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optimal allocation of $$$ for a digital audio head-fi rig

post #1 of 16
Thread Starter 

I'm curious what you all think is the proper allocation of a fixed budget between a set of cans, amp, DAC, and anything else you might need to listen to digital audio?

 

My philosophy toward systems with speakers has been 70% speakers, 20% electronics, 10% room. In general, I believe that high end electronics are virtually indistinguishable from well designed budget or mid range electronics (e.g. Emotiva XPA series amps). You usually get nicer materials and a sturdier build, but most of the auditory differences people report are psychological, not physical. (I'm sure there are people who disagree -- ou'd have to to justify spending $10,000 plus on an amp -- but I think most controlled, objective testing supports my belief .)

 

Two things strike me as different between systems with full range speakers (or monitors + sub) vs headphones. First, tier to tier, headphones are generally cheaper than speakers, by which I mean comparing budget to budget, mid to mid, or summit to summit, but electronics seem priced equivalently. This suggests that for headphone rigs you'll probably need to speed a higher percentage of a budget on electronics. Secondly, the room doesn't factor directly into the budget. (Indirectly, it may influence whether you buy closed or open cans or IEMs.)

 

So that said, if your budget is X, what fraction would you spend on phones vs electronics? (Assume we're talking about full size cans.) Does the fraction change as X increases? How large does X have to be before you consider separate electronic components?


Edited by Thunder240 - 7/21/12 at 1:53pm
post #2 of 16
Quote:
Originally Posted by Thunder240 View Post

I'm curious what you all think is the proper allocation of a fixed budget between a set of cans, amp, DAC, and anything else you might need to listen to digital audio?

 

My philosophy toward systems with speakers has been 70% speakers, 20% electronics, 10% room. In general, I believe that high end electronics are virtually indistinguishable from well designed budget or mid range electronics (e.g. Emotiva XPA series amps). You usually get nicer materials and a sturdier build, but most of the auditory differences people report are psychological, not physical. (I'm sure there are people who disagree -- ou'd have to to justify spending $10,000 plus on an amp -- but I think most controlled, objective testing supports my belief .)

 

Two things strike me as different between systems with full range speakers (or monitors + sub) vs headphones. First, tier to tier, headphones are generally cheaper than speakers, by which I mean comparing budget to budget, mid to mid, or summit to summit, but electronics seem priced equivalently. This suggests that for headphone rigs you'll probably need to speed a higher percentage of a budget on electronics. Secondly, the room doesn't factor directly into the budget. (Indirectly, it may influence whether you buy closed or open cans or IEMs.)

 

So that said, if your budget is X, what fraction would you spend on phones vs electronics? (Assume we're talking about full size cans.) Does the fraction change as X increases? How large does X have to be before you consider separate electronic components?

 

Maybe I'm wrong, but "full-range" means running a driver full-range from the amplifier without any sort of crossover (filters are still fair game). I think you mean to say "full-sized". In reality, a full-ranger will not be able to cover the full range of the audio spectrum because it will mechanically roll off in both directions. Kind of ironic.

 

Anyway, I think cost breakdown is tough to do because it's very situational. And is your question about how much you should spend on each component, or how much difference each component actually makes?

 

Let's say you want to recommend budget level headphone setup. Assume the guy has some sort of source/headphone jack and simply recommend 100% on the headphone. Mid-tier? It's still situational. You'll probably end up spending 50/50 on the headphone/amp, but in reality, the headphone makes say... 80% of the difference. High-end? Probably 70/30 for headphone/upstream based on how much difference it will make, but some people end up spending much more on the upstream than the headphone itself. Most "high-end" models sit around $1000, but some people feel compelled to spend another $1000 for an amp and $1000 for a DAC to pair with that headphone. That's all my loose conjecture. I'm sure others have different cost or importance breakdowns.

 

When it comes to home stereo, it's even harder to recommend. I don't think it's a bad idea for a beginner to spend a good chunk on a decent amp, maybe even spend more on the amp than the loudspeakers at first. That way, he can keep the amp for a while and focus his efforts on different speakers. It's hard to recommend room treatment for everyone, even though it's arguably one of the most important parts. Some people are living in dorms or sharing apartments (or even worse, wife restrictions).

