Best Amps for HD800 - 2021 Edition

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by ChaChaRealSmooth, Dec 18, 2020.

  1. ChaChaRealSmooth

    ChaChaRealSmooth SBAF Poopsmith

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    A not-exhaustive* guide for helping listeners get the best synergy for the HD800**
    *The reason why this list is not exhaustive is that we HAVE NOT heard every amp. Conceivably there are other amps that work very well here.
    **This list is a work-in-progress and will be updated to reflect this

    Thread for the 2017 Edition thread here (this list is definitely still worth perusing and has lots of good information)

    My Personal Take on the HD800:

    I have heard various HD800 headphones. To be honest, even with extensive mods, SBAF mod, SDR mod, any combination of mod, etc, the HD800 never quite jived with my tastes. However, under good synergy and the right mods, I do find it to have very significant sonic merit and think it still does deserve its reputation and place.

    Other members of this forum have commented that the HD800 does not respond to EQ well (the data definitely exists to back this line of reasoning). This is because the early reflections inside the housing, the large ribs, and mounting structure of the cups, combined with the driver's angling towards the ear and its suspended nature cause some very interesting (and measurable) effects on the FR and harmonics. I do NOT like the HD800 stock because of the FR oddities, and thus this guide, like @purr1n's original guide, will assume that a SDR mod will have been used at the bare minimum (or some similar mod). In a personal sense, @tommytakis kindly let me borrow his HD800, which had both the SBAF and SDR mod (as well as a few others), and I found this iteration of the HD800 to be the most enjoyable to listen to for me. I do not discount the other mods; just haven't heard them.

    General Amp Guidelines:

    In general, solid-state amps will just not work well with the HD800 (there are definitely exceptions like the BHA-1 and as this list grows, these exceptions will be added). There is a reason for the "tubes or bust" attitude that many have when it comes to amp pairings for the HD800. With that being stated, tube amps that are overly warmpoo, slow, and thick will not be considered worthy of being mentioned on this list. The goal here is max synergy: emphasizing the HD800's strengths while mitigating the weaknesses. We do not want to turn the HD800 into an early production Audeze, even if we're talking an A-grade unicorn LCD-2r2.

    One key note about this list: this list will ONLY include amps that are currently in production and somewhat easily obtainable. Yes, some OOP amps will be fantastic, but recommending them here is akin to saying "hurr hurr look at this amazeballs amp that you can't have, sux 2 be yoo."

    Amps under $500:
    • Schiit Asgard 3: This is a good, inexpensive solid-state option without tubes. Not the most slammin' or incisive, but mellow, which softens the HD800's edge. However, nuanced enough to take advantage of what the HD800 does well. Start here.
    • EC ZDT Jr/Laconic Night Blues Mini: An older amp by now, but just like other good gear, withstands test of time. Somewhat tubey and bloomy, but transformer coupled and decent speed, resolve, and dynamics. Bass is a bit wooly and blurry. A fantastic budget choice.
    • SW51*: Again, needs SBAF + SDR mods. Very neutral, somewhat punchy. Absolutely a wonderful amp.
    • Garage1217 Project Horizon 3: This is a tube hybrid like Vali 2. Simplistic design that works well. Slightly better clarity and microdynamics compared to Vali 2, and priced right. With the stock tube, more on the neutral side, but can be tube rolled if desired.
    • Schiit Lyr 3: Somewhat laid-back compared to the more forward Schiit amps of the past. Good resolve, less tubey than ZDT Jr, and better bass. Provides a lot of power.
    • Schiit Jotunheim 2: Nexus tonal richness and Continuity plankton with midcentric tonality is very good for HD800. Think of this as the solid-state version of the Lyr 3 somewhat.
    No Man's Land Amps:
    • Woo WA6SE*: Needs SBAF + SDR mods. A wonderful choice around the $1k range and the entry into better and bigger transformer coupled tube amps. Don't get the special USAF mickey mouse ears rectifier from Woo or Sophia Princess 274B shit for HD800 use. Use a decent vintage or semi-vintage 5U4G instead.
    More Expensive Amps:
    • Bryston BHA-1: One of the few SS amps that work very well with HD800. Very good stage. Somewhat of a faster sounding amp, but not quite as grippy as something like a DSHA-3F (which the 3F is a terrible amp for the HD800). Definitely worth it if you can find one used for around $1k-1.5k. Total rip off at new retail prices.
    • DNA Starlett: By now this amp needs no introduction. Uses cheap tubes, but the sound is anything but cheap. Characteristic DNA sound; somewhat wet, richly harmonic, and tasteful tube bloom, but undeniably extremely technically competent with utterly fantastic resolve and mids-to-highs that aren't matched by any other amp in this price point.
    • DNA Stratus/Stellaris: Stratus is a bit better than Starlett. Stellaris is in a class of its own, but is mega-expensive due to next-level OPTs where Donald is passing costs along. Absolutely incredible amps with the price tag to match.
    • Eddie Current Studio B: This is a Studio Jr in a Balancing Act chassis. Needs no other introduction. Absolutely a fine amp and worthy of its hype. Just keep in mind this is a limited amp and will not be available forever.
    • SPL Phonitor:* Actually works with the HD800 with SDR / SBAF mods. Don't expect miracles; however a competent sound that isn't nasty solid state. Pair with vivid or exciting DAC.
    • Luxman: For solid state, any headamp from Luxman works with the HD800. Expect to pay a decent amount, but used is a much better way to go.

