As someone who has been in this hobby for 10 years now, putting together a beginner audiophile setup is both the easiest and hardest thing to do.
It’s easy to just tell someone to get whatever headphones or earphones are currently making the rounds in the community and pair that with a smartphone.
And if you need the TL;DR for what the best beginner audiophile setup is, that’s all I have to say: headphones, smartphone, be happy.
But an audiophile setup can and often do grow into so much more than that and it’s part of the reason why we’re so fascinated with high-end setups in the first place.
So that’s what we’ll be exploring in this guide—the fundamental parts that make up an audiophile setup, what they contribute to the listening experience, and how much of it you should really care about.
What Makes An Audiophile Setup?
Every audiophile setup under the sun, from the simple budget combos to the bespoke custom rigs, is all made up of the same basic parts.
Depending on who you ask, we can spend forever and a half debating exactly how detailed we should be when we classify these parts, but for this guide, we’ll keep this down to five: Media, Source, Power, and Output.
In the context of our guide, “media” refers to where you get your music from and in what format it’s in.
Naturally, this is the core of your setup and will have a big say in what you’ll be buying for the other parts of the setup (although it’s mostly the source).
Most audiophile setups choose from one of three media sources—CDs, vinyl, and digital music. Each one has its pros and cons, of course, which we will be covering below.
At one point, CDs were the gold standard for audiophile setups that were especially popular throughout the 90s and 2000s.
With its optical storage method, these compact discs stored music at a much higher quality than other mediums at the time. This Red Book standard—a stereo PCM signal with a 44.1 kHz sample rate and 16 bits of depth—is more than enough for all music and is still used today.
Among the physical media forms you can get your music in, CDs boast higher quality, a smaller footprint, and better longevity.
The smaller size also means collections of them are cheaper to create and easier to store.
However, since they’re physical discs, you’ll find yourself limited either by the big CD players that will tether you to the house or the number of CDs you can carry with you if you decide to go the portable route.
Regardless of their limitations, CDs are the backbone of the classic hi-fi setup and are definitely worth considering.
Vinyl is the other of the two common physical media forms you can build your audio setup around.
As the next step from Edison’s wax cylinders, vinyl records are a very old format that uses plastic platters that store music recordings through microscopic grooves.
By all accounts, vinyl is inferior to the CDs that succeeded them. For one, they’re more extensive and therefore more expensive and more difficult to store.
The sound coming from vinyl degrades and loses resolution every time you play it due to friction from the needle that has to drag through its grooves.
Further damage to the vinyl can also come from tiny specks of dust and dirt that can get into the grooves before, during, and after playback. As such, one has to clean their records diligently and handle them carefully when one chooses to listen to them.
But these flaws, as numerous as they are, are part of the reason why vinyl has seen a huge resurgence in the last few years. It’s gotten to the point that they’ve managed to surpass CD sales in 2022—the first time this has happened since the 80s.
For people willing to dedicate extra time, money, and effort into building an audiophile setup around vinyl, there’s an aesthetic value and quality to vinyl that one won’t find anywhere else.
When viewed in this light, vinyl’s flaws become its advantages—their size, inconvenience, and cost demanding reverence and commitment from the listener as they not only listen to but experience the recording.
Infinitely convenient and capable of near-limitless quality, digital music stands as the antithesis of vinyl.
Existing purely as chunks of data and not bound to a physical object like a CD (which is also digital), music files are ephemeral and have practically infinite storage potential.
Just stick a micro SD card into your smartphone and suddenly your music collection is increased a thousandfold, all on a device that actually fits in your pocket.
It’s this lack of a physically interactable medium that turns some people away from digital music. To them, the experience of digital music feels trivial since it can’t be felt.
The advent of online streaming services like Spotify and Apple Music has only made this sentiment stronger among a certain camp of the audiophile community.
On the other hand, digital music can contain audio data on orders of magnitude well beyond any physical storage medium or even reason.
Hi-res music, which is either sold as digital downloads at places like HDTracks or streamed through services like Tidal, Apple Music, and Deezer, goes above the CD standard quality of 16 bit / 44.1 kHz, cramming in more data into the music file with specs like 24 bit / 192 kHz.
Whether or not these hi-res tracks sound significantly better to human ears than CD quality is constantly debated.
But in an ironic twist, the appeal of these tracks happens to be just the same as that of vinyl—the optics of having a fancy (read: expensive) audiophile setup and having the equipment to justify it.
I’ll admit, I’ve waxed poetic about vinyl, CD, and digital music a bit too much in the earlier section. But I hope, if anything, it gets across the kind of mindset that an audiophile usually has when building out a setup around each kind of media.
