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What portable amp/dac for iPod Nano + Shure SE535?

post #1 of 38
Thread Starter 

Ok, i've been reading an comparing all sorts of amps, but i'm kinda lost.

I used to have a iAudio J3, but it's broken. I also have a iPod nano, but i'm not happy with the sound. And i think it's mainly because it lacks power. 


So i was thinking. Buy a new iAudio which i enjoyed, or see what i can get out of the Nano which is laying around anyway. If it doesn't work i can still buy an iAudio and try it out with the amp. 


Would an amp make a difference? And would a DAC be advised? I know in terms of measurements the iPods are fine with processing, but have issues because of lack of power mainly (at least, that's my reasoning listening to it. Or am i wrong?


I've been looking at Fiio E17, iBasso T5, Electric Avenues PA2V2, NuForce etc ... But i'm still not sure about the sound signatures. In one review i read good things about the iBasso, and the next it says it's a bit powerless to really make a difference.


I just want to do it right. If the iBasso or any other suggestion performance better then the cheaper Fiio, fine, i'll go with that. Budget is secondary, to some extend. 


Size is also a thing which is important, because it's for mobile usage. But again, if a somewhat larger suggestion delivers more, i'll consider it. 


Currently i find the sound just sloppy, powerless and uncontrolled. This results in hissing highs and poor lows. The mids are allright, but i'm sure can be much better. The Shure SE535 is rather neutral, and so is the iPod. So i'm looking to a neutral wide soundstage with a touch of warmth to it. Just so it's transparent yet musical. The lows need to be punchy and agile. So i'm not looking for a booming sound, but clean with warmth/depth to it so it's balanced, present, but not overkill. 


So any advice / suggestion to get some direction?


Hope anyone can help me out.


Thanks in advance. 

Edited by Xstream - 4/7/12 at 3:47pm
post #2 of 38

I'm fairly new here, but I've loved music and great "sound" all my life.

I think your question is highly subjective: if the J3 made you happy you might do best buying another J3.

I use 535's on the move and was unhappy at the soundstage and character of the music on my Apple devices.

After reading here for a few days I almost bought a J3, I read every review I could search for here and online.

Then I read more and started to think I might just need a rig.

I purchased the CLAS/ALO Rx 2 combo (DAC and Amp) and love what I'm hearing out of my 535s and DT1350s.

Works for me. Might not for you.

I've used the ALO Rx 2 with a number of iPods (2 gen, 5.5 gen, Nano) and iPhones (2G and 4) and a couple of Android phones.

It definitely has improved the quality of the sound of my mostly ALAC collection.

I think if you want to go with what you know works for you buy another J3.

If you want to see what is possible buy the best amp you can afford


good luck

post #3 of 38
Thread Starter 

Hi Aes, thanks for your reply.


The thing is: i just want to know what an amp can do. So i guess that's the main reason. Yes, i can buy another J3. But somehow i always felt i was missing out on something. 


When i started with the more audiophile things, like my home set and car set for instance, i didn't really realise what an impact an amp can make. When i added it to the car setup it was sooo much better i bought a kickass amp for my home setup as well. And again, such a difference.


Now for portable usage i hear many mixed responses. Some say it't useless and only makes an impact with the lower-end headphones. Others say it makes just as much difference. And you never know, maybe the critics had a poor combo or something. 


Maybe i just need to look for a new headphone instead of investing in an Amp?


Also i don't have a shop nearby which offers a wide range of interesting portable amps to try out - if any at all.


Now i've been reading some more reviews and have made a shortlist, reading this comparison mainly:



-  Meier Audio Stepdance

RSA Mustang P-51

iBasso Audio D4 Mamba or iBasso T5 or iBasso PB2


I'll look into the Alo Rx2, which is new to me :)


Too bad there is no Fiio review in there. I still have no clue how some more familiar brands fit into this list. 


post #4 of 38

Have you looked into the headroom total bithead? I have one and it works great. It was my 1st portable amp so I have nothing to compare it back to.

post #5 of 38

I can only tell you about the couple of amps that I've used with my Apple DAPs (however, I've never owned a Nano). Unfortunately, (for my tastes) my Headstage Arrow HE 4G, Fiio E11, and Electric Avenue PA2V2 don't help my iPod Touch 3G or iPhone 2G. The too forward (slightly harsh toned) mids remained, and the soundstage is still smallish and crowded (with blurred overlapping background instrumentation and vocals) . The bass is boosted by the amps, but it's still not good (nor in balance with the mids). The highs range from so so to too harsh.


