What's the "Right" way to Upgrade?
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mrmeseeks

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Hey all,

I'm relatively new here and to the audiophile scene, and I've searched around the forums a bit, but haven't quite found the answer I'm looking for. I wanted to slowly upgrade my system, but I'm not sure how to do so. I'm starting with an E-MU Teak and basic Schiit Stack. I mostly listen to a variety of music, but of late it's been mostly EDM, RNB, and Pop. I came out with the following questions (see below):

1) Would you recommend expanding my headphones and buying an open back within my budget (around 500-800) or just upgrading my current system? I like the bass of the E-MU Teak, but not all the music I listen really makes use of it.

2) If I were to upgrade my current system, what would be the next logical step in upgrading my system - meaning would I upgrade the headphones vs Dac vs AMP? I'm not sure what becomes the bottleneck in this situation.

3) For those of you who own TOTL models, would you recommend saving up until I can just blow all my money on a TOTL system or is there things to be learned and appreciated from slowly upgrading? I'm not even sure my ears could fully appreciate what they have to offer since I haven't had an opportunity to try them and with the whole COVID situation, it does not look like that will happen any time soon.

I know there probably isn't a "right" way of doing this, but I'm sure I can avoid some mistakes by asking questions here.
 
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Hi mrmeseeks,

I might be new to head-fi, but I’m not necessarily new to the audiophile scene. I’ve been on the path of slowly upgrading my headphone audio system as well! Most of the time people tend to recommend that you upgrade components in the following order: headphones, amp, and then dac because you hear the most differences between headphones, and then amps, and then dacs. I’m more of an open-back headphone guy myself - I’ve got the HD58X Jubilee, HD6XX, AKG K712 Pro, and DT880 - all of them modified to run balanced. If you’re looking to see what open-back headphones can do for you, you might try the HD58X Jubilees as they sound really good, you can easily modify the cable to a balanced connection in case you ever upgrade your amp to one with balanced output, and you’ll have money left over for upgrading other components!

One change I recently made to my set-up was I added a small tube amp. I have the THX AAA 789 amp, but wanted to try out tubes, so I got a Loxjie P20 (along with several amazon recommended mods) and I’m really enjoying the sound. So, if you don’t have a tube amp, you may try looking into what Schiit offers for tube amps and add that to your stack.

Another item I have on order is the Schiit Loki equalizer - I’m hoping to be able to add more flavors to my headphone amp mix and that seems to be a good way to add a new fun way to tinker with the sound that is also relatively inexpensive.

I, unfortunately, do not currently own a TOTL model, perhaps one day I’ll get there, but I want to enjoy my music now lol. Cheers to you and hope this information was useful! Feel free to ask any questions about this and I’ll try to respond soon :)
 
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Yes what he said is true. Headphone/Speaker first, then Amp. Dac is last (and since it changes often due to technology).

You didn't say what is your source which you plug in to your Schiit stack. That is also important.
 
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mrmeseeks

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Thanks for your responses! Sorry I forgot to mention that I'm plugging my PC into the schiit stack!

What's the purpose of balanced cables? Are they for amps that allow you to adjust the output of each headphone? I've seen them on sale, but haven't really had a chance to look into why they might be necessary.

What exactly do the Mods change?

Thanks again!
 
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m-i-c-k-e-y

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If it is me, I will add only iFi Audio's iSilencer+ to my PC to clean the USB signal a bit. And you're good to go.

Balanced -> check the net and YT. It loads of articles of it..
 
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Thanks for your responses! Sorry I forgot to mention that I'm plugging my PC into the schiit stack!

What's the purpose of balanced cables? Are they for amps that allow you to adjust the output of each headphone? I've seen them on sale, but haven't really had a chance to look into why they might be necessary.

What exactly do the Mods change?

Thanks again!

Balanced offers a + and - for each driver instead of both sharing the same ground. It’s controversial if balanced is better or not. And it can be confusing as stuff like the Sony Walkman 1A and 1Z have 4.4mm balanced and 3.5mm single ended, so you would think a side by side test would be easy. Yet it’s not as the balanced amp is a completely different amp on one side with the single ended amp on the other side.

So even in that situation it’s trying to compare two different amps. But balanced seems to offer better imaging and better separation than single ended with the DAPs.

I have had a long journey since 2006 when I found Head-Fi and began different purchases. Maybe difficult to do at the moment but going to meets was a huge learning experience for me around 2009-2010. Meets will allow you to bring your own headphones and enthusiastically share your interests with others who may or may not share your desired sound signature. Let me put it this way.....I still remember most of the systems I heard 10 years ago. You will learn what works and what is not a avenue to investigate.

Around 2010 I purchased a headphone very close to your E-MU Teak. I found a pair of used Denon AHD7000 headphones. Both the E-MU Teak and Denon headphones are made by Foster and have a similar sound I hear, though I have not personally heard the E-MU Teak.

