Headphones & Amps: Balanced vs Unbalanced

mmm B-basis and A-basis (that’s how we define it in my work-world) calculations on normal tolerance distributions. We have a lot of sciencey/engineer types in here huh?


Tolerance stack-up can definitely lead to changes, I’d say. Quality engineering is a bit dry, but these types of things matter quite a bit – understanding what your end goal is and all the process capabilities of your design and process are and then dealing with how the tolerances of each and every component stack up and affect the end item.

On balanced vs unbalanced. Some times I hear a big difference and sometimes I do not. I go balanced as often as I can, because I can. At the very least, you get much more ample head room and power. At best, you get less interference/cross-talk and more magic audiophile powers. Nothing really wrong with that.

Go Science! Go Subjectivity!


Great discussion guys. I guess what we’re all saying in a roundabout way is that there are just so many variables to consider when asking for simple yes or no answers about sound. Of course there is measurable scientific data to backup sound theory and the physics that make up the music and gear we all love. But once you add the biggest variable of all which is humans then things start to get very hard to predict indeed. There’s just so much subjectivity in our hobby that all we can do in the end is ask advice and then listen for ourselves and come to our own conclusions.

At the end of the day it’s really good to have a place where we can discuss and argue our points of view without it degenerating into a shouting match.

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Such a good post, totally agree - I’ve been yearning for an online place to openly talk about some of the more controversial topics like cables and such without it devolving into the “prove it” type conversation. Of course that requires civility and humility by the participants … and we just might have it here!

There’s some crazy stuff out there - like is it possible that a streamed files can sound different if they have the same source? Or can rips on different software sound different?

As for balanced, i think @Torq nailed it, is it worth the value? For example I’ve been looking at the Decware Taboo IV and the balance input option is $650! I’d love to have the input option but … $650? Or the Woo amps, where the WA2 is $1200 with the WA22 at exactly double $2400 … are you better off with the WA22 or the WA2 with some great tubes? For me, it’s not so much what’s in my budget as it is, is it worth the budget?? Probably not for me, but of course I’m in perpetual decision mode : )


That’s the downside to getting the balanced option, cost. I agree. It’s not as bad at the lower end of the spectrum I suppose but when you get into the pricier end of the market they sure do know how to charge for those extras. The Woo lineup looks very cool and is something to aspire to and to save up for especially the higher end stuff. You also need to factor in the cost of a balanced Dac as well as the cost of the cables. Then it must get real pricey.

I have gone onto other forums and been shouted down for mentioning aftermarket cables for my iem’s and talking about differences in the sound of Amps or Dac’s is wasted on some. They just get downright aggressive. I don’t go online to get hassle. I come online to talk to likeminded people who discuss their different opinions in a civilised manner. I have stopped posting as much on a certain forum for this very reason. It’s a shame really. I don’t mind anyone’s opinion. We’re all different people but some folks see it one way and shout loudly when their product or opinion is challenged. Oh well nevermind. Rant over.:slightly_smiling_face:


The prices of balanced systems are coming down fast. I would have never considered balanced except this feature was part of the FiiO Q5 at $350 (and balanced wasn’t the primary reason I got the Q5 either). Also note that in the Z Review of the Loxie P20 released today, he mentions this balanced desktop DAC at $330:


This forum sometimes seems to have less than 10 regulars, but they are all adults. I lurk at most other places for the reasons you mention, but participate here. Moderator? How are you marketing this place?


Yea would be nice to add some more selective people. I’ve done some personal invites to a few members on other communities – some have signed up. It’s hard to let go of the larger communities that you’ve spent a great deal of time on. I’m still regularly posting on HF/reddit, but I thoroughly enjoy the discussions here more. I lurk on SBAF, and never really feel comfortable posting on there – most for fear of getting bashed for not being audiophile enough.


SBAF folks are pretty chill, really. I consider that place like I would if a friend invited me to their friends house for a small gathering: be polite, mostly listen, chip in if you have something useful. Usually I don’t, so I mostly lurk there, but even so I do post and they’re quite tolerant of my noobiness. In other forums … it’s my absolute JOY to post with abandon!


'nuff said :neutral_face:


I couldn’t agree more. Were it not for phenomena (unexplained event(s), would be us being afraid of change. :wink:


I worked as PA/Studio engineer in early 90’s (Expo 92, etc).

You won’t see a cinch connector while working in pro, everything is balanced, for a reason. TRRS, XLR’s and Neutriks’ all the way.

I’ve done thousands of cables, console/amps repair, back then etc… I won’t spend on a cable more than is worth on its connectors and wiring, maybe an extra if it will be used for gigs and come with special reinforcement or weather proofing, that’s all.

I’ve also found that differential amps (fully balanced ones) provide better imaging and detail, along with better dynamics. Of course it depends on application…

Definitely the Loxjie P20 proofs that a fully balanced amp can be done unexpensively, while sounding incredibly good… that has shifted in fact my focus on DAC research towards balanced out DACs.

Just started a thread on the quest of unexpensive balanced out DACs


Would it sound better with the audeze lcd-2C’s I just bought with the Jotunheim with multibit dac if I got the dragon balanced cables? I’m new to the group and a huge newbie to the audio world. I figured if I spent 15k building a pc for my self I might as well get something that made music sound good as well. Glad to be aboard.

Most headphones sound better with balanced drive (whether it is down to the separate grounds and/or the typical increase in available power), and the LCD-2C out of the fully-balanced Jotunheim are no exception.

