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Lessons from a HiFi Noob in DAC / Amp Hell (DT-880 600 ohm)

post #1 of 23
Thread Starter 

Hi dudes,

 

I figure all the pain and research I've gone through can be helpful to someone, so here goes:

 

---

 

Chapter 1: How it all began:

 

I bought some DT-880 600 ohm's to upgrade from my ATH M-50's on Amazon for $245 thinking I just landed myself a steal. I have spent a lot more than that on gear since. 

 

TLDR; Lesson 1: the cost of HiFi extends far beyond a nice pair of headphones. 

 

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Chapter 2: Introduction to HiFi:

 

I received my DT-880's with a FiiO E9K on a cool January night. I plugged them into my home PC through a Xonar DX soundcard. My head exploded. The sound-stage was unlike anything I've experienced. I describe it as a "big bubble of sound" surrounding my head. I lost many hours just sitting there listening to music and experiencing it. 

 

The next day I took them to work and two things happened: first, it sounded like flat crunchy crap through my work iMac. Second, the E9K stopped turning on.

 

TLDR; Lesson 2: onboard sound sucks, even with an Apple product.

 

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Chapter 3: Amp's and DAC's:

 

For those that don't know, a DAC is basically an external sound-card to bypass your crappy onboard sound. If you have an Apple computer you basically NEED one since you can't upgrade your sound card to something decent and affordable like a Xonar DX ($80) or STX ($180).

 

My amp dying actually provided me with an opportunity to upgrade to something not made in China, so I thought that was a mixed blessing. Also Amazon's return policy for defective items is awesome (they pay return shipping).

 

I read a lot here about Schiit, so I bought the Modi / Magni combo, and received that Schiit two days later. 

 

The Magni has been great, although from my memory slightly "softer" than the E9K with a slightly smaller sound-stage. For the money I'd highly recommend it. 

 

My co-worker actually demanded to buy it from me after listening to his music (without a DAC) and loving the difference it made. He was coming from despair after realizing his previous amp (ART HeadAmp4) was filtering out the high-end after above 15k.

 

The Modi was my first introduction to a DAC, and I thought it sounded... wrong. There was this inclusion of more bass than should exist and instead of a wide sound-stage I felt like I was being force-fed a thick mass of sound. Highs also had a "crunch" and I felt that everything lacked detail. Spaciousness requires silence and what came out of the Modi was just weird.

 

HOWEVER - this sound was still significantly better than the onboard iMac audio. It was just not comparable to the Xonar DX.

 

TLDR; Lesson 3: Xonar makes pretty good sound cards and use pretty decent DAC's. A good DAC makes a big difference.

TLDR; Lesson 4: A good amp makes a difference even without a DAC. A bad amp will make your sound even worse than no amp.

 

 

---

 

Chapter 4: DAC's are expensive:

 

A good DAC tends to run between $350-450 from common suggestions (DacMagic, V-DAC, BitFrost), and I found this pricing to be absurd considering how my $80 Xonar DX left me quite content. So at this point I was considering either selling my DT-880's and never listening to music again or putting a giant PC under my desk with a new DX to use as my music box. 

 

Highly rated DAC's in a 'reasonable' price range were the Audioengine D1 ($170), JDS ODAC ($150), and HRT Music Streamer II ($150). I decided against the D1 because it uses the same chip as the Modi, and against the ODAC because many reviews considered it "slightly harsh" on the high-end which I am sensitive to. 

 

So I got the HRT Music Streamer II.

 

TLDR; Lesson 5: DAC's are expensive.

 

---

 

Chapter 5: Software Decoding:

 

Pairing the Magni with the MS II, sound felt more accurate and the sound-stage wider than the Modi, but there was still the high-end "crunch" and less detail than the Xonar DX. 

 

That made me sad.

 

However, I remembered reading about how software audio decoding is the devil, but there was a lot of dispute as to whether or not people claiming that products like BitPerfect, PureMusic, Fidelity, or Audirvana actually made a difference. So I read up on what people thought of the different products and for the money Audirvana seemed to be the best of the bunch.

 

I downloaded a trial of Audirvana, which integrates with iTunes or functions as its own media player. It makes a HUGE difference. If you can't tell, then either Apple computers are just plain garbage, you already have a good sound card, you are listening to 128 kbps music, or you are running some junk headphone equipment. 