post #3 of 16

With a budget of $500 or less I'd put it all towards a good set of cans.  Good amps and dacs can have subtle effects on sound, but the difference between any two headphones is dramatic, and can deliver huge improvements in sound for a much smaller investment.  For example, $400 headphones out an ipod (e.g. HF-1) sound *much* better than $200 headphones (e.g. SR225) out a $1800 dac + amp (e.g. Lavry DA11 + MAD Ear+).  Buy a dac/amp if you can also afford good headphones but it means buying a lesser headphone, you'll lose sound quality overall.  If you have electrostats  get an amp (and as you say,  just a competent one) but I'd swear that even HE-500 sound better out an ipod than HD600 with any amp.

post #4 of 16
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by OJNeg View Post

 

Maybe I'm wrong, but "full-range" means running a driver full-range from the amplifier without any sort of crossover (filters are still fair game). I think you mean to say "full-sized". In reality, a full-ranger will not be able to cover the full range of the audio spectrum because it will mechanically roll off in both directions. Kind of ironic.

 

Anyway, I think cost breakdown is tough to do because it's very situational. And is your question about how much you should spend on each component, or how much difference each component actually makes?

 

Let's say you want to recommend budget level headphone setup. Assume the guy has some sort of source/headphone jack and simply recommend 100% on the headphone. Mid-tier? It's still situational. You'll probably end up spending 50/50 on the headphone/amp, but in reality, the headphone makes say... 80% of the difference. High-end? Probably 70/30 for headphone/upstream based on how much difference it will make, but some people end up spending much more on the upstream than the headphone itself. Most "high-end" models sit around $1000, but some people feel compelled to spend another $1000 for an amp and $1000 for a DAC to pair with that headphone. That's all my loose conjecture. I'm sure others have different cost or importance breakdowns.

 

When it comes to home stereo, it's even harder to recommend. I don't think it's a bad idea for a beginner to spend a good chunk on a decent amp, maybe even spend more on the amp than the loudspeakers at first. That way, he can keep the amp for a while and focus his efforts on different speakers. It's hard to recommend room treatment for everyone, even though it's arguably one of the most important parts. Some people are living in dorms or sharing apartments (or even worse, wife restrictions).

 

Hey OJNeq, you interpreted my meaning correctly regarding "full range"! (I didn't mean full range drivers, but rather speakers that include multiple different sized drivers and a passive crossover network.)

 

Anyhow, to the main point, I get what you mean that in mid-tier you might spend 50/50 on headphones/amp, but headphones are responsible for 80% of the percieved sound quality. I don't think I differentiated adequately in my original post. The same differentiation between cost and contribution might also exist in the stereo realm, but to a lesser degree.  I suppose my real question is regarding cost -- optimal allocation of a budget. If I were to say I have $1000 to spend on a rig that's gotta include everything except my source (suppose a Macbook Pro), how would you or someone else suggest I allocate my budget for optimal sound quality? This is hypothetical.  I own gear right now that I'm content with [for the moment -- I guess I wouldn't be here if my heart weren't always in the market for new gear]. I also realize that if I were asking for real recommendations, you'd want to know something about my taste in music, what type of sonic signature I find pleasing, etc, if only because maybe you know of some fantastic piece of gear that meets my needs and that's got major bang for the buck, which would free up some of my budget for the rest of the rig. So let's generalize a little more. I'm new to headphones, but the midtier 50/50 allocation you mentioned seems reasonable. I also think your point about that skewing more toward electronics as the budget increases seems reasonable, if only because the high end phones appear to top out at 1000-2000 but amps and DACs keep going up and up!

 

Do others agree? Turning my original question on its head, how high end would my phones need to be in order to justify dropping 1000+ on electronics (versus using that same money to buy better phones and cheaper electronics)? This question seems like it ought to be relevant to people, considering that I've seen several DACs pushing or exceeding 1000 (e.g. Benchmark DAC1) recommended by head-fiers to people with much less expensive headphones.

post #5 of 16
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by eucariote View Post

With a budget of $500 or less I'd put it all towards a good set of cans.  Good amps and dacs can have subtle effects on sound, but the difference between any two headphones is dramatic, and can deliver huge improvements in sound for a much smaller investment.  For example, $400 headphones out an ipod (e.g. HF-1) sound *much* better than $200 headphones (e.g. SR225) out a $1800 dac + amp (e.g. Lavry DA11 + MAD Ear+).  Buy a dac/amp if you can also afford good headphones but it means buying a lesser headphone, you'll lose sound quality overall.  If you have electrostats  get an amp (and as you say,  just a competent one) but I'd swear that even HE-500 sound better out an ipod than HD600 with any amp.

