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Looking to add 'phones to hi-end audio system, travel also - many questions

post #1 of 15
Thread Starter 
So I finally decided to take the plunge and join the headphone crowd. Here's my story and questions.

Travel Cans (well, IEMs):

Initially, i decided to get a good set of noise cancelling phones for travel, so just got a pair of Bose QC20 due to great NC plus decent SQ. I'm not sold on either aspect, but need to take another trip Monday which will give me better idea. While the low frequency NC is great, I'm annoyed at the amount of voice squeaking through. I know, too many newbies expect miracles from NC phones, but what appears to be happening is that, with simple IEMs or over ear, there is some balance to the natural noise isolation, while the Bose is so effective at low freq NC it actually makes the small amount of high freq more noticeable. Anyway, I will also be adding a nice player, and have been looking at the A&K 120 and HifiMan stuff. However, it seems that the Fiio stuff, especially the new X5, might be the best bang for buck.

Question: Any other recommendations for a good portable player below $500? Is it worth it with the Bose?

Home Cans:

On the home front, I have a fairly high end audio system: Revel Salon 2 speakers, Mcintosh MC452 amp, Krell S-1200 prepro, Esoteric K-03 CD/SACD/DAC, Sonos for PC music/radio, OppoBDP-95 for BR music. No headphone output. I have 2 other systems, each with an Apogee MiniDac that has headphone out, so I assume my choices below will work well with this output.

I think I now know how to add cans into the main system (use tape out, correct?? Now the question is what kind of cans? I have decided that I need closed back, over ear headphones for a variety of reasons (leakage, comfort, etc), and will not consider others right now. I'd also like to keep this first foray under $500. I also now realize I need a decent amp as well. Music preference is Jazz, vocalists, some pop/light rock. Here are my finalists, based on described SQ, comfort, cost, ease of amplication, etc:

B&W P7 - (best described SQ for my tastes),
NAD Viso M50 - (current hot shot, being swayed a bit by reviews),
PSB M4U2 - (it's got NC, so its more versatile than the others and might give me a nice alternative to the Bose QC20)

Questions:

Is there a significant leap in SQ if I upped the budget from $400 to say $600 or $800? (remember, closed, over ear only)

Please recommend <$500 amps that would work well in my main audio system (Schiit seems to make nice ones)

Thank you all very much for any support and help you can provide. I'm very much looking forward to this experiment!

Jeff
Edited by jeffkad - 1/24/14 at 11:09am
post #2 of 15
IMHO, a good sealing IEM is better than NC. Active NC works best on constant, droning types of sounds. This makes sense when you consider how NC works - it is generating noise that is 180 deg out of phase from the outside noise, thus "cancelling" the outside sound. If the noise is very dynamic, the NC circuit can't adequately generate the cancelling signal. Bose has done an excellent job tuning their cancelling circuit for the typical noise inside an airliner.

IEMs, on the other hand, are simply earplugs. They don't need to cancel - they simply block the outside sound. Some folks prefer NC because it allows them to still hear when someone talks to them, while others prefer to just block the maximum amount of environmental noise possible. I'm in the latter camp - once I get on the airplane, just leave me alone! tongue.gif

As usual, YMMV...
post #3 of 15
Thread Starter 
Perhaps I was a bit to ambitious with my first post. Given the high end system i have at home, and given my requirements as listed below, are my choices reasonable? What's a good reasonably priced amp for these choices? Is it really worth exceeding $500 for closed phones?
Quote:
On the home front, I have a fairly high end audio system: Revel Salon 2 speakers, Mcintosh MC452 amp, Esoteric K-03 CD/SACD/DAC. No headphone output. I have 2 other systems, each with an Apogee MiniDac that has headphone out, so I assume my choices below will work well with this output.

I think I now know how to add cans into the main system (use tape out, correct?? Now the question is what kind of cans? I have decided that I need closed back, over ear headphones for a variety of reasons (leakage, comfort, etc), and will not consider others right now. I'd also like to keep this first foray under $500. I also now realize I need a decent amp as well. Music preference is Jazz, vocalists, some pop/light rock. Here are my finalists, based on described SQ, comfort, cost, ease of amplication, etc:

B&W P7 - (best described SQ for my tastes),
NAD Viso M50 - (current hot shot, being swayed a bit by reviews),
PSB M4U2 - (it's got NC, so its more versatile than the others and might give me a nice alternative to the Bose QC20)

Questions:

Is there a significant leap in SQ if I upped the budget from $400 to say $600 or $800? (remember, closed, over ear only)

Please recommend <$500 amps that would work well in my main audio system (Schiit seems to make nice ones)

Thank you all very much for any support and help you can provide. I'm very much looking forward to this experiment
!

