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Newb looking for a basic start (Total Bithead?)

post #1 of 12
Thread Starter 
I have read many posts and they are helpfull but I have to admit that they frustrate me a great deal as well. There are so many choices out there for me to get started with my gear and many of them are far too expensive for me. I am considering a Total Bithead or other comporable sub $200 portable amp/dac to get things started. My sources are my laptop that has a decent 24bit dac and a car head unit also with a decent 24 bit dac that I would like to run to the amp via rca but I would like to be able to use a netbook or an mp3 player and have the ability to use a headphone amp with a slightly better dac if this unit would be an improvement. Currently I only have my Bose QC2 headphones which are far superior to my old car stereo or home stereo that were 10 times as expensive. I know that I can get much better headphones in the future and I want to make sure that this amp will run them decently. I was thinking of getting the HD-650's as long as this amp will run them ok. I don't want to listen to music over about 90 or 100db, honestly I like my music fairly quiet because it fatigues me quickly at higher volume levels. We will see about that once I get some quality gear though, I think it's mostly the distortion that makes me want to stop listening.

My plan is to buy an amp that I will use for a long time, and even though this is on the lower end I believe that it will be a good choice for when I am on the go and I can get something better for home use. I will post or read some more in the headphone and source sections as well when I make my upgrade for those components. I believe that the most amazing difference in higher quality gear that I have noticed so far is the separation of the different instruments that even the Bose headphones show. I believe that this is called soundstage, and it draws me into the music really well. I would like to seek out this feeling with better gear and I am up for recommendations there as well if the HD-650's are not the best choice for that pricepoint and below.

Music choices: Classical/Enya/similar 50%; Pop/R&B 30%; Trance/Rap 20%
Source: Lappy-Dolby certified, future Car head-unit with 24bit dac (Recommendations?); future netbook or mp3 (Recommendations?)
Amp/Dac: Total Bithead?
Phones: Bose QC2 upgrade to HD650?

Thank you for any information. I live in Southern Oregon and I can't find a store that has equipment for me to listen to and test, this would probably be the best way.
post #2 of 12
First of all your QC2's are noise canceling, so they have their own built in amp and using another won't achieve much unless turning the noise canceling off bypasses the built-in amp entirely. Second, the BitHead only has 16 bit DAC. That doesn't matter at all unless you actually have any 24 bit music though.

Your wording is a bit unclear, but do you mean that your head unit has a digital in? (I'm assuming this because unless it plays 24 FLAC/WAV from a hard drive or something their wouldn't be any reason to have a 24 bit DAC, since CDs are 16 bit) If that is the case, then you wouldn't need the BitHead at all, unless you got the HD650s (I think I saw thread about someone using them together). Any DAP or laptop with a digital out would work well with your head unit, and using the BitHead with the QC2s would be self-defeating.
post #3 of 12
Thread Starter 
Let's see, now I'm confused myself but getting better. Here is what I am thinking for my set up.

My Illegal driving set-up. I drive from 4:30 to 6:30 am in a rural area and don't usually see more than 5 cars during my 2 hour trip so I think that I can spot an emergency vehicle with lights flashing.

Car Head Unit(MP3)-->Headphone Amp-->HD650 or similar or

(use my QC2's straight from rca out to the headphones)

Home or on the go set-up

Laptop (MP3/AAC)-->s/pdif, hdmi, or usb -->Mobile DAC/headphone amp-->HD650
Laptop (MP3/AAC)-->analog-->Headphone amp-->HD650

I don't actually really see myself getting an i-pod or something similar and wanting to carry it around with my expensive headphones, dac/amp combo. I'll probably just use the QC2's for that set up. So the real question to start me off should be if there would be a benefit for me to get a DAC with the amp to take over for my laptop. I probably just don't understand this part well enough. If I don't need the DAC combo I will be able to afford a better amp at least.
post #4 of 12
Just my two cents: the Total Bithead was my first amp. I bought it because my computer's soundcard was terrible and it did it's job honorably for that purpose. However it is marginal as a standalone amp. It will produce enough volume for you 650s but not with real quality. Frankly no inexpensive portable amp is ideal for those 300 ohm cans but if you are determined to go that route then the Meier 3Move is a much better choice. I have never tested to DAC but it the reviews suggest that it is pretty good. I have tested the amp with DT990s (250 ohms) and it did a credible job of driving them. Not great relative to a home amp but certainly enjoyable. So if you can save a bit more scratch, it will be a substantial improvement on the amp side IMHO. For yet more scratch, the Pico with DAC should improve the DAC part of the equation.

