From the modest to the extreme
How to Build the Perfect Desktop Audio System
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Millions of Americans will be working remotely in the coming weeks and one way to make that time less stressful will be listening to music.
We have both some set-up advice and buying suggestions based on our day-to-day experience with products regardless of budget.
If you spend a lot of time listening to music via headphones there are two ways to go; either invest in a portable headphone amplifier/DAC that you can take with you when you’re not at home and want to listen to music during your commute or something more permanent that can also drive loudspeakers on your desktop.
Invest in stands. Professional recording engineers utilize desktop loudspeaker stands to angle the drivers at their ears and the impact is not subtle; bass will tighten significantly, and the music will sound more cohesive, detailed, and transparent.
A desktop audio system creates a near field listening situation; your listening position is much closer to the loudspeaker which will minimize the impact of the sound reflecting off surfaces like your desk, computer monitor, ceiling, and walls beside and behind you.
With that in mind, experiment with pointing the loudspeakers straight ahead or pointed directly at your listening positon. The tonal balance of your loudspeakers will change as you alter the degree of toe-in. Move the loudspeakers at least 1-2 feet from the side of your computer monitor to improve the solidity of the stereo image.
The Upgrade (Under $650)
Audioengine has been one of our favorite loudspeaker brands for many years for the simple reason that they have not strayed from their mission of offering affordable high-performance loudspeakers. The A5+ Loudspeakers are a perfect example of a wireless active loudspeaker that sounds dramatically better when hardwired to a superior sounding DAC and pre-amplifier like the Schiit Audio Modi 3 and Magni 3+; the Schiit Audio components compliment the warm presentation of the A5+ by improving the resolution, adding more detail, tightening the low end response, and improving the overall transparency of the sound. The Magni 3+ also delivers a lot of power for your headphones, has a very low noise floor and can drive high-sensitivity IEMs with zero audible noise. The Modi 3 features multiple digital inputs (USB, Coaxial, Optical) and the 24-bit/192kHz DAC will elevate the sound quality of all of your favorite streaming services like Tidal, Qobuz, or Spotify.
Audioengine A5+ Loudspeakers – $399
Schiit Audio Modi 3 DAC – $99
Schiit Audio Magni 3+ Headphone Amplifier/Pre-amplifier – $99
The Serious Setup (Under $1,100)
The Q Acoustics 3020i are some of our favorite loudspeakers for a very simple reason; they consistently work well with a variety of amplifiers and source components making them a versatile choice for most listeners. The warm tonal balance takes the edge off poor recordings, and the slightly laid-back presentation allows you to experiment with different DACs and sources to find the sonic balance that works for you. The recessed binding posts facilitate placing them close to the wall if used on a desk and the included foam bungs can be inserted in the rear ports to turn them into a sealed design that won’t interact with the wall and excite bass nodes in your room. The AXA35 integrated amplifier has more than enough power to drive the 3020i on a desktop and the included headphone amplifier and moving magnet phono section only adds to its versatility. Where this system takes a serious step forward is when we insert the AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC in-between your smartphone or laptop and turn this rig into a 24-bit/96kHz high-resolution audio system that supports MQA with streaming services like Tidal.
Q Acoustics 3020i Loudspeakers – $315
AudioQuest DragonFly Cobalt USB DAC /Headphone Amplifier – $300
Iso-Acoustics ISO-155 Loudspeaker Stands – $100
Go Big or Go Home (Under $2,700)
The retro looking Wharfedale Linton loudspeakers have garnered a lot of attention from music lovers who love their 1970s vibe, but we think you’re better off focusing on their new EVO Series; the entry-level EVO4.1 are one of the best bookshelf loudspeakers on the market and a steal at their asking price. The EVO feature trickle down technology from the more expensive Elysian Series including AMT ribbon tweeters which offer a beautifully smooth and detailed sounding top end. The EVO loudspeakers have a somewhat restrained presentation which begs for something robust and dynamic sounding like the 60 watts/channel Ragnarok 2 integrated amplifier. Schiit has packed a phono preamp, Multibit DAC, and world-class headphone amplifier inside of the chassis making this one of the most versatile amplifiers for your desktop or home audio system. The headphone amplifier can drive any pair of headphones available and with adjustable levels of gain, you can tweak the output to match your specific headphones.
Wharfedale Acoustics EVO4.1 Loudspeakers – $699
Schiit Audio Raganrok 2 Integrated Amplifier (Fully Loaded) – $1,799
Iso-Acoustics ISO-155 Loudspeaker Stands – $110
Cost No Object (Under $10,000)
Personal audio has taken gargantuan strides over the past few years with the introduction of planar magnetic headphones, and desktop headphone amplifiers designed to make them a genuine alternative to full-range high-end systems in your living room. Extraordinary planar magnetic headphones like the Meze Audio Empyrean require an amplifier that can drive them properly but also compliment their breathtaking transparency, and warm tonal balance. Get the amplifier correct and the Empyrean can transport you with your favorite music to a place inside your head that most loudspeakers only hint at. The MZ3 headphone amplifier from Linear Tube Audio can also drive high-sensitivity loudspeakers on your desktop, but this sonic masterpiece designed and manufactured in Maryland delivers jaw-dropping transparency, detail, and imaging with the best headphones. The MZ3 is a tube amplifier that combines the strengths of both solid-state and tube amplification; the extraordinary capabilities of this amp require a high-resolution DAC like the Holo Audio Spring 2 KTE that breathes life into digital files and imparts a necessary layer of warmth on the entire proceedings.
Linear Tube Audio MZ3 – $3,700
Kitsune HiFi Holo Audio Spring DAC 2 KTE – $2,698
Meze Audio Empyrean Headphones – $2,999
These are the best bookshelf speakers in several different price ranges: under $300, under $500 and under $1,000. Read the Story
Note: Purchasing products through our links may earn us a portion of the sale, which supports our editorial team’s mission. Learn more here.