    Other Amps, Some Really Good, But Not Listed for a Reason:
    • BH Crack: Best with HD6xx series, but never seems to be quite as magical with the HD800.
    • A90/D90 Topping: High end Topping is hot garbage and doesn't sound any better than their lower end stuff. On the lower end, JDS, Geshelli, and Schiit sound better. Please stop asking about Topping. Their entire lineup at their respective prices underperforms in terms of sound quality. And WTF are you doing on SBAF if you subscribe to the ASR way?
    • Schiit Valhalla 2*: Good if SBAF + SDR mods are used, or similar. However removed for 2021 because of veil and and dry somewhat prickly highs - there simply are better options available now.
    • Feliks: Not into the philosophy of sky high output impedance into changing the HD800 into a TH900. Besides, resolution isn't the highest on these amp. Better off with Horizon if one wanted OTL sound. Plus, it's expensive with eroded value since they've raised their prices.
    • Vioeletric: Lower end 200 model tonally works with HD800, but why make the HD800 into a murky low-fi headphone. V281 is nice, but BHA-1 and Ragnarok 2 are better suited to HD800 for much less. V281 is a great choice if you are in the EU though. Just have SDR / SBAF mods ready, unless you are OK with bright.
    • ECP DSHA 3F: Great for Focals and many other headphones. Not great with HD800.
    • Apex Teton: Great with HD800, but seems an awful lot to pay for a tube amp without output transformers. It's very good actually with HD800, but geez, pay off your car first before you buy an OTL which limits your headphone options.
    • Woo WA234: Dual volume knobs and garish design. Really you can do better in terms of function and sound for much less. This is a cod-piece to show off.
    • Woo WA33: Not bad sounding, but just like the WA234, you can do so much more for sound for less (much so in case of the eye-watering expensive Elite edition). AKA, just buy a Stellaris.
    • VIva Egoista: Name says it all. It's good, but not that good. The 2A3 version is better. The 845 has more power, but bigger DHTs just sound don't as good.
    • Elekit: If you can DIY and control the parameters of your build such as OPTs, bias, caps, you wouldn't be in this thread.
    • Sennheiser HDVD800: Get a Magnius or A90 for less, which we don't recommend anyway. Gear like this is why all DACs sound the same.
    • Any other random TOTL amp: Probably great, but not necessarily so for HD800.
    • Anything OOP: Yeah, right. We are trying to help folks here not make their lives more neurotic.
    • EC Black Widow: See above.
     
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    Last edited: Jul 21, 2021
  2. fastfwd

    fastfwd Friend

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    It's nice to see an updated list -- thanks for doing that. But between the above-quoted restriction and @purr1n's apparent reluctance in 2017 to recommend products whose development he was involved with, a number of amps won't be listed here even though they're available (used) and have good synergy with the HD800. For example, the EC Aficionado occasionally shows up for sale here, and it makes the HD800 sound fantastic. But no one would know that from reading the 2017 or 2021 lists, because it doesn't appear on either of them.

