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3 different headphone types, 3 amps, 1 song (that does not remain the same). Impressions to guide what differences to expect and bang vs buck.

post #1 of 18
Thread Starter 


I wanted to contribute something to my favorite audio website on the internet (and that is really saying something, cause I put audio at the top of my hobbying).

So I took a look at some differing headphones/in ears in a quick playback to confirm how altering amplifiers would alter the sound, and if the different type of headphone would alter the sound more.

I was hoping to draw a quick, not conclusive take, on whether money performs better by being invested purely into a set of cans, and if so, what gives bang for buck.

I do not feel this test is to be definative, just a quick take for some initial ideas for people new to this hobby to get a feel for what differences to expect by headphone and equipment type.


The headphones used in this test in no way are winners with regards to price/performance, but are all in a similar price category and are all decent enough examples of modern head-fi; not junk. 

We have a Sony MDR-1RBT (used in wired mode), as an over the ears example, a Bowers & Wilkins P5 as an 'on ear' type, and a Bowers & Wilkins C5 used as an 'in ear' type.


The amplifiers used in this test are not, again, anything special with regards to headphone amps, but do allow for a spread of performance and represent different approaches that may be used by pundits of head fi.

We have a flagship home theatre receiver from a decade past, a flagship two channel amplifier from three decades past, and an S-Master DAP of recent years; parts being Onkyo TX-DS989, Sansui AU919 and a Sony NWZ-845.


The song is a CD Rip lossless for the DAP and was streamed from a bluray player off the original CD for the amplifiers. To keep things a little consistant the Sansui was fed from the pre outs of the Onkyo, and 10dB of volume matching was applied.

For the relatively informal nature of this test the two SPL metres I owned remained on the couch beside me as, a range of differences not related to volume quickly presented themselves, and having tuned many hometheatre rigs by ear on enough occasions, my ability to volume match is "pretty good"


Oh the song was Principles of Lust by Enigma, and certainly does not give enough spread to make any findings here definative, but results found are of some worth, so here goes...


I went into this with an open mind, little expectations with how things would perform with regards to each other, and an awareness of how to get the most out of the headphones with regards to positioning on my head and tips to be used.


Method,.. Listened to first two-three minutes of song listening for a few key items, panning of specific instruments, quality of bass, soundfield dimension, presentation as a coherent picture and nature of treble.

I did not seek to rate every aspect of the song, but kept pen and paper handy for notes, scoring things out of ten and using some visual diagrams as I went along for reference.


All up testing was around an hour, with some quick rechecks mixing up the order of phones played and equipment played on,.. findings scored so similarly so as to be considered consistent. 


First of all, lets get amps out of the way!

The Modern Amps headphone jack offered inferior bass and treble and had to be largely volume increased to sound similar. It is obviously a cheaper headphone experience than that provided by the historic two channel amp when consideration was given towards the headphone amplifier. The modern amp, being a flagship, I had expected to be a dedicated headphone amp circuit, and if it is, it is by far exceeded in performance by older esoteric equipment. Whilst it is still quite listenable, the benefits of improving the headphone amplifier (for all three headphones, all being quite low impedance parts), was noticable. Whilst none of these headphones needs lots of amplification to reach great listening levels, it is obvious instantly that a good amp does more than amplify and the differences with regards to 'air' around the instruments and voices was quickly apparent. The changing of amplifiers actually was like raising the performance of the equipment by more than one tier. 

In fact using the DAP amp, was like dropping the equipment performance of the equipment a tier,.. so depending on the quality of users present headphone amp I would be happy to say that equipment can greatly have its perceived quality varied by amplifier, and if this tier analogy is true, then the value of the amp should also scale with headphones to be used.



It was immediately obvious that DAPs do not have the sound quality of true high fidelity stereo equipment. Scores consistently fell by around a point, across bass and treble and losing soundscape and came off like the drop in headphone amping from the quality headphone amp to the HT Receiver, it was that sort of drop again, only more areas of the sound were affected. 

Whilst brief testing was thrown in to remove possible S-Master issues (a Galaxy S with Voodoo sound mod for the Wolfson DAC, 128x oversampling and bypassing the software volume mixer) even running the same song from a 24bit 96khz file (sourced from the internet) could not return to the sound quality found from the CD original using quality DAC and amplifier.

