songmic's DAC/amp/headphone shootout

Discussion in 'Headphone Amplifiers and Combo (DAC/Amp) Units' started by songmic, Sep 16, 2016.

  1. songmic

    songmic Gear cycler East Asia edition

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    Yesterday being Chuseok--Korean Thanksgiving--and not having to go to work, I spent the better part of the day holed up in my room evaluating and A/B'ing the gears I had on hand. My desktop rig underwent some drastic makeover in the last couple months, with the acquisition of MHDT Pagoda Balanced (per Luckbad's advice in search of a warmer sounding DAC), HD800 with SuperBAF and SuperDupont mods (to see if this is really better than HD800S), Schiit Jotunheim (after all the crazy hype train surrounding it) and lastly, EC Studio T (took it off Negura's hands at a very reasonable price, thanks!). And then there's the Lynx AES16e bought off eBay (finally a way out of USB purgatory?). I had initially thought my 5-year-old iMac didn't have Thunderbolt, but apparently it did and I could use a Thunderbolt expansion chassis to take full advantage of AES16e while bypassing USB completely. Whew!

    I did a thorough comparison of USB vs AES/EBU, Pagoda Balanced vs Yggdrasil, Jotun vs ZDS vs Studio T, and HD650 vs HD800 vs HD800S (all of which are modded one way or another) with various combinations of DAC/amp/headphones. I was worn out by the end of the day, but it was quite rewarding, so I decided to share my impressions with the rest of the community. As always, IMO, YMMV, etc.

    A few caveats. As some of you might know, I am a diehard fan of Darin Fong's OOYH and no longer listen to headphones without it. All my impressions below are based on listening via OOYH, so some of you "audio purists" who shun away from all the DSP crap might have different opinions. Also, the Pagoda Balanced I received has a background noise that is always present when the DAC is turned on, I'm still in the middle of working this out with MHDT but apparently it's some kind of ground loop issue according to the manufacturer. Lastly, I was worried at first but luckily I had no issue whatsoever feeding the Studio from Yggdrasil's balanced outputs like some of you have experienced. Not sure if it's my Yggdrasil or Studio that is special....

    This is going to be a bit long so I'll try to keep each comparison as simple as possible. Or not.

    Source: Apple iMac running Audirvana Plus 2 to OOYH, iFi Mercury + micro iUSB3.0 + Gemini, Lynx AES16e (via 3rd party Thunderbolt expansion chassis), Schiit Wyrd, Schiit Yggdrasil, Jotun's built-in AK4490 DAC, MHDT Pagoda Balanced w/ JJ 6386LGP

    Amps: Schiit Jotun, EC Zana Deux Super w/ Mullard ECC35 / RCA 5691 / Sylvania JAN CHS 6SL7WGT, EC Studio T w/ Shuguang Nature Sound 2A3C-T

    Headphones: Senn HD650 (coin and foam mod) / HD800 (SuperBAF + SuperDupont mods) / HD800S (SuperBAF mod)

    1. Direct USB vs Wyrd vs iFi trio vs AES PCI card

    Using Jotun, Yggdrasil and Pagoda Balanced as source, I compared how they sound from direct USB connection, USB decrapification (Wyrd and iFi trio) and the Lynx AES16e.
    As expected, direct USB connection using a single USB cable had the least favorable outcome. It sounded fuzzy, veiled and congested compared to the other methods. I had a few USB cables on hand ranging from $50 to $300, but I couldn't tell much difference.
    With USB decrap, I had Wyrd with 2 USB PYST cables and the iFi trio (Mercury + micro iUSB3.0 + Gemini). Interestingly, with the Pagoda Balanced, I was unable to hear any difference between with and without Wyrd, and only a minor difference when iFi trio came to play. On the other hand, the Jotun's DAC responded well to both, with the iFi trio being slightly clearer and more focused than Wyrd. As for Yggdrasil, no audible difference with Wyrd, but clearly a notable improvement in the body and fullnes of the sound with the iFi.

    Now comes the interesting part: Lynx AES16e. Ever since my entrance to this hobby in 2011, I bought an iMac and has been using it since. Until recently, I never found a way out of USB audio (I could use the optical out but it's even crappier than USB). Yes, there were instances when I used the DAC's S/PDIF or AES input, but that was by using an USB converter (DDC). Truth be told, it never really occurred to me that USB is inferior as I believed the new advances in so-called "async USB" has put it in the same league as S/PDIF coaxial or AES/EBU, and there's no need for me to try to circumvent USB altogether. Boy was I wrong...