Thanks much...Jeff
post #4 of 15
I think the list you have is a good one - but I haven't heard any of them. As an addition that is over your $500 limit, have you looked at the Mr. Speakers Alpha Dogs? I would recommend the Mad Dogs, but I suspect they might be a little ghetto-fi for your nice home system. For something under your limit, perhaps the Sennheiser Momentum?
post #5 of 15
Quote:
Originally Posted by jeffkad View Post

I know, too many newbies expect miracles from NC phones, but what appears to be happening is that, with simple IEMs or over ear, there is some balance to the natural noise isolation, while the Bose is so effective at low freq NC it actually makes the small amount of high freq more noticeable. Anyway, I will also be adding a nice player, and have been looking at the A&K 120 and HifiMan stuff. However, it seems that the Fiio stuff, especially the new X5, might be the best bang for buck.

Question: Any other recommendations for a good portable player below $500? Is it worth it with the Bose?

 

Active NC actually affects the response so might as well save that for sources you didn't blow that much money on (but then again so does any headphone you use with it). If you're going to upgrade to a better player, I'd replace the Bose with another IEM. Read up on the Shure SE535, Westone 4R, and Aurisonics ASG-2 for a start.

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by jeffkad View Post

B&W P7 - (best described SQ for my tastes),
NAD Viso M50 - (current hot shot, being swayed a bit by reviews),
PSB M4U2 - (it's got NC, so its more versatile than the others and might give me a nice alternative to the Bose QC20)

 

 

You seem to have restricted your research to home hi-fi brands that came out with headphones. I'm not sure what the P7 sounds like, but if I was in a similar situation, I'd probably get something like the Grado Bushmills X, then get a simple amplifier to them, like the Schiit Magni or any Grado RA1 clone that uses two 9v batteries. If you haven't read up on it, I'd say it's worth devoting half an hour reading feedback about it.


Edited by ProtegeManiac - 1/24/14 at 12:42am
post #6 of 15
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by ProtegeManiac View Post
 

 

Active NC actually affects the response so might as well save that for sources you didn't blow that much money on (but then again so does any headphone you use with it). If you're going to upgrade to a better player, I'd replace the Bose with another IEM. Read up on the Shure SE535, Westone 4R, and Aurisonics ASG-2 for a start.

 

 

 

You seem to have restricted your research to home hi-fi brands that came out with headphones. I'm not sure what the P7 sounds like, but if I was in a similar situation, I'd probably get something like the Grado Bushmills X, then get a simple amplifier to them, like the Schiit Magni or any Grado RA1 clone that uses two 9v batteries. If you haven't read up on it, I'd say it's worth devoting half an hour reading feedback about it.

 

 

Protege, for the home choices, I didn't purposely limit to home audio manufacturers.  It just seemed that, from the hundreds of reviews and comments I've read, including pro reviews, these were the best closed-back, over-ear models below $400 that would provide the SQ I like.  Billy suggested Momentums, but based on all the reviews, they seemed a bit bass heavy and perhaps not that comfortable.  Truthfully, if I could go open-back, I would have probably jumped on the perennial favorite HD650's and called it a day (although I'm sorely tempted by the ortho and planar models out there, as I love detail and spacious sound).  Given that I have a very good source in the Esoteric K-03, would I hear a significant difference if I upped the budget significantly above $500?

post #7 of 15
Well, what you probably *should* do is quadruple your budget and go for the Audeze LCD-XC... tongue.gif

Upper end closed is a hard segment for exactly the reasons you give - when you start talking about $400+, the buyer often wants the spaciousness and other characteristics an open 'phone will give. The mid-to-high-end buyer looking for isolation often ends-up with IEMs or custom IEMs. You probably still won't get the soundstage of the best open phones, but you can get the clarity and other attributes. I'm having a hard time coming up with a highly rated closed 'phone at $500 other than the Alpha Dogs. The Fostex TH600 costs considerably more than that. The old Denon D5000 would have probably been the recommendation - but they were discontinued when D&M decided to chase the Beats crowd.

