Newbie "Headphone Exploring Path"

I am very new to ‘critical listening’, although I have listened to a lot of music. I plan to go at this with good headphones. From what I can tell the Sennheiser HD 650 headphones are kind of ‘the standard’ out there of being affordable quality and having a well established sound that is accepted as ‘good’ (by most).

I own a Dragonfly Red (bought as a great used deal on ebay) and it would seem that a used HD650 or the upcoming 6xx Massdrop is easily obtainable for $250 (or less). So I am intending to give this a try with a goal of creating a reference point of sound quality. After that can decide if I want to go further of just ‘stay here’.

My listening will be split across (usually instrumental) jazz (strong guitar bias here), classical guitar (usually solo and some will be my own recordings-and I am NOT a professional, BTW), and classic rock (I am an old guy). My listening environment is quiet so open back seems the better choice to me. My experience with good sonic equipment is quite limited and if I have a ‘sonic preference’ (which I probably do) I don’t know what it is - which is a bit of the problem here.

So for questions in the context of $250 or less (used is OK)…

  1. Is the Dragonfly Red good enough to feel like you have reasonably explored what the HD650 can do?

  2. Should I consider adding another headphone model and, if so, suggestions. The 650 just seems the obvious choice to me here.

  3. Is the 6XX really the same headphone (a listening question only)




Not really.

First, the HD650/6XX scale really well and will continue to improve, as well as reveal upstream (DAC/amp) differences to a surprisingly high level. Which is not to say you need to take them that far, just that they can take you further than you’d think. But it’s certainly not unreasonable to have them paired with four-figure DACs and amps.

With the Dragonfly Red specifically, it is less a qualitative issue and more one of simple physics. The available voltage swing from the DFR (2.1v) really limits what you can do with the HD650, as first that’ll cap absolute volume-peaks at about 112 dB and, more importantly, will start to struggle at lower levels with anything that contains a lot of low-frequency content (bass).

It’s not a bad pairing, but it isn’t going to take the HD650 to their limits in any regard.

For the same price, the iFi Audio Nano iDSD Black Label is going to do a better job with the HD650. It’s still not going to max out the HD650 in terms of absolute capability, but it does have a lot more headroom, power-wise, than the Dragonfly Red, and isn’t limited to 2.1v output like the DFR is.

It’s a safe and highly competent choice.

The other really good option at this level is the Massdrop x Sennheiser HD58X “Jubilee”, at $150. This would pair better with the Dragonfly Red than the HD650 is going to, as it doesn’t need as much voltage to do its thing properly.

Some might recommend the HE4XX. Personally, I think it tops out in overall performance (bottom end-linearity excepted) well before either of the above Sennheisers - so it won’t take you as far and it needs a lot more power than either of them to do it (more than the DFR can provide, and pushing it on the iFi).

As far as I can tell, in direct back-to-back, level-matched, listening, and from my measurements, it’s as close to the latest edition of the HD650 as to be indistinguishable.

So, “yes”.


Torq knows his stuff! I have Two previous versions of the AQ dragonfly USB headphone DAC jacks, and they drive the Sennheiser HD 58X well at work.

I take the 58X home and use my Benchmark DAC3 HGC ($2300) to drive the headphones to nearly their best potential.

I use my Sony WM1A DAP to drive 58X with a custom cable with 4.4mm balanced jack.

I have more expensive headphones and earphones, but the 58X gets the most play time.

  1. See @Torq. You might consider the roughly $100 JDS Labs Atom solid state desktop headphone amp (neutral and tests very well). For a warmer tube profile consider the $100 Loxjie P20. However, the HD-650 is already warm so I’d skip tubes.

  2. There are a lot of good headphones under $300, but it’s hard to go wrong with Sennhesier in this price range. The <$300 HiFiMan HE-560 is extremely capable with a strong amp but sounds atrocious with a weak amp. It’s a step-up from the HE-4XX, and I personally prefer the sound over the HD-600 or HD-650. Beware of quality issues with HiFiMan products to include the HE-560 (especially V1; V2 and V3 are better).

I own the Sennheiser HD-600 myself, which is basically the same as the 650 or 6xx but with a neutral tone profile rather than a warm profile. Some reviewers prefer one over the other, with no objective winner.