The question as always is: where do you draw the line? :-)

Good luck!
post #5 of 12
And sorry for the typos etc. I am typing this standing in a train station with China's Labor Day migration swirling around me. Chaos...
post #6 of 12
Dear god, you're using them while driving...

No wonder I misunderstood.

Depending on how much of you "on the go" listening is in the car and how much would be straight from your laptop you might want to just get a full size amp and put it in your car. Get an inverter to power it, rig up a docking station in your car, and then take it back inside with you when you get home, or even take it into your office or cube or whatever.

As to whether you need an amp, an DAC, or both will depend on your upgrade path. If you hold off on buying the HD650s you'd only need a DAC. Just about any external DAC will be better than the lowest-bidder onboard sound of most laptops, and your QC2s should be fine from line level output. If and when you get the HD650s you will need an amp for them. Either a desktop model, or a powerful mobile, like cooperpwc suggested. A good solution could be a moderate sized DAC/amp combo with an analogue line in as well, if you don't mind the extra bulk. You cold use it at home, in the car, and at the office, or wherever else you could sit down and plug it in.

It's not the most elegant solution, but it is the cheapest.
post #7 of 12
Thread Starter 
Thank you both for the good information. I might just go with a desktop amp/dac, I don't really need a lot of mobility and I probably won't forget it in the car to get stolen. I have an inexpensive 800 watt rms inverter right now, but I am not sure about the noise from that power source.
post #8 of 12
Most power supplies these days are quite good at rejecting the noise from the AC mains. They have to be, because many power supplies also create noise on their AC side and pump it back into the mains.

A full complement of PC gear, all plugged into a single power strip creates a noise storm, but it will all handle it just fine. Running all your audio gear from medical grade isolation transformers or hernia inducing power conditioners may give you improved sound quality, and will protect your gear from rare spikes, surges, and the occasional close, but not too close lightning strike, but it's hardly necessary. I wouldn't be to worried about spikes or surges from the inverter damaging the amp either. Most of the amps I've seen have chunky iron core transformers which are good at absorbing that kind of stuff.

A particularly dodgy inverter might deliver a spike that could kill something. It's unlikely, but worth testing for. You probably don't have an oscilloscope to do a proper test, but you can test it just by trying to run some other piece of less expensive electronics from it. Just plug it in to the inverter and see what happens. After that, starting the car and revving the engine a bit should be adequate. If you're feeling adventurous (or have done AC wiring before) then you cut some insulation of the power cord on the AC side and watch for voltage fluctuations with a multimeter.

Or you could buy a new inverter. Even a high quality one wouldn't be too expensive, since it won't have to deliver a lot of power.
post #9 of 12
Thread Starter 
So, I was reading up a bit and I made myself sick reading about balanced amps and the headphone/upgrade necessary but I think that this might be worth holding out for in the long term of upgrades. What do you think? High quality DAC right now for my normal QC2 headphones and about a year for the Balanced output amps to drop in price by half? I think that I have changed my mind anyway on the headphones to the AKG 701's, I need to go on a trip to a larger city that has a good shop to listen to these first but from what I read I think that I will like them more than the HD-650's and maybe I can run them before I spend a bunch of money on the fancy amp. I would like to see if I can run them straight from the DAC without an amp just to get by until I get them converted and get the amp. I know I can't do that with the 650's.
post #10 of 12
Half priced balanced amps in a year? We're not talking computer gear here. There's nothing like that kind of depreciation in this market. Did I miss something drastic?