If the Nano can use third-party software players, I'd check out a few of those (although the EQu app doesn't do it for me).  Otherwise, I'd look for another DAP (possibly one of those Samsung players or Sony). I took my micro-SD out of my phone and put it in a Galaxy 5 in Best Buy and downloaded Poweramp (on the store's WIFI). With TONE control on (EQ off), it sounded pretty good to me on my Shure SE535s (wide/deep soundstage and nice bass).

post #6 of 38
Thread Starter 

I have to say, i do agree with the sound signature you're describing about the iPod. To me it's especially the highs that bother me (too sharp/hissing) and the lack of bass. The mids are pretty ok to me, they definitely are more forward (meaning unbalanced) comparing it to the lows/highs, but it's clear an crisp and i can handle that. It's the highs, which probably are also too forward, that makes me uncomfortable.


But all in all, the sound is just poor, mainly (to my ears) because of the lack of power, it's just not in control. 

Having said that, the EQ kinda sucks as well, everything you change from flat makes it only worse.


That's why i was thinking about a DAC so the iPod is only for storage and management and will only throughput the sound.

But then i was thinking again ... there's only a analog out ... so is it even possible?


Or, just look for another DAP.

I did enjoy iAudio. I had the 9 first, which i loved for mp3, but somehow sounded not so good with FLAC. I lost it on the plane :S

That's why i bought the iPod, because in that country they didn't sell iAudio. Worst purchase in my life :) The previous one was an iPod 2nd gen. Just hoped they would've improved by now. 


So i bought the J3 when i got home. And somehow the mp3's didn't sound as well as the 9, although that might be just psychologically because of higher expectations. The FLAC's seem to look better on this one. But i connected it to a virus infected PC on holiday, which ment the end of the player. Tried resetting etc ... it's just not working anymore. Sadly the store i bought it from was gone bankrupt. And there's not really an option around here for iAudio support, other then sending it back to Korea, so forget it, i'll just buy a new one. 


So i'm still in doubt. Many people say the Nano really needs an amp to shine. Others say it would still suck and it's better to buy another DAP.


Sony and Samsung ... didn't think about these brands for a long time (as DAP at least). Did they release some new stuff? I'm gonna check it out. I do have a Samsung Galaxy SII as well. Didn't check it as a player yet, but the S1 which i had before was pretty poor. Although the iPod isn't much better atm. 



Edited by Xstream - 4/8/12 at 1:28pm
post #7 of 38

Again, I have to say, I don't know about the Nano specifically, but; if the highs are hard on you unamped, you may not be getting a proper seal with the Shures. I've had a flag-ship Shure earphone for 7 years now, starting with the Shure E5c. They do not generally cause discomfort in the treble region (if by “uncomfortable”- you mean bright or exhibiting sibilance). The 535s aren't quite as rolled-off as the old E5c, but they are rolled off. My ears are extremely sensitive to harsh highs.


I use the triple-flange sleeves. I moisten them for deep insertion and use the noise of the truck to determine proper sealing. I wear them 9 hours a day, 5 days a week.


Anyway, oddly enough, I often recommend the Sansa Clip+ to friends because it's a good little cheap player (great with most of my headphones). And man, if you like bass, the Clip+ (RockBox'd) brings it. But again, it's yet another player poorly mated with the 535s. I have no idea why. It just doesn't sound good. I've read where some say it's because the 535s are so revealing, but I don't know if I buy that. I have the AKG Q701 and they are "revealing" too and they sound great with the Clip+ and amp.


The Shure SE535s are the best headphones that I own, period. You can look at my profile to see the other headphones I own. But before I got my (T-Mobile version) Samsung Galaxy SII, I honestly didn't know they were my best headphones. I knew they were the ones I needed for work for noise-canceling and I could sweat on them while loading and unloading the truck (wipe them down daily and they last for years and years). I played podcasts mostly,  and hardly any music for years. Now, I have re-ripped all my CDs and those of friends and family in FLAC to hear them on my SII/535s.


