De-bottleneck My Rig. New External DAC>Onboard Sound?
May 25, 2013 at 2:49 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 19

Muzika

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Hello, Head-Fi'ers,
 
I’m presently underwhelmed with my headphone listening experience, so I’m hoping for some assistance in finding the (main) bottleneck in my rig and where I should start my upgrade (for maximum gain/money spent). I'm pretty new to all of this, but as my hours spent reading on this matter has notched up, my description and questions have become more-and-more basic. I think I can boil it down to:
 
Should I replace (bypass) my onboard soundcard with an external DAC? Or should I go for some better headphones?
 
In addition to this, however, I’ll probably be upgrading my speakers (Behringer MS40’s) soon and may buy some passive speakers, so a desktop amp may be worth keeping in mind too.
 
After some research, I was considering buying a pair of Sennheiser HD 25-1 II’s but it seems they’re not hugely different from the ATH-M50’s which I have. This led me to think I may want something from the next price bracket. But before I spent my money there, I figured I should consider my other components – mainly my soundcard – and perhaps consider an external DAC first.
 
As you’ll see, my rig is quite… modest. Besides some semi-decent headphones it’s pretty basic:
 
  1. Source
  2. Onboard sound on my ASUS P8H77-M motherboard. More specifically, a Realtek® ALC887
  3. Output
  4. Audio Technica ATH-M50 (straight into PC via 3.5mm jack)
 
My musical taste is quite varied but, for this purpose, you may assume I predominately listen to electronic/ambient music.
 
So, would an external DAC be a worthwhile investment for my setup? I’d been eyeing the Audioengine D1 – would this improve my sound much? I also quite like the look of the Maverick Audio TubeMagic D1. Beyond this, I would begin looking at the upper mid-range headphones ($300-500). My budget for an external DAC is $250. Headphones... probably $500.
 
Thanks for any help you might offer. Please let me know if I've left out any relevant information.
 
May 27, 2013 at 2:54 PM Post #3 of 19

weez82

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What do you want to improve. You say your headphone experience has been underwhelming. What do you find to be lacking? And have you tried your headphones with other devices? If so how did they sound compared to the pc? 
 
Almost always if you're finding something to be lacking in your listening experience then you need to get different speakers and or headphones first. You need to find that sound signature you like then you can start to improve your electronics. Look at the headphones as the foundation of your audio system. Without a solid base your system will fail. 
 
May 28, 2013 at 9:08 AM Post #4 of 19

Muzika

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Quote:
Yes. You should upgrade your electronics AND get new headphones. Look into the Schiit Modi/Magni DAC/headphone amp stack.

 
Thank you. I'd heard of the Modi/Magni... I did some further reading and the M&M sound like they'd suit my needs and they get rave reviews. Taking weez82's comments into account, however, it sounds like I should invest in some better headphones first. If I'm still not satisfied with the 'phones (or find out that it's a bit of a crime for good 'phones to go without a decent DAC/headphone amp), then the Schiit M&M are #1 on my list.
 
Quote:
What do you want to improve. You say your headphone experience has been underwhelming. What do you find to be lacking? And have you tried your headphones with other devices? If so how did they sound compared to the pc? 
 
Almost always if you're finding something to be lacking in your listening experience then you need to get different speakers and or headphones first. You need to find that sound signature you like then you can start to improve your electronics. Look at the headphones as the foundation of your audio system. Without a solid base your system will fail. 

 
Thanks, weez82. I like what you say about establishing a foundation with a particular sound signature; sound advice (huehue), I'm sure. Sorry - I suppose I should have been more specific in my OP - I was trying to keep it brief. I must admit, I haven't done extensive side-by-side testing or gone too heavy on the analysis, plus I don't quite know the proper terminology yet, but I'll try to describe what I feel is lacking and what I want from a new pair:
 
To put it very simply, I want greater immersion in the sound and more clarity (and balance) between the different elements of the music. My main source of dissatisfaction with the M50s is that the sound feels 'narrow' and somewhat confined, to me. Also (it could be the music - I need to test it further - but), the bassier tones seem unclear and poorly defined.
 
What I would like, predominantly, is a greater 'volume' of sound (as in, more space). That's the best way I can think of describing it. Addressing the bass issue, what I'd hope for is a warmer, fuller, cleaner and more prominent low-end. I wouldn't say I'm obsessed with bass, by any means, but it's something I notice in comparison to the other sounds with the M50s. The higher frequencies come through very clearly; they seem rich and are quite striking (trumpets on a Fela Kuti track, for instance), whereas bass from Bill Laswell (who's a bass king) seems almost muffled and squashed into the background. So I'd also like a more prominent low-end from the headphones (without being overbearing or distorting of the rest of the sound).
 