And since they serve as the core of our audiophile setup anyway, that mindset gets carried along as we talk about our choice of sources.
Sources are the devices that carry our choice of media and handle the first step of reading them so they can be translated into the music we can hear.
Both CDs and vinyl are, by nature, locked to fixed sources. CD players are for CDs and turntables are for vinyls; no more, no less.
As it is with every link in the audiophile setup chain, these devices are available at a variety of price points and come with all manner of extra bells and whistles. Look out for our guides on them if you’re looking to dive in.
For digital downloads and streaming, though, your options broaden quite a bit. If your audiophile setup is fixed to a single room, a computer will be more than up for the task.
You even get the extra convenience of having a bunch of tools on hand to manage your collections and even tweak your audio output whenever you want.
Digital music also lets you keep the tunes going wherever you are thanks to portable digital audio players (DAPs). From ultra-compact ones without any display like an iPod Shuffle to chunky all-in-one audio powerhouses like the Fiio M11 Pro, you have no shortage of options to choose from.
Or, of course, you could just use a smartphone.
The Digital-to-Analog Converter, or DAC, is part of the audiophile setup that translates digital music data into the analog electrical signal that headphones and speakers turn into sound.
As the name suggests, DACs are only needed for digital sources; vinyl, therefore, skips this step.
While you might see DACs sold as large separate units, the DAC itself is just a processing chip. As such, it can (and is) already embedded in digital audio players, smartphones, and computers—that’s how they can output sound in the first place.
In 2023, we’re already at the point where most devices already have decent DAC chips that don’t require a separate unit. However, lower-end or older devices (especially older computers) tend to have DACs that are either low quality or are affected by interference from nearby components.
This calls for separate DAC units that bypass the source device. Units like the iFi Zen Dac 2 have their own circuitry that minimizes outside interference and maximizes quality.
Now, the analog signal coming out of a DAC is usually too quiet to be heard on headphones. As such, an amplifier is set after this stage to raise the volume enough to be comfortably audible.
Like the DAC, devices that play digital audio already have amplifier chips in them to output audio, but these can be low quality and fail to give enough power for some headphones.
Standalone amps can also be found as desktop or portable units in a variety of sizes to accommodate different power requirements.
Outside of power-hungry headphones, there are also amps that are actually needed for certain headphones.
Electrostatic headphones like the Koss ESP-950, for example, have a different mechanism for moving their drivers that needs its own type of amp that regular headphones can’t use.
Vinyl audiophile setups also need special amps of their own. Because of the way that record players output sound, a phono preamp (also called a phono stage) needs to be installed before the main amplifier.
Devices like the ART DJ Pre II get the record player’s signal up to a proper level while also minimizing background noise.
The output, as you probably already know by now, is your headphones or earphones of choice.
Even though they’re the last step in the chain, they’re the most important as they have the most impact on the quality of the sound that you hear.
While we could go into more detail about how they work, generally they all more or less work the same and are made different only by their design goals and intended use case.
What Do You Actually Need?
And indeed, the use case is and should be your biggest driving factor in helping you choose what kind of audiophile setup you want—and more importantly, what components you actually need.
As I already mentioned at the beginning of this guide, a smartphone and a good pair of headphones can more than pass for an audiophile setup.
The smartphone already handles the role of source, DAC, and amp—all you need to choose is what headphones to use and what music to listen to. You really don’t need anything else beyond that.
If you’re a complete beginner, my advice would be to only buy a separate component if you absolutely need it.
Say, for example, you want to build out a vinyl audiophile setup.
While you could buy a turntable, phono preamp, and headphone amp separately, there are a lot of modern record players like the Audio Technica AT-LP3XBT that have all of that in a single package—and it even has Bluetooth for good measure.
I’ll admit that I’m coming at this from a practical perspective.
If cost is no object to you, that’s completely fine. You can get separate components for every step of the audio chain if you so choose. Most other purchases can be safely ignored.
The audiophile hobby has become more accessible now than it has ever been.
With the market being filled almost too overflowing with products, just about every listener at every budget point is bound to find an audiophile setup that works for them.
Of course, that does make it tricky to figure out what you need to buy once you’re in the market.
We hope this guide has given you an idea of what options you have out there, as well as some tips on how to keep things simple and practical.
Tech enthusiast since childhood with a passion for finding the perfect gadget or accessory for the job. Always happy to share knowledge on electronics and digital trends. Music lover, 5K runner, instinctive optimizer. Impressed by fit and finish. Inspired by art and engineering.