If you have the Galaxy SII, you may already have your music player. Now, many hear HATE the SII and I think for good reason. Some models are (apparently) lousy. I like mine. It's not perfect, but with the Poweramp software music app, it is great with the 535s. Turn the TONE control on and the EQ off, and you will forget about buying an amp.


BTW, I think even my model has that "dreaded" "bad output impedance", but it hits the Shure's so perfect. I now think that "clear" mid from my Apple DAPs sound like a pretty picture use to look on 320X240 televisions--  before hi-def.

Edited by truckdriver - 4/8/12 at 3:29pm
post #8 of 38
Thread Starter 

Hm, interesting. I'll def. check out my S2 :) What amp do you use/prefer?

The Sansa is mentioned a lot indeed as a solid base sounding player, with poor EQ they say. 


Somehow, the more you read you only get more confused. Now i've been reading loads about mp3 players :) 

Was looking at the Nationite S:Flo2 or Teclast T51 (the same), but it's nearly impossible to get it over here with loads of weird chinese, indonesian not working websites in the process, not getting anywhere. The specs are interesting though, with 2 dacs inside :)


The Sony's don't support Flac, so i've dropped those as an option.


At some point it even crossed my mind to buy the J3, Colorfly or something in that category, together with a Sansa for the fun of it with another high-end headphone and 2 amps, just so i can play around and find out myself what i like. It's just that all those opinions contradicting eachother don't get you any further most of the time, unless they use similar conditions/setups, which i didn't find yet. 


But thanks for your feedback, it's been very helpful. I'll try the S2 to see how that goes. But i don't have an Amp atm.


About the Shures. To me it looks like they are just very detailed and sensitive, making it hard to match. 

When i used the J3 without EQ is wasn't too impressed either. It really needed a little tweaking with the BBE+ effects, but i was satisfied then. The EQ of the J3 just rocks. But i rather have a player which sounds great without the EQ but also add a good one if needed a little tweaking. That't the thing that bothered me a little with the J3. 


I don't have a lot of experience with headphones though. I went from a few Sennheisers, including the CX400II i still have up to the Shures :)

So i'm still with too many variables making me unsure what part of the rig is the one i'm not totally happy about. 

The Shures are way better then the CX400 without a doubt. Much more open, wider and detailed sound. But a little unforgiving with poor recordings obviously. Also with the Nano there's not much to be happy about currently. I think in this case the CX400's might even sound better :) I'll have to search for them and give it a try, see what happens :D


But thanks again, i'll go and play with the S2's (that would be a huge surprise haha). 

Edited by Xstream - 4/8/12 at 4:04pm
post #9 of 38
Let me add to what I said before, the SQ out of all my iDevices sounded great, until I purchased better headphones and IEMs. Currently I'm using the 535s and DT 1350s with the ALO Audio Rx MK2 and the Cypher Labs Algorhythm Solo and a number of iPods or iPhones as my DAP. To my ears the CLAS/Rx combo has much better SQ, wider soundstage, better separation of instruments, a more neutral and balanced sound and better details. When combined with the Equ app on the iPhone 4 I seem to be getting the best SQ of any of my iDevices combined with the CLAS/Rx. I've tried the ALO Rx MK2 with my iPod 5.5 gen (Wolfson DAC) and the SQ is not as good as the iP4 with the CLAS/Rx MK2. But either the CLAS/Rx or the Fostex HP-P1 (combined Amp/DAC for iDevices) is a financial commitment. Perhaps you could get to one of the Head-Fi Meets? iIf you could I bet you'd get a chance to listen to a number of rigs and figure out what is the best investment for you long term Cheers
post #10 of 38
Funny, yesterday I plugged my Samsung Galaxy Note (International unlocked ) up to the ALO Rx MK2 and listened to the combo for a few hours, with both the 535s and the DT1350. The SG was ok, a little bright and occasionally bass heavy. On a lark I downloaded the Poweramp app and WOW what a difference. Between the control Poweramp gives you to tailor each piece of music and the boost from the amp the SQ was really nice. Detailed, a bit bright, but not annoyingly so and fun. I still prefer the three piece rig's SQ to this, but for quick and light travel it's a definite option Cheers
post #11 of 38
Thread Starter 

I'm listining on the S2 now and tried some different songs / genres to play around. And i must say ... it's pretty darn impressive with the Poweramp app :D Tone on and EQ off. 

