Greetings all. For your consideration, a comparison if you will, between two budget-fi amps, and two budget-fi DACs. I know, words like Frugal (nay, even Cheap) rarely creep into the verbiage of those who frequent these forums. So this may be something of a farce, for certain denizens of this realm. So Be It. I am willing to accept the flames and rejection of those from the clan Summit-Fi. I am here to speak to those among us who have (or want to) begin their journey into Head-Fi gently, peacefully, and most importantly, without the expenditure of Cubic Dollars.
I began my own journey into this realm by way of breaking some old Sony MDR NC40 cans, that I used with an iPod shuffle for some 5-odd years. Compared to the stock ear buds, they were an improvement. For a long time, I didn't know any better. I didn't listen to anything else. They suited my purposes, and Life Was Good. But then they broke, and I needed something new. I wanted something better.
Comparisons of sound quality have a way of being, shall we say, individual. Subjective. Temporal. Ethereal. Did I Say, Subjective? The mind plays tricks. It also forgets rather quickly. What sounds good one day, doesn't the next. And when one is introduced to better sound quality, Pandora's Box is opened. We cannot live with what we think now sounds inferior - we must have The New Amp. The New DAC. The New Cans. In this sense, the search for sound quality only moves forward. Or so we think it does.
I discovered Head-Fi, and started diving in. I bought new cans, a new amp, which didn't last very long. And so my journey began. I am a believer in the Law of Diminishing Returns. As such, I know there comes a point where improvements become small, compared to the money spent to obtain them. At the low end of the Hi Fi scale, quality seems to be all over the map, and price doesn't necessarily equate to better quality. Having to live on a budget also limits the ability to Experiment (which is difficult for engineers like me). But, experiment I do. Things I try. I don't always buy what everyone else is buying. Sometimes things sound better, sometimes not. I've done enough experimenting now to offer a small comparison to my fellow travelers, for what it's worth.
As always, this missive is the sole opinion of its author, and is entirely subjective, open to interpretation, and may be utterly and completely wrong for anyone else. I may be posting this in the wrong spot, but I tried to pick something logical. Please forgive my errors, for I am only human. The intent is to compare both amps and both DACS, so this could go into either the amp or source forum.
So, I bring you to my latest foray into my personal adventure in discovering better Sound Quality. The gear I compared is normally used in two different locations on most days (home and work). Because the setups are physically separated, and I don't listen to them back to back, it is easy to ignore certain aspects of sound quality. Or perhaps I am lazy.
As specified, the only mods to this setup is a nice 1958 Blackburn Mullard tube in the Bravo V2, and the Beyer earpad mod on the Sony cans. My general impression of these two setups prior to my comparison: The Schiit Stack on the DT770s is my "best" setup, has the best response, the deepest bass, and is honestly the best audio setup I've ever owned. The components of the work setup are by necessity, since I can't plug into my work computer. The Pure i-20 DAC is a recent experiment in attempting to wrest better quality out of a plain iPod driving a Bravo V2 amp. The Sony cans replaced a set of ATH M40fs cans that I liked then disliked in the space of about a month.
To be honest, I've rolled a whole bunch of tubes in this Bravo V2 hybrid amp. Yes, I know, some will chuckle at that effort. I know, it's a bit silly for a budget-fi setup, but I could not resist the urge to experiment. Without the Pure i-20 inline, there is a need for more clarity, and the GE 5-star 5963 tube or the Telefunken ECC82 sound the best. With the Pure i-20 inline, the screechy high end needs taming, so a 1950's vintage Mullard is the best choice. I don't want to get ahead of myself, but I just wanted to indicate why I chose the Mullard.
I also chose to use just the Sony MDR 7506 cans for the comparison, because it seemed to me that both amps drove them properly. My initial impression of the DT770's on the Bravo V2 led me to believe this. See the epilogue below for a curious side effect of this choice.
Here I chose personal favorites that are both new and old. My original set was about four times this size, but I whittled it down to 5 numbers. Each of these brings out a different aspect of sound quality to me. I listen to them all regularly. These are identified below by number and throughout the comparison.