Whilst cheap portable DAPs are a convenience item, their sound quality kills the sound across a range of criteria more than any other aspect. Feeding the same headphone out from these DAPs into the better headphone amplifiers of the two tested home amplifiers, could not remedy the sound. These low power DACs and their implementation with regards to battery life just could not be made to perform to the same level as home hifi kit.



Even more so than changing the source equipment can the headphones affect the sound, but in distinctly different ways, and not across all criteria.

Whilst all headphones offered very different sound images, they didn't necessarily drop the quality across all metrics, so I could not clearly say that any given headphone would perform worse (in al areas), so whilst DAC/Source and amp will change the sound in profound ways consistantly, changing the headphones was changing some aspects of the sound subtly and other areas drastically.

The big thing here was the soundfield. Whilst the C5 in ears gave a straight stage that went right through the middle of the head, the on ears opened this up in a forward-back sense, with the over ears taking this to the next level. As both of the large headphones are closed designs, and I always thought the C5 (with its miniball bearing composite) is a near open design, the massive difference in soundstage was without doubt the biggest metric to vary on my scorecard, and was the surprising aspect to this test that basically nulls all other points of merit, to those who like their music presented in an open way, without doubt over ears is the only way to go. 

Please I am not saying this is definative, and I am aware that different headphones offer different levels of creating a 'space' but the differences here was so night and day, and opened up further with good source and good amping, that if users want 'space' going over ear makes it a lot easier for the headphone to achieve that.

This isn't to say that the seperation of instruments on the C5 was poor. It had excellent left - right steering, just NOTHING front back. And from reading a lot of posts on headfi, getting an in ear to perform better with regards to this is an achievement, hence this is not their strong suit.

Bass, I was genuinely surprised by the variances in bass quality between the headphones. The in ear actually had this one, though the bass balance wasn't as smooth in terms of quality or positioning, it was there in dividends. I did use the tips that give the nicest treble, and am aware using different tips I can vary the quantity of the bass, but it is easy to say on this brief test that in ears can get bass right in a way that larger cans can struggle with. The 1Rs had the best balanced bass with regards to the music across a range of sources, with the P5s being affected most by the quality of the amplification in order to get their bass best,.. but still having better bass positioning that the in ears.

The nature of the in ears having such a flat soundstage actually made the voice echo around the two and a half minute mark absolutely fail, and nearly had me reach for some studio monitor in ears to check for errors. 

This is why above I put so much weighing on the soundfield each headphone can create as it seems to affect the most the appreciation of THIS SONG.


So whilst I have ranted and raved about a few specific things, caution should highlight it is only with this one song, which is not a typical genre I, or many may choose to listen to. Whilst I do find classical music genres (orchestric) or a 20bit HDCD Supertramp (again lots going on) as excellent tests of high fidelity sound; the song here tested, an Enigma track -has no need for real world placement / positioning in a way that is 'real world'. It is more a soundscape piece I chose to check only a few specific things in a quick and 'fun' way.


What became quickly apparent was

That amps affect the sound tier of the equipment, and are worthwhile, not for volume, which was easily reached and played at a mild level (peaks around 75dB), but for the quality of the presentation; easily affecting the quality of the treble and the bass, the placement of instruments, the size of the soundfield and the blackness and air in the playback The cheapest amp killed coherency and wrecked the treble, and whilst only equating to a swing of say 20% of the total quality to be found, dropping from a great one to an above average one is not something pundits would happily/willingly do.

That DAC/electronics didn't effect the sound as much as the amping, but dropping quality here to 'above average' made the sound unlistenable in a way that makes giving up amplification an acceptable thought (if it means getting the source right).

I guess to clarify this, whilst the numbers in my table moved mildly with the change of the amp, the drop to mid-fi / using a DAP (either Voodoo'd Nexus/Wolfson with 24/96 files or an S-Master Sony (or ipod or laptop etc)) was so large that I'd choose to go without a quality amp until the source was sorted, even though the improvments the amp will make are large, amping well a poor source still didn't cut it, whereas amping averagely a good source was still very musical.

I think what WAS apparent with THIS track, was that the type of headphone used changed the experience of the song more that any other single metric.


So Headphone (type) => Headphone (cost)=> front end => Amp,

with the caveat I would take a cheaper headphone by cost to make sure that the front end could be sorted out. But I would definately try to have some budget towards proper amping.


