Is it foolhardy (or wasteful) to buy top-notch headphones without a top-notch amplifier?
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GrandNagus50

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I have been out of "the market" for audio gear for a few years and now I sort of have the itch again (being sheltered-in-place has something to do with this). Since I have been forced (!) to save money on vacation travel this year, I feel I have some disposable income for some nice new stuff. I would like some really good IEM's or headphones--TOTL stuff or close to it. I know that top of the line for audiophile headphones goes wayyyyyy up there cost-wise, so let's say I would not spend more than $3000. That seems like a lot, and I fantasize I could get some darned good IEM's or (germane to this forum) full-sized headphones.

My reservation is this: at present, I mostly play my music on either an iPhone XS with a Dragonfly Red, or from my Astell & Kern SR15. I also have a small TEAC portable headphone amp. I actually own a pretty good full-sized amp, one of the first-generation Cavelli Liquid Carbon units, but I have to be honest: I don't like having to sit in one place to listen most of the time, so I have this idea that any headphones I get had better perform well enough with portable gear.

My question, therefore, is whether it is unwise (that's a nice word for foolhardy) to invest in top-notch headphones if I don't really intend to invest also in top-notch gear to create the input to drive the headphones? If foolhardy I am being, then how much realistically would I need to invest in upgrading my portable gear to where I am doing first-rate headphones justice?

There are lots of parts to this question; I welcome answers to parts of what I am asking, you don't have to tackle the whole query. Thanks.

Doug Greenberg, Berkeley
 
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A 1000 dollar pair of headphones paired with a cheap amp are likely to sound better than a 100 dollar pair of headphones paired with a thousand dollar amp.
Headphones have a much bigger say in the overall sound than any amp or source. The old adagium "garbage in, garbage out" sounds reasonable, but in practice it mostly hold very little ground. Speakers in relation with room acoustic and headphones dictate the sound, not the DAC and the amp, that's just my experience and opinon.
That said, if a pair of expensive headphones are very sensitive and transaparant they will let you hear any flaw in the recording, but also in the chain; the source and amp.
Luckily good amps and DACs come pretty cheap nowadays.
So in my opinion there's no need to get an equally expensive headphones amp and DAC for your expensive headphones. I don't think many will agree with me though. :)
But to be honest, if I would buy a pair of Meze Empyreans I would definitely upgrade my amp and DAC to something more fancy, but only because it wouldn't sit right with me to pair them with my cheap TEAC DAC/amp. My irrational feelings would take over.
 
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I'd agree with Mink. You can always add better amplification later on. I think for mobile usage, it's worth spending 5-10% of that budget on either an Audioquest Dragonfly, Chord Mojo, or one of the various iFi options. You might even find a retailer that would be willing to do you a bundle price, depending upon the headphones on your shortlist.
 
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In my view which headphones you choose is more important than which amp you have (which in turn is more important than which DAC you use), so I don't think it's a mistake get high end headphones before getting a high end amp (and ultimately you might not need a high end amp at all)
 
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I've never heard much difference going from say, a Galaxy S9 as an amp to a $4000 amp. (Tube amps are different but not necessarily a quality improvement). Almost all the sound quality is from the headphones themselves unless your source can't power them; but headphones are easy to power.
 
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I was/am considering going from a Dragonfly Red to a Chord Mojo, at least. Would I actually hear any difference? I am not sure I have quite the ear that some audiophiles possess.
 
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I was/am considering going from a Dragonfly Red to a Chord Mojo, at least. Would I actually hear any difference? I am not sure I have quite the ear that some audiophiles possess.
You could be one of those people that hear a difference. Is the difference actually audible? Probably not.
 
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I was/am considering going from a Dragonfly Red to a Chord Mojo, at least. Would I actually hear any difference? I am not sure I have quite the ear that some audiophiles possess.
I think it would depend upon the headphones you choose, and I believe it is possible that you could hear a difference. In my opinion, a big aspect of the decision should be your feature requirements and how you plan to use your new headphones.

I have both a Mojo and a Dragonfly; the former is on duty when I'm at home (sitting in a comfy chair or sitting at my desk, paired with my larger headphones that won't leave the house), and the latter is on duty when I'm out walking with some wired IEMs. The mojo gives me more options for connecting to sources at home but is clunky for walking around with where as the Dragonfly is extremely portable. :)
 
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I think it would depend upon the headphones you choose, and I believe it is possible that you could hear a difference. In my opinion, a big aspect of the decision should be your feature requirements and how you plan to use your new headphones.