I hope that description is precise enough - otherwise I can re-work it to accommodate proper terminology.
 
May 28, 2013 at 9:23 AM Post #5 of 19

cel4145

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Even if you don't get a DAC, there are many excellent headphones that would require an amp in order for you to drive them. And there are others that you would likely notice the benefits of the DAC and amp in increased detail resolution even though your PC could drive them. If you are trying to build this in stages, you could start with the Magni, then the headphones, then the Modi. There are also headphones in the $200-$400 range that would be a significant improvement over your M50s, leaving you room in your budget for the Magni right now.
 
May 28, 2013 at 10:00 PM Post #6 of 19

Muzika

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Quote:
Even if you don't get a DAC, there are many excellent headphones that would require an amp in order for you to drive them. And there are others that you would likely notice the benefits of the DAC and amp in increased detail resolution even though your PC could drive them. If you are trying to build this in stages, you could start with the Magni, then the headphones, then the Modi. There are also headphones in the $200-$400 range that would be a significant improvement over your M50s, leaving you room in your budget for the Magni right now.

Hmm, not a bad idea: amp>hf>DAC. However, I was thinking that if I got the M&M, I'd buy them together to save time and money (shipping). The only local (Australian) supplier I can find sells the combo, including the 240V AC adapter, for 323AUD (+ 45AUD, if I buy the PYST RCA cables). Bought separately, it's much more expensive at: Magni (189AUD) + Modi (155AUD) + adapter (50AUD). Even as the combo, that price is getting up there for me, so I'll have to think about that one or do some further searching to see if I can find it cheaper from an international seller (I presume I can get a much cheaper (generic?) adapter too).
 
Regarding headphones, yes I think I'll be looking in that price range. I'm thinking an open pair may be what I'm after (for a larger soundstage). The HD 650's seem very well-regarded here, however I'll have to take a closer look and perhaps head over to the headphones recommendation thread. Thanks.
 
May 29, 2013 at 1:44 AM Post #7 of 19

weez82

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I think youre at that point where you need to try a few headphones out and find that sound you like. Beyerdynamic is very good and has a "fun" sound. Cant describe it better then that. From what you say I think you'll like their sound. Unfortunately trying out headphones isnt easy unless you find some nice locals that have what you want to try and are willing to let you have a listen or you find a nice site that has a good return policy. I havent listened to the 650's but I have listened to the 595's and 598's and didnt like them. Nice sound stage but weak bass. I then had a listen the the beyer 770 pro and got them right there on the spot (wasnt planning on spending money that day, lol). That was over a year ago and I have zero regrets.
 
May 29, 2013 at 5:49 AM Post #8 of 19

Muzika

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Quote:
I think youre at that point where you need to try a few headphones out and find that sound you like. Beyerdynamic is very good and has a "fun" sound. Cant describe it better then that. From what you say I think you'll like their sound. Unfortunately trying out headphones isnt easy unless you find some nice locals that have what you want to try and are willing to let you have a listen or you find a nice site that has a good return policy. I havent listened to the 650's but I have listened to the 595's and 598's and didnt like them. Nice sound stage but weak bass. I then had a listen the the beyer 770 pro and got them right there on the spot (wasnt planning on spending money that day, lol). That was over a year ago and I have zero regrets.

 
Once again, that sounds like good advice - testing a few different headphones out (and thanks for mentioning the Beyerdynamics!). Not sure if you're referring to stores or just 'dudes', when you say 'nice locals', but either way I'll have a feel around for those. My concern with testing/buying at a walk-in store, or somewhere with good return policy, is the premium I'll be paying. I realise the premium to try-before-buy is likely to be well-worthwhile but, for instance, an Australian store (with an online shop, 21-day trial period) is selling Beyerdynamic 990's (250Ohm) for 399AUD. Elsewhere, I'm seeing them as low as 230-250AUD; that difference is steep.
 
On the headphone front, at your mention I did some reading into the Beyer DT 770 and found out about the 990's. I'm convinced I want an open pair of headphones, so the 990's sound like the more appropriate set for me. My question then is about the various grades of impedance available. As a newcomer to audiophilia (plus the fact that my current rig is onboard + M50's), I presume the 250Ohm model would suit me fine. Or, with a M&M or O2+ODAC, would a 600Ohm be a better buy in the long run?
 
