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A PC-User's Purchase "Guide" (it's not...just the ramblings of an idiot) to High Quality Audio on your system.
NOTE: The monster I gave birth to has become too long. I felt that instead of a short list of things to order, I needed to give context as high fidelity is really all about what sound is like in your experience. Also a fun read if you are interested. Feel free to skip to the actual list (ctrl+f active speakers, passive speakers, headphones, subwoofer, amplifier)!
I have limited the price range of the products, because this is after all just food for thought and not even a proper guide; real audio purchases will require elbow-grease and research from your end to see if the product's sound signature will match your preferences in music and sound.
I am an audiophile of the musician background, I know what instruments sound like and have a decently trained ear (insert usual audiophile shenanigans).
So wtf is this?So occasionally while answering questions on this subreddit (mainly on why new builder's systems aren't posting, or what components they should get, or just mourning with fellow builders for systems that have passed on as well as celebrating the birth of new systems and fellow pc builders who take their rite of passage of building their own system with their own two hands) I would come across the occasional "what speakers/headphones are best under $xx" and with the state of pc products being "gaming rgb ultimate series XLR" or w/e, it's hard to discern what audio products are actually worth your money. Note that if you are using just "good enough" cheap speakers, any of the speakers/headphones on this list will blow your mind away. Get ready to enter a new world of audio.
Why should I bother getting better speakers/headphones?I have owned $20 logitech speakers, I currently own $1500 speakers. I have owned varying levels of headphones. The first half-decent (to my standards) speakers I had was a hand me down stereo set from an uncle. This thing was massive, but this thing was good. It's difficult to explain to you the sensation of music enveloping you with great speakers. Speakers are meant to reproduce sound, as in the sound of the instruments in the song. So great speakers and headphones can literally make you FEEL the music like at a rave or a concert or performance in the comfort of your home. This is why Home Theaters were so popular in the 80s/90s.
General considerations (or feel free to just skip ahead to the list)Now, I totally understand using simple logitech speakers due to budget/space/easy-access from best buy or not knowing about the wider audio world. So I am here today to give you a perspective on what audio components are TRULY worth your hard-earned cash. I have owned $20 logitech speakers in college, I have owned guitar amps as well as studio monitors/other speakers ranging from $100-$1500. Do know that all of this information is readily available in /BudgetAudiophile /audiophile and /headphones . I am merely condensing all of it into a single list, and attempt to sort of explain it to the pc builders, or just an idiot rambling.
If you would like more information on specific speakers, I would check out reviewers on youtube like zerofidelity, steve guttenberg, nextbigthing (nbt) studios, and thomas and stereo. For headphones, metal751, innerfidelity, Ishca's written reviews, DMS.
Z reviews is good, as he gives the most coverage on different audio equipment, though his style of reviews leave much to be desired and I mainly watch him for gear coverage or for entertainment.
Also with speakers, speaker placement is extremely important. Get those speakers off your desk and the woofers/tweeters to your ear level NO MATTER THE COST. Stack boxes/books, buy speaker stands/isolation pads from amazon, at worst buy yoga blocks from amazon. Put your speakers on them, get ready for even better audio.
Now this list is just simple guide. Obviously for $300 budget, theres probably like 10 different speakers to choose from. You will catch me repeat this many many times but sound is subjective, I don't know what genres of music you enjoy and what sound signatures in headphones/speakers you would prefer (warm sounds? bright? aggressively forward? laid back sound signature? importance of clarity vs bass?) So consider this list with a grain of salt, as this is after all, the ramblings of an idiot on reddit.
CategoriesSo I will be splitting this list into 4 categories: - dacs - active speakers, - passive speakers, - amplifiers - headphones
And before I start, bass depth and low end does not fucking equal bad boomy bass. I absolutely detest low quality boomy bass like in Beats headphones and general "gaming speakers" or w/e. Also the budetaudiophile starter package is the dayton audio b652 + mini amp combo from parts-express. All the speakers that were considered were basically compared to the b652 before making it on here (and whether they justified the price bump over the b652)
DACsA DAC is a digital to analogue converter. Your music/sound coming from your pc is a digital signal, which is then converted to analogue so that the signal can reach your speakers/headphones. DACs are built into any device that has a 3.5mm output (your pc, ipod, smartphone, etc). The general consensus is that modern DACs have come a very far way that even budget dacs sound great and clean. Your audio chain will go pc -> dac (via USB or optical) -> amp (via rca cables) -> speakers (via speaker wire to 5-way binding posts or banana plugs)/headphones.
- Schiit Fulla (dac/amp combo) $100 - The schiit fulla is a decent dac/amp combo that has a mic input for headsets. They definitely went for the gaming headset market. Back in the 2010 days, the schiit fulla and the e10k were the only things being recommended on reddit, but audio tech has advanced and now there are better options at the same price range.
- Fiio K3 $100 (dac/amp) : the k3 is a great budget option if you have $100 in your budget but would like both a dac and a headphone amp. Really not much to say. Get the schiit fulla if you really need that mic input, else get the K3.
- JDS Atom Dac $100 - a popular dac primarily due to the fact that the JDS Atom amp is probably the most recommended amp as it has the best objective performance and measurements out of the $100 amplifiers, and many people tend to buy the corresponding dac to their amplifier for the stack. The atom dac is a no bullshit dac, measures well and is a solid buy for $100.
- Topping E30 $130 - When the topping e30 came out, I was genuinely surprised at how good dacs had come in recent years for so cheap. For $130, you're getting performance that used to be locked away behind the $3-400 price gate. Probably the best "bang for buck" dac on this list, as well as part of my active setup.
- Fiio K5 Pro (Dac/headphone Amp combo) $150 - This is the best option for if you just want a good amp and a dac without shelling out too much. I personally had the k5 pro for a month, and usually with dac/amp combos, the maufacturer will usually skimp out on either the dac or the amp if in the budget pricepoint. One example is the ifi zen dac/amp; same price as the k5 pro, but if I had to split up the $150 on the dac and amp section, the ifi zen would have $100 spent on the dac, and $50 on the amp. However the K5 Pro has split evenly $75 on each section. The amp has plenty of clean power while the dac is also sufficient. Great budget option.