1) Andreas Vollenweider, Book of Roses: In Doga Gamee (An amazing recording even for it's age, lovely strings, fast piano work)
2) Pat Metheney, One Quiet Night: Ferry across the Mercy (Just flat out lovely guitar, can hear the instrument worked heavily in this tune)
3) Lindsey Stirling: We Found Love (single) (Chosen for the really low drums, and a nice vocal+violin recording without the overpowering electronics)
4) Seether, Finding Beauty in Negative Spaces: Like Suicide (a crunchy rock number with lots of distortion)
5) Led Zeppelin, Celebration Day (Live): No Quarter (one of the better live recordings I've ever heard, never mind it's really Led Zeppelin!)
The first two are apple lossless, the rest are 256 Kbps AAC. Sorry, it's what I had on hand. I hope my reasons for choosing these recordings will become obvious as I review them below. When I originally posted pieces of this in the Bravo forum, I didn't post the songs in the order played. This time I will post these all in the order they were played, specifying the amp/dac combinations for each.
I decided to play each song on each setup back to back, and write my impressions as I listen. So, #1 is played twice, once on each setup, then #2 is played twice, etc, and I wrote as I listened. After finishing the set, I switch the setups around and repeat.
Gear setup #1: I begin with the i-20 driving the Bravo, and the Modi driving the Magni first. I play all 5 songs twice, after which I will swap the amps and dacs then repeat the exercise. Also note, the iPod nano is always driving the Pure i-20, and my laptop is always driving the Schiit Modi, regardless of which amp is inline.
Pure i-20 -> Bravo
1) The piano is dynamic and bright. Bass guitar is prominent, sounds quite nice for a set of cans not known for bass response. Guitar is a bit hidden by the piano and drums. The flute is a bit overwhelmed by the rest, but comes out plainly enough. Oboe sound is very sweet. Not sure what AW is playing in this tune, but all the string instruments are well presented (they do all seem to be competing with each other). The drums are actually a bit too loud. When the harmonica comes in, it seems overly loud. The system responds to the speed of the piano well. This album in general sounds very sweet on the Bravo with the Mullard, a good example of why people like tubes.
Modi -> Magni
1) The piano is a bit less bright, but still has speedy response on this setup. Bass guitar notes are just as pronounced on this setup, also nice on these cans. The drums do not seem quite as overwhelming. The guitar and other strings do not stand out quite as much as they did on the tube. The oboe sound is also not quite as sweet sounding. Flute seems to stand out a bit more on this setup, as does the guitar. That damn harmonica is still too loud lol, but a little less annoying on the M+M. The vocals sound quite different: I'd have to say a bit veiled. Overall the song is a bit more clinical sounding, but not by leaps and bounds. It's less dynamic but more balanced.
Pure i-20 -> Bravo
2) The bass notes on the acoustic guitar in the opening sequence almost seem a bit boomy. What I like about this song is you can hear PM working the guitar clearly on every note. The higher notes come through with a lot of clarity and beauty. This is a man making love to a guitar, as much as he is playing it. It is amazing to listen to how the guitar is worked in this song, and the tube amp just makes that come through with a lot of dynamic and soul.
Modi -> Magni
2) The opening low notes are still boomy on the M+M stack. The working of the guitar, while still audible, is not as clear or dynamic on the solid state setup. The high notes are still clear and beautiful, but they're just a bit veiled in comparison to the tube. The recording comes across as less dynamic in general. This is still a man making love to a guitar, but he's behind a curtain on this recording (as opposed to standing right in your face).
Pure i-20 -> Bravo
3) The song starts with some ungodly low drum beats, which are on the verge of rattling my skull. The vocals in this song range the entire scale, and my lord they are sweet. The woman singing the lead part is a bit louder than she should be, but maybe I've just got it cranked up too far lol :) Lindsey's violin playing is subdued but still sweet in this song (she's usually surrounded by a lot of electronic keyboarding and drums, not so here). The real star in this song are the drums and African inspired vocals: very very nice, accurate, and dare I say, tubey.
Modi -> Magni
3) The drums that begin the song are just as dynamic and booming on the M+M stack. The female lead vocal sounds like she's standing next to me this time. Lindsey's violin seems to be farther in the background. Turning down the volume a bit lol. The other vocals are less pronounced on this recording, while the lead singer seems to stand out more, very curious. The drum break in the middle of the song sounds a bit more clinical this time. Definitely not tubey sounding, but very clear, accurate, pretty.
