Like most people on this forum, I enjoy high quality music. Back in 2005, I became interested in audiophile quality music playback. From what research I could gather, it was clear that the cost/performance of headphones was the best way to start. With that in mind I went to headroom and purchased a pair of Grado RS-1's for home listening, along with the headroom micro amp and dac. For portable listening, I purchased the Etymotic ER-4S's. Since this purchase put me back almost $1500, I figured even though I hadn't audioned the gear I would surely be blown away by the improvement in sound quality.
Unfortunately this wasn't the case. The Grado's I used with an ipod sending digital out to the dac and amp. I tried playing rock music with my Ipod and the sound was better, but hard to tell any improvement over a store bought pair of $100 headphones with no amp/dac involved. What's worse is that the RS-1's being extremely sensitive/low impedance cans picked up background noise. At first I thought the gear must be defective with all the crackling and white noise present, especially when used with my desktop computer. The Etymotics were much better in this regard, I barely noticed background noise using these with my iPod. Eventually I gave up on the Grado's assuming they were defective. As I was in Japan at the time I decided not to bother trying to send them back and just quit using them alltogether for several years. Looking back, I can see my mistake with the Grado's was not the headphones, but the compressed mp3's. I violated the garbage in/garbage out principle. It didn't help that I used them quite often with my computer and they constantly picked up background noise/static, even with the amp/dac in use.
About a year ago I started feeling the itch to try my luck with achieving reference quality audio playback, or at least better than what I had wound up with on my first attempt. After tearing apart my headroom micro amp, I discovered the volume knob was introducing interference when adjusted at almost any level. Originally I had thought the Grado's were broke, but now I realized it was the amp. So I went on amazon and purchased an integrated amp/dac, the Fubar 3 MkII for about $250. With the Fubar, the RS-1's sounded better than before, and the white noise was still there but much less apparent than before. The Etymotic's sounded great, the best playback yet. I was still not quite to audiophile levels however, at least in my mind. What made matters more confusing to me was that some music with the Ety's sounded clearer and more detailed than others, even at the same low 128bit VBR.
Now I'm at the point where I have good quality music. As for a reference quality setup, I know I'm not there yet. For example, I cannot tell the difference when listening to 192bit streaming audio from Spotify compared to FLAC ripped recording from my CD's. Perhaps this is a limitation of the Fubar, I'm not sure. I've never had a chance to go to a meetup and hear what a true audiophile setup should sound like. Recently I purchased the minibox ES for my Etymotic's. I also purchased a new pair of headphones, the Sennheiser HD650's. I'm currently waiting for my original headroom DAC to show up in the mail so I can try them out with the minibox ES. Right now, I'm using the HD650's/ER4S with the minibox playing FLAC ripped recordings from CD. I don't know if it's because I'm not using a DAC yet, but the FLAC files are merely ok. I cannot hear an improvement over my 128bit files. If anything I feel like im missing some of the clarity and detail, and bass response is merely adequate.
With all that said, I'm going to try to make the leap to audiophile quality music once again. I have a few months left stationed overseas and I plan on doing as much research in my free time as possible on finding a quality home setup. I want to focus on the home setup first, as I feel this is where I can get the best results, and then use my home setup as a reference for a quality portable one. My plan is to have a media server with all my digital files feeding a high quality DAC. I can't decide whether to go with an integrated dac/amp or purchase separate equipment. I'd like to avoid the pitfalls I've ran into in the past and have a system I won't want to upgrade a year down the road because I didn't get an important feature, such as bit transparent 24/192 audio over USB. I'd also like the system to work with a wide variety of cans, as my Grado RS-1's are obviously quite different from the HD650's. I'm setting my budget for this setup at $2-2.5K. The plan is to have a solid idea of what I want in my mind before I get back, then attempt to drive to a high quality audio store in New Mexico and audition the equipment I have in mind with all of my gear. We'll see how that pans out. If anyone has any advice for me, it would be much appreciated. It's difficult having never heard what a quality setup should sound like, purchasing gear I've never heard before. I still have plenty of time to do more research. With any luck and maybe some helpful advice, I'll finally get the results I've been wanting for several years now.