    The Lynx AES16e path, in which no USB is involved, utterly destroys USB, decrapified or not. The results were same with both Pagoda Balanced and Yggdrasil (the Jotun doesn't have an AES/EBU input like the other two, and I didn't have a 110-to-75 ohm adapter on hand). I'm not gonna go into details as others before me have already praised its performance, but it's simply better in every way. Now that I think about it, USB should be the bane of audio's existence.

    2. Yggdrasil vs Pagoda Balanced

    Honestly, while the built-in Jotun DAC isn't too shabby for $100, it obviously doesn't compete with the other two, let alone the $250 Modibit. I only added the DAC so that I could use the Jotun as a secondary DAC/amp system for my workplace. So I'll keep it simple to Yggdrasil vs Pagoda Balanced only.

    For those of you who are not familiar, Pagoda Balanced ($1500) is MHDT's current flagship DAC, and is a NOS tube R-2R DAC that runs on a quad of PCM1704. Like Yggdrasil, it is not a traditional Delta-Sigma design. The reason I bought this, as I've explained above, was because I wanted a different flavor from the ultra-resolving Yggdrasil. My previous DAC was a Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 MKII (SE+ modded by pcX) and it was my favorite DAC to date. There, I've said it. Yggdrasil's quad of AD5791BRUZ and mega-combo-burrito filter may give it an edge over the SFD-2 in terms of absolute technicalities and resolving capabilities, but the SFD-2 with its UltraAnalog modules and NOS Telefunken E188CC tubes presented a wider and deeper soundstage with warm, rich mids while still being very resolving (more so than any other DAC I've heard, only slightly behind Yggdrasil). I miss this DAC and kind of regret selling this, although the guy who bought it from me claimed a year later than it caught on fire and had to be sent back to pcX for repair. Huh.

    Like the SFD-2, the Pagoda Balanced loses out to Yggdrasil in terms of imaging precision and resolution. No surprises there. But in terms of soundstage it was slightly deeper than Yggdrasil, which could be attributed in part to the fact that Yggdrasil has a relatively more upfront, rather than laid-back, imaging. Also, the Pagoda Balanced sounded more relaxed, less strident and fatiguing, without sounding off. In fact it was still technically more capable than many other more expensive DAC's I've heard.

    At the end of the day, there was no clear preference of one over another but a tossup between the two depending on the amp and headphones I was using. For ZDS, the Yggdrasil probably served me better (unless I was listening to a brightly mastered track with HD800(S)), while with the Studio, I preferred Pagoda with HD800(S) and Yggdrasil with HD650. Although I haven't actually heard a Gungnir Multibit, I think the Pagoda Balanced might be a sound tube alternative to Gungnir Multibit for those who're looking for a different flavor.

    3. Jotun vs ZDS vs Studio T

    This was perhaps the highlight of the show. Without further ado, here goes.

    Jotun has now become the 2nd best SS amp I've heard. The BW (I've only heard the protoype, not the production unit a.k.a. BW2) is still my no. 1 SS amp. HOWEVER, I can clearly see many people preferring the Jotun to BW based on their preference. BW for a warmer, more relaxed sound; Jotun for neutral, slightly forward aggressive sound. The BW was an excellent match with the HD800, in fact the only SS amp I would even consider when listening to the HD800. The Jotun, on the other hand, was the definitive SS amp for HD650. In fact, I now strongly believe that Jotun/HD650 is the best amp/headphone combo you can buy for under $1K. If you've read up to this point, I strongly urge to read no further, do yourself a favor and grab a Jotun and an HD650 if you haven't already. I warned you...

    I've had the ZDS with me for about a year now, and ever since then it has been my favorite tube amp. It's a solid improvement over the ZDSE across the board (which IMO was worse than BW). Before ZDS I was prejudiced against OTL amps in general, but the ZDS was something very special (perhaps due to cathode follower vs plate follower?). In a way like my previous SFD-2 DAC, it boasted a superb holographic soundstage that was wide but even deeper, rich and pronounced mids that worked quite well with many V-shaped headphones, a touch of euphony with an impactful sound that did wonders to female vocals that no other amp could imitate (not even Studio), with a slightly warm sound overall without being too lush or tubey. Strictly in terms of tonality, this is my most favorite headphone out of the three, as I listen to a lot of female vocals. Against the Jotun, I would definitely pick the ZDS if I were listening to HD800(S). For the HD650, it's a bit of a tough call, but I would still pick the ZDS by a hair.