I don't know - maybe I'm forgetting something obvious??

Edit:

Well, one obvious closed $500 'phone I forgot is the fairly new Shure SRH1540. I haven't heard them - but there is an unboxing on the front page of head-fi.
Edited by billybob_jcv - 1/24/14 at 8:19am
post #8 of 15
Thread Starter 

Thanks Billybob.  I'm trying to keep my first foray reasonable in terms of cost, but I have peeked at the Audeze and the Fostex.  In fact, the Fostex TH600 is probably my step-up option at this point (i have done a lot of research, but there are sooo many headphones out there, and just as many opinions, lol).  My concern with the 'Dogs is that I believe they are modded phones by a very small company (or one guy?), and I'm a little concerned about that as respects support, warranty, etc.  Am I wrong about that? (To be honest, haven't really researched them yet, my perspective is based on skimming articles/reviews).  My other concern is of course once you go up the tree, you need to up the amp budget as well.

 

I guess the big question is, will I hear a BIG difference in SQ if I step up to the Fostex TH600?


Edited by jeffkad - 1/24/14 at 8:21am
post #9 of 15
You are correct - a fellow named Dan *is* Mr. Speakers - I'm not sure the size of his staff - but it is certainly not very big. Now, with that being said, Dan is a heck of a nice guy (I met him briefly at a head-fi meet) and for the last few years he has been a solid supporter of head-fi and head-fiers all over the world. No one can predict the future, and this industry is littered with little guys that disappear into the wind - but I think at least for the present, I would put the service Dan gives far above what you might get from one of the faceless corporations with names that start with Sony, Denon & Pioneer...

I also think it's really, really hard for someone else to tell you whether spending more will be a significant improvement in SQ *for you* - there is no doubt the incremental change between spending $300 and $500 is much smaller than when spending $100 instead of $20 - and the different between $500 and $1000 is even smaller.

I think in the end, you just have to make the bet and roll the dice. If you don't like them, sell them in the head-fi buy/sell and try something else!
post #10 of 15
Oh -and I found another obvious choice at ~$500 that I had forgotten: Audio-Technica ATH-W1000X. I have no idea how they sound, but they are beautiful 'cans! There is also a fairly active market making exotic wood cups that make them even more beautiful - almost too beautiful to use!
post #11 of 15
I have a home high-performance system, as well. Personally, I run the single-ended out from my CDP into a headphone amp, and its balanced out into my system. Same with my turntable.

As far as suggestions for your application, I'd look at AudioTechnica A900x (you can search for Ken Kessler's review). It's less than you want to spend, but the sound quality stands on its own. Amp-wise, look into Lake People products from Germany. Corda Jazz is another quality option, albeit laden with a lighter, less weighty tonal balance. This should give you a good (sonic) point of reference. Good luck.
post #12 of 15
Quote:
Originally Posted by jeffkad View Post
 

Protege, for the home choices, I didn't purposely limit to home audio manufacturers.  It just seemed that, from the hundreds of reviews and comments I've read, including pro reviews, these were the best closed-back, over-ear models below $400 that would provide the SQ I like.  Billy suggested Momentums, but based on all the reviews, they seemed a bit bass heavy and perhaps not that comfortable. 

 

I just thought you were like a bunch of my other friends coming from home audio and trusted only those products (including Focal), when AKG and Sennheiser have been at it for longer than they have :D

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by jeffkad View Post
 

Truthfully, if I could go open-back, I would have probably jumped on the perennial favorite HD650's and called it a day (although I'm sorely tempted by the ortho and planar models out there, as I love detail and spacious sound). 

 

Does it really have to be just one headphone for home and travel? Because the way I'd approach this problem is, "damn, you can get an Esoteric...come on man just get one for each!" :tongue_smile:

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by jeffkad View Post
 

Given that I have a very good source in the Esoteric K-03, would I hear a significant difference if I upped the budget significantly above $500?