Pure i-20 -> Bravo
4) Electric guitar seems to be noisy from the start. Drums are pronounced, bass guitar is very impressive. When the chorus starts, I hear something harsh enough (presuming electric guitar noise) to make me turn the volume down. I'm not sure what it is, but this is some of the harshness the Pure i-20 produces when playing songs with a lot of guitar distortion. I want to turn it up but the harshness makes me turn it back down. This makes me want to just listen to the ipod alone.
Modi -> Magni
4) Electric guitar noise still present in opening sequence. Bass guitar and drums come in sounding solid. Vocals are not as harsh. When the chorus hits, I am not overwhelmed with the harshness present on the Pure/Bravo setup. I can still crank this song up and listen to it with some volume. IMO the M+M stack is superior to the tube amp on this recording, because it's just not nearly as harsh and bright.
Pure i-20 -> Bravo
5) This song, as the rest of the recording, is a little bit of nirvana for those of us who grew up in the 70s and/or listened to a lot of Led Zeppelin. After 1980 we never thought we'd hear the band play live again, and though they tried a couple times, they never really succeeded until 2007, with this live set. These guys can still play, and you'd never know you're listening to a bunch of 65-ish year olds. Jason Bonham is every bit the drummer his father was, and what an event this had to be for him. This particular song showcases each musician in one way or another, and it just comes across as very pretty, very lovely, and absolutely live sounding, especially the jazzy break in the middle of the song. Considering most of the rest of Led Zeppelin's music was recorded over 30 years ago, the sound of this recording is awesome in comparison.
Modi -> Magni
5) As the song starts with the keyboard, its very difficult to discern any difference in quality between the setups. Probably due to the live recording. When the drums and guitar kicks in, it sounds pretty similar to the tube setup. Very hard to hear much difference in this case. If anything, the M+M stack comes across a bit cleaner. I think I can pick up more detail in Plant's voice and Page's guitar than the other setup. The jazzy break in the middle of the song sounds pretty damn sweet either way. Yes, I do believe I like this song better on the M+M stack.
Gear Setup #2: Now I switched things around. This is where it gets even more interesting.
Caveat: This took place on a different night than the first set, because it took a long time, it was a weeknight, and I was tired.
The Pure i-20 is now driving the Schiit Magni amp, and the Schiit Modi is now driving the Bravo V2 amp.
First I play a song on the Modi->Bravo, then the same song on the Pure->Magni, then move on to the next.
Modi -> Bravo
1) As I fired this song up, I had to do a double take and make sure I had it set up correctly. I am amazed at what I am hearing. I listened all the way through the song and decided to switch back to the Pure i-20 -> Bravo setup, just to make sure. The Pure i-20 drives the Bravo harder than the Modi for the same volume settings. When I bump the Bravo volume up using the Modi to what sounds like an equal setting, what I hear is a better balance of sound, lower bass notes, cleaner high end, and no sharp brightness in the high frequencies. The annoying harshness simply is not there, using the Modi to drive the Bravo. Oh, what a joy. The difference is not night and day - but it is there. Now I'm bummed, lol, because I can't listen to this setup at work.
Pure i-20 -> Magni
1) I had to drop the volume control down about 20% as soon as I started the song. Yes, the song is rough around the edges, as it were, coming through the Pure i-20. The Magni can't mask that harshness, it just amplifies it. I had to keep turning the volume down as I listened. Especially when the harmonica kicked in, good lord lol. The volume control is backed down to 9:30 or so, which is a lot lower than I usually run my Magni (which is usually set around 12-1 o'clock). Amazing. Yes, the harshness definitely followed the DAC. The verdict is pretty clear at this point.
Modi -> Bravo
2) This is a damn pretty song on this combo. The working of the guitar I described in the previous comparison is still quite audible, but the strings don't "screech" quite as much as I listen. This is in line with my other observations: The sound reproduction of the Modi is accurate but smoother than the Pure i-20, and I'm not having to listen to artificial harshness in the music.
Pure i-20 -> Magni
2) My immediate impression is the sound of the guitar strings remind me of being "plucked" instead of strummed. There is a certain "twang" in the tone present in the Pure i-20, that isn't there on the Modi. Every time PM hits a single note, that twang is what I'm hearing. It's distracting. The nature of this song went from a lovely solo guitar to an exercise in twanginess lol. It's not a huge difference, again this is on the subtle side. But it's noticeable. And I had to notch down the volume again.