- IFI ZEN (dac/headphone amp) $150 - an alternative to the k5 pro. The dac on this unit is objectively better than the k5 pro and sounds cleaner, however the amplifier leaves much to be desired as it lacks power. I would personally rather have more power on the k5 pro, but the ifi zen is no slouch either, the dac is quite good.
- SMSL AD18 (dac/speaker amp) $150 - a great budget dac/amp for speakers that also offers a subwoofer out and bluetooth, 2 rare features in this price bracket. This little unit has enough clean power for nearfield speakers and features usb, 3.5mm, coaxal, optical and bluetooth connections though bluetooth will be limited to aptx codec. Features a headphone amp that is a side show, so is quite weak. For $150 you get a dac, headphone amp, and a speaker amp with bluetooth. Great value for $150 if you're looking to fill all 3 roles.
- Schiit magnius $200 - a very recent release, this is Schiit's attempt at correcting the flaws of the magni. The magnius, like the e30, is another dac that has benefited from the massive improvements in audio technology at budget price bracket in the past couple years. Offers the usual connections but also has balanced XLR input/output (if you don't know what this means, feel free to ignore as balanced will only add to your audio chain cost) This dac is probably the new standard to beat for under $500 dacs.
Active vs. Passive (crude explanation)So when a speaker plays music from your pc, the audio is processed by the audio card on your motherboard, which is then sent to the amplifier where the signal is amplified, and then finally is sent to be played on your speakers. Active speakers like logitech speakers that have a power cable running from the speakers directly to the wall socket have built-in amplifiers to power the speakers, whereas passive speakers require a separate amplifier to amplify the audio signal and feed the speakers power.
Active vs passive, no real difference as both types of speakers will have good audio quality depending on how they are made and which ones you buy, but in the ultra budget section of speakers (under $300) actives tend to be cheaper than their passive counter parts. This is due to the manufacturer cutting corners elsewhere.
Now generally speakers should be recommended based on your music/audio preferences and tastes as speakers and in a larger part, speaker brands will have their own unique sound signatures that some will love and others will hate as sound is such a subjective experience. But since this is meant to cater to a wide audience, note that my list is not the ALL inclusive, and again is only the ramblings of an idiot.
ACTIVE SPEAKERSSimply connect to your PC or TV via 3.5mm (or the occasional usb).
Note: you may experience a hissing with active speakers that may annoy you to no end even up to the $400 mark. This is a result of the amplifier being built in to the speaker in close proximity, as well as sometimes the manufacturer cutting corners elsewhere. Passive speakers do not have this unless you buy a really shitty amp. Note that while bigger woofer size does not necessarily indicate better quality/bass, this does more often than not seem to be the case as manufacturers put bigger woofers on the higher stepup model.
Note that while I have included 2.1 systems here, I would always recommend you get good bookshelves first, save up money and buy a subwoofer separate.
- Cyber Acoustics CA-3602FFP 2.1 $40. This is the I'm broke af but I need speakers route. 2.1 setup for 40 bucks. We do not have the luxury of options here. Enough said. Amazon
- Okay, for under $100 for good quality active speakers, there really is no other choice here besides Edifier speakers on amazon. In fact, their entire lineup is pretty solid all around ranging from the 980T for $70 to the S350DB which is a 2.1 system with 2 bookshelves and a sub for $300. Differences in the models are basically bigger woofers/tweeters as you go up in price, resulting in better bass performance and clarity (again crude explanation). If you don't want to research much and want simplicity, any of the edifiers are the way to go, with the 1700BT being the goto 2.0, or the 1850db which as a sub-out so you can add in a subwoofer into your setup later.
- Micca PB42X: $120- The active version of the popular MB42X passive speakers. Very good performance for price.
- Mackie CR3/4 $90/$140- Now normally I don't recommend these, but they are okay/meh speakers and have that razer aesthetic going on, and aesthetics are big part of speaker choice, so if you like the black/green color scheme, I guess these are passable.
- Klipsch Pro Media 2.1: $150- the only 2.1 system I'd recommend under $200. The thing about adding in a subwoofer to a 2.1 system under $200 means they have to cut corners elsewhere. This is the main difference of 2.1 systems vs bookshelves. While the subwoofer will allow your music to hit the lower notes in frequency resulting in deeper and more bass, this will usually come at a cost of audio quality in the mid and upper ranges in the music. If you are a BASSHEAD then yeah you probably want a subwoofer, though bookshelves under $200 also have decent bass. Note, ALWAYS BETTER TO BUY BOOKSHELVES AND SUBWOOFER SEPARATELY, but this will be pricier. Klipsch Website Direct or amazon.
- Fluance ai40/ai60: $200/$300- nice looking speakers that come in white and walnut and black that also have good clarity and quality. Their bass is surprisingly okay as they are rated to go a little bit below in the lower frequencies than speakers in similar price. I have listened to these before shortly for 2 hours, and would recommend. IIRC the ai60 has a subwoofer out. Mind the size of the 60s, quite big. Fluance direct or amazon.
- Kanto YU4: $270 Direct competitor to fluance ai series. Comes in white as well.
- Audioengine A2+/A5+ :$270/$400. I have no experience with this lineup, but lots of love/hate dynamic with this brand over on budgetaudiophile. Good and bad thing.
- JBL 305P: $300 - maybe the endgame speakers of this list. These are very famous and respected studio monitors that music artists and producers use often. They are sold $150 per speaker, and you will need to get 2. Hooking them up requires separate cables, as these are standalone speakers with it's own volume control on each speaker. Simplest way is to buy a 3.5mm to dual TS Cable. Set both speakers to same physical volume level via knob, and adjust volume using windows settings (having a volume knob on your keyboard helps immensely here). Or buy a separate in line volume control from amazon ($20 bucks or under) and connect via 3.5mm to rca. Being studio monitors, these are meant to reproduce sound neutrally (they will have no external flavoring like how Beats adds muddy boomy bass to its headphones to use as a bad example) and may not sound alive or bright or to your tastes. They can be demo-ed/tested out at guitar center if you have access to one in this pandemic.
