Recommended Gear

This thread is for the purpose of making recommendations on gear based on a tiered price syestem, similar to the Community Preview Program.

The tiers are as follows:

Tier 3- “Entry level”, Items up to $1000 USD.

Tier 2- “Mid level”, Items between $1000- 2000 USD.

Tier 1- “High level”, Items $2000- Above USD.

Recommendations should be based on experience with products being listed, and should include a brief summary of why the product is being recommended. Any comparisons to similar gear is encouraged.

Recommendations may be based on one, or several tiers (Poster’s discretion), and can be done as individual products within a given tier, or as a grouping (Poster’s discretion).

Any currently manufactured gear is acceptable. Please note that manufacturers or vendors should not influence your recommendations within reason (preferences to a certain manufacturers sound signature is reasonable and acceptable).

Providing links to product threads is recommended.

For the sake of allowing recommendations to be viewed with minimum noise, Keep Comments to a minimum, and Discussions in their appropriate threads.
Remember to alway be Polite. A recommendation is just an Opinion.

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My preferences in headphones and headgear lean toward gear that is known for musicality and engagement, not reference or neutrality. I have several sensitives to peaks in treble and upper midrange tones, which makes treble-centric headphones (HD700, HD800, anything Beyerdynamic, etc) especially problematic. I have come to understand that chasing “what the artist intended” is a farce, all gear will convey it’s own interpretation of the music, and as such I choose and prefer to have a fluid, warm, musical presentation.

My recommendations, as complete systems:

Tier 4 (My own super-budget-friendly tier):

  • HD650 > Magni 3+ > Modi MB. Total price: $550
    My defacto neophyte system. New to headphones? Don’t know where to start? This is a killer system who’s components hold value. Want to start with tubes instead? Substitute the Magni for a Vali 2.

Tier 3:

  • HD650 > Lyr 3 > Bifrost 2
    If you’re not afraid to pour a little more gravy on your mashed potatoes, the Lyr 3 and Bifrost 2 add dynamics, impact, resolution and tubes to create a very engaging sound. System price ~ $1400.

  • HD650 > Bottlehead Crack + Speedball > Bifrost 2
    Build a BHC. It’s worth it. This introduction to OTL amps is a great and appropriate springboard into tube amps later in the hobby. $1600-ish, if you include buying the wood glue, stain & finish, soldering iron, and multi-meter you will need to assemble and test.

Tier 2:

  • ZMF Aeolus > Lyr 3 > Bifrost 2
    Moving past the limitations of the HD650, the Aeolus is the best introduction to the ZMF house sound. The Lyr and Bifrost combo complement the Aeolus very well, centering the mids as the foundation for your music, while keeping the bass and treble controlled, in line, and defined.

  • ZMF Verite (O or C) > Mjolnir 2 > Schiit Gungnir A2
    AKA - Impact & Slam factory. Everything hits with immediacy and force. Snare drums, kick drums, EDB bass, electric guitar… everything. This amp and DAC combo is a brute force powerhouse, and it drives the speed and resolution of the Verite to the extreme. Neutral-heads and measurement fascists need not apply.

  • ZMF Eikon > Eddie Current Black Widow 2 > Gungnir A2
    The smooth operator. Everything is fluid yet engaging. Wonderfully musical, and you can listen to it for days in comfort.

Tier 1:

  • HD800 (SDR mod) > DNA Stratus > Matrix X-Sabre Pro (mqa version)
    I normally don’t care for the HD800, but this setup was one of the more liquid and dynamic sounding setups I’ve heard. I don’t think I could listen to it for extreme periods of time, but it was an excellent pairing. It left enough of a mark that a headphone I normally don’t like ended up on this list. The Sabre DAC is a uniquely un-Sabre sounding DAC, and was quite a surprise. Donald North just makes great amps.

  • ZMF Auteur > Eddie Current ZDS > Schiit Yggdrasil A2 w/ Unison
    A warmer and extremely resolving DAC, a leaner and ultra revealing amp with MASSIVE headstage, and one of the more neutral yet musical headphones ever created - This is my TOTL endgame setup.

  • Meze Empyrean (suede pads) > ECP 3F > Sonnet Morpheus > Pie2AES
    Ok, I get it. Empy is a love it / hate it headphone. Paired with a great chain, this setup had a great tone and staging. One of the unique characteristics of this setup was it’s ability not just to resolve headstage to the left, right and front, but also UP and DOWN. This setup actually put me into an actual holographic type staging. It was uncanny. Infact, now I think the term “holographic” used in any other context besides this or an HD800 + Smyth A16 is a complete lie.

