I just wanted to share some advice with anyone, especially junior head-fiers and lurkers, who are looking to enter the high fidelity market. I was introduced to the world of hifi about half a year ago. Being a single bachelor with a job out of college, thus having spare cash with little financial responsibility, my progression through the audiophile ranks has been a quicker one than most. Recently, I've begun transitioning to speakers, and I just realized that I was about to make the same mistakes I did during my progression in headphones. Upon realizing this, I felt compelled to share some thoughts and advice on how to avoid some of the pitfalls I've made while on this journey.
About 7 months ago, after my latest pair of cheap $10 earbuds broke, I finally decided it was time to buy something better and did not break every month. I had a friend already into this hobby, so I was able to avoid the Bose or Beats pitfall. I wanted a pair of headphones under $150 that did not need amping. At the time I found amping to add unnecessary bulk and to be poor form. So my friend recommended the Audio-Technica ATH M-50. I definitely found them to be an improvement over anything I've heard in the past. However, at this point in the year, April, it was starting to get warmer, and the M50 would make me sweat and become unwearable after 20 minutes. Being quite impressed in what hifi audio had to offer just by the M50, I quickly went searching for a more comfortable pair. I started looking into open headphones since they let heat flow out from my ears, and one that still did not require amping. I ended up settling on the Sennheiser HD598 about a month after getting the M50.
I loved the HD598. Being the first open pair of headphones I've ever tried, I was completely blown away. The soundstage, imaging, mids were truly something else (to me at the time). For the first time, instruments sounded real rather than a recording. I loved these headphones, and this is where I should have stopped, at least taken a break. But I was truly wowed by the HD598. I couldn't simply stop there. I started to research into what headphones would be like the HD598, but better. I ended up discovering the HD700. The HD700 was described as a better HD598 with a similar fun sound. Also, having only 150 ohms rather than 300 ohms was also a plus for me, as it meant I could get away without an amp for the most part.
So two weeks after buying the HD598, I bought the HD700 at the full price of $1000 at the time. I relegated my HD598 as my work pair, while I would listen to the HD700 at home. When I got the HD700, I honestly liked them very much, even unamped. I couldn't understand why there was all this hate, or at least cooler attitude towards them on this forum. At this point, I started to warm up a bit to the idea of amping, as now I had a $1000 pair of headphones I was using exclusively at home. Reading on how much amping could improve a pair of headphones, especially audiophile ones, I bought the O2+ODAC. Like my initial reaction to open headphones, having a proper DAC and amp really wowed me on how they improved the sound of the headphones.
As you can probably guess what happened next, realizing how much proper amplification and a DAC improved the sound, a mere $300 DAC/amp was not enough. I wanted to experience more. Woo Audio being well regarded caught my eye. In the middle of June, I ordered the WA7. After all, I needed a $1000 DAC/amp to match my $1000 headphones.
I'm glad to say this is about where things take a turn for the better.
The WA7 arrived in July, and while there was an improvement, it wasn't nearly as much as I had expected, and definitely not as much a difference going from unamped to O2+ODAC. You can actually read my review on this here: http://www.head-fi.org/t/672758/woo-audio-wa7-vs-o2-odac-my-musings-and-review
At this point, even I had my own financial limitations, so I wasn't bothered to go out and get a $5000 amp or DAC. It pretty much stabilized for a bit. Around the same time, it was brought to my attention that Bottlehead was having a special sale where the Speedball came free with the Crack. Having followed the Crack, but a bit hesitant on the whole DIY thing, I never thought about ordering it. However, this sale was hard to pass up, and I was curious on how the sound was for something less than $300.
I ordered the Crack with the intention of using it at work, as by now I'm all for amping. While I was waiting on the Crack to come, I realized I needed another pair of high impedance headphones to actually use with the Crack. The 50 ohm HD598 wasn't ideal. I demoed various headphones like the 600 ohm Beyerdynamic DT880 and DT990, but I ended up getting the 250 ohm Beyerdynamic T90 when I saw it go on sale for $500 compared to the normal price of $650.
My first impressions of the T90 through the WA7 and O2+ODAC was it was brighter than the HD700, and also harsher, but seemed more detailed. Soon after the Crack kit arrived, and I went ahead and built it. I tried the T90 out with the Crack, and was immediately blown away. The OTL amp really helped tame the harshness and sibilance problems the T90 had. This was a sublime pairing. I also tried the HD700 with the Crack, but not as impressed. You can read my review on this on the T90 amazon page. The Bottlehead Crack made me realize one important thing: how much extra money you pay to get a visually pleasing and professionally constructed product. The Crack and T90 pairing completely blew away the HD700 and WA7 pairing. This is when I started to realized that money didn't directly correlate with sound quality and that perhaps buying the HD700 so hastily wasn't the best idea. I also begun to understand why the HD700 wasn't spoken very highly of here. It's not a bad pair of headphones, just that with $1000, you can do a lot better. Heck, with the sale price I bought the T90 at, I could get it with the Crack, and a $200 DAC for the same price.
Besides learning that price is not everything, I also learned to wait for deals before buying. At this point, my work setup was better than my home setup, even though at half the price. I wanted to remedy this, but now being much more cognizant on prices and wary of products, I didn't jump immediately into anything else. It wasn't until September when Razordog Audio had a $150 off sale for the Hifiman HE-500 for $550, that I bought another pair of headphones. The HE-500 are very well regarded on these forums, and considered to be one of, if not the best bang for your buck headphones. Also knowing how Hifiman price lock their products, seeing a rare sale like this I had to strike.
