DAC vs. Amp vs. HP Cost Ratio

I can’t find the post, but at some point I read something from @Torq, I think it was or perhaps @DarthPool re the cost of a Dac vs an amp and HP.

i.e. if a Dac costs $500 then you should look for an amp at X times that to get the best out of it. Pairing a cheap amp with a higher Dac won’t give you the better output, as the Dac would be the bottleneck.

But is there a ratio between the 3 items to guide you when you need to upgrade and to keep the right level?
The post I read, I think it was a factor 3 or something like that.

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I wouldn’t generally prescribe specific multipliers on something like this, notwithstanding that there are (at least) two different philosophies on how to aportion one’s audio budget.

In general, transducers make the most audible differences and are the biggest determinants in overall performance. They also tend to cost more to get right. So the most common approach is to spend the bulk of your budget on your headphones or speakers.

Amps have the next most audible impact, and generally cost less to get right than transducers (if only due to having fewer mechanical/structural elements), so the 2nd largest chunk of your budget goes here.

That leaves your source - where obviously the remainder of your budget has to go. DACs are generally (not always) easier to engineer to a given level of performance than amplifiers, which helps.

Bear in mind, however, that each step in the chain can only DEGRADE the initial source signal or the signal it is fed. And that no component can “fix” or “repair” any omissions etc. from an upstream component. Which leads to the “Source First” approach (common in British audio circles), which maintains you spend the bulk of your budget on the source - as any losses from there are unrecoverable.

Given that instrument-grade DACs and amplifiers, with ample power for pretty much any headphone, are available for $99 each, I would generally advocate for spending as much as you can on the headphones, and until you have some broader familiarity, stick with the basic DAC and Amp choices.

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There is NO WAY to generate a firm rule on this, and the rule would vary based on price class.

Entry level audiophile: Drop 6XX $220, Schiit or similar $99 amp, Schiit or similar $99 DAC.

Premium level audiophile: $2K to $5K for many transducers, $500 to $10K or more for esoteric tube amps, and $??? for obscure DACs.

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I think component synergy is the primary idea when matching gear and not price ratios. If a $500 dac works great with a $2k amp then so be it and be glad that money was saved.

I good thing to think about also is above a certain value what is the increments of better quality, do we have to spend $1k more to get a 5% better sound? Diminishing returns is what I try to focus on after gear synergy matching

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I was wondering when “Diminishing Returns” would come up in this discussion. In theory I have a generous budget, but D.R. comes up fast and bites hard.

Still learning & experimenting.

Mark Gosdin

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I think while Torq has answer this question with the general guideline that the transducer will contribute to the largest change, I actually disagree to a certain extent.

If you are to look at MSRP numbers my DAC is 2.5k, Amp is $5k, and headphones are $4k. I think as a whole the system works and I don’t believe that a cheaper DAC or amp would be better. I also love using my $200 headphone with my dac and amp combo as well and it rivals my $4k headphone in enjoyment. You might think it’s crazy to have the opposite end of the spectrum but there are certain things that my $200 headphone does that I haven’t found in other headphones. So really it comes down to your preference and the synergy in your system. Plenty of people still stick with HD600/650’s with a chain that cost 4-10x more than those headphones. There’s no set ratio that works for everyone.

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I think this is an interesting topic to consider, at least for me since I started out investing more in headphones (as Torq recommended above), but then I decided to splurge on a higher-end DAC. A couple years later, now my ratios have all changed. I have a fairly inexpensive DAC, but both headphones and an amp that cost a few grand. So my “headphone:amp:DAC” ratio now is roughly 3:3:1, whereas it was closer to 5:1:2 at one point. And I’m much happier with the more expensive amp than the expensive DAC.

One issue in discussing cost ratios though is that MRSP doesn’t always correlate with actual purchase price. So are we going to compare MRSPs or “market value”? And even then at the same MRSPs, there are certain products that stand head and shoulders above others. The Glenn OTL comes to mind which is sub-$1000 in its most basic configuration (if you can ever get one built again by Glenn that is). But you’d also have to factor in cost of tubes for tube amps, some of which cost more than the amp itself. So I guess after all that pondering, price ratios may not be the best way to decide on how to invest, as most have suggested already.

From my personal experience, I would just simply say that both headphone and amp matter equally to me now. Some of these TOTL amps make an incredible difference compared to the whole hodgepodge of mid-fi amps.

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“The chain” and the various way the elements in it play together is one of my take aways with this question.
I was curious to see the replys, as I know there is no math to this, but wanted to hear more about thoughts behind how you can put together your system. The HP–> Amp → Dac order was known to me, but one of the biggest “wow” moments I have had in audio, was getting a new Dac, so that also sparked this question. :face_with_monocle:
And if getting a high-end Dac requires a min. same level amp and HP or even higher, to get enough value for money, was also a thought behind this.

So far I am following the path you guys rec (looking at you Aeolus and Eikon :heart_eyes:) and I am also upgrading my IEMs to make my OTG experience follow suit.

But nice to have a forum where random thoughts can be addressed over night and the curiosity can be fed :+1:t2:

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I use Stellia and Verite Open headphones and they were the cheapest part of the chain (not including speakers - ATC SCM40A - which were the most expensive part).

I found a significant difference to the sound quality when upgrading my source for streaming from my previous Auralic Aries Mini to the Aries G2 and my DAC is a TT2 (I use the M-Scaler as well). I would subscribe to the idea of ‘rubbish in, rubbish out’ - is it a coincidence that I am British?! :wink:

If considering a system with speakers then I would say that the speakers would be the most expensive component. For a headphone setup, it’s harder to say as it is very easy to spend more than the headphones on other components but I have no experience with components that are cheaper than my headphones.

