The Best Budget Audiophile Kit for Apple Music Lossless Audio: Headphones, Earphones, DACs, and more
The next big thing in audio streaming, Apple Music’s Lossless Audio option, is rolling out now globally. Listeners in India can now try high-resolution audio streaming, Spatial Audio, and Dolby Atmos at no extra cost. However, it’s important to note that high-resolution audio doesn’t work well with Bluetooth headphones or earphones; a Bluetooth connection simply cannot carry all the additional data that high-resolution and lossless audio require.
In order to properly take advantage of Apple Music Lossless Audio – or indeed any high-resolution audio, be it streaming from services such as Tidal, or audio tracks that you can play back on a supported source device – you’ll need a wired headphone or earphone setup. Although you can use most wired earphones and headphones directly with a source device, there are benefits to using additional equipment such as DACs, or even modifying your headphones and earphones with better tips or padding.
Thankfully, none of this needs to be expensive anymore; you can set up a basic audiophile kit on a budget. We’ve put together a list of the best affordable equipment to properly enjoy Apple Music Lossless Audio and other high-resolution audio – read on for our recommendations, which include headphones, earphones, DACs, and more.
What do I need to get started?
Before we get into the actual recommendations, it’s important to figure out what you already have and what you’ll need to add to enjoy Apple Music Lossless Audio or other high-resolution music. The source device is an important part of the chain, and fortunately most popular platforms and devices, including smartphones, computers, and dedicated audio players, support high-resolution audio streaming and playback.
If you’re specifically looking to take advantage of Apple Music Lossless Audio, it will work on iOS, macOS, and is coming soon to Android as well. The maximum resolution of the stream or download will depend on the specific device and platform in use and the settings you choose, but Apple Music will be capable of streaming up to 24-bit / 192kHz resolution using the ALAC codec on supported devices.
While you might be better off using a Mac computer as your main source device because of the ability to connect wired headphones or a DAC, you’ll be able to stream Apple Music Lossless Audio even on iPhones, iPads, and Android devices. Other high-resolution audio files and streams can similarly be accessed on computers and Android devices too.
Apple Music is a premium streaming service, and is priced at Rs. 99 per month in India for regular individual users. You can get access to Apple Music through an Apple One Plan, which also includes access to Apple Arcade, Apple TV+ and iCloud storage. Interestingly, Lossless Audio on Apple Music is available to users at no extra cost over and above the basic subscription, making this an excellent value proposition even if you don’t have Apple devices. Other services such as Tidal aren’t officially available in India, and cost a fair bit more.
The most important part of the chain – the headphones (or earphones)
As anyone in the know will tell you, the most important component in any audio chain, be it wired or wireless, is the output device. For a decent budget personal audio setup, you’ll need a decent pair of wired headphones or earphones, and fortunately, many audiophile-friendly options are available at affordable prices.
While there’s no real limit to how much you can spend, a decent pair of audiophile earphones will cost at least around Rs. 2,000, and you can get pretty good options at up to Rs. 10,000 if you can bump up your budget a bit. Here are our top picks among headphones and earphones on a reasonable budget.
KZ ZSN Pro X: Priced at Rs. 1,899 in India, the KZ ZSN Pro X is the ideal pair of audiophile earphones for anyone on a budget. It’s affordable, looks good, is well built. It gets the sonic signature right with plenty of detail in the sound, along with punchy, strong bass. The detachable earphone cable is a big advantage as well.
Moondrop Spaceship: Perhaps the most beautiful pair of budget audiophile earphones around, the Rs. 1,699 Moondrop Spaceship has a balanced, gentle sound, and works well with good amplification. Although not quite as detailed as the KZ ZSN Pro X or even as customisable, this is an all-rounder in that you can use it with pretty much any genre, source device, and audio resolution, all with decent results.
Blon BL-03: One of the most highly regarded pairs of budget audiophile earphones around, the Rs. 2,299 is a popular option for its tonal excellence, natural and engaging sound, and immense value for money. The detachable braided cable is a helpful touch as well, making this a great way to get into audiophile listening on a budget.
Sony MDR-XB55AP: Part of Sony’s Extra Bass lineup, the Sony MDR-XB55AP is priced at Rs. 2,490 and delivers exactly as promised: a bass-heavy, aggressive sound. Usefully, this isn’t all grunt; the bass is tight and refined, and wired connectivity will help the earphones bring out as much detail in the sound as possible while giving the bass a considerable push.
Mi Dual-Driver Earphones: Although not what you’d typically consider ‘audiophile’ equipment, the Mi Dual-Driver Earphones are among the most affordable decent wired earphones you can buy at under Rs. 1,000. The bass can sometimes be a bit rough, but the sound is detailed, and this headset is great value for money.
