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Help a 2ch audiophile choose his first headphone/amp system

  1. gramofonea

    I’m coming from 2ch setup and i’m also new to this forum but not new to audio :) I want to dip my toes in headphone world but I’m completely lost and because i’m newbie here I want to make my first purchase a good one.

    Little background story:

    Today my system consist of Bower Wilkins 803D speakers, Mastersound Compact 845 tube amp, GyroSE turntable with SME 309 arm and Soundsmith Paua MKII and last WhestTwo.2 phono stage.

    Now it’s mainly vinyl records that I listen today and I have a Bluesound Node2 streamer which I rarely listen to.

    This system gives me tremendous joy and I never get tired of listening to it. It’s warm, open with crystal clear sound. My music of choice is 90% jazz. Jazz style I like to listen is hard bop, avant-garde, free and spiritual jazz. I also enjoy singer/songwriters stuff. In my collection there are hundreds of classic rock records which I rarely listen to but from time to time some Sabbath, Led, Floyd or Doors find their way to TT.

    With busy life, family with small kids and a taste in music that is not shared with other family members I often listen to music late at night. The system I have sounds fantastic on low volume so it’s not a big deal but I want to listen in the morning and during the day. That means I need headphones or my wife will get anxiety attacks (her words) when free jazz is on :D

    Music I listen is not bass heavy so I don’t particularly need any bass heavy headphones. My amp does not have headphone jack but my phono stage has XLR Balanced outputs. So I was thinking buying headphone amp with XLR inputs and connect it to phono stage. This means I can have both the amp and headphone amp connected to phono stage at the same time.

    Where I live there are no hifi stores that carries audiophile graded headphone if that is even a term. So I was wondering if anyone here can recommend a good pair of headphones and a amp.

    My budget is between 2000-2500 us dollars.

    I read that Audeze headphones can be connected to speaker taps directly? I can buy a pair of LCD3f for 1500 dollars but I don’t have the chance to demo them :frowning2:

    Any recommendation is helpful. Thanks in advance :)

    Last edited: May 18, 2019
  2. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    Some amps like Violectric have XLR line inputs to integrate with pro gear for monitoring but still have single-ended amplifier circuits so no need to use a different headphone cable (though some headphones might come with a balanced cable, like the HD800S IIRC).

    Any headphone can be hooked up to speaker binding posts with either the correct cable or one of those speaker output converters which handles the signal so that you can just use a normal 3-pole TRS plug that comes with all headphones, and in some cases, even if the L- and R- on the speaker amp are not common ground. HiFiMan makes one of these.

    Going by memory as I haven't listened to the 803D in a while, but look into the Focal Clear. They might sound closer to those speakers.
  3. gramofonea
    I wrote buying headphone with XLR inputs but meant buying headphone amp of course. I was looking at Violectric HPA V281and 280. I love tube sound from my amp and wonder if you have by any chance had the opportunity to listen some tube based headphone amps?

    Is it better to go with dedicated headphone amp or is it sufficient with just connecting headphone straight to the main amp.

    Thanks for finding the time to answer. :) I will read more about Focal Clear's.
  4. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    Ah yeah I was able to infer that. I'm just saying you don't need balanced drive headphone amps and spend on a balanced cable for the headphone to utilize that output from your phono preamp as some amps have balanced line level input.

    That depends on output impedance and topology.

    OTL tube amps tend to be easily found in lower price brackets (high end ones are not uncommon though) but the high output impedance can make for distortion, and unless you have the exact same amp and headphone feedback or the detailed specs plus a guy who knows how to work the numbers, there is no way to tell whether that distortion will be euphonic, extremely euphonic to the point of "Norah Jones has sinusitis" (at which point I would question the use of "euphonic," though some people like that), or "tin can."

    Transformer coupled amplifiers tend to be very expensive on average compared to OTL designs since the transformer/s are either capable or you get more than one. Sound will vary however unlike "OTL amp + 300ohm headphones = boosted midrange."

    Up to you really but my main concern about speaker amps driving headphones are output impedance (only a problem on amps with atrociously cheap headphone output circuits) and the higher noise levels on speaker amps owing to how much power they have to make and providing a lot of current performance tends to matter more than not hearing noise since you'll be sitting far enough from the speakers.
    PaganDL likes this.
  5. Monsterzero
    I wouldnt recommend that. Audeze headphones,generally speaking,arent hard to drive,so you would have very,very little wiggle room between silent and blasting. Further from my understanding tube speaker amps need to see a low load. Connecting a 50-60 ohm headphone could damage your amp. I never tried it on my speaker tube amp,so I cannot confirm,but this is what I have read many times.
    On solid state its fine,but again,Audezes do not require speaker taps. Pretty much the only headphones I would suggest running off of the taps of a solid state amp are the HE-6 and perhaps the Abyss.