The obvious competition to the DT 990's is the HD 650's. The impression I've gained from reading is that the DT 990's would be a better budget-buy and also have stronger (punchier) bass, although not as deep as the 650. However, I've also heard the DT 990's described as overly bright - with excessive/aggressive treble - which I must say concerns me. There's some inconsistency with comments on soundstage... Generally people have said the 990 soundstage is wider but the 650 soundstage is better. The general consensus, however, is that, while the 990s are very 'fun', overall the 650s are a better listen; they have a better midrange (more pronounced and detailed) and generally warmer and have a more well-rounded sound.
 
So I'm learning toward the 650s at the moment but will keep my ears open and continue my (re)search.
 
On the amp/DAC front, I'm now basically trying to choose between the M&M stack and the O2+ODAC combo. Looking at the two now... Performance-wise, they seem very similar, I think my main considerations are:
 
Simplicity: 2 units vs 1, cabling (M&M stack require RCA cabling between them)
Aesthetics: subjective...
Cost: 323AUD + 45AUD (PYST RCA cabling) = 368AUD for the M&M vs ~333AUD for the O2+ODAC combo (+ USB cable)
 
I'm leaning toward the O2+ODAC combo at the moment, mainly because of price, the single unit and some comments that it performs slightly better than the M&M stack, but, like the headphones decision, I will keep my ears open and continue my (re)search.
 
I'd also like to add that Head-Fi has been an incredible source of information in gaining an impression of these various components. So far, for every question I've wanted to ask, there has been multiple threads with lots of quality input from people who own/use or have owned/used the equipment. The signal-to-noise ratio seems very good here - I've felt I've made good progress and wasted little time in reading through Head-Fi content.
 
Jun 1, 2013 at 12:08 AM Post #9 of 19

Muzika

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A quick bump & recap... I'm looking to purchase this gear in the next day or two - just seeing if I can squeeze any more feedback from the forum before I make the purchase.
 
Currently: I'm not satisfied with the degree of immersion I'm getting from my current audio setup, which consists of onboard sound and a pair of ATH-M50's. Specifically, I feel that the soundstage is too narrow and restricted, the sound is too 'linear' between my ears and I would definitely like more in the bass department (see below).
 
Want: Primarily, as improvements upon the M50s, I would like:
 
  1. #1: Soundstage - Wide, voluminous. This is my main desire.
  2. #2: Bass - Warm, tight, full, transparent and prominent without being distorting or overbearing.
  3. Beyond these two things, I just want good clarity and nothing too aggressive.
 
My #1 and #2 considerations are currently the Sennheiser HD 650 and the Beyerdynamic DT 990, respectively. From my research, I concluded the following:
 
HD 650 DT 990
More extended (deep) bass Punchier, more textured bass
Better soundstage (more open, layered - extending the image farther in front of the listener) Wide soundstage, but less height, forward depth and layering
Better mid-range (more pronounced, detailed and natural) Possibly excessive highs (too brilliant, almost aggressive)
Warmer  
 
Anyone have any experience with either of these 'phones to share? Or a different recommendation?
 
Jun 1, 2013 at 12:30 AM Post #10 of 19

audiojun

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I would pick the hd 650/hd 600 i heard the dt990 and the treble is a little rough and louder. Make sure you get a great tube amp to go with it. I would probably spend more on the tube amp than the phones. Your looking at spending 1k so think about it when you get lesser amps and upgrade it will end up costing more.
 
Jun 1, 2013 at 12:41 AM Post #11 of 19

Muzika

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Tube amp, eh? Can't say I'd really considered that, tbh, besides my mention of the Maverick Audio TubeMagic D1 in my first post. I'd only been seriously looking at the Schiit stack and ODAC/O2 combo. Guess I'll have to do a bit more research there...
 
Jun 1, 2013 at 12:50 AM Post #12 of 19

audiojun

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That tube dac does have an headphone out. You could just get the dac by itself its the same price as the schiit stack.
 
Jun 1, 2013 at 1:56 AM Post #13 of 19

Muzika

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Jun 2, 2013 at 3:24 AM Post #14 of 19

Muzika

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Update - Purchased the following:
 
  1. HE-400
  2. Velour pads
  3. Hard travel case
  4. Schiit Magni
  5. Schiit Modi
  6. Schiit PYST
  7. Auralex MoPADs isolation pads (for my speakers)
 
Ouchy. Now we wait...
 

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