Great Sound on a Student Budget

Study up on these stereo recommendations and you won’t have to settle for bad sound quality during your school years

In the battle for better sound, no one has it tougher than students. Most are on limited budgets—and if they’re music students, their reeds, strings, or cymbals come first. Most live in small bedrooms or dorm rooms, often shared with others who might resent a late-night exploration of Head Hunters or Bitches Brew.

The good news is that there’s more excellent-sounding, affordable audio gear now than ever before. Thanks to technological advances and more efficient manufacturing, today’s 18-year-old saxophone student may well have a better, more versatile audio system than her father did when he went to college, for less than a third of the inflation-adjusted price.

In this guide, I’ll explain what audio gear students—especially music students—need to own, and make specific recommendations for products that not only sound great for the money, but might even sound better than what your parents have at home.

Status Audio CB-1
Status Audio CB-1

Headphones: The Place to Start

I recently attended the Lynn Seaton Jazz Double Bass Camp at the University of North Texas, where many of my fellow students—most of whom were starting college in the fall—asked me what kind of stereo gear they should get. I told them all that by far the most important piece of audio equipment for music students is a natural-sounding set of closed-back, over-the-ear headphones. You can use them not only for music listening, but also for mixing and monitoring your own recordings, and the closed-back design blocks out most of the noise your roommates are making.

If you’re listening for fun, there’s no better bargain than Sony’s MDR-7506, which for two decades has been a standard fixture in audio production facilities. Much as I love listening to the 7506, its bass is boosted a bit—which means that if you mix with it, you’ll probably turn the bass down to compensate, and get complaints that your mixes need more bottom end. So for mixing and monitoring recordings, I’ve switched to the Status Audio CB-1, which has a more natural-sounding balance of bass to midrange to treble.

Speaking of keeping out noise, don’t buy noise-canceling headphones with the thought that they’re going to isolate you from your cohabitants’ chatter. They’re mostly designed to cancel the low-frequency noise from jet engines, and they rarely do much to block voices, TV sound, or squeaky clarinet playing.

Of course, you probably don’t want to stroll around campus wearing studio headphones. A better bet would be a set of in-ear headphones, which some people refer to as earbuds. Fortunately, there are some great in-ears at bargain prices. My favorite set is the AKG Y20U, which sounds more musical than some models that cost 10 times as much. However, the Y20U is a wired design, which is complicated to use with recent Apple phones because they don’t have a headphone jack. The wire also tends to get tangled during jogging and workouts. If you want a Bluetooth wireless model that’s built to survive such activity (and work with any phone), try the Jaybird X3, which is rugged, sweatproof, and great-sounding.