Mark's Opinions on Headphones and Gear

Mark Verber -  November 2015

This used to be part of my opinions on stereo equipment.

Sections: Headphones / Headphone Amps / DACs and other sources / About Mark / Related Links

Gathering Information

The best source of information is your EARS. Form your own opinions, don't just accept what other people say. Believe what your ears tell you when listen to music!  Remember that many people who write about audio or who are caught up in head-fi mania are biased in one way or another.  Beyond that, There is often a lot of  hype to justify very expensive equipment and the perpetual upgrade switch around game. You might want to use some of the information from the community to help you narrow down what you would like to take a first listen, but you need to listen for yourself.

Purchase what sounds good to you. There is no reason to spend $15,000 on a high end system if you don't notice significant difference between it and a $2000 system, or for some people, a $200 system.

I would suggest doing blind A-B testing whenever possible. Blind A-B is were you do back-to-back comparisons of two (or more) pieces of equipment, but have no knowledge which is which. When doing blind testing it is important to vary only one thing.  For example, when you switch amplifiers, you need to make sure the output levels are equivalent.  This is possible if someone is willing to switch equipment around, not telling you what they are doing, while keeping a record of the sequence used. This said, 30 minutes of blind AB testing in a showroom is not a sufficient.  You really need numerous hours in your listening space to fully evaluate a piece of equipment. Also remember that you get used to a particular sound signature so you need to have enough tie to get use to something sounding different.

I have found that knowing what equipment I was listening always tainted my evaluation of the equipment. In particular, I tended to favor well regarded equipment (e.g. more expensive) even when I couldn't tell a difference in blind testing. There is a nice write up about blind vs sighted testing and the bias when people know what they are listening to.

Make sure whatever you are comparing have been volume matched. Higher volume is almost always favored. There are very fancy way to attempt to volume match to components, but a good starter method is to play pink sound through the system. Place the mic which is part of the ear buds that likely came with your smartphone inside the headphones and use a sound level neter applicationwhich you could download to measure the volume of the pink noise Adjust until volumes match.

When evaluating new equipment you should listen to music you know well. Ideally music that you have heard live. I have found that female vocalist, percussion, piano, violin, and cello solos are particularly helpful in evaluating equipment for good timbre. Choirs with a large orchestral backing can help you determine how the system renders very complex sounds. There are a number of audiophile recording companies like Chetsky have samplers which can be quite useful and companies like hdtracks which specialize in high fidelity records. I would suggest though, that the music you test with is primarily the music you listen to. I would also suggest have at least a couple of tracks which aren't well recorded because you will likely have some music that you love but is poorly recorded. You will want a system that doesn't render this music painful to listen to.

I encourage people to consider that what sounds good at first might not be a sound you want to live with. A powerful bass may seem rockin for a few minutes but but very well may sound boomy if you have to listen to it for hours. Better quality audio equipment is neutral, allowing each piece of music to sound as it was recorded without adding or subtracting anything.

While you need to form your own opinions, it can be helpful to learn from others, both to prioritize what equipment to listen to, and to discover equipment which you might not have known about.  A technique that I have found to be useful is to read reviews about equipment I have listened to myself.  My goal is to find reviewers whose opinions are well correlated against mine.  When I find a reviewer that seems to have similar opinions, I prioritize the list of equipment I want to listen to based on their opinions.  The reviewers have listened to a lot more equipment than me, so why not use their experience to prioritize my list.  For example, if I have listened to a particular headphone I thought was really good, I will look for reviewers who agree with me.  Then I will see what other components they liked.  The components they liked (which are in my price range :-) would go to the top of my "try it" list.

BTW: Something that might be useful as you read reviews is know that is the audio community there are a variety of descriptive words that have specific meanigs to that community. There is a brief sound description glossary which was assembled at head-fi.