You just described what I have so far (as another newbie)…

JDS Atom, Loxjie P20 and HD6XX on its way :wink:


I plateaued with the HD-600s and a Bravo Audio V2 amp for quite a while. The V2 is a congested, noisy, distorted little tube amp with gobs of power. It’s not awful, but is boxed up now.

I went on an audio bender in 2018. Now I often run a FiiO Q5 as a DAC into the Massdrop THX AAA 789 or Loxjie P20. They feed into 6 different sets of headphones. And there’s a different mobile fleet…so I’m selling some unused stuff…


The problem I am having is that my collection is growing quickly… but my wish list is growing even quicker!!


Let me pick a rare bone with @Torq on this one. He really knows his stuff, but at times I think the fact that he knows so much and is so immersed in this headphone world that his correct answers may not be quite the correct answers that someone who is new to this needs to know.

I’ve got the HD-580s and the HD-6xx also. And a few older weak headphone amps that were OK in their day, plus a Dragonfly BLACK (not as good as your RED). I also have a decent TEAC DAC/AMP and an iFi xDSD DAC and a pretty fair Headroom Standard Amp.

So I’ve listened to the HD-6xx on a lot of equipment, and even straight out of the iPhone, CD Player, or whatever.

Here’s where I disagree with @Torq. While the Dragonfly RED may not get every iota of sound out of the HD-650, it will, for all practical purposes be just dandy. I find that with the latest version of the BLACK, which is about 60% of the power of your RED, and with an inferior chip, that the HD-6xx is driven well and will rarely be stressed. @Torq is right that you might not be able to listen to Mahler at full concert level, but I just don’t find that I often listen to anything much over 100 db, and certainly not for any length of time.

@Torq says,

Which is fine, except it ISN’T at the same price. You already OWN the RED. As a self-proclaimed Newbie, you can explore 85-90% of what the HD-650 is capable of doing with the RED.

Your choice of the HD-650 is just fine. You’re going to get a well-balanced, highly competent sound that’s probably better than you have experienced or that most people experience. Neither the RED, nor the HD-650 are going to take you to audiophile nirvana. Audiophile nirvana is like those unobtainable paradoxes, where you can approach the goal but never reach it.

Now there is a real question about the path to the next levels. @Torq, what do you think? Sell the Red, get something else, or given that the Red is paid for, target some nice little amp for extra power that can be used with or without the Red on a whole slew of other future headphones.

I once had a friend that wanted to experience owning a sports car, so he drove around in his Ford Taurus throwing $5 bills out the window.


I do my best to answer the questions that are actually asked and to provide a proper rationale for those answers.

Our experiences (or expectations) are clearly very different here.

Bass starts to fall apart, and even clip (audible and measurable), with just 85 dB or so peaks with the Dragonfly Black driving the HD650, and never approaches what those headphones are really capable of. That’s hardly pushing things, and at that low a peak level you’re running into issues with equal-loudness contours elsewhere.

I think the DFB is an inappropriate pairing for the HD6XX.

I missed that he already owned the DFR.

Based on (currently) owning the Dragonfly Red myself, and in direct comparison to what I’ve heard the HD650 do in more capable systems, I’d personally put that number at closer to 65% of what the HD650 can really do.

People write off the HD650 far too early in terms of what they pair it with in my opinion - and as far as I can tell its because they’ve never bothered (or not had the opportunity) to actually listen to them in a properly balanced, and appropriate, high-end system.

I wouldn’t add an amp to the DFB or DFR. You’d need to run them at, or close to, their maximum output levels to provide an appropriate signal to an amplifier (arguably you’ll never get there with the DFB) so that it could do its best and then neither of the Dragonfly units are at their best used that way either. Yeah it’ll play louder and with more authority, but everything else will be worse. Personally, I wouldn’t do it even as a stepping stone.

You’d be far better off with any combination of DAC and amp from the SDAC, Modi 3 or Liquid Spark, Atom, Magni 3, or if you want all-in-one the iFi unit I already mentioned. And the HD650 will let you go much further before they become the bottleneck in overall performance.

The DFB and DFR are fine products. But at some point you have to use the right tool for the job. For the HD650 you can do better for the same, or less, cost than either.

