The AudioFile: Fave Sub-$1K Audio Gear

Sub-$1000 audio gear
Yeah, the holidays are nowhere in sight and neither is my Capricornian birthday, but I’ve got the summer shopping bug — y’know, Christmas in July and all that. I don’t pull down six figures or anything (hey, I live in Brooklyn, not the O.C.), but I’ve got a decent budget to work with. So here are ten audio-tastic items that get my salivary glands lubed up in a jiffy, and each one costs $1000 or less. [Sigh.] I sure do wish I could afford ’em all.

(Got sub-$1000 stuff that whets your willy? Get your ya-ya’s out in the comments section!)

Home Stereo
I listen to a lot of music at home, and I spend hours playing along on trumpet, guitar, electric bass, and drums, which means I want a rig that can make it seem like my jazz heroes are in the room with me. Tops on my to-drool-for list are a set of B&W DM603 S3 speakers ($1000 a pair). These “2.5-way” floor-standers are considered entry-level among audiophiles, but I’ve heard them, and they send shivers down my spine.

To drive a set of beefy speakers, I want some solid power, and Denon’s AVR-2307CI AV receiver ($799) is just the ticket. This 7.1-channel beast cranks out 100 watts per channel, which means I can add surround speakers if I choose (when my bank account recovers). It also has tons of digital inputs (optical, coaxial, and HDMI), which is important for integrating your digital music collection.

People who know me know I’m a headphone freak. I’ve had my Sennheiser HD650’s for well over a year, and I love ’em. But I recently had a chance to spend some time with a set of AKG K 701 headphones ($450; check out my full review here), and they’re even more suited to my taste, with pristine highs and the tightest bass I’ve heard. And they’re the most comfy cans on the block.

Headphones are only as good as the amp driving them, and HeadRoom’s Desktop Amp ($850 with optional DAC for digital inputs) really makes the AKG’s sing. The connectivity options, relatively compact size, and tweakable sound made it very, very hard to send back when I was done with my review.

Takin’ It Digital
I’ve got over 3000 CDs, but only I’ve only ripped about 175GB worth, and of that, many are in MP3 format. My real goal is to have everything encoded in Apple Lossless format, but who’s got that kind of storage space? Enter: the Western Digital My Book Pro Edition II 1.5TB hard drive ($600). It’s actually a pair of 750GB drives in a RAID mirroring configuration, so if one dies, you won’t lose all your tunes.

The next step is hooking that drive up to my home network, which I’d love to do via a new Apple Airport Extreme base station ($179)–not the UFO-lookin’ one, but the new one that looks like the AppleTV. The big new feature for me (aside from 802.11n) is AirPort Disk, which lets you hook up an external drive right to the base station’s USB port and share it on your network. Hot!

In my fairly spacious 2-bedroom apartment, I like to make sure I have control over sound in every room so I can hear my music clearly wherever I am. Sonos has the multiroom audio market pretty much locked up, despite some decent alternatives, mostly because of its impressive handheld controller, which has a very iPod-like interface. The Sonos Bundle 130 ($1000) is sweet package that includes the controller, a ZP80 for connecting to my stereo rig, and a ZP100 with integrated amp for use with some decent speakers.

One of the cool things about Sonos is its partnership with Real’s Rhapsody online music service. A Rhapsody Unlimited account ($12.99 per month, 30-day free trial with Sonos purchase) gives you access to 100 Internet radio stations plus Real’s roughly 3-million-track catalog–right alongside your own music on the Sonos controller. Sure, you won’t own the music you hear on Rhapsody, but I already own enough!

Recording Goodness
I’m a regularly performing musician, but I also do plenty of home recording. My current gear is strictly low-budget, but I’d love to upgrade. My first choice for a digital audio interface is DigiDesign’s MBox 2 Pro ($799), because it gives you 4 analog inputs and 6 outputs, plus MIDI I/O, phantom power, and two headphone jacks. The biggest bonus? It comes with Pro Tools LE audio software, which handles up to 32 simultaneous tracks.

I love full-size cans for listening to other people’s music, but when I want to monitor my own stuff, I want the best in-ear headphones money can buy. I’ve been using my Etymotic ER4S, but I would love to shell out the $900 for Ultimate Ears’ UE-10 Pro. The earphones are custom molded to your ears (after an audiologist visit for an ear mold), and the sound is as accurate as you can get with headphones, making them great on-stage monitors too.

Guess I’d better cash in all those pennies I’ve been saving for a rainy day… or find myself a magic lamp to rub.