    Finally, the EC Studio. Is this amp really deserving of the "end-game amp" title? I'll just say this. The Studio T, in my opinion, is really an uber Jotunheim. Now, I chose the Shuguang 2A3C-T tubes because I wanted to make the Studio sound as warm as possible (the Studio T is said to be less warm than Studio M) without spending too much on tubes (they cost only $500 for a quad), Marv recommended Shuguangs for decent sound without being expensive, and Donald North of DNA has specifically recommended them on his Stratus amp for driving bright headphones like HD800. I haven't used any other 2A3 tubes to see if the 2A3C-T I have are really warmer than the others, or if Studio T responds well to tube rolling at all. But even with these tubes, the Studio was dead neutral without so much as a hint of warmth to my ears, ruthlessly revealing while destroying any other amp I've heard in terms of sheer technicalities. This was like the HD800 of amps to me.

    With the HD650, the Studio T was really the endgame amp, no doubt. If Marv and Tyll had not announced that the new Focal Utopia is now the world's best headphone, I could happily live with Studio/HD650. The HD650 scaled to unprecedented heights and now I understand why it's a dog listening to Studio/HD650, not Studio/HD800, that has become the official artwork for the SBAF T-shirt (now that I mention it, I want one!). On a side note, it's amazing how this sub-$500 headphone could scale all the way to God-knows-where and once again a testament to its status as a classic TOTL headphone approved by everyone.

    With the HD800(S)... it was more complicated. On those snobby classic and so-called audiophile recordings, I could tolerate the overwhelming neutrality and resolution without hurting my ears. However, on most brightly pop and rock recordings, the Studio/HD800 was just too much. Don't get me wrong, this particular combo (particularly the Yggdrasil/Studio/HD800) has the honor of being the most resolving, largest imaging and soundstaging headphone system I've ever heard and nothing even comes close, not even the HD650. I was utterly shocked at the pinnacle of headphone technology that has been achieved by mankind up to this point. But it's just too much for nearly half of the recordings I own... and the reason I cannot get rid of the HD650. The Yggdrasil/Studio/HD650 is already resolving enough to satiate my needs while being a genre master at everything I throw at it. If I had to downsize my headphones to one only, it would be HD650 for this reason. In fact, I haven't completely made up my mind yet, but I'm thinking of selling both my HD800 and HD800S, and acquire a Focal Utopia to see what the fuss is all about after saving up a bit more. Pehaps the Focal Utopia might replace the HD650?

    4. HD650 vs HD800 vs HD800S

    I've already dealt with the merits of HD650 and how it compares to HD800(S) above, so once again I'll keep it simple to a showdown between HD800 and HD800S. For those of you who hate HD800 and would like to stick to HD650 or some other hedphone, don't bother reading anymore.

    This is my order of preference.

    HD800 [SuperBAF + SuperDupont] >= HD800S [SuperBAF] > HD800S [stock] >= HD800 [SuperDupont] > HD800 [SuperBAF] > HD800 [stock]

    The stock, unmodded HD800 obviously sounds the worst and should be floated down whichever river your house is the closest to. The SuperBAF mod makes the overall sound a tad warmer and emphasizes the mids a bit, but does little to solve the 6-7K peak and still unlistenable IMO. If I had to choose one mod, I would pick the SuperDupont over SuperBAF because it addresses the HD800's greatest fault that is the treble peak. But it's not completely gone, it's still there but ameliorated.

    The HD800S does a bit better job of smoothening the peak than the SuperDupont mod, but it suffers from a slight bass distortion. But for me, I still prefer the stock HD800S to SuperDupont by a small margin, especially because I listen to OOYH and the peak can get especially annoying unless properly dealt with.

    Adding the SuperBAF mod to the HD800S had quite a favorable outcome, and I'm not sure why more people haven't tried this. This is the headphone I've had for the longest, and HD800S becomes warmer overall with its treble peak further reduced, but still has that bass issue.
    This is where curiosity got the better of me that I got myself another HD800, applied both SuperBAF and SuperDupont mods. Now this is where it hits the sweet spot. Slightly warmer HD800, with its peak issue addressed, without that bass distortion found in HD800S. I think I slightly preferred this to the HD800S with SuperBAF. My HD800S will probably go on sale soon.