Perhaps paradoxically, the DFR is a better match for the more expensive Focal Clear (not that I think that results in a balanced result or the best result achievable at that price) than it is for the HD6XX.


@pennstac and @Torq

Here’s a summary of my perceptions with HD-600s. They are both power and noise limited, so they suffer in different ways per different sources.

Subjective quality rankings:

Top Tier or "Grade A"

  • Massdrop THX AAA 789 with a balanced cable and FiiO Q5 DAC: Full range, deepest bass, and minimal noise. The limits of the drivers are obvious.
  • Loxjie P20 with a balanced cable and FiiO Q5 DAC: Warm with a slight degree of high range hiss but satisfying for sources needing fullness.
  • FiiO Q5 balanced amp out: About 95% of the 789, but flat/compressed per the weaker mobile amp. Easily able to hear driver flex above background noise. [A-]

Second Tier or “Grade B”: Power or noise flaws

  • Massdrop CTH: Hazy, shimmery background noise (akin to listening with a room fan on) and a dead high end, but plenty of power. Noise = high end hiss.
  • FiiO Q5 single-ended output: Thin and under-powered at the low end versus desktop products.
  • FiiO Alpen 2: Thin at the low end, but surprisingly decent for an integrated $100 DAC/Amp.
  • Bravo Audio V2: Far more than enough power but congested and noisy/hissy [B-]

Third Tier or “Grade C”: Simply not enough power

  • Dongle DAC/Amps in the Dragonfly class [C+]
  • Post-2015 Apple products (NOT earlier generations) [C]
  • A circa 2011 netbook with some unknown DAC [C]
  • Many PCs with unknown DACs [C-]
  • Pre-2015 Apple computers and phones [C-]

Fourth Tier or “Grade D”: Really unpleasant

  • Schiit Magni 3: Plenty of power, but I can’t get past how this amp negatively transforms the Sennheiser’s delivery. The noise/distortion results in a loss of detail that requires turning the volume up very high. Furthermore, I perceive “inverted” dynamics whereby loud passages actually sound back-grounded versus soft passages.

All in all, my take away is that improvements follow from either (1) raw power, or (2) the absence of background noise. I personally rank less noisy products higher than noisy products with similar power. Changing DACs mostly affects high range clarity (<5% of the total experience).


You are in for an interesting journey. Lots of highs and some brutal lows. And both will cost money.:grin:

I would recommend trying the HD58X. The DFR should drive it nicely. I personally didn’t like the HD6XX. And it Really needs an amp. You might want to have a look at Grado. They are fun, but a little bright. Ideal for guitars, I would think. They are very musical and have a wide price range starting at very affordable. They are very efficient do not “need” an amp.

I love my Meze 99 Classic’s, but they are more fun than critical listening.

You will likely have to try and fail several times while trying to find your ideal sound signature. I am in my fifth year of hunting for the “sound”, but getting closer all the time. I am Very happy with my current set-up.

Now if I could just add a Loxjie amp and a set of Cascades…:smirk:



I don’t think you can go wrong with the HD650/6XX. They really are great value for a lot of headphone. I like the HD58X but if I’m being realistic I do think that the HD650 is technically the better headphone. You can always EQ any of its traits that you don’t feel match your own sound likes/dislikes. Just my thoughts. How about and Atom to pair with the HD6XX? Maybe a little over budget though. Good luck.

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Well, this has become a lively discussion. I can see very well where @Torq is coming from. He has a well trained ear, and the opportunity to compare with more equipment than most of us. And I’ll explain some of the whys for us having what are actually similar opinions but differing reasoning.

First, I have had my HD-580s for at least 20 years, and the HD-6xx’s for about 4 months. Also in the last 4 months I have been listening more to other headphones, a couple of which I put through very critical listening to write up here, and to my old STAX, because I got a gorgeous tube headphone amp to run them on. As I travel frequently to the house my wife inherited, I keep the 580’s there now, and just wanted a good Senn for my usual home listening.

Second, I love the Dragonfly products. I have an iPhone 6+ as my everyday device, and with either camera adapter, I am able to have a compact, pocketable system that is far better with a range of headphones that I would otherwise have. Portability and convenience is a consideration. I use this system with entry level Grados (Which I also like, but refrained from suggesting because they are a love em or hate em headphone), The Senns, my Koss “Weirdphones”, and even at low levels, the notoriously power-hungry HiFiman HE-560. On the latter, it’s really easy to show the power-based issues that @Torq mentions.