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Nice!

I like how did full systems within the price tiers.

I wonder what your recommendations would be for individual items with those tiers? :thinking:

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The recommendation would change based on the rest of the chain. System synergy is that important, imo.

It’s like upgrading your car’s stereo system with a new head unit and a 12" sub, but leaving the stock speakers. Does not compute.

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For sure. Thanks for posting.

Hopefully some of our ‘senior’ members chime in with their recommendations.

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Great recommendations!

I like how you balance out specific qualities of the components you grouped. Your priority of synergy is evidenced by that.

There’s a few products that you listed that have been on my own “wish list” for some time now! The cool part is you have them paired with components I’m not familiar with, but I look forward to learning about.

Thanks again.

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Entry Level…

  • Sennheiser 6XX ($220) - Not for me but is a solid all start until you jump to the Mid / High tier (and the Amp choice helps)
  • E-MU Teak ($350) - Closed Headphone to pair with the 6XX, great low end. Less in areas the 6XX is strong, strong in areas the 6XX is weaker.
  • iFi Drop DAC/CAN ($250) - Burr Brown DAC with an amp that can be tuned to give the 6XX a little more oomph when desired.
  • Use the remaining $180 to maybe get some 4.4mm cables to use the balanced output on the iFi.
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Nice. That’s actually a stack I’d buy. Burr Brown is butter…

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If you need to scrape off some more dollars, as a similar Tier 4 starter system (which I still enjoy very much), you can also opt for:

HD6XX > JDS Labs Atom > Topping D10 (or D30). Total price $400

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I guess one could suggest those instead, but I’d rather suggest gear that sounds good.

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Ok, I just reread the above, and I didn’t mean it to sound that way. What I am trying to say is that those items didn’t hit me as being particularly great matches or synergies with anything really. I found them to be serviceable, average sounding, and affordable. Exactly what they were meant to be. But not uniquely synergistic which was the goal of my original recommendation.

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LOL, the D10 + Atom is my main set up at home (using the DT1990 pro though). I will be adding a Modi and Magni Heresy soon, so I will get to compare.

I guess everyone has their own tastes which is what is great about audio, as long as you like it, there is no wrong.

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Software:

your Android onboard Audio is crap. At least it is not ideal compared to a audio spezialised DAP, for example. You will need to bypass the internal Android audio system, if you want to use a external DAC or DAC/Amp.
USB Audio Player Pro for Android devices - is around 7(add another 5 to unlock mqa) bucks and very usefull/ for me without alternatives, if I want to use a Android device as source for my own FLACs, Streaming Tidal(full mqa unfold with ext. DAC), Qobuz(dark mode) or online radio like radioparadise.
since years, there are updates on a weekly basis and include new services, new hardware or bugfixes

Tier 4

Koss KSC 75s or Porta Pro - both with Yaxi pads - both stay under 50 bucks and are a good start
The 75s are a bit wider and airy while the Porta Pro is still wide and a touch warm
The 75s drivers are different vs the PP and provide a higher resolution

for a sub 100 Bluetooth dongle I can recommend the Earstudio ES 100 and the Fiio BTR3
while the ES100 is more power, provides even balanced hf out and has physical buttons for all controls and a fantastic app, which got many updates(firmware and functions) the BTR3 pairs better with brighter sounding headphones and IEMs.

The Sennheiser Massdrop collaboration brought us the 58x, which is easy to drive and does not change much with the source - so it´s a sub 200 solution for these without a DAP, DAC/Amp
it does not scale as much as the legendary HD650 or 600

Tier 3

my office combination is simple: ifi xDSD > ifi OTG cable > custom balanced cable > Focal Elegia - out of phone or tablet with USB Audio Player Pro Android App(Tidal mqa unfold and Qobuz dark mode, …)

it´s sub 1k, if you are lucky, like me and the synergy is perfect for my preferences

you get a nice Burr Brown implementation, with enough power for most modern easy to drive over Ear headphones
the sound option xBASS+, which is analog and no dsp, is very subtle and helps the Elegia with some songs. It brings the Elegia maybe a touch closer to the Dan Clark Audio AOC2 in the low end.
I did audition the DCA and did use the xDSD with/without the xBASS+ on both headphones.

