We’ve all been sucked in. It starts innocently. We have the WTH moment where we wonder what “idiot” would drop that much cash on a pair of cans…then buy an amp JUST for headphones. Share your story of where you started and where you are now. For those curious…feel free to share what you’re curious about.
Such a great question.
I started with a pair of Audio Technica M50s and added an Audioengine D1 DAC. When I was in college I started to buy headphones before paying rent / tuition. I do not recommend this to the young folks out there.
That led me down the slippery slope that ended in the only possible result - starting a headphone company.
So I wrote this blog…since my topic was approved I will share this VERY LONG intro…
Before we begin, a few disclaimers. I am not an engineer, just a listener of music. I do not collect nor do I play vinyl. Yes I am aware how nice it can sound. I am far from wealthy so the stuff I buy has to be in a budget range but not cheap. I have no problems buying used equipment, especially if it has a reputation of being solid. Opinions are always welcome but I’m learning that each ear is different and there is a ton to learn.
I’m not quite sure how it all began. I guess I have always been somewhat of a moth to the tech flame, albeit not a very technically savvy moth. I still confuse Hz on the spectrum of audible sound and couldn’t tell you how to truly measure S/N ratio’s nor explain in any detail the differences between PCM, DSD and DXD. What I do know is I’m a sucker for good sound and being stimulated by music. Recently I upgraded my home stereo. During my homework of balancing budget with bang for the buck I discovered this weird term called DSD. The receiver I purchased was capable of decoding DSD files and I had to know more. (A blog for another day. But my DSD library has taken up plenty of HD space and quite a chunk of my budget) In case you’re wondering I have a Denon 2400 with Dolby Atmos tm (again, a blog for another day) and a pair of Pioneer EFS 73 speakers. That’ll give you an idea of where I am in the budget spectrum.
As a professional voice talent I understand sampling rates, a bit about compression and the fact that the best possible signal means nothing if you don’t feed that info to a sound system capable of delivering the analog conversion in a worthy manner.
So in my research of DSD I was confounded by this weird subculture of headphone fanatics. First off, why wasn’t I familiar with DSD? I had a firm grasp on FLAC and honestly never thought it made much difference since I was the average consumer with average stereo and sub par headphones (I use Sony 7506 cans in my studio). I surfed around and saw some videos of headphone reviews. Honestly the concept of spending $3000 on headphones was maniacal to me let alone $1600. Then I learned that if you do have many of these cans they are high impedance so you needed to have amplification for these headphones. What the heck? My iphone sounded fine I thought with a pair of Beats. Enter the whole headphone amp discussion. Apparently headphone amps are best served if you invest in a DAC (for the uninitiated- Digital to Analog Converer-just a way to take the digital stuff and vonvert it to something your headphones can turn into sound) so I stumbled on the DAC discussion. I already have a DAC built into my Denon capable of DSD so who would need another DAC right? Pandora’s box no longer had its lid. Information was flooding out and I was dizzy. Why? Because of a particular review I read on how astounded a reviewer was listening to a DAC/AMP and a pair of headphones. He was raving how he heard details he never had heard before. Raving about soundstage, clear vocals and more. Then I saw a video of a kid reviewing the Sennheiser 800s headphones (which were sent to him for review) and his face exploded with a smile and he exclaimed “WOW!” Well, this was all I needed. I HAD TO HAVE THIS EXPERIENCE. But I was no reviewer and I certainly don’t have $1500 to spend on headphones if I am also going to delve into a decent headphone amp to drive them and possibly a DAC.
