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Are older model amps as good as newer models?

Discussion in 'Headphone Amps (full-size)' started by flargosa, Oct 29, 2017.
  1. flargosa
    I have noticed that many amp designs have remained unchanged for 10 or so years with no tweaks or improvements, it seems frozen in time. Woo audio, Ray Samuels and Mapletree, for example have many older amp models. Now there are a lot of newer designs at the same or cheaper price like Schiit and iFi. Are the older designs still worth the money? Is it like buying a 2005 Honda Accord vs a 2017 Accord? Where all aspects are improved?

    Are designers driving the same performance into lower and lower price points? Is it sensible to even consider a Ray Samuels or a Mapletree if you can get newer designs for cheaper with just as good reviews and more wattage output ?
    Last edited: Oct 29, 2017
  2. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    More like buying an HD600 vs an HD650. There are minor tweaks like the marginally higher sensitivity and smoother curve and deeper bass response on the HD650 vs HD600, but that came with one compromise - instead of a 3500hz peak and earlier bass roll off you have 40hz to 1000hz being markedly stronger than everything above 1000hz.

    If it's anything like the 2005 vs 2017 Accord, it's because many newer amps already have preamp outputs as standard vs amps from before 2010.

    For amps in general, not with headphone amps but with speaker amps: Class D topology. First it was just high efficiency but they had horrible distortion above 300hz or so, which was why they were not classified as fullrange amps intiially and were just subwoofer amps, but improvements in the late 2000s allowed for them to play fullrange without noticeably bad distortion. Given a big enough chassis and heatsink as well as power supply they can produce a lot more power than the cheap amps (note that even with high power Class D they're still a small fraction of what a Class A/B amp with the same output would be in terms of size, and produce a heck of a lot more power than a Class A amp of the same size).

    Add to that powered DAC circuits where the DAC chip basically goes directly into a power amp output stage, eliminating all other parts of the circuit (note this does not mean you just take a normal circuit and just omit everything between them), which while restricting source options, is still a great leap in terms of size and distortion/noise performance. This at least has made it into headphones as in the Chord DAC-HPamps.

    If you'd compare these amplifier developments to cars, this is basically kind of like choosing between the gasoline V12 Enzo vs the hybrid electric+V12 LaFerrari. Or a BMW M5 vs a Tesla P100D. Not that an F40, 456GT, M5, or RS6 will no longer be any fun.

    Headphone amps did not develop the same way for a number of reasons. First, and as was the thing about headphone amps vs speaker amp design, the former have to operate driving a wide range of nominal impedance loads. While speaker amps have to drive nominal loads of around 8ohms with 4ohms to 16ohms impedance swings (4ohms with 2ohms to roughly 12ohm swings for 12v amps), headphone amps have to drive all the way up to 600ohms. Class D amps might have developed well enough to play fullrange, but not at higher impedance loads, so as much as Class D sounds like it should be a great idea for headphone amps due to 7v or 9v/18v batteries as power sources for portable amps, they're not quite there yet.

    Past portable amps, power and effiiciency aren't real issues. Even portable Class A/B amps still get usable battery life, not to mention higher efficiency headphones or higher efficiency, higher isolation IEMs are options. And unlike speakers that in a large room will tend to require amps be delivered and installed by the dealer or have the end user pay a chiropractor, even the heaviest and most powerful headphone amps are nowhere near as big as speaker power amps (they still use one driver tube per channel vs half a dozen power tubes on the biggest power amp I've seen for speakers), and even then, you don't even need a giant amp to get all that power, like the Lyr and Magni, and in some cases, even ones that run Class A such as the Asgard don't even need all the fin area that you'd see on a First Watt amp for example.