For non-critical listening, I am likely to power the HD-650s with my Headroom Standard amp (the new one, not the original, there is a big difference). It often sits right next to the recliner - Did I mention I like convenience? I find that the DFB can adequately power the Headroom amp inputs - and so can the iPhone 6+. If the source (CRITICAL POINT HERE the source rules - if it’s not good, nothing is, worse than in the speaker world) is improved with the DFB then I find I get better sound using it along with this particular amp. I’m talking about a source that might need a DAC for higher resolution - I can use an android phablet instead of the iPhone and get high quality FLAC and MQA, for example.

@Torq has a much wider selection of amps than I do, and can speak to the woes of using other amps with the DFB and DFR. I can only speak to the use of this particular amp, which matches reasonably well.

That said, the DFB is most certainly NOT my preferred DAC with the HD-650/6xx. I far prefer using my iFi xDSD, which has considerably more power, and allows me to use its “dual mono” mode, which while not being “balanced” is a lot like running two monoblocks in your regular hi-fi rather than a single stereo amp.

But the biggest difference in our reasoning had to do with budget, what you already own, the path you will take, and how you may listen. Both of us made some differing assumptions. I focused on your prior musical listening and the comment that you had not spent time with many enthusiast loudspeakers and hi-fi systems, but more professional guitar sound. I also saw your characterization of yourself as a “newbie”. I found that in my wallet-bound journey, I would slowly educate my ear, use what I had until I knew what was defective or annoying, and make a careful jump at some point.

Heck, I didn’t even investigate DACs until their prices came into affordable ranges, and it was then with some skepticism. I was more focused on good amplification. I never had an 8-Track phase, much of a Cassette phase, or an MP3 phase. I knew crap source when I heard it. I listened to records and CDs.
In the car, I did MP3, but the car ain’t a critical listening location. I’m not pure - I do have some MP-3, but only when that was the only available format for the MUSIC I wanted.

Finally, I used to work in an industry where new users - newbies - were gold. You can only get good initial evaluations from a new user. I’m sure @Torq has experienced this also. So all of us will be very interested, no matter how you do it, in hearing your experiences with the exploring path.

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Note that I am the OP on this thread.

Since I have been nothing but a ‘taker’ in this forum, I will see what I can do WRT pennstac’s last sentence of “So all of us will be very interested, no matter how you do it, in hearing your experiences with the exploring path”. So here goes…

Like many people in this world I have always listened to music (DOB 1949) and most of it has been pop stuff where I never got out of the classic rock era. But I did listen to a bit of jazz. I played some guitar and piano and trombone as a kid, but my participative (well, it SHOULD be a real word) activities stopped until 2016 when I restarted my classical guitar work. It has taken me this long just to get to the point of being able to play something listenable. And most of what I play comes out of the traditional classical guitar repertoire with the occasional jazz or pop piece thrown in there.

I have really never owned a quality piece of audio playback hardware, although the stuff that I owned after college was not bad (vinyl timeframe). Since the early 80’s most of my listening has been through car speakers or crappo computer speakers.

I don’t know what started me down this audiophile path, but it was only maybe a month ago. Kind of on a whim I bought (at a great used price) a pair of Audio-Technica ATH-E50 IEM’s. To that point my highest quality listening had been on a Samsung Android tablet driving a pair of Skullcandy Hesh 3 headphones (<$100) via bluetooth while pedaling my indoor bike in bad weather (Pandora free account or maybe Youtube). To me this was the best quality sound that I had experienced.

When I first got my IEM’s I didn’t like them. They were hard to put in, didn’t stay in, and quite frankly I didn’t like the sound vs. the Hesh 3’s. I finally learned to get them in properly (it is still hard enough to be irritating). Some ‘on a slow boat from California’ Comply ear thingey’s hopefully will be helpful.

I have spent most of my time to date listing to various audio file formats. Mostly I have started with .flac files (24/96) and importing that into Audacity. Then export to 320 bps .mp3’s, lower bitrate mp3’s, lower quality flac, etc. I am surprised at how subtle the changes in what I hear are. I am not hearing a big difference.

