As I moved from an in-office to a work from home situation (over 5 years ago), I began to contemplate what my ideal work area would look like. I am very satisfied with my setup and in particular the choices I have made with upgrading my music listening experience over the past few years. I have grouped my setups into price brackets ($USD) in case the reader has a specific interest and budget.
Bare Minimum: Get Some IEMs (<$100)
I started with some fairly generic Sony headphones and sprung for the Bose noice cancelling buds. Besides listening to whatever you want and not bothering others, in ear buds will typically provide a superior listening experience over your computer’s built-in speakers. Actual in ear monitors (IEM) will provide a far more tuned and pleasant listening experience and decent pairs can be had for well under $100. I currently use T2 Pro IEMs from Drop for around $50.
Baby Got DAC ($100)
The digital audio converter (DAC) chip typically in computers are satisfactory for casual listening, but a dedicated DAC can filter out pops (out of sync timing) and bring more definition to your audio (even detectable in many cases). I personally noticed a dramatic difference against my own 2015 Macbook Pro and my Android Nexus phone at the time by using a Centrance DACport Slim, again from Drop. It is compact and had a gain boost and includes a headphone preamplifer. A dedicated DAC with some decent IEMs will go a long way in upgrading your listening setup.
The initial WFH audio setup: a Centrance DAC and Bose IEMs. This diminuitive setup now makes a great travel companion.
Desktop Speakers or Monitors ($200+)
With extended listening sessions, your ears may become fatigued. A deskop speaker pari is a nice transition to continue listening while the direct drive of soundwaves into your ear drums finds a reprieve. Some working environments will preclude this, but if it is feasible, it is worth the addition. I started with the Audio Engine A2+ (around $200 at time of purchase). They are miniscule, have a few input options (even a built-in DAC) and sound pretty good for the size and price. They sorely lack in bass, but what do you expect from < 3" drivers?
Great starter speakers – Audio Engine A2+.
The Centrance is no slouch, but there are desktop-friendly setups that are no match in comparison. The Schiit Magni and Modi combo are popular upgrade options for those wanting to up their audio game. I found these used on Ebay and they still serve me well for my Ubuntu machine. After a few years with these units and happy with the Schiit products, I opted for the Jotunheim ($500 with DAC), which is an all-in-one that offers upgradeable DAC cards and fully balanced outputs. I am unsure if I will upgrade further as there are diminishing returns in perceived quality. The Jotunheim checks all of the boxes for capability and power.
This small stack packs a big punch. I have a fondness for this Schiit.
An upgrade to the Modi and Magni is the Jotunheim which brings balanced audio and more power.
Audio Monitors ($400)
Finding myself utilizing my speakers around 32.6% of the time and wanting more (as this is the normal hifi listening journey), I sprang for Adam Audio T5V’s, which are a significant improvement over the A2+’s. These come with 5" drivers and a ribbon tweeter and balanced input connections. They will require a preamplifer as well. Bass is clearly improved and unless you need some earth rattling shakes, the lower frequencies are completely sufficient.
The Adam Audio T5v: A significant improvement over the A2+.
For extended listening sessions, IEMs cause physical discomfort due to the fit. High end IEMs allow for custom-molded inserts, but I opted for an over the ear configuration, specifically an open-back over the ear via the Sennheiser HD600. This unit is ancient — released in 1997, but still holds its own with the current competition. Again, I purchased this unit used and have really come to appreciate the relaxed and airy nature to the sound.
Exploring the world of hifi audio is only half as fun as enjoying music on it. There exists a suitable combination of hardware to accompany any budget and may require trialing and testing to find it.