    I think that's unfortunate. How about adding a category for amps that are out of production but which can still be obtained on the secondary market?
     
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  3. Mindbender

    Mindbender Acquaintance

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    I'd like to submit the Schiit Ragnarok (v.2) for consideration. It has enough drive to light up my HD800S on high-gain, but is source-sensitive. Won't match a tube amp in quality but brings more than enough sound to my listening sessions.
     
  4. Lasollor

    Lasollor Friend

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    Is there any currently in protuction OTL amp that has good synergy with the HD800+SDR+SBAF mods?
     
  5. ChaChaRealSmooth

    ChaChaRealSmooth SBAF Poopsmith

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    In terms of higher end, not sure. I tried before a very lightly modded HD800 with the Feliks Euforia and thought it was kind of eh. Euforia IMHO doesn't complement what the HD800 does well (Euforia is more of a HD600/650 and Focal amp). That being said, I never tried tube rolling the Euforia and judging by what people say, it can potentially be rolled to maybe suit it better but wouldn't hold my breath.

    Again, I haven't heard everything. Not sure if other amps do well.

    Edit: just also realized you're in Japan. Might want to check out an Andix amp. I haven't heard it myself but I do have a friend who owns one and he loves it.

    Could be an idea. Slightly worried that this would be built on too much hearsay but we shall see.
     
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    Last edited: Dec 19, 2020
  6. gixxerwimp

    gixxerwimp Professional tricycle rider

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    I find the OG Liquid Carbon v1 pairs really well with my modded/EQ'd HD800 when I want a smoother presentation. The MD LC X shows OOS, but maybe it's still available enough to be on the list. SW51 is technically superior but LC gives me a more relaxed sound and more open stage.

    There were comparisons by others with the BW when I mentioned this in a profile post. This could be a poor man's solid state option.
     
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  7. Tchoupitoulas

    Tchoupitoulas Friend

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    To follow @gixxerwimp's suggestion about a poor man's solid state option, would an Asgard 3 work? I ask because of having seen this post a while ago:

    I realize bboris77's referring to the S version of the HD 800, but since it's possible to pick up an HD 800 for ca. $700-800 these days, a setup with the Asgard 3 for under a grand could be an excellent option for those on a budget who are saving for a fancier, more synergistic tube amp.
     
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  8. ChaChaRealSmooth

    ChaChaRealSmooth SBAF Poopsmith

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    It might. The question would be whether or not it delivers on the thread's premise of max synergy for the HD800. I.E. it would have to be on the level of Horizon 3 for its price.
     
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  9. Cellist88

    Cellist88 Friend

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    I like the SPL phonitor E with the hd800sdr. I can listen to it even without EQ, though I do eq. I know its been mentioned in the previous thread that its vampiric/clinical but I don't feel that to be the case, if you put the amp in high gain. Synergy is key and I would pair it with a warmer source with slam/boldness like the Yggdrasil or convert-2. I can see using a neutral, softer dac like the dac1541, ifi idsdpro, akm dacs, not working as well. Def like it more than the ECP T3, or any schiit amp when paired with the yggdrasil. And no, the magni 3+ is not close, contrary to what has been said. Not worth at mrsp, but got mine used at around 800 usd.
     
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  10. gridmaster

    gridmaster Facebook Friend

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    Gotta mention Elekit 8800 with Lundahl OPT.
    Guy on discord (Also hangs out here I guess @tommytakis) just sold his Starlett after direct A/B with the 8800 he built.

    8800/8600 in general are pretty monstrous price/performance, if you don't mind a bit of DIY.
    Recently listened to an 8600s (@famish99) with Elrog 300b, very tasty.
     
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  11. pure5152

    pure5152 Friend

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    Come on, tommytakis is more than just a "guy on discord" here :p

    Also just because he sold his Starlett doesn't mean the Elekit's synergy with HD800 was necessarily better. It could come down to synergy/personal preferences or synergies with other headphones-- I don't think we should necessarily come to conclusions/make general recommendations for hd800 just from that.
     
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  12. Walderstorn

    Walderstorn Friend

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    Something like an "hard to find" or even a "Unicorn" category?