I guess the quickest way to performance would be choosing the biggest headphones I could get away with (over ears don't really suit public places, though thanks to Beats etc, now this is socially cool again), and then adding a combined DAC/headphone amp so as to be able to use a playstation or laptop or CD player or whatever as a source when at home.,.. or seperates if able to take them out with the portable rig.

If a one box portable rig could give decent sound bring it on. To be fair, my portable tape deck offers excellent sound, so per usual price point can dictate sound quality, but I am happy to confirm what most forum goers seem to get, and that is equipment matters, and headphones, just like speakers in a home hifi, alter the sound more than any other single component. 


(It is late and I am tired,.. this wasn't meant to be epic, and so I will proofread and edit it (with italics and bold to make clear the statements) in the morning. proofreading when tired certainly isn't (proofreading!),

might put some piccys up too.

Cheers, Whitedragem

Edited by whitedragem - 3/4/14 at 9:35am
post #2 of 18

When you do comparison tests, it's vital to isolate your variables so you can know what it is you're comparing... one set of headphones with two different amps or one amp with two different headphones. Then you can point to where the differences exist and where they don't. Auditory memory for two similar sounds lasts only a few short seconds, so comparing two samples an hour apart isn't going to tell you much. And holding minute details of differences in your head with 4 x 4 variables is completely impossible.


I'd suggest starting with the headphones. Pick one amp and two headphones and compare them. Describe the difference between the two in terms that mean specific aspects of sound... frequency response throughout the audible spectrum, distortion, dynamics. Then, keeping the same amp and one of the headphones as a constant, do two more comparisons with the other two headphones. Now you have a really good idea of how each headphone sounds relative to the others.


Are you following the logic in that?


Now do the same thing with the cans you determined to be the best and the four amps. Then you will know how the amps sound relative to each other.


One word of caution... No listening test is valid unless you precisely match the volume levels. It's human nature to think that the louder of two samples has the best sound. If you don't balance them before each and every comparison test, all you will be determining is which one sounds louder.


Also, it is very difficult to sample headphones blind, but it is easy with amps, so you should definitely test the amps blind.

Edited by bigshot - 3/5/14 at 11:06am
post #3 of 18

Don't waste your time and money doing any kind of DBT, people here are set in their ways. If you still do one and find differences you'll just be told that X or Y amp somehow colors the sound.

post #4 of 18

If there is a difference, something somewhere is coloring the sound.

post #5 of 18

If you want to have greater (legitimate) confidence in results and conclusions drawn from them, you need to improve experimental methodology and/or data analysis. It goes for any field. 


Whether or not you think that's worth your time is up to you. I don't mean that in a judgmental sense but a practical one. If you don't care about results that hold up to scientific scrutiny, do as you will and don't let others convince you to chase things you aren't interested in. On the other hand, if you want to be more rigorous, don't waste time testing things without being careful and controlling all the potential factors you can (volume, to a very precise level, being an example of one). Either way, as bigshot suggested, cutting down on variables at first can at least get the problem a little more manageable 


But anyway, thanks for the writeup and thoughts as it is.

post #6 of 18
Thread Starter 

Bigshot the metthod you put forward was adhered to, the only part I concur that was not is the speed of switching (not every few seconds, though for brief parts of the test I did), as stated I used pencil and paper to keep track of a few areas as I went along, and afterwards, being award of volume levels I did double check using an SPL, (and sealing aside, two peaks of the music were at the same level (c weighting, slow, set for 60db level range, then 70 \db level range to confirm peaks), but as I wrote, I have done level matching for many years by ear and am quite confident at being able to get levels correct. For all the metrics you wished to have me measure, I agree, speed swapping is more,crucial, but the reason I chose this song and listened for only a few key things was to give me things I could readily discern differences with.


swappng was constant, listening was constant, and total time was closer to two hours with my leavi,g headphones on for a half hour at the start and a half hour at the end (long enough to practically forget which phones were on my head, so that my listening could be relaxed) to try and have my mind also in a relaxed state, something aided by the song selection. The only annoying part was constantly resetting the song, which wasn't much trouble either due to using a remote, or a handheld device.


I did more than what was written in the above paragraph, but in order to keep the writing somewhat succinct (for the readers) I wrote down the key points.



