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Best bang for buck, Amp/DAC or headphone upgrade... or both (~$250)

post #1 of 11
Thread Starter 



I've been reading and researching different peices of equipment, and I can't come to a conclusion on my own. 


My sources are:


iPhone 4

phono stage

Cowon s9


Music styles:

Classical/Orchestral (strings mostly, violin and cello)

Classic Rock (The Band, Eric Clapton, The Kinks)


I currently own a pair of Grado SR-60s.  I love them to death, (literally, they've been resurrected a few times).  I just recently switched the stock pads for the open cups that come with the more expensive grados in the SR line (what a difference that made!).  I travel a fair bit, though not a huge amount.  I listen to music in my office with an obnoxious air handler, so I'm looking for noise isolating headphones.


The amplifier that my phonograph was hooked up to recently died, and I don't have the time to tear it apart and fix it (it was a junk store find when I was an undergraduate).


I have ~$250 to spend (could stretch it to $300, but no more)  on some components.  I want a DAC, but I also want to be able to listen to vinyl, so a DAC/amp that could take a line in from the phono preamp would be awesome.  Since I move back and forth (and don't have the money to buy two of things) the more portable the better. 


I would also like a pair of headphones that is more noise isolating than the grados are for work and travel.  I'll leave the grados at home where its just me and the grandfather clock. 


As far as whats important in sound: not bass heavy, very detailed, and even across the spectrum (pronounced mids without harsh treble). 


Would it be better to sink all the money into a nice DAC/Amp and keep the Grados going for a while, or is there a compromise between headphones and the DAC/Amp.  Should I get a dedicated DAC, and a portable Amp?  Theres just too many combinations, and I want to make sure I get the most bang for my buck.

post #2 of 11
The iPhone and S9 have reputations for very good sound for portable devices. I think you'd get a very miniscule upgrade over how they sound with DAC/amp unless you spend most of your budget, unless you buy headphones that are difficult to drive (Grados are easy to drive with portable devices). How does your laptop sound compared to your iPhone and S9? Maybe if it needs help, you should focus on improving its sound?

As for headphones, how about the Soundmagic HP100? A little large for travel (but it might not bother you). Closed, so much more isolating than the Grados. And a neutral response. Here's a review: http://noblehifi.blogspot.com/2012/10/soundmagic-hp100-review.html Also, the AKG K550, which I own, sound very good. Their fit can be kind of finicky.

As for your phonograph, do you have a phono stage? Or have you been using an amplifier with one built in? If you don't have a phono stage, you would need one to plug it into a headphone amp AND you would need a headphone amp with a pre-amp so that you could adjust the volume. This will all eat up your budget pretty quickly. You might do better to pick up a used receiver with built in phono stage off your local Craigslist.
post #3 of 11
Thread Starter 

I've built the "Very simple Phono stage" http://phonoclone.com/diy-pho5.html
 and I own the ART DJ PRE II http://www.amazon.com/ART-II-Preamplifier-Output-Switchable/dp/B000AJR482


I just need the headphone amp to connect to either of those two preamps.  I'm always impressed by the sound out of my Cowon S9.  The Sound out of my laptop is lifeless in comparison, though I end up listening to the laptop 90% of the time out of convenience.  I was looking at the FiiO E17 as a possible solution. 


I'm not too concerned about driving the Grados as they are easily driven now.  I'm more interested in a DAC/Amp that will give me some room to grow (though not much, I'll never shell out more than ~$200 for a single peice of equipment). 

post #4 of 11
The Schiit Modi and Magni dac/headphone amp stack is generally considered probably the best bang for the buck for ~$200.

If you want a combo DAC/headphone amp with line out or pre-amp out so you don't have to plug and unplug your DAC to your other equipment, Audioengine D1 and TubeMagic D1 would be worth looking into.

E17 is good for a portable solution at it's price point. Audioquest Dragonfly would also be worth investigating in that they just came out with v1.2 for $150, so now the old version is selling for $100.
post #5 of 11
Thread Starter 

Based on your suggestions (all good, I haven't considered them before) it seems that I should spend on one or the other.  Then maybe I should get an amp for the phono stage and a DAC for the laptop?  The Tubemagic D1 looks really awesome, accept that I would like to be able to tote it back and forth from work... The dimensions look like its roughly the size of a medium sized book.  I also like the idea of the Schiit Magni/Modi since I could purchase them at separate times.  Maybe I should get the Magni and a set of 'phones to go with?

post #6 of 11

 I listen to Clapton, Steely Dan, Timmons, some classical. For the money you cannot beat a well-modded Fostex T50RP for sweet mids.


I tried almost all the popular headphones available on the market in the price range - DT770/880/990, Shure SRH840/940, M50s, Senn HD558/598/660/650/Momentum, Vmoda M100, HD600, HD25-II, Grado 225i/325i, AKG Q701, K702, K550, B&W P3/5/7s, probably missing a few.