Something happened about a week ago. I was playing some 30 second samples through the IEM’s driven by my Dragonfly Red (Dell XPS Windows 10 USB output - Chrome browser through Flash). It was a George Benson jazz guitar (96/24 flac files) piece (30 seconds of it anyway) and suddenly I was hearing subtleties that I had never heard out of a recording before. It was like all of a sudden my ‘hearing woke up’. To that point, quite frankly, I liked my Hesh 3’s better. But now there was ‘stuff’ in the trebles that I had never heard before on a recording. While the bass is far more subtle than what I am used to when listening to popular music I now hear the base as also having subtleties instead of just some musical thump. No longer are the Hesh 3’s my favorite - but they sure are easy to put on :slight_smile:

Regarding price I could (if I were to choose) buy a $600 pair of headphones and a $400 amp/DAC (just to throw out some #'s). But I don’t want to be wedded to my choice just because of what I spent. So I am proceeding cautiously regarding prices.

And FWIW, based in no small part on what I have read here, I am inclined to go down the DFR with HD580 (or XX) path.

Thanks again to all for the very useful input.



I think I’m going to go a bit further out on the limb here.
I grew up listening to classical guitar. Mom taught it and also went to master classes at the Kansas City Conservatory.

If your ultimate goal is to find something that is revealing in top quality classical guitar music, then you really don’t have to worry about 115db peaks.

Properly recorded music will give you a soundstage where you can hear very clearly music coming from the general area of the resonating cavity, tell the difference in location when the guitar is tapped as percussion, hear clear as a bell harmonics (the guitar technique where a finger touches a string to play not the fundamental, but the harmonic), and also hear the movement and sounds made by fingers touching the neck and moving over the frets.

One of the key factors you will want for this is “Speed”, which has to do with how quickly the headphone drivers respond to a sound. Think “attack” in guitar terms. @Torq, @generic, and @antdroid can all probably point you to charts and graphs which show this better than I can.

@EdAInWestOC and I will then point out that the best way to get this quality is not with most dynamic headphones such as the Sennheiser, but with an electrostatic headphone. We are both fans of STAX, which are not, unfortunately, cheap.

Everyone else will be quick to point out that there are many “Planar-Magnetic” headphones that are also very fast. They are correct. I have a set of Hifiman HE-560s that are darn near as good as the STAX (after many hours of burning in). There are a whole range of Planars out there, and Massdrop has a Koss Electrostatic in their lineup (have never heard since the original Koss ESP-6, so I can’t recommend one way or the other).

ANY of these planars or electrostatics are mercilessly revealing of other deficiencies in your audio chain. So they require good amps and dacs. If I want to listen to classical guitar digitally, I go out from the Mac Mini to iFi xDSD DAC to a STAX tube headphone amp to my old STAX headphones. I’m saving up and plan to blow $1400 or so on some new STAX headphones this year, unless I go crazy and spend more. Alternatively, I will use the xDSD to drive the Hifiman planars, which are also good.

My third choice is the Sennheiser HD-650s, but I’m equally likely to just pull out some vinyl and play through my speakers.

NOTE that this is not general music advice, but based on your last post and years of growing up listening to classical guitar, what I find works to give you that “my hearing woke up” and “nuance revealed” moments with specifically that kind of music.


Commenting on one’s own post is a little like talking to yourself.
I’ve spent the past couple of hours listening to Sor on TIDAL, comparing what I hear with the Sennheiser HD-650, STAX SR-5n, Hifiman HE-560, and the Audeze LCD2 Classic Closed Back that I have on generous loan from our community program for a review.

I’ve listened extensively to the Fernando Sor, Complete Studies for Guitar, by Enea Leone on Brilliant Classics, Opus 31, studies 18, Moderato and 19, Andante. This is a 44.1 Khz FLAC 16 bit, and very nicely recorded.

Also listened to Fernando Sor, Guitar Sonatas by Ricardo Gallén on Eudora records. This is also a FLAC, 44.1, 24 bit, but MQA rendered at 352.8 Khz. I generally like Gallén. This was recorded in 2013 at the Iglesia de San Miguel, Cuenca, Spain. And Golly, can you hear the rocks in the walls. It’s just slightly cavernous.

