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Should I even upgrade?

post #1 of 28
Thread Starter 

For a while now I've been thinking of upgrading my current lo-fi (for the standards of this place) setup composed by an Asus Xonar Essence STX and a pair of Sennheiser HD 595.

Being the methodical person I am, before venturing in a blind purchase (since I don't have the opportunity to try most hi-fi gear) I started to read as much as I could.

I've always lurked here from time to time, though I never stayed more than a few tens of minutes at a time so I never had the possibility of forming a concrete opinion of the place.

But this time I'm spending hours, every day for days, reading through all the forums. At first I just stayed in the main ones for headphones, amps, etc, in my naivety taking notes of interesting gear and asking questions related to it without really understanding everything that was said, accepting that tube amps just sound "better" even though they often color the sound and are not faithful to the source (wait a minute, doesn't the "fi" in head/hi-fi stand for fidelity?), reading conflicting opinions about various vague parameters without any solid measurable base, and so on.

With time, I noticed there was a minority of people who WANTED proof. Scientific proof. Also they usually preferred a transparent sound to an altered one.

That's good, I love science. And a clear and transparent sound, that's what I'd pay for.

Tracing back where the people from said faction came from I found out that they had their own ghetto.

I've spent the last two days there (that is, here) reading through a number of threads and revising my opinions. Now I'm uncertain I even want to upgrade.

I was ready to throw a little more than €1000 in a number of setups, the last one being a pair of Sennheiser HD 800 and maybe an Audio-gd ES9018 DAC/Amp combo for the maximum transparency achievable with what I wanted to spend, but it's even worth it?

I mean, I'm a strong believer in the placebo effect. A voice in the back of my head keeps whispering that if it costs more, if so many people hear the difference, it must be true. Fortunately though, that's not the voice that's in control of my money. That's the job of the voice of the reason who stays in the cockpit, and he doesn't like very much to waste money. He'd probably be glad to make the voice in the back happy to hear the little improvement, that is, if he had enough money that such a little improvement would be enormous compared to the little money he spent. Unfortunately placebo is one of the most expensive commodities.

The core question is: would the upgrade that I have in mind constitute such an improvement as it was switching from a pair of €15 earbuds and onboard audio to my current setup? Because if that's not the case, I'd better use my savings for something more useful.

post #2 of 28
LOL.......

The continuing journey of science and the Value Templars. Each has their own experience so how can we find a universal definition of reference? What's your experience of satisfaction? If it's what you have, then there's no point in upgrading. If you've heard "subjectively" better and determined it not to be of value, then you have answered your question. On the other hand, if you've heard better and it's raised your reference of experience to desire it, then it is your beancounter's decision to make. For most hobbyists, it's worth the cost (within their available funding) to find improvement. This isn't a race or a status for most/biggest/expensive so we get what we can comfortably support and live with that reference. Some feel that can be had for much less than others. For some, it's the status of ownership that drives them to more expensive systems. To them, they've put value in theoretical perfection based on price. Buying peace of mind and not trusting their ears. And then the extremists will fill in the rest. If it meets human capability (as defined by science), then that's the endgame. Others will offer up that perfection +1 is better.

The point is you have to experience the road to know where to go. You have to hear for yourself before you can determine it's value. If you want the above audiophiles to guide you in spending your money, get off here now and be done with the journey because we'll spend every cent you offer and tell you there is better just over the next pricepoint very_evil_smiley.gif. This is what drives sales for sponsors and makes money for the invested.

Meets are a way of experiencing to determine an acceptable reference. Not as good as buying and living with it but sure is a lot cheaper.
post #3 of 28

^ LOL......

The objectless journey of the subjective anti-science crowd.

 

 

 

Everyone, at least those genuinely interested in science, will tell you that the headphones are much more important than any D/A converter or amp.

 

The STX is an excellent source and even amp, just keep in mind its >10 ohms output impedance. So a dynamic headphone should "ideally" have an impedance >80 ohms.

 

If you want to upgrade, I'd give new headphones a try.

 

 

What I don't particularly like about the HD555/595 is the bass roll-off due to the open construction (no seal, distortion rising a bit in the low end).