    Is your preferred sound to be neutral,bright,warm,dark?

    For jazz and neutral bass you might look into the Sennheiser HD800 or 800S,Beyerdynamic T1.2,ZMF Auteur. All three are 300 ohms and higher so they would sound good with an OTL tube amp.
    Both the 800 and T1 can sound bright,and have wide sound stages. The Auteur is the most musical of the three IMO. It has a warmer sound,but doesnt have the staging that the other two do.

    Im not sure which OTLs have XLR inputs,so you would need to check.

    Of the three OTLs Ive owned I would rate them as:

    1.Glenn OTL-$750-1500.00 depending upon options and build...lengthy wait to have one built.
    2.Woo Audio WA2-$1200.00
    3.La Figaro 339-$749.00

    There are other fine OTLs out there,but I only suggest what Ive owned myself.

    You could also look into a STAX system.


    Theres also the Jade ll system which sounds very good at moderate volume levels.
    Heres my review of it I did recently.

    Last edited: May 18, 2019
  6. DelsFan
    You should find that a well-chosen headphone system is equally enjoyable; perhaps more so, because most any time you wish you can sit down for five or ten minutes and have a listen. It is hard to advise someone with an $800 budget for a complete system, but your budget is sufficient to purchase a really enjoyable amp and headphone combo.

    If you are particular like I am, your desire to purchase a good little system rather than a poor one is spot on - but don't get caught up in trying to start out with the perfect system instead of a good one, the first time around. That is nearly impossible; I've been on that train and am trying to get off of it!

    My Linn turntable has been boxed up for a decade, so as I've gotten back into music (via a headphone system) I've really enjoyed the smorgasbord offered by TIDAL: If you can think of a track or group you used to like they can probably deliver it to you in a matter of seconds. Sadly, to do this you'll need to invest in a decent DAC, but let's take this one step at a time!

    Getting down now to the task at hand:
    what headphones and which headphone amplifier?

    Others can add to this (especially in the tube amplifier department); but hopefully the following is a good start.
    Closed back or open back? (I'm going to suggest) you want open back headphones for your listening preferences - they will give a lot more open and airy sound. The downside is, but not in your case, someone in the same room with you can hear at a very low volume exactly what you are listening to. If they are in the next room and the whole house is perfectly silent they may be able to tell the song you are listening to if they strain to hear. If you are in a room with the door closed, even if it is a really thin/cheap door, more than likely the really low level sound "escaping" from your open-back headphones will not be heard anywhere else in the house. In my opinion, you don't want to compromise with closed-back headphones.
    EDIT: Oh, I forgot. (But you still "need" open back headphones.) In the same way sound travels out of an open-backed headphone, outside sounds also go in. To your ear. And your brain. If you need to listen in a noisy environment - well, you can't. You don't need perfect quiet with open-backed headphones, but you do need it to be fairly quiet in the room in which you are listening. If you must purchase closed-back headphones (at the least) Audeze and Focal and AudioQuest make them. But at the best, don't do it!

