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Benefits of better amps and dacs

Discussion in 'Sound Science' started by nojwe, Sep 28, 2014.
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  1. nojwe
    I'm fairly new to higher end audio and have enjoyed myself so far. However, I'm a very scientific minded person and try to approach things as rationally as I can.
    So my question is this: provided an amp can provide enough power to drive my headphones, should there be any benefit to using a more expensive amp? I may not be understanding things correctly, but the amp shouldn't really do any audio processing besides amplifying the signal that it's fed, right? 
    Same basic question for DACs: is there really that huge of a difference between cheap and expensive models?
    Based on some of the threads I've read on the other boards, more expensive amps and dacs will be either mind-blowingly better than the cheaper models, or will only offer a slight performance increase, depending on who you ask.
    I'm sure that at some point or another, we've all wanted to upgrade a component because a newer/more expensive/claiming to be better unit is released, but this can get pretty expensive to indulge, so I'm hoping to find some objective information on this. 
  2. Rajikaru
    I would suggest you research the Objective 2 amplifier.  Not just because it's a good amp (it is), but because of the transparency it represents. It's designer, NWAVGUY,  demystified so much of what makes a good amplifier by making his design, philosophies, and measurements available to read on his blog while he was creating it. 

    There you'd learn about power, gain, output impedance, distortion, noise, channel imbalance and other factors as to why some would prefer one amp over another.  
  3. Grave
    Yes, research HE WHO SHALL NOT BE NAMED because no facts allowed.
  4. Music Alchemist
    Good luck finding objective information as to why amps and DACs can sound different. I mean that sincerely, because I don't think many people have a full understanding of the matter. It obviously involves the way they are designed, but that doesn't tell anything in and of itself. I've been wondering about this myself, and have only begun finding the answers.
    Here is one link describing a few factors that could serve as an introduction to the topic.
    If you want to know the whole truth, be prepared for a long and hard journey. I suggest starting with tube amps in your research, since the differences between tubes are easier to detect, and the science behind them should be simpler to understand.
    (Sorry I'm not able to give you more details. Despite learning a lot, I don't remember much of what I have read, and I am by no means a technical expert.)
  5. Grave
    All you really need to know is that DAC's and amp's designed in a sane way can be completely transparent unlike headphones.
    Power requirements are also pretty straightforward.
    Music Alchemist likes this.
  6. p a t r i c k
    I think it is true that there are differences in quality of reproduction between very cheap amplifiers and DACs and ones that you pay a bit more for, however the very expensive amplifiers and DACs probably offer nothing over the more sensibly priced ones.
    Mass production has meant that we can now produce extremely high quality electronics for reasonable prices.
    I think that the quality of reproduction from solid state amplifiers in the 200 £/$/€ region is truly superb these days and it is very hard for me to think of a reason to spend more. I think the same is also true of DACs.
    There are many many very expensive things in Hi Fi which offer no benefits whatsoever over humbler equipment. You will read all kinds of glowing reviews in the Hi Fi press for expensive equipment but this testing is never conducted in blind ABX tests. I believe that more often than not the reviewers are simply reporting auto-suggestion.
  7. Claritas
    It's a mistake to focus on price because there are good and bad products at every price. But if you want to obtain more synergistic pairings, you'll probably need to experiment some with different equipment.
  8. mikeaj
    An amp could technically supply the power but at a high, audible distortion level, though that is generally not the case outside of some amps that are intentionally built to distort at high power outputs and using very insensitive headphones.
    Whatever differences in performance levels between amps (outside of the low end and those intending for some coloration) and DACs (again, outside of the low end and some of the more esoteric designs going for some coloration) are frequently small in magnitude, sometimes by orders, compared many other relevant things such as
    • Imperfections in transducers in terms of frequency response, distortion levels, or most things
    • Differences between left and right transducers in a system
    • For headphones, differences in sound due to minute changes in headphone positioning / sealing on the head — for some idea of the magnitude of these things, which depends on the set and the listener, check InnerFidelity's headphone data
    • What generally has been established as audible levels of imperfections by psychoacoustics research
    All these devices are approximations of an ideal, but if you look at where the limiting factors are, it's usually elsewhere. That doesn't mean you can't find an amp that causes audible response variations via too high output impedance with some sets, too high noise levels with some IEMs, some cheap products not quite performing as expected despite quoting good datasheet specs (which aren't being met), or whatever else.
