A little background. Hifi is a fickle thing, it seems no matter how much money you spend, something is always wrong with your rig. Your favourite manufacturer comes out with a new model, maybe my DAC isn't good enough, is all my music 320? I've danced around the game, buying a Beyer here, a Grado there, but haven't yet to fully commit to a setup. Unfortunately, after hearing a $90,000 audio setup built around Focal Speakers at Nuts About Hi-Fi in Silverdale, WA, nothing I had was good enough anymore. That being said, a $90,000 rig was about 90 times more than I could afford to set aside, so here is my attempt so far to build a satisfying mobile and home rig for only 1,000.
Cans, DACs, amps.....cryogenic cables, source, flac, gold plated jacks....gold plated tubes....all the words that come to play, lets do our best to sort through these.
Starting Equipment-SAGER Notebook as source for home rig, ZUNE 80gb for mobile, Beyerdynamic DT990, Grado SR325i, Yuin PK3
The Mobile Rig-
How to turn my zune into a box of mobile hi-fi goodness? The zune itself is decent, but is lacking power, it outputs far less than an IPOD, and doesn't even have EQ controls. I need something that has the functionality of a DAC, amp, and EQ. How do I fix this? There are many product lines in this department, but some are too expensive for my budget (ALO) or don't have all the features I need (iBasso) for the price. The more research I did though, the more I was delighted to find the FiiO E17, a portable dac, amp, and eq, and for $149, but through head-fi sales I was able to bring it down to $100. Testing the E17 on my computer was a pleasant result, most certainly above the $6 dac I had previously. The EQ functionality is great if I want less treble on my 325, and more bass on my 990. Its also quite versatile, I can charge it from my computer while running audio out of my TV. It was a definitely a good call, and purchasing it used from GL1TCH3D saved me 40 bucks as well.
FiiO E17 used-$100
You might be asking, "why did he test the E17 on his computer when its for his mobile rig?" I've read that when using an external DAC, outputting the music through the headphone jack is like double-stacking DACs, a no bueno if you want it to do any good, so you need to run the music through a line out dock, which are plentiful for the ipod, but not so much for the zune. All my searches on amazon were fruitless, but once again, a small group of crazy hi-fi loving Asians (I say this being Asian) have saved the day with a homegrown product. Enter ecbuystore on ebay, who make handmade zune line out docks among other audio accessories. Unfortunately, I'm still waiting for this product in the mail, hopefully tommorow.
Ecbuyonline2008 Zune LOD-$33.49 (still waiting on)
Where the rubber meets the road. My current earphone being a Yuin PK3 just wasn't cutting it. With respect, the PK3 is the best $40 earphone you can get, but I needed a gamechanger. IEM's are not really my territory, but after extensively reading through different models and brands, the Monster Miles Davis Tribute caught my attention. At an asking price of $300, it seemed a bit out of budget, but that's what head-fi classifieds are for. Working out a deal with:
I thought for a $120 http://www.head-fi.org/t/629026/miles-davis-tributes would be a score, its too bad candoc07 because nearly a month later the product hasn't arrived and he's ignored multiple requests for a tracking number. Which is unfortunate, because having a dac and a lod is like having rifle with no ammunition. Until another paycheck comes in, my portable rig is on hiatus. LESSON TO BE LEARNED IF YOU PAY FOR THE ITEM AS A GIFT THERE'S NO DISPUTING IT WITH PAYPAL.
Miles Davis Tribute-$120 (NEVER RECIEVED)
The Home Rig
I busted the headphone jack on my laptop ages ago, and have been using USB DACS for the longest time, specifically the Syba SD-CM-UAUD, and for six bucks you can do no wrong. My first attempt at a better dac was the HiFiMan HF-101. At this stage, I had no idea how much a dac could affect the sound chain for the worst, because my $40 hf-101 sounded narrow, dry, and kind of repulsive compared to my no name $6 usb stick. Believe me I'm confused on the matter, but the difference was astounding between anything I spun them both through, I'm going to have the call the HF-101 a loss. My next foray was the NuForce udac-2, but once again trying to save money, instead of paying $120 off of amazon, I was able to pick it up for $70 from storggie (thanks again for the deal) on the head-fi forums. My initial testing of spinning everything from The Smashing Pumpkins to Goldfrapp was it was satisfactory for the price of paid for, but no significant loss or gain compared to the E17. When weighted against the functionality of the E17, I can't call the udac-2 a gain. The udac-2 will probably be chalked up as a loss simply because I can get the same quality from E17 while the E17 remains more portable and functional; I can use it on the go or as my primary dac for the time being, and it might be that way because the next step up in DACs is either the HRT at $150 or the AudioEngine D1 at $169.
