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beginner advice for HD800 - do i need an amp? does the cable really matter?

post #1 of 45
Thread Starter 

Apologies for the dumb questions:

I've had a pair of Senn. HD600's since 2001 and I love them. I recently sold something valuable and ever since I first heard of the HD900 I have wanted them, so I've decided to buy myself a pair. I'm a total beginner in headphone audio though. I know just enough to know that I don't know enough. So if you experts could help me out I would really appreciate it!

I am somewhat limited by my budget - I can't afford to spend more than $400 or $500 at the most in addition to the $1400 headphones. So please keep that in mind - don't recommend $2500 amps for me, please!

So here's my situation: I listen to music exclusively on my PC (ripped FLAC format from my CDs). I have a $100 creative labs x-fi sound card connected to $80 creative labs gigaworks speakers, into which i plug my HD600's.

Question 1: Would a beginner really notice a difference with HD800's between my current setup (PC to desktop speak to headphones) and improved equipment?

Question 2: What extras do people usually buy for their headphones? DAC, Amp, Cables?

Question 3: What does the DAC do? Does it replace the sound card (since the sound card outputs analog)? Does a DAC require OS (windows 7 64-bit) driver software? Is it necessary or just an improvement?

Question 4: I feel that upgraded cables for stereo equipment is a scam - nobody in a blind test can tell the difference between $1500 cables and $2/foot hardware store cable. But everywhere I look, people are very emphatic that headphone cables are very important. Do headphone cables actually make a difference?

Question 5: The important question! Given a $400-$500 budget, a PC and a pair of typical desktop speakers, and the Sennheiser HD800's, what is necessary to buy (if anything) to improve the sound?

I know this info is probably repeated ad nauseam elsewhere on this site but I spent a couple hours looking around, reading reviews for headphone amps and such, and I couldn't find answers to my basic questions. So again I apologize for my ignorance but hopefully you guys have authoritative advice that I can absolutely trust.

Thanks so much!

post #2 of 45

wow, just wow.


Ok where to start.


You need an amp, a very very good amp. I am not just talking about the hd800, but with your current phones. unless you drive these phones properly you are wasting your investment as they are not working properly.


Cables make a difference, the difference between a $5 and a $50 cable is huge. The cable that comes with the phones is probably enough, don't upgrade.


An external DAC from the digital out on the X-fi will give great music quality, however if you play games it will not do 5.1.

So if you play games as well as listen to music look on get something like this http://www.kustompcs.co.uk/acatalog/info_4016.html XFI not by creative. upgrade the op amp. 


The last thing you need to upgrade is the headphones, the rest of your system is letting your current setup down.


So get an amp, then either upgrade the card or get a DAC.


The money should be invested elsewhere before you look at the phones.


chain is only strong as weakest link, you currently only have 1 strong link and that is the bit you are upgrading.

post #3 of 45
Thread Starter 

is a "very very good amp" $400 or less?


i do play games on my PC but i only have 2 speakers so surround isn't an issue for me. I don't have a digital out - it has 4 1/8" connectors (mic in, line in, speakers in, line out, i think?) and a proprietary connector for a creative labs control panel (which i don't have).

post #4 of 45

I'm not sure you're going to get a setup that even begins to do the HD800 justice for that little money.


Creative sound cards don't deliver particularly good sound, especially for high-end headphones.  To make it worth dropping that much on the HD800, you need a better source.


DAC is a finicky process, and you want one that will deliver real quality for headphones that detailed.  Again, your soundcard probably won't really cut it in this case.


Could you drive the HD800 with a $400 amp?  Oh, probably, but by the time you work out a better source and get the digital signal to analogue, your aren't looking at anywhere near $400 left.


Whatever you do, don't use the headphone jack on your gigaworks speakers to drive a $1000 pair of headphones.  That would make the baby Jesus cry.


You might want to consider a different pair of headphones in the $2-400 range instead, and focus on getting your sources and amping in order.  Then, if you still want to, save up for the big guns.

post #5 of 45

Hmmm... with $400 -$500 to spend, I would highly recommend you stick with your 600s (or similar price range headphone) and get a really nice amp and DAC for them. The 800s need a lot more money thrown at them to achieve their goal. Though, if you are insistent in sticking with the 800s, get a decent amp first with most of your money. It is by far the weakest link. Next, when you've saved up enough, you can get a nicer DAC/ source. Then, with more time/experience/money, you can upgrade your amp, DAC, etc. further. Cables, IMHO, are the last things you should upgrade because they offer the least in terms of improvement (the stock cables are good enough for most people). Think of cables as tweaks, saved for that last 5% of sound quality.


So here's some answers to questions:


1) Yes, although this is highly dependent on the amp/DAC choice. My advice still stands to get a super-awesome amp and DAC for the 600s first. Once you truly learn to appreciate those headphones, then you should move up the chain. Without really experiencing the 600s capabilities, you will not respect them as intended.


2) Usually, DAC/source, an amp (either solid-state or tube), pads (not necessary here), and cables (hold off on these).


