my work system
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kelly

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Why write this article
Ocassionally, people ask what is the best way to go with a work system. I know my system isn't a one-size-fits-all, but I think it'd be the best solution to a good majority of the people asking this question. Moreover, this is my solution and while it's pretty far along, I'm sure I'll find further ways to improve it. Some of the weaknesses are given here and I'm very open to further suggestions. I spend a great deal of time listening at work so this is important to me.

The limitations
So what are the limitations. I work in an open cube environment and thus bring me stuff in a backpack, hook it up quickly and disconnect it at the end of the day. If I know I won't use the gear at home until returning to work, I have a drawer I can lock things in overnight. We have different cleaning crews and building maintenance and management people in the office after hours and it isn't worth the risk to leave something plugged in all the time. So... a small footprint is somewhat necessary. The system has to be "totable." It also has to be small enough to not be a distraction to my coworkers. It's one thing to be eccentric and quite another to have a full rack mount system sitting my desk. I drew the line at a backpack full of stuff. It's not unusual for white collar folk to carry backpacks in to work with laptops, cell phones, notebooks, etc. Many of my coworkers carry in headphones and portable cd players. My goal is to achieve a better version of THAT.

Good music
Start with good music. No, really. Start with good recordings of good music. Buy the remasters when they're worth it. My rig will play mp3s too and if your favorite artist is releasing a demo track or something it's nice to have the flexibility to play mp3s but remember that what you get out is limited by what you put in. The mp3s will still benefit from what's up stream, though, so even if you stubbornly dump your iPod's ill-acquired music to your hard drive, this system will still work for you.

Exact Audio Copy
This is an important piece. Use Exact Audio Copy to rip files to your hard drive and play them from there. In liue of a world class transport, these files will sound much better playing from your hard drive given that you get them there without introducing errors or correction. Hence, Exact Audio Copy.

Monkey's Audio Compression
Monkey is a lossless compression program. This will reduce your .wav files by about 40% to a format with the extension .ape. A plugin exists for WinAmp and other players. To my ears .ape sound no different than the .wav files. This is still space intensive so large hard drives are recommended.

Dolby Headphone
I've played with Dolby Headphone and think it's promising. However, here are my immediate problems: 1) No plugin exists for WinAmp which is my choice of players, 2) the plugin that exists for other players costs money and I'm not yet decided whether it's worth it, 3) the other players sometimes do not play .ape files. I chose my WinAmp and .ape files over .mp3s and Dolby Headphone. I'm sure this issue will be revisited.

Soundcard
This is my achilles hill at the moment. I'm still looking for the best soundcard and/or USB > coax digital converter. I'm using the Philips Acoustic Edge at work right now and this is NOT the one. Remember, I don't need a good DAC here since I'll be using an external one (see next step). I'd feel silly paying for an expensive soundcard that has emphasis on its DAC or ADC components for this reason. It should not be expensive to get a bitstream from a computer. Open to suggestions.

Coax digital cable
I'm currently using a Monster $50 digital cable and it is, frankly, another weak link. If you're going to buy a cable, the Digi-Trio that Modwright sells is a good value at $150. The digital cable Boulder sells is not quite as good for a good bit less money. If you can't justify spending so much on a cable right now, use a standard video cable. Don't waste money on Monster or other crappy cables. People who claim they can't hear a difference likely haven't tried the better ones. And no, I cannot explain why such a difference exists and don't care to argue it. Believe it or do not believe it, but either way skip out on any of the sub-$100 "digital" cables. A standard video cable will do the same job.

ART DI/O
The ART DI/O can be acquired from FullCompass.com for $125. (Call rather than attempting to order from their web site.) As many of you know, the ART DI/O is a Digital to Analog Converter (DAC) as well as an (Analog to Digital Converter (ADC). There's also a tube in place that can add "tube warmth" (read: coloration) to whatever you run ADC. I don't know the merits of this unit for ADC but the popularity of the ART DI/O on the net is due to it being a nice DAC.

Unfortunately, the ART DI/O was designed for pro audio use and therefore spits out a hot 7V from its output. Worse, it does so to a pair of phono jacks. What this means for us is that if your headphone amp doesn't have active processing before the amplification, you can still use the ART DI/O in stock form but you won't have as much play in the volume. You'll also need a pair of phono->RCA plugs which you can get for a couple of bucks from Radio Shack. The stock unit is nice if you're on a tight budget.

ART DI/O modifications by Bolder
When you're ready to upgrade that DAC, the thing to do is to visit: http://www.boldercables.com . There you'll find that Bolder offers upgrades to the ART DI/O for $260. This will keep the basic personality of the DAC but will give you a lower noise floor, better depth, smoother highs and a more solid bass.

