Now, this is an easy one. You can probably eyeball the portable vs. desk setup question and say a number of things that may or may not be along the lines of “if you’re on the go choose portable but if you lean towards home use, choose desk setup.”
And you’re right, it’s simple.
You can just shotgun it like that and be done but, of course, any audiophile isn’t solely an audiophile. Sound quality is paramount – I used to believe this and for a time, this idea served me well.
Just recently though, I realized that sound quality may not be worth the cost of compromising other features that may be useful. So let’s talk about portable vs. desk setup and the pros and cons of each.
The Desk Setup
You’re chilling on your desk with your DAC/Amp stack of choice, a pair of good headphones, and hot cocoa, and nothing could be better.
Sonic-wise, you’re getting every ounce of auditory satisfaction you could probably have from a selection of sources and gear, both headphones and IEMs included. Now let’s discuss its pros and cons.
Pros of the Desk Setup
Undoubtedly, anything wired beats out wireless. This is because Bluetooth codecs have a more compressed signal, leading to compromised sonics. Wired has always been my go-to because of this, not to mention it provides me with a versatile selection of sources, which open up sound to new heights.
I used to rave about wireless sets back then because I was tired of hiding earphone cables inside my shirt. Ever since becoming an audiophile though, I haven’t had the slightest care about whether wires dangle from my ears. Sonically, wired sets provide a richer sound that wireless sets just lack at times.
A Dedicated Listening Environment
A desk setup will lead you to imagine gear situated on a desk. While most setups are like this, there are also ones that are more akin to reading nooks. This makes listening to music more of an intimate personal activity.
Whatever your desk setup may look like, it’s nice to have a dedicated space for listening to music. On a further note, while other headphones or in-ear monitors are okay to travel with, some units are just too expensive to run the risk of losing.
While it does feel good to jog a dewy Wednesday with a kilo buck set, I feel like there are cheaper sets that can take a heavy beating, hence the term, beater sets.
Committing to a desk setup allows you to access higher-end amplifiers that weigh like an elephant. Of course, there’s no way in daylight you’re going to be able to lug around a 40-pound vintage amplifier anywhere, so use on top of a desk or a bookshelf is preferable.
Power-hungry planar headphones come into mind and as much as any phone’s 3.5mm jack is pluggable, it simply won’t drive these headphones to even half of their potential.
Having said that, some types of equipment need precise pairing to sound their best. Perhaps a Stax energizer or a DAC/Amp stack beefy enough to power a Susvara – these things can get quite heavy but they sure do lift heavy sound-wise.
Cons of the Desk Setup
Lack of Mobility
Desk setups are inherently stationary, making use on the go challenging. You can kind of use full-size headphones in public given you don’t mind all the staring you’d get but even so, storing them is already problematic unless you plan on keeping the bulk on your neck.
Sources can be more forgiving as there are stacks that come in pretty sleek form factors. Still, the connections on the back need their separate wires, not to mention your stack will need a wall socket, so there’s that.
This is perhaps the biggest factor as to why people prefer mainstream stuff.
Most desk setups cost a pretty penny to get and while I do think that you’d get the utmost sound quality from more expensive equipment, mid-range options and many budget options can provide you with just as much enjoyment. After all, more expensive doesn’t always mean better.
The Portable Setup
I’ve been a die-hard supporter of the wired camp that I go to the gym using wired earphones. As you can probably guess, I’ve encountered a few problems.
I had to put my phone in my side pocket and when it wasn’t getting in the way of my squat movements, the cable was too short and tugged on my ears whenever I tried to place it on the floor while I lifted weights.
Now don’t get me wrong, I did try to go wireless while going to the gym, but my Sony1000XM3s just weren’t doing it for me, tuning-wise.
It may sound like I’m going in with the axes out on a complete mission to throw tomatoes at portable setups but really, no. I’ve been drawn more to portable setups as I’ve taken up a more active lifestyle. Still, there are various things worth mentioning, both good and bad.
Pros of the Portable Setup
As you’ve already read in my earlier rant, I like wired more than wireless. This doesn’t mean I hate portable sets because portable and wireless aren’t synonymous. They’re quite different.
How else can it be portable if it isn’t wireless earphones or headphones though? It’s simple – I can always opt to use wired earphones or cans through a small Bluetooth DAC like an iFi GO Blu or a Fiio BTR5.