    While there aren't wholesale improvements anywhere near the transition from Class A/B to Class D in speaker amps much less dead dinosaurs to renewable sources and (hopefully less) toxic (and recyclable) batteries in engines, refinements to headphone amp designs aren't exactly that bad, it's just that depending on what you want or how you want it to do its job, a newer amp might be better. It's a little bit more like the evolution from a 3.8L carburetor DOHC I6 that has greaat torque and smoothness to a 3.2L DOHC fuel injected BMW engine that can now do 8,000rpm.

    So basically the question is - do you want an E-Type or do you want an M3 (for I6 engines), or do you want a Camaro that still relies on a large V8 or do you want something more like an M4.
  3. Muinarc
    The basics behind amplifier topology haven't changed much at all. In the past 10 years headphone amps have gotten more powerful, and there are more options out there in the market. Amp development runs on much longer timelines than headphones or DACs do.
  4. flargosa
    Ok, so what you guys are saying is that the newer amps have a more refined design with more options. So I guess that translates to better sound?

    I just decided to upgrade my 4 yr old O2 amp and bought a Mapletree Ear + HD yesterday, also considered buying a Woo Wa6 and a Meir amp. I just realized all the amps I want are old, two are I think designed 10 + years ago. Now I have an even older amp than what I currently have. Well anyway, thanks for the replies.
  5. whirlwind
    Don't sweat it, that MadEar+HD amp you bought is stellar :)
  6. Guidostrunk
    FWIW, my current vintage (1973)Sansui AU-101, completely smokes any headphone/speaker amp I've previously owned for headphones. Visually, it doesn't look the part of stunning SQ, but I don't look at my music. Lol.
    richard51 likes this.
  7. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    As far as measurements are concerned, there are a lot of improvements. As to what you'll hear, it depends on what the headphone (or speaker) needs. For a time sensitivity on drivers with better response (wider, smoother curves) was a problem, then temporarily took a step backwards with inefficient planars, but even that has improved now that these are also getting higher sensitivity (still a bit lower than dynamic drivers but they're getting there).

    Basically, the biggest improvement is how much clean power you can get for less money. If we'll go back to your car example, it's still not like an old Accord vs a current Accord, but more like how back in the 1990s you had to spend a good deal of money on a Nissan 240SX, but now the same money can get you a faster, lighter, smaller Toyota GT86/Scion FRS/Subaru BRZ, which is also better balanced thanks to that boxer engine (think of the newer cars as the Magni, Vali, Rock, Jazz FF, etc).

    That said, again, the difference is that you can take the older car and time it around a track, and on practically any track the current boxer coupe will be faster than the old I4 coupe, no matter how amazing that SR20DE engine is. However if you're comparing a good, older, though more expensive amp to a current amp that has great value for money, in automotive terms it's like comparing the 2.0L Honda S2000 to the boxer coupe in that in the few reviews that thought to compare them, the newer cars aren't the clear winner, not even on the track where the results are easily quantifiable.

    If you go back to the S2000 vs GT86 example, it has to be thought of quite differently.

    If you have the S2000 and only use it as a weekend car anyway, ie, you're not putting on wear and tear that will make maintenance even more costly (and you have a cheap, run of the mill daily driver sedan or crossover with practical uses), then buying a new GT86 isn't a good idea, not even to replace the S2000 (more so when you consider how high the resale value on even the old 2.0L is because it was really just a damn great car - remember that people bought it despite being a stone's throw away from the price of a base C5 Corvette, and you get a lighter car with a high tech engine that has maintenance of its high tech engine as a downside).

    If you're just about to buy them your main problem really is maintenance/wear and tear. The older car has a lot of miles and even the chassis, being a sports car, might need some retouching. Amps are less likely to fail than cars that get jarred around since it's moving (and is a more complex set of systems that has a lot of parts that wear down), but it can happen.