Edited by xnor - 9/7/13 at 8:42am
post #4 of 28
I actually had the excact same thoughts and wanted to find the fastest way to hifi so i could get as much as possible for the money I spent. I also started out with the Sennheiser 555/595 for three years before I upgraded to Audeze LCD-2. Even though the Sennheisers are a really good set of headphones that I like very much, I have no problems recognizing that the Audezes overall is a better sounding headphone. I find that the Audeze is better for a variety of music genres, probably because of the extended bass and the relative neutral frequency response.

I chose the Audeze because its sound signature was preferred in a blind test conducted by Sean Olive, where they concluded that the Audeze had the most neutral sound signature and therefore was preferred. And paired it up with NwAvGuys Objective 2 amplifier that measure really well and has a neutral delivery. Is it worth the upgrade in pure sound quality from the Sennheisers? I would say yes if you listen alot to music. And I must say I really love the sound from all orthodynamic technology.
post #5 of 28

Most planar magnetics are quite a bit heavier though.

I also mentioned seal above. Well that's also a two-edged sword. For really deep bass extension without special equalization you need very good seal, but seal will also cause pressure buildup and heat.

 

Besides fidelity, comfort simply cannot be ignored with headphones.


Edited by xnor - 9/7/13 at 11:12am
post #6 of 28

You *do* want to upgrade, if you've been using cheap equipment. A great number of the non-audiophile headphones are "hyped" in their design, to over-emphasize bass, and often to over-emphasize highs as well. That may be impressive to a random consumer wandering through the electronic store, but it will fatigue your ears and become unpleasant in just a few minutes of sustained listening.

 

You don't have to spend a fortune. For ~$500, my headphones/amp setup provides a sound I can listen comfortably to pretty much indefinitely. The band across my head becomes uncomfortable before the sound does.

 

Listen to a lot of headphones in the store, take your time, ignore both the hype and the naysayers alike. If it sounds better to you, that's what you want.

post #7 of 28
Yes, but for sound quality alone, I really do think the orthos are worth the extra weight and the heat. I live in northern scandinavia so too much heat and humidity aint a problem here. The more heat the better. :P

I had to modify the damping on the Audeze to release some of the vacum pressure and to bring forward the high mids and treble. I have the LCD-2, rev 1 version so the treble was a little too shelved for my taste.

This reduced some of the deepest bass 20-50hz, but the gain in comfort and improvement in the rest of the sound greatly exceeds the negatives.
post #8 of 28
I dont think the shelved mids and over empasized bass is the case with the Sennheiser HD595. It is a very neutral headphone and if I had to complain about something it must be the lack of bass extension. It really is a great headphone that has very very good high mids and treble.
post #9 of 28
Thread Starter 

Since I can't very much get my head around audiophile terminology because I don't have (yet) any terms of comparison, I'll try with an analogy:


Let's say I have a 50 inches display, which if I'm close enough to will fill my entire field of vision just like a pair of headphones covers the entirety of my ears.
Now, going from a pair of cheap earbuds to my current equipment for me was something comparable to going from VGA to FullHD.


What I heard was an "increase of resolution" and "decrease of artifacts". I mean, no more "kkkhhh" background noise, I could hear a triangle going "DING" instead of just hearing a "NNNNG" sound, I didn't have to raise the volume to uncomfortable levels to be able to hear every part of a song, which however introduced distortions in the edges of the audible spectrum (I don't what they are called, the classic noise you hear when you raise to the max the volume of a cheap stereo).


I'm not disappointed with my current headphones, but I feel like there could be something more. Let's say I don't quite feel like they are retina resolution, but since I can't compare them to something superior, I can't really be sure. Maybe that's just the limit of my hearing.


Also there is a point from which increasing the resolution does nothing, since the eyes wouldn't be able to see the difference. Nevermind the fact that at that point most of the source material would be mastered at a lower resolution, so you wouldn't gain anything even if you were theoretically able to see the difference.


The same as with a retina screen: if most apps aren't optimized for it, they'd just look like crap.
Maybe this could be comparable to when people say some headphones are "revealing" and "unforgiving"?