It’s a small form factor that’s not bigger than a matchbox with a dedicated DAC chip inside. In any case, any dreaded Bluetooth compression is out of the equation, while still retaining utility for activities like jogging, working out or just walking around.
Quality of Life Features
I try to stay away from Bluetooth at all costs, but when I don’t have any choice, I live with it. Headphones and earphones that have gesture control do somehow relieve my asphyxiations of the Bluetooth sound as it’s trading sound quality for more utility.
There’s also ANC, which in most situations I don’t have a use for. However, it’s still a good feature for those who do.
On the topic of little portable gadgets like Bluetooth DACs though, sound filters and built-in EQ like the one on the Qudelix 5k are real candy for tinkerheads and those who like to shape sound via equalization.
There are a lot of features to be had with portable sets that make having a DAP or a phone ported through a DAC dongle obsolete.
The MSG of Audio
What do I mean when I say MSG of audio? It’s none other than DSP or Digital Signal Processing, which allows for a wide range of audio signal manipulations, such as equalization, filtering, compression, and reverb, among others.
These processes can be applied to correct, enhance, or modify the audio signal to achieve specific audio effects. In more understandable terms, DSP is a built-in program that does extra processing to a signal to achieve a certain sound.
My earliest introduction to DSP was when my Sony1000XM3 Bluetooth headphones first ran out of battery. I grabbed its 3.5mm cable and used it wired to my computer. To my surprise, it sounded completely flat and far from its sound when DSP was applied.
It turns out that the internal EQ on the XM3 only worked if it was in Bluetooth mode. This is one of many examples though as DSP has been widely used on various audio equipment like monitor speakers, earphones, and digital synthesizers inside DAWs.
Cons of the Portable Setup
I guess you’re fed up with how much shade I’ve been throwing at wireless sets. If you’re still one of the mainstream consumers, I completely understand your irritation. If you’re a fellow audiophile though, you may share my lack of respect for Bluetooth.
It just has that inclination to be completely dull in the treble. Lower treble response at times may be okay but there’s just something about the extension that sounds completely off to me. It’s like the remaining tail end of notes sound filed off and missing. It’s simply compression at work and yet I still don’t favor the sound even in exchange for not having any cables.
This may not necessarily be a con for you, but it is for me. I much prefer passive noise isolation because external noise tends to disappear when I start to play music.
Active noise cancelation creates a sort of vacuum though that makes me nauseous after a while. I switch to ambient mode to relieve some of the pressure but even then, it’s too much. I find myself using any kind of ANC set to off, as it just feels better overall.
If you have migraine like I do, the ANC experience is something you should test out before diving into it. There have been quite a few times when my headaches got triggered by too much pressure from the ANC.
In any case, this is a positive feature for people who absolutely need the extra isolation to focus. Personally, it’s not my cup of tea.
Two Percent and You’re Out!
Everything portable isn’t wired to a wall socket – meaning, it has a battery. You don’t have to look any further, your phone is a good example.
With all portable audio equipment like DAPs, Bluetooth DACs, portable amplifiers, and your consumer Bluetooth earpieces, battery life is going to range from about 3 to 24 hours of use, depending on their respective ratings.
I specifically love my Shanling M3X Ltd for having a very long battery life. It goes up to 5 days on standby and 2 days with moderate use. I have a generous window of time before I need to plug it in and that leaves me with ample time to enjoy music as I lug it around everywhere.
For other equipment though, battery management is key. You’d never want to run out of battery on a long commute. That’s just agonizing.
Final Thoughts: Portable vs. Desk Setup
In this debate of portable vs. desk setup, it doesn’t take too much thinking to figure out which setup to run.
If you’re in the middle of the camps, there are solutions to give way to a hybrid setup that can both work for a desk setup and a portable one. It mainly depends on your unique lifestyle and preferences, so don’t be afraid to try new things.
It’s not too weird to use an open-back headphone using a portable headphone amp in public but just be sure that when you do decide to do that, everyone else doesn’t mind the noise because they can hear whatever you’re listening to. I remember the first time I used an open-back without knowing it leaked out a ton of sound and, boy, it was embarrassing but I digress.
There’s no right or wrong in choosing a specific setup. If you dial in your preferences and stick to your budget, I’m sure you’ll come to a decision that you’ll be ultimately happy with.
Gavin is a college student who has a lot going on. From collecting IEMs and modding mechanical keyboards, to different hobbies like digital drawing, music mastering and cooking. It is safe to say he is a complete multi-faceted geek (and he's kinda cool too)