- May 14, 2010
The No-Research, No-Hassle, Amazing under-$1,000 Starter Rig
Want to build a rig but don't know where to start? Don't have a lot of time to research? Overwhelmed with all the choices and opinions out there? My goal with this post is to give you everything you need in one place to get started with a fully-functional headphone set-up.
I have gained a tremendous amount of knowledge from this community, and wanted to give a little something back for other "newbies" who might be trying to figure out where to start. I owe a tremendous amount of thanks to the many experts on this forum who guided me in purchasing my first rig—who have WAY more knowledge about this head-fi world than I will ever hope to have. All I did was apply the knowledge I learned on this forum to build what I think is a pretty beautiful sounding rig. I do not claim this is the best possible configuration for under $1,000. However, at some point you have to stop researching and pull the trigger and buy something so you can actually listen to music! This post is for someone who is ready to do that.
I should mention I would not consider myself an audiophile (in the sense that I have never experienced a $10,000 set-up and am not up on all the technical jargon). But, I am a musician, and I do have a strong ear for music and have a wide range of tastes. For reference, my listening preferences are mainly folk/indy, rock, classic rock, a little pop (though not too poppy) and a little classical. Some of my favorite artists are Dave Matthews Band, The Civil Wars, Pink Floyd, U2, Mumford & Sons, Needtobreathe, Coldplay, Tyrone Wells, Death Cab for Cutie, and many more (as a side note, if you are reading a recommendation, always find out what kind of music they listen to. A lot of people miss this and it can make a big difference if you listen to hard rock and the recommender only listens to classical).
Who is this post aimed at?This "rig" is geared toward someone who doesn't want to spend a ton of time researching, but wants to get started in this world of high-end audio. Or maybe they have been researching but feel frozen, unable to make a decision. They want to spend a little under $1,000. They don't have any equipment yet, and want to listen to music from their computer. (Although this could be easily modified to use with other sources). It is probably someone who has a fairly wide range of musical tastes, and an appreciation of quality, balanced music (E.g.: a "basshead" may not like this rig). I started this journey with a fairly extensive iTunes library and no good headphone equipment. This is where I am today.
What will you be buying?To put it simply, this includes everything you need to play music from your computer.
Music Player --> DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter) --> Amp --> Headphones
Digital Music Player: Foobar2000
Foobar2000 (Free). This is generally considered the best "sounding" player by those on this forum. I have it set to flat response (no EQ). I would say I can indeed hear a difference between Foobar and iTunes. Maybe it's small, but it's noticeable to me.
I try to mainly use 256kbps+ AAC files. 128 or even 192k MP3's surprisingly do sound compressed.
TIP: What to do if you have a bunch of low-quality 128k MP3s? If you use iTunes, they have a feature called iTunes Match that I found tremendously valuable. It allows you to match up all your music to versions they have in the app store, and here is the amazing part: you can actually replace the version you have on your computer with the ones from Apple, and KEEP that higher-quality version permanently. You have to pay for their subscription ($25/yr) but don't have to renew to keep the converted music. I had about 2,500 songs in my library that were low-quality (CDs I burned back in the day before I knew the difference) that I was able to replace. There are many articles you can find that explain how to replace those low bit-rate files. Once you have the files on your computer, you can play them on Foobar2000.
BONUS TIP: If you want to make Foobar2000 look more like iTunes, download Columns UI and this theme.
DAC (Digital-to-Analog Converter): ODAC
ObjectiveDAC (ODAC) purchased from JDSLabs. Click here to buy. They actually have a kit you can build your own ODAC, but I purchased the pre-built one. Make sure to get the RCA Output ODAC for a little more. I like the ODAC because it seems to have a balanced, neutral, "objective" sound. I didn't like the idea of another component coloring the sound.
NOTE: There are other vendors who sell the ODAC. I found that JDSLabs seems to have a consistently good reputation.
