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A note to newbies

Discussion in 'Headphones (full-size)' started by helicopter34234, Aug 28, 2010.
  1. helicopter34234
    From a recent newbie to all of the current newbies who are feeling out the whole hi-fi headphone situation, I just want to give my unqualified advice.  I felt I was missing out on "hearing" the best I could, so I embarked on my journey of testing out hi-fi audio equipment. 
    I got a Zero Dac, a little Dot MKII tube amp http://www.head-fi.org/forum/thread/393573/sold-brand-new-little-dot-mk-2-ii-170-shipped, Beyerdynamic DT 770-PRO Headphones (for $108 on Amazon, I'm a lucky smuck) and Sleek SA6's IEMs.  Disclaimer: I am not by any means an expert in any area of audio science.  I Ab-x'd all of my equiptment.  What I learned was that headphones made the biggest difference.  I could not tell any difference between the tube amp and my cheap sound card output (with my high-end headphones), hence I sold it (although my friend could just barely notice a difference between the two in favor of the tube amp).  I also couldn't really tell that much of a difference (i.e, none at all) between my Zero DAC and my sound card output (although I did keep it).  I Ab'xed lossless with LAME compression at V7 with numerous songs and found it to be transparent with my relatively high-end equiptment.  This may make me a freakishly non-discerning listener; however, this is what I found.  Even with my "crappy ears," I can clearly notice a difference between Sleek SA6's and more-so my Beyerdynamics and normal quality headphones. 
    If you are a newbie, please start by buying higher quality headphones.  I'm sure most of the people on this forum have freakishly acute hearing.  Therefore, they are plagued by their ability to hear the difference in the equipment they discuss.  I do not have any hearing disability that I am aware of (I think the ability to hear the differences in some of this equipment is related to perception abilities rather than pure sensory abilities).  Therefore, for the "normal person.," my unqualified opinion is that the headphones make the biggest difference, up until what most people on this forum consider "medium quality" headphones.  To all of the experts: please chime in with why my statements don't make sense.  Thanks.
    Edit: Sorry for not paragraphing the original post.  It was a late night impulsive rant, so good writing structure fell by the wayside.
  2. KingStyles Contributor
    You are correct that the headphone will produce the most change in a system. When I first came to headfi I would have probably sounded a lot like you. I went to my first meet and heard different equipment and couldnt get a grasp on all the changes that different dacs and amps can make to a system. As i went to more meets and havbe different equipment in my own system I have found there are differences between different amps and dacs and tubes. I have grown with time to find that the differences stated are small but are recognizable when you have trained yourself to tune into these small differences. Its not being not able to hear it, it is more not being trained to notice it. Like a fine wine taster that can smell the wine and know wither it is good or not or a cook that can taste a dish and know exactly what spices and ingredients went into it. Analyzing audio takes time and training to be able to decipher these small changes just like you would expect any other expert in any other field. If you are happy where you are at then sit back and enjoy the music and leave the small changes to those who want to spend the time analyzing. If you want to get to the point of picking up the differences than just give it time.
  3. cravenz
    I'm by no means an expert, but thought I'd chime in before I embark on an attempt to catch up with uni work desperately. One iffy bit, I really wish you paragraphed your text, but that's another thing altogether. I will not be commenting on your own equipment as I don't have much experience with them and I've only briefly listened to the dt 770pros and I didn't like them much, but for the deal you got, I'm sure it's good value [​IMG].
    Anyhow, from my knowledge, there are different links to the chain. There is the source material (lossy/lossless) then the source (dac) and then the amp, before the headphones/IEMs. i.e. source material - source - amp - headphones.
    A lot of all this is subjective and I'll try to be as competent and coherent in laying this out and hopefully, in an understandable manner. I'll be breaking it up into the chain mentioned above so I'll only talk about that specific unit and then from that unit as to how it affects the units before itself in the chain. Also, please note that I will be trying to go about it in simple terms and hopefully, not convoluted and I will be missing out on more in depth material, so this is really just to me, at least, basic theory.
