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Which is better upgrade for music: DAC/Amp or Headphones?

post #1 of 28
Thread Starter 

So I want to upgrade my music at work.  I recently bought a cheap set of headphones (Sony MDR-MA100) to replace my REALLY cheap set of earbuds.  They're actually not too bad for $32.  I picked them because they were on the buying guide here and because the MA900 have such a great reputation.

 

I listen to a lot of music at work and decided that I might want something more.  I was thinking about picking up a portable DAC/Amp combo (so I can take it home in the evenings), like a FiiO E12 (EDIT - sorry, E12 is just an amp.  E17) or something.  Something not too expensive, but that will improve my quality of life at work.

 

But then I realized that maybe it's not the best idea to spend $130 on a DAC/Amp to drive $32 cans.  Maybe I should just drop that money on some nicer cans first?  Thoughts?

 

BTW - My setup right now is just playing music off of MP3 files on my laptop at work.  It's about as low-fi as you get.


Edited by Stillhart - 3/17/14 at 11:26pm
post #2 of 28

In your situation, I would prioritize a portable/DAC combo because as you said you want it for home and work.  Nothing wrong with your DAP costing more than the headphones.  I'm sure it will swing in the other direction at some point.  I've liked expensive IEMs straight out of my iPhone because as a source it was decent, therefore I prioritized the IEM.  You didn't mention your phone as a possible source for music which is why I'd go with the DAP and worry about headphones later (assuming the Sony MDR-MA100 is ok).

 

MP3s are fine especially at the higher bit rate.  Well-recorded music will sound pretty good as 320 kbps MP3s.  Badly recorded music will still sound bad at 320 kbps MP3s or as FLACs.


Edited by WNBC - 3/17/14 at 11:45pm
post #3 of 28

I have been away from enjoying HiFi, these days dramatically chaned, digitalized.

Headphone produce good sound and more with Headphone amplifier.

 

Found good quality music with reasonable cost,  not known well brand WISS Audio.

Checked at Electronics Show, sound quality is same or better than very expensive

headphone, price is less than half.  It worth to try,  www.wissaudio.com

post #4 of 28
Quote:
Originally Posted by Stillhart View Post
 

So I want to upgrade my music at work.  I recently bought a cheap set of headphones (Sony MDR-MA100) to replace my REALLY cheap set of earbuds.  They're actually not too bad for $32.  I picked them because they were on the buying guide here and because the MA900 have such a great reputation.

I listen to a lot of music at work and decided that I might want something more.  I was thinking about picking up a portable DAC/Amp combo (so I can take it home in the evenings), like a FiiO E12 (EDIT - sorry, E12 is just an amp.  E17) or something.  Something not too expensive, but that will improve my quality of life at work.

But then I realized that maybe it's not the best idea to spend $130 on a DAC/Amp to drive $32 cans.  Maybe I should just drop that money on some nicer cans first?  Thoughts?

BTW - My setup right now is just playing music off of MP3 files on my laptop at work.  It's about as low-fi as you get.

 

You should be better off buying better headphones.

JVC HA-S400 ($30), HA-S500 ($42) & HA-S680 ($63) are headphones that I would assume would sound better then your $32 Sony MA100

You might find some used Shure SRH840 for with in your budget.

 

FiiO E10 or E07K external DAC/amps should improve the audio quality of any headphones, over plugging headphones straight in to computer/laptop/Mac.

post #5 of 28
Quote:
Originally Posted by Stillhart View Post

But then I realized that maybe it's not the best idea to spend $130 on a DAC/Amp to drive $32 cans.  Maybe I should just drop that money on some nicer cans first?  Thoughts?

You could pick up a $30 Sansa Clip+ and it would work well with a variety of headphones under $100. The Clip+ is known for having excellent SQ (up there with the best iPods and the iPhone), and its storage can easily be expanded with a microsd card,

Then get some better headphones smily_headphones1.gif
post #6 of 28

Headphones are the most important part (Assuming you're not playing 64kbps mp3s lol)

post #7 of 28
Thread Starter 

A lot of interesting, conflicting information here.  Let me see if I can parse it out:

 

1 - The Sony cans I bought were recommended on Head-fi in the $0-70 range.  I wouldn't buy another set to replace those unless it was in the $100+ range.  So far they sound noticeably better than the earbuds I was using, FWIW.

