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What is better for the money: Amp or Amp/DAC combo?

post #1 of 45
Thread Starter 

Hi, noobie here.

 

I've never had an external DAC before and I don't think I understand how effective they would be. I play music out of an iPod Nano and my laptop and I would assume at the very least that the Nano probably has a very poor DAC.

 

My question also comes up because I see a lot of people buying the e17 these days. So my question is, for $150, what would be the differences if I spent that money on a $150 amp vs a $150 amp + DAC, especially since I see that the amp in the e17 is apparently inferior to the Fiio E11 which is only about a $60 amp and I feel like $150 could get you a much much better amp.


I know the E17 comes with a lot of extra great features and I don't want to focus on that product, just wished to be more clear on how important a DAC is and how best to use your budget and maximize gain.


Here is the specs for my laptops audio from their site:

 

 

Built-in High Definition Sound System

S/PDIF Digital Output
External 7.1CH Audio Output Supported by Headphone, Microphone, S/PDIF and Line-In Jacks
THX TruStudio Pro

 

I seem to hear that generally, laptop DACs are not very good.

 

My headphones are the v-moda m-80, HD598 and the Grado RS1, mostly headphones that will drive easily from any source. Amps I've had before were the E5 and E11 and I've ordered a Headstage Arrow 4G which boasts 30 - 80 hours of battery life, lots of great features, amazing form factor and supposedly much better sound. Haven't spent a penny on DACs before.

Fairly new to the hobby, appreciate the help.

post #2 of 45

What gives you the impression that the iPod DAC is poor ?

The iPod uses Cirrus / Wolfson DACs, thats what you'll find in a lot of external DACs as well.

Performance wise, the iPod is upto the mark.

Secondly, there is not going to be any magical difference even if you do buy an external DAC. The performance differences are so minute in well performing DACs, they are inaudible when converted to sound, and can only be analyzed with a scope.

 

Since you already ordered an amp (IMO even that was not needed), try to enjoy it with your headphones. All the difference is in your mind.

Save the money for an upgrade in your IEMs / Headphones. They make the audible difference. 

And beware of the sound levels with the amp. Most easy to drive headphones can already reach their peak with the iPod, so try not to push it too loud.

 

 

Now, coming to laptop sound.

Laptops/PCs use a sound card that integrates an ADC/DAC/SPDIF solution in one package.

I have not seen any measurements, but I think they use Class C/D amplification for power savings.

So for a laptop maybe you can use an external DAC, but for PMP its not required.


Edited by proton007 - 4/12/12 at 6:52am
post #3 of 45
Thread Starter 

Thanks for the reply. I was just very curious as many people are spending a lot on the amp/DAC combos for portable with headphones like the m-80 and iDevices (probably why I thought they had bad DACs) and I was wondering what could be different. I did not know about the iPod DACs at all so that is great info. Most of my music is taken with me on the go. I've only recently gotten into amps at all and inched my way up from the Fiio E5.

 


The Headstage I bought was mostly for a few things: Style, solid build, great form factor, really was tired of the poor battery life of the E11, has auto on/off and a ton of extra features. It could also power the Q701s which I plan on buying as soon as I find a decent sale and it gets pretty positive reviews overall and will work equally well with my IEMs. Also, since it is rated to be significantly better than my current amps, I really wanted to see what kind of differences I would notice. I also have more money than sense so yeah, I could be burning away :D

 

After reading about DACs I really didn't know what to think about them because for every person that says it makes a world of difference, someone will say that it makes almost no difference at all like what you just told me. Then I see people spending quite a lot on DAC + Amp combos and I just naturally become curious of whether they are just as important as Amps.

 

post #4 of 45

Its ok, relax.

Its a phenomenon called expectation bias. Sometimes when you really expect a result, your brain will make up those differences for you, even if there isn't any. Now someone who bought an external DAC wants it to make a difference, and as long as he sees its connected to the audio, he'll feel that difference. Lets say i hide the DAC and do not tell you whether I'm using it or not. Then it becomes a different story.

If you want to buy something because of aesthetics/features its perfectly alright, but in terms of the actual function, an amp just amplifies the power so that a larger load can be driven, or the signal can be made to go a longer distance. Something like a wifi repeater. Thats it. Anything else is mostly marketing and expectation bias or post purchase justification.