I may stir-up more questions than I answer with this post? But that’s Head-Fi, as it’s a learning process. The main goal should be learning your personal sound signature. Normally the Foster line offers a fairly V shape response and the great bass can be emotional really driving the EDM character home. And while openback headphones have a very good performance on some music you may find closed-back to offer a different character that you can’t find as easy with open back.

My favorite headphones are closed back and I feel they can offer a lower midrange hump that goes to emphasize bass heavy music like EDM or Metal.

The one suggestion I have is definitely try and learn what a different DAC and amplifier can do to the scale ability of your E-MU Teak. The reason I say this I actually found my Denon headphones would scale up with certain gear. As before you start looking at headphones you are already at a sound signature you like. And as talked about prior in this thread a big area of character is in the headphones.

Another headphone that I found that replicated the Foster sound was the Sony MDR-Z7. Really the two headphones share both the low end intensity and V resulting treble boost. As a rule though I tend to look at whole systems as you will find audiophiles say “everything makes a difference” ..........and while such adds as headphones may make a bigger difference; it’s the whole combo that you can hear in the end. And not to be critical but one off thing can throw some character out of balance making you blame other parts of the whole chain.

I’m not familiar with your DAC/amp set up but do own an early Schiit Asgard One. I keep it around and use it from time to time as reference. But a big learning curve you’ll find out has to do with the damping factor with your E-MU Teak. It’s a confusing aspect but even if an amp gets loud enough, other power aspects will revolutionize what you think your headphones are capable of. So what I’m saying is go to a meet and bring your headphones and explore what in front will do. If anything exploring what you feel about the headphones (your current headphones) taken to their limit. Put them with a nice DAC and nice powerful amplifier and try to aspire to learn how they are different and why.

As far as leaning goes the above is the easy transition as you already know your headphones. I don’t want to downplay what your using as I’ve never heard it, but there is usually a path to go on. I used to use the Denons with the Woo 5LE 300b tube amplifier and it took the Denons to a great place. I don’t have my Woo 5LE with me at the moment so don’t use it much.

But typically damping factor will clean up the lower midrange adding only about a dB of bass to the Foster drivers. Yet in this situation as the control of the diaphragm gets better, imaging and transient response will greatly improve. The lower midrange “mud” so well rumored about the Foster line will actually go away making you feel like there is more bass, when in the end it’s just better transient response and bass detail.
 
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i go a bit against the usual route that is recommended on headfi a lot. The headphone first upgrade. It's true that the headphone makes the most obvious difference. But those headphones that @JazzArtist123 mentioned are imo the totl when it comes to non electrostatic headphones. Those headphones were a while ago the most expensive units on the market. Meanwhile technology in the headphone market has changed almost not at all but prices still gone up 10 or 20 times higher.

Especially the 500-2000 € section of new headphones sucks hard compared to those old Senns and Akgs. I heard never in the realm of a susvara, abyss etc. but i can't imagine they're worth it if most of the section below up to 2k is mostly even worse than those earlier highend headphones.

Look at Sennheiser. Those early HD 5XX/HD6XX lines were and still are one of the best non electrostic headphones in the world. Then Sennheiser made a sidegrade with the HD800 breaking the 1k mark. A stock HD800 may be in some parts better than the HD600 but i think many people would share the opinion that the HD600 is overall better. From there on Sennheiser made another mod on the HD800 where they just made it sound a bit muddier and changed the frequency response. Put an S behind the name and make it another 500 bucks more. It's not better and not worse than the original HD800. From there on they made their newest and most expensive flagship breaking the 2k mark. This new flagship, the HD820, is maybe objectivly and widely accepted by press, experts and even vendors the worst headphone Sennheiser ever made.

Now this is Sennheiser which is one of the more realistic companies. I don't even want to start with Hifiman etc.

With speakers it'd different. Speakers were always more expensive and will be more expensive. 500 € speakers were never totl. Same goes with electrostats.

So imo you're good with one of the headphones @JazzArtist123 mentioned. If you want a real upgrade from there the only possibility is either to invest in a better dac, amp, source or go for a highend electrostat setup or just save the money for your next vacation.
 
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:point_up:-> What they say (long answers...). I tried to be brief...
 
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What's the purpose of balanced cables?
What exactly do the Mods change?
Good questions! I'm going to focus on the headphone mods and on balanced cables for headphones (as opposed to balanced cables between a DAC/amp).

The mods I made to the headphones only made them capable of being powered by a balanced headphone output (4-pin XLR or 4.4 mm pentacon jack). Getting a bit more into the weeds (you can skip the rest of this paragraph of you want lol, I'm explaining what physical changes the mods made), the ground/return wires or the signal return path of the two drivers were separated so that the left headphone driver has its own L+/L- signal path and the right headphone driver has its own R+/R- signal path for it's connection to the amp. With a single-ended connection - think 3.5 mm (1/8 inch) jack or 6.5 mm (1/4 inch) jack - the signal return paths for the two drivers, L- and R-, are touching/connected together. So the mods separated L- and R- for the headphones.