I have found reviews written by serious audiophiles to be helpful because they have a good feel for what is possible.  They don't rank the high end of mass market components 5 out of 5.  The down side is that they tend to nit-pick some of the best sounding gear in the world because some of them need to find some way to justify spending an order of magnitude more money on some  exotic piece of gear. A good starting point would be Inner Fidelity's Wall of Fame and head-fi's buyer's guide.

It's a bit dangerous to spend too much time in the enthusiate community because you can end up in the never ending chase / upgrade game. There is always the new and improved components, many of which aren't a improvement over some of the old classics. Below I list a number of headphone centric web communities and review sites you might find useful. The danger in any public forum is that anyone can express an opinion, even if they are complete idiots.

I have found there are numerous information sources which are completely useless.  I am consistently disappointed in reviews found in Consumer Guide and Consumer Review.  and generic technology/gadget sites like Wired, Gizmodo, Engadget which seem to get over excited by products which really aren't that exceptional compared to over priced / over-hyped mass market consumer electronics.

Headphones

Over the years I have had a variety of headphones, mostly Stax. I don't play the constant upgrade game, but time to time I will spend some focused time evaluating curent products and consider changing my system around. I spent an extended time between 2012-2015 working out my headphone system. Ultimately I found three headphone I wanted to keep. The Sennheiser HD800, Stax SR-007mk1 and my favorite, the Stax SR-009. I concluded that I just couldn't justify the cost of the Stax when compared against the Sennheiser HD800, especially when I factored in that I could use the HD800 away from it's desktop amplifier and I was starting to shift back to using speakers. I have a pair of Apple EarPods everyday use, Westone ES5 for travel when I want excellent noise reduction and multi-hour comfort, and a pair of Plantronics BackBeat Fit Bluetooth Headphone when I need headphones that stay on my head when being very active (like running) that are connected via BlueTooth to eliminate wires, and are open enough so give me situational awareness (allows me to hear what's going on).

Basic Options: Less than US$100

The best headphone deal after more than twenty years is still the Grado SR60i at $79. They are easy to drive and compete with headphones that are nearly twice their cost. The only down side is that some people (I am one) find the SR60s somewhat uncomfortable, especially if used for an extended listening session. I would also recommend trying the Sennheiser HD 558 ($180 retail, $100 on sale), The Audio-Technica ATH-M50 (lists for $180, street for around $100), If you prefer in-the-ear monitor (IEM) I would suggest the HIFIMAN RE-400 or a pair of Etymotic. I haven't listened to a lots of low cost IEMs. For a fairly comprehensive set of reviews check out Earphone Buyer's Guide or the original head-fi post 315 IEM compared.

Mid-Range Options:

There are a wide variety of moderate to mid priced headphones and IEM that are quite good. My favorite by a significant margin was the HIFIMAN HE-400. If you need a closed headphone, then the MrSpeakers MadDog would be a good runner-up. There are lots of other mid-range headphones. I can't say I have listened to a fully representive sample of them, but people who have, often recommend the HE-400. The other mid-range headphones I often hear recommended my people who I respect are the Sennheise HD-600/650. Personally I like the HE-400 better. A general observation is that headphones made by companies with a reputation for audio quality rather than big marketting budgets sounded better, so stay away from Dr Beats and Bose, and focus on companies like Shure, Grado, Sennheiser, AKG, and HiFiMan. You might want to look for the latest Head-Fi Buyer's Guide and look at the best values on battle of flagship headphones by David Mahler. There are a wide variety of IEM in the mid-range.

High End:

The Sennheiser HE1060/HEV106 which is an intergrated DAC, headphone might be the very best headphones in the world... and one would hope so at $55K!! I haven't personally heard this system nor do I expect to... it too expensive for me to consider.