AKG K52: This isn’t a recent launch by any means; we reviewed the AKG K52 back in 2016. It’s still an excellent value-for-money option at Rs. 1,999, offering a comfortable over-ear fit, 3.5mm connectivity, and tonally excellent sound quality.
Audio-Technica ATH-M20x: Among the most expensive options in our list of recommendations, the Audio-Technica ATH-M20x comes from a reputed line of monitor-grade headphones and is priced at Rs. 4,599 in India. The fit is comfortable, the sound is balanced, and you’ll get a decent experience with high-resolution music with these headphones.
Do I need a DAC-amplifier?
Although you don’t strictly need a DAC-amplifier and can plug your wired earphones directly into your source device (with the help of an adapter or dongle, in some cases), it will help to have one. The integrated DACs in most smartphones and computers are quite ordinary, so a dedicated unit will provide not only better digital-to-analogue conversion, but also decent amplification for your headphones or earphones.
There are a number of options in the budget segment when it comes to DACs, and here are our recommendations for the best ones you can buy on a budget.
iBasso DC03: Priced at Rs. 4,999, the iBasso DC03 is a compact DAC-amplifier that would be best used with an Android smartphone, but can also be put to good use with a Windows or macOS computer thanks to an included adapter. It plugs in to either a USB Type-C or Type-A port, and outputs through its 3.5mm headphone jack to the earphones or headphones of your choice.
Although small and relatively inexpensive, the iBasso DC03 is a capable device in many ways, offering enhanced detail and gain in the sound, ease of use, and the ability to drive most budget and mid-range headphones and earphones suitably well. This is among the best budget DACs you can buy right now.
Shanling UA1: Although not quite as capable as the iBasso DC03 when it comes to detail and overall performance, the Shanling is equally easy to use, just as compact, and a fair bit more affordable at Rs. 3,999. You can use this with USB Type-C and Type-A source devices, as well as with iOS devices, provided they have the right adapter or port.
While it’s a great DAC-amplifier for budget earphones, the Shanling UA1 didn’t drive more expensive and bigger headphones quite as well, and the amplification was a bit shrill and excessive in some cases. However, it’s a worthwhile device for the price, especially if you intend to pair it with budget audiophile earphones.
Fiio BTR3K: Priced at around Rs. 6,500, the Fiio BTR3K is both a wired DAC-amplifier as well as a Bluetooth receiver for your wired headphones. Although the latter function won’t really help with high-resolution audio, the former means that you can use this device with Apple Music’s Lossless Audio tier.
With a dual-DAC setup, this device is more than capable of serving as a DAC, and has the added benefit of letting you use your favourite wired earphones over Bluetooth when you prefer the convenience of being untethered from your smartphone or tablet.
Other accessories that you might need
If you’re using a source device with a 3.5mm headphone jack, you’ll only need a good pair of wired headphones or earphones to enjoy high-resolution audio. Although some modern Android smartphones such as the LG Velvet (Review) and Realme GT 5G do have 3.5mm headphone jacks, most devices don’t. If you aren’t using a DAC with Type-C connectivity, you’ll need a dongle or adapter to let you plug in your wired earphones on devices that don’t have a headphone jack.
There are plenty of affordable options, but you do need to watch out for compatibility with your specific smartphone. The most affordable options are passive dongles and usually cost under Rs. 500, but these will only work with smartphones that have a built-in DAC. If your smartphone doesn’t have this, or if you want to bypass it with something better, you’ll need an active dongle – essentially an external DAC – similar to the options we listed in the previous section.
If you have an Apple smartphone or tablet, you’ll need the right adapter for it. The official Apple Lightning to 3.5mm adapter is priced at Rs. 900. If you want to connect a DAC to your iPhone or iPad, you’ll need the Lightning-to-USB adapter, which is priced at Rs. 2,900. Additionally, basic accessories such as aftermarket foam ear tips, foam padding for headphones, or a good carry case will help you get the best out of your setup, or keep it in good condition.
Basic setups by price
Under Rs. 1,000: If you have a smartphone with a 3.5mm headphone jack, you can get started with just a wired headset such as the Rs. 799 Mi Dual-Driver Earphones, which will keep costs down.
Under Rs. 5,000: If you have a modern iPhone, you can pick up the basic Lightning-to-3.5mm adapter and a decent headset such as the KZ ZSN Pro X for a beginner setup priced at under Rs. 5,000.
Under Rs. 10,000: With a higher budget, you can add a DAC into the chain regardless of the source device in use. The iBasso DC03 will combine well with the Audio Technica ATH-M20x for just under Rs. 10,000, but you could also get a more affordable headset such as the Moondrop Spaceship in case you also need to factor in the Lightning-to-USB adapter needed to connect a DAC to an iPhone.