Beginner's DAC/Amp Combo
Nov 30, 2008 at 10:44 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 17

Deiz

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So, I'm getting a friend into headphone audio. He's had a pair of SR60s and PX100s for a year or two, and is likely to buy either an AD500, K240S, or 7506 (with Beyer pads).

Keeping in mind that the AD500 is not the easiest to drive, and the K240S is a downright pig (91 dB sensitivity), if he goes with either of those he'd do much better with an amp (His portable source being a gen-5.5 iPod, and his semi-portable source being a laptop with a horrid headphone amplifier) whereas the 7506s are fairly efficient and likely passable without an amp.

Now, I am not a portable guy. I own one DAP, an iPod Mini I received as a present in 2005. It's seen maybe ten hours of use. Thus, I'm rather ignorant about portable amps.

From what I've seen, most cheap non-DAC amps are powered by a number of batteries, usually several AAAs or a 9V. I see that as non-ideal. There are good, rechargeable AAAs, certainly - But that entails opening up the amp and swapping the batteries. In the case of amps that are powered by 1-2 AAAs, that would quickly become a pain in the ass. With 9V batteries, AFAIK there are no good rechargeables, so constantly buying primaries would become a major expense in relation to the principal paid for the amp. There are also those that have a DC input for recharging. Again, pain in the ass for portable use as you've now got to have an outlet to recharge the amp, plus you need a wall wart.

It would seem that many DAC/Amps have USB inputs which provide signal and charge to a lithium ion battery, which is advantageous for two reasons: One, my friend says he plans to use the DAC/Amp at his desk mostly, and portability is just a boon. Thus, it makes sense to improve the signal path with an outboard DAC. Two, USB input means he can charge the amp from the laptop, which is handy for quick hook-ups at home, and useful for extending run-time on the go.

To rule brands out:
I prefer HeadAmp to RSA, thus the Pico trumps the Predator in my opinion.
Meier makes some great gear, but I hear they lack synergy with Sennheiser 'phones, plus all the portables are 9V-powered.


So far I've come across a few suitable amps:
$100 Vivid Technologies V1: Rock-bottom price. I hear good things, especially for the price. Feature-rich compared to other amps at this price point.
$100 Nuforce Icon Mobile: Again, very cheap. Low-profile, line and headphone outputs. Horizontal knob's less than ideal, but what else do you want with something so thin?
$159 Total Bithead: Fairly cheap, able to be run without batteries via USB. No USB charging makes it non-ideal.
$165 iBasso D2; Low price point's advantageous. Remarkably full-functioned. I dig the gain switch and volume pot.
$195 Go-Vibe Petite: Cheap enough. I know little about this amp. Doesn't use Li-Ion but it can charge its internal batteries via USB anyhow.
$499 Pico/DAC; Based on my love of HeadAmp, this is likely the best-sounding. It's very expensive for a newbie, though.
$599 Headroom Portable Micro Amp: I hear good things. Again, very expensive. Especially considering it'd be powering $80 headphones.

There's a big hole here, between $200 and $500. In all likelihood, my friend will be going for something cheap - He was thinking about the $10 Fiio E3 but I talked him out of it, as buying Eneloop AAAs plus a charger for the thing would cost more than the amp.
 
Nov 30, 2008 at 5:30 PM Post #2 of 17

billybob_jcv

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He could also get an inexpensive standalone dac (perhaps from hotaudio.com or similar) and then a separate portable amp. That way he could leave the DAC plugged into his computer, and just take the amp and dap with him on the road. That would increase the amp choices available to him - like an Mini^3 or head six, or any of a zillion others...
 
Nov 30, 2008 at 8:49 PM Post #3 of 17

Deiz

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Quote:

Originally Posted by billybob_jcv /img/forum/go_quote.gif
He could also get an inexpensive standalone dac (perhaps from hotaudio.com or similar) and then a separate portable amp. That way he could leave the DAC plugged into his computer, and just take the amp and dap with him on the road. That would increase the amp choices available to him - like an M^3 or head six, or any of a zillion others...