    As for the Meier specifically, repairs can be a bit of an issue - this is like the K20 engine vs the LS1 where you can basically just waltz into any hot rod garage and they'd know what to do with it, even if it's EFI and not carb-fed, except that in North America or Asia for example it's not that hard to find somebody who can service that high tech Honda engine. In my case I can't get my Cantate.2 serviced properly here because no one can figure out what's wrong with it - they claim all measurements are fine. I'm thinking they might not be measuring an active ground circuit properly and are showing false readings. If you're in a place where you can ship it to Meier or anybody who knows active ground circuits well, or can look up the differences for diagnosing such a circuit vs a regular 2ch with shared ground circuit (or heck even a regular balanced circuit), then I wouldn't worry about the Meier and I would personally get it.

    I'd be more worried about your personal preference in sound than maintenance actually - many I know found the sound a bit boring. It's basically a more powerful O2 that doesn't shred your ears when cranked up, but otherwise it doesn't have the grunt of Violectric (which has the upper range smoothness of Meiers anyway) much less Burson amps.
  8. Currawong Contributor
    One thing to note is, 10 years ago, there weren't any planar headphones on the market. Once the LCD-2 came in, suddenly a lot more power was required.

    One area in which amps have improved is that the variety of components, such as OPAMPs, has increased considerably. It's very possible to cram a lot of power and capability into a smaller space than before. You can see that in the variety of DAPs available. For full-sized amps, I wouldn't say that, apart from the increase in power available for planar headphones, that much has changed beyond the increase in variety.
  9. flargosa
    Ok, so I looked up my current headphone specs, Focal Elear, it is 104db at 1 milliwatt. My previous headphone LCD-2 is 101dB at 1 milliwatt. So I guess at 20 to 30 milliwatt the headphones is painfully loud at 120 dB?

    If your amp can give clean power to 30 milliwatt isn’t that loud enough? The 15 year old Mapletree Ear + HD specs says maximum undistorted output at 70mW. Isn’t that loud enough? I listen at 80 to 90dB, I think. Maybe most listen around that same volume? So under 1 milliwatt, 99.9% of the time? Maybe 0.01% of time you will need 10 milliwatt maybe 20?

    When would you need 500 or 5,000 milliwatt of clean power?
  10. snellemin
    For people like me who likes to listen to his music at loud levels. Bass heavy music requires more power to get the dynamic drivers moving in full size headphones. Planars are different as they require more voltage over current to get to loud levels.
    I use Parasound amps for home use, to power my headphones. The amps are old tech, but sound great with a simple Bursons opamp swap. More power then you will ever need and a dirt cheap price. My portable amp cost way more then the small Parasound zamp.
    I've tried different portable amps and the new stuff isn't any better then the old stuff. The looks are more up to date with the newer product. I personally like my 3 portable amps that are dated by current design standards. But they are louder then the Mojo. I loved how the mojo sounded like a proper classic amplifier. But to me it looks like a child's toy and one that can't drive my headphones to satisfactory loudness.

    My current 3 portable amps that sound very similar are Fiio DIY, Ibasso PB2 and the Ray Samuels Intruder. The intruder is the old dog in the group, but will hold it's own against any newer amp in both power and sound quality. The Fiio and Ibasso have more then enough power to hurt your ears with dynamic drivers, but no so much with Planars. With Planars the Ray Samuels Intruder is top dog. My fellow bass heads like the IFI Micro Idsd for bass power.

    Everybody hears different, so buy an amp that's more to your ears liking and not somebody else. I tried hard to match my FIIO and Ibasso to match B&K powered home setup. The Intruder is already on that level from the get go.

    I have lower powered portable amps and they are plenty loud for IEM's. Big drivers require more power and subbass in the JVC's will eat up all the juice your portable amp can feed it.

    The HD650 is a weakling and a small amp will suffice and the Elear is even worse. So money on amp power is not required for those; sound quality of the Mojo is what is required to drive those for example.

    For headphone use, I feel like 350 dollars is the max I will pay for both power and sound quality within an amplifier. Anything more doesn't get you anything better.