    It should be noted that controlled listening tests comparing the differences between amps and between DACs don't turn up anything, especially if the devices actually have good performance. However, people rarely test these things under such conditions. Sometimes, differences do audibly pop up, like in the famous Carver challenge where the temperamental, expensive tube amp definitely did sound different than the mid-priced solid-state amp prior to the modifications. On the other hand, listeners have statistically significant preferences for uncompressed CD-quality audio over mp3s in the right circumstances, headphone preferences, and frequency response preferences (simulated via a single headphone, all else equal, via EQ), for example.
    Philimon likes this.
  9. castleofargh Contributor
     the right tool for the right needs is the master rule to follow. connectors, lvl of hiss, gain value and accuracy of the volume knob, sometimes impedance.  those are what should direct most of your choices for an amp.
    DACs are the best sounding part of any sound system. they don't have to deal with all the power and load differences that an amp has to deal with when plugged into different headphones. and they don't have to deal with moving parts like drivers, so a ****ty one is very likely to have better accuracy and perf than most amps, headphones or speakers. 
    the objective dude will not put a lot of money on a DAC. because paying 8 times more money to go from 99.95% perfect to 99.96% perfect, 0.05db more neutral at 20khz, and a coaxial plug, doesn't look like a great deal when getting the right headphone can change almost everything with a 100time bigger magnitude.
    amps can also be very good for little money, but it's a more difficult quest as the right amp for an IEM is unlikely to be the best amp for an electrostatic headphone( plugs, power, gain, noise, volume control). and we often refuse to get 2 amps to cover extreme uses, making our requests for amps often unreasonable. upgrading for me is when an amp can provide the right signal to a wider range of products. else it's unlikely that I would need an expensive one.
    truthfully most of the elite products are:
    -pro gears with special requirements and specs that often make no sense in the amateur world.
    -colored stuff that you can objectively call inaccurate.
    -scams with the right marketing (outdated NOS DACs that make the signal in clean staircases, but quality staircases, not bad 44khz staircases showed to sell hires tracks. clocks so fast they bend time. gold plated circuit, 3megawatt headphone amps ...). 
    and people like those because they feel like they're a special snowflake, or because they went so wrong with the signature of one headphone that they now look for anything that can alter the sound instead of getting another headphone.
    fashion victim is a strong upgrade leader around here.
    and before messing with the idea of quality, decide what that "quality" word means to you. and remember to always state it clearly when you ask around for quality sound and products! trust me on that one you'll save years of misunderstanding.
    you're new in this country so here are all the ways to look pro while just really saying "me like!":
    "natural" means "I like" or "rolled off trebles".
    "realistic " means "I like" or "colored".
    "neutral" means either "I like" or "boring" but pretty much never neutral.
    "upgrade" means "new", and "new" means "the less we know the more we want it".
    "expensive" means "I'm special".
    think of it as a different country with a seemingly identical language but very different culture ^_^.
    also remember that some people just don't think.
    -100db distortion from jitter in one DAC will supposedly send you to hell, but -40db distortion from that one tube amp can bring heaven to your ears. you will be advised about amps and DACs by people really believing in those kinds of contradictions. so be careful with half knowledgeable people (me included).
  10. nojwe
    Thank you to those of you who took the time to write out thorough responses and aimed for objectivity. I really appreciate it. I'll keep on doing some research and see what I can find out. This is certainly an interesting look into physics and psychology.
  11. blades
  12. bigshot
    The only DACs and amps that sound different than all the others are the bad ones. And those are more likely to be expensive ones than cheap ones. It's no trick to design audibly transparent headphone amps, and the parts don't cost a lot either. DAC chips are mass produced to exacting specs and sell for very little. You'll find the same chip in dozens of different products. That is no big deal either.
    Philimon likes this.
  13. Music Alchemist
    What about electrostatic headphone amplifiers? Practically everyone talks about how these sound different from one another, some to the extent that a headphone may sound awful with one amp and amazing with another. Perhaps they're all bad? [​IMG]
  14. bigshot
    That has to do with the power and impedance requirements of the headphones themselves. It isn't the amp that sounds different, it's just that not all amps work well with all kinds of headphones.
  15. Music Alchemist
    And I am referring to amps that can drive the headphones just fine, yet sound different.
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