The only difference is, audio amps can be designed either to add some distortion to make them sound different (tube amps, but I bet you wouldn't want to see that happening with your TV or Wifi signal), or can be designed to just amplify without introducing any distortion (mostly solid state, used in most applications today).

 

DACs are important, but not as important as the amplification/reproduction. You just want to ensure all your digital data is converted to analog to the best possible level, and those levels are already very high, with tiny, marginal improvements if you spend a LOT more money.

Oh, and try to use lossless data. It ensures that you have 100% of the original to work with in the first place.

post #5 of 45
Quote:
Originally Posted by proton007 View Post

Oh, and try to use lossless data. It ensures that you have 100% of the original to work with in the first place.

Aaaw, and I thought you were doing so well. Lossy audio is perfectly fine, as long as it's transparent (duh). iTunes Plus (AAC ~256 kbps) or LAME -V 0 are fine. Why waste the nano's 8 or 16 GB?
post #6 of 45
Thread Starter 

Thanks, that helps a lot. I didn't think I wanted to spend anything on DACs and I think you've just confirmed this for me. People also keep talking about the "weakest link" sometimes, which makes it sound like there would be a performance bottle neck at the DAC.

 

For amps, I am gonna say I feel quite a bit of difference. My friend let me listen to his "Digizoid?" (kept thinking it was Digimon...) and I thought it was quite apparent. It was part of the reason I wanted the Headstage since it made the music much more lively. I will try to surprise myself with some blind listening tests one of these days though :)

 

Also, I listen to most of my music at 320 and some at 256kbps. I know people have been telling me to get FLAC and so I have both the 320kbps and the FLAC versions of some of my music (Nier OST, Herbie Hancock and Michael Buble). Honestly, I couldn't tell which was which so I guess my hearing isn't that distinguishing yet. When I can tell, I'll know I've moved up in the audio world. 

 

Edit: was directed at Proton

 


Its always good to know some audiophiles find 256kbps a good enough format. I have a 16 gig Nano and if I was to turn all my music into FLAC then I would not be able to fit more than a couple of albums. I actually down converted most of my CDs which I thought would be considered blasphemy to a lot of people here.

 


Edited by DNZGamer - 4/12/12 at 8:36am
post #7 of 45
Quote:
Originally Posted by skamp View Post


Aaaw, and I thought you were doing so well. Lossy audio is perfectly fine, as long as it's transparent (duh). iTunes Plus (AAC ~256 kbps) or LAME -V 0 are fine. Why waste the nano's 8 or 16 GB?


Ok, from my experience. I tried to use the ABX test on Foobar, with 320kbps and FLAC.

With sensitive IEMs, I was able to spot the difference only on songs that have a lot going on.For others, almost impossible to distinguish. But this is more of a question from the sound science section.

Transparency has to do with the source signal vs the output. Any neutral setup will be transparent relative to the source, even with a 128kbps signal.

My idea is this. If you do feel there's a difference in the sound coming out from the driver, you should be able to see what is causing that. With lossy audio, you'll never be sure if its the amp/headphone or your source signal in the first place.

 

@DNZ

Even if you use FLAC, is about 200-300 mb per album (about 20-30 mb per song). For 16 GB you can still store about 45-50 albums. 

 

post #8 of 45
Thread Starter 

I only have about 4 FLAC albums on my iTunes right now and I am at about 9 gigs. Maybe I just have too much music but I like to have a complete collection of many genres of music on my iPod.

post #9 of 45

I used to have a similar approach, and without any flac files the nano was full 16gb.

My nano still has 320kbps music, I use it for my commute and trying out new music.

For serious use I got the iPod classic 160gb. I use it with all my flac files.

