13 December 2010

Audio Bliss for a Ten-Spot

I'm an audio quality fetishist, to the degree a poor man can be. And for broke audiophiles, it's a great time to be alive. I've had a post-in-progress queued up for a while now on cheap audio bliss, but can't seem to finish it. I was going to talk about audio file formats and bitrates, players, headphones, etc. It can be a bit complicated.

But right now I'm listening to some Sting through $10 worth of gear, and it sounds superb. Really, truly superb. I have a whole pile of audio gear at my elbow, including a tube amp, $200 headphones, a hand-wired DAC, etc. But right now, to my ears, this sounds as good as any of it. And this rig is both cheap and dead simple:

One used Sony Discman portable CD player ($3 from a thrift store) and one pair Koss KSC75 headphones ($5 on closeout).

The Discman I picked up is a D-191 that is probably about 10 years old. It's beat up and has almost no features, not even a pause button, but it sounds much better than another Discman I own that is loaded with (mostly useless) features. There was a whole pile of players at the thrift store priced for couch change, and any random Sony in working order will sound good to terrific.

Koss KSC75 headphones are legendary cheap-fi darlings. Amazon sells them for $14. They are clip-ons, but a lot of headbands from other cheap headphones work fine (I use the bands from these $2 throwaways). The KSC75's are light years beyond anything else south of $80. Koss PortaPros are also very much liked, and cost just a bit more (with headband), but I have not heard them.

Of course, you also need CDs. And they're a big part of the bliss equation here. CDs contain much more audio information than mp3s, and a simple, quality CD player can resolve that detail very impressively. Sony figured out how to do that many years ago, and in fact made their best, and most expensive, portable CD players back in the '90s.

Quality mp3s on any current-model ipod, with the same headphones, sound a solid 80% as good as what I'm hearing right now. Lossless audio files might sound 95% as good. But this old silver disc and my salvaged $3 Discman still owns them.

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