Ecoustics shares their top 13 audiophile upgrades for 2023 featuring a variety of affordable products.
Audiophile publications have been on the receiving end of a lot of criticism over the past few years because of our focus on far too many components that most people can’t afford. I would like to think that our focus on entry-level and mid-tier components and loudspeakers has positively changed the debate somewhat and I would push back and say that audiophile YouTube channels have actually done an excellent job introducing more affordable products to consumers that are actually rather good.
The “affordability” argument is a tricky one for the simple reason that everyone has a very different definition of that based on their own finances. I consider something like the Bowers & Wilkins 703 S3 that we just reviewed an aspirational loudspeaker option for myself at $6,000 USD. Others might view $400 loudspeakers from Wharfedale to be their ceiling — both of those are legitimate because the decision on what you want to spend is the only one that matters.
But are there upgrades that you can make under $300 that will pay off because the sonic performance exceeds what you might expect for the asking price? We think so.
Some of the items are simple accessories that have made substantial differences for our staff of writers, whilst others are components that we take on the road with us or use on our desktops.
U-turn Audio Orbit
The little engine that could is tucked away in a suburb outside of Boston, and after almost 11 years, it is hard not to be impressed by what Ben Carter and the folks at U-Turn Audio have accomplished. U-Turn Audio was founded in 2012 by Benjamin Carter, Robert Hertig, and Peter Maltzan.
Having sold more than 120,000 turntables over that time period to a new generation of vinyl listeners and seasoned audiophiles looking for a secondary table, U-Turn Audio proved that it could be done.
The U-Turn Orbit was a great idea at the time, but the industry caught up and that forced them to develop necessary improvements to the existing design culminating in the the release of the Orbit Theory in 2022.
Can you get something from U-Turn Audio for $300? Indeed.
The new U-Turn Orbit Series has arrived and with new features such as a high-tech magnesium tonearm, electronic speed control, revamped drive system, and additional customization options.
Orbit turntables incorporate modular design. This enables users to customize several turntable components such as the cartridge, preamp, speed control, platter, and isolation feet. This makes it easy for users to upgrade their turntable over time. The Orbit Custom starts at $249 and increases as options are added.
The new table is significantly better than the original offering much better speed stability, durability, and a superior tonearm.
A number of us have been listening to the standard FiiO FT3 and 32Ω iteration and we have been rather surprised by the performance for under $300 USD.
Just like the original FiiO FT3, the FT3 32Ω Edition is an open-back pair of headphones featuring large 60mm Dynamic Drivers, housed in an aluminum alloy shell that is both strong and lightweight, weighing in at just 391 grams.
The FT3 32Ω model has proven to be extremely comfortable so far during its first week and the lower impedance has worked really well with an assortment of Dongle DACs and desktop headphone amplifiers on my desktop from FiiO, Schiit Audio, and Cambridge Audio.
Unlike the standard FT3 that requires a lot of power and has an extremely neutral tonal balance and presentation (perhaps too neutral), the FT3 32Ω is substantially easier to drive and is more responsive to DAC and amplifier changes. Is it an overly warm sounding headphone? Not really. But one can alter its low end thickness and tonal neutrality with a warmer sounding source.
The biggest surprise for us has been the soundstage width and imaging; the competition might have to go back to the drawing board in 2024 to reach this level of performance for under $300.
Both the FT3 and FT3 32Ω Edition both come supplied with a with a set of interchangeable connector plugs. Choose from 3.5mm and 6.35mm (single-ended) or 4.4mm and XLR-4 (balanced) – enabling these headphones to be enjoyed with everything from Digital Audio Players (DAPs) and smartphones
Supplied with 2 pairs of removable ear-pads — one pair suede, one pair leather — and a leather carry case.
The new C3GM bookshelf loudspeakers replace the best-selling CG3 that were discontinued in 2022 and it’s almost impossible to find a better pair of loudspeakers at the price; RSL sells all of their products direct to consumers and there is enormous value here for $210 USD/pair.
The C3GM work well on both stands or a desktop; the loudspeakers do not take up a lot of space (9.5”H x 5.3″D x 6.7”W) and there is a keyhole mount for those who might wish to mount them on a wall and use them as rear channel speakers.
The 4-inch mineral-filled woven aramid fiber cone woofer and 1-inch silk dome tweeter offer a fairly robust sound, but there is noticeable roll-off around 90Hz making these ideal candidate for a subwoofer.
The 86.5 dB (6 ohms) sensitivity is on the lower side but they will work just fine with 30-50 watts; and they certainly won’t implode if you drive them with 100 to 125 watts of power either.
A clean sounding pair of bookshelf loudspeakers with above average detail and speed considering the entry-level price tag.