    Non-surprisingly DNA Sonett 2 and Cavalli Liquid Crimson.
     
    Last edited: Dec 19, 2020
  13. Lycos

    Lycos Rando

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    For the benefit of newbie in the forum like me or lurkers, do you mind to describe what synergy you're looking for?
    I remembered when I researched for one, few people in HF suggested Topping L30, THX789, A90.
    I think for them, the synergy/ sound signature from amp that they want is very clean details and sterile.
    Meanwhile for me, I want coloured sound (warm) and thick. So, maybe defining the target will clear misunderstanding.

    I'm actually on the edge of getting this amp. I haven't seen reviews about it yet.
    Do you mind to describe the Nexus sound? and elaborate why continuity should be very good for HD800?
     
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  14. insidious meme

    insidious meme Ambivalent Kumquat

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    @tommytakis did like his modded HD800 on it, but didn't really expand on it much. Other than it was in triode mode:

     
  15. Peti

    Peti Facebook Friend

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    I owned that Bryston amp and right after obtained the original HDVA amp designed to drive the HD800 and I preferred it over the Bryston a tad. However, the Bryston drives and synergizes with more cans. IT seemed to me that the HDVA was made exclusively to drive the HD800.

    I still have fond memories of that amp...

    [​IMG]
     
  16. ChaChaRealSmooth

    ChaChaRealSmooth SBAF Poopsmith

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    There is nothing wrong with DIY and I'd put some on here. In regards to "the dude who sold his Starlett for an Elekit," this was done in the interests of personal preference. The particular Elekit he has is probably not what I'd describe as maximum synergy with HD800 particularly in ultralinear operation (might be a different story in triode operation).

    Described in first post.

    The HD800's strengths are resolve (especially in the treble), staging, and overall cleanliness without having any weird timbre issues. We want to preserve or complement those strengths while mitigating things such as that bright AF tonality, addressing slam and and speed (amps that do macrodynamics well) without turning thee HD800 into a warmpoo-fest. Of course, there are always tradeoffs. The key is finding what tradeoffs you can live with and what things you cannot live without. This is why I can't just say "hey everyone buy this one amp for HD800."

    ^examples of absolutely crap synergy. I guarantee that in direct comparison to any of the amps mentioned on this list or Marv's 2017 list they would be garbage tier.

    I've observed that people tend to use "sterile" or "analytical" to describe systems that plainly are unengaging and flat. AKA, they suck and I'd rather not listen to them*. Usually means to me it lacks microdynamics, nuance, resolve, texture, etc.

    *this is not to say that there is anything wrong with a presentation more about clean, straight lines than ultimate plankton, stage, and texture. In fact, I own and regularly use an amp that is definitely more about the former; the EC Ultralinear. The issue is that neither of these presentations should be boring in any way. The point being much better amps exist for HD800 that will give you this type of sound. Like SW51+.

    Nexus: warmer and more harmonically rich. Continuity is used to combat the transconductance droop and can actually be designed to mimic the effects of a square law device (aka a tube). Again, this is based on speculation, but we will know soon enough.

    And just a comment about the posts I'm seeing here. I'm not disagreeing with most of you (who most likely have much more experience with HD800 than I do or even own one right now) that some of the amps mentioned may have pretty decent synergy with HD800. I'd like to remind everyone this is a work-in-progress, and just because an amp you may like isn't on here yet doesn't mean that it will forever not be on the list if it indeed meets the criteria of having max synergy. And also, please keep in mind that my goal was to hit on max synergy, and only in regards to HD800. Also, something about opinions and assholes (no, mine isn't perfect as much as my ego tells me it is).
     
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    Last edited: Dec 19, 2020
  17. Lycos

    Lycos Rando

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  18. purr1n

    purr1n Super Friend

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    Apex Teton.
     
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  19. purr1n

    purr1n Super Friend

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    Asgard 3 added.
    Rag 2 not added because of Jot 2, otherwise would have been. Jot 2 needs further examination.
     
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  20. purr1n

    purr1n Super Friend

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    Anything OOP and DIY will not be listed. Folks who are knowledgeable enough can go back to 2017 editions to build their own for HD800 synergies.
     
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