How to allocate budget among headphones, amps, and DAC (source).

Discussion in 'Leaderboard, Overboard, and Deals' started by purr1n, Sep 28, 2015.

  1. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    I prefer the "total system" cost approach. This method is by no means the only method.
    1. When starting out with modest total budget of around $150 or less, allocate all funds to the headphone. Headphones in this price range will be easy to drive and won't require an amp or DAC. In fact, using a cheap external amp or DAC may make things sounds worse.
    2. With budget of a few hundred dollars, get the best headphone you can get and an amp to power them properly. Don't bother with a DAC, unless you can score one for cheap.
    3. Once you get into entry level audiophile of about $1000, get the headphone you want, and split the difference between amp and DAC with a little bit more on the amp.
    4. Once you start getting serious in the thousands of dollars, get the headphone you want, but go for an even split between amp and DAC. I tend to see many sub-optimal systems at meets where people do not have DACs which can take advantage of the headphones and amps being used. This is when source starts to matter.
    5. Once you start building an end-game setup, source becomes king.
    My reasoning for the above is as follows:
    1. Headphones will be the most colored piece of gear in the audio chain. We can discuss this all day, so we won't. Pick this first for obvious reasons.
    2. DACs sound closer to each other than not. Differences between DACs are more easily heard with more resolving gear.
    3. Thus don't bother with DACs at the low end or even entry level. Use what you have handy or can get for free from friends (iRiver Soviet iPod, sound card, old HeadRoom BitHead).*
    4. As we move up to higher fidelity headphones, the immediate weak link seems to be amplifiers. Many headphones, such as high efficiency orthos and moderate efficiency traditional dynamics, love amplifiers that can provide clarity, power, control, dynamics, articulation. There are some exceptions: Grados and certain Audio Technicas, because of their super efficiency, may not sound any better with an amp. These kinds of headphones require extremely resolving amps, not necessarily power. But in general, more power is better, but only if we can maintain resolution, clarity, low distortion, etc.
    5. At some point, a setup in the thousands of dollars, the source starts to become more important, as important as the amp or even slightly more, just in case. IMO, in the initial or medium stages, source should take a back seat to the amp because an amp's sonic colorations are more obvious.
    6. Finally, for some headphones, spending more on amps won't matter after some point. They won't scale. All you will get is something "different" (nothing wrong with that, just be cognizant of it and don't let HF convince you otherwise). Same thing for amps. After some point, DACs won't matter if your amp can't reveal the nuances of what the better DACs are capable of doing. The above, #2 and #5 is why Gary at HF didn't find any distinguishable differences between most of the DACs he auditioned. He used an LCD3 (presumably degraded) and a speaker amp.
    7. Some headphones like the Sennheiser HD6x0, HD800 scale like mad. Don't bother sidegrading with more headphones. Get good advice** on better amps and source to bring these headphones to their full potential.
    8. Another approach is source first. Maybe a small business in a nice small town just north of El Lay made a kick ass DAC (or two) which is universally agreed by everyone as to have an extremely high performance/price ratio. Might be a good idea to start with that.

    * As an aside, because of #1 and #2, so called "objectivists" claim there are no DAC differences if three or four measurements don't show non-linear behavior past audible thresholds. Of course this has nothing to do with science since 1) these "objectivists" have not heard any of the gear in question; 2) they have not conducted experiments to support their hypotheses. They demand experiments of high rigor (DBT, 0.01db volume matching, etc.) from those who they disagree with, while accepting less rigorous "experiments" (anecdotes) from those they agree with: "I conducted a blind test of the ODAC and the Benchmark DAC1 and I couldn't tell the difference from my Objective 2 amp, which we all know is nearly perfect and transparent".

    ** Don't sidegrade amps or DACs either. A lot of gear hyped on HF as the latest and greatest is actually pretty craptastic.
     
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2015
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  2. The Alchemist

    The Alchemist MOT: Schiit - Here to help!

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    Wonderfully written Marvey
     
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  3. TheFighter

    TheFighter Rando

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    Very helpful advice!!

    Can I ask what is this DAC you mention?
     