- Logitech G560 RGB Gaming Speakers: $200 (yes, you read that right): Okay, now normally I'd be crucified for recommending a logitech speaker in the other audio forums. But I have used these speakers briefly for about 3 months when I got them cheap from a friend. The sound quality of these satellite speakers are....surprisingly not bad? Might I dare to say that these are even....decent for it's price? Now these are $200 speakers for a 2.1 system. This means that it's either this or Klipsch 2.1. Honestly my vote here goes to the logitechs. I owned the Klipsch promedia 2.1 for about half a year. I can definitely say I prefer the clarity of the logitechs vs the boomy bass of the Klipsch. The subwoofer on the 560 does NOT have its own control knob, so you would need to adjust bass settings through logitech eq. Note, these speakers will not sound good out of the box. You will need to go into the eq settings via logitech software, and change the settings to match your tastes. Honestly the fact that you have to tweak the eq through shitty logitech software to make these sound good is pretty bullshit. Note that I am not recommending the z623/625. Don't get those. I used these in college in my apt in brooklyn, and while boomy bass, I'd definitely go with the B652 + mini amp, klipsch 2.1, or the g560 over the z623/625 FOR SURE.
- Second-hand market: okay, let's say you are determined to get quality speakers but you do not have the budget. Look around on the second hand market for stuff from KRK, Emotiva, Ascend, HSU. Make sure to demo them out for as long as you can until the seller gets pissed (please don't), so that you can test to see if you like the sound.
PASSIVE SPEAKERSThese speakers will require you to buy a separate amplifier, as well as separate cables. But the passive route allows you to have a modular audio system that allows you to upgrade parts as you go along in your life (yes I said life for once you dip your toes into high fidelity, you will get hooked onto a great lifelong journey searching for the perfect setup), or even just add parts in altogether (like having a miniamp on your desk for your passive speakers, having a separate dac or bluetooth module for your speakers so you can connect the passive speakers via USB or bluetooth wirelessly, stacked on top of a headphone dac/amp combo, stacked on top of a preamp, etc). Amplifier list to follow later.
Passive speaker specs to pay attention to will be their impedance (measured in ohms) and their sensitivity (measured in xx db/1w/1m). Speaker ratings in wattage are measurements of how much power can be driven to them (higher watts, higher volume...once again crude explanation). A 20 watt x 2 channel amp (measured in 4 ohms) is enough to power 4 and 6 ohm speakers rated at 100 watts to moderate/decently loud listening levels on your desktop. Now the sensitivity thing. A speaker with a rating of 85db/1m/1w means it will produce 85 decibels of noise at 1 meter with 1 watt of power. Now this not linear....to make the same speaker go up to 90 decibels may require 10 or 15 watts of power depending on other variables. Depending on how loudly you play your music and what impedance/sensitivity your speakers have will result in your choice of amplifiers. More on this later.
The thing about passive bookshelf speakers are that you can use them in your desktop setup, AND with your TV as a legitimate starter 2.1 home theater setup (which you can upgrade to 3.1, and then 5.1/5.2, just buy a used receiver from craigslist for 50 bucks, ez)
What you will need for passive setup:Note that passive speakers and amp require you to purchase speaker wire separately (fairly cheap) and strip them (youtube video will guide you, very easy). Or if you like clean cable management and easy setups, banana plug cables from amazon will set you straight, and while these banana plugs and cable are nice and PURELY OPTIONAL, they will add up in cost as your buy more of them for frankenstein 2.1 cabling. Also a 3.5mm to rca cable will be required. The connection will be your pc -> 3.5mm->rca->amp->speaker wire-> speaker wire->speaker. (replace speaker wire with banana plug if going that route). Subwoofer connection will be explained in subwoofer section.
- Dayton audio b652+ mini amp combo on parts-express for $60/70. Two combos, two separate mini amps, one from lepai (china) and one from dayton. Same shit. It LITERALLY does not get better than this for under $100, maybe even $150. CHIEF THIS IS IT, i cannot stress this enough. This is the budgetaudiophile 101 starter pack. I'd recommend these over the active Mackies, Edifiers (up to the 1700), and any and all logitech/creative pebble/cyber w/e EVERYTHING systems (except for the g560). These are very BIG speakers and hence will deliver good sound and good bass due to its big woofers. If you have less than $100 to spend on the ENTIRE audio setup, go get these and speaker wire/banana plugs no questions asked. gooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo
- Dayton Audio B652 AIR $70- The difference between the AIR and the normal 652 is in the tweeter. The AIR tweeter on this speaker costs as much as the entire b652 speaker. This tweeter upgrade gives even more clarity and quality in the treble range (middle upper sound frequency). The next best thing for under $100, though doesn't come with the mini amp combo.
- Sony SSCS5 Bookshelf Speakers. $150 msrp, $120 on amazon/bestbuy until recently, and sometimes goes on sale for $75. These are 3 way speakers with woofer, tweeter and supertweeter. The strength of these speakers lie in its unmatched clarity in the highs and upper mids. I still have these in my collection, and VERY WORTH though my opinion of these is skewed as I got them for $75/pair. If you appreciate bass, you will need to add a subwoofer with these (or generally any speaker below $500....some people would say you cant listen to music on bookshelves without subwoofer) as they sound a bit thin compare to the b652s (a bit less bass because smaller woofer) but better sound quality (though this is just my SUBJECTIVE thought after listening to the cs5s and b652s). These have 5 in woofers and have okayish small form factor.
- Micca MB42X $90- the passive version of the powered PB42X in the active list. The difference is between the amplifier built into the PB42X vs the one you're going to buy separately to power the MB42X. Obv the MB42X route is going to be better because the amplifier in the PB42X will be shit compared to the one you're going to buy ($30/50/75/150 options to follow later)
- Micca RB42X $150 - Amazing small size speakers. For under $200, either this or the cs5s. The rb42s have a bit more bass.
