Chicken and egg

Here’s another question. What comes first, the amp or the ‘phones? I know, I know, headphones. But how does one ratchet up to audiophile or even mid-audiophile level? The best headphones need a good source but with a limited budget…

If you get a good $500-ish set of headphones, how do you drive them? I see a lot of products in that range but I wonder about how to really get the most out of them? If you get a good amp, it’s overkill for cheap ‘phones…or have I missed something?

So if you’re starting out, where do put your first $500?

consider your power source and the impedance level of the cans you are using. Anything less than 100 ohms and you should be able to get by without an amp, but you won’t get the best response. Driving the cans from a stereo will overcome the impedance up to a certain point, while trying to drive them from a cell phone…better have less than 100 ohms. So look at the specs of your headphones and consider the primary use for now. If the phones you really want have an impedance of 250 and you are going to use them primarily with a cell phone…plan on getting an amp real fast.

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Always an interesting question … and some specific discussion around actual systems at this level is going on here (well worth reading).

Beyond that, to answer more in the spirit that I think you’re asking …

While headphones tend to have the biggest, most readily discernible, differences from each other, even a “perfect” headphone can only, at best, reproduce what it is given; which is the underpinning for the “source first” argument. At the same time, the best source or amplification in the world can’t make a headphone operate outside the laws of physics, and the more audible differences between transducers is the basis for the “headphone” first position.

A low-impedance, high-efficiency, headphone, can be driven straight from portable devices and adding an amp may not get you very much initially. But the better the headphone the sooner it’ll start to show up weaknesses earlier in the chain. And, oddly enough, outside the really exotic stuff, higher impedance, especially for dynamic cans, tends to correlate with better sound (it might not be the cause, but it occurs often enough to comment on).

Another way to look at this is that the law of diminishing returns sets in much more slowly for electro-mechanical devices (i.e. headphones and speakers) than it does for pure electronic devices. This means that you get a bigger bang for your buck in terms of improvement as you spend more on the headphones vs. spending on an amp or DAC (provided you have adequate, clean, power to drive the headphones in the first place).

The real, technical, performance difference between a $100 DAC and a $1,000 DAC might be 10% and you may have to pay close attention to hear it at all. With an amp, it might be 20% and consequently a bit easier to discern. With headphones its likely to be an unmissable difference and might well be “twice” as good.

Some headphones “scale” better than others. The ~$200 HD6XX will keep improving even with amps up to a couple of thousand dollars. And you might find a $400 headphone, that stops scaling before you get beyond even a basic $100 amp like the Schiit Magni or O2.


So … if it were me, I’d put the bulk of the budget into the headphones initially. Exactly how much would depend on whether an amp and/or source purchase was going go be needed. But probably not less than half, and more likely as much at 60-65% - though availability of some, special, models from time to time can skew that (e.g. the HD6XX at $199 are basically the same as the HD650 at it’s typical street price of $319).

I generally wouldn’t spend more than about 20% of the budget on an amp or on the DAC at first, in that case. Which would give you about $300 for the headphones, $100 for the DAC and $100 for the amp. There are many ways to spend that. If you have an existing source, then I’d divert the cash to the headphones first.


Progressing from there is about priorities and balance.

Buying used helps a ton.

As does buying as infrequently as possible; a smaller number of larger upgrades will save you money in the long run. It is very easy to get trapped in the world of side-grades if you’re too eager to upgrade but don’t really have the budget for a meaningful change.

Another pitfall to avoid is to spend money on multiple inexpensive “tweaks” that could get you a bigger upgrade if the same expenditure was made in a more concentrated and considered fashion. No amount of “USB gadgetry” is going to turn a $100 DAC into a $1,000 one. Such things should, ideally, be left until you’ve taken the major components in the chain (DAC, amp, headphones) as far as you think you’ll go. And the only exception I’d make there is if such a gadget was fixing an actual problem (audible interference or insufficient power on a USB port).

Anyway, that’s a bit more long winded than I intended … but hopefully it’ll add to your thinking usefully.

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Wow. Lots to consider!

I have a couple of $200-$300 headphones. Maybe the DAC/amp combo should be on my Christmas list this year.

As @Torq mentioned, buying infrequently is the best way to move on to high-end. There are a ton of people who end up buying in the $150-$300 range and they end up with 4 or 5 mid-fi cans and get stuck in “mid-fi purgatory”.

I am in the upgrading headphones camp. Your music source (Tidal, FLAC, etc…) and headphones are going to make the biggest noticeable differences. I always place DACs/Amps/Cables and so forth as the last 10% of the system. Of course I’m not saying to go out and buy a pair of Focal Utopias and run them from your macbook headphone jack. But I am sayimg if it was the choice between them and buying an equivalent amp, I’d take the Utopias every time.

The argument can be made though, for buying the better DAC/amp to start. It may not have any noticeable improvements with your current set-up but when you eventually upgrade headphones, the difference will be there.

Very good and interesting question!

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I am so In $200 purgatory! Maybe I should step up to something like the Senn HD650 or Beyerdynamic 880 and figure out how to drive them later.