What i'm really impressed about is the wide/airy/3D like soundstage and separation of instruments. And another thing i notice is that it just presents more power, less distortion. The Nano just seems to have a hard time to deliver and gets a little distorted. Also the bass is more present and easy to tweak without getting fuzzy/boomy too much. The mids are great too, especially the balance, it feels more like it's into the song instead of a separate thing from the rest. It also is crisp and clear, although i think the Nano does this part just as well, aside from more forward placement. The highs though ... it's better then on the Nano because it sounds more controlled and defined, but it has a touch of a mechanical sound to it (metal like). Also in some parts it can be a tad bright and hissing. 


All in all i'm impressed and i enjoy it way more then the Nano already, even without amp. Also the Nano doesn't support Flac which is a bit of a downer anyway. But i do feel it lacks a little finesse on some areas with some instruments. Also it lacks just that little punchy part of the bass, it can become a little boomy. I like it just a little more agile punch without losing that deep going depth when needed - just that little bit of detail in it. But what i really enjoy is the soundstage and separation. It has impact, sounds rich and natural in general presence. I think i can easily listen to this for a long time without even noticing these things, because it somehow seems to come together very nicely and brings fun indeed. The highs still are a bit of an issue, just in some parts. This part was especially better on the J3. I must say, the soundstage/alive making effect of J3's BBE+ seems to sound very similar to the poweramp way. It might even be better/wider separated on the S2. But it's hard to compare because i have only a degrading memory about it :)


And i'm without an amp even ... wonder what that would do. 


Also looked up what Audio chip the S2 uses:


The Galaxy S II uses Yamaha audio hardware.[36] The Galaxy S II's predecessor, the original Galaxy S, used Wolfson's WM8994 DAC.[37] User feedback on Internet forums as well as an in-depth review at Clove,[36] have expressed the Yamaha chip's inferior sound quality compared to that of the Wolfson chip featured in the original Galaxy S.


So, now i start to wonder what the S1 would have done together with Poweramp :)


I think my focus should be the amp now ... Just to see what happens on both the Nano and S2. And then go from there, if needed.


@Aes: I'll look up more info about your rig parts. And thanks for the input, very helpfull :)

@Truck: I wonder what your experience are with your amps? They are 3 of the options i had shortlisted before:

- Headstage Arrow HE 4G
- FiiO E11

- Electric Ave PA2V2


I'm curious about your experiences. 


An thanks again :D


Men ... i'm listening to Agnes Obel atm, it just sounds really special. I just love the way there are all these details without losing it's musicality and warmth. Love the soundstage :) I really didn't expect this. 

Edited by Xstream - 4/8/12 at 5:24pm
post #12 of 38

Using an external amp with the SII while also using Poweramp Tone-on is the equivalent of double amping (in my estimation) . It's no good. But, if you turn the Tone-off on Poweramp, (and add an amp) then you simply replace the power loss (by turning off the Tone control). It's a push, and not worth the price of even the cheaper of my amps. IOW, none of the amps help at all with the SII/535 combo.


Right now, my Arrow 4G is connected to a Headstage USB DAC cable from my laptop to my AKG Q701s. My FiiO E11 is connect to the RockBox'd Clip+ and the Sennheiser HD595s. In both of those configurations the amps are vital (neither headphone can be driven well without amps). But since I got the SII, those portable amps never leave the house.


Interestingly enough, my old Shure E5c (100 ohm with thick cable) benefit from amping and sound better as a result. My Shure SE535s (at 36 ohms) don't benefit from amping because just plain louder is not better. Plus, you need to be very careful with amps and earphones. You can't snatch them out of your ears fast enough if a sudden move turns that volume knob way up in your pocket.