    Source Material
    Firstly, I'll start with the source material. What's frequently said on the boards is that the sound will only be as good as your source material and I couldn't agree more. Therefore, if you feed it something that has rather absurd compression rates, you will more than likely find yourself to be listening to rubbish. However, there are several threads going around where 128kbps was tested against lossless and many, including myself had trouble discerning which was which and at the end of it all, the consensus was that 128kbps encoding has gone on in leaps and bounds compared to the days of yesterday and some people are still unaware of this.
    This is where the DAC comes in. What the DAC does is it attempts to resolve the sound. Some DACs up-sample the bit-rates, some clean up sound, some just portray the music as is. Some DACs may colour the sound and making it seem warmer or more "musical" to some people. More often than not, the DAC deals with instrument separation and usually enhances the sound with slight manipulation (may not be the best word) of the highs and lows, etc.
    There are different kind of amps, SS and tube and it is often seems to be that the tube amps are warmer in sound signature. But essentially, the job of the amp is to take the signal from the source and bring it up to speed with your headphones and in the case of a SS amp, opamp rolling is a frequent occurrence. What opamp rolling does is to change the sound signature slightly. Some tighten the bass, some loosen it and the same goes for the treble etc. But these effects are subtle on some headphones and less obvious on others. E.g. If I had a bass heavy headphone, tightening and taking away sub-bass would be a difference that can be heard, but where you have one that is bass light and with bass roll off, then you probably won't hear much difference seeing that the sub-bass was probably non-existent in the first place.
    The other job of the amplifier is to power your headphones. With enough "juice", the amplifier is able to drive your selected headphones to optimum power and optimum effect. Not all headphones require an amplifier to sound their best. A power hungry headphone might struggle with a basic setup and what happens is that the headphone just sounds lethargic and thin when compared to being powered by a amplifier capable of meeting its needs. The thinness will not be apparent until you compare it to an amp which matches the headphones. But when this does happen, often the headphone will start to open up, even in soundstaging and with better instrument separation, but in my opinion, it is only because it is finally being fed with enough "juice" to reproduce the effects of the DAC on the source material. Yes, some degree of added separation may be from the amplifier itself, but this is where there is some debate as to which is more important, the DAC or the amplifier and that is really dependent on headphones to some degree.
    These are the last in the chain and to be honest, I'm very much in agreement with you that with decent source material, these are the difference makers in the sound. Again, it boils down to the headphones only producing what the source material has fed the other links in the chain, but the headphones are the ones that bring the character and its own sound signature, e.g. being bass heavy, light, treble brightness, etc and other flavours.
    More often than not, the headphones without the DAC and amplifier will usually sound similar to when it is paired, but the major differences when pairing it right are to some extent, due to the fact that many are attuned to good sound. But at the same time, without a good amp, assuming your headphones require one, they will sound less full-bodied and less energetic when they are then fed a amp which synergises well with it. That is what brings the headphones to life.
    The differences from the DAC and amplifier are more subtle because at the end of the day, the headphones already have their own sound flavour and that will only change so much from a DAC and amplifier unit. In a way, the DAC and amplifier work like an EQ, not totally, but in some ways in that it manipulates the sound a little. The drivers in the headphones are the limit of its capabilities. In a bass light headphone, no amount of increasing the bass via EQ or other equipment is suddenly going to make the sub-bass come to life to sound anything like a headphone that already has sub-bass.
    The headphones are the life of the whole chain. If you don't like the headphones without the DAC and amplifier in the chain, it is still probably unlikely that you will like it when it has the right equipment because the sound signature and flavour of the headphones are already there for you to hear, it doesn't change drastically. There are exceptions of course.
    Alright. I think that is all from me. I'm open to correction and for people to question, etc. Please do remember that this is my own experience, I'm trying to keep it 'short' and simple and I'm by no means an expert in this field. I only enjoy my music and I think that is the most important in the hobby and probably the best advice I can give.
  4. kingtz


    So I heard that newbies are allergic to walls of text...