    Dynamic or Planar Magnetic?
    For a lot of jazz listening I would think you would/should lean toward the Planar Magnetics. Or if you are like me, you will prefer them by an appreciable margin. You may find differently, and there are a couple of dynamic headphone choices listed below that are "no-risk" because they do sound really good.
    Some Planar Magnetic headphones that are "good" and well-respected, and kind of in your price range (I'll include some that you'll need to buy used, but if you buy a used set of $1800 headphones for... any reasonable price... that person, in this hobby, has almost always taken excellent care of them).
    Mr. Speakers offers the Ether Flow for $1599, open box for $1399, but these are very popular and readily available used. I believe there are two options for ear pads for people who want to use this simple method to "tune" their headphones. Maybe it's just me, but I'd rather have the Ether Flows, used, than their new Aeon headphones new. The Ether Flows are well-build high-quality headphones that, in their (used) price range, would suit you very well. Do that, stop reading, you wouldn't go far wrong.
    If you want to stretch, Mr. Speakers' new Ether 2 headphones are supposed to be spectacular at $1999 - but they are new enough there won't be too many used sets available yet. IF you did find a used set for a good price and in good (perfect) shape, I'd say you could buy these headphones (which are happy with most any amplifier) and be happy for years. My budget is nearer $10K (starting from scratch, including power conditioning, a nice rack for vibration isolation, and upgraded cords and interconnects - and who knows what else) and I'm seriously considering the Ether 2s.
    Audeze makes several headphones in your price range. While you might find something you like better with enough trial and error, the Audeze LCD-2 ($999) and LCD-X ($1699) are good and popular and respected headphones.
    HiFiMan also offers an extensive line of planar magnetic headphones. They offer the Anada ($999) which seems to me not perfect for your setup - they are designed to be so efficient your mobile phone can power them. I haven't heard their Arya headphones ($1599) but I'm sure there are reviews to be found. By loyalists, the HiFiMan's HE-1000 series is thought to be one of the best headphone available (under $5000 let's say). Made in China, but HiFiMan does make nice sounding headphones that are appropriately priced.
    Abyss and Oppo are a two of a number of other companies who make very nice planar magnetic headphones - I'm not sure which models are in your price range.

    I'm not as familiar with dynamic headphones, but the Focal Elear and Focal Clear headphones are supposed to excellent (superior) in their price category. For years (decades?) the Senn HD-800 headphones were the last word in soundstaging (and maybe some other things). Their new 800s headphones are (I think) $1599 or $1699; the "old" model HD800 headphones can be readily found for half that - and are plentiful because Sennheiser has sold (nearly) millions of them over the years.
    AudioQuest is a "serious" manufacturer of high-end music products; their Night Hawk Carbon headphones are well-regarded also, at a bit lower price point.
    The AKG K812s seem popular amongst people who care, also.

    We won't get into "hard to drive" headphones, but do be aware that some headphones place a really high demand on the amplifier trying to drive them. Except for the Senn HD800s, I think all those listed above will pair well with most really good amplifiers.

    This is one reason you need a pair of headphones that will handle the lower registers well - with aplomb. And this is probably the category that separates the (headphone) men from the boys.

    For Classic Rock (and Country and Blues...) you will really enjoy a set of headphones that reproduces the lower registers (well, everything) with grace and accuracy. If you didn't know, and I didn't until recently, the early Alice Cooper albums (at the least, through "Welcome to My Nightmare") were produced by a snot-nosed (I think he was 19 when he produced the first one) Bob Ezrin (who went on to do Pink Floyd's "The Wall" as well as 100 or so other recordings).
    Another thing I didn't know (listen to "Thunderstruck" and "For Those About to Rock, We Salute You"), although Mutt Lange went on to produce (and marry) Shania Twain, his first three (?) efforts, as a youngster, were with AC/DC. These are two examples of many from this era which are actually very listenable (when you are in that mood!).

    More importantly, for Jazz:
    If you find a pair of Planar Magnetic headphones that can make you "see" the strings of an upright bass vibrating, and it sounds like it is "real", in your head, it will probably meet all the other criteria that need satisfying - and this is difficult to do with any headphone, especially those trying to meet a price point. (This is the reason if you find a barely used set of Ether 2 headphones, you should buy them and forget about headphones, except when you are in bliss listening to them, for the next decade.) This accurate reproduction (of the lower registers) is completely different than that provided by bass-heavy headphones designed for the masses - but I think all of the headphones I've mentioned above have been specifically designed for audiophiles, with attention paid to providing a "linear response" (?) across the entire sound spectrum. Some of those listed above will perform better than others in the bass department; but none of them stink - none should ruin a nice peaceful listening experience.

    Listening to a lot of Jazz, my opinion is: you really want a headphone that is somewhat realistic and convincing in the lower registers - this will add significantly to your enjoyment of not-popular and not-mainstream music.

    As I've indicated above, a bass heavy headphone is a crap (non-audiophile) headphone; but whether you know it yet, or not, you do desire a headphone that handles the lower registers well.

    Oops, I've run out of time!
    Here is a very small amount of advice; I'll write more later or others can chime in. EDIT: Especially since I may have already written, below, more than I actually know.

