Perceived difference in DAC/Amp quality/cost
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Kickle

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Hi all,

I'm new around here as far as posting and given the new guy guidelines, this is my first post! Thanks to all the folks here for the wealth of info available.

Here's the conundrum most newcomers like myself entering the arena of high end audio/headphones faces: Do you really need an Amp/DAC for your fancy new cans, and will you hear the difference from a lower end product to a higher one, or at all? I've got a pair of Monolith M1060C's on the way, being my first foray into planar's. A decent budget entry point, or so I've read, though I'm considering getting a DAC and amp if it's worth it. I've put in plenty of time doing my homework, and thought I'd reach out to those here with more experience for some input.

Simply put, in the budget range, is something like a $60 FX Audio DAC-X6 going to be blown away by those in the $200-300 range such as a Topping A30/D30 combo, a Schiit stack etc, or even higher end gear? Secondarily, is it worth having a lower end DAC/amp period?

I realize there is no simple way to quantify this, as audio is highly subjective. However when comparing the rainbow of Sabre chipsets, to Cirrus to the highly touted AKM chips, coupled with low noise, low impedance etc amps, is there 2-3x the cost in quality gained? Especially with entry level M1060C's?

Personal use case and thoughts:
  1. M1060C's will be in living room, seating ~10ft from sources, use with music, movies and games of all flavors.
  2. HTPC laptop (crappy Realtek audio) and console game system both currently outputting optical to my old and trusty Harman Kardon AVR147 receiver. Using receiver 1/4" headphone jack for either Sony MDR7506's or Hyper X Cloud KHX-H3CL. Headphone jack doesn't appear to be amping anything special, at least not in any specs I've read, and seemingly drives both ~60ohm headsets decently enough, though I do have to give the MDR's a good bit more big knob for acceptable output (I kind of have a hard time believing the Cloud's are 60ohm...).
  3. DAC/Amp wants:
    1. Doesn't need to support anything higher than 24/192, as I don't have any content greater than that, don't really care about MQA etc unless convinced otherwise.
    2. Balanced isn't a concern, especially in the budget corner.
    3. M1060C's apparently run at 18ohm, so amp output impedance should be <2ohms, according to the 1/8th rule.
    4. Inputs should be USB/Optical at least.
    5. Preamp out capability to my receiver would be neat to give a bit more juice to my towers, but isn't a must.
    6. If running only 18ohm headphones, just about any amp power output should be overkill, I believe.
    7. Would love a remote capable unit for volume control of game console, but an add-in inline volume control on headphones will suffice (like the Hyper X Cloud comes with already).
    8. Budget friendly, don't mind used - cheap and quality is the name of the game - hey I can wish.
    9. Would be nice to EQ non-HTPC sources, so maybe a DSPMini HD as the DAC or in the mix? Kills lower cost options.
I've considered, in part:
  1. Topping DX3Pro V1 - I could call it a day with this, even with their reported failures, but the *non* V2/LDAC versions are *impossible* to find. Read on AudioScienceReview the LDAC version ruined the amp with its ~10ohm output compared to the original's <1ohm. The Topping MX3 I've read isn't so great for headphones and better for monitors etc.
  2. FX Audio DX6 - it's cheap at $60, why else.
  3. Discrete amp and DAC - Every flavor out there including Topping, Schitt, JLabs, Monolith, SMSL etc. This can be done for around $200.
  4. Combo units: Would be fine/great if one fits the bill. Many seem to be either too expensive, impossible to find, review poorly, are missing an input, are aimed towards portable etc.
  5. MiniDSP HD as DAC, then throw in an amp. Would love the EQ capability for non-PC use, though this pushes the cost to at minimum >$300, and the MiniDSP DAC apparently "isn't stellar". I do enjoy several db+ in the low end, of which I don't know if the M1060C's will accomplish without EQ and the Mini would satisfy this.

Whew, sorry to rattle on, my head is spinning with amp/DAC thoughts. But, as I see it my needs are fairly simple, there are just a ton of options out there with no truly perfect, cheap(er) solution. The kicker is being new and ignorant without having any reference points to know where, or if, my money goes. I'm fairly analytical in listening (audiophile-esque), but probably couldn't, or wouldn't care to point out a nearly imperceptible difference in "airiness" or "warmth", but casual listening is often the case - I like to relax with audio, not work to understand it. How often does one interested in great audio quality say, "wow, glad I dropped $300 on a DAC"?

What do you all think?
Thanks for any input, and I look forward to this forum consuming more time than it already has!
 
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Monsterzero

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How often does one interested in great audio quality say, "wow, glad I dropped $300 on a DAC"?
Im not sure you're going to hear much of a difference in DACs at that price point with the M1060s,but the only way to find out is to get one.
Amps IMO have more of an impact on how a given headphone will sound. A poorly driven headphone being fed by a great DAC will still sound like garbage.

If budget is your main concern I would suggest going for a Schiit stack,reason being is they are easy to sell if for whatever reason you dont like it. Some of the other gear mentioned might sound as good or perhaps better,but if it doesnt meet your expectations selling it might be a challenge.

After youve upgraded your headphones and amp a good DAC can make a dramatic difference,but I'd worry about a big $ DAC later.
 
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ScareDe2

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Realtek is actually great DAC if it is well implemented by the motherboard. Maybe it's the laptop that is crappy. In that case going for the Schiit modi/magni combo is a good place to start.

I have a realtek ALC888 in two motherboards. One sounds amazing and the other one sounds just fine. If you have a good computer you can use a cable converter 3.5 to RCA and plug it to an amp or a receiver.
 
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ProtegeManiac

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Here's the conundrum most newcomers like myself entering the arena of high end audio/headphones faces: Do you really need an Amp/DAC for your fancy new cans...
That depends.