    Many will argue that more money gets you better sounding amp. The basic amplifier circuit hasn't changed, since it had been invented. What has changed are the components building that basic circuit. The choice of the components effect the sound signature. The add-ons on top of the basic circuit is what makes you either like or dislike the sound signature. And sometimes all it takes is a bit of some sort of sound processing to get your there. It's either by hardware or software. But some so called purist will have none of that and rather buy a new amp with a different set of component selection to get the sound signature that is pleasing to their ears.

    Now back to 5W of clean power. Well you don't need it, but it's their when you need it during the transient at loud levels. This will make sure you are not clipping your amp, and destroying your headphones in the process.
  11. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    AFAIK I think there's something wrong with the stated specs. That's probably supposed to be at 1volt, ie, efficiency, and the decibel output for xxxdB/1v tends to be higher than what you'd get at xxdB/1mW, but they just put 1mW anyway.

    There's a reason why on some websites there's a variance, ie, Audezee can be listed as having 101dB/1mW but elsewhere it can be listed as 101dB/1v and then elsewhere, at 91dB/1mW. Same thing with AKG stating 100dB/1mW and then elsewhere it's 93dB/1mW. Sennheiser by contrast lists something like 105dB/1v on their website then any other site may list 97dB/1mW.

    That's also the reason why people argue over how easy they are to drive. Not that you can't get fairly loud with just 15mW, but they tend to sound lazy, which is also why some people think they're just totally laid back without having tried them on, say, a Burson, Violectric, etc.

    Well anything will be painfully loud instantly if it's well over 100dB (assuming the ears are close to where the measuring mic is, ie, you can't measure 120dB in a speaker system inside a room then step outside the house to gauge it by ear pain).

    That said, the math isn't 1:1 on power input and dB output. Assuming a given headphone does have 101dB/1mW, you still need roughly double the power to get 3dB louder, so roughly you'll get to 116dB with 30mW. Still painfully loud (assuming that is 101dB/1mW) but it won't hit 120dB.

    Also, the 120dB target is basically a highly safe target to be able to assume that the amp would likely not put in a lot of distortion, which increases with power (although more power means you're farther from clipping). In some cases, ie, a very efficient headphone (or as wiht speakers, an efficient speaker in a small enough room) will work with a lower output amp, and work well as long as it has very low distoriton and noise (think O2, Gilmore Lite, etc) and you don't get to the point where it clips, but if efficiency is low it's easier to work with an amp that is known to have high power and low distortion and noise, under the assumption that THD+N will be even lower if you're not using a good chunk of the available power.

    If the headphone has a more accurate 98dB/1mW and is at the impedance range where the amp delivers 30mW, then yes.

    Note also that there really isn't any standard for power ratings and some manufacturers do it differently vs distortion. This is very common with speaker gear where you have a small company's integrated amp wiping the floor with HT receivers, and the common misconception is that the former is "underrated" (something also common in car audio) whereas the other is "overrated" as in outright lying about specs. It's more complex than that. The good amps are rated along the lines of "50watts per channel at 0.001% THD" (and then it might even run Class A until about 15watts, and some people don't go past that) whereas the receiver is rated along the lines of "175watts x 7channels(!!!!WOWOWOWOW!!!)" on the box then in some obscure corner of the manual the fine print goes "*one channel driven, 1%THD."

    You don't need 5watts. Anything with 96dB/1mW will hit 120dB with as little as 300mW, and roughly 600mW for as low as 93/dB/1mW.

    Also, even then, it's not about continuous power delivery, but to get clean dynamic range. And even then you don't necessarily hit 120dB. Like I said, getting a powerful amp with clean output allows for the assumption that, at the lower output level, not only are you farther from clipping, but you're getting lower THD+N. And, again, not even 1watt per channel, unless the sensitivity is around 90dB/1mW or lower. So as much as I'll say it's preferable that an amp can potentially hit 120dB peaks with a given headphone (taking note of impedance and sensitivity), I'm not one to say you need 5watts per channel. Of course, in some cases, some people will just order a $399 Lyr than a $425 Jazz FF for the lower cost (though most don't realize that Meier includes shipping in the stated price; EU prices include EU taxes too, and anybody in the US doesn't have to worry about import duties anyway).