When I was putting my system together I did not want any part to be potentially making things worse and I am happy with the system that I have put together.

I’m not sure that helps at all…

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I have very similar ideas to what @Torq has written. Surely system synergy has to be considered, not necessarily looking to costs but to the way the various components interact and for the results one’s looking for. An head amp with fixed gain output will work well with high sensitive and low impedance headphones but if the headphone needs more power it will be a problem. I look at the whole thing starting from an headphone I like and second it with an amp that can drive it properly. Then comes the source. I mostly listen to vinyl so cartridges are my DACs. When I’ve built my system I’ve preferred to spend a little more in my headphone saving some money on the cartridge: a good cartridge will work fine for six/eight months then it has to be changed or regenerated. So a €400 cartridge means €800 per year. A €200 cartridge means €400 per year. About DAC I tend to consider more the sound qualities than the ultra high resolution performance. Headphones and speakers if properly used will last you for years and it is where I put most of my budget. All in all it is something so subjective that the best solution is the one that makes you happy.

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In the interest of clarity, I draw attention to the bold emphasis below before one disagrees with the guidance given.

I agree with this:

Separately, is Schiit British not Norse given the relative price of their standard stacks (partly based on relative size of chassis and what is featured for listening at the Schiitr): Yggy and Ragnarok, Gumby and Mj2, BF2 and Jot 2/Lyr 3, Modi Multibit and Vali 2+?

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Huh? I wasn’t disagreeing with anything… “firm rule”

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This = I agree with you. I revised original post to clarify.

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To be clear … my post above is really focused on someone new to the hobby (as @bpcarb’s quote shows). Everything changes once you have some experience with a few headphones and an idea of what you like and where you want to take things.

Other than a couple of very specific exceptions (complete electrostatic setups), once you’re up in the $4-6K region for headphones there’s no where left to go on the transducer side of things. And even before getting there, there are good reasons to start shifting the budget allocation around.


As an example of how things can ultimately get skewed, my current headphone rig has a source that runs >$20,000, a tube amp that runs $16,000 (and that is populated with tubes that cost $4,000 or so each), and that drives headphones that currently top out around the $6,000 mark (though the collection of cans, as a whole, comes to $55,000 … at least if I leave out the HE90 setup).

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Re. allocations of funds, I’ve found it helpful to remember that some components offer particularly good value because they either scale well or they offer an excellent price-to-performance ratio, as with the Sennheiser HD 6x0 headphones and the Schiit Bifrost 2, respectively. To this end, I keep this excellent post by @ProfFalkin bookmarked: Recommended Gear - #2 by ProfFalkin, which is well worth checking out, @Gordon_Freeman, given your interest in the Aeolus and Eikon. [Edit: sorry, @Gordon_Freeman, I didn’t realize you already have these ZMFs]

I’ve found it helpful to keep an eye out for those items that are said to serve people well for a good, long time. By the time I get my next amp, one of my current amps (a Massdrop Cavalli Tube Hybrid) will have done its duty for three years. (Even then I may still hold on to it since it offers a good synergy with my Focal Clear).

And thanks to @Torq’s recommendation, which pointed out that a couple of $1K DACs represented the first meaningful steps up from it, I’ve been delighted with the Massdrop Airist R-2R DAC. While I hope to upgrade it this summer or fall, were it not for the release of the Bifrost 2, I probably would have gotten even longer use out of it. I’m grateful to Torq and ProfFalkin, among others, for the great advice.

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I bought a Focal Clear and Hifiman Arya and have been able to test them on various moderate to expensive DAC/Amp combos at my friends houses. I detected minor differences but nothing that said better this or that. I ended up running both from either an Adapt Audio Dense or Hidiz S8 thumb DAC/Amp from my computer. I use APO Equalizer to get what I want. The DAC/Amps were purchased for $100 each and are just as good as anything else I heard. Save your money for the headphone (this does not apply for Speakers).

It is helpful to distinguish between opinions and facts.

Your experience with dacs/amps may not be what others experience.

What you posted is an opinion (applies to you) not a fact (applies to everyone).

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I agree with @NickZ. There are people who have the exact opposite experience.

Something that would help would be to describe what you tried. “various moderate to expensive DAC/Amp combos” doesn’t really mean much at all. What do you consider moderate? What do you consider expensive? What were the DAC/Amp combos that you tried?

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What you’re unable to hear is unable to disappoint you. The flip side is money saved.

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I did in FACT experience the above. I cited no peer review scientific studies or measurements. I think we are all educated adults here and understand the difference between opinion and fact without the need to be explicit.

Chord Mojo and FiiO Q5s I consider to be a moderate expense (high to low).

Chord TT2 and Okto Research dac8 I consider to be expensive (high to low).

I think the most important component in the chain is the DSP in our brain. It has one non-default function argument: $$$. It is very hard to not ascribe magical sound qualities to expensive investments. I also said I did hear differences but that those differences did not translate to one device being better than another, for me.

I first noticed this when I purchased a Audeze LCDi3. I tried the above DAC setups but could never beat the SQ that came with a cheap $80 used iPhone SE and the included Audeze Cipher cable. The Cipher with a little EQ turned the IEM into a S class device that sounds better than the Focal Clear or Hifiman Arya (to me). The DSP/DAC/Amp Cipher is tiny.

Since then I no longer respond to the my brain’s DSP($$$) function. It has indeed saved me a lot of money.