Many prefer this modified DAC to $2000 players. For sure, it's the best thing with such a small footprint (about 5 inches across and only a couple inches deep). I do prefer Modwright's Level II modified P3A but it costs quite a bit more and isn't quite as small. If you have more money and aren't afraid to leave equipment on your desk overnight, consider the P3A. For this footprint, the only competition is the Channel Island and I prefer the modified ART DI/O.

ART DI/O custom PSU by Bolder
This piece is arguably a line cross when it comes to the small footprint, but here's the thing: the PSU sits on the floor next to your computer or power strip and if you leave it there overnight it's not likely to get stolen. The PSU is a basic grey metal box with Bolder's power cables strewn from both sides of it. A work in aesthetics it is not, but remember, it sits on the floor.

The PSU adds better bass definition and further lowers the noise floor. This is another $125 and is worth it if you've already sprung for the mods. Your total investment in the DAC now sits at $510 plus a little in shipping. I can tell you that for $510, this is an absolute killer source and will best anything remotely as affordable.

Interconnects
Again, I'm currently using a POS Monster cable here. I'm intending to pick up a .5m cable but haven't yet. From the reviews on Head-Fi, it seems like the Outlaw cable is one of the best on a budget. Of course, you can always spend more.

Corda HA-1 headphone amplifier
The best price/performance headphone amp with a small footprint by a commercial company has got to be the Corda HA-1. Undoubtedly. Your only other options to consider here would be the META42 or perhaps the Dynamic Gilmore which I haven't heard yet. The Corda HA-1 is NOT a battery powered amp and is not intended for portable use. It is, however, small enough to easily fit in any backpack and be handled easily. It has an easy to manage Alps pot and a 3 position Meier crossfeed filter which I like quite a bit, especially with extended listening sessions. The Corda is $345 assembled from www.meier-audio.com. The META42 is cheaper -- consult the guys in the forum who sell this for specific pricing (Eric343, Tangent, JMT). I reviewed the META42 here: http://www.head-fi.org/forums/showth...threadid=15700 .

Corda Blue modifications by KurtW
The Corda is a price/performance champ, but like most good things in life, it can be made better. Kurt's mods are fairly inolved. I detail them in my review of the Corda/Corda Blue here: http://www.head-fi.org/forums/showth...threadid=14546 . In short, the mods are very worth it and so far I think this is the best amp I can get and still keep it fairly totable. I'm open to suggestions if I can keep the footprint this small but it's the best I've come up with so far.

IEC Power Cable
As illogical as it may be, this also makes a difference. The improvements of a power cable are not so pronounced as with the other components and modifications I recommend--at least not in my environment. Still, I'm using a Ven Haus DIY power cable that is similar to the Bolder Type I and Type II cables. You'll probably want to save this for last if budget is an issue but consider it when you've upgraded everything else.

Etymotic ER-4S headphone
The Etymotic is an in-the-ear-canal style headphone that blocks 25db of outside noise, offers a relatively flat frequency response and among the best resolution in dynamic headphones. As you can imagine, it's also quite small and its pouch fits easily into a compartment in a bag or backpack. If you have a noisy work environment and don't need to hear what's going on around you, this is a good way to block everything out. Be warned, though, you won't hear your boss sneaking up behind you if you spend a lot of time on **** sites. The ER-4S is $269 at www.headphone.com .

FixUp cable for ER-4S
The Etymotic is not without its faults and its largest one, in my view, is that its cable is very microphonic and it transfers much of the noise of your shirt collar, desk, etc. With the stock cable, you may catch yourself purposefully trying to sit very still to prevent these noises. It's discomforting for me. Luckily I'm not the only picky creature on the web and a fellow Head-Fi'er by the name of FixUp runs a small business tweaking and modding portable gear. Among his products is a $45 cable for the Etymotic that is far less microphonic and probably sounds better too. (I wasn't able to do ABing because of the difficulty of disconnecting and reconnecting Etymotic cables, but from memory the FixUp cable sounds a little better). Visit FixUp at: http://www.fixup.net/tips/ety/ety.htm .

Ultrasone HFI-650
At some point I had to admit that I'd never fully gotten used to the in the ear thing and began to miss my old closed portable headphone, the Sony MDR-7506 (same as: MDR-V6). Of course, the V6 doesn't sound nearly as good to me as the Etymotic so I began considering others. The clear upgrade was the Beyerdynamic DT250-80 although it's not a folding type and still would be quite a step down from the Etymotic.

Finally, a new headphone arrived on the market from a German company called Ultrasone. My brief experience with this headphone has me agreeing with dougli and Jan Meier, that it is better compared to higher end headphones such as the Sennheiser HD600 and Beyerdynamic DT931 than it is to the lower DT250-80 and Sony V6. I don't yet know which I'll be listening to more at work, the Ultrasone or the Etymotic but for now, it will be nice to have both options. The Ultrasone is a folding type but doesn't ball up quite as small as the Sony V6. It's still rather small though and is durable enough to survive trips in my work backpack. The Ultrasone HFI-650 goes for $140 at www.meier-audio.com .