I began looking for reviews of all the needed equipment. I’m a big fan of buying used equipment. When I begin a journey into a new expensive hobby my belief is there is always a better deal to be had in the used market and usually people baby their equipment when it is higher end. I found Schiit audio and fell in love with their culture and branding. I was fortunate to have a store within driving distance to go check out their stuff. Lot’s of the things we all consider purchasing are reliant on reviews because very few retailers will have showrooms for this mid line equipment. It’s not that hard to find the stores that have the $5k and up systems but I’m not their demographic. I settled on the Schiit Valhalla. (settled is really not a proper term as I toiled and sweated out every detail of this purchase) I Love tubes and tube sound. I have a tube guitar amp I prefer over my solid state. I have a tube preamp for my studio mics. I had the amplifier in my sights but I was really torn with the matching Schiit DAC because they have a starter BiFrost for $350 and then I higher end multibit for $600. The reviews all pointed to how great their equipment is and how competitive it is with much more expensive stuff. I believe in getting what you want to begin with but remember I was new to all this. I needed the WHOLE setup. Also, the guys at Schiit are terrific and answer questions via email and do so quickly. They are really a stellar model for any business. However, they are not fans of DSD and I already have a growing library which I’ll be damned if I’ll ignore now that I spent a bankroll on the music. So I landed firmly on the iFi iDSD for DAC and the Schiit Valhalla for tube amp and a pair of Sennheiser HD 600s which was another tormenting choice in itself. I truly want the Oppo PM3 but finding a used pair for less than they retail for is impossible and the Sennheiser HD 600s are so common you can get a brand new pair at a reasonable price. So I started shopping on ebay and doing web searches for used stuff in these categories.
Here’s the breakdown:
HD 600’s $237 with tax and delivery. Blinq.com
Schiit Valhalla $175 delievered. (not the Valhalla 2) ebay
iFi iDSD $349 delivered. Amazon (yes, used)
Over the price of “new” I saved $550 which is good for a hobby I wasn’t even sure I’d stick with.
So the headphones came first. They were good but I wasn’t blown away. I was using them plugged straight into my iphone and the headphone jack of my Denon and into my Mackie 1220i mixer in the studio. Yet another thing to learn was impedance matters and that’s why you need an amplifier. I was hopeful the headphone amp would make a difference.
Here it comes. The used Valhalla-plugged in-tubes all lit-connected it to the pre out of the Denon while the DSD file is inserted into the usb. I waited 15 minutes just in case the tubes needed to warm up a bit. I certainly didn’t want to miss the WOW factor by not wating just 15 more minures. This was at 8:00 PM on a work night. I sat into my couch. Headphones snugly on the ears. Press play.
OH MY GOODNESS!
There it was. The separation, the tonality, the pure joy of MUSIC. I did not want to go to bed. I was playing music from Tidal, DSD and a CD. I finally forced myself to go to bed at 2AM even though I wanted more! Of course living in the moment isn’t always easy. I was thinking about how the iFi DAC was going to sound it hadn’t arrived yet. What would the PM 3 sound like? What if…just WHAT IF I did spring for a $1200 pair of Sennheiser HD 800s? I did slow my roll a bit. I took a deep breath and took in the moment of listening. Truly listening.
A few days later the iFi iDSD arrived. Got it plugged in and turned to one of my Native DSD sampler albums. I listened to the built in headphone amp. It was cool. Not awesome but good. It felt noisy and plenty of hiss in the background. I’m sure it has to do with some setting I was not paying attention to. None of that really mattered because I was really looking to use it as my DAC to see if it was better than feeding the Denon signal to the Schiit Valhalla. So…I plugged it all in. YIKES. It DID make a difference. I futzed around with some of the filters, discovering I greed with most reviewers that they were for the most part useless, however, holy cow. The clarity and punch that came from this combo! It seriously put a smile on my face and I felt like I was rocking back and forth at a Southern Baptist church service just humming “mmmmm mmm mmmmmm wow!”
I was/am hooked. I know I will now be in the endless pursuit of what’s next. I know this is just the gateway into an insatiable search.
I will say to anyone who is asking what is up with these nut jobs with all this headphone nonsense. Try it. Just try it. If it’s not for you then no harm, no foul. But my money is on the headphone lovers. You won’t likely be able to pop your air pods in or brag about your Beats once you get a taste of this stuff.
I would say that there is a substantial number of people that started with something in the AT MXX lineup, with the majority of those being the M50 and M50x.
Sennheiser HD-540 and HD-560 were the first headphones I liked.
I had listened to classical music for over 15 years, but I didn’t get a pair of headphones more expensive than 10 USD until last year. My roommate had an shp9500, and it really noised me. However, when I put that on my head, I got completely shocked. I knew the first time that headphones can produced such wonderful sound. So I grabbed one immediately (sadly, shp9500 had a 50USD off the next month).
