Expensive Underperformers

The vast majority of reviews of expensive gear that I read and watch conclude that the gear is indeed better than something cheaper, though diminishing returns are real, etc…

Given that people’s preferences vary and that a lot of “advancements” in technology aren’t necessarily backed by settled psychoacoustic science, I don’t believe that everything that’s expensive is actually good. Rather, I suspect that due to a combination between confirmation bias as well as people focusing their effort on formally reviewing stuff they like rather than stuff they don’t, full reviews tend towards the positive.

As a counterweight to that, I’d love to hear (even if just briefly) of people’s disappointments in expensive gear. Let’s keep in mind that we’re talking about subjective opinions here, so if you see someone dislike something that you personally cherish, don’t sweat it, it’s all just opinion!

I’ll start:

Ember II Tube Amp - I had for a while convinced myself that it did some good things for my DT 1990 Pro (and maybe it did by rolling off the highs somewhat), but if I try to use it with something like my HD58X, it just sounds veiled and lacking in detail and when I compare directly to my phone (LG V20), the phone comes out as a clear winner.

EDIT - I recognize that the Ember II isn’t the most expensive amp out there, but it’s quite a bit more than my V20 phone or my Atom amp, but despite this it gets a lot less use in my house.


Honestly, the cool thing about the preview program is that it eliminates some of the confirmation bias…

That being said, I honestly don’t like reviewing things that are not my preference, or just plain bad… but, realize that is also my opinion. I would rather say it just isn’t for me, personally and then not waste time reviewing it. But, I do think it is good to have people that review things they aren’t fond of. It is a fine line to walk though.

Also, I did review something I didn’t like, but I did my best to take my own bias out of it and appreciate the item for what it was, it was very capable and a good headphone…it just wasn’t my favorite…LCD-X was the review :wink:


when I compare directly to my phone (LG V20), the phone comes out as a clear winner.

I’ve upgraded phones but I’m still hanging on to my old V20 because it makes a great portable music player. Better than some headphone amps I’ve had. And plugging it into a proper headphone amp reveals that the DAC is very decent.


I actually bought a V20 to use as a DAP. Then my iPhone died and I repurposed the V20 for phone use. Not much later I bought a 2nd V20 to have a dedicated DAP again, and rooted it to get system wide EQ with Viper4Android and force high output mode even for low impedance cans. Suffice it to say, I’m a fan.


Here’s some inspiration.

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What a nice thread! I want to add an entry. The Empire Ears Zeur XIV (used to go for $1600++) before they made a Drop version for a grand. This has some critical acclaim but it has absolutely no bass and no life whatsoever (to me). Trust me, I love Empire Ears. The Legend X is sitting right beside me and is one of my all time favorites but I don’t understand the justification of the Zeus. I also saw Joshua Valour praise it but I didn’t understand why. The shrill treble was a complete dealbreaker - and trust me, I am not treble sensitive - I loved the Beyerdynamic T1. I completely agree with @Resolve 's review of the Zeus. If my memory serves me right, Andrew had a similar view on these as myself.


Let me add one of my first expensive headphones - the Ultrasone Edition 8. Ohh I have no words. I’ll just let Tyll share my feelings.


Oh good lord, you OWNED one?

I’m so very sorry.

RMAF 2018, maybe 2017, I forget which… I got to talking to a nice guy, turns out he was from Ultrasone. They had a booth. So, I sat down there and listened to this guy go through his little sales rep speech, then I listened to every single one of the headphones they had… because, you know, I was being nice to the guy.

Two bottles of Tylenol, a scotch, and sitting in a pitch black closet for several hours with my hands over my ears later, and the splitting headache and ringing in my ears finally subsided.

He was a real nice guy though.


You’ve drummer ears…lack of bass response will be flagged immediately. Lol


WoW, just WoW! That sucks!!! :frowning:

A few, but definitely not all, that come immediately to mind, with the caveat that expensive means different things to different people …


All of these, even the one based on the ESS 9028, fall somewhere between “horror show” and “aural terrorism” for me.

  • R2R 11 -DAC/Amp
  • S19 “Singularity” - DAC
  • NFB 28.28 - DAC/Amp)
  • R8 - DAC

Bryston BDA-3 - DAC:

A >$3,400 DAC that I wouldn’t take over a Schiit Modi 3.