    Okay, that was a lot of work. I thought my mind would be made up, but I'm still having trouble deciding how to downsize my current setup. Right now I'm thinking of going Yggdrasil/Studio/HD650 until I could afford an Utopia, but I'm already considering a pair of efficient desktop speakers as my Studio could drive those too. In fact, Marv said Studio is best used as a speaker amp, perhaps I'll use this opportunity to start speaker-fi. I don't feel the need to upgrade my DAC or amp further, so I'll just have to find a decent set of speakers (though it may end up costing much more than the rest of the system).

    P.S. I know it's a long shot and a lot to ask, but could someone with a kind soul lend me a Focal Utopia? After Marv's comment on how ZDS and Utopia has a "perfect synergy", I'm tempted to hear it with my own ears at home (only got to listen to it once briefly at an exhibition with mediocre gears), see how well my ZDS and Studio drive the Utopia and decide if I should really sell the ZDS. If the ZDS/Utopia is better than Studio/HD650 and Studio/Utopia, there's really no point in owning the Studio, is there?
     
    Last edited: Nov 10, 2017
  2. thegunner100

    thegunner100 Hentai Master Chief

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    Bravo! You've really put into perspective just how well the hd650s scale and how damn good the Jotun is. I think you've probably saved people a lot of money by showing that the $400 Jotun really goes a long way and you'd have to spend a lot more money to get further improvements with the hd650s.

    I think I'll probably have to buy a Lynx AES16 to try it out for myself. There are too many people praising it for me to ignore.
     
  3. Clear Water

    Clear Water Friend

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    Awesome write up. Two questions 1) did you choose not to dynamat the 650s on purpose? 2) What particular setting of the OOYH do use?When I downloaded the trial version I couldn't make up my mind.

    I also have a (non-dynamat) modded 650/ZDS so I was curious if you had tried both and reverted back.
     
  4. songmic

    songmic Gear cycler East Asia edition

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    Honestly, unless you were using the HD800 as well, I wouldn't recommend a Jotun/HD650 owner to move up to a ZDS for $2K more. For $7K more you can get a uber Jotun that provides a solid improvement, but is it really worth it?

    The Lynx AES16e is the real deal. It's a death sentence to USB. I wager it'll be a strong candidate for this year's Golden Schlong Award along with Andro, Jotun and Utopia.

    I have some Dynamat at home but never got around to cutting and applying them. I guess I was too lazy. For OOYH, I use the stock default setting at the top of the list. It sounds the most natural to me, other presets sound weird and off in one way or another.
     
  5. FlySweep

    FlySweep Friend

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    Absolutely terrific write-up.. Thank you!
     
  6. songmic

    songmic Gear cycler East Asia edition

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    After fiddling around a bit more with my gears, I made an interesting discovery.

    I had previously said that feeding my Studio from Yggdrasil via balanced did not result in hot distortions as many had pointed out. Well, it turns out using OOYH somehow takes care of this issue. It hadn't occurred to me before because I was using OOYH all the time. I decided to turn off OOYH simply out of curiosity how Studio would sound without OOYH. As soon as OOYH was out of the picture, I started hearing distortions all over. Switching to RCA made the distortion disappear, but resulted in a slightly lesser full-bodied sound. With the OOYH turned back on, the distortion was gone.

    I guess this is an inherent issue with Yggdrasil/Studio due to Yggdrasil's balanced output being too powerful for Studio. I've had similar issues with a couple of DAC/amp combos I'd owned in the past, before I began using OOYH. I don't know exactly how OOYH solves this issue, which is counterintuitive as OOYH seems to make the music louder, but it definitely does. So, bottom line is, if you are an OOYH user like me, rest assured you will get a fine sound out of Yggdrasil/Studio balanced combo. My guess is that the OOYH will "fix" not only Yggdrasil/Studio but also other DAC/amp combos that are otherwise mismatched.

    However, it should be noted that if you are using the Studio as a speaker amp, in which OOYH needs to be turned off (or you'll end up with a very weird sound), you may get the distortion. So if you are listening to speakers with Studio, you should use RCA interconnects between Yggdrasil and Studio, or use a different DAC if you insist on having a balanced connection.
     
    Last edited: Sep 18, 2016
  7. Eric_C

    Eric_C Friend

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    So even if it were HD800 with SuperDupont, you'd advise against Jotun?
     
