Seeking advice: Improve DAC, cables or ?
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dobbylicious

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[Part 1: Introduction - feel free to skip down to the questions]
I've used my computer mainly for gaming purposes in the past and only once decided to see how better audio hardware could improve sound - bought a X-Fi Fatal1ty Titanium and was quite astonished by the improvement over onboard sound. Together with my Sennheiser RS-130 headphones and the Creative software EQ options I was happy for some years.
 
Then a year ago I felt again the urge to upgrade and did some 'research' on head-fi and considered many online reviews. The HD650 appeared to be what I was looking for and together with the Fiio E7/E9 it proved to be a nice improvement - although I still prefer the analog out of the X-Fi compared to USB -> E7 (and it enables 24bit compared to Fiio's USB 16bit maximum)
 
The HD650 together with the E9 are a nice package and I think it's a nice entry combo to get a taste of good sound. But I still felt the urge to upgrade as I have a clear goal in mind: the feeling of 'being there' at a live performance, be it Jazz or orchestra works. What I was missing the most was the size of the soundstage and missing dynamics..
This lead to further reading on the HD650 and many times I read that the HDs have great synergy with the Earmax Pro - took a leap of faith and again noticed major improvements: improved dynamics and the instruments (mainly acoustic) sound way better. The feeling of 'being there' was achieved, but not for classical orchestra works. If I would not listen to classical music I think I have achieved my main goal and would stop upgrading (for now, lol).
After some tube rolling (landed at the Telefunken E88CCs) I'm at a point where I love the sound itself, instruments sound just like I expect them to and there's great detail and dynamics without losing the overall structure/flow. Jazz and acoustic live performances are amazing - but still, I'm missing the soundstage for orchestral works.
 
Now after all this rambling my questions:
 
[Part 2: Questions]
What would be the logical next step(s) to improve on the above mentioned aspects to reach my goal?
I've read many reviews about DACs and feel that the E7 does not fulfill my criterias. It sounds ok, but I still prefer my X-Fi analog out over the USB -> E7. Just sounds better to my ears.
 
Would a better DAC such as a StageDAC, DacMagic etc. be a worthwile improvement? Or are the HD650 holding me back and only cans such as HD800, LCD-2 would be worth it?
 
Upgrading cables (better interconnects and headphone cable)?
 
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Head Injury

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Don't "upgrade" cables.
 
I'll assume your sound card has decent specs. I can't seem to find anything more than 109dB SNR which is good.
 
Are you looking for neutrality? Your amp's output impedance, if these measurements can be trusted, is 85 ohms. That's pretty high, and is going to alter the frequency response of just about every headphone to an audible degree. If I were you I'd look for a solid state amp with low noise, distortion, and an output impedance of at least 10 ohms (but the lower the better). You might want to consider a DAC/amp combo. You can try a Benchmark DAC1, it's expensive for what you get these days but it has a 30 day risk-free return policy. If you like it maybe get a Yulong D100, which is almost identical, or a Matrix Quattro which looks like a solid product and is also very similar.
 
You might want to try a better headphone. The HD800 has the same relatively easy amping requirements as the HD650 (no matter what anyone tells you). It's a very different sound signature, though. If you like the warm sound of the HD650, you might want to try the LCD-2. Its sound stage isn't as impressive as the HD800 but it's true to the recording and expands a little for orchestra. When you reach this price range any difference, no matter what you spend, will bring only small improvements.
 
I wouldn't get the LCD-2 (or any of the new planars) if you're keeping your Earmax amp, though. The output impedance is higher than the headphones'!
 
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dobbylicious

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Pardon my ignorance, but are you saying that the high output impedance of the earmax is decreasing the soundstage or rather that the amp is colouring the sound? As I'm quite happy with the sound signature itself at the moment I guess I'm not really looking for absolute neutrality, I rather like smooth and warm sound. Although a really neutral setup would be nice as well to have both options :)
 
..and to get a bigger soundstage that would be enough for orchestral works I'd need to get better headphones?
 
 
(The cable 'upgrade' came to mind as I'm using the cheapest RCA interconnect I could find in the electronics store.. and have never experimented with better/other cables to know what it would really change)
 
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Quote:
Pardon my ignorance, but are you saying that the high output impedance of the earmax is decreasing the soundstage or rather that the amp is colouring the sound? As I'm quite happy with the sound signature itself at the moment I guess I'm not really looking for absolute neutrality, I rather like smooth and warm sound. Although a really neutral setup would be nice as well to have both options :)
 
..and to get a bigger soundstage that would be enough for orchestral works I'd need to get better headphones?
 