Good point. While his portable source (the iPod) is certainly passable, his laptop's is junk, as is the case with almost all sound cards - That, and the onboard DAC would just be additional components in the portable unit, potentially taking up space that could accommodate a larger battery if it weren't there.

The trouble is.. Good cases are expensive. So by doing separate components, there's twice the case / LED / switch cost.

I'm being overly optimistic about his budget, I fear. He originally wanted to spend $100-200 on headphones plus an amp - Say he ends up with AD500s for $87 shipped, that leaves $113 for the DAC and amp, assuming his budget cap is still the same.

I really like the look (and the reviews) of the Fiio E5. I think I'll tell him to pick one up, as for $20 or so shipped for a rechargeable amp you can't go wrong. If he decides it makes a big difference, he can get a better amp later - And a DAC.
 
Dec 1, 2008 at 4:20 PM Post #6 of 17

Deiz

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Interim solution: I've got a Fiio E5 on the way as it's not exactly costly. Going to play with it for a few weeks, then I'll lend it to him.

If he likes it and decides he wants to spend more, I think I'll push for one of the $100 DAC/amps above. Alternately, a cheap USB DAC (Like the HotUSB1, which is $65 shipped.) to improve his signal chain when using the laptop.

I think incremental upgrades would do him good - Given that he currently has some budget kings (SR60s and PX100s) which will benefit from an amp, he'll get to enjoy them alongside the AD500s. Given a DAC, again he gets to experience a new level of clarity and a lowered noise floor.

From there, I don't know. I am hopeful that he'll eventually branch out and get a nice home system and keep something cheap for portable use. It doesn't make sense, in my opinion, to spend a lot on high-end portable gear when you don't use it out of the house much, and could get better full-size components for less money.
 
Dec 1, 2008 at 6:07 PM Post #7 of 17

billybob_jcv

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If you really don't like this "friend", introduce them to this site. Their wallet will never forgive you!
smily_headphones1.gif
 
Dec 1, 2008 at 7:42 PM Post #11 of 17

Nubster

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Quote:

Originally Posted by DunninLA /img/forum/go_quote.gif
DAP = Digital Audio Player.. i.e. ipod, Sansa Clip, all the mp3 (and other codec format) portable players.


Oh, ok. That was simple enough...lol
 
Dec 1, 2008 at 8:43 PM Post #12 of 17

Deiz

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Quote:

Originally Posted by billybob_jcv /img/forum/go_quote.gif
If you really don't like this "friend", introduce them to this site. Their wallet will never forgive you!
smily_headphones1.gif



That might give him some perspective. I'll think about telling him about Head-Fi after I drop the bomb re: how much I've spent.

Quote:

Originally Posted by Moocher /img/forum/go_quote.gif
Check out Leckerton. Their UHA-3 is only $189, is a DAC/amp, USB, switchable gain. If I'm adequately self-perceptive, it's a good deal for beginners with a limited budget.

Mooch


oops, forgot link: Leckerton Audio - Purchase



Looked at Leckerton briefly earlier today. Seems to be a good offering. I'm hoping to convince him to go for a desktop solution, eventually.

Fiio E5 as an interim portable amp, then something better - Say to the tune of $150-200 with an amp/DAC, and finally building into a yet-better budget desktop DAC such as a Keces 151, or a Zhalou plus a decent amp, or if he's feeling cheap, an all-in-one budget unit like a Zero.
 
Dec 2, 2008 at 3:17 AM Post #14 of 17

Deiz

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Quote:

Originally Posted by billybob_jcv /img/forum/go_quote.gif
Don't forget that a Zero doesn't have a USB port, so you need to get the digital into coax or optical prior to going into the Zero.


Friend's using a Macbook, which has an anal-probe adaptor allowing for Toslink out of the headphone output.
 
Dec 2, 2008 at 7:00 PM Post #15 of 17

MaxAmplitude

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Deiz, I humbly suggest you take a look at the XM5 from Practical Devices. It meets your requirements of a good USB DAC, Lithium-power, and a reasonable cost. Plus it has more features than ALL of the amps you mentioned in your original post.

Link is here:

Practical Devices XM5
 

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