Originally Posted by khaos974
In order of influence
Quality of the recording (and/or encoding) = Tranducers (headphone or room+speakers) > Amp > Dac > transport
This has been my experience as well.
1a) A good recording/well mastered will sound good (obviously).
1b) There's a lot of hooplah about higher bitrates, 48/96/whatever, but a lot of that is beyond the scope of typical human hearing
1c) modern lossy encoding are pretty darned good compared to stuff from a decade ago and virtually transparent for most people
1d) incidentally, a lot of the high defintion tracks recorded at whatever crazy bitrates also happen to be very well recorded and mastered, which I personally believe has a greater effect than the high definition aspect itself
2) If you're looking for a different sound, new headphones will make the biggest difference. My hard rule is that my maximum casual spending per month (or per toy) can not exceed a mortgage payment, and no I can't bank that from month to month. Slippery slope and all that. I also know from experience that I enjoy the "budget" items just as much as the expensive ones; I only lust after the expensive toys because they're less obtainable.
3) Amping makes a difference, although I believe once you reach a certain point (ie: the power necessary to achieve desired volumes and control the drivers to the limit of human hearing) any further money is just paying for build quality and aesthetics and miniaturization/portability, plus a good power supply. For most, a home receiver is more than enough power. Pick up a vintage receiver from a garage sale for $20 and be surprised at how good it sounds. Amps with a good power supply can easily clock in under $200.
4) I've heard a reasonable share of dacs, and to my ears it has the steepest diminishing returns. Onboard sound cards are meh, with their biggest problem being noise from the power supply or interference from other devices. A cheap $30 usb sound card sounds better assuming you aren't picking up noise from the usb (not running devices off the same usb bus and/or having an externally powered usb hub will help). A $100-200 dac with an external power supply is nice, and that's typically where I'll stop if I were getting a standalone unit. I haven't heard much difference in performance beyond that. Once again, I'd maybe pay a bit more for features/connections/miniaturization and adding an amp section.
5) Power cables and interconnects... I just get something that feels sturdy and is shielded so it doesn't pick up interference. Beyond that, I have never heard a difference.
Edited by Armaegis - 3/24/11 at 12:11am