  5. Currawong Contributor
    helicoper: Good work. You'll find though that between all the cheap amps and DACs that are popular here, there isn't much between them, unless they make a distinct tonal difference to the sound.  This is why you heard a big difference between headphones most readily.  I took a weird path, buying expensive headphones first, so I found it easier to distinguish between components, but when I tried comparing components with my older, less capable headphones, couldn't hear much difference between my MacBook Pro's headphone/line out and the cheapest DAC/amp I have here.
    I do feel now there is a sweet spot somewhere around $1000-2000 or maybe $2500 with headphone rigs (DAC + amp + a very good pair of headphones) under which there's not a lot of difference, but over which you're starting to hit the law of diminishing returns.
  6. haloxt
    Helicopter, when you compare in-ears with full-sized headphones of course there's going to be differences. I could use the same argument and say because there's such a big difference between speakers and headphones you shouldn't buy sources and amps. And there's no way you can abx between headphones, or between speakers, so it doesn't matter if you can't pass abx tests on sources and amps and say you are certain that headphones are a certain degree more "different".
    To hear differences between dac's and amp's takes more time and patience than for headphones. It's counterintuitive to hear "flaws" in our sensory perception unless we're talking about different FR, trying to hear non-FR "flaws" may be fatiguing because it is contrary to how the senses are supposed to function, which is to gather data while the brain unconsciously renders input intelligible, or less flawed, to the conscious mind.
    The difference between sources and amps are different from the differences between headphones, which are always audibly different because of headphone FR and HRTF interactions. If you told me you could clearly abx the difference between the same exact headphone, but with 5 different drivers that measure the same FR, I would accept your statement that headphones make a bigger difference and believe what you say is the degree of the difference.
  7. helicopter34234
    Sorry for not paragraphing the original post.  It was a late night impulsive rant, so good writing structure fell by the wayside. 
    Cravenz, I do appreciate that there are many links in the chain, and each can alter the resulting output.  That is why I tried to somewhat systematically go through and see what differences I could hear.  I keep lossless versions of all of my audio for archiving purposes (in case I want to recencode to another format in the future).  However, I found that I couldn't Ab'x LAME V7 and lossless.  I know that there will always be subtle differences in equipment.  However, my arguments were directed toward newbies who aren't necessarily ready to dive in and become obsessed with picking out subtle differences in expensive equipment.  I imagine that many newbies that find their way to this site are simply looking for a reasonable upgrade that will allow them to hear a substantial difference in sound quality.  I was trying to dispel some of the mysticism that I felt when I first came here.  Based on many of the discussions, I thought that the only way I would hear good sound was with a great DAC and a great amp.  However, I now know I could have probably stopped with a good set of headphones.
    To clarify, what I was saying was that my Sleek SA6's are noticeably better than cheaper IEMs and earbuds.  Also, my Beyerdynamics are noticeably better than other cheaper full-sized headphones that I have tried.  I wasn't implying that the comparison was solely between IEMs and full-sized headphones. 
    That was precisely my point.  I was simply saying that headphone upgrades will give the biggest improvement (based on my limited experience).  I think the difference can be attributable to the higher frequency range that good headphones can support.  I think there is a big distinction between sound quality differences that you can immediately hear and those that you have to train your ears to hear.  Most newbies are probably interested in the former.  Once they are seeking the later, they cease to be newbies.
  8. p a t r i c k
    I think that, yes, the overall sound of the reproduction is set most by the headphones. My preference is for the headphones to have very little of their own sound so that you can hear the sound of the music.
    However for subtleties of nuance, timbre and contextualised detail (as opposed to overemphasised detail) I think that the source components actually are of more importance than the headphones.
    Even fairly average headphones will actually reproduce their input with an amazing degree of accuracy. This is because the headphone is essentially a very high quality way of converting electrical signals into music.
    Unfortunately hi fi has in the latter years become dominated by discussing euphony. I think a small amount of euphony is harmless and indeed can be very pleasant, but larger amounts are really awful imho.
    Personally I like headphones to be neutral, but not neutralising!
    The audio equipment must let the music happen, it must not be imposing some sonic signature upon it, that is very bad if it is doing that imho.
