Millions of us have spent the past several months working remotely from home, and there is no question that the desire for live music has never been stronger. But in all likelihood, it isn’t happening anytime soon. In its place, desktop audio and personal audio have taken center stage.
Headphones and entry-level products have continued to sell as music lovers want to upgrade their experience at home. But want to improve the quality of your vinyl listening experience
at home, we can recommend five products that work exceptionally well for the remote audiophile. Schiit Audio Magni 3+ Headphone Amplifier ($99.00)
A discrete audiophile-grade headphone amplifier made in America. Just $99. That’s the reality in 2020 thanks to the folks at Schiit Audio. The Magni 3+ is designed for your desktop; it fits easily in the palm of your hand. But there is nothing little about the sonic presentation. The Magni 3+ can output between 1.6 – 2.8 watts per channel (50 ohms to 16 ohms), which represents a lot of power for a pair of headphones. It offers low levels of distortion and a presentation that is free of background noise. For $99, there is nothing in its league. It does require an external DAC like the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt or the Schiit Audio Modi 3 ($99.00) which you connect to either your smartphone or laptop. The Magni 3+ does well in the boogie department and offers a level of transparency with your headphones that will make you question why you didn’t splurge on this before. QED Reference High Resolution USB Cable ($135/2m)
USB cables are a necessary evil for digital audio if using your laptop or a network streamer. QED has a long track record of building affordable loudspeaker cables and interconnects that sound excellent and are built to last. Their loudspeaker cable is cheap by audiophile standards and has never been the weak link in any system I have tried it with. I’m a lot more skeptical when it comes to USB cables. The QED Reference High Resolution USB cable uses a 24 AWG, 99.999% oxygen-free copper twisted-pair featuring low-permittivity, and foamed-polyethylene dielectrics, which are bound by an aluminium/mylar wrap. It is a flexible design that is easy to route behind a crowded equipment rack and the connection is solid on both ends.
From a sonic perspective, it is most certainly on the neutral side. It adds no additional warmth to the sound and offered a very transparent presentation across the frequency spectrum. Detail is easy to discern and there is solidity in the bass. If your DAC adds some color to the presentation, the Reference High Resolution USB cable won’t alter that in any way. Compared to the entry-level cables from Staples and Monoprice, the QED offers superior build quality and a more transparent sounding presentation; vocals are more forward sounding while maintaining whatever flesh on the bones exists on the recording. For more information: QED Reference High Resolution USB Cable IsoAcoustics Aperta Isolation Stands ($199.99)
Vibration is the enemy; both in the recording studio and in your home when it comes to sound quality. Put your hand on your loudspeaker while listening to music and you’ll immediately feel how the energy produced by the drivers causes the cabinet to resonate. That level of resonance affects how your loudspeaker sounds. External vibration from your room, equipment stand, or loudspeaker stands impacts how your loudspeakers sound as well.
The Aperta with an overall size of (W x D x H) 6.1” x 7.5” x 3” or 15.5 cm x 19 cm x 7 cm isn’t just one size fits all either. Specifically designed for use with bookshelf, desktop or floor standing speakers, they are available in different models to fit specific sizes and weights of medium-sized speakers. Sculpted from aluminum frames, the Aperta creates a parallelogram structure with isolators in the top and bottom sections to provide a high level of separation of sound. Build quality on the Aperta is superb.
The Aperta offer a range of tilt which makes it extremely useful if you place your loudspeakers on a bookshelf or desktop and want to angle the tweeter at your ears and not at your chest. The impact on the sound is not subtle; the clarity of the sound improves dramatically, bass tightens up, and everything sounds more focused. Bass tightened up significantly but also lost some of its visceral impact. Vocals were rock solid in the soundstage and the presentation took a step forward as well. For more information: IsoAcoustics Aperta Isolation Stands Zorloo Ztella USB DAC ($109.00)
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Zorloo (HK) Limited[/caption]
Streaming your favorite jazz recordings via Tidal or Qobuz has never been easier with the Ztella USB DAC that plugs directly into your smartphone or laptop (USB-C to USB-A adapter included). The Ztella is compatible with iOS, Android, Mac OS, and Windows 10 and is a true high-resolution audio DAC offering support for PCM (up to 384kHz) and DSD 5.6MHz with support for MQA. The Ztella looks like an adapter cable which makes it both super comfortable to carry attached to your phone. We’re still amazed at how much technology is packed inside this tiny DAC and even more impressed by the sound quality.
If you’re looking for a compact USB DAC/headphone amplifier that can drive a multitude of headphones, the Ztella is a surprisingly affordable device but we would caution against using it with very demanding planar magnetic headphones with the exception of the HiFiMan Sundara or Deva which proved to be suitable matches. The Zorloo sounds slightly dark making it more suitable for headphones with a livelier tonal balance; Grado, AKG, and even Beyerdynamic. IEMs are well served by this little DAC/headphone amplifier that can drive them quite easily and tame any excess energy in the treble. For more information: Zorloo Ztella DAC/Headphone Amplifier IsoAcoustics Delos Isolation Platform ($799.99 - $899.99)
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IsoAcoustics Delos Isolation Platform[/caption]
Isolating components from vibration is a worthwhile exercise but it has always been a bit of a crapshoot with all of the various options available. Some products eliminate one problem and then create another; enhanced transparency at the expense of midrange warmth. I’ve heard it with cones, discs, and multi-layered platforms that all seem to work but never without some form of change that I dislike long-term.
Turntables are probably the most difficult component to isolate but the rewards can be very worthwhile. Suspended turntables (Thorens & Linn) are more susceptible to footfalls or other forms of vibration and benefit tremendously from proper isolation. The Delos combines a substantial butcher block with IsoAcoustics’ patented isolation technology. The design consists of a top isolator, bottom isolator and a connector. The isolation is a result of the way the 3 parts work together, so there is not a single path connecting the live equipment to the supporting surface.
The Delos is designed to work with turntables, tube amplifiers, and other source components and proved its worth almost immediately when placed underneath my restored Thorens TD-160 Super turntable;
footfalls were eliminated and there was an immediate increase in soundstage depth, along with a reduction in the background noise. The Delos isn’t inexpensive but there is no question that it works. For more information: IsoAcoustics Delos Isolation Platform