Do DACs/Amps matter?

With the rise of ASR and measurements becoming more the norm, are we past the need for DAC/amps for headphones?

There seems to be a few camps out there when it comes to whether source components matter.

  1. Source components should introduce the least amount of distortion to the chain because distortion is bad and is something that detracts from what the music should sound like. Once that’s accomplished, you only need the amount of power to produce a loud enough sound through the transducer. Transducers would make up the biggest cost with this mindset with the remaining budget towards the cleanest measuring source you can afford.

  2. Source components have some difference but the main focus should be on transducers since changing transducers will attribute to the largest change in sound. Transducers are the most important thing so cost of system might be heavily into transducers like 75% and 25% would be source.

  3. Source components matter just as much as the transducer because everything in the chain has a sound. Certain components do better when paired with certain transducers. I’d view this as maybe a more balanced approach where cost of system is probably spread out more evenly.

I’m curious which camp each person falls under. I’m sure there are other camps that I’m missing but those seem to be the most prevalent.

10 Likes

I’m in the camp that uses both a DAC and a preamp. Both rigs are equipped that way. Two DACs per system.

1 Like

So I personally think you are missing a bit of a middle ground/sliding scale. While I dont agree with #1 I’m definitively a tube guy), I think #2 and #3 are both true but in different ways. I do think transducer will be the biggest change in any system. Hell, im not even sure how it can be argued other wise (FR is extremely important even if we ignore other transducer qualities). That said, I also think that the whole chain having good synergy is quite important as you climb the ladder. When you are talking sub-1k cans and dont want tubes? Sure, just have a decent dac and amp and focus on transducers. But you have stuff like utopia/d8kp/hd800s/arya/etc much the less summit fi? Well you should seriously consider your sources as they will change things

9 Likes

Maybe my #2 explanation is too close to #3. I think #2 is more of the line, just focus on transducers cause source doesn’t really matter enough. It’s definitely not the same thinking as everything is important. It’s heavily weighted towards transducers.

I’ve added some more clarification. Maybe that will help.

I agree with @Resolve when he says prioritize your funds on the transducers. That makes the biggest difference, not to mention will help you dictate what amp (and DAC) to pair.

As someone who has built amps and restored vintage gear, I have definitely experienced differences between amps. But these really only become apparent once you have transducers which allow you to take full advantage of these nuances. Aside from tube amps, the differences between most SS gear are relatively subtle from my experience.

Except my VFET amp. That thing is just simply magic (best of both SS and tubes combined.)

6 Likes

Those in Camp 1 are communists!

2 Likes

I think it depends on your personal goals for this hobby, whether you want to grow in it or stay still. The deeper you want to dive in, the deeper emphasis should be placed on the overall system (chain) imo, and as you move up, every change you make can matter. I feel it’s not that hard to tell the differences, assuming time and effort have been put towards the system (articulating those differences is a different matter). So basically, I’m in the synergy camp; taking the approach of looking at the system holistically. But it’s likely all relative. I won’t really care for building a chain with something like a sundara, for example.

Fwiw, the most satisfying experiences I’ve had in this hobby so far is when synergy is at the forefront of the system.

Just to be clear, when I say synergy I’m not talking about personal preferences. I think they certainly relate to one another, but only up to a certain point. I see some replies where people suggest synergy and preference are the same thing but, imo, both can be separated to a certain point.

I also think more people need to realize that this hobby is a simple (yet complex to understand) game of trial and error. There’s no one-size-fits-all because if there was, hobbies like these don’t need to exist.

9 Likes

Technically, the “source” is the recording/music, so one could certainly argue that it is the most important component in the chain; after all, garbage in is garbage out.

I’m camp 2 until you reach your personal end-game or summit-fi headphones; at that point, do what you need to do to achieve the best synergy. With that said, those of us in camp 2 don’t NOT believe that components make a difference, but rather that it makes more sense to spend the majority of the budget on the best sounding headphone first.

2 Likes

Yeah this is sort of how I see it. I won’t go as far as Crin and say “I don’t care” about sources, but at the same time I perfectly understand where he’s coming from with that statement.

I also think where someone falls on that scale likely also depends on where that person is at with their audio journey, and it might be different for someone just starting out compared to those who are already deep into it, have more means or access to a wider variety of equipment.

Edit - one key thing though, there are also those who simply love the change aspect of things when there is a difference. For them it’s less about how much better it is, merely that it is different. This is what I find interesting about tube amps for example.

5 Likes

This.
I can be associated with all three descriptions depending on the budget for a system, the specific sonic goals and my experience along my audio journey over the years.

Today with my current system, budget, desires and experience - it all matters, synergy exists and some components cost more than my headphones.

2 Likes

Although the scene has certainly improved over the past decade, there remains still quite a lot of FUD and snake oil in the hobby, and I think we all, at one point or another, have tried to cut through the noise to find some real signals that we can believe in. I sympathize with the fact that informational SINAD in audiophilia is especially poor, and I see this post as yet one more person trying to make sense of it all. I love that the responses so far haven’t been condescending, which is unlike some other forums I know of, because frankly we’ve all been here, and I think it merits some thoughtful discussion.

One article that is related to this that I found helpful many years ago when I was buying my first DACs, amplifiers, and headphones is: How Should I Buy an Audio System? - Benchmark Media Systems

To succinctly answer your question: All three camps are fine and they aren’t mutually exclusive.

