The under $500 world

I appreciate the great conversation about the higher end headphones, but what about the “common man” who has limited source devices and limited funds?


There are plenty of options for very high quality replay without spending a fortune. Some of the most fun, and interesting, rigs I’ve seen/heard have been on the lower end of the budgetary spectrum.

This was one of my favorite combinations, with the HD650, for a while (though that’d push the budget a bit unless you bought used):

An often overlooked, but amazing performer, especially for the price, are the Koss Porta Pro, which can be had for under $40. They’re not very demanding to drive, either, though scale well enough that pairing them with a modest DAC and amp (or combo) will yield excellent results. Something like a FiiO X1, AudioQuest Dragonfly (only need the black) or Schiit Fulla 2 would keep you under $150 all-in and most people would be surprised at how good those combinations sound.

But … assuming you’re talking about $500 all-in for source, amp and headphones, I would generally recommend putting half, maybe more, of that amount into the headphones themselves. This is largely because good headphones will scale well and they are where you’ll hear the biggest differences from one model to another.

My personal favorites around that level are Sennheiser’s HD650, which are apparently discontinued now, though the Massdrop HD6XX, when available, are essentially the same thing for $199. And iFi Nano iDSD BL would do a very nice job as a DAC/amp to drive those and you’d be all-set for $400.

Other interesting DACs and amps suitable for this sort of budget include the Massdrop Cavalli Tube Hybrid amp, which is excellent, the Schiit Vali 2 which is nearly as good and $70 cheaper.

If you already have a source, then I’d start by using it to feed something like the CTH and the Sennhesiers and worry about a DAC later. Though there are plenty of DACs around the $100 level that deliver excellent performance … more so than most expect.

Just a few thoughts … there are many excellent options at this level. The “law of diminishing returns” takes effect very quickly in audio … it’s fastest with DACs, then amps, and then headphones in my opinion.


I second @Torq’s Modi/ Vali combination with the HD 650’s. The Modi is a capable DAC for just under $100 (If you don’t need SPDIF or Coaxial). Paired with the Vali for $150 more, the soundstage opens up and becomes much warmer which compliments the 650’s which are very neutral. All in all the whole system can be had for $450 which is under your budget.

For a little bit of extra oomph, I would suggest upgrading the Vali’s stock tube. Any of the higher end NOS (“New Old Stock”) tubes that will fit in the Vali will be a great improvement. I personally have bought the Amperex bugle boy for around $50. Telefunken, Siemens, and Mullard tubes will also do you good for around the same price.

Overall this system is a great beginner or mid-fi setup, maybe even for the office. You also get the satisfaction of tube rolling, which your wallet may not forgive you for!

The one issue that I have had though is that the Vali does not produce enough power for the 650’s in some cases. I like my music LOUD depending on what I am listening to, and sometimes I was cranking the Vali to max just to get the volume I wanted. I’ll have to break out the Vali again to see if the problem persists, but when that was my main amp, I had a hard time.


I agree with @Torq’s suggestion of Vali / Modi. But if you’re really strapped for money or want to spend a bit more on headphones, the Magni / Modi stack is a pretty solid upgrade from your computer’s headphone jack. You wouldn’t get to tube roll, though, so it depends entirely on what you’re looking to do with your setup.

At around the same price as the Sennheiser HD 6XX, you could also take a look at the Hifiman HE400i if you’re looking for a planar magnetic option. I personally love my HD 6XX, but I also love me some planars, too.


My personal favorite under $500 is the HD 650. In my experience, at least in this price range, dynamic drivers are superior to planars.

If you want to go super budget, I highly recommend Creative Aurvana Live! (CAL!). I own that as well as Fostex TH-X00 and EMU Teak and CAL! is 90% the sound quality of those (same exact signature). That is probably my favorite full size headphone under $200. Another super budget option is Koss KSC75. It is probably about as close to HD600 as you can get regardless of form factor.

Otherwise, like others have suggested, HD600/650 with a modest entry level source setup like Schiit stack (Modi/Magni/Vali) or Audio-gd NFB-11 are great and could be endgame for many people.


I tried the CAL! and wound up selling them. They didn’t open up the sound like I wanted. Sadly, over the years I’ve purchased well over $500 worth of headphones and earbuds in bits an pieces. The best I “auditioned” at the time were the the Senn 558’s but I didn’t have a quiet place to enjoy them.

I’m thinking about getting the FiiO E10K or a similarly priced DAC/Amp as soon as I have a little extra cash. I’d like to try some of my gear out with a better source signal.

I’m not trying to give you hard time, but I absolutely HATED the Magni 3 with my Sennheiser HD-600s. It was weak overall (not much louder than a phone/computer output) and flat/dead when dealing with full-spectrum current-demanding passages (e.g., Sleigh Bells, White Stripes, Pixies). I had it turned all the way to 3 o’clock for a normal listening volume. The sound became very compressed/muddy at the exact time when they needed to respond dynamically.