Anyway, I'm guessing something similar happens for audio: there is a limit beyond which the human ears (and everything behind them) aren't simply able to tell the difference. It's a simple matter of design of the human body, nothing really we can do about it for now.


All things said, here's a very idiotic question: cheap earbuds are VGA, now I'm on FullHD. Would be switching to something like a pair of HD 800 comparable to switching to a retina display?
Yeah yeah I know I know, forgive me.

 

 

I don't really feel like considering orthodynamics because they weigh a lot and I haven't read many happy opinions regarding their comfort, which is paramount to me given for how long I tend to keep headphones on my head and completely forget about them.

 

 

About the Xonar Essence STX, what bothers me about it is the fact that I wear my headphones all the time when I'm at my PC, for hours straight, and when nothing is playing I hear a constant hiss that with time is starting to annoy me. The noise floor in my studio/computer/listening room is very low (I measured it just a few days ago: 14dBA/18dB from my chair in front of the desk) and when I tried to move to other noisier rooms I wasn't able to hear it, so it's not really high, but it still annoys me.
It's probably caused by some noise source inside the computer, so I guessed that if I were to buy an external unit I wouldn't hear it anymore.

post #10 of 28
Quote:
Originally Posted by Dwee View Post
 

Since I can't very much get my head around audiophile terminology because I don't have (yet) any terms of comparison, I'll try with an analogy:


Let's say I have a 50 inches display, which if I'm close enough to will fill my entire field of vision just like a pair of headphones covers the entirety of my ears.
Now, going from a pair of cheap earbuds to my current equipment for me was something comparable to going from VGA to FullHD.


What I heard was an "increase of resolution" and "decrease of artifacts". I mean, no more "kkkhhh" background noise, I could hear a triangle going "DING" instead of just hearing a "NNNNG" sound, I didn't have to raise the volume to uncomfortable levels to be able to hear every part of a song, which however introduced distortions in the edges of the audible spectrum (I don't what they are called, the classic noise you hear when you raise to the max the volume of a cheap stereo).


I'm not disappointed with my current headphones, but I feel like there could be something more. Let's say I don't quite feel like they are retina resolution, but since I can't compare them to something superior, I can't really be sure. Maybe that's just the limit of my hearing.


Also there is a point from which increasing the resolution does nothing, since the eyes wouldn't be able to see the difference. Nevermind the fact that at that point most of the source material would be mastered at a lower resolution, so you wouldn't gain anything even if you were theoretically able to see the difference.


The same as with a retina screen: if most apps aren't optimized for it, they'd just look like crap.
Maybe this could be comparable to when people say some headphones are "revealing" and "unforgiving"?


Anyway, I'm guessing something similar happens for audio: there is a limit beyond which the human ears (and everything behind them) aren't simply able to tell the difference. It's a simple matter of design of the human body, nothing really we can do about it for now.


All things said, here's a very idiotic question: cheap earbuds are VGA, now I'm on FullHD. Would be switching to something like a pair of HD 800 comparable to switching to a retina display?
Yeah yeah I know I know, forgive me.

 

 

I don't really feel like considering orthodynamics because they weigh a lot and I haven't read many happy opinions regarding their comfort, which is paramount to me given for how long I tend to keep headphones on my head and completely forget about them.

 

 

About the Xonar Essence STX, what bothers me about it is the fact that I wear my headphones all the time when I'm at my PC, for hours straight, and when nothing is playing I hear a constant hiss that with time is starting to annoy me. The noise floor in my studio/computer/listening room is very low (I measured it just a few days ago: 14dBA/18dB from my chair in front of the desk) and when I tried to move to other noisier rooms I wasn't able to hear it, so it's not really high, but it still annoys me.
It's probably caused by some noise source inside the computer, so I guessed that if I were to buy an external unit I wouldn't hear it anymore.

 

 

Before you go out and spend more money, check the "gain structure" of your current playback chain. There are several places, when using a computer, at which you can turn the gain (volume) up or down. Even just one of them maxed out could give you hiss. Ideally you won't need to get any of them beyond about 60%, but it depends on the program material and how you like to hear it.