I personally don't need an EQ now as I did in the past. I found that just one setting on the Tone Bass/Treble knobs on Poweramp is good for almost all of my CD ripped music.


Here's some more info that's IMPORTANT. Go to the Poweramp settings and set the Audio Thread Priority to the highest selection—that INSTANTLY clears up the sound. Next, go to Audio Buffer Size and set it to the maximum. If you have an Active Application Widget, you should visit it often (several times a day) and close the always self-opening Music app.


After you listen to the SII/535 combo for a while, you'll notice those "good mids" (with the Apple player) will seem to have an unnatural tone (like listening to music over a land-line telephone). Using the SII with Poweramp, it sounds like singers can sing a little better and are accompanied by distinguishable background singers. Plus, you can hear how the sound engineer draws focus to background effects. For me,  horns sound better, and percussion instruments are more lively. Everything is just a little different. It's subtle, but enough to make me want to listen to music on the go more than ever before.


If you combine the sound of the SII/535 combo with travel speed and the ambiance of driving, (and this may sound crazy) but it actually enhances the soundstage (and dynamics) even more. While driving, I'm still just delighted and I've had this sound for months now (you'd think I'd be use to it....).


P.S. That (original) Galaxy S thing might be real. I could spend $300 easy and drop a modded OS on it (and get Voodoo). I use to use all kinds of cooked ROMs on my HTC HD2. I'm just a little skeptical. I'm more inclined to buy the next gen Galaxy S (3) than the old one. I believe the users who post about it. It's just that I feel that not everything goes with my earphones of choice.



post #13 of 38
Thread Starter 

Do you experience any notable differences between the Amps, did your different rig setup needed some component matching?


I'm listening to the S2 again. 

I must say, with the more relaxed sounding tracks it's just a great pleasure. But when i play something more busy it starts to get some issues in control. The placement gets a little lost, the highs fly everywhere (with rock at least) and it has a hard time to keep composed. But other then that it's still impressive. The highs have improved now with different sleeves. I used the olives before and now i'm back trying the foam sleeves. The hissing is still there, but less emphasized. 


I agree with the TONE/EQ thing. I somehow seems to fit pretty much any track without the EQ and just some bass/treble fiddling.


But i'm still confused. I'll admit, i'm not an audio technician, just a critical listener. So i don't understand half of it. But i can't imaging a hardware amp can be outperformed by a software solution. But then again, i have no idea how much impact the software has on other DAP's compared to the hardware. 


But i've gone back to the Nano and i agree on this too, i just don't want to listen to it. It feels liveless, distorted most of the time and just like it's all in a tunnel. 


Haha, yes, driving and music does go well together :) But over here (Netherlands) you have a speed limit of 80 km/h with trucks, so that't bit of a downer when you're listening to more upbeat tracks i guess. Not sure where you're located.


I still have one issue though. I'm having a hard time already to keep battery power for a day with the S2. When i use it as a music player i'm sure it drains even more quickly. 

So i'm still thinking about a DAP + possible Amp combo if needed. If it's only to compare it with the S2 and see what happens. 

If it's no improvement i can just sell it again with a little loss. 


So i wonder if you experience any tonal or quality differences between the Avenue, Fiio and Headstage? Or is it all pretty much the same?



Edited by Xstream - 4/9/12 at 4:43am
post #14 of 38

I don't have a hiss issue at any (and all) volume levels (with player on music off) or with music on. There is only an ever so slight sound you can hear between the time you stop a song and a little click (3 seconds later). It is not a function of volume, however. In fact, standing in the kitchen, I have to move away from the refrigerator to even hear it at all.


What model S2 do you have? Do you have the I9100? If so, we don't have the same phone. I have the SGH-T989. I'm sorry about your hiss issue. Some have reported actually hearing the CPU. I can't imagine what that sounds like.


On the T989, the CPU is a 1.5 MHz dual-core processor and the battery is 1850mA. I work a 12 hour shift and place/receive phone calls (via bluetooth), listen to FLAC songs (for about 4 or 5 hours) and turn the screen on a lot (all day) and I always get thru the day. The battery is usually around 20% when I get home. If I had a battery problem, I'd buy a 3600mA battery with back-cover (to accommodate the added girth) for just 20 dollars. It'd be a mini-brick, but you could do whatever the heck you wanted (all day long) without concern.


