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The dangerous plunge into HiFi Headphones

  1. ajheyl
    Before we begin, a few disclaimers. I am not an engineer, just a listener of music. I do not collect nor do I play vinyl. Yes I am aware how nice it can sound. I am far from wealthy so the stuff I buy has to be in a budget range but not cheap. I have no problems buying used equipment, especially if it has a reputation of being solid. Opinions are always welcome but I’m learning that each ear is different and there is a ton to learn.


    I’m not quite sure how it all began. I guess I have always been somewhat of a moth to the tech flame, albeit not a very technically savvy moth. I still confuse Hz on the spectrum of audible sound and couldn’t tell you how to truly measure S/N ratio’s nor explain in any detail the differences between PCM, DSD and DXD. What I do know is I’m a sucker for good sound and being stimulated by music. Recently I upgraded my home stereo. During my homework of balancing budget with bang for the buck I discovered this weird term called DSD. The receiver I purchased was capable of decoding DSD files and I had to know more. (A blog for another day. But my DSD library has taken up plenty of HD space and quite a chunk of my budget) In case you’re wondering I have a Denon 2400 with Dolby Atmos tm (again, a blog for another day) and a pair of Pioneer EFS 73 speakers. That’ll give you an idea of where I am in the budget spectrum.


    As a professional voice talent I understand sampling rates, a bit about compression and the fact that the best possible signal means nothing if you don’t feed that info to a sound system capable of delivering the analog conversion in a worthy manner.


    So in my research of DSD I was confounded by this weird subculture of headphone fanatics. First off, why wasn’t I familiar with DSD? I had a firm grasp on FLAC and honestly never thought it made much difference since I was the average consumer with average stereo and sub par headphones (I use Sony 7506 cans in my studio). I surfed around and saw some videos of headphone reviews. Honestly the concept of spending $3000 on headphones was maniacal to me let alone $1600. Then I learned that if you do have many of these cans they are high impedance so you needed to have amplification for these headphones. What the heck? My iphone sounded fine I thought with a pair of Beats. Enter the whole headphone amp discussion. Apparently headphone amps are best served if you invest in a DAC (for the uninitiated- Digital to Analog Converer-just a way to take the digital stuff and vonvert it to something your headphones can turn into sound) so I stumbled on the DAC discussion. I already have a DAC built into my Denon capable of DSD so who would need another DAC right? Pandora’s box no longer had its lid. Information was flooding out and I was dizzy. Why? Because of a particular review I read on how astounded a reviewer was listening to a DAC/AMP and a pair of headphones. He was raving how he heard details he never had heard before. Raving about soundstage, clear vocals and more. Then I saw a video of a kid reviewing the Sennheiser 800s headphones (which were sent to him for review) and his face exploded with a smile and he exclaimed “WOW!” Well, this was all I needed. I HAD TO HAVE THIS EXPERIENCE. But I was no reviewer and I certainly don’t have $1500 to spend on headphones if I am also going to delve into a decent headphone amp to drive them and possibly a DAC.


    I began looking for reviews of all the needed equipment. I’m a big fan of buying used equipment. When I begin a journey into a new expensive hobby my belief is there is always a better deal to be had in the used market and usually people baby their equipment when it is higher end. I found Schiit audio and fell in love with their culture and branding. I was fortunate to have a store within driving distance to go check out their stuff. Lot’s of the things we all consider purchasing are reliant on reviews because very few retailers will have showrooms for this mid line equipment. It’s not that hard to find the stores that have the $5k and up systems but I’m not their demographic. I settled on the Schiit Valhalla. (settled is really not a proper term as I toiled and sweated out every detail of this purchase) I Love tubes and tube sound. I have a tube guitar amp I prefer over my solid state. I have a tube preamp for my studio mics. I had the amplifier in my sights but I was really torn with the matching Schiit DAC because they have a starter BiFrost for $350 and then I higher end multibit for $600. The reviews all pointed to how great their equipment is and how competitive it is with much more expensive stuff. I believe in getting what you want to begin with but remember I was new to all this. I needed the WHOLE setup. Also, the guys at Schiit are terrific and answer questions via email and do so quickly. They are really a stellar model for any business. However, they are not fans of DSD and I already have a growing library which I’ll be damned if I’ll ignore now that I spent a bankroll on the music. So I landed firmly on the iFi iDSD for DAC and the Schiit Valhalla for tube amp and a pair of Sennheiser HD 600s which was another tormenting choice in itself. I truly want the Oppo PM3 but finding a used pair for less than they retail for is impossible and the Sennheiser HD 600s are so common you can get a brand new pair at a reasonable price. So I started shopping on ebay and doing web searches for used stuff in these categories.


    Here’s the breakdown:


    HD 600’s $237 with tax and delivery. Blinq.com


    Schiit Valhalla $175 delievered. (not the Valhalla 2) ebay


    iFi iDSD $349 delivered. Amazon (yes, used)


    Over the price of “new” I saved $550 which is good for a hobby I wasn’t even sure I’d stick with.


    So the headphones came first. They were good but I wasn’t blown away. I was using them plugged straight into my iphone and the headphone jack of my Denon and into my Mackie 1220i mixer in the studio. Yet another thing to learn was impedance matters and that’s why you need an amplifier. I was hopeful the headphone amp would make a difference.


    Here it comes. The used Valhalla-plugged in-tubes all lit-connected it to the pre out of the Denon while the DSD file is inserted into the usb. I waited 15 minutes just in case the tubes needed to warm up a bit. I certainly didn’t want to miss the WOW factor by not wating just 15 more minures. This was at 8:00 PM on a work night. I sat into my couch. Headphones snugly on the ears. Press play.


