Hierarchy of an Audio Chain

What do you guys think makes the largest difference, and most important change to a listeners experience? Is it the transducer, amp or dac? Let me hear your thoughts.

I would propose to add Equalization/DSP to the equation as well. With that in the picture, I would say:

Transducer > EQ > Amp > DAC

Transducer - My LCD2Cs sound vastly different from my Symphonized NRGs. I can run both of them from my phone or Macbook Air. The NRGs sound like a bass-heavy, bloated mess no matter what I run them from. The LCD2Cs are by comparison clear and articulate, in a completely different league.

EQ - My DT 1990’s have exceptional clarity and well extended, low-distortion bass, but they suffer from a treble spike around 8 kHz to which I’m very sensitive and which makes them unlistenable on some recordings. It doesn’t matter whether I amplify them from my phone, my Macbook Air, my Magni 3 or my Topping NX4, the spike is there and it’s a problem for me. It doesn’t matter whether I’m feeding the from an iPhone’s Cirrus DAC, an LG V20’s Sabre DAC or my Hifiberry’s Burr Brown DAC, the spike is still there and still a problem. But, with some relatively simple parametric EQ, I can bring down that spike and enjoy the heck out of these headphones.

Amplification - Some headphones are inefficient and need more power than others. I used to own some HE400i’s which were quite inefficient and which I recall sounded noticeably better out of my Topping NX4 than out of my phone. Low impedance IEMs will also experience changes in their sound depending on the output impedance of the amplifier (I’ve experienced this with my Etymotic HF5s and read that a lot about the Campfire Andromedas). I’m told that tube amps can color sound somewhat and introduce audible distortions. I’ve got my first tube amp on the way to see for myself.

DAC - A DAC’s job is to convert digital bits into an analog signal. It’s not responsible for controlling a physical transducer, just for feeding this signal to an amp. In the little bit of listening I’ve done where I feed sound from different DACs (e.g. Topping NX4 and LG V20) through the same amplifier (e.g. NX4’s built-in amplifier), I haven’t been able to detect a huge difference. The LG V20’s Sabre DAC does perhaps sound slightly more etched in the treble, but I could very well be biased by Sabre DACs’ reputation.


Forget dac’s and all things digital!!! Reel 2 reel tape & vinyl are the ONLY WAY to evaluate ones audio components!!! Also, go to as many live music events as possible to “tune your ears”.

You must have had better luck at shows than me-- a lot of the concerts I go to have pretty terrible sound. :slight_smile:

Absolutely agree. the only exception to the rule for me is small concert halls with great acoustics. For me to go to a concert today in the huge arena, etc seem more for bragging right than anything else. Those were the days to see Black Sabbath, James Gang, Santana in high school auditoriums and movie theaters. I’m so glad I grew up in the 60’s


Changing out the speakers or headphones will be the most noticeable.

Differences between DACS are real but not readily apparent and may require better speakers or HP to discern.

Amps are the most difficult to discern unless you listen at high volumes or the speakers and HPs are not very efficient.


I’ve got to agree with everyone’s sentiments here so far. IMHO the Headphones will always take the significant part in the audio chain. This is probably a dumb question but is the source never talked about when discussing an audio chain?

Anyhow, the Amp comes next for me followed by the Dac. I suppose one could add Cables and Pads and such but again I am not sure if this is to be discussed with regards the audio chain. Thanks it’s an interesting discussion.


If you’re talking about, music as source ( cd- redbook, hdcp,xrcd,tape,files- mp3 up to DSD,Mastering Engineer, etc.)

I never quite understood why this never seems to be talked about in the chain. It’s the old “Garbage in - Garbage out” The best equipment in the world can’t make a poor recording better. In fact it will make it terrible.

If ears, and some might say the soul is the final destination, then original source at studio is the beginning. Many artists have had their recordings butchered in the studio.


Definitely agree with your computing analogy. So true.