About the messy rendition of some rock songs, did you up the Poweramp priority and buffer size? It's also good to close as many background apps (used by Android) as possible. And kill that Music app, because it opens itself when you start a song.


I don't have any technical knowledge of how Poweramp (and a few others software players) manage to get better results from the hardware than the standard app. I don't know how RockBox transforms the Sansa Clip+,  but it does. The difference in sound is undeniable. If there's an ever so slight level of distortion added, it is negligible (and on the go, forget about it).


As for the amps, the Headstage Arrow HE 4G is $300 (and a long wait). It has nice features like turning itself on (and off). The battery life is ridiculously good. I don't even know the times between charges. It's like a iPod in that regard. It's steady rather than terribly powerful. And no, I don't have a particular configuration. It's just a matter of what I feel like listening too. The big headphones and small amps (and non S2 players) all play nice with one another. The S2 and 535s only like one another exclusively. They hate everyone else.


The FiiO E11 (at $60) has slightly more punch that the Arrow, but runs out of gas much quicker. Maybe 4 or 5 hours at high gain (maybe not even that long). You can easily forget to turn it off (in which case you runs out of juice). It's less clear/clean than the Arrow.


The Electric Avenue is the oldest and heaviest of my few little amps. I haven't used it in a long time though it works perfectly. Years ago, a basshead co-worker with an 18in woofer in his SUV told me if I turned the volume all the way up on my little headphones (AKG K26P), he would NOT be able to hear the bass. So, I plugged them into my Dell Axim X51v pocket PC (my source unit at the time) and the EA amp (playing a hip-hop song with bass). He snatched the K26Ps off his hears and shouted; “DAMN!! That thing was rumbling on my head!” He learned a deafening lesson about SPL at close range. IEMs and a wide open volume knob in my pocket? NO THANK YOU! I'd like to be able to hear the grand-kids when I get older.


The FiiO and EA amps hiss like crazy with sensitive IEMs. Someone reminded me of that on another thread. The Arrow hisses as well but not so much at low (actual listening) volumes.


I can't imagine putting an amp between my S2 and my 535s. I can't turn the volume up much past half-way as is. I've got plenty of bass (for non-Rap music) with the bass tone knob at halfway and treble at halfway as well.


Super low sub-bass is probably a technical (physical) issue (with one BA less capable than one dynamic speaker). There are sub-bass notes in songs (that I know are there) that my Cowon iA9 won't even pretend to reproduce (to even deliver to an amp and headphone).

post #15 of 38
Thread Starter 

Yes, i have the Samsung Galaxy S II I9100 16GB Black. So that might be it :)


I'm thinking about a Sandisk now. Just the 2GB one, and if i like it i save cash for a 32Gb micro SD card. 

Just to see how it performs. It's not the cost :)


did you up the Poweramp priority and buffer size? It's also good to close as many background apps (used by Android) as possible.


Yes, i changed this, also ended all services i didn't need. Didn't experience much difference. Although it might be more stable without directly noticing it. 



I can't imagine putting an amp between my S2 and my 535s. I can't turn the volume up much past half-way as is. I've got plenty of bass (for non-Rap music) with the bass tone knob at halfway and treble at halfway as well.


In my experience the amp isn't for making it louder, although it can, but just to give the sound at lower levels more control. In my experiences in my car and at home it makes a huge difference. The sound just gets more calm and composed. 


But because of the low impedance i'm not sure if it's needed at all. Usually people say it's only for the headphones with higher impedance properties. But on the other hand, having more power, and just set it to listening levels, it should have more overhead resulting in a more composed sound. But it will all depend on the source. The Nano definitely could benefit from some extra power, it's just working too hard and distorts the sound. But the Samsung, like the iAudio, give bigger outputs, so in that case it might be possible to not hear any difference at all. 


Anyway, i'll go check out the Sansa for the fun of it, together with some affordable amp to see what happens. Fiio would be an option, but if you talk about hissing i might look further. But considering the cost it might be a good starting point to get a general effect of an amp and go from there if i indeed need a slightly different sound signature in a more pricier segment. 



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