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Should I go portable DAC/AMP, or stick with desktop DAC/AMP?

  1. kschang
    I am barely dipping my toe into better audio gear. I have a Superlux HD661, and some cheap IEMs I got from Massdrop. While it's okay, I don't have any DAC/AMP. I am also cursed with a large cranium so it took me two or three tries to get headphones that fit me well. Right now I'm getting by with a cheap crap Logitech G230 for my PC audio because it actually fits my head, whereas the SuperLux... just barely fit my head.

    Right now, I mostly listen to audiobooks, not music, but I want to get back into listening to music. My primary audio source is a Kindle Fire (yes, I know) and maybe my Samsung Galaxy S6, with a tertiary source of being my PC (old Dell XPS). If I am moving about I'm using Bluetooth headsets (a cheap neckband SoundPeats Q900 and an Avantree Audition), but I go by wired headset back home.

    So here's the real question: I don't REQUIRE a portable headphone dac/amp, but I do welcome the flexibility if it won't cost me a lot. On the other hand, does having a desktop dac/amp (for PC and Android) actually gain me that much fidelity? My budget is low, under $100 preferred. I am not an audiophile (yet). Don't need DSD.

    Right now I am thinking about

    * Portable: SMSL IDEA // Soundblaster E3 // FiiO Q1 Mk. II // Topping NX2? NX3?
    * Desktop: ?????

    It seems SoundBlaster E3 offers the most flexibility. I can use it in BT only (amp) mode with my SuperLux and my Android devices with no fear of incompatibility, or I can go USB/DAC mode if I want higher fidelity. The other devices are USB/DAC mode only. I guess the only neg here is BT here doesn't seem to support AptX?

    Is there something comparable on the desktop side?
  2. squee116
    So just to confirm, you want an amp/dac for use with efficient headphones with BT capability?
    With really efficient headphones, the performance boost from a better amp will be minimal unless you want to color your sound with warmth or something. The DAC should be better, but that will probably yield the smallest of improvements compared to changing headphones or amp.

    I think Massdrop has an SMSL AD18, which is a dac/amp capable of driving speakers, headphones, and has BT. It's going for about 120?
    TBH, I went the opposite route, and just use a DAP instead of PC to my amp using line out, or for my BT, or directly to the headphone when I feel like it. When I'm sitting at the desk, I'm using headphones I wouldn't be able to use mobile, and when I'm moving, my DAP suffices. (I have the Aune M1s, and Sony NWA45 (this one does blue tooth but headphone power is kind of anemic)). I had a similar idea of getting Fiio or Topping to use as a desktop dac, and recommended it to a friend, but he's adverse to paying more than 75 dollars for just a DAC.
  3. kschang
    Tell you the truth, I'm not quite sure what I want. I want an upgrade to my existing setup, but $$$ is a concern. But then, that's everybody, right? :D

    I need to use headphones as I live in small building with many shared rooms. I recently tossed my ANCIENT 2.1 Altec Lancing computer speakers (10 years old at least).

    I'm not sure about efficient headphones or not. Guess I need to look up stuff like that.

    Rephrasing the question

    Would the mobile or desktop Bluetooth transmitter (SB E3 for example) with my Superlux improve sound quality over my cheap crap Bluetooth headphones? Would it be noticeable? The SB E3 seems to be a good way to "convert" regular headphones and a separate mic into a BT headset w/ much better sound fidelity, but it doesn't seem to support AptX... Is there something similar to the SB E3 that supports AptX? Or would it be simpler just to find a headphone w/ AptX?
  4. squee116
    We need to unpack down into bits so the issues don't get confused:
    IEMs and the superlux are probably pretty efficient, as they're designed to work straight out of a DAP or pc, or gaming console.

    Bluetooth headphones have an amp built directly into the headphones, which is how they are powered wirelessly. The same would be true of a mic. By adding a BT receiver to a non-BT headphone, I'm assume the receiver has a built-in amp, in addition to the receiver. I haven't fiddled with such things, as my headphones are natively BT (PSB M4u8). I can say I used a cheap usb BT transceiver which had garbage quality and my audio was muddy with lots of background noise, despite being aptx compatible. When I went to my phone, or Sony, the signal was appreciably cleaner.