As to whether the Moon Audio Dragon cables, specifically, are the way to go, that’s a more personal call. They’re one among many options and I wouldn’t jump to spending a sizable fraction of the cost of the headphones themselves on a new cable without hearing it both ways first.


I bought many balanced cables over the last year – the smallest impact was with LCD-2Cs. They ship with a very decent single-ended cable and have technical limitations (e.g., low-end flutter) that seemingly can’t be eliminated. As a newbie I suggest you try different headphone brands with different types of drivers (e.g., Focal, Sennheiser, Mr. Speakers, HiFiMan, etc.) before going too far with the cables.

I’m a believer in balanced amps and cables for some brands (e.g., Focal, Sennheiser) but don’t think they are always going to be noticeable.


This follows my own experiences with using balanced cables. I extensively use them out of my Dap with my iem collection. On some iem’s it makes not a bit of difference but on others you get a marked change in sound. For example the with the Shure SE846 it doesn’t make any difference at all balanced or single ended. With my Andromeda’s it does. I can’t back it up with any scientific evidence but it’s better as is the U18t. Just my humble opinion.:grin:

Anybody ever try the Benchmark Media HPA4…the thing looks nice…going to have to give it a look at CanJam SoCal later this month. I have a DAC 3 HGC and sure like it.

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I have.

And it has a rather big problem … in that other than a very slightly smoother sense to its top-end delivery, it basically sounds like a THX AAA 789 (which doesn’t sound much different to the JDS Labs Atom).

Sure, it posts better numbers … but it’s “improving on the already inaudible”. And the problem with that is that inaudible is, well, inaudible. Being “more inaudible” doesn’t really get you anywhere once you’re off the spec-sheet.

When it came down to it, the Phonitor X sounded equally transparent, just as smooth, has a better feature set, costs less and, and this is important, has VU meters!

I honestly feel like the touch-screen on the HPA4 is a gimmick. Something inserted to add some “flash” and help justify the price. It doesn’t do anything you can’t do on the Phonitor X (except “naming” the two additional inputs), with DIP switches or front-panel controls. They didn’t even bother to use it to add any kind of spectrum display, level meters or fake VU meters (even the Oppo HA-1 did that).

It’s one of those things where the engineer in me wants it, for review purposes, due to the superlative measurements. But when it comes down to it, they don’t achieve anything for me, in actual use, that I can’t get elsewhere for less money (and without frivolous “features”).

It is an excellent amplifier, but you can get 98% as good, sound wise, for about 13% of the cost.


Thanks for the feedback. I’ll take a look at the Phonitor X. I only need balanced for my HE-6se cans, single ended for everything else (although I have balanced cables for most of my headphones). I have several HAs now, and thought the HPA4 might work well in my main setup. The DAC I currently have in that setup is a Direct Stream Junior. Not super high end, but works pretty well for me.

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It’s definitely worth auditioning the HPA4 as well, which Benchmark make reasonably easy to do (they have a 30-day risk-free trial program). I wasn’t trying to suggest otherwise. It is excellent.

But when you sell something largely on measurements, and then something else comes along that measures so close that there shouldn’t be an audible difference, for about 1/7th the cost … it’s worth pointing out.

You don’t “need” balanced, so much, for your HE-6SE, as you need power - balanced amps will just be the easiest way to get that power. Balanced headphone output has benefits beyond that increased power, such as better separation/imaging and usually slightly improved resolution, so it’s usually beneficial for most headphones.

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Based on what I’ve gathered from these posts, I suppose that could be said for the Phonitor X as well.
As I haven’t heard it, I won’t be the one saying it. But if I could get the Phonitor from the loaner program, to compare it with the balanced amp I use, I’d write a comparative review.

I don’t have the bells and whistles of the Phonitor, so perhaps a comparison of software that implements the same or similar functions would be in order.
Or we could stick with SQ as “a line with gain” comparison could be interesting in itself.

After accessing the loaner program to writie a decent review, I could then access the loaner program :woozy_face: (except I’d have to start with something less expensive than the Phonitor X)!

I suppose I could start with one of those “98% as good” amps but I’d still have to access the loaner program so I could write a review to access the loaner program…

Kind of a vicious circle :wink:


If you’re going on measurements, sure.

It’s a case of “live by the sword, die by the sword”. The focus by Benchmark is about its measurements, which are almost matched by an amp using similar technology for $400 instead of >$3,000, and which the deltas between are well below the most generously considered audible thresholds.

But everything in audio, or at least everything that’s competent, is subject to the ravages of “the law of diminishing returns”.

The THX AAA 789 measures better than the Phonitor X too. But having done blind listening tests with them (and the HPA4) there’s no question which I’d rather listen with.

Beyond that …

There isn’t a Phonitor X in the preview program at the moment. I can’t see adding one until there’s a reasonable number of people that are at Tier 1 either. And even then it’s dependent on a number of other factors … though that’s really @taronlissimore’s call.

If you wanted to compare software that provides the same sort of cross-feed/speaker simulation that the Phonitor line has, that’d be interesting. Though comparing it TO the Phonitor X is going to be an issue per the above. But most of the interesting software of this nature is available on free-trial. “Waves Nx” (on sale for 50% off at the moment), with the head-tracker, is probably my favorite (and the most convincing) implementation I’ve heard.

And you can just post impressions (it does not need to be a full-blown review, just enough to help others understand the nature and sound of the thing) of something you already own to get started. It is more about showing willingness and ability to do so than it being about something new or that hasn’t been written about before.

It’s not that hard, it’s not a very high bar, you can do it with gear you already have and my repeated experience (from other forums) is that people that won’t take that initial step generally don’t wind up posting impressions about loaner gear either.