Looking for great sound on a razor-thin budget? Well this combo, which includes a comfortable over-ear headphone and a well-respected headphone DAC/AMP, will give you a quality hi-fi experience for less than what many people spend on headphones alone.
To create this budget rig, we start with an entry-level set of AKG studio cans, the K52. AKG has always made some of the best cheap studio headphones around, and the K52 along with it’s higher priced siblings the K72 and K92, maybe the best yet. They are all very comfortable, well built (read: durable), and easy to drive, meaning that they will sound good even if you connect them directly to a cell phone or entry level DAP.
But when you connect them to a headphone DAC/AMP, that’s when they really shine, and that’s where the second part of our combo, the Audioquest Dragonfly Black ($99 US) comes in. This highly rated USB DAC/AMP can be powered from the USB port of either a laptop or cell phone with the proper cable, and its warm, open sound really makes the AKG K52s sing. The K52 has a nice open soundstage which is really uncommon for closed headphones, especially for one under $50 US. (less if you find them on sale like I did)
I tested this rig using a laptop with the Tidal Desktop app installed, playing Hi-Fi CD-quality tracks and Hi-Res MQA Masters tracks. While the resolution and depth of a reference headphone wasn’t there, when I listened to “Big Chief” from Dee Dee Bridgewater’s “Dee Dee’s Feathers”, there was a good amount of instrument separation and both Dee Dee and Dr. John’s vocals were upfront and lively, making for a very creditable performance. My toes were definitely tapping.
Now these AKG headphones are a little light on the bass, so they may not please the bassheads amongst us, and they also are not the most detailed cans on the market. But, you will have a hard time finding sound this rich and open at this price point. And if you are not satisfied with the K52, for less than $20 you should be able to move up to either the K72 or K92 which offer incremental upgrades in clarity and dynamics.
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