Headphone Amp: Little Dot MKIII
Little Dot MKIII. I would be so bold as to suggest that around here, the Little Dot series is nearly universally loved. I'm sure there are exceptions, but the number of positive reviews about Little Dots is pretty overwhelming. Also, I really like the idea of tube amps in general and the many options & flexibility you get with tube rolling. I like the balance of value and cost with the MKIII. Here is a link to purchase. The Little Dots are made by personally by David in China, and I am highly impressed by the quality and attention-to-detail he puts into his equipment. Just know that it will take a while to get it since it is shipping from there. (You might see if you can find a used one on this forum).
NOTE for those who may care: Why a separate DAC/Amp? There are a lot of options out there that combine the DAC/Amp into one unit. There are two reasons I went for separate components: 1) I am a believer in "stick with what you do best." I like the idea of a DAC that is good at being a DAC, and an Amp that is good at being an Amp. Seems that when you combine, oftentimes the quality (or flexibility) of one or the other suffers. 2) If you want to upgrade components later, it's a lot easier to upgrade these components separately.
Price: $199 (plus $45 shipping to U.S.)
Headphones: Sennheiser HD 650
Now to the good stuff. For Headphones, go for the Sennheiser HD 650.
Ah, my headphones. I have spent so much time researching and choosing these headphones. I actually even bought and re-sold the HD 600's so that I could listen to the 600's and 650's side by side. I honestly don't think there are any other headphones better than these out there for the price. After tons of research I highly, highly recommend the HD 650's as the best headphones a (reasonable) amount of money can buy. Of course I'm sure there are detractors out there, but I love these. Even better yet, they grow well with other equipment if you want to upgrade your source or Amp down the road. I won't belabor the point here, as there are many, many other posts about how great these headphones are.
There are a couple ways to purchase them.
My recommendation would be to purchase these off of www.head-fi.org in the "For Sale/Trade" area.
There are a lot of reputable sellers on there that have great ratings. I accept no responsibility if you get scammed—be responsible and read the warnings on that forum. You'll probably save $150+ buying used, plus headphones really only get better with time as they get broken in, or so I've heard. One downside is you wouldn't have any warranty with Sennheiser, and you don't know what you are getting. You have to make the call. (If you do buy used, one thing to watch for is a "cracked headband." Apparently the band across the top can "crack"...it doesn't affect the sound but doesn't look good. So, I would check in the pics if they have pics of the band. Mine don't have this problem but it is widely-reported).
If you do want to buy new, they are currently on Amazon.com for $499.95.
Price: $499 (or less if you can find used)
Peripherals/ExtrasCables: I got RCA cables from www.bluejeanscable.com. They hand-make cables, and from what I've read (and heard), they seem to still have the quality that you would expect from "upgraded" cables without the cost of the highly-expensive items out there.
I got the BJC LC-1 Stereo Audio Cables 3-foot for $31 from this page.
For the USB cable to the computer, basically there seems to be no such thing as an "upgraded" USB cable, surprisingly, so I just used a standard, stock USB cable. If anyone has another opinion on this, feel free to weigh in.
Aftermarket Tubes: One great thing about the Little Dot MKIII is you can upgrade/change the tubes for a different sound. Read this post for a ton of great info about what is known as "tube rolling." The stock tubes are fine, but I've read a lot of people say that a tube upgrade makes a big difference in sound (fullness and bass presence). From my research, I chose the Voshkod 6ZH1P-EV and love how they sound. The post linked to above also has a list of reputable eBay sellers to buy the Tubes from. Again, be wise and buy from a reputable seller.
SUMMARY:Music Player - Foobar2000
DAC - ODAC ($159)
Amp - Little Dot MKIII ($199)
Headphones - Sennheiser HD 650 ($499)
TOTAL PRICE: $928 (+about $50 shipping)
I sincerely hope this post helps others on their journey into high-end headphone audio. I hope I haven't offended anyone with my single-recommendations-without-options. Again, I know there are many opinions on every single component. My goal was not to create an exhaustive list, but to remove the barrier of choice and distill the overwhelming options so that someone newer can stop researching and start listening! Enjoy.