 

Eucariote, thanks for the input and the examples. That's definitely consistent with my thinking on stereo equipment. So you think the point where one should begin to consider amps/dacs is 500-700 budget (at which point we're talking FiiO, or maybe NuForce)?

post #6 of 16
Quote:
Originally Posted by Thunder240 View Post

Eucariote, thanks for the input and the examples. That's definitely consistent with my thinking on stereo equipment. So you think the point where one should begin to consider amps/dacs is 500-700 budget (at which point we're talking FiiO, or maybe NuForce)?

 

I don't want to answer the question for anybody else, but for me, it's hard to say.

 

Some people don't have sources as good as iPods (and I mean that seriously).  Many decent headphones simply won't be satisfactorily loud playing music with wide dynamic range, unless you get something that can actually output more than 1V like most consumer stuff.  If you wanted open headphones with a fairly flat FR, some options like Sennheiser HD 600 and AKG K601 need like 2-3V rms to hit 110 dB SPL peaks, for example, and those headphones are more like $300 and $200—well, maybe more these days, since the prices seem to have gone up.

 

Many multi balanced-armature IEMs sell for $200 or so, sometimes less.  If you want something with fairly low noise and low output impedance, you might need to grab a FiiO E10 for $70.  If you don't use a low-Z source with those models, the frequency response will be a train wreck, so it better be part of your plans.  If you've got a quiet environment and want even lower noise, you'll need to spend more.  (I know you said fullsize cans, sorry.)

 

 

There are a really wide range of headphones with different requirements.  Furthermore, I think that the headphone amp market is not that mature, so bargains are harder to find, outside of DIY endeavors.  Actually, before a couple years ago, things were much worse.


Edited by mikeaj - 7/21/12 at 6:08pm
post #7 of 16

Here's a slightly different way to look at it - if you truly believe that well-designed electronics all sound the same, then the max cost of the electronics should be a fixed $ amount, no matter how high your budget goes.  Therefore, the percentage of the budget spent on electronics would get smaller as your total budget increases.  Just as an example, if $400 in electronics achieves the goals of good sound, then that's all you would ever need to spend on the electronics, regardless of whether your total budget is $401 or $40K.  The rest of your budget above that fixed cost can be put into the headphones. 


Edited by billybob_jcv - 7/21/12 at 9:01pm
post #8 of 16
Quote:
Originally Posted by Thunder240 View Post

 

Hey OJNeq, you interpreted my meaning correctly regarding "full range"! (I didn't mean full range drivers, but rather speakers that include multiple different sized drivers and a passive crossover network.)

 

Anyhow, to the main point, I get what you mean that in mid-tier you might spend 50/50 on headphones/amp, but headphones are responsible for 80% of the percieved sound quality. I don't think I differentiated adequately in my original post. The same differentiation between cost and contribution might also exist in the stereo realm, but to a lesser degree.  I suppose my real question is regarding cost -- optimal allocation of a budget. If I were to say I have $1000 to spend on a rig that's gotta include everything except my source (suppose a Macbook Pro), how would you or someone else suggest I allocate my budget for optimal sound quality? This is hypothetical.  I own gear right now that I'm content with [for the moment -- I guess I wouldn't be here if my heart weren't always in the market for new gear]. I also realize that if I were asking for real recommendations, you'd want to know something about my taste in music, what type of sonic signature I find pleasing, etc, if only because maybe you know of some fantastic piece of gear that meets my needs and that's got major bang for the buck, which would free up some of my budget for the rest of the rig. So let's generalize a little more. I'm new to headphones, but the midtier 50/50 allocation you mentioned seems reasonable. I also think your point about that skewing more toward electronics as the budget increases seems reasonable, if only because the high end phones appear to top out at 1000-2000 but amps and DACs keep going up and up!

 

Do others agree? Turning my original question on its head, how high end would my phones need to be in order to justify dropping 1000+ on electronics (versus using that same money to buy better phones and cheaper electronics)? This question seems like it ought to be relevant to people, considering that I've seen several DACs pushing or exceeding 1000 (e.g. Benchmark DAC1) recommended by head-fiers to people with much less expensive headphones.

 

There's an argument to be made that once you hit the $1000 mark, headphones aren't where the real value is at. Some people will even say that headphone value peaks at a much lower number. I'm inclined to agree. I've spent most of my $ in home stereo to be honest. Listen to a good pair of speakers and headphones become an after-thought. And you don't need to spend that much to get a good home stereo rig going.

 

I think there's a misconception between headphones and loudspeakers, in an economic sense. People see that the "high-end" of headphones peak at around $1000 (besides exotics and out-of-production models). And then they see that there are "high-end" loudspeakers that go for 5k, 10k, and beyond. Using silly price-tag logic, they come to the conclusion that you need to spend a year's salary to get the best of home stereo, whereas the best of the headphone world looks like a bargain in comparison. This is false. I'd argue that at almost every price point, loudspeakers are a better deal. Simply because there's so much that speakers can do that headphones can't.