HiFiMan HF-101-$40 loss
Udac-2-$70 loss (simply outperformed)
I went into the world of amps blind, and ordered the Qinpu A-6000 MKII out of impulse. I must say it was certainly an interesting purchase, my DT990 went from sounding good to great, nice, warm, and fat, but still that awkward U'shaped EQ that drowned the mids a little. I was displeased to see the harsh wonder of the SR325 didn't seem to benefit much at all, I'm guessing the 325 has and always will remain a flawed child. I hate to admit this, but while moving furniture around the Qinpu was dropped from heights and utterly destroyed only 20 hours into his life, God bless you little Qinpu, you will be missed, as I never knew your true potential. After overcoming the emotional damage from the death of poor Qinpu and delving into further research, I settled upon a Little Dot MKIII, according to tracking it should be in this week, I hope so for $50 dollars in shipping! The total price comes out to $240, and I can't wait to run its through its paces. BUT WAIT! What's this thing called tube rolling? By STUFFING OLD RUSSIAN MILITARY TUBES INTO MY NEW AMP I CAN DRASTICALLY IMPROVE IT FOR ONLY $36 DOLLARS MORE? WELL SIGN ME UP! And thus another $36 was delved out on Voshkod 6ZH1P-EV tubes for an amp I've never even heard. We'll see this week if my money was justified.
Qinpu A-6000 MKII-$250 loss (RIP lil' Qinpu)
Little Dot MKIII-$240 (still waiting on)
Voshkod 6ZH1P-EV Tubes-$36 (still waiting on)
HOW 'BOUT DEM CANS? (OH BURN IN WHAT A FIEND)
Everyone's favorite part of their rig, let me give a little history. My first real hifi headphones were the ATH-M50's, a head-fi standard, but within months they began to bore me, thus entered the Beyerdyamic DT990's I got in the spring of '10, and they were love at first listen. They're bassy, ballsy, have nice soundstage and some sweet highs. However, two years later, and they've run their course, and an upgrade is due. I thought the SR325i's might be the answer, and the fact that I picked up a pair of goldies made it all the more better, but I was wrong. When compared to the much cheaper and better balanced SR225,and the fact that headphones like the DT990 are a much better in the same price range I can't think of the 325i as anything less than an awkdward failure in design, I don't understand the point of having such sweet mid and details with such a grating highs. However, we will not chalk it up as a loss, its sexy enough to be considered a keeper and been in possession for nearly a year, too long to be considered part of this project.
So how exactly did I decide on a new pair of cans? I don't want to think of how many hours were scoured through head-fi forums reading reviews, rants, and complaints, and the occasional demoing of headphoens in the Seattle/Silverdale area. Seineisers seemed too dark, Audeze too expensive, AKG too boring, Audio Technica too Technical, and Beyers a little too familiar. I was entranced by thought of getting a HE-400 or HE-500, and probably would've gone through with one of them, if I hadn't had read of the PS500. The PS500 does not seem to be much of anyone's favorite around here, its the Grado for people who don't like Grado's, but its been raved by a few for being warm and lush, all the fun of a Grado with more bass, soundstaging, and without the harshness. I couldn't resist the chance and pulled the trigger.
Last Thursday I was grinning from ear to ear when the package arrive, first on the playlist? Shake it Out (Acoustic) by Florence + The Machine; running the audio through my E17, within the first 15 seconds my grin turned upside down. I wasn't sure of what magic was bespoken, but the sound was everything I hated about the 325i's, and for twice the price. "RegretSSSS collect, like old friendSSSS, here to relive your darkeSSST momentSSSS" I was a bit heartbroken, yes there were obvious improvemnts, but my friend was jammin to some SR60's and for 1/8th the price. But you see friends, there's this magic thing I read called burn-in and I don't understand the concept completely, but apparently its like warming up the tires on your car. For headphones, you need to get some current (aka music) to help get all those magnectic coils and such breathing. So begrudgingly I stuck the PS500's to an old ipod and just let it play for two straight days. A couple hours ago I put the PS500's and played the exact same track.
As soon as the music played, in my mind, I could almost feel Florence Welch embracing me with her sultry self, whispering sweet somethings into my ear. A completely different headphone from the one I held in hand two days prior. Everything was lush, and I mean everything, 320 is lush, lossless is lush, youtube is lush, a full sonic spectrum of sugar. I can't imagine this headphone as anything less than perfect. Bass thunders in any track actually featuring bass, guitars are crisp and vivid, vocals felt like they are being sung just for you, the highs climb all the way to the top of your head. The soundstaging is wonderful, the detail retrievel is wonderful, listening to lossless quality bootlegs of my favorite band Muse its like I'm actually there, I hear people singing all around me and yet can pick out a person clapping right next to me with the band on stage jamming away, its insane. Spinning up Rage Against the Machine makes me want to get up and smash things, and listening to the wondrous voice of Alison Goldrapp is like having liquid honey poured down my ears. The only way it could get any better is if they installed a subwoofer in these things to deal with all the sub-bass, but that would be excess. Honestly I do wonder how much a tube amp could improve the sound as it is, if only to extend the soundstage a bit perhaps, I do hope my little dot was worth the price, at $600 the PS500 is a definite win.
Grado PS500-$600 (epic win)
Lessons so far
This has been a tremendous learning experience into the world of hi-fi, and its not over yet, here are some things I learned along the way
If you pay for an item as a gift on paypal, you have no way of getting that money should you be ripped off (a special shout out to cand07 for teaching me the hard way!)
Reviews can only do so much, some things can only be understood with your own ears (as my friend learned the firs time he tried a pair of SR60s)
The Grado PS500s are gold, pure gold
Thank crazy Asians for making so many awesome accessories (this is coming from a lover of all things Filipino cuisine)