The best headphones I have personally listened to were Stax SR-009 ear speakers. They were best driven by a Blue Hawaii (BH) amplifier. I thought using a Kevin Gilmore Solid State High Voltage (KGSSHV) amplifier was almost as good, and the Stax SRM-727 was just a bit less than the KGSSHV. Given headphones and amplifier is at least $7k can can easily climb to $10k with the BHSE I would hope this sounded very good. Stax are distributed by Yamas through the staxusa website, and through a unfortunately limited number of local dealers. There are several companies that have a good reputation selling Stax headphones onlines including elusivedisc, ttvj audio, woo audio, and headamp.com. It used to be that grey market exporters like joynetmall, audiocubes, EITL, and pricejapan were very popular in the USA because you could purchase headphones at 60% of what they were through the offical distributor. These days they are only 10-20% cheaper initial at the cost of a shorter warrenty that has been be performed through Japan and sometimes issues with units designed to run on Japanese power.

There are a number of top end headphones that I think come close to the SR-009. Some people might prefer them to the SR-009 depending on the type of music they listen to or general audio preferences.

For someone elses take of the very best, check out the Big Sound 2015 hosted by Innerfidelity, David Mahler's Battle of the Flagship Headphones, Inner Fidelity Comparing World Class Headphones and their interaction with Sanji Watsuki on the State of Flagship Headphones. You might want to read the article the art and science of measuring headphones and learn to read waterfall plots.

There are several other excellent headphones which are well regarded. In my opinion, not of them are truly competitive to the headphones listed above, though some people might like them more due to their unique tonal coloration. Headphone I would put in this list include There are a number of CIEM which could be considered including Heir Audio 8.A, Ultimate Ears Custom Reference, or one of the other CIEM covered in Inner Fidelity's CIEM Hall of Fame. Just below the above headphone are Mr Speaker's AlphaDog, Grado xx-1000, AKG K1000, AKG 702, and and Beyerdynamic T1. There are some headphones that used to be considered top notch but have since be overshadowed by a new top of the line headphone by the same manufacturer. The Grado RS1 are a bit too lean and bright for me, and didn't seem to have enough textual in the lower frequencies.  The Sennheiser HD580/600/650 seemed almost overly rich and slightly muddled middle range. Some people refer to this as the Sennheiser veil.

Other Headphones

There are a number of companies like Bose which are making more traditional headphones which make use of active noise cancellation to eliminate environmental noise.  While I am not fond of the audio quality of Boss headphones, I will quickly note that they do see to be the best at voice reduction. I don't using active noise cancelling headphones. I have found noise blocking in-the-ear monitors to be the more transportable, have better acoustics, and better sounds isolation.

Below I have written up a bit about dedicated headphone amplifiers and dedicated DACs which will are often used with higher end headphones. If you want good reviews about headphones, headphone amplifiers, etc check out headphone communities.

Headphone Amplifiers

In the 1980s, dedicated headphone amplifiers basically didn't exist, but many of the recievers and integrated amplifiers of the day had fairly good quality headphone jacks. In the early 1990s the only "headphone" amp that I was particularly impressed by was the Melos SHA-1 (both as a pre-amp and a headphone amp). Other than the Melos, I didn't listen to any headphone amps that sounded significantly better than the standard headphone out of mid-fi audio gear, though some of the headphone amplifiers did improve sound quality from say the headphone out of battery powered cd players / walkman.

Today there seems to be an ever growing list of companies that produce dedicated headphone amps. My preference is for amplifiers which are nuetral when it comes to tone, low distortion and very responsive which typically means class A amplification with very little use of feedback circuits. I also tend toward solid state amplifiers because I don't like the hassles of tubes and the temptation to constantly tinker by tube rolling. My favorite is the expensive (and typically long wait after ordering) Headamp GS-X mk2. The amplifier uses and updated version of the DynaLo curcuit designed by Kevin Gilmore which I think is excellent. People are free to build a Gilmore amplifier, hire a professional builder, or purchase amplfiers based on his designs. Headamp is the premium source of amplfiers related to Gilmore's designs. Some people are shocked at the prices of Justin's amplfiers, but from what I can tell these prices really reflect the cost of manufacter (primarily driven by the cost of high quality components). There isn't a huge profit being made like with some high end audio gear. You could also watch head-fi.org for a used Gilmore Lite or GS-1 (GS-1 review) to come up for sale. They seem to be listed every few weeks, with the Lite selling for between $220-280 and the GS-1 for $400-700. There are also a fair number of people who like the DIY (or professionally built) headphone amplifiers from amb.org which includes the M^3 which is a competitor to the GS Lite (dynalo), and the beta22 which is a competitor to the higher end/power Gilmore amplfiers. Generally people seem to think the Gilmore designs are a bit more transparent and fast, while the AMB designs are a bit more forgiving and "fun".