As for the 701s, you can use them without an amp, sort of. Their sensitivity and impedance aren't outrageously low or high, respectively, but...they are notorious for sounding like crap without a good amp. So while you could get them now, they may not sound any better than your QC2s until you do get an amp. I've never heard them myself, but given their reputation, I wouldn't be surprised if the 701s sounded worse than your QC2s until you got a proper amp.

As to what to buy first? What's your budget? It seems to be swinging wildly back and forth with a BitHead on one hand and a balanced amp on the other. Regarding DACs, they're a bit of and oddball because small upgrades make a world of difference, but then hit the wall of diminishing returns very quickly compared to the rest of your audio chain. I'd venture that baring the death of the USB interface, something like the DAC Magic would last you the rest of your life with no reason to upgrade. If you've got the cash, it would be a fine beginning towards building a first class setup. It would work great with your QC2s, but will essentially be all dressed up with nowhere to go until you get the balanced amp and some serious 'phones to go with it.
post #11 of 12
Thread Starter 
I think that my changes in gear are coming from my upgrade path that I would like to achieve and I do not like to waste money on temporary solutions. I think now that I see an inexpensive entry level amp/dac as a temporary solution and I would like to try to invest in obtaining a very good setup step by step instead. The problem that I see here is that these phones will not be good to use without an amp. I am actually glad to know that this market does not depreciate so quickly, it means that a high quality gear investment will actually last me for a very long time. I was reading several articles about the balanced amp and I just see this as a "giant leap" not a "small step", but please correct me if I am wrong. I have never been interested in spending every penny I have in gradually making small improvements, I always wait for the next big change in technology and make the jump with a middle of the line purchace. I'll list here my upgrade path that I was thinking of, hopefully it is a decent one.

DAC 24 bit flagship, hopefully good for 10+years. $250-$300 to use with QC2's

K701's $250 if I can't use without an amp I will have to buy an inexpensive one and hopefully sell it afterwards

Balanced Amp: ok, so not a 50% depreciation but this will be my turning point from average joe audiophile gear (yea, music is nice, I like my my setup), to I'm gonna miss this month's mortgage so that I can have this nice amp. (1 year at $800 or more likely doubling my initial two investments)

K701's Conversion: Hopefully this would happen at the same time as the above, I can't see it taking too long for me to complete this once I have the amp. ($250)

I think that this would be a good safe solution for me, although maybe getting the bithead or that $99 amp/dac (nforce or something like that, I can't remember) might be a little safer just in case I don't decide to jump face first in to the expense of having outstanding gear. I know that the bithead has that crossfeed system that might make my music more enjoyable in the short term, I think that soundstage is the thing that really draws me into the music. Really that was why I posed this question in the first place, I like to think that I will build this really nice system, but I also have to have an exit strategy just in case I decide that I can be happy without it. I know that if I decide to build a really nice set-up that I don't want to think back on the money I wasted in incremental upgrades, so I have to keep that to a minimum. Does it sound like I have made up my mind? Yes, no.... ummmm, yea, I think I better start with a bithead and then continue to purchace the components that build this system after that point, at least I can quit after getting the headphones if I feel I need to.

Thank you so much for your help, hopefully I will be searching for answers again soon after a little better dac/amp and some time to enjoy my music sparks my passion to create a decent system.
post #12 of 12
The crossfeed on the bithead doesn't actually do do a whole lot. At lest not with my 'phones, Shure SE530s. The wider your source's soundstage is the better results it gives, but I don't think it's not buying it just for that.

You can easily buy something like the headroom micro amp to use in the interim. Then you can sell it when you upgrade to a balanced amp and money you'd lose will almost be lost in the noise. Given the diminishing returns it's possible that you'll be completely satisfied with the unbalanced setup. Given the massive jump in price it's probably worth it to start with the unbalanced amp and see how you like it, unless you could afford to splurge and buy the balanced setup right away.
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