 

2 - I have an AKG Q701 at home.  I could see myself bringing those in to work on days when I plan on listening to a lot of music.  That's one of the reasons I was thinking about prioritizing the DAC/Amp.

 

3 - I have a Nexus 4 phone.  It was top of the line a year ago.  How does the SQ on that compare to the iphones that people are raving about?  Should I just be listening off my phone instead of my ****ty Dell?

 

3b - Assuming I have a best-in-class DAC in my phone, comparable to the iphone, would a $90 E07K help anything?  Would I need to jump up to something much better (read: more expensive)?

 

I suspect so far from the responses that a DAC/Amp will help, but it won't be as noticeable of a jump as it would be if I were using better cans.  However since I could also use it at home, where I do have better cans, it may still be a worthwhile purchase.

post #8 of 28

The chain of command goes

 

Source files

Headphones

Amp

DAC

Cables

 

You throw cheap headphones on the best DAC/Amp combo in the world and they're still gonna sound the same. Meanwhile, upgraded headphones can make a world of difference even on crummy files. A DAC/amp is there clean up and (derp) amplify the signal. If your headphones are lackluster all you're gonna get is a louder version of that sound. It doesn't radically alter output unless the headphones themselves require more power. 

post #9 of 28
Quote:
Originally Posted by Stillhart View Post

A lot of interesting, conflicting information here.  Let me see if I can parse it out:

1 - The Sony cans I bought were recommended on Head-fi in the $0-70 range.  I wouldn't buy another set to replace those unless it was in the $100+ range.  So far they sound noticeably better than the earbuds I was using, FWIW.

2 - I have an AKG Q701 at home.  I could see myself bringing those in to work on days when I plan on listening to a lot of music.  That's one of the reasons I was thinking about prioritizing the DAC/Amp.

In that case, I would vote for getting a DAC/amp to use with your computer and the Q701s. An E17 should be an improvement over your PC audio for use with them since they are a bit difficult to drive. May not make much difference with your inexpensive Sonys.

So what source are you using for your Q701s at home? If you already have a DAC/amp for that, then try your Sonys to see if it improves the sound out of them.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Stillhart View Post

3 - I have a Nexus 4 phone.  It was top of the line a year ago.  How does the SQ on that compare to the iphones that people are raving about?  Should I just be listening off my phone instead of my ****ty Dell?

Have you tried your phone vs. your Dell? Your ears can tell you which is better sounding.

As far as how good the audio section is on the Nexus 7 compared to other phones, you'd have to research that. Sometimes manufacturers don't put a lot of effort into the internal phone DAC/headphone amp design. Some computers are better than others.
Quote:
Originally Posted by Stillhart View Post

3b - Assuming I have a best-in-class DAC in my phone, comparable to the iphone, would a $90 E07K help anything?  Would I need to jump up to something much better (read: more expensive)?

Double amping out of the headphone jack by hooking another amp to your phone could help with your Q701s. It's not optimal, though.

However, if you want to use the DAC and the headphone amp with your phone, know that not all Android phones are USB audio compatible, and not all USB DACs are Android compatible. Seems I remember hearing that the Nexus 7 might be a be a problem with that (research it). E17 is also problematic for use with Android. FiiO E18 would be better (which is why FiiO released it), but that doesn't mean it will work right with the Nexus.
Edited by cel4145 - 3/18/14 at 8:49am
post #10 of 28
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by SomeGuyDude View Post
 

The chain of command goes

 

Source files

Headphones

Amp

DAC

Cables

 

You throw cheap headphones on the best DAC/Amp combo in the world and they're still gonna sound the same. Meanwhile, upgraded headphones can make a world of difference even on crummy files. A DAC/amp is there clean up and (derp) amplify the signal. If your headphones are lackluster all you're gonna get is a louder version of that sound. It doesn't radically alter output unless the headphones themselves require more power.

 

Thanks, this is pretty helpful.  I wish there were a primer on this site for basic info like this.  :-D

 

 

Quote:
Originally Posted by cel4145 View Post


In that case, I would vote for getting a DAC/amp to use with your computer and the Q701s. An E17 should be an improvement over your PC audio for use with them since they are a bit difficult to drive. May not make much difference with your inexpensive Sonys.