The single objective truth in your question is that transducers factor into the sound you’ll experience by several orders of magnitude more than the source components. That’s where the objective truth stops. Everything else, then, is dependent on what one values and the means or access one may have to a wider variety of equipment. Some people index towards transparency—the accurate reproduction of a recording as faithfully as possible to both what it sounded like when it was recorded and how it was recorded. Other people index more towards simply wanting their music to sound as nice to their ears as possible, regardless of how it sounded when it was recorded or how it was recorded, and this may require euphonic distortions from the source to the transducer itself. Then there are those who have the means to have a variety of equipment because they want different degrees of both. So, I hope this illustrates that neither preference is objectively wrong, and that they’re not even mutually exclusive.

If I may, I’d like to use display technology as an analog (pun intended) to the audio world. Both colors and sound are analog signals to our brain, and there is a similar relationship between what was recorded in either medium and how that is reproduced back to us.

When it comes to displays, I think we can all agree we would like our display devices to accurately reproduce the colors of how a movie or visual media was mastered. EOTF, color gamuts, calibration profiles, etc.—we are much more comfortable with saying that noticeably “inaccurate” colors (i.e. reds appearing orange) on a TV or monitor is simply and objectively bad. However, even in the TV space, you will find that, for example, Samsung oversaturates the colors on their TVs (even in their most accurate display mode) to make their units pop more in retail stores. A customer browsing for a new TV might see a unit and go, “Wow look at those colors! They pop more than the TV next to it. I’ll take it.”

Sound is even more tricky because, relative to visuals, our brains can translate a much wider spectrum of “inaccurate” data into pleasure. The interplay between air waves with what our brains eventually perceive as “pleasurable sound” is highly complex, but it’s fair to say that the human species is much less aurally “resolving” than we are visually, and hence we’re far less picky with sound than with sight. You can see this play out by mere fact that even though we have the Harman target, which is the closest thing we have in wearable audio to a well researched calibration target, Audeze is still doing quite well as a company.

So, in the end, all camps are fine, and by virtue of the limitations of our ears, there is much more subjectivity in this space than I think many of us are initially comfortable with.

The bigger problem is that more 99.9% of us in the audio world don’t have the technical foundation to understand the technology that drives our preferences, yet we’re confident enough to have strong opinions of it on forums, but that’s another story entirely…

15 Likes

I hear this argument a lot, that “clean sounding” equipment brings you closer to the faithful recording. But how is this relevant? You’re not listening on the same speakers or the same equipment as the music was recorded or mastered with. Is clean sound good sinad rating? no

The clean sound is the organic presentation of the music, making you forget they used a microphone to record, a timbre that lingers, bass with a certain decay, and endless resolution.

EDIT: Sorry didn’t mean to attack your post. Agree with mostly everything you wrote, just have been wondering if what I’ve been thinking is agreeable to others?

2 Likes

Right. “Clean sound” is independent of transparent reproduction, just as a 1080p video can be AI-upscaled, sharpened, and color corrected to a cleaner looking 4K version, despite the original not being any of that.

In both cases, you would be using your equipment to distort the original signal for something more pleasing to your ears or eyes.

1 Like

Original. I think it’s misleading.

Your TV analogy could also be seen as,
the recording was done at the studio in 8k,
downsampled to 1080p
clean equipment reproduce the 1080p
where organic equipment upscale the signal closer to the original source (8k)

Yep, I think we’re on the same page now. In your example, I would define transparent equipment being those that reproduce the 1080p. You’re saying that equipment that can make that 1080p source into a believable 8k experience is both organic and superior, and that makes a lot of sense. I can also get behind someone who’d prefer the 1080p source as well.

2 Likes

Yeah, I am in the synergy camp too. In my camp we hardly ever look at measurements. Not distortion as suggested earlier, nor even power output measurements. If it sounds good in the chain, it stays. If it sounds bad in the chain it goes on the shelf for another headphone system.

I also am in the mid budget under $1,200 camp. There are massive problems based on budget. When my purchasing cap limit was $500, I was mostly focussed on trying to squeeze improved treble details out of my collection of $200 headphones. This was very narrow sense of audible performance further exacerbated by using cheap $400 and under DACs. Conversely, jumping to the present, my favorite headphone the ZMF Aeolus is not detailed in the highs at all. Upgrading my gear revealed so many more audible dimensions to audio performance which suddenly revealed that some amp/headphone pairings can be so enjoyable and pleasing, while others can also be such a disappointment making the division of comparative performance much greater.

I can only communicate so much with others that are working with gear below my level of gear since they are only hearing some of what I am experiencing. I also can only communicate so much with others that have higher end gear than mine because I know that they are experiencing dimensions of audio that I am ignorant of and have yet to experience.

4 Likes

If you’re buying a Kia Soul or a Nissan Sentra then no putting racing/r compound tires aren’t going give you much benefit.

If you buy a lotus/ferrari/gt3 then sure r compound tires are going to make all the difference int he world.

Similar logic can be applied to amps and dac.

you view the car and the tires backwards. the cans are the tires and the car is the source gear. A gen 1 grand caravan manual on big sticky rubber is fast as fuck

1 Like

I guess I’m in a completely different camp. I say go to as much live music as possible. Then duplicate 80% of that if you can with speakers. After that we consider headphones with my rule of thumb being about 50/50 transducer and chain.

Then go to another live show or concert.

1 Like

I wish I could control the volume and channel balance of the kind of live shows I go to. I don’t go to too many classical orchestral shows anymore. Aside from the distracting coughing and movements of fellow spectators, those were always a cut above any personal audio experience.

1 Like