Summer vacation season is at high tide, and while that gives us the chance to get away from work and whatever else happens to be royally annoying us at the time, it also takes us away from our hifi systems. In order for flights, airports and exciting family squabbles that re-ignite thirty years of simmering resentment (that last one may be just my family but somehow I doubt it), you are going to need to have some musical solace to hand.
Before we going any further, this article is focused on digital. If this is a bridge too far for you, I would recommend you hunt down a working Audio Technica Sound Burger and live the (slightly impractical) dream of vinyl on the move. It is worth pointing out that if you have ripped some of your vinyl to digital (as detailed in a recent article), you can have a very accurate facsimile of the analogue experience while several thousand miles from your record player.
Before I make some specific recommendations, there are some general pointers worth following. I'm not an absolutist in matters of audio quality when out and about. I like the sound of lossless files and services like Tidal but I'd be lying if I said I hadn't also spent hundreds of hours listening to Spotify and other compressed material and found them more than listenable. Go with what suits your storage, your existing material and your personal preferences. If you are using a streaming service, make use of the offline storage facility if you don't want to destroy your data allowance.
Recommendations take the form of headphones, earphones and playback equipment. This can be a standalone audio player but it can just as easily be your mobile phone- either connected directly to a headphones or earphones or via an external DAC. As befits a travel piece I've divided the products into 'Economy', 'Business', 'First' and 'Learjet' levels of spending. Unless clearly stated with an asterisk, the products listed are ones I've listened to and used on the move which I hope gives it slightly more credence than some others doing the rounds. If you disagree with the choices, feel free to choose the UK as your vacation destination and we'll discuss it over a beer.Economy Models
You can get earphones in a Christmas cracker, so spending $50 on a pair might seem like madness. But there are solid reasons for doing so. Shure are longstanding champions of in ear monitors and make some seriously expensive models. The SE112 takes as much of that experience as possible and condenses it into a dull looking but comfortable and great sounding earphone that is well built and comes with a two year warranty.
An unreasonably good headphone for the asking price, the Soundmagic won't win awards for beauty or 'hewn from unobtanium' build but they sound excellent and fold away when not in use.
If you have an Android or iOS device, the latest version of the Dragonfly can connect directly to it and give you volume levels and sound quality that most mobiles can't get anywhere near. It's small, well built and a great buy.
If you want to take the strain off your mobile phone (or, as in my case, your son has nicked it to watch YouTube videos), the Fiio is outstanding value for money. With 8GB of expandable storage, it can listen to lossless files and enjoy 24 hours of playback between charges.
The name is a bit on the odd side, and they aren't much to get excited about in terms of looks, but the Final has an audio performance that very little else for the same price can get anywhere near. As a bonus, the supplied carry case is thing of incredible beauty.
The MSR-7 has been designed for use on the move and this means you get superbly comfy earpads, a decent carry bag and sufficient sensitivity to be used directly with most smartphones and tablets. They have a tonal balance that manages to allow them to sound exciting without becoming tiring which can help with long listening sessions.
Not only does the HA-2 look cool in a slightly retro futuristic sort of way, it offers excellent sound quality and file handling that includes DSD. As an added bonus, its on board battery can also be used to shunt charge back to your mobile device if power is getting low.
The big jump in price here is because the Pioneer has a big jump in ability. With 32gb of storage expandable to 432gb, high res and DSD capability and the ability to install Android apps including streaming services, the Pioneer is a seriously capable all rounder that lets your phone get on with being a phone.
The Sennheiser can make a justified claim to being the best all round earphone on the planet right now. They're no harder to use or drive than the $50 Shures but deliver truly outstanding sonic performance. They're also built like jewelry and have a superb carry case.
If you're all about the go rather than the show, the Shure is one of the very best headphones going. It is as much a home design as a portable one, so you have a long cord to handle but the closed back design doesn't leak noise and they sound absolutely sensational.
A cut down version of the larger Hugo, the Mojo is a truly world class DAC that happens to be the size of a cigarette packet and work connected directly to phone or tablet. If you want to handle any sample rate you can imagine and hear what the artist intended, this is where to look. You can even have a friend listen too as it has twin 3.5mm outputs.
Player- Sony NX-ZX2 $1,200
The Sony is due for replacement any minute now (meaning there are savings to be had) but it is still well worth seeking out. Like the Pioneer, it runs Android meaning it can run streaming services alongside your own music. It is also built like proper Japanese high end equipment of old and has a fabulously 'un digital' quality to way it makes music.
Earphone- Noble Kaiser 10U $1,599
Incredibly, the 10u isn't the top of the tree for Noble's earphones, but with its alloy enclosures and no less than ten armature drivers per side, it still represents one of the most astonishing earphones on sale. Happily, considering the price, they deliver a performance that is a heady combination of power and delicacy.
Unusually for a pair of headphones at this price, the McIntosh is closed back and ideal for use in public (or at least what passes for public in these circles). It still manages to sound completely free of the constraints of ordinary headphones, and is incredibly open and spacious used with the right equipment. They're also built like a tank, as you might expect.
The Hugo is a DAC, preamp, headphone amp and Bluetooth receiver built into a chassis that looks like a Dr Who prop if Dr Who didn't use papier mâché. It decodes pretty much any format, has twin 3.5mm outputs, a quarter inch jack connector and line outs. It also stakes a reasonable claim to being one of the very best headphone amps you can buy portable or not.
The Astell & Kern is a high end digital source that just happens to fit in a (large) pocket. It is one of a tiny handful of products that decodes DSD natively and matches this with styling and casework that is in a different league to pretty much anything else on the market. For full effortlessness and because you've already spent $3,500, I'd recommend the external amp at an extra $600 just to ensure performance is tippety top.
Ultimately, a good portable audio setup is the difference between that two hour delay being tolerable and you winding up on the no fly list after that unfortunate experience involving those nuns. There are choices for every budget and even a fairly small outlay can have you ready to travel the planet with some superior sounds. It's a big world out there- make sure you've got the soundtrack to suit.