- Elac Debut 5.2/6.2 $280/350. These are speakers highly acclaimed by many of the speaker reviewers I consider the best (imo zerofidelity, steve guttenberg, nextbigthing (nbt) studio, thomas and stereo). Great bass, warm sound signature. Just go, what are you waiting for. GOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO
- Q Acoustics 3020/3030i $230/400. Highly acclaimed by reviewers, look VERY NICE in white, and have a warm sound signature with lots of bass clarity and bass depth. These speakers are big, which is why they have great bass. Check the dimensions. Their size is the only downside to these fantastic speakers.
- PSB Alpha P5 $400: Great speakers for nearfield listening, aka at your desk, excels in this department more so than the other speakers (better at low volume, etc). Just all around amazing. Get these if the Q Acoustics ones are too big.
- Triangle BR02/03 $450/550. Coming from across the atlantic, these french speakers made a splash last year destroying its competition in the below $1000 range. Highly acclaimed to the point where some see them as overrated (too much hype out of nowhere in such little time). If you have the space in your setup as well as in your wallet for these, they are the way to go. Comes in black, walnut, white.
- Obligatory Klipsch R15/R51/RP600 post: you've heard of klipsch. They're widely available audiophile speakers, and so sometimes get the "overrated" hyped up treatment. They are good speakers but their have their own unique aggressively forward sound signature with the horn style tweeter. These were designed to make you feel like you're at the rock concert direct, may not be for everyone (much so not for me).
AMPLIFIERSActive speakers have built-in amplifiers so they are exempt. But passive speakers will require separate amps and so you will need to pay attention to certain specs. In speakers you will need to pay attention to their impedance (measured in ohms) and their sensitivity (measured in xx db/1m/1w).
Take for instance the popular SMSL SA50. This is an amp that delivers 50 watts to its 2 channels, rated at 4 ohms. Speakers will have impedance of 4, 6, or 8 ohms usually. 50 watts at 4 ohms can be 25 watts at 8 ohms, but is probably more like 20 watts at 8 ohms, refer to product specs for specific wattage ratings at specific ohms. Speakers with high sensitivity (85-95 db/1w/1m) that have 6 ohm impedance are easier to drive with lower wattage.
But here's the thing, an the smsl sa50 will not deliver 50 CLEAN watts. Somewhere in the 30-40w range distortion will start to appear. But for reference, 30 clean watts is enough to drive sony cs5s to uncomfortably loud levels in an apartment (the whole apt, not just your room) so listening on your desktop, you only really need 10-15 clean watts (only after turning up your preamp input to maximum volume, which in this case is your youtube/windows10 volume level). Do note that if you have the space, a used $60 AV Receiver that will just shit out watts and have 5.1 surround will be the best, but these things are massive.
- Lepai 2020ti (LEPAI and not Lepy be wary) $25. 20 watts in 2 channels. Budget
- SMSL SA36 $62: SMSL's 2x20w.
- SMSL SA50 $72: The most bang for buck amp that's also decent. 2x50watts.
- Topping MX3 $130: Speaker amp, headphone amp, dac rolled into one. Allows for your speakers and headphones to be connected via USB and Bluetooth.
- SMSL DA-8S $170: A great amp with LOTS of clean power for nearfield listening. I have one powering my canton ventos, and out of 60 volume, I literally max out at 35 before it gets waaaay too loud. This thing has a ton of clean power and operates at very cool temps (literally never approaches warm). Highly recommend. Honestly before this unit and the SMSL SA300, there really was no speaker amp that had a small enough form factor without sacrificing on power output or in total harmonic distortion while NOT breaking your wallet.
- Fiio e10k $75: The cheapest one I'd recommend
- SMSL M3 $85: A solid budget headphone amp. Nothin else to be said. If you're strapped on cash, you'll buy the e10k, but if you have more cash you will certainly buy the JDS Atom. This one has an awkward price but I would personally get this over the e10k.
- JDS Labs Atom $100: Heralded by many as the budget standard amp. This thing is $100 and has 1 W of clean power @ 32 ohms, and was heralded by many as the king of under $300, which is no longer true. The only downside to this unit is the build quality. Upon it's release there was nothing better in the $100 range, but that has changed. Now this is just a plastic construction amp that has clean power. Still a great amp but personally I would rather get the Topping l30 for better construction and headphone/preout/off switch.
- Topping l30 $140: A pretty much state-of-the-art headphone amp from topping. It has enough watts to power most headphones very cleanly and adds no coloration to the sound. Comes in a nice metal chassis and personally I see the l30 as the king of budget amps. Also the front headphone/preout/off switch is a godsend for people with speaker+headphone setup at their desk. Part of my active setup.
- Schiit Magnius $200: state-of-the-art amp from Schiit. This is probably the new standard for under $500 amps as it offers 2 w single-ended, 5w balanced @ 32 ohms. Lots of clean power and offers balanced input/output. I highly recommend this.
- Rupert Neve RNHP $500: This is the cheapest headphone amp you can buy that is from the renowned rupert neve. This is an amazing amplifier with great amounts of clean power, and is the only amp that I would describe as having a very organic sound with great timbre. If you're ready to spend this amount of money on just 1 peace of gear in your audio chain, this surely requires more research from your end.
SUBWOOFERSGood subwoofers are expensive, and cheap subwoofers will hurt your listening experience rather than improve it (muddy boomy shitty bass). Your best bet may be to simply find a used subwoofer from craigslist or offerup, just dont get the polk audio PSW10, this is a very common sub you see on the 2nd hand market, because it is a shitty sub and so people get rid of it. Now as to whether you need a subwoofer. If you are in a dorm, don't get a subwoofer. Because.... if you live in a dorm, do not get a fucking subwoofer. Now if you live in a small apartment, fear not, proper subwoofer management will save you noise complaints. A good subwoofer will produce good quality low end you can hear and feel without having to turn up the volume. You want to look at the subwoofer's lowest frequency it can go to. That will show you how "tight" the bass will be. Now, low volume levels on a good sub will produce that bass for you without vibrating your walls (though subwoofer and speaker isolation as well as PLACEMENT (refer to the sub-crawl) will do more for getting the most sound out of your speakers without having to turn up the volume....and just turn off the sub after a reasonable time)
Now as to how to add a subwoofer to your system will depend on what setup you have and the available connections. If your speakers or amplifier has a subwoofer output, simply connect that to your subwoofer, set the crossover freuency (the frequency at which the subwoofer will start making sound) to 80hz, or lower depending on how low of a frequency our bookshelves can go down to.