Whilst we can argue about scientific method, the reality of the findings stands, subjectively

, yes..


perhaps of more worth would have been to use a P7 as the over ear phone to keep to one 'house sound'..


for the point of this 'play' the results were so immediately obvious, mass market portable players no matter how great the sound files (yes, even the really dynamic 24bit higher sample rate) did not sound as fantastic as proper home kit (by a long shot, even though the improved files helped), and bigger headphones gave a much bigger playback experience most helpful in the emotive uptake of this piece of,music. And if anything the C5 was ultimately given a slight volume bump to give it its' best chance to 'shine'.


I really took a lot more care than needed with how I did this so that my findings might have a grain of merit.

post #7 of 18

I read your paragraph on amps and it didn't say much about the sound of individual amps. Did they all sound the same? Did any of them sound the same? Were any of them radically different in sound than the others? (All when using the same headphones and line level matched)


The problem I'm having reading your account is that you are just giving your conclusions, not the specific results of your tests. I'd be interested in hearing the differences between each one of the headphones and amps you tested. Were any of the headphones close to a flat response? Were any of the amps audibly transparent? That's the kind of info I'd find useful.

Edited by bigshot - 3/5/14 at 3:36pm
post #8 of 18
If you want to DBT amps, use one headphone and multiple amps.
For headphones, it goes the other way.

Thanks for the writeup whitedragem, but it's hard to pick details from your whole experiment.
I hope you can organize the information.
post #9 of 18
Thread Starter 

That is correct, Bigshot, I DIDN'T write those things, as reviewing amps was not the intention or direction I had set out in.



I feel we might be missing the forrest for the trees, so to speak, by going down this line of thinking.


sure the home theatre amps' headphone output, volume matched was 'missing power' in a way that lower rated amps make a sound trebly at high volume, but given the low listening level involved, it wasn't a case of it being out of its 'power envelope', it simply wasn't the same class of headphone amplifier as in the old 70's Sansui


whilst I had set out to confirm what affect on the sound different source quality and amplifier may bring, it was more from the point of view of establishing 'diminishing returns', for example, had the headphone output of a DAP have sounded as good, and played as well as the more expensive equipment then the piece I wrote above would have wound up saying that headphones is what matters and money should purely be put on those.


sure we can argue that amplifiers, when well built, should sound indistinguishable et al, but I felt that it was immeadiately apparent that there was distinct advantages that an amplifier could bring to even easy to drive headphones, and from the point of view of chasing better sound, "amps can be about more than just adding volume".


keeping context here, these amplifiers are not purpose built headphone amplifiers (with, arguably, the exception being the DAP), and so their measurements are kinda moot, what I believe should be taken away from this exercise, is that amplifiers can greatly improve sound quality.


simple really, and you've told me before, the reader is who matters, so I kept my diatribe to a minimal as much as possible

post #10 of 18
Thread Starter 



-I realize perhaps I should have written a different title, and possibly placed on the 'newbies/welcome to headfi forum' and the critical breakdown would be some,much the less demanded by certain forum goers.


I went 'sound science' because I felt the science of bigger drivers reacting with the whole ear allowing the mind to interpret a soundfield' was, proven (with regards to this song), to be of importance, but so too was the effects of different qualities of amplifier on the music.


It didn't fit the review section as it involved a range of headphones, amps, and eventually sources..



I figure now, and would be happy to move this blurb, to a place where people new to the world of head phone audio could find it, in a hope to explain to them the importance of all parts of the audio chain.



post #11 of 18

Maybe I'm not understanding what you are testing.... the effect of an amp on various headphones or the effect of various amps on a single pair of headphones? If you are mixing and matching amps and headphones that are all different, I don't know how you can draw any conclusions, because you don't know whether the difference is due to the amp or the headphones.



Determining how three different headphones respond to a single headphone amp is a tough test to set up. First, you could get three identical headphone amps and do a test to verify that they are indeed identical. Then you would have to level match all three to match each other. Then you would run the same signal into all three and you could swap cans as fast as you can get them on and off your head.


Determining how three different amps affect a single pair of headphones is much easier. All you need to do there is get a headphone switch box and line level match the three amps.

post #12 of 18

Now I'm getting more confused. Where does "the size of the driver reacting with the ear to create sound fields" come into this?