    - I like the MicroZotl MZ2 headphone amp (used, it is about $1500 new without the upgraded Linear Power Supply) because it is supposed to sound really good, it runs cool (and the tubes last a lot longer), and it has a separate power supply (which doesn't in and of itself make it better, but it does eliminate the design problem of making sure a power supply built into the headphone amp chassis doesn't degrade the sound you are trying to enjoy).
    - Schitt makes the Mjolnir headphone amp ($849) that many feel is a great value. It might be a hybrid, since it sports only two tubes. Still, all their products seem to be great sounding and great values.
    - The Dragon Inspire IHA-1 ($1500 or so new, but really $2000 with the superior Lundhall transformers) is supposed to be spectacular at its price point, but I don't know that you'll find a used one in Europe easily (or America for that matter). I'd think there might be 300 or 400 in existence, but that is just my completely uninformed guess.
    - I'm looking at the Cavalli Liquid Glass for my system ($3599) - except Alex Cavalli has retired so I'm looking for the rare, used, example. The good news is, Monoprice has partnered with the retired Mr. Cavalli to offer the Liquid Platinum (for $849). It "seems" a purchase like this to go along with a pair of Ether 2 headphones ($1999 unless used) would be a no-brainer. Dan (owner of Mr. Speakers) says his favorite amp with the Ether 2s is the Cavalli Liquid Glass (which is why I'm considering it), but many of the reviews I read about any Cavalli designed amplifier sound a lot like this:

    Clean, crisp, airy. Those are some of the first impressions I get when powering the Liquid Platinum on. It doesn’t sound like a solid state amp. It doesn’t sound like a tube amp. It sounds like a hybrid, which Cavalli is the undisputed (in my book) king of designing.
    It’s not in your face, nor is it laid back.
    It does everything well. It does nothing badly. In a sense, it’s what most amplifiers aim to achieve. Clean, detailed, easy to listen to, and elegant.
    The Liquid Platinum is not an amplifier that blows you away on first listen unless you know what it has achieved. It’s not a sexy, warm tube amplifier that makes the sound wet and romantic. It’s not a sharpened detail monster that etches every note with exaggerated delineation.
    It is lovely to listen to. It delivers gorgeous detail without sugarcoating it. It is engaging without grabbing you by the collar and shaking you. It is relaxing without lulling you to sleep. It is… well, it’s a Cavalli amplifier.
    What Monoprice and Cavalli have achieved via their partnership is utterly impressive. Can you get a better headphone amplifier for under $1000? Not that I’m aware of, unless you’re after specific coloration.

    I have to go, and there is a myriad of tiny, small, medium, and large-sized manufacturers of (accurate-sounding, high fidelity) headphone amplifiers. Here are a few makes/models that others here might have experience with:

    Eddie Current (I forget which models are in the $1000 to $2000 range.
    Woo Audio (Fireflies includes a DAC, but I believe their WA6-SE is a well reviewed amp with a separate tube-based power supply)
    Moon by Sim Audio (Neo 230HAD - but it's solid state)
    Chord's Hugo 2 is $2400 or so new, but includes a well-respected DAC. Solid state, but also portable.

    Two more very highly regarded "builders" of (usually) solid-state - but really nice solid-state - amplifiers, are Justin Wilson of Head-Amp (Virginia, USA) and Birgir Budjonssons of Mjolnir Audio (in Reykjavík, Iceland). They are both enthusiasts and both do superior work.

    I'm sure I've missed some other obvious choices and I'm sure others will chime in; but this should get you started!

    Good luck, and you'll not regret pursuing a nice "little" headphone setup.
    Last edited: May 18, 2019
    buke9 likes this.
  7. gramofonea
    That I didn't know, man I have lot to learn. Thank for the valuable input. I will try to have that in mind as I research further.

    I had to google OTL but I'm with you know. I got bunch of recommendation which are very interesting and worth of looking up. It's easy to get overwhelmed by the wide range of choice. I'm starting to realise this can be new addiction :)

    My Mastersound Compact 845 is quality amp so I'm not concerned but for fun I have sent them (Mastersound) a mail to ask their opinion. Thank you very much for this very appreciated information.
    It took me a year to choose new speakers and a year for the amp, I hope this will go faster :)
    Last edited: May 18, 2019
  8. gramofonea
    First of all big thanks for the reply, lovely input and I truly appreciated it. Thanks.

