Best audio gear for the traveling audiophile
Believe it or not, but these days you can be an audiophile OUTSIDE of the house too – due to technological advancements in our modern-day society, we now have the power to listen to high-fidelity music in all its glory no matter where we are. Welcome to the future! So here you are. You’re finding yourself at a crossroads. Do I continue listening to crappy mp3’s on my low-resolution music service from my phone and AirPod knockoffs or….am I ready to jump into a larger world of better sound and see how far the rabbit hole goes?
Closed-Back Headphones are great for keeping your music to yourself
Admit it. A little bit of you dies inside when you’re on the plane or subway and you can hear the music screaming from the headphones of the person sitting or standing next to you. Your first instinct is to ask if this person has any consideration for the people around them. The second is a concern for their hearing if they have to listen to their music this loud. Don’t be that person.
When it comes to listening outdoors, it’s a good idea to have some closed-back headphones due to the noise isolation. You don’t want to necessarily have a clear window to the world around you, because that noise – whether it be the train, plane, traffic, or people talking – will diminish the quality of your audio. The term “closed-back” refers to the fact that the headphone cups are fully sealed, in that they have no opening or venting like “open-back” headphones which are more susceptible to outside noise. The closed-back design of the ear cups helps to keep the music in and the noise out.
The Closed Back Headphone Style: Just the right fit for music listening that’s intimately detailed, especially on the go. The most “intimate” headphone style for detail-oriented music fans. This is the headphone style for fans wanting to feel the most connected with music made by their favorite artists.
Closed-back headphones are certainly the style of choice for going out and keeping your head in the music. There are many variations and features including over-ear or full-size, on-ear, wired, wireless, noise-canceling, and IEMs. The fit and comfort is just as important too – so it is important to tailor your portable gear based on how and where you like to listen to music outside of your home. If you’re pressed for space, IEMs are a great option as they take up hardly any room. On-ear headphones are also smaller than full-size or over-ear headphones. Wireless headphones are a great convenience, but you also sacrifice some sound quality over wired options. Your headphone is just as unique as you are, so make sure you spend the time finding the right pairing and your music will thank you.
Meze Audio Liric Headphone
The Liric is Meze Audio's answer to the question of what you get when you put the amazing Isodynamic Hybrid Array behind closed doors. This driver type is unique to Meze Audio headphones, and they’re known for their amazing sound quality and soundstage. The Liric takes everything you love about the Meze sound, shrinks it, and makes it more efficient for a headphone that you can take with you. You could even argue that they improved the design because this is one of the best-looking headphones in our opinion. The marrying of materials into a perfect design of class, sex appeal, and luxury, it's hard not to think these headphones make you look better just by wearing them. The Liric pairs well with just about every music genre out there, given the superb imaging, clarity, and sound signature of the headphone. Meze makes some of the best sounding headphones on the market, hands down, and the Liric doesn't fall far from the tree.
Denon AH-D9200 Headphones
The Denon 9200 headphones are great reference-sounding cans without the exorbitant price point. The build quality and overall comfort level fall in line with the standard for a flagship-level headphone, and we’re big fans of the classic-yet-touch-of-modern aesthetic. Along with the premium materials you also get a premium sound: balanced and detailed. The low end is extremely natural yet precise. The mids are energetic and the highs extensive, lending to a sound that will accurately reproduce the music just the way the artist and engineer intended. The Denon AH-D9200 Headphones don't get the credit they deserve for such an excellent sound. Priced at $1,599, it ain't cheap. But considering the price points for other flagship model headphones out there, it's a downright steal.
Meze Audio 99 Classics Headphone
The 99 Classics from Meze Audio are a great price for entry-level audiophile-grade headphones. Their comfort and design are timeless and will entertain many long listening sessions on the road. The 99 Classics are a relatively portable size for full-size headphones, but they really stand out when it comes to the sound quality for this price point. They provide a good amount of warmth and depth to your music while maintaining a pristine amount of detail and clarity too. Even the Meze soundstage is present, though less so than their higher-grade headphones. The materials for the headphone are stunning, and the wood grain of the ear cup is certainly an eye-catching design. The 99 Classics will sound especially great with classical, jazz, rock, alternative, and even pop music. Of course, if this is your first step up from something like AirPods or beats, then pretty much everything is going to sound better. Meze Audio makes premium products, and they do a great job of bringing that premium quality and sound to all price points.