The headphones. Unless you’re trying to use something like a T50RP or an HE-6, you should be able to at least get by with a solid onboard setup or an iPhone/LG V20. An amp/dac will squeeze out that extra %10-20 of sound quality compared to your integrated DAC/AMP. In some
Cases a dedicated setup might not even make any difference. It just depends on the cans but either way, the cans come first.

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First things first: you (o/p) ask where to put the first $500, but if you’ve got a couple of $200 sets of ‘phones you’re already well past that point.

With the first $500 you have to think about use scenario. If you listen mainly out of an iPhone then part of your budget has to go on a nice efficient headphone for mobile listening, maybe bluetooth. Since those are often not audiophile, you may want to divide your budget between two pairs of headphones and save amplification for later.

If you already have mobile covered, and you want to add headphones to an existing decent source, you have to consider whether you need a DAC/amp or do you just want one. If your source is a PC, by all means get a nice DAC/amp (Dragonfly Red seems to be popular, it’s flexible and will stay with you for a while) but maybe your system already has a good headphone out. When I chose my Oppo disc-spinner I did so because it has an excellent headphone circuit and while you’re unlikely to have anything that good in your price range, you may be surprised at how good a Headphone Out can be. So check that you need amplification.

If you can wait on an amp (and you probably can) the money should go into a headphone that scales well so that you can keep it by you and not have to exchange it too early in the journey. The best Sennheiser you can afford is always going to be value for money (I have the Massdrop 6XX myself) and it will last a long time into an upgrade path. Beware, though … you have to read a lot of reviews to have any confidence that your big investment will reap rewards and this is not an industry you always “get what you pay for”.

I personally don’t think that there’s much point in going above $300 in headphones unless you’ve already put, say, $200 into amplification, but the ratio changes at different budgets. $200 in amplification might see you up to a $1000 pair of headphones if you choose well.

On a slightly different subject, though, I’m sick of headphone manufacturers selling with the promise that no amplification is necessary and then everyone finding that amplification is very much necessary. There’s real consumer confusion on this topic.

My best source is my MacBook followed by my Apple portable devices (iPad and iPhone). My Dragonfly Black definitely adds to my collection of earbuds and headphones but I’m ready to try something closer to audiophile level.

It sounds like I would be well served with as expensive a Sennheiser as I can afford, at least a 600 or 6xx. I might try for a little higher like a 700 but I expect that’s diminishing returns.

And, yes, I want more than need a higher level amp, but this a hobby after all. It’s less than a bass boat or a good set of golf clubs!

That’s a pure sales tactic. If people are new to the headphone world, they may not know what an amp is and its another rabbit hole for them to go down with research. Or if they do know about headphones, they may not want to drop the money on a new amp. From a sales perspective, its all about creating the least amount of barriers possible for a consumer so they can just hit add to cart and be done with it.

At that point it actually comes down to the store you are dealing with. A lot of stores will be upfront and honest since if you buy a pair of headphones and they don’t sound good, the headphones are more than likely getting returned. Providing the best information possible should always be best practice but unfortunately, that’s not always the case.

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With the HD600 or HD6XX I think you’re going to find you do need an amp - these are not cans that I, personally, would want to drive directly out of an iPhone, iPad or MacBook. I mean, they’ll make noise without an amp, but volume is going to be very limited and dynamics will suffer significantly.

It doesn’t need to be anything fancy or expensive … a Schiit Fulla 2 would do it (with about 4x the power into 300 ohms as a Dragonfly Red, and ~8x that of the Black). As would any of the various ~$100 amp options. Or even a combined DAC/amp source like the iFi Nano iDSD BL.

I would not pair either of them with a Dragonfly Black either - it’s still just not powerful enough to drive them properly. The Red version is the minimum here, and that’s a good way from optimal, power-wise, also.

  1. Source (quality of master)
  2. Headphone
    [… then maybe …]
  3. Compressed vs. Uncompressed
  4. DAC
  5. Amp

You have limited control over the master, i.e. buying a re-mastered version if / when it becomes available (and if it is actually better than the original); the headphone will make the biggest difference. A Sennheiser HD650 would be a great first change to break out of your $200,- purgatory. The most affordable and best sounding amp (at this price point) in my opinion is JDS Lab’s O2. It will drive almost any headphone and the HD650 with ease. It’s a very linear amp and will not color the sound signature of your headphone, which will actually allow you to evaluate your headphone more objectively. Some folks don’t like that. They enjoy bias in their music, i.e. tubes, equalizer. Nothing wrong with that.
Anyway I used to own a Grace Design m901 and at about a tenth of its cost the O2 is a bargain. Also check out NwAvGuy.

The Headphone amp makes all of the diffrence in the world. I have a ASUS Xonar Essence soundcard in my PC. It is only there for one reason it’s headphone amp. It makes my AKG 240 MK II headphones disappear from my head. It is astonishing to listen too it. I have to lift the cans off of my head to make sure my loud speakers are not playing, we are talking about a 5.1 surround system configured for music. ASUS makes the Xonar DAC/Phone Amp’s in several versions. They can handle any impedence. When it comes to headphones because of my music background I use what I see in a Studio. AKG 240’s, Shure Pro’s , Heil Pro Media, etc.

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