 

HD595 are fantastic headphones. The gap between "cheap earbuds" and 595's is an abyss, a Grand Canyon. The extra hundreds of dollars for HD800's will not provide anything remotely like the same amount of improvement. In fact, the 800's might reveal even **more** of the flaws previously hidden in other areas--the original recording, the pressing, the amplifier stages, etc., making you even more disssatisfied than you are now.

post #11 of 28

Actually, don't apologise for the display panel comparisons. I personally am a bit of home-theatre geek, and love my Plasma display.

I recently purchased a phone with an excellent full 1080 x 1920 AMOLED display. When watching a movie on it, I realised that due to the distance away from my eyes - perceptively, both the 50" plasma and the phone were the same size, but the phone had better blacks. Shame.

(Sorry, that was a little off-topic)

 

Anyway - have you auditioned any other pairs of headphones? Neutrality, ironically, is a very highly debated plateu. A neutral headphone to one person, may sound coloured to the next.

 

I would recommend at least auditioning some other pairs you have your eye on - that way, you can conclusively say "Yes, the upgrade is worth it, this is the sound signature that I prefer" or, "an upgrade would be silly, my gear at home is fine."

post #12 of 28
Quote:

Originally Posted by Dwee View Post

 

About the Xonar Essence STX, what bothers me about it is the fact that I wear my headphones all the time when I'm at my PC, for hours straight, and when nothing is playing I hear a constant hiss that with time is starting to annoy me. The noise floor in my studio/computer/listening room is very low (I measured it just a few days ago: 14dBA/18dB from my chair in front of the desk) and when I tried to move to other noisier rooms I wasn't able to hear it, so it's not really high, but it still annoys me.

It's probably caused by some noise source inside the computer, so I guessed that if I were to buy an external unit I wouldn't hear it anymore.

 

If the hiss is constant (white noise) and does not depend on system activity, then you are probably not getting interference from the computer; also, the card has shielding around the analog output stage. Most often when people get interference problems with it, it is caused by a ground loop when connecting an external amplifier to the line output.

 

Some tips to fix the noise:

- make sure that the Windows audio output format is set to 24 bits instead of 16 (the card does not have any analog volume or gain control at all, and 16-bit software volume control can definitely produce noise when the peak SPL possible with the headphones is ~130 dB)

- the headphone output of the card has roughly 20 uVrms (A-weighted) constant noise floor at 44100, 88200, and 176400 Hz sample rate, maybe slightly less. It is attenuated somewhat by the output impedance when using low impedance headphones. With the HD595, it produces ~19 dBA of noise SPL. If you can actually hear that, you can reduce the noise level by 6-7 dB using a sample rate that is a multiple of 48000 Hz instead. For music listening, I recommend foobar2000 with the SoX resampler plugin, 48000 or 96000 Hz output sample rate, 24-bit resolution, and -2 dB volume in the player (optional, to avoid clipping inter-sample peaks).

- if you decide to upgrade the headphones, get something that is less sensitive. :normal_smile : With my 250 Ω DT880, the noise floor goes down to only 6-7 dBA, even at 44100 Hz sample rate, and I hear no noise at all. Fortunately, many of the headphones that could be considered an upgrade from the HD595 have either high impedance, or low efficiency. A higher impedance headphone will also work around some other minor flaws of the built-in amplifier on the Xonar Essence STX, resulting in a higher damping factor, and lower distortion


Edited by stv014 - 9/9/13 at 6:57am
post #13 of 28
Quote:

Originally Posted by Dwee View Post

 

...At first I just stayed in the main ones for headphones, amps, etc, in my naivety taking notes of interesting gear and asking questions related to it without really understanding everything that was said, accepting that tube amps just sound "better" even though they often color the sound and are not faithful to the source (wait a minute, doesn't the "fi" in head/hi-fi stand for fidelity?), reading conflicting opinions about various vague parameters without any solid measurable base, and so on.

 

With time, I noticed there was a minority of people who WANTED proof. Scientific proof. Also they usually preferred a transparent sound to an altered one.

That's good, I love science. And a clear and transparent sound, that's what I'd pay for.