  4. Deep Funk

    Deep Funk Deep thoughts - Friend

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    There is an added advantage to this system approach. Once you have an audio set-up that is just the way you like it you have two things:
    1. The reference sound you like.
    2. You can change variables in the audio signal chain to try new things.

    In the end the source becomes vital. The music remains important.
     
    Last edited: Sep 29, 2015
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  5. SoupRKnowva

    SoupRKnowva Official SBAF South Korean Ambassador - Friend

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    The Schiit MultiBit Gungnir, aka Gumby
     
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  6. atomicbob

    atomicbob dScope Yoda

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    Look here for an example of possibly the highest performance / price ratio DAC in existence along with other very high performance / price ratio components, the sum of the components total performance far exceeds the collective price and can be obtained in stages:
    http://www.superbestaudiofriends.org/index.php?threads/system-synergy-special-sound.54/
     
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  7. JK47

    JK47 An angry flower

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    This should be stickied, if it hasn't already
     
  8. Jeb

    Jeb Friend

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    Hi Marvey, thanks for this excellent thread of advice. On point no.7 - when you say that the HD6x0 keep on scaling, would you say that the sky is the limit as with the HD-800 or do they have a much lower ceiling to reach their full potential ?

    I have read on the threads people using the HD600/650 with really high-end set-ups but often it seems to be a headphone people own in addition to other more expensive ones. How far could you sensibly go with equipment if you were building a really nice system specifically and only for the HD-650s ?

    For example could it be worthwhile to go to Gugnir-Multi-Bit / Stratus (+soapy toobs) level or even further to something like Yggdrasil / Teton ?

    I'm currently using HD-650 with Crack/Rega Dac, and wonder how close this is to their full potential.
     
  9. purr1n

    purr1n Finding his inner redneck

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    For the HD800, the sky does seem to be the limit.

    As for the HD650, I still found it to scale from EC Zana Deux Super / Yggydrasil to the VPI Classic 1 (assuming the recording is old enough and well engineered through a full analog chain without A-D or D-A conversion.) I even tried from the EC Studio and I still got gains. The HD6x0 can get pretty sick (good) for TOTL amps.

    The HD800 might scale more in terms of resolution, the HEK has better transient response, the Abyss is more thunderous, but I always seem to come back to the HD650 because it's nailed that slightly dark frequency response that I prefer (especially after tweaks) and the entire audio band seems so well integrated and cohesive. There's no one part of the spectrum that sticks out like a sore thumb. I feel like I get 90% of the HD800, but with better frequency response.

    I don't have experience with HD650 on Teton, but I suspect Teton might be a better match with the HD800 with its super high output impedance of 50 ohms. Teton might not a good idea with the HD650 because the Teton's high output Z coupled with the HD650's impedance peak might result in too much of a bassy or warm sound. Still might worth trying.

    Gumby is a good place to start. If you've been reading stuff here, Gumby isn't that far behind Yggy. Crack with the speedball is great with the HD650, but for some reason, just doesn't seem to scale - that is resolve with the better DACs. I am a little bit hesitant that you upgrade, because the combo you have is already pretty great, and what may be huge gains for me may be minor to you. And also because after Crack, the expenditures increase geometrically.

    The HD650 isn't quite as hyper resolving as the HD800, but it also happens to be the headphone that I can use 100% of my music without any issues, including the marginal recordings which are bright.
     
    Last edited: Oct 2, 2015
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  10. thegunner100

    thegunner100 Hentai Master Chief

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    Bring your hd650s to meets if possible and try them out on different setups. See what you like, and determine if it's worth it over your current system. If you haven't already, then try modding your hd650s for a bit of an improvement overall.

    Best amp that I've currently had the pleasure to try with the hd650s is the EC 2a3 mkiv. It does things better than the valhalla 2 for sure, but it's a huge jump in price.
     
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  11. Judeus

    Judeus Almost "Made"

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  12. thegunner100

    thegunner100 Hentai Master Chief

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    I wonder how many of you guys have sold your yggys for the gumby.
     
