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Looking for a Good Value-for-Money Headphone Amplifier, Sub-$100

post #1 of 7
Thread Starter 

Hello. I would appreciate the wisdom of this group. I'm a long time audio guy. For an unfortunately long while now I've not been able to set up a good two-channel audio system so I'm turning to headphones as a possible solution for great audio. I would like to find an amp for under $100.

 

I have a pair of Sennheiser HD580s. I like them just fine. They tend to be "warm" with everything I've ever used them with. The most exotic thing was a Pete Millet tubed headphone amp. I've read quite a few reviews that say the headphones are bright, but that not my experience with them. BUT, here's what I would like to do. I'd like to use my laptop computer as a music server, serving various file fomats from MP3 to lossless, feeding a DAC (which I have), then an amplifier, then the headphones. Laptop PC > DAC > Headphone amp > Headphones

 

I have searched Head-Fi and Audio Asylum for recommendations. LOTS of stuff, and I could use some help in sorting things out. I have listened to the AudioQuest DragonFly, both v1 and v1.2, through Grado 125s, 325s, and my Sennheiser 580s. What it showed me is that I like the Grados better, but I'm stickin' with my Senneheisers for now. The Grado 325/DragonFly v1/1.2 combo was VERY good. It sounded like proper music. While not perfect, it was good enough that I didn't find myself critical of the gear but just found myself enjoying the music.

 

That's good. And it's an option, but I'm wondering whether there's better for the money, and a set up I can use my DAC with. Looking through HF, I saw the sub-$100 portable amp shootout. I don't need the amp to be portable. It could certainly be a kit, too. No problem putting something together. Tubes have an appeal, especially if they are used as a gain stage rather than a buffer. I have LOADS and LOADS of the more typical audio tubes - 12AU7s, 12AX7s, 5751s, 6FQ7s/6CG7s, 6922s. A Bottlehead or Hagermann, a Little DOT or EAR would be great, but more than I want to spend. There also seem to be a number of really good transistor headphone amps. The op amp amps could do it, possibly, and there are so many others. I also have a very good tubed preamp, a Conrad-Johnson PV-12A. It could probably make an excellent headphone amp, but it's not set up up to do this and it's a big piece of gear that I'd like to sell at this point.

 

Are those small tubed headphone amps any good? Things like this on eBay. For portable, it seems FiiO is mentioned often.

 

So, what might people recommend for the "best" headphone amp for $100 or less.

 

Thanks!

 

- SJ 


Edited by tvr2500m - 3/6/14 at 4:57pm
post #2 of 7

Take a look at Bravo Audio, they are well received here and sound great for the money. Obviously they dont compare to uber expensive tube amps, but if you replace the stock tube for a half decent one it will sound very good for the price.

post #3 of 7
Quote:
Originally Posted by ostewart View Post
 

Take a look at Bravo Audio, they are well received here and sound great for the money. Obviously they don't compare to uber expensive tube amps, but if you replace the stock tube for a half decent one it will sound very good for the price.

 

I have a similar heritage; growing up in 2 channel audio (Audio Research, Magnepan, etc.) and feel your pain of selling your Conrad Johnson equipment.  When we downsized from our house to a townhome, we got a better lifestyle but I lost the ability to play my audio system at a reasonable volume...hence headphones.  While I'm still figuring out what I like and don't like in the world of headphones, adding a tube amp to the mix has been very enjoyable.  

 

The Bravo Ocean was my first tube purchase to 'help out' the sound signature of my Beyer, Superlux, etc. cans with an 'overactive treble'.  I like the amp a lot for the $$ paid (especially with my DT990s).  It will be the first of many tube amps over the years.  I believe the V2 is supposed to sound similar to the Ocean but is $55 instead of $119.

 

That said, I also like my Magni ($99) for the majority of my headphones although its Solid State.

post #4 of 7

If you think you can manage DIY, build yourself a CMoy, but be sure to use 2 (two) 9V batteries.  The typical opamps specified for a CMoy can handle well over 18V.  For a high-impedance can like the HD580, those two batteries will provide a tremendous voltage swing that the Senn will eat up and ask for more.

 

The secret of the CMoy was that it was designed for high-impedance cans.  Chu Moy wanted to be able to use his HD580's in a portable fashion, but no portable was able to supply or swing the voltage peaks that those cans need (or the HD600 and HD650).  Anyway - as for the secret: the amplifier circuit doesn't have to be very sophisticated.  It only has to swing a lot of voltage.  A very simple solid-state circuit can do that, whereas a high-current solid-state circuit requires a lot of careful design.

 

I'm not saying it's as good as a decent tube amp that's properly designed - but it's the quickest, cheapest way to good performance with a high-quality Senn.

 

 

P.S. those clear plastic, single tube overseas Chinese amps are a waste.  JMHO.  PM me if you want details.  I won't trash up the thread explaining it here.

 

P.S.S. Overactive treble?  Posh.  What you want is to "lift" that "Sennheiser veil."  A high differential voltage swing will give that capability.  The misconception is that tube amps "tame" the tizziness in many headphones.  In the case of Senns and a high-quality tube amp, there is more than enough voltage to overcome the high-impedance.


Edited by tomb - 3/6/14 at 4:58pm
post #5 of 7
Thread Starter 

Thanks, GearMe. Yep, ARC, C-J, and a few Maggies for me, too. Is there a better value in all of audio than the MMG? Thanks for your input. Got another nod for the Bravo stuff, and I've read quite a bit about the Magni.

 

TomB, that's the characterization I share re: the Sennheisers - veiled. The Grados aren't like this. The 325s with the DragonFly was good. I'd like to do even a better, if I can for that kind of money (or less ;) ). I've got quite a bit of experience with two-channel tubed gear. Can be plenty "tizzy"/bright, too. Okay, I'm not particularly intrigued by the CMoy approach. I've seen them pretty much since Chu Moy introduced them. Didn't have any idea how good they were since I wasn't focused on headphone listening. I'll ping you. Thanks.

post #6 of 7

I have the magni ($100) ,and it's a hell of a deal for $100. It's pretty powerful too. Probably the best amp you can get for under $200.

post #7 of 7
Quote:
Originally Posted by GeneraI View Post

I have the magni ($100) ,and it's a hell of a deal for $100. It's pretty powerful too. Probably the best amp you can get for under $200.

Agreed that it's the best deal for under $100, although for under $200 it has to compete with the O2 in the solid state amp class.
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