 

The core question is: would the upgrade that I have in mind constitute such an improvement as it was switching from a pair of €15 earbuds and onboard audio to my current setup?

 

Because if that's not the case, I'd better use my savings for something more useful.

 

The value proposition is totally personal and hopefully is based on the enjoyment you get listening to your music.

 

The jump from earbuds to a solid set of 'mid-fi' headphones (take your pick...Senns, Beyers, AKG, HE400's, etc.) is awesome.  That said, the audio curve (improvement vs $ spent) is an exponential one, and for me the ROI is really terrible after the mid-fi tier.  Funny thing is, it seems what we consider 'mid-fi' is often 'end-game' or beyond to the normal world. 

 

I get the objective/measurable thing to a point...but it assumes that 'accuracy' is the Holy Grail and for me it's enjoying the music.  Do we all have perfect (i.e. flat) hearing?  Did the person mixing the song?  Was the studio setup the most accurate on the planet or did it unknowingly influence the final mix in a direction the artist wouldn't want if they could have heard their song through a 'truly' accurate setup?  Much ado about nothing to me.

 

So...I listen to different music on different 'high-value' headphones/iems (i.e. Rock on Grados, Classical on RE-Zeros, Hip Hop on Atrios, mixed genre on TF10's or DT990s, etc.).  I never get bored and it's kind of like a new experience every time I switch to another set of headphones.

 

Most recent purchase...two 'budget' amps (Bravo tube and Magni SS amps) instead of one 'mid-fi' amp (Asgard 2).  Figured these two amps would provide more overall enjoyment than the one.

 

On deck -- Q701s or HD600s (maybe I do like accuracy after all!)...excellent values but can't ever see myself buying an HD800, etc. unless they come way down in price.

post #14 of 28
Quote:
Originally Posted by Dwee View Post
 

Since I can't very much get my head around audiophile terminology because I don't have (yet) any terms of comparison, I'll try with an analogy:


Let's say I have a 50 inches display, which if I'm close enough to will fill my entire field of vision just like a pair of headphones covers the entirety of my ears.
Now, going from a pair of cheap earbuds to my current equipment for me was something comparable to going from VGA to FullHD.


What I heard was an "increase of resolution" and "decrease of artifacts". I mean, no more "kkkhhh" background noise, I could hear a triangle going "DING" instead of just hearing a "NNNNG" sound, I didn't have to raise the volume to uncomfortable levels to be able to hear every part of a song, which however introduced distortions in the edges of the audible spectrum (I don't what they are called, the classic noise you hear when you raise to the max the volume of a cheap stereo).


I'm not disappointed with my current headphones, but I feel like there could be something more. Let's say I don't quite feel like they are retina resolution, but since I can't compare them to something superior, I can't really be sure. Maybe that's just the limit of my hearing.


Also there is a point from which increasing the resolution does nothing, since the eyes wouldn't be able to see the difference. Nevermind the fact that at that point most of the source material would be mastered at a lower resolution, so you wouldn't gain anything even if you were theoretically able to see the difference.


The same as with a retina screen: if most apps aren't optimized for it, they'd just look like crap.
Maybe this could be comparable to when people say some headphones are "revealing" and "unforgiving"?


Anyway, I'm guessing something similar happens for audio: there is a limit beyond which the human ears (and everything behind them) aren't simply able to tell the difference. It's a simple matter of design of the human body, nothing really we can do about it for now.


All things said, here's a very idiotic question: cheap earbuds are VGA, now I'm on FullHD. Would be switching to something like a pair of HD 800 comparable to switching to a retina display?
Yeah yeah I know I know, forgive me.

 

 

I don't really feel like considering orthodynamics because they weigh a lot and I haven't read many happy opinions regarding their comfort, which is paramount to me given for how long I tend to keep headphones on my head and completely forget about them.

 

 

About the Xonar Essence STX, what bothers me about it is the fact that I wear my headphones all the time when I'm at my PC, for hours straight, and when nothing is playing I hear a constant hiss that with time is starting to annoy me. The noise floor in my studio/computer/listening room is very low (I measured it just a few days ago: 14dBA/18dB from my chair in front of the desk) and when I tried to move to other noisier rooms I wasn't able to hear it, so it's not really high, but it still annoys me.
It's probably caused by some noise source inside the computer, so I guessed that if I were to buy an external unit I wouldn't hear it anymore.