    OH MY GOODNESS!


    There it was. The separation, the tonality, the pure joy of MUSIC. I did not want to go to bed. I was playing music from Tidal, DSD and a CD. I finally forced myself to go to bed at 2AM even though I wanted more! Of course living in the moment isn’t always easy. I was thinking about how the iFi DAC was going to sound it hadn’t arrived yet. What would the PM 3 sound like? What if…just WHAT IF I did spring for a $1200 pair of Sennheiser HD 800s? I did slow my roll a bit. I took a deep breath and took in the moment of listening. Truly listening.


    A few days later the iFi iDSD arrived. Got it plugged in and turned to one of my Native DSD sampler albums. I listened to the built in headphone amp. It was cool. Not awesome but good. It felt noisy and plenty of hiss in the background. I’m sure it has to do with some setting I was not paying attention to. None of that really mattered because I was really looking to use it as my DAC to see if it was better than feeding the Denon signal to the Schiit Valhalla. So…I plugged it all in. YIKES. It DID make a difference. I futzed around with some of the filters, discovering I greed with most reviewers that they were for the most part useless, however, holy cow. The clarity and punch that came from this combo! It seriously put a smile on my face and I felt like I was rocking back and forth at a Southern Baptist church service just humming “mmmmm mmm mmmmmm wow!”


    I was/am hooked. I know I will now be in the endless pursuit of what’s next. I know this is just the gateway into an insatiable search.


    I will say to anyone who is asking what is up with these nut jobs with all this headphone nonsense. Try it. Just try it. If it’s not for you then no harm, no foul. But my money is on the headphone lovers. You won’t likely be able to pop your air pods in or brag about your Beats once you get a taste of this stuff.

    Update:

    I now own Focal Elear, Have bought and Sold LCD 2's, Own a Woo WA6 and have begun experimenting with better cables and tube rolling.... Beware the humble beginnings of curiosity.
     
    Redcarmoose, Nik74 and davisman like this.
  2. Pewterlocks
    And the rabbit hole is open.
    If I could get all the gear I " needed" I would be living in a box under a bridge, but the music would be so sweet.
     
    buonassi, blackdragon87 and BobG55 like this.
  3. davisman
    You made some really good choices for your first setup, well done. I got into headphones around 2010 when I was looking for the 'best gaming headset' and I found a thread here where people were modifying Sennheiser hd558s by adding a microphone to them. Not being that confident in my diy skills I picked up a pair of hd598s, a mod mic, and an Asus STX II sound card. That was a really big spend for me at the time, but completely worth it. Before then I didn't really listen to music at my computer even though I have always loved music. I realized it was because the gaming headsets I was using were awful.

    I would just be careful from here, because you bought one of the best bang for your buck setups available for your first setup. Dimishing returns are real!
     
  4. Nik74
    Oh how I feel for you ... I got into this in March this year with a used Chord Hugo to make an old pair of Sony closed backs more listenable and half a year later I m saving on an M-scaler and salivation over a £4000 valve headphone amp... My weekend evenings are spemt with my 800S on my ears for hours on end .... As you said, Pandoras box is opened and the lid is tumbling down the abyss LOL
     
  5. serman005
    I started with an HD681 Evo and HD598. I couldn't believe it.Then, I heard a pair of planar magnetics and I was done. Finished. I have had to set some limits for myself, kind of like an addict at a casino.It kind of works.
     
    blackdragon87 likes this.
  6. Spareribs
    I think after a while, you’ll settle down and not worry about the rabbit hole of audiophile quests.

    After exploring audio gear of many kinds, you’ll realize that you don’t have to spend crazy amounts of money for great satisfying sound.
     
    BobG55 likes this.
  7. BobG55
    Fully agree.
    I've stopped going down the rabbit hole a couple of years ago. I've owned expensive headphones like the Focal Utopia, HD800 & HD800S. Also expensive headphone amps like the Headamp GS-X MKII & the Eddie Current Zana Deux S.

    When I almost pulled the trigger on an Headamp Blue Hawaii SE and a Stax 009 (which would have put me in debt for a good five years) but stopped myself at the last minute, I had a epiphany. What was I doing ? Especially considering the fact that I'd be paying in CDN currency. I realized that this was somewhat insane considering I'm also retired and on a pension (a good one but not enormous bucks). I also realized that I would most likely never be satisfied no matter how much I spent.

    During the following days, I thought about my early days in this hobby and remembered enjoying more affordable audio gear only a few years before. So, I went back to those roots and have been there for the past year and a half or so. I find the Violectric V100 to be a superb amplifier which I've owned for a year or so now. My preferred headphones are the HD600, HD650, DT880/ 600ohm & HE500. I use either a JDS Labs Subjective3 or Schiit Loki, tone equalizers to adjust the sound & especially with well produced music, well, the sound at times is truly exceptional.

    Good enough is, good enough.
     
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2019
    Damz87 and baskingshark like this.
  8. Spareribs
    Interestingly, I was listening to a set of good quality budget in ear monitors which cost around $50 and a portable amp/DAC and it was great! Yes it’s not as refined and not as good as a $500 headphone and big tube amp but it was still exciting and fun.

    I think the most important thing is balanced sound. I like warm, good clarity presentation and not too heavy but clean bass and no annoying high frequency or harsh sounds in my music. That can be achieved without spending a lot of money.
     
    Last edited: Nov 2, 2019

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