Modi -> Bravo
3) The opening drum beat is just effing marvelous lol. It's almost like sitting in the front row of a theater with Sensurround speakers (remember those?) Had to notch the volume down a teeny bit. The lead vocal is a bit bright. A bit brighter than I like, so I adjust volume a bit. I am amazed at the low frequency response I'm hearing on the drum solo in the middle of the song, on these Sony cans. Not quite like my Beyers, but damn close.
Pure i-20 -> Magni
3) Opening drum beat is just as impressive here, but wow when the lead vocal kicks in, I'm dropping the volume control again. The backing vocals are now producing an annoying hiss whenever an "ess" sound is being sung. There's the harshness of the i-20 again, I suppose. It goes away if I back down the volume some, but then I'm giving up some of the sound I wanted.
Modi -> Bravo
4) Yeah, I can listen to the chorus on this song without adjusting the volume down, with the Modi driving the Bravo. And that lovely guitar distortion is nice and crunchy ... yeah, that's why I wanted to listen to a tube. I like my distortion un-distorted, LOL. Does that make sense? Gawd I hope it does, because that's what it sure seems like. I can just listen to this song without futzing with the volume control. Nice.
Pure i-20 -> Magni
4) I'm cringing as I wait for the chorus to hit... then I remember I had it turned down from the previous song. Ok. So, I just have to keep the volume down to a certain level using the Pure i-20, because if it goes up too high, it just starts becoming annoying. Anything with an "ess" sound to it, and certain types of guitar distortion, are just annoying on the Pure i-20. It's just a distraction from everything else.
Modi -> Bravo
5) There's a definite trend going on: I keep turning the Modi-Bravo combination up, cuz it sounds good, and the Pure-Magni combination down, so I can tolerate it. The Modi-Bravo does get a little boomy on this song if I go too far up on the volume. The jazzy part in the middle of this song sounds so nice though. I can hear Jason tapping on some cymbals during the piano solo that I hadn't heard before. It's up high enough to hear detail without being annoying - that's the bottom line for the Modi-Bravo combination. Yeah. And I continue to be impressed by the Sony MDR 7506 cans.
Pure i-20 -> Magni
5) The Magni is turned down enough by this point to make listening to this sound enjoyable, but I'm not cranking anything up. It just isn't quite as nice as the other setup. Not a huge difference, but it is limiting. What a shame. On the other hand, for budget Hi-fi, maybe this isn't so bad.
The Modi DAC is clearly superior to the Pure i-20. It is smooth and accurate, regardless of which amplifier it is driving. Plug it into even a cheap hybrid tube amp like the Bravo V2, and you will hear some really nice, tubey music, assuming of course you pick the right music, heh. This exercise has also proven to me that there really is a need for different types of amplifiers for different types of music, and this effect is noticeable even with budget hi fi.
I continue to have mixed feelings about the Pure i-20. It is BRIGHT. I mean, take Fran Drescher, give her a bullhorn, turn the 10kHz-15kHz EQ up about 10 dB, and that's what it sounds like at the listening volume I like (which is on the loud side). If you turn it down to a quiet level, the brightness isn't so pronounced. It brings a lot of detail as long as you're at lower volumes. But even then, I have come home with my ears ringing too many times. I'm now using a 30-pin to RCA connector out of my iPod to the Bravo V2 at work, and that is good enough. No, it's not quite as clear. But it's also not so bright. And I don't come home with my ears ringing either. So for me, the Pure i-20 feels like it's on the way out of my collection.
I was also just really astounded at the sonic quality of an unmodified Bravo V2 with a vintage Mullard tube in it, with the Schiit Modi driving it. Yes, I know, lots of people like to mod this little amp, and one day I may take a shot at that too. But I'm naturally lazy LOL, so I really like just unplugging a tube and trying another one. I picked the Mullard because I am really sure lots of people know what they sound like, but I must say that the quality of many of the vintage tubes I have tried are also perfectly fine for a budget setup like this. I did not pay a lot for this Mullard (it is well used), and I would not recommend anyone going out to pay $50 bucks for a high testing NOS tube... absolutely any 60's vintage long grey plate 12AU7 or 5963 tube sounds just great in this little amp. The differences between tubes are very hard to notice (though I am sure they'd be more obvious with a better amp).