Other headphones
There are other headphones I like and have on occasion used at work, however they're all either larger, open-design or both. For my work environment, a closed headphone was preferred. If your environment is different, there are numerous threads in which we debate the merits of one headphone versus another. Visit the Headphone section of Head-Fi for that. The Corda and modified Corda will easily drive any of the dynamic headphones with the exception of the AKG K1000. And let's face it, if you wear a K1000 at work, you're a dork.
 
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Flasken

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Interesting read, Thanks Kelly!!


I'd like to see more reviews of a whole system instead of just amp/interconnects/sources/headphones etc. seperately..

Very nice. Always looking forward to read your stuff.
 
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DanG

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Very interesting. Have you considered the Bel Canto DAC-2 or the older 1/1.1? All three are housed in the same little black box and the DAC2 should be a lot better than the DI/O.
 
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mlchang

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So you like the Ultrasone 650?
Any chance I could come listen to it sometime?

Michael
 
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andrzejpw

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Kelly: do you lug all of this home each day? I mean, you talked about a lockable drawer. Do you leave half of the stuff in the drawer, and talk home the other half? I mean, to me, it seems like lugging all that back and forth. . .
 
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BoardC3

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what about a good WAV to MP3 converter. I just got a Rio Volt SP250 and i need a good wav to mp3 converter ASAP. PLEASE HELP
 
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andrzejpw

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That's easy. LAME + razorlame as a frontend.
 
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I'll second EAC & LAME for MP3's. If you're going to use EAC for rips (use secure mode!), then you can skip RazorLAME and just input your command-line options into EAC.
 
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elrod-tom

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WOW!! That has to rank as just about the best work rig I've ever heard of. Beats the hell out of my Sony D-25S/Total Airhead/AKG K240's.



WOW!! 6 cans on a 5 can scale!!!


 
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kelly

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All I can say about mp3 is that using a lossy compression technique tells me your true priority is not sound quality. To each his own.

andrze
Lately I've been bringing the DAC home because the XA777ES is held up in Oregon. Typically I would leave the cables and DAC PSU in the floor by my desk and bring the headphones and amp home or lock them in the drawer. Without cables or PSU, the amp and DAC are quite small. I also take a CD case from time to time with new stuff to offload onto .ape files. Even when I bring everything to or from work, including the CD case, it all fits easily in my backpack and the setup/tear down is only 2 minutes or so.

Dan
I searched AA and couldn't find any direct Bel Canton DAC 2 vs ART DI/O comparisons. The Bel Canto looks larger in the pics but I'm not sure if it actually is. That would matter. If the Bel Canto is small enough and actually sounds better than the ART, it's worth considering but from what I gather, the price is a lot more than the ART so the upgrade would have to be worthwhile. My suspicion is that a lot of people simply underrate how good the modded ART DI/O gets.

michang
Were you at the last Dallas Head-Fi meet? Looking at your profile and I'm not sure we've met. We don't have another meeting scheduled yet and I dunno when we will have but we could get together outside of that sometime.
 
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slindeman

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Thanks for your post Kelly, very informative as always. I wish I could afford your work system for home.


So would you say the Ultrasone is finally a full-sized closed headphone that doesn't disappoint? Other than the etymotics I've hated every other isolating headphone (Beyers included) that I've tried, and most non-isolating closed ones too.

Quote:

It also has to be small enough to not be a distraction to my coworkers. It's one thing to be eccentric and quite another to have a full rack mount system sitting my desk.


I may press on past eccentricity soon then -- I recently added a receiver, speakers, and a turntable to my work system. It's a good thing my desk is super-sized. My coworkers will force me from my cubicle to an office any day now.
 
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DanG

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Hopefully one day I'll get to hear this modded ART DI/O so I can compare with the Meridian 508.20 that better be here today.
 
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Ari

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Kelly.

This "article" is a reference. Printed and filed !!

Best

Ari
 
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mlchang

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kelly,

I unfortunately did not make it to the Dallas gathering as I had some work stuff to do over the weekend. Anyway, I tried to offer my then shiny new META42 up, but nick dangerous said that another one would be there already. So in other words we haven't met.

Anyway, it would be great if we could meet up sometime. You can PM me or whatever, and we can figure what would be convenient. I'm quite curious about the HFI-650 as I'm going to be traveling a lot soon and really am not a fan of in-ear phones.

Thanks.

Michael
 
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minya

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Quote:

Originally posted by kelly
All I can say about mp3 is that using a lossy compression technique tells me your true priority is not sound quality. To each his own.


Perhaps his true priority is the music itself, not the sound quality...


Chris
 
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