So what source are you using for your Q701s at home? If you already have a DAC/amp for that, then try your Sonys to see if it improves the sound out of them.
Have you tried your phone vs. your Dell? Your ears can tell you which is better sounding.

As far as how good the audio section is on the Nexus 7 compared to other phones, you'd have to research that. Sometimes manufacturers don't put a lot of effort into the internal phone DAC/headphone amp design. Some computers are better than others.
Double amping out of the headphone jack by hooking another amp to your phone could help with your Q701s. It's not optimal, though.

However, if you want to use the DAC and the headphone amp with your phone, know that not all Android phones are USB audio compatible, and not all USB DACs are Android compatible. Seems I remember hearing that the Nexus 7 might be a be a problem with that (research it). E17 is also problematic for use with Android. FiiO E18 would be better (which is why FiiO released it), but that doesn't mean it will work right with the Nexus.

 

So right now at home, I'm using the Q's for gaming.  My source is either the Xbox One through my Recon3D for virtual surround, or my PC through a Recon3D.  I'll be upgrading my PC soon to have a better sound card that  will give me the ability to use an Amp and a DAC (over optical) later if I want.  I am considering getting a small amp (Schiit Vali is on my short list) to use with my Recon since it doesn't quite provide enough power for my Q's.

 

For listening to music from my home PC... well frankly, I just don't do that as much as I once did.  I have a baby now so no headphones when he's awake.  And after he's asleep, I'm usually hanging out with the wife or gaming.  Most of my music-listening is at work now.  Hence this thread.

 

Good idea about trying the phone vs the Dell.  I can't believe that didn't occur to me.  Regardnig the USB DAC with the phone, yeah, I read some stuff about that.  I'll definitely do more research if I decide to go that way, but I don't suspect I will.  I mean, if I have a DAC anyways, it's more convenient to just run it off my computer.

 

So anyways, I have a Fidelio X1 on the way (to test against the Q701 and see which to keep).  Maybe I'll just keep them both and have one for work and one for home...

post #11 of 28
Quote:
Originally Posted by Stillhart View Post

Thanks, this is pretty helpful.  I wish there were a primer on this site for basic info like this.  :-D

So right now at home, I'm using the Q's for gaming.  My source is either the Xbox One through my Recon3D for virtual surround, or my PC through a Recon3D.  I'll be upgrading my PC soon to have a better sound card that  will give me the ability to use an Amp and a DAC (over optical) later if I want.  I am considering getting a small amp (Schiit Vali is on my short list) to use with my Recon since it doesn't quite provide enough power for my Q's.

For listening to music from my home PC... well frankly, I just don't do that as much as I once did.  I have a baby now so no headphones when he's awake.  And after he's asleep, I'm usually hanging out with the wife or gaming.  Most of my music-listening is at work now.  Hence this thread.

Good idea about trying the phone vs the Dell.  I can't believe that didn't occur to me.  Regardnig the USB DAC with the phone, yeah, I read some stuff about that.  I'll definitely do more research if I decide to go that way, but I don't suspect I will.  I mean, if I have a DAC anyways, it's more convenient to just run it off my computer.

So anyways, I have a Fidelio X1 on the way (to test against the Q701 and see which to keep).  Maybe I'll just keep them both and have one for work and one for home...

Glad that helped smily_headphones1.gif

The X1 should be easier to drive than the Q701s--plus it will have more bass--so you might like the way that they sound better.

The FiiO E17 will charge itself via USB while plugged into the computer. So it's a good choice for a computer.

I looked into Android phone USB audio stuff about a year or so ago. It's still its early stages. For instance, its my understanding that E17 only works with a special voice recorder pro app instead of with your chosen media player. The XDA developer site tends to be one of the best places to find people that actually know what they are talking about when it comes to what works or doesn't with Android and USB audio.
post #12 of 28
Quote:
Originally Posted by Stillhart View Post
 

So right now at home, I'm using the Q's for gaming.  My source is either the Xbox One through my Recon3D for virtual surround, or my PC through a Recon3D.  I'll be upgrading my PC soon to have a better sound card that  will give me the ability to use an Amp and a DAC (over optical) later if I want.  I am considering getting a small amp (Schiit Vali is on my short list) to use with my Recon since it doesn't quite provide enough power for my Q's.

