For people interested in any of these components, here's a quick review:
- retina MacBook Pro using Fidelia and ALAC files
- S/P DIF optical output
- Schiit Bifrost DAC
- Icon Audio HP8 MkII headphone amp with upgraded tubes and Jensen Capacitors
- Ultrasone Edition 8 Limited
I was reticent about some of the mix of these components as some people said that tubes don't go well with the ultrasone cans. Others said that the headphones clamped around the head too tightly and the cups were too small for people with big ears. Some said the Schiit DAC was overly bright, etc.
All in all, when I put this system together there was the usual load of audiophile madness to wade through and excluding the Mac, this system comes in not cheap, with cables, Pro version of Fidelia, Icon Audio upgrades and a spare set of tubes, etc. It was around £3,500 ($5,000) to get sound from some headphones.
For that price you could buy some LCD 3s and a cheap (but not too cheap) headphone amp to drive them.
Ok, am I getting value for money, does it all add up to make audio nirvana...
This setup reveals a lot. Needless to say, for this sort of money you immediately get a sense of what is right and wrong about everything, it is ruthless but without rubbing it into your face. So, let's go through my impressions from the start of the chain to the end.
It does offer a good transport system to get the binary spat out into the DAC, it is a substantial upgrade from iTunes in terms of sound quality and is highly recommended. I have not heard Amarra, but have used BitPerfect and some others and for my money Fidelia is the best value for the best quality. The only thing that I struggle with is that lack of a graphical view of the music library, it is a rather bland list of files and makes the experience of selecting your music a little too clinical. One of the great things about iTunes is the way it has options to make exploring your collection more fun, accessible and almost the digital equivalent of flicking through your vinyl collection.
Now, I do not go down the 24-bit 192kHz route for my files, I am afraid. I am an acoustic scientist. I work with inaudible frequencies, using sonar offshore to chart the seabed. This does not mean I am a sound engineer at Abbey Road, but it does mean that I like to have the facts at my finger tips. I want the best possible listening experience of the best possible music, but I also don't like snake oil.
Lossless is important, I can instantly hear the difference between MP3, AAC and ALAC. I can't hear a difference between FLAC and ALAC. Bottom line, all the data needs to be there. However, 44.1kHz and 16-bit enables the accurate encoding of all possible frequencies with as much sound density as the human ear can ever possible discern. The rest of the information in larger resolution files is useful for sound engineering and mastering, but makes no difference at all if the sound engineer knows their job when the 44.1kHz version is rendered and if not, then the recording was probably crap anyway and not worth listening to.
So, I go for ALAC (smaller files than FLAC with the same quality). I go for 16-bit 44.1kHz.
The full fat Fidelia version has some great features that do make a difference. The sound processing, the crossfeed for headphones, etc. all add up to make a good piece of software giving you control over how well the file is read, processed and streamed out to the DAC. If they do some more to make choosing what you're listening to more fun it would be perfect.
So, this takes us to the...
I live in the UK and Schiit is virtually unknown over here. I guess it's not that well known in the US either. So, I read all the reviews I could, I read between the lines and tried to source a Schiit DAC in the UK. I found 3 for sale in the whole country and at a premium, but, after you factor in the import duties, the risk of damage or loss in transit (which is too common for good coming from the US I have noticed) and the extra week or two for it to arrive, the premium I judged to be worth it.
I read one review about the Schiit DAC being used in a full sized HiFi system and the reviewer stated that the DAC sounds bright at first. Funnily enough, it did. There was a coating of metal around the treble. For anyone that has bought a new Mac and unpacked it, they will be familiar with that smell of metal, it is unmistakable and the sound was like that. Yet, after just a few hours of play this faded.
Also, I was a little sceptical about what kind of a noticeable difference the DAC could make. The difference is huge. I guess it all comes down to timing. A good DAC takes the bit stream and converts it into an analogue signal in a way that your ears can hear in terms of the sense of timing and clarity. The bit information is converted with enough precision and clarity to ensure that every note and nuance is accurately conveyed at precisely the right moment and this clarity in timing means the music sounds less muddy, less confused. Basically, it presents to analogue signal in the best possible way and it does make a difference.
The Schiit DAC does this incredibly confidently. I have now been listening to this system for a week and been letting music play through the system 24/7 even when I am not around or using it. The burn in makes a big difference with this DAC somehow and you can hear it. The sonority improves hour by hour. It is becoming cleaner, clearer, more melodious and that metallic dustiness has almost totally disappeared. I rate this DAC very highly.
On a more practical note, it is built very solidly. It feels industrial and like it will last me decades, no problem.