 
(The cable 'upgrade' came to mind as I'm using the cheapest RCA interconnect I could find in the electronics store.. and have never experimented with better/other cables to know what it would really change)

Your amp is doing nothing to soundstage. Amps and DACs don't actually do anything to soundstage. Maybe a low distortion amp and DAC will increase it slightly because low volume cues in the recording come through easier. 80% of the soundstage comes from the recording, the other 20% comes from the way the headphones are designed. I believe peaks at certain frequencies in the treble attribute to exaggerated soundstage, and distance/orientation of the headphone drivers is important. For example, the HD800 (and other headphones like Sony R10 and Beyerdynamic T1) has drivers placed forward from center pointed back toward the ear, to give the illusion that sounds are coming from more the front like with speakers.
 
I'm not sure exactly what the output impedance does to the frequency response, but it does alter it. I believe it boosts frequencies where the headphones have an impedance peak. Here's measurements of the HD650. Because the impedance is higher in the bass and lower mid-range, peaking at 100Hz, your amp is making your headphones sound warmer. HD650 is warm to begin with, so I can imagine your setup sounds a little bit like listening through syrup 
. 85ohm output impedance with 300ohm headphones isn't going to make a huge difference, but according to a source I'm not allowed to link you want about 8 times higher headphone impedance than output impedance. If you like it don't worry about it. You have plenty of time in the future to get into neutrality.
 
If you want soundstage, and maybe want to sample neutrality, you could try an HD800. It's supposed to be good for classical, and has one of the biggest soundstages around. It has more treble than the HD650, but the impedance curve is similar so your amp will boost its bass. That might actually be a good thing if you like warmer sound. You may still prefer the HD650, but if you have the disposable income it would make for a nice complementary can.
 
In my opinion (and science's opinion) cables don't change a thing. Look around the Sound Science subforum if you want to learn why. If you want to feel better about your cables without selling your soul to afford "audiophile" ones, see if Monoprice will ship to Switzerland. They're very well built.
 
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dobbylicious

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Thanks a lot for the clarification, makes sense. Although I can't hear the syrup you're describing - I might really have to check out some neutral setups to compare.

I'm hoping to get a chance to listen to some other setups and maybe even to the HD800
 
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dobbylicious

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While I haven't had a chance to listen to the HD800 or LCD-2 I'm still somewhat on the fence regarding my soundcard. I'm looking into giving the HD800 a try in the future as a complementary headphone to the HD650, as this would provide me with one warm/euphonic setup and a very detailed one I would mainly use for orchestral works (assumption..)
But before venturing into such high-end and pricey headphones I'd like to make sure that my setup is up to this task. Many articles online mention that the HD650s scale up very well with better equipment, so my goal would be to get a solid complete system with the HD650 - which I could then expand with a HD800, once the resources are available.
 
As I've never had a chance to listen to some quality DACs my concern is still the soundcard, although all the information I found indicates that it should be up to the task. Today I found this review of the X-Fi Fatal1ty Titanium with some measurements: http://www.pureoverclock.com/review.php?id=653&page=7
 
How good are these measurements compared to a DAC such as a DacMagic or Minimax? Will the card be plenty enough to not be a bottleneck within my system?
 
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Source first.
Try to stretch your budget and listen to anything without asking the price before :wink:
 
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If you're still into gaming, I'd suggest keeping the X-Fi as an S/PDIF interface for the gaming features, while stepping up to an external DAC with S/PDIF-in if you see fit.
 
As for what DACs to suggest, it's difficult to suggest something I don't have (in the dedicated, external, audiophile piece of kit sense, anyway), but at least one person seems to favor the PS Audio offerings in terms of bang for the buck when resold used on places like AudiogoN. Why them specifically? Not sure, but it's what he has (a Digital Link III, to be specific), and he's satisfied with it. People are naturally more likely to recommend what they do have experience with, and for good reason.
 
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DacMagic should do the HD650s good because its brighter. They should sound more open.
 
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I'd say give the M2tech Young dac a try. it should come with 30-day trial. if not, give the UK dealer a call. it'll only cost you few € to return it. 
 
I didn't like the Dacmagic. nothing magic about it. at all.
 