The two reasons I personally did these mods was my THX AAA 789 amplifier can provide more power to drive headphones on its balanced output and because I enjoy tinkering. The example where it made the biggest difference was with my dt880 600 ohm headphones. When they were single-ended, I would have my THX AAA 789 almost, if not, maxed out on the volume (and I didn't enjoy listening to them very much honestly). Whereas now that they run balanced, the 789 amp's volume knob can stay between 10 and 12 o'clock (while on gain position 3) and IMO the headphones sound better that way and I listen to them a lot more.

So essentially, I made my headphones balanced so that I could use the full potential of my amp. After performing those mods, I already had balanced headphones and I wanted to try a less expensive tube amp. I therefore got the Loxjie P20 because it has a balanced headphone output. If I only had single-ended headphones, I would have gone for a good single-ended tube amp. Although, I must confess, I haven't researched single-ended tube amps - I recommended Schiit because they seem to have good amps and you seem familiar with them.

You don't have to go down the balanced headphone connection route (and not all headphones are worth performing a balanced mod on), it is just an option. I didn't go down that route until after I already had an amp with a balanced headphone output (I was trying to get more out of the amp).

Hopefully, that was more helpful than it was confusing, let us know if your want more clarification.
 
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Yep, but it was from a friend. Lowers background noise indeed, darker background and more organic sound at just $50. Two of them make a small but still nicer improvement.

I have an LH Labs Revive by the way.
 
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So my recommended path would be headphones>amp>dac>cables and misc (such as clean power, sources).

That being said, from reading your original comment, you mentioned the emu teak, and possibly upgrading to a TOTL. So right now I have a teak and a modded hd800 running from some tube amps. I love them both, and they're totally different from one another. And thats the thing I want to caution you on: a lot of audio equipment isnt necessarily and "upgrade" as much as it is a different sound. I prefer the teak over the stellia, which are 5 times more. I've tried some headphones MUCH more expensive than the hd800, but with my setup I prefer it! Its just a matter of trying things until you find the type of sound you prefer, then you can find upgrades along that path a bit easier.

I personally think the teaks are great, so if you like the way they sound perhaps an amp is the way to go right now. However, I'd also recommend trying out some open back options, as you'll get a very different sound signature that you can compare in order to narrow down your preferences!

Have fun man :)
 
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So my recommended path would be headphones>amp>dac>cables and misc (such as clean power, sources).

That being said, from reading your original comment, you mentioned the emu teak, and possibly upgrading to a TOTL. So right now I have a teak and a modded hd800 running from some tube amps. I love them both, and they're totally different from one another. And thats the thing I want to caution you on: a lot of audio equipment isnt necessarily and "upgrade" as much as it is a different sound. I prefer the teak over the stellia, which are 5 times more. I've tried some headphones MUCH more expensive than the hd800, but with my setup I prefer it! Its just a matter of trying things until you find the type of sound you prefer, then you can find upgrades along that path a bit easier.

I personally think the teaks are great, so if you like the way they sound perhaps an amp is the way to go right now. However, I'd also recommend trying out some open back options, as you'll get a very different sound signature that you can compare in order to narrow down your preferences!

Have fun man :)
Agreed. Most of the 1k + headphones are sidegrades, very few are upgrades and even more than that are downgrade imo.

Strangely almost all totl headphones have some obvious flaws in their measurements (Susvara, HE6, AKG 812). The only one that comes to my mind that doesn't is the Utopia.

Their little brothers like the Ananda, HD600, K701 etc. often are tuned without flaws, maybe that's why i like them more.

If you're into that the clean power is really something you should look for, maybe even before anything else. Out of that cable stuff etc. the power is imo the most significant factor. It's actually surprising what a good crafted 50 € powerstrip can do for you. So if you hear a difference the upgrade gets you much cheaper than a new dac/amp etc. The difference between a normal powerstrip from a hardware store and a 50 € strip is far more significant than the difference between the 50€ strip and the 500 € strip in my experience.
 
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Mistakes are part of the learning process for sure but I understand it can quickly become an expensive hobby.

One thing is sure though, focus on headphones/IEMs. They are what affects the sound the most so you should try different designs, technologies, brand and sound signatures. Can you recognize a V shape sound signature? Can you recognize a neutral sounding device? How do you like your bass, midrange, treble, soundstage? You need to learn and experience all that.

Once you have some basics, you can then get into sources, DAC and amp all the way to cables if you care. Do you hear differences or care about CD quality, Hi-Res or DSD?

Your DAC and amp should be utilitarian in the beginning. Make sure you have something that matches you I/O needs and all and that has some flexibility to like a one size fits all kind of thing.

Keep an open mind and stay away from extremes. I find the science behind sound to be very interesting and helpful in my research for better sound replay. My hearing is still the final judge but knowledge and experience are keys to good sound.

TOTL are often related to extremes. They do stuff pretty well but are often compromising other stuff to different degrees. Unless you have unlimited resources, it makes no sense to jump that far ahead yet. Remember that the fun part about getting to a destination is often the trip itself! :)
 
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