If your speakers/amp do not have a subwoofer out, you will need to find a subwoofer that has high level speaker inputs. You will need to connect your bookshelves to the speaker outputs on the subwoofer via speaker wire/banana plugs, and then run speaker wire/banana plugs from the subwoofer input to your amplifier, ending with rca to 3.5mm connection to your pc.
- Dayton Audio SUB-800 $100: The cheapest one, don't go any cheaper. Enough said. Get from parts-express. If you need cheaper, 2nd hand market.
- Dayton Sub-1000 $120: The bigger brother. This thing is 10 inches, be prepared for a BIG box sitting in your room.
- Bic Acoustech PL-200 $300: Has good bass, goes down to 22hz. Very good bang for buck "good" subwoofer. A BIG step up from the daytons.
- SVS SB-1000 $500: Bassssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss.
HEADPHONESGenerally headsets are for the most part frowned upon by audiophiles well because they usually offer garbage audio quality for how much you are paying. The way around this was to get a proper pair of headphones, and then buy a separate USB mic or get a v-moda or antlion modmic, as those are designed to be attached to your headphones to mimic the headset functionality.
The TWO EXCEPTIONS that I have observed to this rule are the Hyperx Clouds and Cooler Master mh751/752 and the recent hyperx headsets that were made in collaboration with Audeze.
- Hyperx Cloud CORE/1/2/ALPHA (please find prices on amazon). So these headphones are a rare instance of when a gaming branded pair of headphones was actually a good no bullshit product. These are hyperx reskins of OEM Takstar Pro 80, a pretty damn good pair of cans from china for under $50 (no longer available on aliexpress but Seoul had a SHIT load of these) with a mic attached to it. Chief, this is it. Reasonably good audio quality from headphone drivers for their price, and you get a mic for discord needs.
- Coolermaster MH751/752 $90/110. Now beware, on amazon there are the mh630/650/670 series headphones that are in the same...product "selection" styling part of the product page. Do NOT GET THESE, these are the typical bullshit gaming branding and are pretty bad. Now, the mh751 and 752s are coolermaster's copycat of the hyperx clouds. They are coolermaster reskins of the Takstar pro 82, another good pair of headphones. I cannot comment on this one, as I have not used either the takstar variant nor the cm variant. But the pro 82s are just as good as the 80s. If i had to guess, different styling (headband) and maybe slightly different sound signature. Difference between the 2 is the dac (the block thing in between your headphones and the wires to your pc). The dac the mh752 is most likely inferior to the dac on your mobo's build-in soundcard. Get the 751, unless you have a laptop, then the 752's dac may be better.
- Audio-Technica ath-m40x $80: You may have heard of the ath-m50/x. Now these headphones are looked down on, on the headphone forums or reddit. The m40/x is the bass reduced, aka the neutral version of the m50x for cheaper too. Great headphones for under $100. Now, I have owned the m50 waay back, and I think if you enjoy bass, then go for it. After all, they are YOUR fuckin pair of headphones and ears, who are others to say shit?
- Sony MDR7506 $100: I remember these were $75, but I guess everything changed when the coronavirus attacked. Anyway, these are the venerated mdr7506, the industry standard for headphones in the professional audio/music industry. Great quality, cheap price. They just, dont have anything going on in the looks department. These are it for pure price/performance.
- Phillips SHP-9600 $130: The successor to the popular shp-9500. A budget open-back headphones that could be powered without a dedicated amp with great soundstage for this price. The 9600 aims to be the sleeker improvement.
- BeyerDynamic DT770 (32, 90, 250 ohms) $150: Good pair of cans, very comfortable. 32 ohm version if simply plugging into your motherboard. The higher ohm versions may require separate headphone amp. Generally more amps=better audio quality, but differences are NEGLIGIBLE to nonexistent with low output amps (this is like the difference in sound of the same 100w speaker powered by a $30 smsl amp vs a $5000 Mcintosh amp at the same volume levels, very subtle and small but it's there) The biggest downside to the dt770 (and beyerdynamic in general) is that the beyer house sound is treble peaky and very bright. I personally cannot stand the beyer sound as the treble spike in their house sound is painful to my ears.
- Hifiman he400 2020 edition/ he4xx $160: the new 2020 edition of the he400 is out, pretty much leaving the he4xx kaput. The he400 2020 edition has the nicer headband from the Deva model while managing to match the 4xx's price. The budget king of planar headphones.
- Shure 440/840/1540 $100-500: Shure is a renowned name in the audio world. Their gear is always high quality, and their headphones are no exception. Their entire lineup is really solid all around, with good build quality and sound quality. You can't go wrong with this brand.
- Sennheiser 650/6xx from massdrop/660 $220-$400. The legendary series of headphones from sennheiser. Highly venerated. This is the pair of headphones that is usually present in any audiophile's headphone collection. The 600 line has been around for a very long time and have received endless praise. I personally have a 6xx, and while they are difficult to drive and require a good amp, for $220 the sound quality you get is really just amazing. Open back design and does not suffer from "fragile" issues that planars seem to have in general. Very comfortable, light, and neutral sounding on the side of warm.
- Meze 99 noiclassics:
- HifiMAN DEVA with Bluemini Receiver $300: Interesting set of open-back planar headphones that came out recently that also allow for usb connection, as well as 3.5mm, but the bluetooth function is a separate module (with a built-in mic) that you connect to the side of the headphones. So it's actually a wired set of planar headphones, but the separate bluetooth module also allows for wireless connection. The module only has enough battery for 5ish hours, so while that is charging you will have to use the wired connection. This is a usb dac/amp/bluetooth module rolled into one. Very stylish and interesting design.
- Audeze Mobius $400: "Gaming" wireless headphones from Audeze, a high end audiophile grade planar magnetic headphone manufacturer. If those words don't mean anything to you, these are wireless headphones with a detachable mic made by an extremely respected audiophile headphone manufacturer. If you want wireless headphones, I would also suggest these or the hifiman deva. These are closed-back headphones vs Hifiman's open back. These headphones also have an onboard dac for usb/3.5mm/bluetooth connection.