Look Ma, No Cords! Wireless and Noise-Canceling Headphones
Wireless and noise-cancellation are a convenience when it comes to portable music listening. Period. We’re not here to argue if it’s audiophile-grade, and how the ANC actually adds noise into the signal, blah, blah. Anyone who does a lot of travel for work or pleasure knows that listening to music through tiny little earbuds on a plane is 1) next to impossible and 2) really harmful to your hearing since you'll have to turn the volume up to compromise for the ambient noise including the plane engines. The technology has come a long way since its inception in the 1950s. It was designed specifically for the field of aviation, where noise-canceling systems were created to reduce the noise for the pilots in the cockpit area, help make their communications easier, and protect their hearing. Today, they are designed with the consumer in mind, the frequent flyer, or someone who just wants to block the world out from time to time.
Nowadays noise-cancellation (or noise reduction and noise isolation) is an advanced technology integrating microphones and special circuitry into the headphones. The way it works is that the microphones are placed inside the ear cups to pick up ambient or background noise and external sounds that cannot be blocked passively. The circuitry inside the ear cups then takes the signal from the microphone, tracks the frequency and amplitude of the incoming wave, and creates a 180-degree out-of-phase wave associated with the noise. This out-of-phase signal is then amplified into the headphones along with the music, thus effectively "canceling out" the ambient noise by destructive interference. This allows the normal audio to continue to be amplified, unimpeded.
Some people just don’t want to worry about getting tangled in a cord when they’re traveling, and that’s okay! Noise-canceling is actually very effective at blocking out exterior noise so that the interior of your headphones simulates a quieter space, and that can be great for helping you focus on the music, or even help to alleviate stress if you don’t want to deal with loud noises. There is an appropriate scenario for the technology, but you can’t knock it because it doesn’t fall under a certain audiophile protocol for sound quality.
Sony WH-1000XM4 Headphones
The top of our list of ANC options is probably the best in this category: the XM4. Sony has really led the pack lately when it comes to noise-canceling technology, easily surpassing Bose and Sennheiser. Of course, there are many other full-size ANC headphones on the market, but Sony does it best. Wireless audio is not perfect, but the Sony XM4 makes you think it’s achievable, if not almost there.
The Sony WH-1000XM4 incorporates the best ideas from the competition as well, so you can be assured you're getting everything you possibly can for this price point. An amazing 30-hour battery with ANC, combined with LDAC compatibility, and a Dragon Cable, and you have a headphone that can literally do it all; the Swiss-army knife of headphones if you will. The XM4 makes enough quality-of-life updates from the previous generation to make it a worthwhile upgrade. It’s a headphone that learns to integrate into your day-to-day, and it's smart enough not to get in the way.
Sennheiser Momentum True Wireless 3 Earphones
For the past 75 years, Sennheiser has put sound first. The Momentum True Wireless 3 is no different. Thanks to leading audio technology and innovation, these new earbuds deliver the best listening experience anytime, anywhere. With improved ergonomics designed for full-day wearing and refined touch controls for a more personalized experience, they have been finely crafted for the most discerning listener and aim to simplify your life by enhancing your everyday. This third edition features a smaller profile for a more ergonomic fit and enhanced power features to prolong the battery life. The earbuds now can be manually turned off and automatically hibernate after sixty minutes without use.
Sennheiser has included an astonishing 7-hour battery life for these little buds which is at least 2 hours more than the average competition (with up to 28 hours total with the charging case). With customizable touch controls, built-in EQ, active and adaptive noise-cancellation, wireless charging, and transparent hearing, the Momentum True Wireless 3 is a great option for audiophile-grade quality in an earbud design.
Sony WF-1000XM4 Wireless Earbuds
The Sony WF-1000XM4 Wireless Noise-Canceling Earbuds are the ultimate in sonic convenience. They're not $1K IEMs or earphones, so don't expect a miracle here, but Sony does a great job in providing affordable earbuds that sound great and provide more features than you'll probably use. It's a device that's so well integrated into your day-to-day, that you don't have to think about it. The biggest takeaway for me was how well they sounded compared to their big brother, the full-size WH-1000XM4 headphones. If I'm going on a trip and I had to decide between full-size headphones or earbuds with minimal difference in sound quality, I'm definitely picking the earbuds due to space and weight. It also worked great as a headset for phone calls, seamlessly transitioning from music and media when calls were received.
Sony still leads the class in ANC technology as well, being some of the most effective at noise-canceling for a device of this size. Overall, the Sony WF-1000XM4 is the perfect solution for those looking for premium consumer-priced earbuds with above-average sound quality. What are the best earbuds? Well for under $300 you can't get any better than these.
