newbie investigating cans and USB DAC/amps
May 8, 2012 at 12:30 AM Thread Starter Post #1 of 9

realremo

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Hi folks!  I have tinnitis!  And I am finding that I enjoy music more through headphones than I do through my 2-channel stereo.  I need to keep the volume low, and I think I can get better sound quality and enjoyment thru a good set of cans and a decent USB DAC/headphone amp.  So I might be selling my 2-channel gear.  I am wondering which headphone DAC/amp is really good for the money?  I have looked at the Centrance DACport, but that's about it.  I don't want to break the bank either.  I think I am going with Grado cans, I like the look and I've heard and read good things.  Thoughts?
 
May 8, 2012 at 2:38 AM Post #2 of 9

proton007

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You don't need an amp if you use low impedance headphones. Amps just make the signal louder, if its not loud enough already with the source.
But if you go for a dac then I'm afraid you have to get an amp.
 
May 8, 2012 at 3:27 AM Post #3 of 9

Yoga Flame

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Quote:
You don't need an amp if you use low impedance headphones. Amps just make the signal louder, if its not loud enough already with the source.
 

 
While that is the goal of all amps, some achieve it better than others. Everything that you can plug headphones into has an amp. The source's built in amp may have enough voltage to get loud, but it may also get slightly noisy at the same time. Or it may fail to supply enough current. Or the output impedance could be a bit too high.
 
Dedicated headphone amps also provide the option for analog volume control. That allows finer volume increments, and (in most but not all cases) better signal/noise ratio by turning up the output of the source and attenuating at the amp.
 
Since the OP is asking about USB, I presume the source is a computer, even though this is the portable amps forum. Some computer sound cards are very good, while others are noticeably inferior. For the latter, a good USB DAC will bring an obvious improvement.
 
But @proton007, I get what you mean. If the OP has a good enough sound card, then he doesn't strictly need a DAC or amp. (Though it can still be a nice thing to have.)
 
@realremo, the FiiO E10 is usually recommended as a decent entry level USB DAC/amp combo unit. It's not portable in the sense of having batteries built in to use on the go. But it will work with anything that has a functioning USB port.
 
May 8, 2012 at 11:01 AM Post #4 of 9

realremo

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First please consider that I work in digital media and I am always on my laptop.  I was thinking about USB-powered DAC/amps that have volume control.  I realize a 5v USB signal might not be able to really power any kind of "amp," headphone or not, so I'm suspicious.  
I might liquidate my 2-channel system to finance this, so why not go for a really good, portable headphone rig, something that I can take with me everywhere my laptop goes.  All of my music is on an external USB 2.0 drive, and the laptop would serve as the transport.  
I was looking at the Firestone products, but I don't think they are USB powered, and I don't want to deal with another cable.  The HRT headstreamer has good reviews, but I don't see a volume control, so that means iTunes is the volume control.  Also saw the Arcam rPac, which looks interesting.  Thanks for the posts, everything helps.  
All of Grado's cans have impedance of 32 ohms.  Does anyone drive Grados just with their laptops?  Surely a USB DAC/amp would improve sound quality...?
 
May 8, 2012 at 6:05 PM Post #5 of 9

Yoga Flame

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It depends on the specific laptop and DAC/amp. But yes, a USB DAC/amp will almost definitely improve sound quality compared with a laptop's default headphone output. 5V isn't a lot, but it is enough to drive most 32Ω headphones.
 
The DACport you mentioned earlier is well regarded, though I have no experience with it myself. Seems kind of pricey though. Generally, you get the most sound quality by spending on headphones first, then DAC & amp after that. The other good transportable USB DAC/amp with a volume knob that I'm familiar with is the Audinst HUD-mx1. Works with USB power alone, but also has an optional wall power adapter if you ever need to drive high impedance headphones in the future.
 
Since you are planning to go portable, bear in mind that Grados are open headphones. The openness brings several sonic advantages over sealed headphones. But they will leak sound a lot so others around you can easily hear what you're listening to (i.e. not suitable for libraries). They will also let in the noise of your surroundings.
 
May 8, 2012 at 11:09 PM Post #6 of 9

realremo

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I knew open cans would let in outside noise, which I don't care about too much, my home office is only 40dB ambient noise, most of the time, and when I'm at the office, I need to hear whatever witty banter might come my way.  But other folks hearing what I'm listening to would be an issue.  I guess I'll have to keep the volume really low at the office.  Of course everyone will love my music selections because I have extremely good taste, but you never know, there are always those flakes out there.
I like that spec you posted, the Audinst.  Two sizes of headphone inputs makes it much more versatile, I wouldn't have to use one of those  converter plugs. I was worried about that if I went with custom in-ear monitors.  
 
May 8, 2012 at 11:21 PM Post #7 of 9

proton007

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Quote:
I knew open cans would let in outside noise, which I don't care about too much, my home office is only 40dB ambient noise, most of the time, and when I'm at the office, I need to hear whatever witty banter might come my way.  But other folks hearing what I'm listening to would be an issue.  I guess I'll have to keep the volume really low at the office.  Of course everyone will love my music selections because I have extremely good taste, but you never know, there are always those flakes out there.
I like that spec you posted, the Audinst.  Two sizes of headphone inputs makes it much more versatile, I wouldn't have to use one of those  converter plugs. I was worried about that if I went with custom in-ear monitors.  

You've got two choices, go for a dedicated DAC and dedicated amp, or go for a combination, where you're stuck with the amp. Combinations tend to be more portable, but if you're using it at your desk then there's a wider choice if you go for separate amp / dac.
 
Quote:
It depends on the specific laptop and DAC/amp. But yes, a USB DAC/amp will almost definitely improve sound quality compared with a laptop's default headphone output. 5V isn't a lot, but it is enough to drive most 32Ω headphones.
 

 
What?
USB powers the DAC only. The amp is powered by an internal battery.
 
May 9, 2012 at 5:33 AM Post #8 of 9

DimitriTrush

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Item like CENTRANCE DACPORT has no battery. Its all power by the USB power for amp and DAC. If just amp I like really the Fischer HA02 that has the bass and the treble control and almost none noise from the headphones outputs. It operate only on the 5V of USB but hasnt a DAC. Very cool amp if you like that old fashion style and lots of power.
Quote:
You've got two choices, go for a dedicated DAC and dedicated amp, or go for a combination, where you're stuck with the amp. Combinations tend to be more portable, but if you're using it at your desk then there's a wider choice if you go for separate amp / dac.
 
 
What?
USB powers the DAC only. The amp is powered by an internal battery.

 
May 9, 2012 at 5:43 AM Post #9 of 9

proton007

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Thanks for pointing this out. But won't it load the usb power bus if you're using other devices on other USB ports? The max one usb port can give is 500mA.
 

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