 

The only downside of something like Audirvana is that it claims your entire sound channel, so no other programs can make a peep if you are listening to music. 

 

TLDR; Lesson 6: Software decoding ruins audio quality. Get something like Audirvana.

 

---

 

Chapter 6: I am going to end up spending a lot more money:

 

I bought a JDS O2 Amp to replace the Magni that my co-worker is planning on buying from me. I'm not sure that I love it. I might get a valhalla. My wallet hurts.

 

To be continued?

 

---

 

Conclusion:

 

In order to make the best of your computer's audio, you need the following:

 

1) A decent DAC (whether sound-card or external).

2) A decent Amp

3) If on OSX, something like Audirvana to bypass Apple's Audio decoder. 

 

---

 

I hope this was helpful!

post #2 of 23
Quote:
Originally Posted by maskedbacon View Post

 

Conclusion:

 

In order to make the best of your computer's audio, you need the following:

 

1) A decent DAC (whether sound-card or external).

2) A decent Amp

3) If on OSX, something like Audirvana to bypass Apple's Audio decoder. 

 

---

 

I hope this was helpful!

 

Very interesting and funny post!

 

My path has been slightly different, but somewhat less expensive (so far): Laptop + ELE DAC ($20) + E11 + ATH AD900X. The ELE DAC + ATH AD900X to my ear sounds phenomenal, but the E11 adds a bit of a veil. So I now have the E12 on the way, and it apparently mates well with the ad900x. It probably is only a matter of time though until I start falling prey to more expensive DACs!

post #3 of 23

I've been amazed at the sound of my little cheap azz ELE. Would love to hear it next to Hifimediy's offering. Still holding off on an amp for the time being but that will happen soon. And I agree about Xonar sound cards. The old DG is simply amazing (with new non-Asus drivers) for it's cost.

post #4 of 23
Quote:

My wallet hurts.

 

I know that feeling. At least our ears feel good.

post #5 of 23

Great write-up maskedbacon. You make some good points.

 

I've had the same experience with my MS2 on Windows-- It sounds best through ASIO (which avoids the Windows kernel & sound mixer, similar to what you've described with Audirvana on Mac). I had heard that using something like ASIO on Mac wasn't necessary but that obviously isn't the case. I'm glad you figured that out so you could get the best sound out of your new equipment.

 

Congrats on the new gear and good luck as you travel further down the road of Audiophile. Right now I'm mulling over a potential tube amplifier and after that I may upgrade my DAC to something with 24/192 and additional balanced outputs.


But I'm in no rush. The MS2 is a good example of how you can get great audio without spending and arm and a leg.

 

Cheers,

Devin

post #6 of 23
Quote:
Originally Posted by maskedbacon View Post

Conclusion:

 

In order to make the best of your computer's audio, you need the following:

 

 

Heya,

 

I would actually say to make the best of your audio in general, all you need is actually experience with your ears.

 

Having a good quality DAC, amplifier, power source, etc, all is great and fine. But you do not need robust high end equipment honestly to get the most out of audio. Having really high quality music that is not compressed poorly, or rendered out poorly, and a great pair of highly resolving and full range competent headphones are the two biggest hurdles in getting the best sounding audio. From there, the DAC/AMP/Source equipment used is going to make some small differences, but not nearly as night and day as the difference between poorly produced/encoded/rendered music media and a quality headphone.

 

I would actually suggest, even though it's too late, that you listened to the Magni/Modi setup from a PC instead of a MAC and using something other than iTunes, to see if you hear a difference from the same hardware setup, but coming from a different set of drivers for the USB of the Modi and a difference of the software and how it is handled (as well as the container compression of your media). I'm afraid you might have heard something different perhaps even though the hardware is the same, simply from a different digital source.

 

Yes it's expensive. But a good headphone setup is very affordable for a high fidelity setup, compared to even an entry level speaker setup (which is superior in my opinion) and much more reasonable if portability, intimacy, etc, are more important.

 

Also, don't ever discount the use of an equalizer. You'll spend tons of money changing equipment just to achieve, potentially, what a minor tweak in equalization can do. And that's free, Jack.