    As sensitivity goes even higher the trend for more powerful amps will reverse itself and amp manufacturers can focus on just making for low THD+N without the need for absurdly high levels of output power.
    snellemin likes this.
  12. Currawong Contributor
    It's about the linearity of the power delivery under load, not just numbers.
    snellemin likes this.
  13. richard51
    My Sansui Au 7700 of 1978, driving the most difficult headphone (Akg k 340 ) or all my other headphones,smokes all other headphone amplifiers i had to dust....I had try five different one...More,my Sansui had features of high quality order that no other new headphone amplifier or even speakers amplifier have, a complete separation of amplification section for a high quality pre-amp section, tone controls section that equal the better TOTL like Mcintosh said my knowledgeable repairman, filters, and many more, like different impedance choice value for different turntable, and many more too long to write here, all that for 150 bucks paid....Vintage is the way to go, legendary amplifier are true TOTL because their proof have been verified each year passing....Only if you want portable amplifier you must buy an headphone amplifier....My lesson was learned with my money,i wish someone said that to me 7 years ago, dont waste money on hype, buy a legend...:L3000:

    Not only that is true for Amplifier,but for headphone also, the better headphone i had is a vintage one, paid 150 bucks,and it smokes to dust my 2 Stax, my hifiman planar, and my beyerdynamic DT-150, and i will never listen to them again; why listen to headphones that has no soundstage, no naturalness, or no imaging, no 3-d holographic and organic sound and that are more fatiguing to listen to?....This headphone is better than my speakers, and i had the top model of Mission cyrus speakers on my desk tweaked for a better sound...I will not name this headphone, to not inflate price, but the intelligent reader will guess it....:ksc75smile: And like said the great Guidostrunk :«Visually, it doesn't look the part of stunning SQ, but I don't look at my music.»

    Dont waste money on hype,buy a legend!
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2017
  14. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    It doesn't have to be portable.

    Most headphone set ups are on a desk that shares that space with a computer (though in some cases the computer isn't necessarily the primary source for pure audio) or in some other smaller space, not a dedicated speaker system with headphones for night time listening, and a giant amp like those will not always fit.

    That size makes for another problem: shipping costs. You can get such an amp for under $200, but if the buyer can't get it for local pick up, the shipping cost can easily go well above $50. And you have to pack it properly without the original packing material. Add to that how the bulkier and heavier the item the more likely the delivery guy working by himself can mishandle it thinking, "I'm not getting paid enough for this! *drops."

    Add not having a warranty, which even if that doesn't seem to be a problem, if the end user doesn't have a repair tech within driving distance, then add that high shipping cost for a large and heavy product for when it needs to get fixed.

    Not everybody lives in Southeast Asia where things junked by the Japanese and Koreans get raided by audiophiles as soon as the junk containers arrive in port in case there's some legendary amp there that has a higher value even if it has to be repaired than have the recycling plant tear them apart.

    I rescued a Technics dual mono power amp that way and while it did have a lot of gain for headphones, it still made my Grados sound like tin cans (not to mention it's the worst headphone for a high gain amp) thanks to the output impedance on the headphone output. Even my CMOY was better than it (as well as my NAD 304 and Marantz CD60). So even if those aforementioned problems are not a concern, unless the buyer can find a headphone review for a specific amp, it's still a gamble as to whether their AKGs will sound like tin cans on it even if it has enough power.
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2017
  15. richard51

    I understand, and sometimes we need what we needed, but if someone takes his time, and wait to buy with a little luck a vintage product , it is a great experience, for sure there is no warrenty, and for example i pay for caps replacement.... I said what i said because it takes me many years to read this same advice by someone else here some years ago and this advice makes me more than happy....I apologize for my rant....
    Last edited: Nov 1, 2017

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