Most people — audiophile or not — want to listen to better audio. It’s the reason for the boom in multiroom wireless speakers, like Sonos’s offerings, which also pair their hi-fi sound with a simple-to-use app. Even automakers are getting on board, with the ever-increasing ubiquity specialized hi-fi systems in cars.

With headphones, people want high-fidelity sound, but the field often gets prohibitively pricey. The best hi-fi over-ear headphones range from $350 to $1,500, and quality in-ear offerings fall into similar margins. Why bother when you can get good headphones at a much lower price? (You can’t get that G-Wagon on the cheap, you know.)

Echobox, a California-based audio company, wants to make hi-fi headphones more affordable. After a successful Indiegogo campaign in 2015, the company is launching three in-ear hi-fi headphones, priced between $100 and $300, in June 2017. The brand’s headphone drivers utilize a material called “PEEK” — short for polyetheretherketone, a high-tensile polymer — that can be cut extremely thin and still handle a lot of power, according to Sam McKinney, CCO at Echobox. The drivers are also housed in titanium chambers. “What you end up with,” says McKinney, “is a very tiny single dynamic driver with a soundstage that is really closer to an over-ear headphone that’s fifteen to twenty times its size.”

The promise of Echobox headphones is accurate sound with powerful bass and clear mids and highs. In the $100 to $300 range, it’s common for popular headphones, like Beats, to produce distorted audio with heavy bass. “What [customers] are getting with our earphones is very accurate and seriously powerful presentation of the bass,” McKinney explains. “And we’re bringing back those highs and mids, so they can hear everything else that they’ve been missing.”

“We are the anti-Beats.” – Sam McKinney, CCO at Echobox

Echobox makes three different hi-fi in-ear headphones, all designed with the same size 9.2mm PEEK diaphragm, but each is tuned differently. The Traveler ($99) is the entry-level model and the Finder ($159), the next step up, unlocks more of the highs and mids with its longer resonance chamber. The Nomad ($299) has an internal venting system that allows it to create the biggest soundstage of the trio; its cables can also be swapped out for sound customization. (For example, McKinney paired his Nomads with $1500 custom cables from Effect Audio.) Both the Finder and Nomad come with filter rings — named Echobox’s Acoustic Filter Tuning (AFT) system — so listeners can fine tune the sound, filtering more bass or treble.

Echobox also has its hand in audio player production with the Explorer ($600), a portable hi-fi audio player that converts digital files (including FLAC, WAV and MP3) into analog signals. And despite looking like a flask — a design choice meant for the player to better fit in pants pockets (which it admittedly does) — the Explorer costs significantly less than similar devices like Astell & Kern’s AK380 and SP1000 (both of which cost $3,500). The Explorer also houses a more powerful amplifier at 300mw/channel, more than almost every other portable hi-fi player on the market.

Like the headphones, the Explorer is designed to make hi-fi more accessible. It runs on a simple iteration of Android 6.0 and comes pre-loaded with Tidal and USB Audio Player PRO. Apps like Spotify have to be sideloaded — open the web browser, type in Spotify APK in Google and download it — because the Google Play Store isn’t included on the device. One caveat, which hardcore audiophiles might not like, is that the Explorer doesn’t support native DSD (Direct Stream Digital). It does, however, do software DSD Playback, which McKinney explains will “convert the DSD file into a PCM format at 24bit/192khz resolution, maintaining an exceptionally high-resolution format and allowing DSD enthusiasts to enjoy their DSD library on the Explorer.”

The entry-level hi-fi listener likely won’t pair the Explorer, Nomad headphones and Tidal for the best audio quality; that gets pricey. McKinney promises that when paired with an iPhone and Spotify, even the low-end Traveler headphones will demonstrate a “night and day” difference from similarly priced competition, providing a gateway to the full hi-fi setup.

“We are the anti-Beats,” McKinney says. “What we stand for as a company is to bring people back to the essence of sound, and unfortunately people have been tricked into thinking that one- to three-hundred-dollar headphones with a really strong brand name behind them, like Beats or maybe even Bose, are the best things out there. But they’re not — simply put, they’re just not, they don’t even hold a candle to some of the things on the market for high-fidelity audio.”

The Finder headphones are available now. The Nomad and Traveler headphones, and the Explorer hi-fi player, will be available on June 19 at select hi-fi stores. All can be ordered online.
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Tucker Bowe

Tucker Bowe has been on Gear Patrol's editorial team since 2014. As a Tech Staff Writer, he tracks everything in the consumer tech space, from headphones to smartphones, wearables to home theater systems. If it lights up or makes noise, he probably covers it.

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