  9. haloxt

    I wrote it's harder to judge sources because I think you should give it another go to hear differences between dac's. It may take time and patience, but if you succeed the reward is a better ability to listen critically, not just to equipment, but to music. I don't think you know enough to make proclamations about what requires training, or about when a newbie ceases to be a newbie. And higher FR of good headphones is certainly not the only criterion for "sound quality differences". Each headphone has its own room acoustics and reacts differently to different people's heads.
  10. helicopter34234
    Thanks for not trying to sound condescending.  I didn't make any proclamations about what requires training, you did.  Based on your proclamation, I simply pointed out that if it requires time and training, then it obviously isn't as prominent of a difference as one that is immediately apparent (that's just simple math).  Also, please inform me of when a newbie ceases to be one.  I wasn't aware "newbie" had a rigorous definition for which you could pedantically critique my usage.
    I didn't say it was the only difference, just that the higher FR is what a novice listener will notice most between a cheepo pair of headphones and a more expensive set.
    Haloxt, you are clearly very knowledgeable about hifi, although a bit tactless, and I'm sure you have very discerning ears.  However, I think that sometimes those who pursue audio perfection forget about the 80/20 rule and lose perspective of what the average person is capable of hearing or is willing to spend (time/money) to hear.  When I was a newbie, I was listening with $20 Walmart headphones out of my laptop, and I came here to find out what I was missing in SQ.  Judging from the chatter in the forums, it seemed like each additional upgrade (stand-alone DAC, good amp) would bring a night-and-day difference to my listening experience.  However, it just didn't turn out that way for me. To me, the headphones made the biggest difference and the DAC/Amp didn't really add to my listening experience.  I let several of my non-audiophile friends test out different combinations of my equipment, and they all agreed that the headphones were worth the money but the DAC and Amp didn't really add much to their listening experience either (and certainly not for the price). 
    Clearly there are many people who can fully appreciate high-end equipment and find it worth the money.  However, my feeling is that most average people would be happy simply with a headphone upgrade and nothing else (neglecting those headphones that absolutely need a dedicated amp).  I started this thread to give newbies seeking a moderate increase in SQ a different perspective from the die-hard audiophiles who make it seem as if you don't have a good DAC/Amp, then you are basically listening through a tin can.
  11. Currawong Contributor
    When I came here at first, it was because the pads on my headphones, which I'd used directly out of my computer, had gone flat.  I do wish somewhat that I'd bought a pair of AT ESW9s at first and been happy. However, even they sell at a price point beyond which I would have been willing to spend. One factor may be that people budget on headphones, then are told they need an amp and DAC, go overboard, when they would have been better off just spending all that money on a good pair of headphones.   Some people have indeed been happy with a good pair of headphones out of their sound card.  I don't think I would have been ultimately, but I might have ended up doing things very differently.
  12. haloxt
    Helicopter, your problem is you keep making statements which you can't unless you've traveled the road. If you cannot hear the difference between the zero and a computer built-in soundcard, there are two possible conclusions, 1. audiophiles are seriously deluding themselves, or 2. you have not cultivated your hearing sufficiently to hear the difference, or somewhere in between.
    I didn't want to break down your posts before because I was hoping you would take my advice and just try to hear the difference in sources because that is the only way you can improve your critical listening of gear, and it also improves your critical listening to music. Instead you choose to make more statements which I don't believe is substantiated by your experience, so I must point out the mistakes now so people are not mislead by you.
    Training isn't the word I would use, more like untraining a lifetime of listening to low fidelity things like radios, tv's, computer built-in soundcards, and $2 speakers, etc.
    That is a fallacy, something does not have to be instantly obvious to all to be a prominent difference. Some people will say the differences in sources is more prominent than the differences between headphones, maybe because they listen to music differently, whether with training or without.
    The way you used it has no meaning.
    An assumption. Many stock headphones have 20-20khz. What novices like moving up from stock headphones is a richer sound, detail and soundstaging.
