Those of you that have been following my journey know I am picky. You know I say what I think no matter how different it may be from the norm. I will turn around and slam loved products because, to me, they are incompetent. And I will love unknowns because they are unique. I will return things at the drop of a hat that don’t fit my need, no matter how good they are. I am the king of returns. Crown king nothing? (ok, King Nothing is playing right now)
I am also very conscious of value. I want to get the most bang for my buck. I am typically uninterested in chasing that last bit of diminishing returns.
This amp comparison has pushed a lot of buttons. Triggered me if you will. It has hit a lot of sore points in the above definition of me. But to explain it, I need to include some background.
I wasn’t going to write this
For a while, I just wanted to drop the comparison and eventually report the result. No big comparison post. I was struggling with coming up with clever analogies about the sound differences. Or cute self-deprecating phrases. I couldn’t even make fun of Zeos. Comparing them became almost like a job. I don’t want a job.
I got this immense sense of sympathy for reviewers having to write articles about differences they don’t care about. Yes, the readers want to know. And here we are. That is not, however, why I am writing this. I am not a reviewer. I am just a guy sharing his experience. More on that later.
What have I heard?
Outside of the titular three, the amps of consequence are dx3 pro, smsl sp200/m200, xduoo ta-30, a90/d90, ifi micro signature, fiio q5s, btr5 and ibasso dx300. There have been probably close to a dozen other portables (dap or dongle) that are completely insignificant.
Where did I start?
When I entered headphone audio, I started on the measurements side. As an engineer, I like objective observations and logical decision making. So, I bought things that measured well. Logical, right? And I listened to the people that looked at headphone specs to determine whether an amp is powerful enough to drive it and not much else. Hence the sundara + dx3 purchase.
Then I heard the sundara become fuller and effortless on anything with more power than the dx3 pro. It lost this sense of restraint and just played great music. That was the first step. The initiation. The dark side awaits!
Fast forward through a bunch of measurement based options and I then heard the xduoo ta-30 and idsd micro signature. These were an attempt to go in a direction the music lovers recommend while not straying too far from “normal” or whatever I thought that meant at the time. And I genuinely liked the sound more. It was smoother, and more pleasant. The sp200/m200 sounded prickly and sharp. The a90/d90 sat between them.
These observations were not night and day. But they were easy to pick out in a/b comparisons. Enough so that I could pick it out in most music.
I took a break
Due to the he6se right cup dying, I simply stopped. And returned everything. A few weeks later I ordered a blessing 2 dusk and btr5. And I felt like I was chasing the wrong sound with the he6se. I felt the dusk was more fun and engaging than anything else I heard.
So I looked for something with good balance and more fun bass, logically thinking that the added bass was the biggest benefit. I landed on the Dunu Zen and Qudelix. But due to tip irritation at the beginning of allergy season, I decided to head back to closed back over ears.
I went through a few (well documented elsewhere) and landed on the LSA HP-2 Ultra.
Now it’s time to get better source than the qudelix
We are effectively at present day. These two amps were selected because, by nearly every account, they fit the high value good bang for your buck metric. They also trend toward musical over analytical. And they seem fairly pairing friendly.
Update Note: I used balanced connections to headphones on the Jot and Qudelix for majority of listening. I did listen to SE some, and couldn’t hear a difference outside of noise floor on the jot (with IEM) and reduced power.
Jotunheim 2 - With 4490 card. Selected for it’s fun sound, strong bass response and can drive anything.
Playmate 2 - Selected as a high value class a that isn’t smotheringly warm.
Qudelix 5k - The amp I have been using for many months.
Imagine my surprise when…
I hear very little difference. I even bought the Ananda to see if it’s just my hp-2. Still, nada. The 3 of them are so close, I couldn’t blindly pick them out if I tried.
So I keep listening
Over the coming days I listen, swapping and volume matching as closely as I can. I rotate through the amps and the two over ear headphones. I leave all of them running 24/7 for “burn in”, whatever that means.
I listen much of the day while working. And then sometimes a bit at night before bed. I put on every genre and type of music that I can.
And, yes, I start to pick out very subtle patterns. Very subtle. And I will elaborate on them here. But before I get there, I want to address some feedback and observations.
My headphones are easy to drive
While I have found the qudelix can drive things very well, possibly above what the specs would indicate, all these are easily within its sweet spot. The hp-2, ananda and zen are easily powered by the qudelix. None of them feel strained, distort or do any of the funny things I have heard under powered headphones do. (Yes, I tried the he6se off macbook headphone jack, the apple dongle and nearly every amp mentioned)
Do they respond to more power? Yes, all 3 do. At obscenely high volume levels, they will all maintain their various characteristics well past safe listening levels. Particularly in the bass. By contrast, I can max the qudelix, and the scale simply stops (particularly on the ananda). This is also a different experience from many amps.