    I sent a mail to Mastersound to ask them what they think of it. I would prefer separate amp so I don't need to pull out speaker cables every time I need to listen through headphones. Also if I can be little bit honest,
    i want a system that i can switch on and listen without the need to wait for the amp to warm up. I know every amp sounds better when it's little warmer but my tube amp need 20+ minutes and that can be pain in the ass sometimes :)

    I prefer a neutral/bright combination when it comes to sound. My system is combination of neutral/bright and has lovely synergy but reveals bad recordings in a sec. So I'm always looking for best sounding pressings my wallet can allow.

    HD800 and 800S I can demo in a store here and will do that next week. Other ones I need to check if anyone has them. Will do some reading.

    Thanks a lot for recommendations on amps and headphones. La Figaro 339 and WA2 look really interesting. Have you maybe had any experience with Violectric HPA V281 or Feliks Audio tube amps?

    Need to crack open a cold one and will enjoy watching the video.

    Once many thanks on lovely recommendations and for finding time to reply.
    Last edited: May 18, 2019
    Monsterzero likes this.
  9. gramofonea
    Hi man, i can't thank you enough. This is phenomenal stuff and if I could I would buy a beer, two, three...heck pick any anything it's on me :)
    I just opened a cold one and will read your comment with utter joy and then I will get back to you with detailed reply. Thank you so much kind sir for finding time to write to me.
  10. DelsFan
    I recently read favorable articles/reviews of two hand-built-in-Europe amplifiers:
    Feliks amplifiers (the Euforia Mk II, around 2,000€, but they also make the Elise for 700€ less) "in-house engineered, tuned and assembled at our site in Lubliniec, Poland"

    Also, Auris (their least expensive model is, perhaps, 2,070.00€ though), designed and made in Belgrade, Serbia.

    I've heard neither but each seem to each be well-designed amplifiers sold by guys who are real music enthusiasts.
  11. PopZeus
    For your budget, I’d look at the Aeon Flow Closed or Ether CX (or Ether 2C if you wanna get super swank) though ZMF makes some nice closed-back headphones in your price range as well, and the Monoprice Cavalli Liquid Platinum for an amp. It seems like you like tubes, and that is apparently one of the best balanced amps of any technical configuration available today.
  12. gramofonea
    That is exactly what I want. A quick listen that doesn't require 20+ minutes wait for tube amp to warm up or the room to be empty so I can enjoy music I love. Also I don't think a perfect system exists but I want to hit that sweet spot when it comes to price/performance.

    I will listen to records primarily but will try Tidal when time comes, so a proper DAC will inevitable.

    I read few Ether 2 reviews and they sure were using lots of superlatives. Looks like a damn fine headphones that would without doubt suite my need. From reading those reviews many of them was mentioning Sennheiser 800S that compares very well with Ether 2. Ether 2 are looking very interesting but I can get Sennheiser for 1100 US dollars and considering it because of the price but also many are considering them to be one the best with the music I love. Ether 2 are pricey here and they leave me little wiggle room for a proper amp.

    I can very well consider used ones as well if I find the ones I want. Audeze LCD3f used ones for 1500 us dollar seem like a good price. Bunch of them are listed for sale here locally. I will try to demo 800S, Focal Clear and Audeze this coming week. Will be interesting :)

    Have been reading about these amps and most of them are hard to get in Sweden. Those Cavalli amps sure sound like winners and many people seem to like them but no dealer in Europe or Sweden unfortunately. On the other hand Mjölnir Audio, Schiit, Moon and Chord I could find more easly here, specially the last three as Mjölnir is more special built to order.

    Can't thank you enough for all these tips, information and advice. I'm feeling more comfortable now and will read and demo some headphone these coming days. It will be a lot fun.
  13. gramofonea
    Feliks Audio and Auris sound very interesting, specially Auris which are made in my former home country. Will visit those parts this summer and maybe pay Auris a visit while I'm there.
  14. gramofonea
    Thanks for the recommendations, Ether CX and 2C are looking very nice and I would probably love them. They are little bit pricey here in Sweden and I wouldn't have much left for a proper amp.
    Monoprice Cavalli Liquid Platinum is impossible to find in Europe or Sweden so I don't know but reading the reviews are nothing than superlatives. Looks like a winner for sure. Though decisions :)
  15. buke9
    Well coming in on this a little late but a lot that has been said I agree with. Mr Speakers and Cavalli they just work well together as is said a synergy they just sound so good together. Some decry the lack of bass on the Ether-C’s and yes they don’t have the mid bass thump but do have the sub bass just not not head slappers.
    gramofonea likes this.

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