I don't know if the size of the driver changes the sound field at all. The sound is still going through the little hole in the sides of your head. The driver can be pointed away from the hole I suppose and sound muffled, but a smaller driver at the correct angle to enter the ear canal would be no different than a larger driver at the correct angle.


The size of the driver might affect response and distortion. Is that what you're talking about here?

post #13 of 18
Thread Starter 

Bigshot, I gather the article you wish to read is not what you found, and I take responsibility in terms of not labelling it correctly or aiming it for the average American IQ.


remember I am, only human, and given I have a young daughter to raise, and limited time to put into these things, I would be happy to rewrite the article as you feel it needs be done, but encourage you to throw me a few dollars for the exhaustive time that it will require,..,if however I am not in your employ, I am fairly certain I alluded to, in quite a few places; this was not meant to be exhaustive. I feel if I WERE to go down the path you require I would certainly need to test more than just two minutes of a new age piece of music. Macro dynamics, microdynamics etc.. I can offer you PayPal if you are serious to employ me further....


With regards to the ear pinea I believe it is called (could be wrong, can't be bothered to look up) the ear has very set growth to allow for frequencies to be interpreted, in order to gain an understanding of a sounds location. For example,a sound is heard from 'behind' when high frequency information is missing... What I was suggesting regarding headphone size, should not have been about say 40mm vs 50mm drivers, but drivers fed straight into the ear canal vs headphones whose sound we can resolve using the full ear.


My apologies for wasting your time by giving unclear thought, you have told me off before for not writing TO my target audience.

post #14 of 18

Directionality of sound is an interesting subject. I looked into this when I set up my 5:1 speaker system to figure out how to configure it.


The primary way we perceive directionality in sound is by turning our heads slightly as we listen and perceiving the differences relative to the position of our head. That's not something you can achieve with regular headphones. (There are head tracking headphones that do this though.)


Binaural recordings can indicate some aspects of direction, but a lot of it depends on how the brain interprets it. I noticed that when I listened to a binaural test recording that I could switch in my head whether something is in front or behind. Up and down didn't seem to be indicated much at all.


There are also aural cues, like frequency response and reverberation that can indicate distance.

post #15 of 18
Thread Starter 

Aural cues is what it is all about. They are what allow a two channel setup to simulate surround audio, I believe we are now going a little of topic to the realm of head related transfer functions, HRTFs.



I used to love my A3D 2.0 soundcard (PC) for what it did to headphone sound. It was based on technology built for the US airforce so they could simulate the sounds of helicopters in a real world environment. The echos of their sound along a valley, and to occlude the sound through the hill.


it is truethat good quality headphones are needed to resolve that last little bit of positional audio that is height info, and as audio processors got better in consumer sound cards that was the sort of dimension x that got added (later revisions of Dolby headphone etc).


this is why since the dawn of home 'home theatre' surround sound we have been instructed to raise certain speakers in relation to the listening position, and early Yamaha units had (low wattage) front effects channels, so that echo information could be controlled. -okay the 'dawn' of home theatre wasn't a DSPA1000, but this was

a great amp that brought home cinema to the masses..


but this is getting around to my personal take on why lossless files, that some argue have thrown away very little 'useful' information, I find that this useless information is actually so useful in terms of sound positioning.


anyhow perception of audio is subjective, but hearing science is a very real thing, and with regards to 'sound cues', they are critical in giving a three dimensional soundstage.


whether we are on topic with regards to this, erm, thread, well.. Not so much.


Bigshot I encourage you to PM me of any further clarification or even any further direction you wish to give me pertaining to my original post.


I do feel 'encoded' are some points I garnered about the amps on the sound of the headphones, I did observe for example that the bass quality and especially quantity improved the most for the P5 when switching amps, but thus was relative to a low listening level (where as an aside, hearing being logarythmic and rejects sound as it gets louder, is easier to volume match by ear at lower levels, but as I said I did concur with an SPL post critical listening, and was spot on) where amp levels wouldn't be being tested in an absolute sense, but rather for the qualities they impose, and if I had called them amps A,B and C, they had sounded distinctly different and I could qualify that adding a quality amplifier to the playback chain does help the headphones resolve a higher quality experience for the sound playback.


My post, hopefully, will inform some thread goers of the importance of ALL parts in the chain, and that what quickly showed up, to me, was that the source being weak affected the sound quite largely, but I do feel that getting the earphone right in of the utmost import

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