IEMs: Small, but mighty sound in the palm of your hand
In-ear monitors or IEMs are one of the best options for portable due to their great sound and small form factor. Technically, the term "in-ear monitor" refers to an earphone that is meant to be used as -- and in fact was created to be -- a tool for performing artists and recording engineers. The earpieces that singers wear on stage are called 'in-ear monitors.’ They provide the singer with a direct source of sound and allow them to customize their stage mix. They also allow the singer to listen to backing tracks. IEMs have slowly replaced traditional stage monitors. But earphones and IEMs are also very much enjoyed by audiophiles and music enthusiasts who enjoy the convenience and increasingly high-fidelity sound provided by this headphone type.
Both earphones and IEMs have an inherent convenience factor that traditional full-size headphones can lack, and that is portability due to their compact size. Noise isolation is another benefit. The ear pieces on IEMs and earphones go past your concha and extend into your ear canal, thanks to silicone tips attached to the nozzles. This design creates optimal noise isolation, allowing you to enjoy your music more clearly and at a lower volume. It also makes your earphones less likely to fall out of your ears. Plus, most earphone packages offer different size tips to ensure you get the best, most comfortable fit possible.
For starters, earphones and in-ear monitors are the most portable headphone type. Small enough to fit in your pocket and discreet enough to wear without advertising that you're using them, IEMs are easy to wear while shopping, exercising, traveling, and more. Another advantage is that IEMs can easily be worn during exercise, even high-impact activities like running. Because they sit snugly in the ear canal, you can be assured they will stay in place during a good amount of movement and jostling.
Audeze Euclid Planar-Magnetic Closed-Back IEM
Planar Magnetic, Closed-Back, In-ear, Precision-milled Aluminum. Our new Euclid combines all of these features to deliver superior detail retrieval and sonic accuracy with a soundstage and dynamic range so robust you'll forget you're listening to a closed-back in-ear. The miniaturized 18mm single planar magnetic driver has no crossovers, resulting in superior cohesion across the entire frequency spectrum.
The Euclid is a great option for audiophiles who want a convenient, closed-back, and portable planar magnetic IEM. We love the detailed yet relaxed vibe of a planar headphone, and the Euclid does not disappoint. It has a natural and revealing sound that's neither fatiguing nor analytical. There is definitely a mid-high focus, and the Euclid might be bass-light for some. Bass is never lacking, but it's not the highlight. And the soundstage is amazing, the the instrument separation is phenomenal, and detail and clarity are top-notch.
Planar magnetic drivers are usually found in full-size headphones and are known for wonderfully expressive and accurate sound recreation, so to find the same in a small and portable form factor like an IEM is something special. There are numerous planar magnetic IEMs out there, but Audeze makes one of the best on the market with the Euclid.
Shure SE846 IEM
In the middle-of-the-road price-wise, the 846 IEMs are loved by audiophiles and consumers alike. The SE846 delivers extended high-end clarity and unparalleled low-end performance. Evolved from personal monitor technology road-tested by pro musicians and fine-tuned by Shure engineers, the SE846 features a patent-pending design that includes a groundbreaking low-pass filter. This technology enables the deep low-end performance of a true subwoofer without sacrificing clarity or detail of mids or highs. Comfortable Sound Isolating sleeves block up to 37 dB of ambient noise, whether onstage or on-the-go. The low-end presence is impactful, yet it doesn’t take away from the clarity and transparency in the rest of the frequencies.
The SE846 is designed with quad-high definition micro-drivers that are tuned to blend precisely with one another, creating a unique but addictive sound presentation. Shure is well respected in both the pro audio and consumer audio markets, and the SE846 is one of the most popular in-ear monitors for both. You can’t go wrong with the SE846.
Meze Audio ADVAR IEM
The ADVAR is a new addition to the list since it came out just a wee bit ago. In our comprehensive review of the mid-level IEM, I was quite impressed with the overall styling and design, sound signature, and price point. It’s a rare thing when you find so many boxes checked off on a single product. There's no surprise that the infamous Meze soundstage still manages to wow and amaze with each new product and iteration that they come out with, but it's the low-end presence, mid-level energy, and the high-frequency roll-off of the Advar that makes for a smooth, dynamic, and fun IEM. Lovers of all things Rock, EDM, Folk, Alternative, and even Jazz will find much to love about the Advar, and many other genres will find a way to shine through these IEMs. There are many things to give Meze Audio credit for, but consistency is a big one. They just keep putting out awesome-sounding IEMs and headphones that don't disappoint.