 

Detail and/or smoothness definitely, if you get the right headphone. Soundstage, not so much. Remember ultimately these are still headphones, so when people rave about "spacious" sound, it's either:

 

1. Not a lot of improvement, or at least highly relative given the added cost. It might seem huge for someone using headphones and limited experience with speakers (or they can't get it past their room modes), but whether spending another $500 to $1,000 on just one headphone would be a matter of debate. I hope I can illustrate it well enough with these:

 

Top view diagrams - triangle=vocals, circles=drums(oblong=bass drum), rectangles=electric guitars;acoustic guitars would be more precise to either left or right, some are recorded in the center if vocalist is playing (electric guitars with distortion effects recorded as wide off to L or R even if the vocalist is playing)

Sennheiser HD600 powered by Meier Cantate.2, using its PCM2702 USB DAC and Samsung Galaxy S3 as digital audio server:

 


LCD-2 on the same rig - slightly wider and deeper with all instruments pushed a bit further back, similar to HD800 but different tonal quality


2. Alternately, what people may be hearing is actually any of these:

 

HD600 on Burson Soloist with Marantz CD6004 as source - huge but weird soundstage, like having a pissed off Reed Richards on the drums

 

 

Some headphones tend to generate a trident-shaped soundstage with strong L-C-R signal but the spaces between them are moved further back, owing to left ear not hearing the output from the right driver and vice versa, but made worse by frequency response; strong guitars and cymbals, plus the drums in the middle, but the other drums between them float further back. This is a Grado SR225 which is known for a smaller soundstage, relatively, but I've heard some systems doing this on the K701. Not on my Cantate (even without using the Crossfeed circuit) and a Little Dot MkII though (I'm sure there are others):
 


------------

 

If at least the change from the LCD-2 over the HD600 is enough for you, then by all means get that and another headphone for portable use. However, just be aware of the possibility of the third scenario because am I glad I can try them out instead of just buying deaf online. I've tried my HD600 and Cantate with a bunch of dedicated CDPs (as precise and even the response is from the Cantate's USB DAC, it's still a little small for me), and the NAD C545 generally suffered a similar soundstaging problem where the drums roll around my head (just not as wide as the Marantz). The Cambridge 651C had everything close to normal but not as accurate as the USB DAC, and then the bass drum hit...and it was staged towards the back of my head. The Rega Apollo was too forward with the bass drum but was warm to the point of sounding borderline nasal, meaning the bump in its lower midrange exacerbated the same on the HD600. By that point the pads were a little squished after trying the others, although I stopped for a $15,* 10oz, wet-aged local rib eye steak first; so it's either the pads or my head was a little in the clouds from all the beef fat (cheap ribeye has really thick fat in the middle).

 

They're not all bad news of course as I was still able to pick out a few favorites: The Cayin CD50T (slightly larger but normal soundstage, sweet midrange) and CDT23 (bigger stage, powerful electric guitars, "live" music sound); Shanling SCD-T200 (tonally a few notches less warmth vs the Rega, normal soundstage but powerful bass drum); and the Arcam CD72 (everything my USB DAC is, but wider and deeper stage, more precise; all instruments and vocals pushed further back). Unfortunately these were all beyond what I could spend, but given the trend, I'd assume the chances of the weird soundstage happening would be lower with the Esoteric.

 

 

 

*Cheaper than chain restaurants in the US, and the fat being relatively "fresher" just has more of that beefy taste

post #13 of 15
Thread Starter 

Thanks everyone for the wonderful responses!

 

Billybob, Shaffer, I will check out your recommendations.

 

Shaffer, I just realized that I did not provide full info on my system (just edited and added).  In addition to the Esoteric, I have an Oppo BDP-95 for BR music, Sonos for PC music/Sirius radio, and will soon be adding a dedicated music server.  So I have to come out of the preamp (tape out?) to have access to all these sources.