3) A DAC is what converts the digital bits (1s and 0s) of your flac file into an analog waveform (music). Thus, the saying often is: garbage in, garbage out. So, a nice DAC will output source material with more clarity and detail (truer to the music) than your X-fi soundcard. It is not imperative since your soundcard has an onboard DAC, but the results of upgrading are very noticable, even to noobs .


Most DACs do not require any extra software and have native support, especially in Windows. Others do require some software. Always research a DAC thoroughly before you buy. Also, look at other people's HD 600/800 setups in their profile to give you some ideas.


4) You are best off looking up the effects of cables in other threads using the search function, since it's been discussed to death. I will say this, though. Do not experiment with cables before you get a nice DAC and amp to drive your headphones. Those are undeniable in producing noticeable results, especially with 600s and 800s. Later on, you can try cables. If you notice a difference, keep 'em. If not, return them and save your money.


5) I don't know if everyone would agree with me, but I will say again: Try to stick with your 600s or similar range headphone to max them out first.


However, if insistent, given that budget for the 800s, put most of that money towards an amp because the 800s need/benefit the most from them. Then, depending on money situation, get a better DAC than your soundcard. From personal experience, though, you should probably stick with a HD600 uberrig for now. Heck, if you don't like the 600s, try the 650s or something else.


Anyway, I hope that at least answered some of your questions :)

Edited by KnightK - 8/4/10 at 2:36pm
post #6 of 45

For your budget, get a pair of custom IEMs like JH16 or UE18 and Pico DAC/amp.

post #7 of 45

You might be surprised at what you can manage with a modest amp+dac. Personally, I sometimes use my apogee duet (acting as an amp+dac) which can be had for around $500 and it provides very listenable results with my HD800. Sure, It is not up to the standard of my full rig - but enjoyable enough. The duet is mac only, but I'd imagine there is a PC equivalent amp+dac that can be had for around the same $. Personally, I really don't think you need to worry about cables.

post #8 of 45
Hi guys I'm also a newbie here have just purchased the hd800 running the meier amp and dac should I go the hole hog and upgrade the cables for the hd800 ?
post #9 of 45
Originally Posted by Cankin View Post

For your budget, get a pair of custom IEMs like JH16 or UE18 and Pico DAC/amp.


I concur. If you are willing to use IEMs (in ear monitors) at your computer, you will find they sound quite amazing in that price range. The IEMs that Cankin mentioned are top-of-the-line and deliver the same, if not better, sound quality than your HD800s for much cheaper. They are much cheaper because they do not require $1000+ worth of amps and DACs to do them justice, like the 800s. Just another option...

post #10 of 45
Originally Posted by repo064 View Post

Hi guys I'm also a newbie here have just purchased the hd800 running the meier amp and dac should I go the hole hog and upgrade the cables for the hd800 ?

Just my opinion, but I think the money would be better spent upgrading the amp/dac. The stock HD800 cable is surprisingly good, FWIR and heard in person at CanJam.

post #11 of 45
Thread Starter 

thanks for the advice


i know this is a loaded question, but what is the best amp i can get for $400-$500? people have recommended the Woo 3 but it has three tubes on top - tubes make me a little worried because (a) i assume they burn out sometimes and need to be replaced and (b) i have a cat and am clumsy and can easily imagine breaking something that is made of fragile glass sticking out on my desktop. is there an equivalent good quality solid state amp (or better yet amp + dac) in that price range?


i went ahead and after a little research ordered a $150 auzentech forza sound card because it's "for audiophiles" but more importantly has a digital out (coax or optical) so i can get a DAC for it if i have the money.


regarding IEM, i do have a pair of etymotic ER4's i bought a long time ago. i love them for jogging or flying but sitting at my desk at home i wouldn't want to have them in.

Edited by joe2 - 8/5/10 at 3:46am
post #12 of 45

From what little I know, tube amps are really the way to go. . .

post #13 of 45
Thread Starter 

yeah but i don't want to worry about replacing parts or breakable glass. they might sound better but they just don't fit my needs. i'm sure someone makes a good SS amp in my price range, i just need to find out who that is :)

post #14 of 45

Well, tubes aren't exactly like light bulbs.  I think they last for quite a while, and while I wouldn't want to play sports nearby, if a $1000 pair of headphones are safe in the room, the tubes should be as well.


That said, I know there are some reputable solid state amps that people enjoy with their flagship headphones.  

post #15 of 45
Thread Starter 

im trying to do the research but every time i find a good candidate, i find someone who thinks it sucks :(


for example I read a post recommending the combined DAC/AMP Fubar IV for $250. sounded perfect until i read a review on amazon that said the DAC was great but the amp had a lot of hiss. it's like that for every amp i research - one person loves it, someone else hates it. Although appreciating audio electronics can be subjective, i had hoped that at least there were a few models that were generally agreed upon to be the top tier, and i could confine myself to choosing from 2-4 models instead of 100+. it's pretty difficult and frustrating so far.

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