Commercially produced solid state amplifiers I would recommend checking out which generally increase in cost and sound quality: JDS Labs Objective2 amplifier, Schiit Magni, Matrix M-Stage, Schiit Asgard 2, Headamp GS-1, a variety of amplifiers made by Audio-GF, Bryston BHA-1, Auralic Taurus MkII, Headamp GS-X mk2. I have heard good things from people I trust about amplifiers from ECP Audio and but have no personal experience with them. The new Schiit Ragnarok is quite good. I liked my GS-X mk2 more, but it was close. If the Ragnarok was able to drive my Martin Logan Aerius speakers I would have made the switch to simplify my electronic rack, but I found it wasn't up to that job. I have read mixed reviews of the Questyle CMA800R, some people think it's a very good value, and others like the Schiit Magni better. The Cavalli Audio Liquid Carbon has been getting good reviews but I have no personal experience with it.

There are many people who like to use tube based amplifiers, especially with brighter or more forward headphones to tame the sound. Fairly inexpensive tube amplifiers which are a good value are made by Bottlehead, Little Dot, and Schiit.

The top end tube amplifiers I would recommend are made by Eddie Current. I really enjoyed both the Super 7 and Balancing Act driving HD800. The amplifier I would love to hear is the discontinued ECP L-2 which has gone rave reviews from people who tend not to rave. Other manufacturers that have gotten good reviews, though I haven't listened to them enough to have a strong opinion include Donald North Audio, and Apex. Cavalli, and Woo Audio.

It's worth noting that many of the DACs listed below have built in headphone amplifiers. Some are actually quite good, and the rest would be an improvement over the headphone jack on the average computer, ipod, or other portable audio device.

There are a number of good quality battery powered headphone amplifiers which let you use full size headphones with portable players. My favorite for sound quality is the Headamp Pico Power. Meier and Ray Samuels Audio make several good portable amplifiers. FiiO and iBasso seems to make some of the best lower priced amplifiers. There are a number of portable DAC/amplifiers combos which might also be worth looking at which I will discuss below.


Dedicated DACs

All devices which play digital music contain a DAC. In many products, like the headphone jack on most laptops, the DAC is very low quality, or just ok in the case of inexpensive disk players. In these cases, using an external DAC can significantly improve the sound quality of your digital music. The most common ways digital values are passed from storage to the DAC are:

Nearly all DACs provide line-level analog outputs designed to be fed to audio amplifiers. Many also have built in amplifiers designed to let the DAC directly drive headphones.

Portable DACs

Nearly all the Portable DACs on the market accept USB input. Some also support Coax or TOSlink. Most of the portable DACs have built in headphone amplifiers. Some DACs are powered from the USB bus which keeps things simple if you are using a laptop of desktop (no batteries to charge, just a single cable between the computer and the DAC) but limits it's use with phones and tablets that don't have enough power to run the DACs unless you insert a powered USB hub. I wrote up a bit about comparing the Chord Hugo vs The HiFi-M8 vs my Desktop Lavy DA-11 + GS-X mk2 and Chord Hugo vs Geek Out V2. There is a nice table showing portable DAC with the HD800. Portable DACs I would recommend in order of sound quality:

Over the last several years I demo-ed, borrowed, or owned a rather large number of portable DAC/amps. Below are a few DACs which I thought were particularly noteworthy. In general, I believe the above units will provide better price performance than these, but others might prefer them to what I listed above:

Desktop DAC

There is an amazing price range for desktop DACs. They can range in price from less than $100, to $42k?! Like most high end audio, there is a law of diminishing returns. It's often possible to find less expensive DACs which sound better that moe expensive DACs. I would recommend the following DACs which I have generally arrange in increasing sound quality (and typically increasing price)

At the modest end, less expensive DACs made by Centrance, HRT and nuforce are a good value whose performance in somewhere between the oDac and the Bitfrost. The Musical Fidelity V90 has gotten mixed reviews, with some people claiming it's amazing, good as any $2K DAC, while others say it just ok. I have read several reviews of Questyle Q192 which suggest it might be worth a look.

Based on reviews other DACs which are worth considering, which I expect would be in the same league (maybe better, maybe worse) than the Lavy DA11 in sound quality would include Benchmark DAC2 HGC, Anedio D2, M2Tech Young DAC, yulong a18, matrix-x. In past years the original Benchmark DAC1 often got good reviews. I don't understand, I never liked the DAC1.

There are a number of DACs that others might be interested in that should be in the same league (or maybe better) as the PWD2 / M51 / GD M7. They aren't on my list because of my perceived ROI. This includes the Ayre QB9, Lampizator, Resonessence Labs Invicta, Berkeley Audio Designs Alpha Series 2, Lynx Hilo, and DACs from MSB Tech

Some reviews you might find interesting include 21 DACs compared and 20013 mid-level DAC comparison.

One other thing to mention is a sound processor system called the Realiser A8 which gives the experience of listened to speakers or 8-channel surround sound using headphones. They are very cool, but also price ($3k+), but for someone who doesn't want the music in the middle of the head sense and can't use speakers for some reason, these are worth giving a listen to.

Me and My System

I am not a sound engineer or music producer. I do consider myself am an audiophile because I really care about the sound qualty of the music I listen to, but unlike some audiophiles, the audio equipment is only a means to an end and not part of my audio hobby. As a result, I tend to hunt for audio equipped that delivers the sound quality I desire, and then don't think about audio equipment for years. Typically there will be some external event which triggers a re-evaluation my equipment.

I started on my headphone journey in the late 1970s. I wanted a good sounding stereo, but I didn't have a lot of money. I realized that a using headphones rather than speakers would be significantly less expensive to reach similar sound quality. I longed for a pair of Stax earspekers, but they were out of my price range, so I went with a pair of the first generation ATG 240 driven by an NAD 3020 amplifier. Later I was able to afford Stax headphones and good speakers. I used speakers more than headphones until 2010 when life changes had me primarily using headphones. In 2015 I got married which has lead me to back to primarily using speaker so we can share the listening experience.

I have typically maintain two headphone systems. The first is locataed in my living room and typically shared components with my speaker based system. The second was something portable that was appropriate to use while at work or in the bedroom The second system didn't have to be something that fit into my pocket for walking around town.

My systems are currently driven by Apple devices (iPhone, iPad, iPod, Macbook, AppleTV). My media is mostly Apple Loseless for losesless from TIDAL, but I sometimes stream lossy media via Spotify or Apple Music. Whenever possible I use TOSlink optical, but often use USB for convenience.

Until recently, my main headphone system was a Lavry Black DA 11 feeding a Headamp GS-X mk2 which I used as a headphone amplifier and as a pre-amp for my speaker system. This drove a pair of Sennheiser HD800. In 2015 I switched back to primarily using speakers. I decided that the SQ from the headphone jack on the Lavry DA-11 was sufficently good that I couldn't justify keeping my GS-X mk2 (head-fi heresy no doubt). I also use the HD800 with a Chord Mojo when I want to use headphone when I am not sitting next to the DA-11. When out of the house I typically use the audio strait out of my iPhone because I am typically more interested in convenience that sound quality. On extended trips I will use the Chord Mojo with some Westone ES5 IEM. See my head-fi profile lists some of my past headphone systems.

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