Grado does offer some rather expensive phono cartridges but the vast majority of its sales are below $300 and products like the Opus3 make one question why you need to spend a lot more; I have always believed that it makes more sense to buy a better table and use an overachieving cartridge like the Grado Labs Opus3, Denon DL-103, Nagaoka MP-110, or Ortofon 2M Bronze instead.
The Opus3 is nestled inside a Maple housing (8 grams) and I discovered that it sounded the best on my vintage Yamaha YP-701 and the replacement Ortofon LH-2000 Headshell that I ordered during the pandemic for another cartridge.
The cantilever is made from aluminum and the Opus3 uses an elliptical diamond stylus; mounting the cartridge was quite easy and I settled on a tracking force of 1.8 grams which was within the range but closer to the very top.
Grado offers multiple versions of the Opus3 including the high output (4mV) version supplied, a low output model (1.0mV), and a mono version as well.
The Grado does vocals about as well as any $200 – $300 phono cartridge on the market and it doesn’t matter if you’re listening to Amy Winehouse, Sarah Vaughan, Alison Moyet, Orville Peck, or Jason Isbell.
Presence, tone, texture, and detail have to be present or it’s just some flat rendition of something that doesn’t engage you at all. The Grado Labs Opus3 succeeds in every way with the kind of vocals that I enjoy listening to and that makes it a keeper.
If your budget ceiling is $300, the Grado Labs Timbre Opus3 is definitely a high-output cartridge to seriously consider.
Have you ever wondered where people on Instagram are getting those fantastic custom cork platter mats?
There’s a company in New Jersey that makes them and how they got here is a bigger part of the story.
Most new tables come with cheap felt mats and older tables have dried up rubber mats that need to be replaced. Analog Restorations offers incredible custom cork platter mats that have ended up on thousands of platters in 2021 including 5 members of our team. They also offer cleaning wipes for your records that work really well on dirty records from garage sales and used record stores.
The level of performance from this $59 Dongle DAC makes this one of the easiest recommendations for this list.
With so many Dongle DACs on the market, it has become extremely difficult to find huge differences between the various models. It’s usually at the top end of the market where the better models from FiiO and Questyle have demonstrated superior dynamic capabilities, higher levels of resolution, exceptional clarity and detail retrieval, and greater power reserves.
That level of performance comes with a much higher price tag.
With the exception of a volume issue with Android, this tiny dongle elevates the sound quality of the iPhone and Android-powered smartphones by a considerable margin and at a price that has to be considered a huge bargain.
This one easily makes our “Best of 2023” list in December for its overall performance below $100.
Sumiko offers an extensive lineup of both moving coil and moving magnet cartridges; a number of models come pre-installed on Pro-Ject tables being distributed in North America and there is a lot to like about the Rainier at under $150. This 5.0mV moving magnet cartridge is in the lower tier of the range and possibly the smoothest sounding of the bunch. The Rainier has excellent channel separation and tracks exceptionally well.
The design enables upgrading in the future to the Moonstone or Olympia stylus. The 6.5 gram weight makes it compatible with a lot of tonearms and it’s not the hardest cartridge to mount.
Is it possible for a $219 network player to really deliver a high-end digital playback experience?
In the case of the WiiM Pro Plus — the better answer is that one can elevate its performance long-term with a better DAC or amplifier on the other end and you are unlikely to feel that it can be bettered without spending a lot more money.
For $219 USD, the WiiM Pro Plus proved to be a real surprise. Linkplay put a lot of work into the app which worked better than some apps we’ve tried with more expensive streamers and that definitely has to matter.
The incisive presentation and pacing worked better with richer sounding systems that require some additional clarity and top end presence and that certainly makes the WiiM Pro Plus a great option for vintage systems or loudspeakers with a darker presentation.
iFi Audio is celebrating its 10th anniversary with some exciting and affordable products including this excellent phono preamplifier that offers both MM/MC inputs. The iFi ZEN Phono is part of a much larger range that includes DACs, and headphone amplifiers and we’ve been super impressed with the products that we have reviewed so far.
Don’t look at the price and think that it must have some serious shortcomings. We were quite surprised by how quiet it is and that it can handle almost any cartridge on the market; the iFi ZEN Phono offers 32dB to 72dB of gain. The neutral tonal balance and clarity make it a very strong option below $200.
The rear panel of the chassis includes a power input, balanced output (4mm), a gain switch with four positions, two RCA input jacks, two RCA output jacks, and a grounding terminal.
Some cartridges fly under the radar because the brand doesn’t get them into the hands of enough members of the press or because the price doesn’t create enough buzz in comparison to rivals. Goldring have been in business almost as long as Danish rival, Ortofon, and that puts them in rather elite company.