256 AAC is also fine, better than 256 MP3.

Try the foobar ABX to see if you can spot the difference, if you can, go for flac/alac.

post #10 of 45
Thread Starter 

Yeah I just acquired the UM3x IEM today and made a topic that no one responded to so far. Was my first time really noticing a huge difference between amped and unamped. Lots of hissing too. I think I might use them to try out some FLAC vs MP3/AAC formats. Not sure what Foobar is yet, will Google it later. Maybe you can help me out in my other topic too. I am so lost with IEMs and I feel like they are revealing more flaws than is desired so this would be the perfect chance to compare formats before I sell them for something else.

post #11 of 45
Quote:
Originally Posted by DNZGamer View Post

Yeah I just acquired the UM3x IEM today and made a topic that no one responded to so far. Was my first time really noticing a huge difference between amped and unamped. Lots of hissing too. I think I might use them to try out some FLAC vs MP3/AAC formats. Not sure what Foobar is yet, will Google it later. Maybe you can help me out in my other topic too. I am so lost with IEMs and I feel like they are revealing more flaws than is desired so this would be the perfect chance to compare formats before I sell them for something else.



Yeah, maybe you can try FLAC/MP3 comparison now that you have sensitive earphones. 

post #12 of 45

DNZgamer.

As it's not easy to use an external DAC with the iPod Nano, I would say to get a Fiio L cable to connect between the LOD port of the iPod Nano and the Fiio E11.

Laptops usually come with low cost DACs, something like the DAC Destroyer (USB/DAC) could be connected between the laptop's USB port and the Fiio E11

The DAC Destroyer can sell for little as $50 on eBay.

Would need an RCA to male mini jack cable for the DAC Destroyer to E11 connection.

Total for all could be under $70.

 


Edited by PurpleAngel - 4/13/12 at 12:48am
post #13 of 45

Foobar2000 is a free audio player for windows. Head-fiers sometimes refer it as foobar2k, fb2k,and etc. ABX is one of the components that allows you to compare 2 tracks without knowing which is which (blind test).
 


IMHO, if you are using very good headphone (especially in-ears with low impedance like your um3x or high-impedance headphones), it's worth it to get a good dedicated amp (for both DAP or computer listening). Otherwise, most probably your nano can drive them quite well. Still mind the weakest link rule though, it's given that you have high quality audio files and decent dac to start with. Don't get too carried away by those fancy gears.

I personally can't hear the difference between 70-80% lossless flac and 320kbps mp3 though.


Edited by cce121 - 4/13/12 at 12:04am
post #14 of 45

But if you are talking about computer listening, USB Dac/amp combo or just DAC is generally a decent upgrade from computer build-in audio
For on-the-go audio,it's not so much cause most DAP has very decent dac (ipods are included).
Although I have seen people carrying big-n-fancy desktop-sized dac and amp in his bag just for their iDevice listening! eek.gif Not so sensible for me.
I am assuming you are trying to get most out of your money.

Unless you have a lot of money lying around in your house. Just to spend it, you can experiment around with the gears you find interesting. biggrin.gif

Back to your topic, I think unless you want a very powerful/very good amp for challenging(future) headphones, DAC-amp combo would be my choice. As it takes up less space on my laptop table and i don't have budget for very challenging cans yet. It's also attrative for me to be able to use one as a portable amp when listening on-the go.
If you have an extra budget, don't mind and able to do some DIY, you can make yourself a DIY amp like cmoy,mini3,O2,PPA...etc. Most of them are not so expensive and it's fun that you can learn a lot about sound science as well. wink_face.gif


Edited by cce121 - 4/13/12 at 12:25am
post #15 of 45
Thread Starter 

I do have money to spend but I also want to spend it effectively because I get annoyed when I feel like something was useless or pointless. I've spent quite a lot of money these last couple of months on audio equipment and $70 for a DAC isn't much. But not only do I feel like I will get no performance, more importantly it creates clutter. Like I said, this kind of started with all the E17s being discussed around here. It costs more than twice that of the E11 with an inferior amp and I had to wonder if it was a huge difference to have a DAC. 

So now I know, my DAC in the iPod is actually better than my Laptops so I definitely don't need a DAC for mobile music enjoyment. 

I am not so worried about my laptop because I can still use my iPod at any time. Mobile listening and feasible travel gear is all I am interested in since I travel between NA and Southeast Asia a lot.

 

Foobar's AB function actually sounds pretty fun. I wonder if I will be able to tell with these new earphones... that I don't like. 

 

Verdict: don't bother with DAC on iDevices. Probably won't notice and is only useful for laptops. Next time, get a decent sound card.

 


Btw, since people are saying they often can't tell the diff between FLAC and 320kbps, does that mean the "dramatic difference" in vinyl is also somewhat of a myth?

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