Example options (Wireless headsets)Okay. Wireless headsets, now let's think why do you need a wireless headset? Do you want to walk around your house while on discord? Maybe you want to keep the headset on while having to afk real quick for a smoke break or whatnot.
- TaoTronics 5.0 Bluetooth transmitter+receiver unit $30. It's a small device that can either A: give your non-bt PC bluetooth capabilities by acting as a receiver, or give your wired headphones wireless connectivity to your pc by acting as a transmitter. This thing is battery powered (like a wireless gaming headset) up to 10 hours. You just plug your wired headphones in, put the thing in your pocket and leave your pc.
- See Hifiman Deva above.
- Other wireless recommendations: Sennheiser pxc 550,Sony wh1000xm3 and Bose QC35.
- V-MODA BoomPRO $30: this is a mic with a 3.5mm that plugs in to your headphones that have a removable cable, simple.
- Antlion modmic $50: yes the modmic. You've probably heard of this.
- Fifine K669B condensor mic $46: simple mic on a stand that plugs in via usb. Imo has better recording quality than Blue snowball.
- Blue Snowball $57: Yes, you've most definitely heard of this.
Concluding remarksCool. Stay safe in these dark times brothers. Have a glorious day.
[DISCUSSION] (I'm Back) My absolute best tips regarding Eric Johnson tone, pedals, and rig
PART ONE: Signal Path
Eric Johnson's signal path is probably one of the better known elements of his rig, though I think it's only fair that I start this discussion of his genius attempt to bring studio-quality sound to the live stage with its primary element: A forking signal path.
Simplified, Eric has three paths his guitar can take via A/B boxes:
- [Lead] Guitar>Old Crybaby Wah>Echoplex>B.K. Butler Tube Driver>Lead-Amp>Stereo Modulated Reverb (Often at the board, after the microphone)
- [Dirty Rhythm] Guitar>TS-808(In true bypass loop switcher)>Fuzz Face>Digital Delay>Flanger (Either MXR FlangeDoubler or Barracuda Flanger)>Dirty-Rhythm-Amp
- [Clean Rhythm] Guitar>Deluxe Memory Man (In True Bypass loop switcher)>TC Chorus/Flanger>TWO Identical clean amps in stereo
This assortment of entirely separate pedal chains leading to different amplifiers utilizing different types of speakers produces something magnificent; total tonal separation and the impression of live studio production. Echo trails from one set of amps will carry on over top of separate amps, with the drastic variety of each amp's tonal profile contrasting the prior and succeeding tones selected with the simple click of one or two switches. It's much like the illusion that extremely practiced beatboxers are capable of creating - even though it's impossible for them to produce a bass drum and hi-hat sound simultaneously, the impression is a multi-layered sound. Despite the fact that it's only Eric playing live, your brain tells you that there are multiple layers to his sound occurring simultaneously - the effect is particularly pronounced within the surrounding 10 or so seconds of an amp switch. Uncanny shifts in the stereo field, and a new audible assault from a fresh source.
PART TWO: Amps
I know this is guitarpedals, but I feel that discussing the amp situation is pertinent. To simplify for the sake of the reality probably dawning on readers fresh to Eric Johnson's rig, this kind of setup is not exactly practical for the average player, or comprehensively affordable even utilizing budget versions of each type of amp that Eric utilizes. Nonetheless, for the sake of posterity, here's a not-entirely-comprehensive list of amps Eric has used for various tones across the years, organized from most common (top) to least common (bottom) in regards to usage in each category.
- EITHER a Marshall 50 watt plexi superlead (Smaller venues) or 100 watt Marshall superlead. This has remained consistent for most of Eric's career.
- Mid 1980s Dumble Overdrive Special as seen here, described by Eric Johnson as the ". . .loudest 50 watts I've ever heard." This amp is fuzzier and creamier than his Marshalls, with a harmonic structure that is almost reminiscent of a dimed Vox in some ways.
- 100 Watt Marshall Superlead or Superbass converted to utilize 6L6 tubes, or a Metroplex. Eric replaced his unreliable Steel String Singer with a variety of Marshall-style amps following his longest stints on tour in the 90s, and this setup lasted the longest.
- 150 Watt Steel String Singer by Dumble as seen very clearly and utilized for most of the slightly-broken-up sound you see here. Unsurprisingly, Eric found this amp far too loud, and supposedly utilized a 100 watt GREEN power amp to amplify the preamp of this particular beast after a couple of years using it on tour, and eventually blew its transformer and gave up on the overly loud, unreliable monster. The first part of the Dumble ODS clip includes this amp, and you can hear how much louder it is than the aforementioned overdrive special.
- 100 Watt Two Rock Traditional Clean Eric enjoys this amp as an evolution of the old Steel String Singer design, commenting in the linked video about how Two Rock have (paraphrasing) "made it their own". This has been utilized in more recent years, and sounds much like a quieter version of the old Steel String Singer.
- Two Twin Reverb amps loaded into custom-made headshells . These two amps have been used the most consistently in Eric's rig, and are older 60s blackface twins that have been modified into headshells for easier transport.
- Two Deluxe Reverb combos Eric simply uses these as replacements for the Twins for particularly small venues. They are usually discernible in sounding quite a bit smaller than the Twins, as they are not going into the normal stereo 4x12 that the twin heads go into, which is a perfect segue into -
This part will be relatively short, as I believe speakers are highly subjective, though I will make suggestions relative to those personal choices.
For lead, Eric has used the Celestion Classic Lead 80 for quite some time in his Marshall 4x12 (Though with his 50 watt Dumble, he used an oversized Marshall 2x12). I have one of these speakers in my Fender Supersonic 22, and it is a marvelous example of the Celestion sound that isn't peaky or spiky like a greenback, and is capable of handling significantly more punishment. It smooths highs over without cutting them like a G12-65, and supports a strong bottom end without turning into a full range speaker. Excellent for overdrive, AND cleans.
