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.
Edited by whitedragem - 3/4/14 at 9:35am