Chord Hugo - DAC/Amp:

This is the original one I am referring to (Hugo 2 is a completely different, vastly better, proposition). I preferred the much-less expensive Mojo. The original Hugo I just found bright with grainy treble. And the original was saddled with a need for a dedicated charger instead of USB-charging capability.

iFi Pro iDSD - DAC/Amp/Streamer:

I didn’t find the the raw DAC performance to be notably audibly better than their Micro iDSD Black Label. Different, yes, but not better - and I think the DSD1024 “conversion” is a gimmick at best. The streaming functionality is not up to par with the competition (at much lower prices). I still feel they should have released just the DAC portion for $1,499 and they’d have had something of reasonable value and that seemed much less half-assed and/or driven by a feature-committee.


Any of their combined DAC/amp products prior to the release of the DX3 Pro. DAC sections were fine, if not really my cup of tea, but the headphone outputs were awful. They seem to have gotten this together more recently, and it’ll be interesting to see how the DX9 turns out.

Wells Audio HeadTrip - Amp:

I don’t even know where to start with this one … but power-excepted, there are multiple <$400 amplifiers I’d rather listen via.


Mhhhh Interesting list.

I almost bought a NFB and or an R8, Glad I saw this. And I couldn’t agree more with the Hugo.
aannnd last but not least, Like you I see the iDSD Pro a bit far out…

I am interested to know about topping though… Most people rave about their product…

A lot of their desktop amplifiers, including the amplifier section in the DX3 Pro v2, have a 10 ohm output impedance. That’s going to cause some dynamic cans to be underdamped and throw off their frequency response, and it won’t do any favors to power hungry low impedance planars either.

Their mobile products like the NX4 don’t tend to suffer from that particular problem.


Ah! I see, Interesting. I am glad I didnt go that route. I almost went for a Topping but ended with a Bifrost 2.

And for their balanced stuff, of course, that OI doubles to 20 ohms … which is even more problematic.

I didn’t realize they reverted to high-output impedance on the DX3 Pro. The one I had (from the point in time where they were failing way more than they should) came in right around 1 ohm. Makes me wonder if that was part of the failure issue, or something else entirely.


Edition XX is grain city. It is such a far cry from what the Ananda sounds like that it’s sad. Initially I thought it was just my review unit a while back, but DMS corroborated that. He was like… is this really what it sounds like? Yes.


Yes, allegedly the switch was to improve reliability. So you can either have an amp that sounds decent but might break, or have an amp that won’t break but might not sound great depending on what headphones you use. Fun times.


I own v1, and I cant seem to let them go. I really like them.

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I have to add an amp that, to say the least, didn’t work for me: The Burson Soloist headphone amp/preamp – not to be confused with the lower power “SL” version.

This was my first upscale amp, my attempt to upgrade the sonics of my electronics. I did so much reading about this amp/preamp, said to sound very good in all its current/previous iterations.

It was very powerful (4W@16ohm) and had the ideal form factor for me. BUT…

  • Despite having excellent bass, it was bright. Not just a little bright: BRIGHT. On every headphone, every source

  • And the big stepped potentiometer (my 1st experience w/a stepped pot) was a disaster. Despite the huge dial (misleading), it only had something like 22 steps, total. But w/all that gain/power, this meant I was confined to the bottom 2-4 steps. I could never get the volume right. And because I used it both as preamp & amp, this affected my entire system (very annoying).

The build quality was wonderful & I was less experienced then. So I attempted to “work around” the pot issues by begging the mfr to sell me a non-stepped version of the pot. They did, after one time-consuming screwup (sending the wrong pot…and since it came from Australia, that ate up some time). I finally got the correct non-stepped pot, which helped a lot–but it still sounded like ass on my headphones.

With reluctance & regret I finally sold it. A necessary learning experience, for sure.


I’ve always wondered what measurements correlate with grain, and I still haven’t found a clear answer, but from Solderdude’s measurements, the Edition XX clearly has some really uneven frequency response in the midrange with swing of up to 5dB, and it has a 6KHz distortion spike that reaches nearly 2% THD. I can’t say for sure whether that’s the grain that you hear, but it sure doesn’t look good on paper.