 

You might consider selling off the Recon3D and replacing it with the Sound Blaster Z.

They both use the SoundCore3D audio processor.

Were as the SoundCore3D provides the DAC feature for the Recon3D, the Sound Blaster Z also comes with a CS4398 DAC chip, which handles the front speaker and headphone output.

So you might get a decent improvement in audio quality by switching to the SB-Z.

post #13 of 28

The headphone upgrade generally will make the biggest difference... BUT thats assuming your source data and the laptop you are plugging into is decently clean, accurate, and overall capable in the first place.  Laptop sound quality varies tremendously... to make sweeping generalizations here would be incorrect and could mis-lead you into the wrong purchase.

 

Grados for example sound very good straight out of a Macbook Pro... surprisingly good (IMHO).  The manufacturers will try and marketeer their wares, and get you to spend $$$ on products that may not really be that much of a sonic upgrade.

post #14 of 28
Thread Starter 
Quote:
Originally Posted by PurpleAngel View Post
 

 

You might consider selling off the Recon3D and replacing it with the Sound Blaster Z.

They both use the SoundCore3D audio processor.

Were as the SoundCore3D provides the DAC feature for the Recon3D, the Sound Blaster Z also comes with a CS4398 DAC chip, which handles the front speaker and headphone output.

So you might get a decent improvement in audio quality by switching to the SB-Z.

 

I picked up the Recon3D on clearance at Fry's for $5.  It's a step up from my on-board Realtek POS, but that's about it.  My next planned upgrade for the PC was going to be a Z, actually. That would allow me to have a better sound right out of the card, but also let me upgrade to just Amp or both Amp+DAC, whicle still using the card as a DSP for 3D audio.  Or that's the theory at least.

 

At work, that's not an option as I'm using a laptop.  Tho, perhaps and Omni would do the same.  I don't need the 3D audio, though, I'm thinking something more traditional might work better for music.

post #15 of 28
Quote:
Originally Posted by Stillhart View Post
 

A lot of interesting, conflicting information here.  Let me see if I can parse it out:

 

1 - The Sony cans I bought were recommended on Head-fi in the $0-70 range.  I wouldn't buy another set to replace those unless it was in the $100+ range.  So far they sound noticeably better than the earbuds I was using, FWIW.

 

2 - I have an AKG Q701 at home.  I could see myself bringing those in to work on days when I plan on listening to a lot of music.  That's one of the reasons I was thinking about prioritizing the DAC/Amp.

 

3 - I have a Nexus 4 phone.  It was top of the line a year ago.  How does the SQ on that compare to the iphones that people are raving about?  Should I just be listening off my phone instead of my ****ty Dell?

 

3b - Assuming I have a best-in-class DAC in my phone, comparable to the iphone, would a $90 E07K help anything?  Would I need to jump up to something much better (read: more expensive)?

 

I suspect so far from the responses that a DAC/Amp will help, but it won't be as noticeable of a jump as it would be if I were using better cans.  However since I could also use it at home, where I do have better cans, it may still be a worthwhile purchase.

Oops I missed this follow up...

 

1- Cool deal, if they sound good stick with it.

 

2-Absolutely, My big home cans frequently travel with me to the office.  Where I just plug them into the macbook headphone or iPhone.  For casual quiet background music listening its serviceable, and adding a small SMT Cmoy really isn't justified.  One of these days I'll splurge a little on a better portable amp, but for now I am completely content.  In your case however, a better DAC/Amp might be beneficial depending on the capabilities of the Dell headphone out.

 

3- Nexus4 versus Dell... give it a whirl and stick with whichever sounds better, through either of your cans.  Go with what sounds best.

 

3b- I am contemplating the same exact thing with my iPhone and macbook... adding a E07k, for its DAC.  I just don't know the answer to that question, without trying it myself.  I might just try it for the cool factor and nothing more.  One things for sure, cans like your Q701 and my K701 are detail revealing enough to expose whats upstream.

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