  8. songmic

    songmic Gear cycler East Asia edition

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    That's right. I wouldn't use HD800 with Jotunheim modded or not.
    Same goes for EC Studio, so I've decided to sell my HD800 and HD800S am happy with Studio/HD650.
     
  9. SoupRKnowva

    SoupRKnowva Official SBAF South Korean Ambassador

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    You gonna sell your ZDS as well? Stick with just the studio?
     
  10. Xecuter

    Xecuter Brush and floss your amp twice a day

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    I guess I have to borrow a Yggdrasil and see if it will work with my studio T when it get's here!
    Thanks for the amazing write up. I'll give the OOYH a trial tonight!
     
  11. jexby

    jexby Posole Prince

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    gents- asking in all sincerity and maybe moving this soon to the HD650 thread, as I will be focusing ears toward @Hands modded HD650 at upcoming mini meet, but:
    is everyone under 40 years of age who considers a HD650/modded a TOTL can?

    not suggesting that being under 40 is a sweet spot for HD650 TOTL claims, as some 40+ tend to agree.
    but my ears are not offended by HE1K/HE500 sonic qualities compared to the "polite" laid back HD650 or HD600 I've heard in the past.
    (leaving value ratio aside, who the F pays new-retail $ on cans as a basis comparison at this level anyhow?),

    willing to reconsider a dynamic can again (but will never pay for Utopia) but it needs to be a head to head dual my 40+ ears across a couple chains before being convinced that HD650 is be all and end all as this, and others threads seem to veer towards....
     
  12. songmic

    songmic Gear cycler East Asia edition

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    Probably, but I would like to see just how good the ZDS/Utopia is. Studio/HD650 vs ZDS/Utopia should be an interesting comparison.

    To be honest, while HD650 is indeed a terrific sounding headphone for its price, I didn't think HD650 deserves "TOTL" status because it falls a tad short of technicalities of HD800... that is, until I got to listen to it with the Studio.

    I knew the HD650 has the potential to scale really high from TOTL upstream gears, but I just didn't realize it could scale this much. The Studio/HD650 is f'ing insane, in terms of sheer technicalities it even surpasses ZDS/HD800 by a good margin, while retaining a perfect tonal balance (which the HD800 could never have) and off-the-charts performance across the board. In fact, it blows away just about every amp/headphone I've heard in my life, and it's not even Dynamatted. I don't hear the so-called Sennheiser veil anymore in this setup.

    After years of buying and selling and rebuying over 6 different HD800(S) (I lost count), modding them, trying to fix their flaws, pairing them with the "right" amps in a desperate yet futile attempt to enjoy them, I've finally decided to let them go for good. This love/hate relationship between me and HD800(S) has taken its toll, but no more. HD650 FTW all the way.

    All my above impressions come from HD800 driven via balanced output from Studio, while the HD650 is driven from SE output as I don't have a balanced cable for HD650 yet. I have one ordered and is on its way home, I can only imagine how much the HD650 would improve from here.
     
    Last edited: Sep 19, 2016
  13. jhljhl

    jhljhl New

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    Have you heard the gx-mkII or ragnarok; how would they compare?
     
  14. songmic

    songmic Gear cycler East Asia edition

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    Haven't heard the GS-X MKII, but many people in this community don't like it. Ragnarok is my 3rd favorite SS headphone amp, closely tied with Jotunheim (2nd place for me).
     
  15. Xecuter

    Xecuter Brush and floss your amp twice a day

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    What is your favourite SS then?
     
  16. Huxleigh

    Huxleigh Almost "Made"

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  17. Xecuter

    Xecuter Brush and floss your amp twice a day

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    Thanks
     
  18. jhljhl

    jhljhl New

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    Appreciate your review- how do you think the Studio would be with HEK?
     
  19. songmic

    songmic Gear cycler East Asia edition

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    I did say BW is my no. 1 SS headphone amp, followed by Jotun, but they are voiced differently and has different headphone synergies. I would pick BW for modded HD800(S) and Jotun for modded HD650, but not the other way around. I slightly prefer BW/HD800(S) to Jotun/HD650.

    Can't quite say, I've never heard the HEK. But the Studio supposedly drives most headphones well, so I don't think it would be a bad match with HEK. You should ask @MisterRogers, he owns Studio/HEK.
     
  20. Bourne Perfect

    Bourne Perfect Friend

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    Everyone that has ever sold a Zana has regretted it.

    FYI.
     

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