the Elegia is hard to beat for long time comfort and sound + quite open for a closed back
the xDSD brings also the best Bluetooth implementation I know(tried the Fiio Q5) and the optical/coax digital in as added DAC inputs to the USB in

the synergy between Sennheiser HD650/6xx and the ifi xDSD is not there - what I had to learn over the last days
one could add the ifi xCAN for way more power and the new xBASS+ 2 option.
So you could choose to add Bass, push the mids presence or both.

the synergy between Beyerdynamic DT 1990s (analytical pads) and the ifi xDSD is phenomenal, for my preferences with some music. I know it´s not really respected among most audiophiles, though I love it from time to time on shorter listening sessions

the last but not least, is the Tin Hifi T4 IEM with balanced cable out of the ifi xDSD is very good synergy wise and again the xBASS+ helps the T4 with some songs - here you have a top synergy under 500 bucks

Tier 2

RME ADI 2 DAC fs (4493) > THX AAA 789 > balanced cable > HD 650/6xx - synergy is good enough
this combination won so mutch more in many ways over the ifi xDSD.
I am not used to the 6xx yet. It´s neutral warm represantion was to thick out of the xDSD.
I am going to edit this part after some more time with the 6xx

RME ADI 2 DAC fs (4493) > THX AAA 789 > custom balanced cable > custom balanced adapter > Focal Elegia
the Synergy is great and I miss absolutely nothing - this is used on the sofa, on most evenings for a few hours, while cuddling with wife and the dog - prefer not to use a open back in a seperate listening room.

I have linked some official threads and reviews in the text
The best review I re-read was this one: iFi Audio xDSD by David @pennstac

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Holding my thoughts here for a bit …

Mostly because I tend to think of “entry level”, at a component level, as being <$200, maybe even <$100 lately.

Even among self-described audio enthusiasts, $1,000 isn’t that common for a system, let alone a single component. And $2,000 isn’t even remotely “high end” in the grand scheme of things.

Which is not to say I disagree with what’s been posted so far.

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It’s definitely difficult to pin down price brackets since everyone’s cost ranges vary. I just used the Community Preview Program as a guide, but I feel I should have added a lower tier.

I’m glad members have gone ahead and posted recommendations in that bracket, as it can be a popular one.

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Joshua Valour posted a headphone price survey recently (“Community” tab). Relatively few of his viewers own headphones over $500. Only 10% paid over $1,000 – with 6.9K responses.

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Price brackets are also obscured when interpreting “value”. Is a $3k amp a good value, is a $500 headphone a good value?

Examples:

I got Vanatoo T0s for my desk, lower tier based on price but upper tier based on value.

Got a micro iDSD BL, fairly expensive for a portable amp but massive value for what they allow me to do.

I have what I hope to be for me an endgame tube amp coming. Price was 2k, big $$$; however, the next step up in amps that this company makes is 3k, for probably at best modest gains and most assuredly not a 50% better amp based on a 50% price increase. So even in this instance the $2000 amp is still a value - at least that is what I am telling my bank account!!!

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I’ll put down the Drop Sennheiser HD58X as a solid entry level recommendation, especially if you’re willing to remove the front foam. It deftly walks the line between an audiophile and a consumer-friendly sound signature, isn’t too picky about sources, is relatively cheap to buy, and has typically good Sennheiser build quality. Since it’s lightweight and has fairly spacious oval earpads, most people should find it comfortable (after adjusting the clamp).

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Koss PortaPro
TL;DR: Everyone should have a pair.

Price Tier: 4 (sub 100) :stuck_out_tongue:

They are not the best built headphones ever, and for the price, you would not expect them to be. If they get lost or break, the biggest hit you have to take is a sentimental one.

However, they are comfortable! As someone who is useless as a human without his pair of glasses, a remarkable feat. Engineers and designers at various headphone manufacturers tend to not take frames into considerations when designing headphones.

Sound is just stunning.
In an era where everyone listens to music on cheap earbuds, Koss demonstrates in a spectecular fashion cheap does not rule out good. Not a bassheads-delight, but a well executed low end. Not treble murder, tapered down to be smooth.

Probably the only downside is the lack of isolation.

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I love mine! One of the most underrated headphones, well not on this forum!

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