DAPs: The Traveling Audiophile’s All-in-One
“Why do you need a DAP when your phone can do the exact same thing?”
Your phone can’t do the same thing. DAP stands for Digital Audio Player. You can call them portable music players too. Think of the iPod, now throw that thought away, and a DAP can do pretty much everything better. A DAP is usually a smart device like a phone without the calling feature. It has a mobile OS like Android, has a high-end DAC, or digital to analog converter, and includes an amplifier for headphones – and wifi for streaming services like Tidal, Qobuz, and Spotify. They also include Bluetooth for wireless listening via high-resolution codecs. DAPs are also play ready with a bunch of different file types and sizes and come with ANALOG I/O for headphones. Yes. Headphone jacks. Crazy, right? So, they are all these things wrapped up into one portable high-fidelity package.
While it may be more convenient to just have your phone and some AirPods, you’re just not going to get any kind of high resolution or high fidelity audio. And for those of us who don’t want to sacrifice our sound quality in the name of portability, the DAP is the perfect answer. The tough thing is that there are DAPs of all shapes, sizes, DACs, amps, I/O, and price points out there, so it’s tough to know where to start if you don’t already have one.
If you have questions about how some music players sound – be sure to check out our Best DAPs of 2022 Buying Guide. It’s a great overview of just some of the amazing DAPs out there. For now, we’ll just go over a couple of options.
Astell&Kern SR25MKII DAP Music Player
The A&norma SR25 MKII is a great-sounding first step into the larger rabbit hole of audiophilia. Like the original SR25, the SR series product line embodies the perfect balance of value and performance. It's hard to imagine getting more features for the price with any other premium DAP manufacturer, and the Mark II improves upon an already outstanding music player.
The improvements to the SR25 MKII bring the music player up to speed with some of the latest tech in Astell&Kern's products, like BT Sink, File Drop, and Silver Plating shielding, but sound improvements don't necessarily merit a new purchase for owners of the SR25. Micro-upgrades are great for those coming late to the game, but Astell&Kern has spoiled us with some really great feature upgrades and enhancements lately with their music players. So I guess there's no need to complain about minimizing the gap between entry-level price points and premium-quality features and sound. With the SR25MKII Astell&Kern is providing even more to those wanting to take their first step into the Audiophile world, with enhanced value and features.
iBasso DX240 DAP Music Player
The DX240 from iBasso is a very capable flagship-level music player without the title of flagship. It's pretty impressive when you consider what iBasso is charging for these things because anyone else would be charging a premium for this kind of performance and features. The DX240 represents amazing performance and value for the price. It’s not a perfect player, but it provides a satisfying user experience with plenty of options for you to customize it according to your listening preferences. It’s strange to me that the flagship player is only $250 bucks more, the DX300, but you also have fewer options for amp modules with a much larger device as the trade-off. Personally, I consider the DX240 to be the better value here, with a smaller and more portable device, while still maintaining great performance and specs. You’ll have a larger selection of backward-compatible amp cards to choose from, and it includes one of the best DAC chips on the market with the ES9038 Pro.
DACs: Easy Gains
DACs are one of the easiest ways to drastically improve the quality of your music. We like to call them the Google Translate of your audio system, and as such, not all translators are equal. They come in a plethora of shapes, sizes, chips, price points, and more. DAC stands for digital to analog converter, and essentially what it does is take the data from the original sound, and convert this digital data back to an analog signal. To do this, it converts the bits of data from the stored files into an analog electrical signal at thousands of set times per second, called samples. The DAC outputs these samples into a wave that intersects at all the sample points. The more samples or data in general, the more accurate the original wave will be and therefore better sound quality as a result.
There’s no need to make it super complicated. The bottom line is that consumer-level devices all have built-in factory DAC chips. The quality of the converter chip most companies use for their devices is just not that great. Most external DACs are far superior because they have one job: to convert digital signals to analog (and to do it well). That’s it. That’s all they do. Of course, there are differences from DAC to DAC, but the one thing they all have in common is what they were designed to do: to convert digital signals to analog. The audio output from a standalone digital to analog converter is going to be drastically better than your built-in source device like a phone.
Be sure to check out our Best DACs of 2022 Buying Guide for even more options on how to improve the quality of your music.
