edit: Wow I was sure rambling there wasn't I? Note to self, do not try to write when hopped up on codeine. So anyhow, the TL;DR version, this is how I originally allocated my headfi spending:
1:2:3 - which are the relative ratios of money spent on dac/amp/headphone
After expanding, I've settled on Fibonacci (somewhat related to the golden ratio):
1:1:2:3:5 for cables/power/DAC/amp/headphones
1:1:2:3:5:8 for tweaks/cables/power/dac/amp/headphones
How about you guys? How do you allocated your head-fi funds?
spoilered for my painkiller induced ramblings (Click to show)
As my wallet-curb-stomping journey into head-fi continues, I am faced with the same fiscal dilemmas that everyone else has come across... How much is enough; where is that point of (acceptable) diminishing returns? and corollary to that, how to divide funds between headphone, amp, etc?
Regarding the first question, I had long held that my point of diminishing returns was half a mortgage payment. It seemed like a reasonable break point. That said, I've clearly broken that rule a few times now. However, while I've heard some improvements in the more expensive gear, I can't say that I am satisfied enough with it to really justify the cost. For me personally the more expensive something is, the pickier I become with the sound, to the extent that I start picking apart the idiosyncrasies instead of listening to the music, which defeats the point of the entire setup in the first place. When my gear costs enough that I constantly wonder whether that money could be better spent elsewhere (groceries, home renos, taking the s.o. for a night out), then I've done something wrong. It's not just a matter of budget, but of comfort.
Now the second part of the equation, and where my thread title derives its name. How to allocate funds between headphone (or speakers), amp, dac, etc? A popular phrase in audiophile circles is "source first", to which I must say... hogwash! Now bear with me just a second, as this requires a deviation into diminishing returns. I'm no so-called expert, but I think I've sat in the pool and drank the cool-aid long enough to have a pretty reasonable grasp of the toys available. I've run through quite a gamut of headphones from dollar store to Stax. My dac and amp journey has been similar, though not quite as extensive. I'm also reasonably versed in the realms of DIY (thinking it'd save money... how wrong I was).
So talking about dacs, in my experience they hit the wall of diminishing returns faster than other components, and they hit it hard. I highly suspect that the majority of differences that people hear in dacs (assuming beyond placebo for the moment) is not really due to the dac itself, but more system interaction (which can directly affect frequency response), power/noise, etc. A dac is converting that digital information into an analog signal, and it should do so cleanly/accurately and with minimal distortion. In my experience, most dacs even in the budget range will do this to satisfaction. I've compared near $1k dacs before, and honestly if I wasn't able to A/B instantaneously between then I would not be able to tell you the difference. Even with the instant switching, it is only listening for very specific passages and repeating it over and over that I will be able to pick them out. Between dacs with a 10x price difference, I've heard differences, and I could probably A/B without instantaneous switching, but it would be difficult. With el-cheapo dacs, usually the indicator is noise and frequency rolloff, so don't bother with those and spend the extra $30 and get something useable. Seriously, you can get great sounding dacs and dac/amps for well under $100 these days. Where I would be willing to put in more money is for functionality such as multiple inputs, ability to handle different bitrates, etc.
Moving onto amps. I've mentioned in some of my reviews before that while I expect dacs to be accurate (the audiophile word here would be transparent), I am ok with amps injecting some colour into the sound. Heck, I may even prefer it if meshes to my tastes. So here are my bare requirements for an amp: provides sufficient voltage gain for my desired listening levels (including headroom for transients), ditto for current, and it does so with minimal distortion and noise (the lower the better obviously). The rest is flavour. That all said, hearing the differences in amps is easier than hearing the difference in dacs. A lot of it comes down to power delivery, frequency response, and damping. Amps that are operating within their limits and with similar output impedances should sound fairly similar driving the same pair of headphones. Again, where I would be willing to put in more money is for aesthetics, build quality, functionality such as preamp outs, etc. Amps that are running well within their limits are difficult for me to A/B. Pushing to higher limits or when we start searching for individual flavour is where I can start picking out different amps, though I won't necessarily be able to say which is "better".
Talking about headphones/speakers: In my experience, spend most of your money here. If money is tight, then spend *all* of your money here, assuming what you get can be "reasonably" driven by the gear you currently have (which is virtually everything except the hefty planar magnetics). Amps should sound reasonably alike assuming you're not going for particular flavouring and are operating within their specified range. Dacs should sound more or less identical. The headphones are where your sound ultimately comes out of and where the changes in sound are most readily apparent.
So anyhow, I'm rambling because I'm sick and only slightly delirious and trying to distract myself from searing back pain. Coming back to the thread title, I originally thought to myself that I should spend my money simply thus...
And by this I mean those values are ratios. If I spend $300 on headphones, then spend up to $200 on the amp, and up to $100 on the dac. But then I thought about it a bit more and it didn't quite seem to fit. So I expanded a bit, and the mathematician in me kicks in and good ol' Fibonacci comes up:
This feels about right. Now some of you may be looking at those first two and wondering if I'm a cable believer. Well, I'm not. But I do like the feel and aesthetics of a well built cable, and I'm willing to pay a small premium for that. I have never conclusively heard a difference between cables (and believe me I've tried) once a cable has been shielded properly, assuming it was even needed it in the first place. I've built my own interconnects and power cords, and even then it's not as cheap as some people may think. Now, I can understand if people would want to pay more for the aesthetics. Some cables are just gosh darned pretty. Well ok in that case spend a bit more if your wallet allows. I personally don't think the sound will change that much (once you've volume matched), but to each their own.
Regarding power... you know what? I think power is one of the most underrated components in an audio system. I don't want to go into specifics, but realize that *everything* is connected to and stems from your power. Now you can't go about redoing the power supply in all your components, but spend some money on a decent surge protector to protect your expensive toys. Maybe get something cheap to help cut down noise in the power line (often integrated directly into the surge protectors themselves). If you're in an environment where you have dirty/inconsistent power, then your requirements will change, but proper power conditioning is *very* expensive. Most cheap-ish power conditioners are really just surge protectors with noise suppression. A real power conditioner is going to be big and heavy and possibly cost more than your entire rig.
Now the funny thing with the golden ratio is that (for me) it seems to hold as I keep moving up and finding extra things to add into the chain...
Tweaks can be anything from little mods, rolling tubes/opamps, etc. Keep them small and simple. If they're costing more than that, I think the money would probably be better spent on upgrading one of the other components instead. Power now moves up a spot and maybe now you've bought an upgraded power supple for the amplifier or something. Everything else still sorta falls in line, with the headphones still taking up the majority of the funds.
Well ok I think my meds are kicking in and I'm feeling loopy. Time to go lie down. Cheers y'all.
Edited by Armaegis - 1/24/13 at 1:39pm