I heard zero improvement to either volume or sound quality from the Magni 3 versus my iPhone / iPod Touch 6 output on any of the headphones I own. So, I sent the Magni 3 back. But, I hear huge improvements with a tube/hybrid amp and all the same components.

In the $500 range I purchased the following:

Sennheiser HD-600s $300 (I prefer their neutral profile vs. the HD-650 or HD-6xx; but they are all equal quality).
Massdrop CTH amp $250 (Very clean and full-spectrum with a touch of tube smoothness)

There are a ton of lower cost amp/DACs available for lower prices, but headphones such as the HD-600s really do best with a tube in the system. My first headphone tube amp was a Bravo Audio V2 ($65). I swapped the factory tube for a Groove Tubes 12AU7 (< $30). It sounds warm, rich, and deep versus computer/phone output, but is a bit muddy/fuzzy. Overall, it’s pretty pleasant for average non-perfectionistic listening.

Grado SR-80e headphones at $100 sound a lot like an HD-600 with the low-end cut off plus a sharp peak that colors female vocals a bit. But, they are so efficient that I hardly notice the source. An amp is mostly a waste of time with these.

For real world (non-home) use, I have Sony WH1000XM2 noise canceling headphones ($300). They sound good for this product class, are sealed from external noise, battery operated, cordless, and have an effective equalizer. This means you can have “good” sound quality on airplanes, in metros, in offices, etc.

The HD650’s are still a good buy as well as the new HD660’s. They are a nice modernization of the classic HD650’s.

1 Like

You may not like how it sounds, but if you got no real increase in volume vs. a phone or computer output, then you either have the most powerful phone/computer headphone outputs I’ve ever heard of, or something else was going on.

The direct output from an iPod Touch 6 is about 1/30th the power of the Magni 3.

In Hi-gain mode the Magni 3 will drive HD600/HD650 to deafening levels (about 130 dB … and frying the drivers as it does so).


For source I am extremely pleased with my Fiio 5 3rd gen They play nearly all formats including including very high resolutions including DSD. There you have source and player. List at $349 can find for less. Add Audeze iSine 10 in ear monitors you’d have a fine inexpensive setup. Add the uSine 20 instead ( a little more $$$) it is great. I know for me since it is my current setup. I even use them for my Audeze LCD 2 . To my ears the most impact is bass is tighter. Good luck whatever you get

I should have said, the usable volume was no greater than my phone/iPod. The Magni 3’s distortion became unpleasant after that. I very nearly thought I’d received a bad amp and asked for an exchange, but found other similar reviews online. I concluded the model was not at all to my taste (or standards???) and sent it back.

Is it possible you were double amping? If so, the Magni may have been attenuating the incoming signal to avoid clipping.

1 Like

No. Same issue with several sources and low-level input. The review below captures my impressions well:

Lots of love for the HD600. Should this be the next one to dream over?

1 Like

It is exceptional at it’s price range. Especially now that Massdrop has taken it to ~$200. Very good for it’s price.

I actually have to agree with @Torq on this. If your Magni 3 was not giving you more “clean” power than your phone or computer than your Magni 3 was broken. I have Magni 3 running from a Mimby and I just tested it with my HD6XX. I used a sound level meter coupled with a cardboard plate for a seal against the earpad and measured the sound pressure level (SPL in dBA). Doing this, on high gain, at 12 o’clock I am averaging around 90-95 dB for standard pop music. This is well above the danger zone of volume levels that can cause permanent damage and I can just barely tolerate it for short listening sessions. However, the sound spectrum is completely clean and free of distortion at this level. I then cranked it further to 2 o’clock and I was measuring an average of 95-100 dBA SPL. This level is what I consider ear bleeding and unlistenable. But I did listen to it briefly at this level and I still get a clean sound spectrum with 0 distortion. So from that, I am inclined to say that I really think your unit might have been faulty.

For reference, I have NFB-11 and R2R 11 as well. I actually don’t consider DMS3TV to be that experienced with DACs and amps and I have never really agreed with his impressions. Though my tastes and preferences for headphones do seem to line up with his just fine. Anyways, I consider Mimby/Magni 3 to be a better source combo than either NFB-11 or R2R 11. I still like both Audio-gd units quite a bit and have a hard time letting either go, but I tend to always prefer the Schiit stack over both.

1 Like

My Magni 3 may well have been broken – I kept thinking to myself “How can this thing weigh so much and have a huge wall wart but put out so little sound?” The mixed reviews may result from some bad ones getting out. In my case the volume came on from 3 o’clock and upwards; it was then loud but unpleasant.

My impressions were almost identical as DSM3TVs, so perhaps we both had bad products, or have hearing differences, or taste differences. I do know that my taste has moved strongly toward tubes over the last few years. I switched from a solid state to tube amp for my electric guitar too.

The Sennheizer HD 600s are also a good buy - a bit cheaper than the 600s and I’m my opinion a little better than the 650s. I also enjoy the 700s which never got much recognition. For a while they were sell at rock bottom prices - got mine for around $300. They are much brighter than the 6xx but a bit faster and somewhat more accurate. They are also a little easier to drive.