The chain for this is Mac Mini (2014) using ROON to play TIDAL. Output to the iFi xDSD, and from their either directly to the headphones, or to the STAX SRM-T1S tube amp and my venerable 1980s vintage STAX SR-5n headphones.

Conjure up an image of the judge at Westminster walking the headphones around in a circle. First prize goes to the STAX. This just sounds right, particularly on the studies 18 and 19. Very transparent, and you can hear exactly what is going on, not just the music.

Second prize - The Hifiman HE-560, planar magnetics. Almost as good. When you hear lower notes, this headphone has a bit more authority. Again can hear attack, and use of the guitar as percussion. Nice resolution of harmonics.

Third prize - The Sennheiser HD-650. There is a bit of a veil here. You’re much more aware that you are listening to a recording. However, tonality is very good. There is a particular sound when fingers move along the metal-wound strings of a classical guitar. You hear it when it happens to be prominent, but it’s not the ever-present ghost-whisper resolved by #1 and #2.

Booby prize - Audeze LCD-2 closed backs. Putting these on drop me out of the world of irritating little noises - a computer fan on my laptop that’s louder than it should be. Wind outside. Unfortunately it creates its own acoustic ambiance. This is probably more the fault of closed back design than the anything else. The planar drivers are very fast and resolve the detail. It’s even pretty good on the Studies #18 and #19. But on the Sonatas . . . The cavernous church is multiplied by the cavernous closed-backs. IS is THERE there AN an ECHO echo IN in HERE? here? here…here…
I found that annoying in the C Minor Opus 25, Andante Largo, but almost unlistenable when notes came faster and louder in the second movement Allegro non troppo.

And there you have it. Oh wait a second -
For laughs
I’m trying a listen right now with my entry level Grado SR-60e with the L-Pads and tape modification.
We’re comparing a $79 headphone with $9 aftermarket pads rimmed with electrical tape.
Now they are sort of on-ear so not going to have closed back issues
And they sound darn good. They do not resolve like the planars. The drivers are smaller than the Sennheiser, so while the sound is lighter and less robust, it is very fast, which is good for classical guitar. Soundstage is better on the Sennheisers. Harmonics are better on Grados. This musical material is well suited to the Grados - the hot treble - which has been reduced by the pad mod - is essentially absent. You can tell that the room is large and live, but it does not sound like a cavern. This is not necessarily good - all the top phones had a more pronounced room sound.

Now on studies #18 and #19. If there is a veil here, it’s fine silk. Not as much resolution as the top 3 choices.

This headphone is easily driven by a Dragonfly RED. It will never be your top audiophile choice, but it will likely make you smile on classical guitar music. Might want one to just have around. It’s nice and light.


Thanks @pennstac that’s a great insight into your thoughts on these headphones. With your experiences in this hobby everydays a learning day. Add to this a little humour and it’s fun learning.:grin:

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@DaveLeeNC Start enjoying your new gear. You will like it quite a bit. Maybe so much that you will just stay with it. Try out different software before you move on to new gear. You should see improvements that will stay with you if you end up upgrading.
Your next upgrade may be to modify your HD650’s as detailed on SBAF. Or not.
When things fall into place, look for a new amp and dac and maybe a source, but don’t rush.
Put the Verum headphone on your radar. Planar heaven at $350. Enjoy.

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Thank you. But I just fixed some unintentional humor. The recording was at the “Iglesia de San Miguel” and, perhaps because it’s a headphone forum, I typed, “Iglesia de Can Miguel” which sounds like a great place for our members to meet.


I am still cogitating on all this. And out comes another question. If you were willing to spend $300 on a DAC/Amp (new street price) to pair with a HD 650 (or XX), what are the reasonable choices here.

Thanks again.


ps. pennstac, my tastes in classical guitar somehow ended up in the late 19th century and early/mid 20th century with composers like Villa-Lobos, Leo Brouwer, and Francisco Tarrega. It isn’t like the Sor’s and Carcassi’s of the world have no appeal (who could possibly not appreciate Sor’s Etude in Bm), that is where I ended up. My ‘not quite good enough to play them now but maybe some day’ pieces would be things like Capricho Arabe (I am close here)and Leyenda/Asuturias (dreams have no limits).