I have both a Mojo and a Dragonfly; the former is on duty when I'm at home (sitting in a comfy chair or sitting at my desk, paired with my larger headphones that won't leave the house), and the latter is on duty when I'm out walking with some wired IEMs. The mojo gives me more options for connecting to sources at home but is clunky for walking around with where as the Dragonfly is extremely portable. :)
I gather that at the very least the Mojo has more power, so for headphones with any level of impedance past the very low it would drive them more fully, which might affect the sound quality. I do have an old pair of Sennheiser hd600, which the Dragonfly really cannot drive, but then again, I get along fine day to day not using the Senns except for with the Cavelli amp.

Doug Greenberg
 
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I don't think you need a crazy powerful amp unless you're trying to push some crazy inefficient planars like HE6 or LCD4. Even those, (at least the HE6), I've found the Jotunheim or the THX789 to have no problem powering. So if you want to get some crazy headphones, you definitely don't need a crazy expensive amp.
 
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I have been out of "the market" for audio gear for a few years and now I sort of have the itch again (being sheltered-in-place has something to do with this). Since I have been forced (!) to save money on vacation travel this year, I feel I have some disposable income for some nice new stuff. I would like some really good IEM's or headphones--TOTL stuff or close to it. I know that top of the line for audiophile headphones goes wayyyyyy up there cost-wise, so let's say I would not spend more than $3000. That seems like a lot, and I fantasize I could get some darned good IEM's or (germane to this forum) full-sized headphones.

My reservation is this: at present, I mostly play my music on either an iPhone XS with a Dragonfly Red, or from my Astell & Kern SR15. I also have a small TEAC portable headphone amp. I actually own a pretty good full-sized amp, one of the first-generation Cavelli Liquid Carbon units, but I have to be honest: I don't like having to sit in one place to listen most of the time, so I have this idea that any headphones I get had better perform well enough with portable gear.

My question, therefore, is whether it is unwise (that's a nice word for foolhardy) to invest in top-notch headphones if I don't really intend to invest also in top-notch gear to create the input to drive the headphones? If foolhardy I am being, then how much realistically would I need to invest in upgrading my portable gear to where I am doing first-rate headphones justice?

There are lots of parts to this question; I welcome answers to parts of what I am asking, you don't have to tackle the whole query. Thanks.

Doug Greenberg, Berkeley

A few experienced audiophiles told me that you should upgrade the stuff nearer the ears first, and go downstream thereafter, so as to lower the diminishing returns. So they advised upgrading the transducer first (ie headphone, IEM, earbud), followed by amp, then DAC, then source file, +/- cable if you ain't a cable skeptic. But it is true you might get a bottleneck if you already have a high end transducer, and say your downstream stuff isn't the best, but probably diminishg returns involved to upgrade the downstream stuff.
 
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I don't think a higher-end transducer makes any better use of an amplifier than a lower-end one. Seems like wishful thinking.
 
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I gather that at the very least the Mojo has more power, so for headphones with any level of impedance past the very low it would drive them more fully, which might affect the sound quality. I do have an old pair of Sennheiser hd600, which the Dragonfly really cannot drive, but then again, I get along fine day to day not using the Senns except for with the Cavelli amp.

Doug Greenberg
The Mojo certainly has more power and works under its own power vs the Audioquest that uses the hosts power. The other thing that might be a factor is that the Mojo doesn’t support MQA... doesn’t worry me as I don’t use Tidal. It’s a great little DAC/AMP though and can be found used for a bargain price. It doesn’t seem to make sense to have a high quality headphone and not spend a little on something better to fuel them.
 
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The source and amplifier are usually the easiest to settle. There is a multitude of competent options on the market today; those on the budget-end of the spectrum are usually considered satisfactory for a majority of headphones and/or IEMs.

Supposing that you are already in possession of a competent source, you should settle the headphone-end of the equation first. Once you have resolved this aspect of your system, you can tread the amplifier path, if you are yearning to tweak your setup to accommodate a host of different configurations, in a bid to achieve a different sound (read: not necessarily better); say, with tube amplifiers.
 
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Part of the answer to the OP's question is whether the high grade headphones are high impedance/planar magnetic or low sensitivity. If the headphone requires near 0.7W to power it well then obviously if you dispense with an amplifier or use a low power one the experience will be poor with lack of volume, distortion and other negatives. However there are plenty of dynamic headphones with high sensitivities that will be easier to drive. These of course won't sound their best without quality amplification but the degradation without a quality amplifier might not be that great. For me I just want the DAC and amplifier to get out of the way, I have a certain regard for them but I'm never going to spend lots for them. For high priced headphones I'm surprised more of them aren't supplied with a suitable flat amplifier as well as being burned-in as part of the package.
 
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