Icon Audio HP8 MkII
While the Schiit is made by some guys in the USA and has that made in the USA kind of feel, almost like a DAC made during an episode of American Chopper, the Icon Audio has kind of a made by a guy in a shed in the Midlands feel. It is solid, it is a brick of metal, it will also last a lifetime and it shows, but it has a quality of an old physics teacher tinkering in his back yard with pieces of electric vintage equipment to come up with the perfect bit of kit and I love the look of it for that simple reason. It is undoubtedly made to last, so no worries there.
To be honest, the HP8 MkII has the power to drive any set of headphones I know of and the Ultrasones are very low impedance, so this amp is very powerful and could probably turn the headphones into molten slag inside of a minute if I pushed the amp up.
The volume is at around 25-30% of the lowest setting and this is plenty loud enough. The good thing about this is that the amp will be futureproof against all my future headphone purchases (we all know we can't stop spending on new toys). It probably means the vacuum tubes will last a lot longer as they won't be running so hot or hard. It also means I now have an excuse to go and buy some high impedance headphones at some point... Any suggestions?
The definition of the perfect amp, in theory, is a straight wire with gain. Reality normally gets in the way, but not much in this case. The clarity and depth of presentation, the broad soundstage, all of it comes through. The system sounds black and the notes come out like stars twinkling in an inky void sky. There is a little hint of the valve warmth, but this just serves to work with the Schiit mechanical precision of delivery to make what could have been overly clinical into a musical experience.
They work very well together and I end up getting a nice signal into the ultrasones.
Ultrasone Edition 8 Limited
A lot has been mentioned about the Limited, are they better, are they different, etc. I don't know, but I like the box, I like the little touch of wood, I like the brown leather. So, for me it's working well and seeing as these are limited to 888 and mine came direct from the factory last week and is number 822 it seems a lot of other people are happy to buy them as well. To be honest, the box feels a little less well made than I would have liked for the money, but I won't be using it much and it's just there on the shelf. It's a minor consideration. Seeing as they are designed as portable headphones a more travel focused box would have been a lot more desirable and I reckon almost everyone would agree on that. I work at sea 6 months a year and so I have had to buy a small peli case for the headphones. To be honest, I like peli cases and can use it for all of my fragile high end stuff and so it's okay for me.
Now, I was concerned about the fit and comfort as a lot of people have mentioned this in their reviews. I have a wide head and large ears, so it was a particular concern for me. NO PROBLEM! What are you lot whining about? I can wear these for hour after hour and they are very comfortable. I even often forget I am wearing them. So, not an issue, man up and get with the programme. These are closed cup, they isolate externalities and need to seal to perform. These do that well and comfortably.
I have not used them travelling yet, I fly a lot and have been using the Denon noise cancelling headphones for the last year or so and these have been great for their purpose, but the broke during my last trip and so this is why I went for the Ultrasones, meant to be about the best closed cups on the market with the best sound isolation, etc.
Well, even with the metal tinged DAC, from the first instant the quality is apparent. You absolutely need to ensure you listen to a good quality sound file as they are ruthless to MP3s, the headphones just shred them and leaves their thin whispers of information hanging limply in the air making you wonder where the music has gone.
However, feed in a well recorded, well produced piece of music and everything comes alive at once.
They are not overly bassy as some people have suggested, but the bass is not leaving you wanting more, a bass heavy piece of music will be delivered with an overwhelming sense of power for a set of cans. But this is not muddy bass, this is open and transparent and doesn't seem like closed cans should be able to do this, but somehow they do.
It is so effective I have thought the low frequencies were coming from my sub woofer that I use when I on the speakers rather than the headphones. I have taken off the headphones looking to see if the sub woofer was turned on and it never is... Excellent.
Does this bass come at the expense of the mids or higher tones... NOT AT ALL!
Every single frequency is faultlessly provided across the full spectrum, but it's not just this ability for the headphones to reproduce everything well that makes them worth the money, it's the soundstage that makes it all worth the money.
No matter how complex the music being fed into the cans (I have quite a broad taste) from full symphonies of Beethoven or Stravinsky right through to psy-trance albums like Fahrenheit Project, or simpler tunes like Mazzy Star's Mary of Silence or Leo Abraham's The Grape and The Grain album the music floods out and every single element of it seems to have boundless space around itself, enabling you to give it a little personal attention. This much vaunted S-Logic system they incorporate does seem to be the reason for this overwhelming sense of space around the music. It works very well in my opinion and is very audible in a great way.
Overall, the combination of clinically efficient DAC, powerful and under-utilised tube amp and these headphones seems to work magically together. Loving it so far and hopefully for years to come.