The Goldring E Series are natural rivals to anything Audio-Technica and Ortofon have to offer below $300 and the E4 might best them all. I’ve been listening for the past month (the E4 replaced both the Ortofon 2M Red and Golding E3 on my NAD table) and it’s not even close.
The Goldring E4 is designed to be compatible with all medium-to-high-mass tonearms of the type found on the majority of budget to midrange turntables.
What’s different about the new E4?
The super-elliptical nude diamond stylus features lower effective tip mass, and improved rigidity, which should result in better high frequency detail retrieval than ‘bonded’ elliptical alternatives.
The E4 features a ‘nude’ super-elliptical stylus of just 7.6 x 18 microns (0.3 x 0.7 mil), which is cut and polished from a single homogeneous piece of diamond.
To complement its low tip-mass stylus, the E4 now features a hollow aluminum cantilever tube.
The Goldring E4 delivers a more open and neutral sounding presentation with a wider soundstage. It is also easier to sculpt into a very specific type of sound which will appeal to those who use vintage receivers or amplifiers, or entry-level integrated amplifiers below $1,000 than often veer to the darker side.
Combine all of that with excellent speed, timing, and resolution and you have one of the best sounding entry-level phono cartridges available below $300.
The story of the SR80x holds a special place for not only myself, but the ears of hundreds of thousands of listeners. The first pair was built in 1991 and the SR80x is worthy of being the longest running Grado headphone.
My first pair of audiophile-quality headphones were the Grado Prestige SR-80s and I schlepped them around the globe for almost 5 years. They vanished during the Second Intifada in Israel when I had to evacuate a bus in the Negev out of fear that a terrorist was trying to board a bus in the area.
My laptop bag was unattended for hours and when I finally got it back — the headphones were gone. I hope whomever took them enjoyed them; I had another pair in my suitcase.
One of my complaints about the Prestige Series was that the cable would kink a lot and I constantly had to untangle it. The new Grado Prestige X headphones utilize a new cable design offering more durability and flexibility. Nylon-braided sheathing that prevents kinking and twisting.
The Grado SR80x also utilize the new 4th generation Grado 44mm drivers which are specifically tuned for the SR80x; this new speaker design features a more powerful magnetic circuit, a voice coil with decreased effective mass, and a reconfigured diaphragm.
Vinyl me this…vinyl me that. Who is afraid of the big, black bat?
Couldn’t resist. And nor should some of you when it comes to the Andover Audio SpinStage Phono Preamplifier.
The Andover Audio SpinStage has two key features not commonly found in budget phono preamplifiers. First, by adding a separate MC gain stage with ultra-low-noise discrete transistors in a type of transconductance topology usually found only in more expensive designs, the SpinStage benefits from providing the necessary gain without added noise.
Second, the addition of an Auxiliary input restores the input used by the SpinStage when it’s connected to an amplifier that has only a few inputs. For example, a system that includes a CD player or other device may need the input used by the SpinStage.
The MM section adds 40dB of gain, whilst the MC section offers 66.5dB for low output moving coil cartridges.
Phono-cartridge resistive and capacitive loading optimize the SpinStage’s high-frequency performance with any MM cartridge, while its ultra-high-precision resistors and capacitors deliver RIAA response typically accurate within ±0.2dB.
The SpinStage’s selectable subsonic filter reduces the ultra-low-frequency noise of turntable rumble that can cause excess woofer pumping and waste amplifier power.
You can read my review here, but let’s cut to the chase.
Between the loading options, build quality, and surprisingly transparent and detailed presentation, Andover Audio has created one of the best affordable phono pre-amplifiers on the market. The bass could certainly have more impact and the DIP switches might be hard for some to read, but the performance for under $250 is excellent.
If you spend a lot of hours at your desk working all day, there is a strong possibility that you listen to music using headphones. You may even spend some of your lunch hour gaming to break up the monotony of the daily grind.
The DAC/headphone amplifier in your computer is not very good and why settle for less when you can significantly upgrade the sound quality with a hub like the Schiit Audio Hel+.
The new Hel+ is an upgrade over the Hel 2 which was introduced in 2021; The Hel 2 added more inputs and outputs for console users, and included a unique A-to-D mic to facilitate call taking on the computer or console while listening to music or gaming.
Aside from mic inputs, a USB interface, the Hel+ offers 1.5 watts of power (32 ohms) and an optical input. The front knob controls mic gain, with the larger knob on the top panel serving as the control for headphone volume levels.
It is a very clean looking hub that will let gamers like my son communicate more clearly with other gamers and also hear every last creeping opponent and incoming burst of gunfire with far greater detail and impact.