What do I mean by that? On most amps, even the wonderful ifi micro signature, you want to stay away from going above 80% on the knob. Things get shrill, shouty and annoying. On the signature, you simply flip to the next power level, and keep going. Nothing shrill. That never happens on the qudelix, right to max volume. Interesting. On the jot and playmate 2, I have not gone anywhere near max volume. So, I can’t answer that question there.
It’s the dac
I have ordered a bifrost to check this theory. The 4490 in the jot is notoriously unpopular. Even the multi-bit card (which I don’t have) gets a lot of crap from a lot of people.
My original test was to use the Playmate as Pre-amp to the jot. And I did. I was even able to volume match them and do multi-usb out so I could use the input switch on the jot to flip instantly between sources. There were times when I could flip this switch and swear I couldn’t tell a bit of difference. Despite being a separate dac. I still want to do more of this test with even more music.
Now, my subtle observations
These are characteristics that I heard across multiple songs and were relatively consistent.
Jotunheim 2 - A bit more “in your face”. Stronger bass. Congested or busy could be the right word.
Playmate 2 - Light and airy. More spacious. A touch more relaxed.
Qudelix 5k - Brighter, a bit thinner. More even or perhaps neutral. Not quite as smooth as the other two.
I am not even fully sold these things are “objective”. Sometimes they all seemed ephemeral. The only thing I can say, is I didn’t observe those parameters switching amps. And that is really the reason I wrote them here. For example, I never thought “that’s smoother” when connected to the qudelix. But I thought it on both the other two. I never thought “oh, more bass” except on the jot. I never thought “that sounds spacious” on anything but the playmate 2.
And these are subtle and I could never reproduce any of it with the jot input switch. Which means, it’s not the 9038, and only the burson class a amp, or, I am bat crap crazy. It’s anyone’s guess.
And, again, significant portions of music sounded nearly identical.
Perhaps the most important observation
I found myself choosing the playmate 2 pretty frequently. There is something subtle that I think draws me to that amp over the others. It’s certainly not conscious. It’s more like if I was sitting to do work, and simply plugging in a headphone to listen, it nearly always went into the playmate.
So, what’s the problem?
As stated, I like to point at objectivish evidence. I have basically abandoned the measurements camp (this is not new). Nothing that gives me musical joy aligns with objective measurements of any type. When I compared the ananda to the hp-2, I could hear differences. What surprised me there was how much better I liked the hp-2 given how subtle the differences were. On the drop ether cx vs hp-2, I genuinely love both headphones, but they are very different. Again, I can point at that difference objectively and have a logical reason for my preferences.
As far as I know, there isn’t an objective measurement for things like detail, dynamic range, staging, coherence… etc. And I have absolutely found those things to be at least as important if not more so than an FR or Noise graph. Or SINAD. Whatever.
On amps, it is the reverse. I can barely identify any differences here. Yet, I seem to have a preference for the playmate.
The problem is one of understanding:
- Why do I hear such little difference? Are others crazy? Are my ears tone deaf (my doc says no!)
- With such little difference, why do I seem so drawn to the playmate? Some psychological bias?
Before the playmate arrived, I was also preferring the jot. Is it just new toy syndrome? Do I just want to try the shiny new thing? That certainly wasn’t true with the ananda. I still prefer the hp-2.
Why am I sharing all this?
Because I think a lot of people go through this in audio. Some put on the brakes and get out of the rabbit hole. Others just keep digging. Some bury their head in measurements and don’t look up. Or features. Yeah, I have been guilty of all of them at the same time. Others find a comfortable max and simply stay there.
For me, the practical side of decision making is typically weighted more strongly in the final decision. I didn’t keep the ifi micro signature or the dx300, despite being the best sources I have heard, because they weren’t practical for my use case. This situation is odd for me, because I am specifically looking for a desktop stack (which I gave up a while back when I went IEM for practical reasons) to try and find a better level of sound. And that in itself goes against most of my previous declared values.
- It’s not particularly practical. (The qudelix is practical)
- Despite finding only subtle differences at best I have not just dropped the search and stuck with the qudelix. Still chasing the sound.
- Unless something magical happens, I don’t see how I get back to “value”.
And that’s ok. While my own behavior and observations are currently baffling me, the only thing we can do is trust our own experiences. And, that is why I am writing this. Because people often forget that this is about enjoying music. Even for those of us that weigh practical or monetary aspects more heavily. Maybe the playmate 2 doesn’t sound different. But if the shiny knob and incompetent interface makes me enjoy the music more, who am I to argue?
What about that schiit double chill?
I wanted to get these observations out before it arrives. If it changes my world, then I will probably keep it and the jot. If not, then I will either keep the playmate 2 or nothing for now. But, there is a lot riding on it. If it fails, mest mkii might replace all this stuff.
Have you ever seen someone write so much about nothing? Maybe Zeos?