    Some people do not need time and patience to fully appreciate a top of the line audio setup, either because they have had a lot of experience with real life music or they haven't been accustomed into thinking the way low fidelity gear makes noise is how music appreciation should be.
    Headphones are but one part of the chain.
    There are worthwhile differences even between mp3 players, but you have to know how to listen critically to hear it. Some newbies can, most cannot, but I think everyone can if they have the patience, and listen for enough time for the differences to manifest in their conscious awareness.
    I don't value the price performance judgments of people unable to differentiate between computer built-in sound card and a standalone dac/amp.
    Again I suggest you have more patience to try to hear the difference between a computer built-in soundcard and the zero. I don't think you are qualified to advice newbies on which way to upgrade if you can't even hear the difference between a 25 cent sound card and $100+ dac/amp, all you are qualified for is illustrating how some people can't hear the difference between dac's and amp's.
    No dac and amp may not make your listening experience like listening through a tin can, but if you want to give advice to newbies, at least have a firm grasp of the thinking of the die-hard audiophiles. If you never traveled the mountain, how can you tell about it? Is it enough to just say, "the mountain must be too high to climb", or that "the mountain might be an illusion", when you never really try to climb the mountain? You can keep defending yourself saying you did try, but if you want to give advice all about the mountain to newcomers, I want some indicator that you do have a good knowledge of the mountain. The way you are describing audiophile equivalent of how to mountain-climb is funky.
  13. Prog Rock Man
    Helicopter, I came here when I already had a good mid range amp and headphones. I had already heard differences, particularly between headphones, but was already against any 'night and day' comparisons.
    There are others who have caused a storm by doing their own tests and finding that they cannot reliably differentiate between kit. I do think that such posts should cause such a storm as at least the poster has tried themselves, which many others have not. Worst IMHO are posts which recommend kit that has not been heard as being the best sounding, the direct opposite of what you have done Helicopter.
    I do agree that with experience (as in lots of listening to the same music, not 'training') it becomes easier to find differences. I find it easier to differentiate between kit and bit rates now than at the start. But, it is not night and day.
    I disagree with haloxt above where he says "I don't value the price performance judgments of people unable to differentiate between computer built-in sound card and a standalone dac/amp". That is because differences are often so small that they cannot be guaranteed and it is just as important for people to be able to say 'I cannot hear a difference' as it it is to say 'I can'. That way better judgments can be made as to how likely there is to be a noticeable difference. If it takes detailed and pro-longed listening to hear something, especially when cost of kit is taken into consideration, some things just may not be worth it to some people.
  14. haloxt
    Maybe not worth it, but who is better to judge, someone who has taken the time to try to note all the differences he can, or someone who simply says there is no difference whatsoever and flies in the face of the experience of many other audiophiles? A newbie who follows what Helicopter says may handicap himself by never considering source, and end up in a vicious cycle of trying different headphones to compensate for the shortcomings of his source.
    There are measurable differences between the zero, motherboard sound card, and little dot mk3 tube amp. Learning to appreciate the differences subjectively is a part of audiophilia. If you only upgrade headphones you will eventually get $400+ studio headphones that sound terrible on cheap sources, a common mistake on head-fi because people keep upgrading only headphones, which like patrick said so well, is easy to be revealing of source based on its design.
  15. violinvirtuoso
    No offense to newbies, but I agree with haloxt. It's hard to tell the difference between equipment, if your ears haven't been trained. The only reason that I can tell differences is because I've played the violin for about a decade. You have tune the notes perfectly to make things sound right, and be able to tell the difference between different violins (so you know you aren't getting screwed). Many of my friends however, couldn't tell a vast improvement between my JVC Marshmallows with Kramer Mod and Triple.Fi 10s. Headphones do make the biggest difference in the audio chain, but they aren't the only thing that makes a big improvement.
    I do agree with helicopter34234 that headphones make the biggest difference. If you can't hear a difference, don't spend so much. This why going to meets like Can Jam is such a valuable experience. If you honestly can tell a difference between an iPod and a Headroom Desktop DAC, don't buy the DAC.
    BTW, @haloxt: Isn't it about time to edit your signature and location?

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