If you’re ready to upgrade from the freebie headphones that came with your latest phone to a serious setup, you’ll need to invest in some high-quality hi-fi. The following mobile audiophile gear is a great place to start.
Audiophiles are a notoriously spendy bunch—even within the relatively thrifty realm of mobile-only music, you could easily spend enough on high-end gear to buy an economy car! That being the case, we’ve made selections for beginners that are both easy-to-use and (relatively) easy on your wallet. They won’t beat the best audio hardware on the planet, but they’ll blow the average iPhone or Android phone out of the water, all without needing to be tethered to a wall outlet. Even better, many of these components work great as high-quality recommendations all on their own; consider our picks for digital audio players, headphones, and earbuds good gift picks for pretty much anyone.
Digital Audio Player: FiiO M7 ($200)
Your smartphone is a jack of all trades, and a master of none—especially if it’s a newer model that unaccountably lacks a headphone port. If you’re serious about quality sound on the go, you’ll want to upgrade to a dedicated music device.
This mid-range model from mobile audio specialist FiiO offers a full touchscreen for its Android operating system, something that’s not a given for this price point, but don’t mistake it for a phone—there’s no Wi-Fi or cellular connection in this thing. Instead, you get a dedicated, long-lasting music-only device that can handle lossless audio playback, with a heavy-duty DAC (digital-to-audio converter) to make the most out of your headphones.
The player comes with only 2GB of local storage, but you can add up to 512GB with a MicroSD card, and it also supports playback via USB-C-equipped audio devices and Bluetooth with Sony’s upgraded LDAC high-quality wireless. Other features include a 20-hour battery life (40 hours of standby) and built-in FM radio support. Oh, and it charges from the latest USB-C cables—a nice extra. Note that despite the Android OS, this device does not have access to the Google Play Store or its selection of music apps.
Portable Amplifier: TOPPING NX4 DSD ($160)
If you’d rather stick with your phone for music, but you want to be able to max out the quality and power of your high-end headphones, you’ll want an amplifier. Portable amplifiers work on the same principles as their media center and desktop PC cousins, only with an internal battery, a pocket-friendly size, and a selection of ports picked for on-the-go listening.
Plug your phone (or anything else) into the in port, plug your headphones or a speaker into the out port, and revel the glory of amplified audio. The Topping NX4 DSD supports audio quality up to 32 bits—probably much more than your phone can handle—over either a standard headphone cable or a digital USB connection.
There’s also a smart design decision: the Micro-USB charging port and USB-C data port are separate, so you can either connect and charge up the amplifier via your phone or leave it separate to give the latter more battery life. The NX4 uses an all-aluminum body with a fantastic knurled dial for the main amplification control. It lasts for a full 24 hours in amplifier mode, though that does go down significantly if you also use it as a digital-to-audio converter. Thoughtfully, it includes some silicone bands to strap it to your phone if you’re carrying both in one pocket.
Bluetooth Receiver: Earstudio ES100 ($100)
Let’s say you’ve already got a great pair of headphones, but the audio you want to listen to on your phone or another device doesn’t have a standard 3.5mm headphone jack. Get this little gadget and stream that stuff over Bluetooth.
While Bluetooth usually isn’t associated with high-quality audio, the ES100 includes support for 24-bit playback, meeting or beating the best smartphones. Its Bluetooth receiver chip supports Sony’s LDAC and Qualcomm’s aptX and aptX HD wireless audio standards. Both regular and larger 2.5mm jacks are on board, as is a microphone, so you can turn any pair of studio-quality cans into a mobile headset. Impressively, it can also be controlled remotely via an Android or iOS app, allowing extensive customization of equalizer controls and settings for the integrated DAC.
Earbuds: Shure SE315 ($178)
Most earbuds are cheap fare, designed to be inexpensive so you don’t mind breaking or losing them. But the seal earbuds make in your earlobes are also conducive to excellent noise-canceling and high fidelity, so it’s possible to get impressive sound quality if you’re willing to invest in a good pair. The Shure SE315 certainly qualifies.
With a 22Hz-18.5KHz range in blows most earbuds out of the water, and its detachable cable can be upgraded with USB-C, Apple Lightning, or Bluetooth connections via Shure-branded accessories. The Kevlar reinforcement around the driver housing can be posed to curve around your ear for a more comfortable and secure fit. But be forewarned: trying out this set of earbuds will ruin you on pretty much any regular buds ever again.
Headphones: Sennheiser HD 598 Cs
For those with room in both their bag and their budget, a high-quality pair of around-the-ear headphones can’t be beat. For the mobile audiophile without limitless purse strings, we recommend Sennheiser’s HD 598 Cs.
It’s a closed-back design for private listening with passive noise cancellation, with a handy shorter cable that includes a built-in microphone for taking mobile calls. The headphones’ range is a massive 10Hz-28KHz, allowing you to hear every subtlety of your high-quality music. The foldable design slips easily into the included carrying case, though you’ll want a bag for when you’re not using them. There headphones out there with better on-paper specs, but for under $200, these sound amazing, and make a great gift as well.