 

Very best,

post #7 of 23
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by MalVeauX View Post

I would actually suggest, even though it's too late, that you listened to the Magni/Modi setup from a PC instead of a MAC and using something other than iTunes, to see if you hear a difference from the same hardware setup, but coming from a different set of drivers for the USB of the Modi and a difference of the software and how it is handled (as well as the container compression of your media). I'm afraid you might have heard something different perhaps even though the hardware is the same, simply from a different digital source.

 

I regret not doing this. At the time I had no idea how much of a difference the software decoding had made.

post #8 of 23
Quote:
Originally Posted by maskedbacon View Post

 

I regret not doing this. At the time I had no idea how much of a difference the software decoding had made.

 

It's experience at the end of the day. And that's part of the fun of the journey.

 

Just costs money unfortunately sometimes.

 

Very best,

post #9 of 23

Can't say I really agree about Audirvana makes a ''HUGE'' difference.  It sounds completely indistinguishable to iTunes to me.

post #10 of 23
Quote:
Originally Posted by MalVeauX View Post

 

using something other than iTunes

 

While I'm not the OP, I didn't know that using iTunes, even with lossless audio files, wasn't as good as other options. What would you suggest using?

post #11 of 23
Quote:
Originally Posted by Koerhijo View Post

 

While I'm not the OP, I didn't know that using iTunes, even with lossless audio files, wasn't as good as other options. What would you suggest using?

 

Heya,

 

That's not what was said. What was suggested was to simply try alternative sources with his Modi to figure out if it was an issue with Mac, Windows, Linux, etc, anything he's using, and how it played with the USB drivers or how a piece of software can interact with that. You'd be surprised how this stuff can alter what ends up going to your DAC.

 

Very best,

post #12 of 23
Quote:
Originally Posted by MalVeauX View Post

 

Heya,

 

That's not what was said. What was suggested was to simply try alternative sources with his Modi to figure out if it was an issue with Mac, Windows, Linux, etc, anything he's using, and how it played with the USB drivers or how a piece of software can interact with that. You'd be surprised how this stuff can alter what ends up going to your DAC.

 

Very best,

Ah, thanks for correcting my misunderstanding.

post #13 of 23
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by Koerhijo View Post

 

While I'm not the OP, I didn't know that using iTunes, even with lossless audio files, wasn't as good as other options. What would you suggest using?

 

When using a computer as your music source, your audio files go through two levels of translation that can decrease the final quality of the sound.

 

Here's (roughly) the path from sound file to final output:

 

Sound File -> OS Software Audio Mixer/Decoder -> Audio Hardware -> Output

 

So there're a couple of things you need to think about to get the best quality sound. 

 

Note that you may need a DAC to make the best of the sound coming out of your computer. A DAC replaces the need to use your computer's internal sound card.

 

On Apple OSX, running software like Audirvana integrates with iTunes (most of these 'audiophile' programs do) and uses your DAC's integer mode to bypass the OS Audio Mixer/Decoder. 

 

You can read more about that kind of thing here: http://www.headfonia.com/os-x-audio-players-amarra-audirvana-pure-music-fidelia-decibel-and-bitperfect/

 

On a PC, I have not tried any software to bypass the OS Mixer/Decoder although it seems to be better than OSX's from the limited testing I did. However, on a PC you can upgrade your sound card to something decent like a Xonar and not need an external DAC to get good audio quality.


Edited by maskedbacon - 2/19/13 at 10:32am
post #14 of 23

Hilarious read :) I was in the same situation as you last year. I think the real lesson to learn is to not let little technical flaws bother you, and just enjoy what setup sounds best to you. Sounds like you were pretty happy with Xonar DX>Fiio E09k>Beyers, so why not stick with that? (Yes, you have better gear now though wink.gif )

post #15 of 23

My lesson is that "sampler" Dac/Amps just get in the way of what you should do from the start... just BUY the more expensive stuff because you'll want to upgrade anyways. They're not even gateway drugs. They're one hitters that you want to upgrade almost immediately after getting it because it doesn't satisfy the craving. ;) Example, my E10 lasted maybe a month and now I'm on the E17 but I've been looking at the HRTs because the E17 doesn't do it. :X I might just spring for the Meridian and scale back (hopefully *crosses fingers* haha yeah right.). 

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