On My Desk & In My Bag
As an avid lover of music and audio, I am constantly trying out new gear and turning over old gear. This list includes the products I choose to keep and use on a daily basis in either my portable setup or my desktop setup. I’ll include links to Amazon for each product so you can grab one for yourself and help support this blog in the process.
I use a laptop for my work, but it has no real bearing on sound quality, so I’ll move straight to the next link in the sound chain…
A truly brilliant USB cable – not cheap, but worth every cent. I use the Coffee cable to connect my laptop to my iFi Micro iDSD which is used to drive my active speakers. Here’s the comparison review.
I’ll be the first to admit that this is stretching the boundaries of reasonably priced cabling, but it’s such a gorgeous cable!! (I have the 0.75m version, but recommend 1.5m if you can stretch the budget). I use the Diamond cable to connect to the Schiit Gumby DAC (see below) for the utmost quality in my headphone audio. Here’s the comparison review.
Digital-Analogue Converter (DAC)
I use two DACs for two different purposes:
Schiit Gungnir Multibit (Gumby)
The Gumby is an outstanding DAC and worth it’s weight (which is significant) in gold. I use this DAC connected directly to my main headphone listening setup. Head straight to Schiit.com for more info and make sure you get the Multibit version, it’s totally worth it. The Gen5 USB upgrade is really worthwhile too if you happen to pick up a second hand unit.
iFi Micro iDSD
The iDSD is a super-versatile, semi-portable device that I’ve never formally reviewed. I use it as a quick-access DAC and amp / pre-amp when I don’t necessarily need the best-of-the-best sound, but the iDSD can absolutely hold its own. I use it mostly as a pre-amp with my Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 3 active speakers because the iDSD provides a handy bass boost and 3D feature that really enhances the BeoLab 3 sound for gaming and the like. The original iDSD is no longer available, but the Black Label version that replaced it is apparently even better.
Bang & Olufsen BeoLab 3
I love active speakers because they remove the need for separate amplification and all of the cabling that comes with it. The BeoLab 3s are another product I’ve never formally reviewed, but they are a fantastic active speaker that regularly drops jaws with its sound compared to its size. I use these driven by the iDSD Micro acting as DAC and pre-amp. The BeoLab 3 are only available from B&O directly.
I have turned over a lot of headphones over the years. These are the ones that have stood the test of time and remain consistently in my listening rotation…
Still my go to headphone every single day and very much my reference for what a headphone should represent – comfort and lifelike sound with good emotion and rhythm. They’re a very polarising headphone because they’re not traditionally tuned, but they are still my favourite all time headphone. I have the original liquid wood version, but the NightHawk Carbon is meant to be a very similar headphone. I’ll share multiple links below so if the original wood version comes up at a good price, go for it!! Here’s my review.
Massdrop x Fostex T-X0
These are a surprise edition to the list because I wasn’t a huge fan of the original Fostex T50RP headphones that these were born from. I hope to review these soon because they’re a testament to the value of a community coming together to help developers make a great headphone. They’re not flagship level quality and don’t ever supplant the NightHawks for listening time, but they provide a great closed headphone option for me when I need to shut out some external noise.
If you’re not familiar with Massdrop, I recommend you sign up immediately! 🙂 It’s a great site that doesn’t always provide the best value (check pricing elsewhere before you buy anything), but can bring you some unique products. Here’s a link where you can sign up for free: https://www.massdrop.com/r/9QRK4Y
I do a lot of my work for clients in their offices instead of mine. This means I need a simple, compact setup I can take with me anywhere. These are the products that have made the cut.
The LG V30+ isn’t your ordinary smartphone. It is built with an ESS Sabre DAC chip and outperforms many dedicated audio players and portable DACs (like the DragonFly Red). I haven’t completed a review of the V30 and probably won’t because it’s a phone and therefore so much more than an audio device, but rest assured it is an extremely capable and impressive source option.
I carry 2 different portable DACs because they’re both small enough that I can and because one of them works with any device I can throw at it (DragonFly) while the other performs slightly better, but only with my computer (Explorer).
AudioQuest DragonFly Red
Despite being outperformed (slightly) by the LG V30 and Meridian Explorer, the DragonFly Red (DFR) never leaves my kit because it’s such a simple, compact, all-purpose device. I can plug it into my phone, my tablet or my laptop and drive any headphones or earphones I like to excellent levels of quality. I can’t see the DragonFly being replaced in my work bag until AudioQuest build a newer, better model. Here’s my review of the DragonFly Red.
Meridian Explorer 2
The Meridian Explorer 2 offers just a slight upgrade over the DFR, but that slight improvement in sound combined with full MQA support earn it a permanent spot in my bag. I use the Explorer as my portable desktop DAC when I am setup in a client’s office and want some high quality music. Here’s my review of the Meridian Explorer 2.
By the way, I tend to use an AudioQuest JitterBug with both my DFR and Explorer. It’s a cheap, simple upgrade that really smoothes out any nasty digititus you might get from your USB sockets. Here’s the review.
I don’t always use an external amp because the DFR and Explorer are great devices on their own, but if I’m really looking for that final bit of quality I turn to external amplification…
The E12DIY is only available second hand these days and was a limited edition amplifier so it’s not easy to find. If you can find one through, grab it! It’s starting sound quality is excellent, but the ability to swap out components will let you quickly upgrade this to an insane level of sound quality given the starting price. Here’s my review and I’ll place an Amazon search link below just in case some DIYs pop up…
Earphones / Headphones
Most of my portable listening is done via earphones, but one particular pair of portable headphones definitely deserves a mention.
Noble Kaiser 10 (original version, custom)
These are still my favourite IEMs of all time. Others have come close and there are probably better models out there these days, but the K10s just give me everything I want so I haven’t gone looking for anything better. They rock, they have detail, they’re revealing and they are super comfortable because they’re custom. They’re also gorgeous thanks to the one-of-a-kind design courtesy of The Wizard. Here’s my review to explain why I think they’re so damn good. And here’s a link to the universal version of the updated and apparently improved Kaiser 10 (I haven’t heard them so can’t comment on the upgraded part).
CampFire Audio Andromeda
These very nearly knocked the Kaiser 10s from their perch as my all-time favourite IEM and they’ve earned a permanent place in my bag thanks to their exceptional clarity and amazing soundstage / imaging. I keep the Andromedas as my supreme quality universal option because I find it easier to remove and insert a universal earphone if I’m in the office where people are likely to speak to me. Here’s a link to my review of the exceptionally awesome Andromedas. And you can buy them direct from Campfire Audio here: https://campfireaudio.com/shop/andromeda/
Bang & Olufsen BeoPlay H3
The H3 from B&O is a surprising addition to this list. For a long time, the Shozy Zero owned the crown as my go to no fuss earphone and I still highly recommend it, but the H3 has secured a place in my heart thanks to it’s gorgeous overall sound quality – tuning and imaging. They’re a relatively new addition to my collection so I hope to share a review soon.
I’m not a portable headphone kind of guy. Being someone who sports a very close-cropped haircut due to a distinct lack of hair, I find that I feel a little self-conscious wearing headphones in public. I also generally prefer the compact size and sound isolation granted by IEMs. With all that said, the thinksound On1 headphones deserve a special mention and have maintained a strong place in my heart over the years. Sure, they get used more at home than when I’m out and about, but I just love them. Here’s my review of the On1s.