 

But to answer your question, I don't think that $1000+ DACs are justified. At least for my dollar. And amps are very much dependent on the headphone. Some amps do match better with certain headphones, and maybe an $1000 amp purchase is justified to someone who wants a unique sound signature on their high-end cans. I wouldn't know, I'm not there yet.

 

If I had $1000 to spend on a headphone rig, I'd go for a pair of HD600s and a decent SS amp. Maybe an O2. Maybe a DIY beta22. I'd cheap out on the DAC.

post #9 of 16

Of course, there is *one* thing a headphone can do that a speaker can't:  Keep you from being drawn & quartered by your neighbors...  tongue.gif

post #10 of 16
Quote:
Originally Posted by billybob_jcv View Post

Just as an example, if $400 in electronics achieves the goals of good sound, then that's all you would ever need to spend on the electronics, regardless of whether your total budget is $401 or $40K.

 

I doubt $1 headphones sound particularly great, even if driven by $400 electronics. Even at low cost, it is better to spend the most on headphones.

post #11 of 16
Quote:
Originally Posted by OJNeg View Post

There's an argument to be made that once you hit the $1000 mark, headphones aren't where the real value is at. Some people will even say that headphone value peaks at a much lower number. I'm inclined to agree.

 

That might be the case because the dynamic transducer technology is already reaching its limits at that price (although better electrostatics and planar magnetics may be available at higher cost), but adding a very expensive amplifier or DAC will not magically improve the sound.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by OJNeg View Post

Some amps do match better with certain headphones, and maybe an $1000 amp purchase is justified to someone who wants a unique sound signature on their high-end cans.

 

"Synergy" is better achieved by using DSP (equalization etc.) than spending more on technically inferior electronics. The latter approach works mainly by expectation bias, as it is very unlikely that any amplifier will cancel out a 10 dB treble peak at 8-10 kHz, or a large dip in the upper midrange; usually, they just roll off at the ends to varying extents, or slightly change the frequency response (often making it worse by increasing resonances) by having high output impedance.


Edited by stv014 - 7/22/12 at 2:50am
post #12 of 16
Quote:
Originally Posted by billybob_jcv View Post

Here's a slightly different way to look at it - if you truly believe that well-designed electronics all sound the same, then the max cost of the electronics should be a fixed $ amount, no matter how high your budget goes.  Therefore, the percentage of the budget spent on electronics would get smaller as your total budget increases.

Totally. The biggest part of the budget of a really good system is the music.
post #13 of 16
Quote:
Originally Posted by stv014 View Post

 

I doubt $1 headphones sound particularly great, even if driven by $400 electronics. Even at low cost, it is better to spend the most on headphones.

 

That really wasn't my point.  My point was that using a percentage of total budget for electronics as the measure doesn't really make sense once you have gone past a certain point.

post #14 of 16
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by billybob_jcv View Post

 

That really wasn't my point.  My point was that using a percentage of total budget for electronics as the measure doesn't really make sense once you have gone past a certain point.


Billybob, I can understand how one could arrive at this conclusion given my stated belief that "high end electronics are virtually indistinguishable from well designed budget or mid range electronics". Let me ask then, are you suggesting that you believe it doesn't make sense to think of budgeting electronics as a percentage of overall budget past a certain point, or are you just being rhetorical?

 

If you're being rhetorical, I'd respond by saying that people who are prepared to spend several thousand (or tens of thousands) on sound equipment probably don't have a budget at all, so thinking about budget allocation loses its relevance. The goal of my post wasn't to renew a debate about whether there are sonic differences between high-high end electronics and mid-high end electronics, although I suppose I lit the fuse on that one in my original post.

 

If you're making the point for reasons beyond rhetorical, I appreciate your drawing attention to the outer limit of this sort of budget analysis. I asked the question because like many people, I build my systems (both headphone and speaker) a little bit at time, making upgrades when I can afford them, and I often wonder would would be the most cost effective upgrade.

post #15 of 16

Not to speak for him, but there's a point with electronics where you don't get any more for your money. To be perfectly honest, you should choose your amp based on two things... the watts- can it push your speakers? and the features- layout of the remote, number of inputs, AV features, etc. A CD/DVD/Bluray player is even easier. Just get the cheapest one that does the job.

 

Spend most of your money on your speakers or headphones.

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