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I'd say give the M2tech Young dac a try. it should come with 30-day trial. if not, give the UK dealer a call. it'll only cost you few € to return it.

I didn't like the Dacmagic. nothing magic about it. at all.

I've read some reviews on the DacMagic and it seems to be a great component, especially with the balanced out available.
That it sounds bright somewhat surprises me. Regarding balanced out: that's another way of enhancing the current system. I'm contemplating getting a DAC with balanced outs to maybe in the future go fully balanced. But would that help improve things such as soundstage?

Thank you for mentioning the M2tech, I did not know about this DAC before. The price might be on the upper limit for me though.
Can you share some info on what could be gained compared to my current soundcard for which I've posted a link to some measurements?
 
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The DacMagic is stellar on it coax output, however it's crappy on USB, the jitter is extremely high on USB.
I personally would go for the DacPort by Centrance, it's a dac/amp unit, has plenty of power, is portable and measures very well. I'd even send a mail to Centrance to ask them to outfit the the DacPort with a 0 ohm output impedance (default is 10 ohm).
 
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You could use the DACMagic with your computer's optical out, but as khaos says the DACPort is a wonderful piece of kit and as your headphones are high impedance it will drive them with authority. I doubt they can lower the output impedance - there's probably a reason why it's so high.
In the end, both measure stupidly well, with the minor caveat that the DACPort is not ideal for driving low impedance 'phones - but even then audible problems would depend on the impedance curve of the headphone in question (impedance vs frequency). Obviously, the DACMagic requires a separate amp.
 
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You could use the DACMagic with your computer's optical out, but as khaos says the DACPort is a wonderful piece of kit and as your headphones are high impedance it will drive them with authority. I doubt they can lower the output impedance - there's probably a reason why it's so high.
In the end, both measure stupidly well, with the minor caveat that the DACPort is not ideal for driving low impedance 'phones - but even then audible problems would depend on the impedance curve of the headphone in question (impedance vs frequency). Obviously, the DACMagic requires a separate amp.

Actually, Centrance sells a 0 ohm mod for the DacMini, and I remember someone from the DacPort thread who wrote that Centrance themselves modded his Dacport to a 0 ohm output impedance.

Edit: I found the quote

MINI REVIEW OF CEntrance MODIFIED DACPort with 1ohm Output Impedance
 
My DACPort appeared to have retired early, so I sent it back for warranty.  CEntrance was very responsive and communicative.  In the end, the unit was diagnosed NPF, and returned to me.  It worked immediately, which is odd because nothing I could do would get power on when I sent it.  However, that's not the interesting part.
 
While in their hands, I asked for a modification to lower the output impedance.  At 10ohms, it's on the low side of many designs, but I thought reducing to 1ohm might benefit my IEMs, which have lower impedance and a bumpy curve (making them more affected by "bass bloom" (which is a function of amp to device impedance ratios that vary with different frequencies).  It also runs a little cooler to the touch.
 
I noted the sound changed quite a bit with the IEM (JH16), but interesting also with the T50rps.  On both, the bass became a bit tighter, snappier and less thumpy, delivering a nice sense of depth and extension, without bloat.  My perception is the rest of the spectrum also sounds a little cleaner but warmer, like a thin layer of gauze was removed.  Various instruments are very cleanly delineated, but with a nice sense of integration between the primary tones and he overtones.  
 
This is all by memory of course.  It could be a dose of powerful placebo, because I can't A/B, but it sound increasingly different to me from my D12 than I remembered.  Definitely less clinical and more tubelike, conveying a nice sense of "rightness" to vocals.  
 
On Viva Voce's awesome new album The Future Will Destroy You the interplay of the vocal harmonies is accentuated; each voice floats out of an inky background presented in it's own acoustic space, but combining with the others to create a blended and coherent vocal track. 
 
The DACPort and the T50rp Rastapants is really a giant-killer combo.  My Burson/LCD-2 is really the bomb, but the T50rp is not the same degree of detail and realism, it is shockingly listenable, and in fact probably accounts for 75% of my phone time.
 
In summary, barring placebo, I have to say the DACPort sounds great for the price, natural, warm, blanced and extended, but the 1ohm modification makes it a better match to low-Z phones, especially when the impedance isn't flat.  The overall sound was more to my preference, and rendered a more balanced and natural sound.  If you ever need to have a unit repaired, or are buying a new one, it may be worth considering this.
 
 
 
 
 
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