If the impedance is too high as to require a bit more voltage or impedance is too low you need a low output impedance or impedance is low and sensitivity is low at which point you need more current and voltage, all compared to what you might otherwise plug the headphones into, then yeah.


...and will you hear the difference from a lower end product to a higher one, or at all?...
I usually can.

I can't answer for whether you will. At best if there's an obvious issue I can assume you might and recommend spending on better equipment but mostly on the basis of "spend at least this much now and hit the apex on the diminishing returns curve, and practically anything you try from here on out you'd hear mostly as it really is instead of wondering whether an upgrade will help."


Simply put, in the budget range, is something like a $60 FX Audio DAC-X6 going to be blown away by those in the $200-300 range such as a Topping A30/D30 combo, a Schiit stack etc, or even higher end gear?
If you have a headphone with very high sensitivity that giving it the 100mW from a headphone amp can blow through your eardrums twice over and/or has enough driver distortion that adding the distortion generated by the upstream components might in all likelihood not be noticeable over the driver suspension going "thwack! thwack!" with the bass notes (or the amp added that) then no.

But if you can't get it loud enough to begin with, then obviously yes.

Or if you can get it loud enough but there's electronic noise or distortion.

The problem there is how much and what kind of distortion are we talking about. It's not always an obvious ringing or humming, and on the other hand, even otherwise good products can have that interference on some headphones/IEMs and most people just choose to crank it up if it doesn't get as loud as the actual playback...and yet that noise is still there affecting how deep and solid the bass sounds like (ie why in a noisy room some people will outright prefer some lower cost amp with bass boost over a Meier or Violectric, but put them in a very quiet room and you can probably get more votes for the latter).


Secondarily, is it worth having a lower end DAC/amp period?
I have a Pangea HP-101 that I got when I was having trouble sourcing a power supply to repair my Meier Cantate.2. Kept it and lugged it around anywhere I plan on staying long enough, like when I stayed with my brother over Christmas.

I also have an Ibasso D-Zero on my laptop work desk for when I need to use IEMs and it sometimes goes into the laptop bag.


I realize there is no simple way to quantify this, as audio is highly subjective.
Yes and no.

You can measure the system's output and know what kind of noise or distortion is still there.

No in the sense that two amps that measure with theoretically inaudible THD+N even volume matched can at some point get to a headphone where there's enough variance in the sound. And while I went with a 300ohm headphone to mitigate this, well, that amp I got to stand in while my main amp is broken? Noise kicks in sooner, possibly due to the Shuguang tube in it and I can't figure out how to take it apart to replace the tube yet.

But hey for $100 and I got my Meier amp back at some point I'm not exactly rushing.


I realize there is no simple way to quantify this, as audio is highly subjective. However when comparing the rainbow of Sabre chipsets, to Cirrus to the highly touted AKM chips, coupled with low noise, low impedance etc amps, is there 2-3x the cost in quality gained? Especially with entry level M1060C's?
How would you even gauge what "2-3X cost in quality gained" is supposed to be like?

I mean on a PC I can spend 3X more for an RTX 2080Ti and then blow the same money on Intel and a slightly cheaper, non-Gen4 PCI-E Z490 board (on current 14nm CPUs) and I wouldn't exactly get 3X the frame rates over a 5700XT and R7 3700X on Total War (though it might get you much higher Average FPS without dropping 1% Lows) or even on a lighter load competitive game with lots of players like CS:GO where 240fps is crucial.

You can blow $6,000 on a Stage 1 Turbo/Supercharger kit on a $30,000-ish car and it's not going to slash your quarter mile times by 1/5. But people keep getting that, for the daily (or weekend trip) benefit of being able to overtake more easily instead of getting stuck behind some slow truck along Route 395 en route to Death Valley, Mammoth Mountain, or Yosemite. That and if it provides a lot of torque without lag it makes for throttle steering out of corners easier even if it doesn't necessarily slash track lap times by 20%.

In audio it's more a matter of whether you'd spend $200 more which if you're starting with $200 means it's doubling (but if you're starting with $400 then you're adding only 50%) even the expense no matter how objective it seems because numbers are involved is still psychological since you have to decide how much to put in in the first place, and then commensurately assume that doubling to $400 should have a gigantic gain over say how somebody with a $1,000 amp decides to blow $250 on cables and claims it was worth it (maybe because no $1,250 amp was clearly better or maybe he's really just hallucinating the extent of the improvements over a decent set of cables for $75 total).


Preamp out capability to my receiver would be neat to give a bit more juice to my towers, but isn't a must.
You're not "juicing" your amp with more current. You'll just give it a higher voltage signal, at which point depending on how loud you set the preamp you can get
1. A signal less than 2V ie the line output from the DAC
2. A signal far higher voltage and distortion from the headphone amp's active preamp that your speaker integrated amp's/receiver's active preamp will increase thevoltage of, noise and all, and then feed the signal into its amp output stage.

In short it's kind of like thinking preamps work like beam rifles in Gundam where you can stick one beam rifle's business end into the rear of another beam rifle and then the next shot out of it can punch right through a space frigate while the pilot is on comms talking to somebody about some hippie stuff while he continues blasting things to smithereens with his beam rifles in series.


If running only 18ohm headphones, just about any amp power output should be overkill, I believe.
Nominal impedance only tells you what output impedance the amp needs to have, and then you have to check if the amp also makes enough power at that given nominal impedance.

At the sensitivity of those headphones you'll need around 256mW at 18ohms just to not clip (noise and harmonic distortion however are another matter). That's not hard to get nowadays but not exactly something you can get from just about anything as some amps rated at 32ohms might actually have their output drop below that.
 
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PurpleAngel

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Schiit Fulla 3 DAC/amp ($100).
 
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