Most of them have recessed mids, as they are meant for pop music, or have very neutral tone (but those tend to be a little sharp in the high end). Among these the only ones whose sound I liked were both Shures, and maybe the 325i (but it's $300). However they both have comfort issues, in my opinion


In the end I settled on a pair of Mr Speakers Mad Dogs, the mids just blew me away. It's like liquid gold. That's the legendary "ortho magic"... The only issue is they need an amp, which you are considering anyways.


So, if you are looking for headphones, I would strongly suggest looking at the ZMF modded ($250) or Mr Speakers ($300) T50RPs. For the amp, you could get a Magni (not so portable) or one of the cheaper Fiio amp-only options, or the cmoy? I don't think you need a DAC unless the majority of music is played from your laptop.


I know it might be slightly out of your budget ($250 phones + $50-100 amp) but frankly I doubt other sub $300 headphones will be a huge jump (especially for your musical taste) compared to the SR60i. 

At the same time spending $200 on a good DAC/AMP but keeping your SR60i is not going to give you a huge boost either. So perhaps upgrade one now, and save up for another upgrade...

Edited by kidster18 - 4/23/14 at 10:55pm
post #7 of 11
Thread Starter 

Can anyone suggest a usb DAC that is similar sound quality to the Cowon S9?  that uses a Wolfson WM8750S internal DAC (whatever that means... :) ) http://iaudiophile.net/forums/showthread.php?t=24903


I really like the sound of the s9.  I just played the same song through my laptop, my s9 and my iPhone, and the s9 sounds incredible compared to the other three.  I don't usually use my s9 unless I'm travelling, but I just realized its the best source I have!  It also has convinced me that I need a DAC for my laptop sooner rather than later.

post #8 of 11
Originally Posted by ocmsRzr View Post

Can anyone suggest a usb DAC that is similar sound quality to the Cowon S9?  that uses a Wolfson WM8750S internal DAC (whatever that means... smily_headphones1.gif ) http://iaudiophile.net/forums/showthread.php?t=24903

You are right when you say "whatever that means." The particular DAC chip doesn't tell one much; how the chip is implemented is way more important.

The S9 is well known for having good SQ.

Modi and Magni. Best bang for your buck in SQ for your laptop. smily_headphones1.gif
post #9 of 11
Thread Starter 

I'm completely overwhelmed by the number of products out there.  I'm really considering the Marshall Monitors for the following reasons:

- Ability to modify sound slightly with inserts (may be gimmicky, but this undeniably adds versatility for different music styles no?)

- Price point (150 on Amazon leaves me room for a Dac or Amp)

- Designed for mobile use (this will be the pair that goes on trips and to the noisy office, so isolation is important, I've got the SR-60s for sublime home listening)

- Also designed to sound good out of an iPod or other mobile source (this I've realized important to me, since they'll be plugged into many difference sources)

- The packaging,  marketing and overall aesthetic of the headphones (yeah, I know I'm a sucker)

- Ability to plug different cables in, in line mic for phone/laptop use when video conferencing, ability to daisy chain another pair of headphones (especially when I want to watch a movie on the plane with my wife...)


I know they haven't been suggested in this thread, but the reviews I've read haven't been completely negative.  Its a slight bonus that I can audition them at BestBuy to make absolutely sure their sound fits my style.


I've also realized I *need* a DAC for the laptop.  I honestly thought it was BS, but hearing the difference between the S9 and my laptop with the exact same files proves the point nicely.  Since the Headphones have eaten 150 of the budget, I have ~100 left for a DAC or DAC/Amp.  This may be a stupid question, but can I get the Modi DAC now, and add the Magni Amp later?  I realize that to reach the full potential I need the Magni, but in the interim, is it possible to listen to the DAC output without the Amp? (runs to get flame retardant clothing)
If not,  the older DragonFly fits my budget.

post #10 of 11
Nope. The Modi needs a headphone amp to go with it. It's just a DAC. However, you can start with the Magni, then add the Modi later smily_headphones1.gif
post #11 of 11

If you intend to use your cans for mobile use, I strongly recommend a mobile DAC/AMP (e.g. Fiio E17/E07K, or Leckerton) for dual-purpose use. It's a USB DAC/Amp and doesn't require drivers so you can bring it everywhere. I use it with my iPod with Line-out Dock on the go, with my laptop at school and my desktop at home. It definitely boosts audio quality especially with laptops.


If you already have an iPod (which has a decent DAC) it might not be worth it to spend money on a full DAP like the Fiio X3 (which has similar audio performance to the E07K, except supporting 24/96), In fact you can even output the digital out directly to the DAC/AMP from your iphone if you wish, with an Apple USB camera adapter


Since you mentioned daisy chaining of the Marshall, I wanted to say that the E17/E07 have two output jacks so you can enjoy the music from the amp without worrying about signal loss through a bad cable, for example.


The biggest complaint about the marshall seems to be their recessed mids/treble and lack of detail. Compromises I guess, but there aren't any compromise-free $150 cans. Ideally you should try your shortlisted cans in store before making a decision.

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