 

A couple of thoughts:

It seems like you are using resolution as your primary standard. That's fine, but to continue with the visual analogy, there are other properties of screens that may influence one's preference, things like contrast ratio, darkness of blacks, color reproduction, brightness, etc. When comparing two screens, it makes sense to say that the higher resolution one is "better," but at the same time, among screens with the same resolution, you may still have preferences. And there are probably tradeoffs involved with these preferences. For example, brightness could come at the expense of dark blacks.

In terms of headphones, different models do sound different. "Better" is a much more difficult judgment to make (and I agree with others in this thread who have said that headphones will generally make a bigger difference than amp or dac). Some headphones have thumpier bass than others, some have a bigger soundstage than others, some have more emphasis on the midrange than others, etc. and people have preferences based on these differences. It depends on what you're looking for -- when you listen to your current headphones, do you think specific things like "I wish the bass was stronger" or "I wish the voices were clearer" or "I wish the high frequencies didn't bother me so much," or is it just a general sense of "I wonder if this could sound better?"

If you find yourself thinking the first group of thoughts, specific thoughts about how you'd like the sound to be different, then I think you could definitely change the overall "flavor" of your headphones by getting a different pair. Or do you just want something better, more transparent, like a retina screen?  I think this can be done too, but it's a mixed bag. The increase in transparency you'll get will be fairly minor compared to the change in "flavor" you'll get, and for every well recorded song that now sounds better, there will be poorly recorded songs that sound worse. This exactly what people mean when they say revealing. So it really depends on what the money means to you and on what kind of music you listen to. Is a lot of your music extremely well recorded? Do you primarily listen to classical, jazz, acoustic, or electronic, metal, etc.?

Let me tell you the tale of my most recent upgrade. I used to have the AKG Q701, and now I have the Hifiman HE-400. (DAC/ AMP are HRT MS2 and Little Dot MK3). Did I get a change in flavor? Absolutely. I got more powerful bass, imaging that works better for the type of music I listen to, and a meatier sound. This matches my preferences more closely than the AKG did, so I'm happy. Did I get an increase in transparency, a better headphone? Yes, I think so too, but it's more subtle. I do notice some small new details in some of my favorite songs, and a few of my favorite songs are giving me shivers all over again. I also have more appreciation for a few really well recorded albums. However, I've also noticed that more of my music collection sounds like crap than before. Personally, I paid the money so I could get a different sound. The increased transparency is more subtle (small differences in a small subset of my music collection) and less worth the money, especially considering that more of my music collection just doesn't sound right to me now (for example, I hear more noise in the background, the bass just sounds weak, the sound is congested). I listen to a lot of electronic music, but also bands like Dead Can Dance, Dire Straights, Neil Young.
 

Some more specific, less rambling thoughts:

Something is definitely suboptimal if you can hear a hiss when nothing is playing. I have a supposedly noisy tube amp, and I don't hear a thing when the volume is on max and nothing is playing. I don't know if your soundcard is causing this, but you shouldn't have a hiss with a standalone amp. 

Buy from somewhere with a good return policy. Hearing the differences for yourself is really the only way for you to know. 


Edited by manbear - 9/10/13 at 10:02am
post #15 of 28
Quote:

Originally Posted by manbear View Post

 

Something is definitely suboptimal if you can hear a hiss when nothing is playing. I have a supposedly noisy tube amp, and I don't hear a thing when the volume is on max and nothing is playing. I don't know if your soundcard is causing this, but you shouldn't have a hiss with a standalone amp. 

 

As explained above, the volume control on the Xonar Essence STX is digital, and the absolute noise level is not affected by the volume or the gain setting. In other words, it always outputs the maximum amount of noise. This can be an issue with sensitive low impedance headphones (which are often not recommended anyway for other reasons, like output impedance). The noise can be reduced by using 48, 96, or 192 kHz sample rate, and making sure that software volume control with 16 bit resolution is avoided.

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