 

Protege, wow, thanks for the detailed response!  Love the diagrams.  To be clear, I already have my travel/portable phones, the Bose QC20.  I may consider other IEMs, but what I'm really looking for now are home cans.  It just happens that, based on my criteria, my finalists all happen to be "portable."  I need to limit/eliminate leakage, so I need closed back and probably over ear as well.  I want comfort, so I think over ear is best in this dept too.  I have 3 different systems, two which will output via Apogee MiniDac, one (the big rig) which will have it's own dedicated amp, so I'd like a non-fussy, easy to drive headphone.  I like detail, I'm not a bass head, and while I like balance, I'd prefer a leaning towards high freq detail than low end umph (hence no Momentum or Moda) I'd like to keep it under $500, and preferably under $400.  So for all these reasons, I think my finalists check the boxes.  Truthfully, based on the description of their sound quality and comfort, I'm leaning toward the B&W P7.  The PSB M4U-2 is interesting because it has NC, which gives me an alternative to the Bose for travel if I want to change it up.  However, some have said that the M4U-1 actually sounds better than the M4U-2 in passive mode, so I'm a little concerned/confused there.  It also may be a bit bass heavier than the P7 (which I don't think I want).  It also has an issue with cracking, which they've hopefully fixed, but again raises concerns. The NAD is getting all the raves right now, but I'm concerned that it's just the "flavor of the month," and it seems to be just a variation of the PSB (since Paul Barton designed it as well and many say the sonic signature is similar).  However, the NAD can be gotten at a great price, and far below the B&W, so is it really worth going for the P7?  Decisions, decisions!

 

While we're at it, can you guys provide some more amp suggestions for the big rig?  Perhaps Burson, Fiio, etc?  Really do not have a handle on amps yet, as I've spent most of my time reading up on the cans themselves.

 

Thanks again everyone!!!

post #14 of 15
Quote:

Originally Posted by jeffkad View Post

 

To be clear, I already have my travel/portable phones, the Bose QC20.  I may consider other IEMs, but what I'm really looking for now are home cans.  It just happens that, based on my criteria, my finalists all happen to be "portable."  I need to limit/eliminate leakage, so I need closed back and probably over ear as well.  I want comfort, so I think over ear is best in this dept too. 

 

How about looking into custom IEMs? They isolate well and if properly made (ie, a perfect fit), they'll be comfortable. You might already have IEMs, but between a $500 to $1000 closed headphone that also needs to be portable, I'd say the same amount of money might get you farther in sound if spent on a custom IEM, considering these come in many "flavors" and many (not all of course) portable, closed back headphones can be too bassy, have a smaller soundstage, etc. Normally I'd recommend the AKG K550 because I can live with a touch less bass, and after some mods to the dampening, you get some of that back and get rid of the plasticky midrange (local headphiler modded his), but based on your previous description I don't think you'll like these even after modding.

In any case check out Focal's headphones also. I found the Spirit One too dark but I imagine the Pro and Classic models might be a lot better with the treble.

 

 

Quote:

Originally Posted by jeffkad View Post

 

While we're at it, can you guys provide some more amp suggestions for the big rig?  Perhaps Burson, Fiio, etc?  Really do not have a handle on amps yet, as I've spent most of my time reading up on the cans themselves.

 

Thanks again everyone!!!

 

Fiio is alright for when you need a lot of power, especially over a portable player, but when I tried the E9 with my old CDP something was just lacking - like it was loud but not enough verve to the presentation; PRAT was a bit off (some excess in the decay but attack was a little weak; tonality was a bit too warm). Of course, if someone was restricted to that budget level I'd highly recommend it, but definitely not for someone with Esoteric as a source (unless you're just using it with an iPhone).

 

As for Burson, they make really expensive AND powerful amps, waaaaay more power than you'll need for a closed headphone that is compact if not collapsible because they were designed to be easily driven, being, you know, portable. It's not just having headroom - even at low gain setting there's a chance the amp is still too much for it, and you'll end up going from slightly soft to eardrum-tearing from one click to the next on the stepped attenuator. Manufacturers try not to assume you have an iPod strapped to an amplifier all the time, and this is why DAPs with high quality decoding and relatively powerful amps were made since not everyone wants to lug around an iPod hookup to an amp (even if they'd be the same thickness, you still have a lineout cable sticking out, and you might have spent $300 on something that will get snagged and stressed in a bag). You're better off spending the extra cash and going for the Ultrasone Edition 8 and a clean, relatively transparent, and affordable desktop amplifier for it (also works well enough with just an iPod).

post #15 of 15

Just came across this review, it might be what you're looking for: http://headfonics.com/2014/01/the-vk-1-by-aedle/

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