    I might be off on this, but I think aptx, aptx hd, and ldac need to be supported by both the headset and BT source. It isn't enough to just have an aptx signal source, if the headphones don't also support the formats. Because you're also talking about the a BT pair of transceiver and receiver, I'd assume a matched pair would either both support or neither would support aptx and the like, depending on the items' description.

    My memory may be off but standard aptx isn't that special. If you wanted to drop extra money on supported features, you should look for aptx HD or LDAC support, assuming your source music files are also not compressed. Otherwise, standard aptx or lacking the feature would probably not be a deal killer. That said, I'm not familiar with the BT headset dongle market, so another could answer the question better than I, but there are affordable Sennheiser models available in BT with built in mics, though I'm not sure of the mic's quality. I personally use the PSBs, but they're a bit pricy in comparison. I think they correspondingly sound better, but that's a subjective judgment call.
    Last edited: May 8, 2018
  5. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    That depends on the headphone. The primary difference is in the power supply design, ie, a battery vs a transformer of some kind, so generally for the same amount of money, the desktop amp very likely has a lot more power.(1) In terms of how good that power is, ie, distortion and noise levels, can vary.(2) So basically if the primary difference is how much power output you'll get for your money, the question is, does the headphone need that much? If you get a headphone that for example has at least 97dB/1mW sensitivity and impedance of around 32ohms (maybe even up to 150ohms depending on the amp), it's not hard to find a portable amp that can feed it enough power for not a lot of money.

    (1) Some portable amps do have a lot of power for not a lot of money, like the Ibasso PB3.
    (2) in some cases the battery-powered USB input DAC-HPamp might have lower noise in case there is any power line noise that can't be filtered.
  6. ProtegeManiac Contributor
    Sensitivity is what you're looking for, which is in xxdB/1mW (at 1m qualifier is added when it's speakers). Efficiency can be converted to that (already forgot the formula) but it's at xxdB/1V, and the dB figure here is always higher than the equivalent sensitivity dB.

    That's not a guarantee. Less distortion and more power means you'll just hear more of what the headphone really sounds like, but louder. Objectively, I'd have to see a graph for both; subjectively, that depends.

    On one hand the Superlux cans aren't exactly all that smooth, although compared to other cheap cans that may either sound like tin cans or just have gobs of bass, the Superlux cans tend to have a lot of bass with some boosts in the midrange (although also the treble) that tends to accentuate the beat of the music, so they do well for some subjective criterias. Note though the Superlux cans aren't all that sensitive at around 93dB/1mW, although for cheap cans that basically merge the SR60 and DT770 on some models (I have the HD330; HD660 just has more bass), it's a great way to blow $50 (not to mention they're more comfortable than the SR60).

    In other words: if we're looking at lower THD and noise, then yes, the portable DAC-HPamp on the Superlux might be better objectively, but that still doesn't take into account the innate driver response of both. And then subjectively, that's a lot more complex. Bottomline: that's hard to answer unless we just assume the cheap BT headphone in question outright sucks.

    It can do that for convenience, especially if there's a USB driver issue.

    I wouldn't really worry about it since it's really only useful for 320kbps, but AFAIK it can't transmit uncompressed files without any kind of compression either. If you don't use anything beyond iTunes MP3 or Spotify, it's not a problem. And besides, USB is an option. Personally I'd use BT more for a portable application, like clipping the E3 onto my bag strap so the IEM cable only goes down that far and not into my pocket where my phone is, although I do use only high sensitivity IEMs (100dB/1mW minimum) and smartphones with decent headphone driving capability, like Samsung's Note series, though if you want to spend on the convenience of keeping the phone untethered from the headphone, I wouldn't necessarily recommend against doing that.

    Fiio BTR1
    Last edited: May 8, 2018

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