Chord Electronics Mojo 2 DAC Headphone Amp
There's a reason why no other DAC sold as well once the original Mojo was released. It was that good. It brought unparalleled sound to your mobile setup. Audiophile-grade audio with fidelity and power unmatched. The reigning king of portable DACs. Only to be overthrown by itself, the new Mojo 2. The sonic upgrades are there - don't be fooled by some of the specs being identical. Sound doesn't just lie in new chips. Chord has a design process where they assess what really needs to be improved, and the Mojo 2 is a refinement in that art. Better transparency, more depth, improved bass response, larger battery - it's all there. But the new features steal the show by giving the listener more control over their music. Low/High gain options, better color-coded indicators (will take some time to learn), new menu filters, intelligent desktop mode, EQ, and much more. It’s one of the most popular options on the market to greatly improve the quality of your sound.
Clarus CODA USB Portable DAC
You shouldn’t leave home without a USB DAC in my opinion. The Clarus CODA is one of the best portable USB DACs at/under $300 on the market. Its signature SABRE sound is proven and popular, and the construction is durable. What puts the CODA above the competition however are the features and functionality, giving you way more control over your music than a simple plug-and-play device (despite being just as easy to install and use). Manual volume control, filters, great construction, and sound - Don't be fooled by the small size, because it packs a lot of punch and can drive most portable full-size headphones or IEMs you throw at it. The CODA is a solid recommendation for those wanting big, clean sound while being small enough to throw in your bag for everyday use.
iFi xDSD Gryphon Headphone Amp DAC
New this year to Moon Audio is iFi. The Gryphon adds a few more features that a portable DAC like the Mojo 2 doesn’t have. Including Bluetooth and balanced port selections, the Gryphon should be a serious contender if you’re looking for something in this form factor. The device has a great selection of I/O, a great-looking design, and a display screen that is configured to not add any additional noise to the circuitry.
The DAC includes both a 3.5mm unbalanced headphone port and a 4.4 balanced port. The Gryphon includes separate Bluetooth, DAC, and Amp stages for additional noise isolation and to maximize performance. Digital sources also include USB and S/PDIF as well. The Gryphon has additional tonal options called XSpace and XBass II that tailor the music according to your listening preferences if you want to add more low-end presence and/or upper midrange frequencies. It’s a more than capable DAC and headphone amp and it gets our recommendation for one of the top portable gear you should have in your audiophile arsenal.
Your gear is only as good as the weakest link, and that in most cases is your OEM cable. When you're on the move, bending and plugging cables in and out all the time, guess what's the first thing to usually fail?
We recommend upgrading your cables to high-quality Dragon Cables made with premium materials to make sure nothing is bottlenecking your high-resolution audio from getting to your ears. Silver and Black Dragon headphone and USB cables are our most popular products, giving you a variety of headphone connections and usb connection types. You want it, we can make it. We can create custom solutions for your portable setup - just contact us and we'll be more than happy to help you!
About Dragon Cables
Generally, stock audio cables are manufactured with subpar materials, metals with impurities, poor geometries, and an overabundance of layers to make them look and feel like a fire hose. Inconsistency and lack of quality control in stock cables can lead to poor sound quality and a veiled sound vs what the musician intended for you to hear and feel from the music. Dragon cables are handcrafted with the highest standards and made to order according to your specific needs. At Moon Audio, we create a custom cable for you using the highest quality UP-OCC silver or copper conductors that can be manufactured. UP-OCC metals are void of impurities and are optimized for signal transfer and sound quality. We have one of the largest collections of audio and headphone connection options available online and we create limitless audio cable options depending on your specific gear and needs.
Silver Dragon Sound Signature: The Silver Dragon is the original cable. Silver strands clarify instrument separation, increase the soundstage, and find previously lost high and mid-frequency sounds. Transients appear more cohesive and the bass tighter for a more controlled sound. The detail and clarity of the Silver Dragon make it a perfect match for classical music and other genres with many nuanced instruments.
Black Dragon Sound Signature: The Black Dragon is warm and smooth with a musical presentation. Copper strands enhance the body, shape, and immediacy of the music. The detail and expansiveness of the Black Dragon make it a flexible fit where a broad range of musical genres are played. It can also improve bass frequencies on bass-light headphones. The smooth, musical quality makes it a perfect fit for headphones that tend to sound a bit edgy or bright. Despite its warmth, the Black Dragon does not have a laid-back, lush sound. It is much closer to neutral, making it a very natural-sounding cable. For more information on finding your signature sound, visit our Sound Signature Guide.