  13. Judeus

    Judeus Almost "Made"

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    if you want the absolute most transparency and upgradibility and giant epenis and not fund limited get iggy

    if not get gumbny
     
  14. dsavitsk

    dsavitsk Friend

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    Q.F.T. I've got HD800s hanging in the closet, 007's in a box somewhere, and HD650s in daily use. I've been revolving about 6 different amps lately, and I seem to prefer the 650s with them all.
     
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  15. Judeus

    Judeus Almost "Made"

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    modded or stock?
     
  16. drfindley

    drfindley Secretly lives in the Analog Room - Friend

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    I spent some time at home between the two and the Yggy just has more resolution, which I crave the most. That said, I'm really happy with my work Gumby.
     
  17. Jeb

    Jeb Friend

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    Guys thanks for the advice. Gunner - I will definitely try and get to some meets to hear for myself and certainly will look into the 650 mods.

    Purrin - really appreciate your thoughts on scaling the 650 and some of the equipment I mentioned.

    Prior to the Crack/650s I just jumped straight into headphones with LCD-2(fazor) and WA7+tp. When I later built the Crack and got the 650s it was quite an eye-opener. - especially the headphones. I never really warmed to the Audezes in sound or in comfort but - because of the price & luxurious materials - it took me a while to admit to myself that the 650s sounded better to me. I'm selling my other gear now and my plan is to just enjoy / tweak the Crack and wait until I can find & afford something that could offer a real improvement. I recently demoed the HD800s with the HDVD-800 and thought the HD800s were very promising.

    I won't rush into any big purchases for the moment and appreciate you being conscientious about making sure I know the size of gains I can expect from upgrades will always be relative based on expectations and experience. I'm looking forward to seeing what else is out there but also remain open to the idea of keeping the Crack and spending the sale money on a beach holiday if the next significant step-up is a little far out of my reach.


    [​IMG]
     
  18. Cspirou

    Cspirou They call me Sparky

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    If going with the "source first" approach, can a newbie hear the differences between a Yggdrasil and a Modi using the HD 280 and a Magni (or similarly priced amp/headphone combo)? Or is this a difference only detected by golden eared audiophiles?
     
  19. money4me247

    money4me247 Friend

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    I would say that the headphones are typically the limiting factor and have the largest impact on overall sound quality with dacs generally having the smallest impact on overall sound quality (in terms of a cost-performance type perspective). Think something like 75-90% on transducers and the rest on external components. I would say that it probably wiser to upgrade your headphones to a really well-recommended option from the $200-$500 price range prior to throwing $2.2k on a dac. Something like the HD600/HD650 is extremely popular particularly on this website. I personally also think the AKG K7xx, Phillips X2, Beyerdynamic DT880, and Hifiman HE-400i are also really competitive mid-tier options.

    I personally think it would be wisest to spend on nice mid-tier headphone at the very minimum prior to going all out on the dac. One of the really nice mid-tier pair of headphones will scale up much more too, so the investment in the dac will go much farther after you have a nice mid-tier headphone. I do also personally think that you will get more return from your money going to a flagship pair of headphones over going to a flagship dac, but I think a nice mid-tier pair of headphones is likely a minimal requirement to be able to get enough of a sonic improvement with a flagship dac to make it worthwhile (from my personal perspective).

    Others here may have different opinions.
     
  20. Xen

    Xen Friend

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    I agree with money4me247. I think if you go "source first", you will be trading present increases in sound quality for more dramatic changes to better(hopefully) sound quality in the future.

    Buying headphones first is nice because you hopefully can hear the differences as you upgrade, especially if you buy a headphone that scale, like the HD600/650. If you buy a more esoteric headphone, you may need an amp that can properly drive the headphone if you don't have an old receiver handy. You can still get the "end game" DAC second.

    If you don't really plan on upgrading past yggy or gumby in quality, then it might be a good thing to go for an "end game" source since most people don't change DACs too much after they get to a certain point. You save some money by not churning one of your components, but you lose some of that "thrill of the chase".

    For me, I decided to start at the top of mid-fi, buying headphones first.
     

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