For dirty rhythm, Eric generally just uses lower wattage speakers. As of most recently, I believe he is using his signature eminence 40 watt alnico speaker . Lower wattage or alnico speakers tend to crunch up a bit more than higher wattage or ceramic speakers, and can enhance upper-midrange harmonics. Any lower wattage speaker will probably do the job here, and frankly speaker distortion isn't really something you as an individual should be particularly concerned about unless you are really getting your amp breathing. These speakers are fitted into a 4x12 as well
For clean rhythm, Eric generally uses EVM12L style speakers . These speakers are practically full range, having evolved from an actual PA speaker. Super heavy, super high wattage, and excruciatingly clear. Funnily enough, these are excellent for lead as well as cleans. Again, a Marshall 4x12, but in stereo this time.
PART FOUR: Guitar
It helps in achieving Eric Johnson tones to have your guitar set up somewhat like his. He utilizes a Dimarzio HS-2 in the bridge position of his strats, wired to single coil, though practically any hotter noiseless single coil will work very well for this purpose. He also has the second strat tone knob wired to control the tone for the bridge pickup. This is VITAL to achieving the violin-like lead tone. Rolling the tone off to about 6-7 is where the punch of this tone lies. A further modification that can bring you even closer is using a 500k pot in the volume pots of strats, which will make your single coils VERY bright. Tame this with the tone pots, and you can have the immensely full and bright clean tones with the punch and dark overdrive tones that you hear in videos of Eric.
PART FIVE:Amp settings
This is HIGHLY subjective, and is therefore a short part. Basically, extremes do not lend themselves to Eric's tone. His feel for tone controls is more subdued, and more often than not you will need to have most controls on your amp below 12 o'clock, no matter the circuit. This is the only major advice I have, as it is something you need to adjust by ear as a player.
For further advice, Eric himself has given hints as to the inspiration of at least two of his tones: His Dirty Rhythm tone is not inspired by SRV as one may guess by his usage of the Steel String Singer and tube screamer together, but by Keith Richards of all people - The Start Me Up tone in particular. Harmonically rich, and slightly dirty. Hendrix is also a huge inspiration for this particular tone, and Voodoo Chile presents itself as a large inspiration. Pushing the bass control past 12 o’clock can get closer to this tone, though you have to be cautious to avoid muddiness.
For lead, his tone is very clearly inspired by Eric Clapton , and he himself has said so. When you add the tube driver and echoplex to that basic tone, you have the Cliffs sound.
THE PART YOU'VE BEEN WAITING FOR, PART SIX: ...Okay but how do I actually build something like this?
Alright! Let's go over some good amps, pedals, and general signal chain ideas, as well as what to do if you have a pedal platform amp.
For an all rounder, I've gotta give it to a short-kept secret: The Fender Supersonic series. The 22 is probably the most robust and realistic for these tones on a volume/cost budget, and with an appropriate pedal setup (or at the most ideal, a midi-capable switcher, but we'll get to that later), it can cop a lot of these tones acceptably well. This is my personal recommendation for a SINGLE amp setup. The three channels, effects loop, and versatile gain staging will allow you to corral this monolithic setup into something tiny, and while not having all of the magic of a multi-amp design, will allow you to achieve 3 distinct tones without 3 distinct amps. I recommend replacing the stock eminence speaker. The Celestion Lead 80 is what I chose, but a more full-range speaker such as a Weber Michigan would probably also work very well!
For a budget multi amp setup, I’d probably go with just the clean tone and a compromise between the lead/dirty rhythm as the second amp. This will give you two distinct tones and two signal paths without taking up an enormous amount of room, and will let the pedals do a fair amount of the work. I would choose either the Marshall Origin 20 or Fender Bassbreaker 30 for the lead amp, and either a pair of used blues jrs or just one blues deluxe for the clean amp(s). - This is an important choice, as going stereo on your clean budget tone opens up the options for your pedalboard, but more on that later.
For the ultimate realistic setup that is still somewhat usable, here are my recommendations: Lead amp: Marshall Studio Vintage 20 head and a 1x12 or 2x12 loaded with Celestion Classic Lead 80s. Dirty Rhythm amp: Either a Ceriatone 5e3 12 watt head, or something similarly small and american voiced through a 1x12 or 2x12 loaded with lower wattage, preferably alnico speakers. For clean, the straight forward choice is two deluxe reverb or princeton reverb amps, loaded with clear and articulate ceramic speakers.
So we went over the order and switching earlier, so now it’s just the semantics of what works and why!
So, considering you using an amp with switching and a tube-based overdrive channel or a multi amp setup, we can talk about this as normal. When it comes to a pedal platform, I’ll have some more specific recommendations later.
Firstly, the madly difficult to achieve lead sound. The traditional chain I’ve already mentioned; Crybaby>Echoplex>Tube Driver>Amp>Modulated Reverb. For a realistic method to achieve this tone with pedals, I recommend the following:
Either just a standard crybaby, or a Wilson Wah so you can tune it to sound how you want. The wah only comes on sporadically for Eric, and isn’t paramount as an effect, so you could probably skip it.
For the echoplex, I actually do not specifically recommend the Dunlop echoplex. I think that it’s tone is subpar compared to contemporaries; specifically the Catalinbread echorec or echoplex. Eric Johnson himself uses these units to this day in custom effects loops made for his echoplexes. These are the best tape delays on the market for the price in my opinion, though there are many other options, and any tape-style delay that you particularly enjoy will probably do the trick just fine! So far as settings go, I find that relatively few repeats are utilized on the lead setting, with a healthy amount of mix, and a fairly medium/fast (but not slapback) delay time.
Following the echoplex, I recommend the MXR Fet Driver instead of the Tube Driver unless you want to support B.K. Butler himself. The distortion generated in the Tube Driver, against popular understanding, is not actually from the tube itself. It is from the fet chip driving the tube. The tube itself only acts as a filter in the circuit, which the MXR simulates with a high-cut button. It should also be noted in setting this particular pedal, that the “Low” and “high” knobs are BOOSTS rather than traditional tone-style knobs, and the best settings are well below 9 o’ clock, if not simply at zero (Which is how Eric uses it). This pedal is best used for Eric Johnson tones at unity volume, adding a small amount of gain to that aforementioned early Eric Clapton tone. This pedal comes after the echoplex because of issues of compression - coming after the echoplex means that the echoed signal goes into a lot of distortion, which causes a dynamic-delay effect, meaning that moments of silence are filled with swells of echo, while moments of playing are clear due to compression.