What really impresses me is the quality of all of this gear. Even the Pure i-20 is passable if you don't crank the volume control up too high. During the days I had all my gear home for the comparison, I was using my old Sony MDR NC-40 and an iPod shuffle at work, because I didn't want to keep trucking this stuff back and forth. The sonic difference between that setup and any of this gear is astounding LOL. I am nit picking in comparison to the difference of that setup. I could live with just using the Sony MDR 7506 cans and a plain iPod if I had to, that would be a lot better all by itself. The Pure i-20 becomes annoying when I crank the volume up to the level I like (being a former musician, that level is rather high). But by itself it does make a nice stand to hold my iPod on my desk at work, and I can't listen to loud music all day long anyway.
There is no reason to purchase a Pure i-20 unless you require a standalone source like an iPod, and you want to hook it into an exterior amp or another DAC, or perhaps watch some video should you have an iPod with video on it (I did not test this feature). My sole reason for purchasing the Pure i-20 was to bypass the iPod's internal DAC and plumb it into an amp, hoping for improved sound quality. At this juncture I am wishing I had purchased the Nuforce Icon Ido, hoping that the DAC in that unit would not be so bright and screechy. But that's $150 bucks that I am not going to spend. Perhaps my advice will spare someone else the expense of this mistake. It would have been perfectly acceptable to just plumb my iPod directly into the Bravo.
Another curious thing I noted, was that my Magni seemed to be running hotter when the Pure i-20 was driving it. I didn't try to swap DACs and compare the temperatures, I just remember when I usually shut the amp down, it's never running this warm, when the Modi is driving it. Based on my earlier observation that the Pure drove the Magni harder than the Modi did, I'm guessing this is a side effect. So the Pure is producing higher output than the Modi. Pity that it's not better quality.
The Sony MDR 7506 using the Beyer earpad mod has really impressed me over the course of this experiment. I continue to be astounded at the low frequency production of these cans, especially given their frequency response (they show quite a dip on the low end on headphone.com). Some think the Beyer earpads improve low frequency response. I can't argue with that. They sure do sound good.
After the review, I returned my gear to it's normal places, and resumed my daily listening. Much to my surprise, my Beyer cans no longer produced the amazing bass I had become used to. The Sony cans sounded better! I questioned a few of our fellow travelers about what I might be hearing. I did not get any conclusive replies. Something in my perceptions of my gear had changed, and changed rather dramatically.
I used the Sony cans in the review because the Bravo V2 did not seem to drive the DT770's properly. What I mean by that is, the bass response sounded dramatically weaker, and the top end not as punchy. But now, none of what I listen to sounds the same. It is as if this comparison has shuffled my perceptions. Can my ears really have changed? Can my brain have adjusted to these different sounds? And not in a good way?
It was then I remembered something I've read in the sound science forum, in association with discussions of burn-in (or the perception of it). Some people swear the sound of their gear changes over time as they listen to it. Some do not. Some people claim that burn in is something that exists only in our minds. I am offering proof of this last statement: nothing about my gear changed, other than the arrangement of two headphones, two dacs, and two amps. The exercise of re-arranging this cheap budget-fi gear has proven, at least to me, that simply changing my setups can change my mind's perception of sound quality. Nothing else happened. So it must be true that our minds really can and do alter our perception of sound quality.
In the case of this comparison, with the exception of the Pure i-20, all of this gear has been listened to for several months. Nothing is "new", per se. No changes were made to my gear. The only thing I did was to bring home the Bravo V2 and the Pure i-20, and switch them around with my Schiit Modi and Magni.
So after all of this switching around, I'm not totally happy with anything any more! I find myself wanting to run the Modi DAC into the Bravo V2 amp. I keep trying to use the Pure i-20, but it keeps hurting my ears. At present, it's in a bag unused. I may sell it. Instead, for about $10 bucks I bought a line-out 30-pin to RCA connector from Amazon, and am plumbing this directly into the Bravo V2's RCA jacks. And it sounds better than using the iPod's headphone jack. It's not as clean as the pure, but it's not as harsh either, and my ears don't feel abused when I go home. The most disappointing thing is, my DT770's no longer sound as good as they used to on the M+M stack. And that makes me want to cry. On the other hand, I guess this is how things work out sometimes: we discover we want something better. And it keeps the folks who make audio gear in business.
Thank you for taking the time to read this. I honestly hope it helps someone.
-Umust B. Kidn
Edited by UmustBKidn - 8/12/13 at 12:55am