The word here is ‘live music events’. This ain’t necessarily a concert. Some of the best sound I ever heard was in my parent’s living room, when a couple of guitar teachers from my Mother’s classical master classes came over to visit. One had a Houser and the other a Ramirez guitar. The Houser looked average but sounded very sweet, the Ramirez, with it’s red wood finish was both flashy and loud.

The music? Ranged from Sor studies, to Albinez, to world folk tunes and standard classical guitar fare. The only thing electric was the living room lamp.

Chamber music, or classical duos, trios, quartets, and quintets are great for training your ears. Not so complex that you don’t get plenty of exposure to individual instruments.

Yes, I’m going to a Journey/Def Leppard concert or two in the next week, and I’ll take my Ety Earplugs. The sound last year for Journey wasn’t up to snuff, but this year they’re back with Tait Towers / Clare Brothers, so the sound should be better.

Small auditorium Jazz is often pretty good acoustically. And if you can find the right Jazz bars, then the sound of glasses is acceptable background. :cocktail: :cocktail: :saxophone:

I’m off topic again. SOURCE - Transducer - [EQ if needed] - AMP - DAC - Wires (I think you young’uns call them interconnects now so you can pay extra)


Some of my favorite live music was in the basement of some bars in Berkeley, or in backwoods bars that my Step-mom would play at with her band. Of course live orchestra is an amazing thing and I think every audiophile at some point needs to go to a live orchestra at some point. Live jazz, blues, hip-hop, on a more intimate scale is truly an experience…especially since most of the time they aren’t blowing your ear dums out…I mean tuning you ears… :wink:

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Blowing your ear drums out is an understatement; I lived in a basement apartment with a bunch of people a couple years ago. One of them had his jazz jam sessions in our apartment on the weekends nights into 2AM. It was really cool for the first couple of weeks because they were really good, but after that, the jam sessions right in front of my room started getting a bit much. I listen at ~85-90dB regularly which is on the loud side but the jams were even louder than that through the walls.

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Ha! yeah, I grew up with my step-mom who practiced all the time in our library/herstudio. She is a very talented bass player who was always in at least two orchestras and three bands at any given time. I used to piss her off when I was in high-school (I was in immature shot :wink: I had this two tower speaker system that I guess looking back was pretty bad ass for a 16 year old) by cranking my stereo with max bass to throw off her tempo while she was practicing…needless to say my Dad squashed my rebellion right quick lol. I’ve never been a musician (sad because I’ve grown up surrounded by them) but they are some odd ducks half the time, I enjoy their company it is never dull lol.


I believe your ears are the most important factor above and beyond the 3 things you mentioned, but if I had to pick one in the chain I would say the transducer.

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I grew up around musicians and my dad use to play with is friends almost every time there was a family get together so it was only natural that I got into music. I’ve been lucky that my parents let me do or try what ever I wanted to so I settled on a trumpet in elementary school and started to also play the ukulele and guitar in middle school. In high school I played in a band with friends and GF and did so until I finished college. Sadly I sold my Fender Strat when I graduated but like most young ones fresh out of college the money was more important at the time. I’ve just got this from a friend a few day ago but I’m just going to refinish it and sell it since I really rather have a guitar than a bass:

Getting back to the topic my take: headphone -> source -> amp -> DAC -> cables, interconnects, etc


That is beautiful!

I learned that with my rinky-dink dabbles in home recording (i.e., electric guitar & mic -> $40 Behringer DAC/ADC -> Garage Band). I can now spot the sound engineering decisions. Many pop songs are just 3 compressed audio blobs meant for radio and cheap playback methods: voice, guitar/keyboard, and percussion. There just isn’t much depth to find…

After the $500 price point (e.g., $300 headphones, $100 on a Amp/DAC, cables), many sources are tapped out. Spending more on an esoteric amp or DAC will either further reveal the flaws or perhaps mask (“improve”) some aspects. ‘Audiophile’ descriptive language might be transformed if the writer had recording experience.

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I wish I could up-vote this more than once.