For the reverb, this is why amps with effects loops are preferable. I really enjoy the Digitech Polara, but as it’s becoming less and less readily available, pretty much any reverb that has a modulated setting that you enjoy will work well. Mix relatively low, and tone relatively high (In order to not clog up lower frequencies which the dark Clapton-esque tone is already filling) and you will hear the kind of tone familiar to those who have heard the ‘88 Austin City Limits Cliffs Of Dover performance. If you have an attenuator on your lead amp with a line out, running a line out to a speaker simulator and then to the reverb stereo out to a good PA will give you the full experience.
For your dirty rhythm pedals, the Tube Screamer comes first in a true bypass effects loop. Why, you may ask? Well, the buffer in that tube screamer will passively piss off your fuzz face. Why not put it after, then? Well, one of Eric’s favorite things to do is put the buffer of the (turned off) tube screamer in front of his fuzz face when he wants extra sustain or pump from the pick attack. This doesn’t work well for Hendrixian sounds, but does work well for more modern, angular and compressed fuzz tones. This also allows the tube screamer to be rammed into the fuzz face actively, which makes the fuzz tone even more square-wavey and aggressive.
The Tube Screamer itself is something Eric claims he only uses for “power chords”, but as in the 1985 performance with the two Dumbles, he utilized it fairly often with his Steel String Singer in a fashion not dissimilar to Stevie Ray Vaughan, though his settings are somewhat different. Eric generally uses gain and level at about 12 o'clock, with tone most of the way down. This will give you a fuzzy, almost low-fidelity tone, which is precisely what Eric is going for with his dirty rhythm sound. Take the modern tones of his lead and clean, and contrast them with an incredibly raw and vicious sounding primitive amp/pedal tone.
The Fuzz Face is almost always ran on batteries, which is 50/50 for me. I do notice a difference, but it is not the kind of difference I can really justify declaring war on the environment for. It’s your choice. Batteries do make the fuzz face more dynamic and amicable, but they are a chore, as you have to repeatedly unplug your fuzz face in order to avoid constantly draining the battery. The buffer trick I’ve already mentioned; this allows your fuzz face to go from loose, and psychedelic like Hendrix to pushed and angry, almost like a Fuzz Factory. Eric runs his Fuzz Face at unity gain (This is in order to avoid blowing out the low end and probably speakers along with it), and near-as-makes-no-difference maximum fuzz.
After the Fuzz Face, you can place any digital delay of your choice. I personally recommend something other than tape delay, as the different kind of delay can vary the sounds that the audience or your significant other hears, making the dirty rhythm sound more interesting. A boss DD unit at the simplest end, or a Strymon Dig at the highest end would serve this role perfectly.
You can either place the flanger before or after the delay. Try both out, as the effect of flanger after delay can be satisfyingly dramatic. For flanger, Eric uses the impossible to acquire MXR FlangeDoubler rack unit. I recommend the Mr. Black tunnelworm through-zero flanger or TC Vortex on the cheaper end to try to achieve this tone. Alternatively, the flanging tone that Eric is most likely attempting to recreate is actual studio tape flanging, which was not simulatable back when he was using the MXR (Outside of actually doing it in a studio), but is now. The catalinbread Zero Point is an EXCELLENT budget option for this, and lets you manually simulate putting your thumb on the flange via a soft touch footswitch alongside the main one. The Strymon Deco is the pricier, higher quality version of this.
For the clean pedals, a compressor pedal may be pertinent to put first in line in case you cannot turn your clean amp(s) or channel up high enough to get some of the compression that is present in Eric’s clean tone. I personally think that the coloration of the Diamond Yellow comp actually sounds a lot like Eric’s tone, though a faux studio-style compressor like the Keeley deluxe comp, MXR studio comp, or on the higher end, Origin Effects Cali76 may serve you better in this regard. This is an optional thing, but is probably a good idea, as most people can’t turn even a Deluxe Reverb up high enough to achieve the kind of compression present in Eric’s TWO Twins.
Next, some sort of tape delay. Again, my recommendations for the echorec and belle epoch stand, though the echorec may be a bit more fun for this, as having more dense/complicated delays may not get in the way of a rhythm sound as much as a lead sound.
Following this, a stereo chorus to split to two amps. Eric does not use a tri chorus, but a phase flipped chorus. The MXR Stereo chorus, TC corona, and vintage Ibanez PC10 do this sound very well as alternative units. Set to taste. If not in stereo, the mono chorus may sound too cheesy. It’s all up to taste. If you have two amps to use in stereo, dear god do it. It’s lifechanging. Putting these two amps on opposite sides of the lead amp/dirty rhythm amp will make you a believer.
Finally, for pedal platform amps, get into amp-in-box pedals! The Crazy Tube Circuits Falcon would be a perfect Dirty Rhythm “amp”, as it has that edgy, fuzzy American thing which would sound wicked with a tube screamer or fuzz going into it. The Catalinbread Dirty Little Secret, or on the higher end, Origin Revival Drive would be perfect for the EJ lead sound, combined with aforementioned pedals. The clean tone, utilizing compression and perhaps an EQ pedal or relatively mildly flavored preamp (Such as Vertex Steel String) is probably achievable with most of the base of your tone. Brightening and adding compression with pedals will do what you need.
For signal chain, those utilizing multiple amps need only do an offshoot of what is previously described. For single amps, the ultimate choice would be a programmable loop switcher. Alternatively, utilizing several pedals in single true bypass loop switchers can be used to activate “amps” of sorts, with amp in box pedals being held within those loops, or a fast foot on an amp channel switch.
It took this long to get to pedals, but if you have come this far, your interest probably supersedes the little boxes of silicon and 9 volts. Thank you for reading, and if you have any questions at all, leave a comment!