My first impressions with the HE-500 was lukewarm at best. I was using the WA7 to drive them, but they sounded a bit thin. It got a lot better with burn-in, but it wasn't until I discovered others talking about using a speaker amp. The overwhelmingly approved speaker amp for the HE-500 was the Emotiva a-100 MiniX priced at $219, however, I had grown to become a tube guy with the Crack. Some digging allowed me to discover that the Baby Sophia amp was a good pairing with the HE-6, so I give that a shot with the HE-500. The only problem was that the Baby Sophia was $1000 new. I ended up buying a floor model with new set of tubes from the official dealer for $600. This changed the sound of the HE-500 into a completely different pair of headphones. The more power of the speaker amp really brought out the impact and sound of the HE-500, where the WA7 could not do.
I was very satisfied with the Baby Sophia and HE-500 pairing. It was very different from the sound of the T90 and Crack, but I liked it, and to me it was better. My home setup was finally back on top. There was just one thing eating me though. I'm a very curious person and I wanted to know if spending close to three times for a tube speaker amp was worth it compared to the Emotiva. Then in October, Emotiva had a sale that dropped the price of the MiniX to $169. As you probably can tell, I'm a sucker for sales, so I ordered one to compare. The Emotiva also delivered the power and sound that the WA7 could not. However, I found myself to prefer the sound of the Baby Sophia's tubes, so all was good. I didn't waste $400.
So what was I to do with $169 amp? Shipping it back would have been at least $30 as it was quite heavy. Plus it was a solid amp. I decided I could take this opportunity to bridge the gap and enter the world of speakers.
I wanted a pair of bookshelves since the Emotiva was a 2 channel amp. I was a complete noob in the world of speakers. After some research, I decided to try some Focals since they seemed a reputable brand. They recent came out with a new 700 series line, so the old line was heavily discounted, and I bought a pair of the Focal Chorus 705V for $350. I wasn't going to just jump into expensive ones without knowing anything about speakers. When they arrived, I found myself very disappointed in the sound. The vocals were off to me and there was way too much midbass. I ended up returning them immediately. A lesson I learned here is that, while I've gotten away with ordering headphones without demoing, speakers you must demo. Plus shipping back isn't a simple $5 ordeal.
So now I was looking for a better pair of bookshelf speakers around the same price. I went to the Magnolia store at Best Buy. After demoing some, I found myself to really like the MartinLogan Motion 4. It had forward vocals that I really liked and I was quite surprised by how much details I could hear, considering that it a general weakness speakers have to headphones. Also the frontal soundstage was much more realistic than hearing the artist singing from inside your head. Plus there was a sale that saved $100 off the pair. So I purchased a pair for $400. This was about 2 weeks ago.
This week while I was still within the return period, I started thinking about getting some higher end speakers, possibly floorstanding speakers. What intrigued me were the MartinLogan Electromotion ESL. These were priced at $2200 for a pair, and were electrostatic speakers. Knowing how electrostatic technology is the holy grail in the headphone world, I started giving a lot consideration on getting them. To raise money for them, I decided it was time to sell some of the gear I wasn't using anymore. I sold the HD700 for only $500, much to my chagrin, due to the recent price drop to $650 for new. Sold my HD598 for around $110 after the price drop from $250 to $200 or even $150 at some places. Buying at full price back in the day really burned me here. Also put the O2+ODAC and WA7 up on the eBay selling block. At least those retain their values a lot better.
So today I went back to Best Buy to demo the Electromotion ESL. The sales associate was talking them down, and instead talking up some Bowers & Wilkins CM9 which are $3000 for a pair. Having demoed some B&W bookshelf speakers in the past, I was skeptical at first, but upon listening, I was quite impressed by them. However, at $3000, it was out my price range. I listened to the the ESL, and to my surprise they did sound rather thin. In fact, I found myself to like the MartinLogan Motion 20 and 40 better. The Motion 20 was $1500 for the pair, and I'd be saving $700 compared to the ESL. I also compared to the Motion 4 that I had bought, and the floorstanding speakers definitely sounded better and had more body. I went home to finalize some research, but then I discovered that those B&W CM9's had a little brother, the CM8, which was $2200, and within my price range. This threw a wrench into my decision to go with the Motion 20 or 40. I researched more on how the CM8 compared with the Motion series, and on the AVS forums people started talking about brands that were not at Best Buy at all, being better buys. Brands like Definitive Technology or PSB. Then there was Magnepan which made planar magnetic speakers, a technology I've found much to my liking through the HE-500.
At this point I didn't know anymore what I should get, and where I could go to demo all of these. Some of them were internet direct brands. While I was doing all this research on my computer, I had music playing through the Motion 4. During a break, I took a moment and just listened to the Motion 4, and I realized something. They sounded great, and the difference between them and the floorstanding speakers in store was not that much different, and only apparent when A/B testing. I realized that the Motion 4 is like the HD598 of speakers to me. They sound great on their own and unless compared with high end stuff, I wouldn't notice. And going in and buying some $2200 speakers was akin to my purchase of the HD700 since I know very little about speakers, like I knew little about headphones back then when I impulsively purchased the HD700.
I decided I should sit back and move slower and understand more about speakers before buying anything else. I have to go and demo more various speakers and read more from what others and the general consensus is before I can determine if it's really worth the extra money. In the end, I ordered a MartinLogan Dynamo 300 subwoofer for $130 to add some bass, and hopefully body to where it's lacking in the Motion 4. I saved $2070.
So the final lesson is to pace yourself. To familiarize yourself with what out there before determining what you should get.
Thanks for reading everyone. I know it was a bit long-winded, but I hope it will save some wallets.