I later went to a speaker affair and listened to HD800s, k1000, Xelento and hifiman Shangri-la. That’s why I bought some new headphones.
I wonder how many units of the Shangri La have been sold.
I got sucked in through a very indirect way. A friend of mine had an integrated tube amp he needed to sell because they were going to foster kids, and hot, bright, fragile exposed tubes are not kid friendly. So I bought it and put it into a bedroom system, where I do most of my listening.
One problem was that it did not have a headphone out and my housemate works nights so I have to keep volume low during the day.
As such, I start looking into a headphone amp that I could use. Once I started looking for a headphone amp, I decided I needed better headphones than what I had, and after digging a bit decided on the Schiit Valhalla 2/Senn HD600 combo and I have loved it. Now I am debating picking up another set of high impedance headphones for the Valhalla, and perhaps a portable dac/amp for my phone to use with etymotic hf5s (as my phone is kind of noisy).
My earliest ‘Head-Fi’ experience was with Koss Pro 4AAA (1979).
Next, came the Sennheiser craze: HD 580 >> HD 600 >> HD 650 >> HD 800.
Currently, I’m in love with the HD 800 (not the Plus), on its dedicated HDVD 800 with its balanced cable.
I don’t know, but there are no reviews on local shopping websites.
I started many, many years ago with a Sansui SS-20 headset and with a Koss Pro4AA … Then I switched to the Sennheiser world with the legendary HD424, which has been my headset for many years. The passion then started again in the late 90s and is no longer over …
This is how it started for me. In college (yes, electricity was available back then), I worked at the Tandy Towers RadioShack in Ft. Worth TX I spent the $49 and I was hooked; the Realistic Pro60s. Someone told me they were made by Koss?
Wayback Machine whirls and whirs:
I had been spending way too much on (not name dropping, just reference) Audio Research and Magnepan (which is where I gave up) to build something magical. That last system was great except the ARC gear spent more time back at the factory than in my listening room. As well, the Magnepan had a panel buzz when the music energy was too much. (Looking at you, Tchaikovsky) My neighbor became happier when I discovered I could get (nearly) the same sound for much less if I moved the speakers to my ears.
After I scored Headroom’s Home Max (original) with Sennie HD 580 and Etymotic ER4s, I settled for good sound/good enough imaging for 20 years. This year the capacitors started going so I’ve bumped up to newer gear.
Things sound better on the newer headphone setup but I continue to miss the magic of a jazz trio 6 feet in front of me that ‘crazy expensive’ racks of gear offered.
So it started when I moved to NY while continue to do a lot business trips to Latin America, thus long haul flights of 10+ hours every week, that constant buzz of jet turbines began to bother me so I searched for a pair noise cancelling headphones… I got my beloved Bose QC15 that recently died after almost 10 years of use … from there I really re-started enjoying music via headphones reacquainting an habit from teenager years with my bright yellow Sony walkman Nowaday I have different pairs for different purposes …
Come to LA and we will go to the baked potato. It’s a famous jazz club. Maybe that’ll recreate the sound for you
It would be much cheaper than what I was trying to create with racks of gear! (Even with airfare)
Unfortunately, My CA time will be spent in SF (San Jose) this year but keep healthy and we can try for 2019!
I worked for Radio Shack in the 80’s. They had a pair of headphones for $30 that I loved. When they finally died I couldn’t find them again but you reminded me of how I liked them so much.
So my first pair of circumaural headphones were a pair of Beats Studio Wireless. I always read online about Beats having the most bloated bass ever and how bluetooth was no good. Despite that, I thought, “Hey, this isn’t bad!” I have had many upgrades since then and now own HD 6XX and LCD-2C, which I listen to out of a Schiit Gungnir amped my a Schiit Magni 3 / iFi micro iDSD Black Label. Also, I believe in cables
Grado sr80s was my entryway (entry drug) to headphone audio. 8 amps and 12 headphones later, I am still seatching…
Would love recommends on cables for the Sennheisers.