artist says the letter S. Uneven frequency response, or overemphasis in certain regions, can have this same effect. The critical midrange frequencies to the treble are particularly sensitive to distortion and uneven tonality. Audiophile systems, at any price, that create an amazing listening experience do not distort the sound, and have a very balanced tonality from the treble to the bass. 
  • Pace, rhythm, and timing: This is an audiophile catchphrase coined long ago and often stated as the word PRAT. I usually want to roll my eyes out of my head over clichéd audiophile sayings, but this one has always stuck to my ribs. It describes the ability to get your toes tapping. It happens when subtle and large dynamic nuances are present that carry the beat. PRAT is like the messages received during conversation from someone’s pace and inflections. It’s very important to preserving, and translating, the experience an artist is trying to create. PRAT starts with the source, and the system must be able to maintain it all the way through to the listener’s ears. 
  • Soundstage and imaging: When seated between the loudspeakers, an audiophile system should sound as if you can pinpoint the artists and where they are playing, as well as provide any spatial information well outside the boundaries of the loudspeakers. Whether the musical is recorded in a studio, a concert hall, or digitally made on a laptop, audio engineers painstakingly preserve the performance space in a stereo recording, and an audiophile experience will provide that space to the listener, every time.
  • Articulate bass response and full mid-bass: Bass is a funny thing, because it evokes an emotional response on a primitive level. This is why bass is extremely important to most audiophiles. Bass is the most difficult part of the sound to reproduce and is extremely dependent on the environment. In many top-tier systems, the ability to reproduce deep, articulate bass at room-compressing levels is the difference between five and six zeros on the price tag. However, an audiophile system does not need this to sound fantastic. This is fortunate, because the last thing our $500 system will do is recreate the pedal notes of a pipe organ. The bass must be articulate and in the normal ranges most instruments operate, though; it must be dynamic, transient, and in balance with the rest of the music. Midbass is important as well, since this is where the chest resonance of both male and female vocals come from. Mid-bass also adds snap to a snare drum, puts the bone in trombone, and resolves the distinct finger-work on the bass guitar.  

Hitting all of these sonic characteristics, performance measures, whatever you want to call them makes any system an audiophile system regardless of price. At $500, this system is my most recent foray into putting some diamonds in the rough together that happen to also have synergy with each other. We talk a lot at Future Audiophile about how far technology has come in the audio world, and I would wager an audiophile system with the performance this one has would easily beat many audiophile systems back in the 1990’s that sold for over $2,000. While this $500 audiophile system is missing quite a bit all-around, by today’s standards, it is a $500 audiophile system that provides the audiophile experience and preserves the artist’s musical messages. Is that not what it is all about? I think so, and if you love music, you should think so too. 

Is a $500 audiophile system worth the investment for a secondary room or for a starter system? Or should people wait until they have more $$$ to spend? We want to hear from you in the moderated comments below… 

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David Bitting

The focus on the music and the joy of listening is or should be the focus any future audiophile and those who wish to promote the hobby. As with most of us, my equipment has changed over the years for the better technically. I recall the enjoyment of times past listening to music on much cheaper systems than I enjoy now

Paul Wilson

Wonderful piece Michael. It shows how our industry is trying to be more fiscally obtainable to new enthusiasts and how a really nice system might be assembled for a very reasonable cost. I’ll keep this article in mind the next time someone asks me about an entry level system.

Great job!!!

P

Michael Zisserson

Thanks Paul, Appreciate the kind words!

Ross Warren

This is a great starter system and lets people hear what they would not hear on simple cheap TV soundbars. I’d say it is fine and once people figure out they want more (upgrades), they could repurpose such a system for TV sound and music in another room. Or maybe put it in a bedroom for listening to music before you go to sleep to help you wind down. These pieces of kit as they say these days are fine. Others would recommend pieces like the WiiM Mini streamer/DAC for the same $99 due to its great user app experience. Some might recommend the Fosi Audio BT-20A Pro over the Aiyima A07 and perhaps the Sony SSCS5 or ELAC Debut 2.0 B5.2 (when on special). The key here though is letting people hear music in a way that gets them addicted to good sound quality. After that, there’s no going back. We need more young people in this hobby, or it will die, and we’ll be left with cheap stuff or very expensive stuff and very little in between.

Michael Zisserson

Hi Ross, Thanks for the thoughtful reply. More great suggestions that show it is very possible to “break-in” to the hobby for just about anyone.

Jeffery

Could I build an audiophile system for $500?! Oh yes, yes indeed i could…….

Jerry Del Colliano

It almost seems impossible but thank God that we can as we need more and more people into this hobby for future generations of growth.

I’d love to see how you would go about building your $500 system… 🙂

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