Welcome to another official guide here at GND-Tech. This one is about audio products ranging from headphones to speakers, sound cards, amplifiers, and more. This is primarily a buying guide, sorting highly recommended audio products by category and price range. But of course, we will provide you with some basic information on different kinds of audio products and their function.
Avoid “Gaming” Audio Equipment
Although most of us here at GND-Tech are gamers, gaming headsets (headphone and microphone combinations from companies like Logitech, Razer, Steelseries, and Corsair) are really not the way to go. Especially $100+ ones, not only are they not worth the money, they’re complete ripoffs: inferior, dirt cheap products with gimmicks and a name slapped on and a ridiculous price. Much like the old gaming keyboards that used to exist, like the Logitech G15 and Logitech G19.
Gaming headsets are really cheap headphones with a microphone attached. You’re paying for the brand name more than anything. Headphone users should always look for “audiophile” grade headphones. Don’t let that scare you, you can get some for under $150. These higher end headphones are meant for higher fidelity playback and even professional use. However, audiophile grade headphones aren’t designed just for people who spend their life listening to music, they’re better for every single purpose including gaming.
On a related note, avoid “gaming” speakers from gaming companies too. They’re just cheaply built, inferior, and you’re paying for the brand name.
Let’s start with perhaps the more common choice for PC gamers, headphones. When shopping for headphones, you’ll come across Open Back and Closed Back headphones, and sometimes mixed “semi-open.” These are easily recognizable by their appearance too: closed back headphones have fully sealed ear cups on the outside, like most gaming headsets. Open back headphones have open ear cups with mesh or a grill covering it. See the images below.
Pictured below is the Audio Technica ATH-A2000X, which are closed versions of the above headphones.
Semi-open will have some openings and some sealed spots. Designs here may vary, for example:
But the ZMF Ori on the left is mostly closed (according to them about 85% closed). The ZMF Blackwood on the right is fully closed for reference.
Closed back provides one key benefit: isolation. Since the ear cups are sealed, sound barely leaks out and outside noise barely leaks into the headphones. They isolate the wearer from the environment, and they isolate the environment from the wearer. The downside to closed back headphones are related to aerodynamics; without air to move behind the driver (backblast so to speak), there is less mid-bass presence than if it was at least semi-open, treble reverberations inside the cup become audible (hard to describe but treble will sound more “airy” in an open back headphone, you don’t hear the reverbs), decay can become faster, sound stage and imaging can be better (the ability for the headphone to present sounds in three dimensional space, and imaging refers to precision). You cannot have a closed back electrostatic headphone FYI, the tech wouldn’t work.
So it boils down to personal preference and your personal needs when it comes to open back vs closed back headphones. If you live in a busy, somewhat noisy household, you’ll probably want closed back headphones to drown out the outside noise. If you want headphones for travel, you’ll also want closed back for the same reason. Open back is best for quiet, isolated environments.
Another thing to pay attention to when it comes to headphone and speaker shopping is the impedance value for both the headphones in question, as well as the output impedance value for any amplifier you might be looking at (or whatever the headphone is being connected to, so this applies to standard line level audio outputs too). This is given in ohms. The rule of thumb is, headphone/speaker impedance should be at least 8x the output impedance of the amplifier. Most over-ear headphones are 32-50 ohms, so you would want the amplifier’s output impedance to be no more than 8 – 6.25ohms. Amplifiers with opamps in the output stage (which includes all sound cards with amplifiers) typically have high output impedance, and more distorted objectively inferior sound, but more on this later. I prefer to go with amplifiers with under 1 ohms output impedance. This is a very simplified explanation but a good rule of thumb.
Most headphone out devices are not designed for high impedance (100ohms and above) headphones. So these headphones, such as those from Beyerdynamic and Sennheiser, usually require more expensive amplifiers. Another pro tip: vacuum tubes have naturally high output impedance, so all tube amps are usually best for high impedance headphones and sensitive 8 ohms speakers.
But, when it comes to driving headphones and speakers, efficiency also known as sensitivity is a major factor. This is often measured in dB/mW. The higher the efficiency, the easier it is for the headphone/speaker to get loud. This is why the 50 Ohm HiFiMan HE-6 and SUSVARA are so hard to drive. 50 Ohm isn’t high, but they have a very low efficiency of 83.5 dB/mW, so they need more power (milliwatts/watts) to achieve a certain listening level (decibels/dB).
If you listen to many different music genres, then you may or may not find one headphone that’s right for you. Different headphones have different sound signatures. You may find yourself in need of more than one.
Active vs Passive Speakers
When it comes to speakers, you’ll find both active and passive speakers. Passive speakers need an amplifier, while active speakers have one built-in. Multichannel home theater and gaming surround sound systems, which is the ideal solution, are always going to be passive speakers connected to an A/V receiver which serves as the amplifier and much more. Professional monitoring speakers are almost always active. High fidelity (Hi-Fi) stereo music systems can be either one; passive has more presence in this market due to the abundance of snake oil products which dominate the really high end market.
But obviously, the best quality sound for music is typically limited to two channels; that’s what almost all music is made for and that’s what all the best source equipment is intended for. All the best DACs and amps are two channels. Multichannel surround is for gaming and movies and TV, but music should only be played on two channels. It should go without saying that the best audio for gaming and movies/TV is a surround sound setup.
One of the first things people look at when buying headphones or speakers is the frequency response, which is the sound range of the headphones measured in Hz. This is the most basic measurement. Lower means deeper sound, with the lowest range being bass. The highest, shrieking range is referred to as treble. Speakers generally don’t produce very low frequency sounds, which is what subwoofers are for.
Looking at a frequency response graph will help you get an idea of how the headphone or speaker in question will sound. Let’s look at some examples. Frequency response will typically be a line graph, with the X axis being the sound frequency in Hz while the Y axis is the amplitude in decibels. You will often hear people mention “linear sound” and indeed this refers to frequency response, but it is not literal usage of the word ‘linear.’ You see, humans hear higher pitched frequencies much more than they hear lower pitched ones. So a truly linear frequency response would sound intolerably high pitched to a person, so no listening device (headphones/speakers) have such a frequency response.
So, “linear” frequency response is relative to human hearing, which varies per person. Hence the subjective aspect of audio. But, there is a de facto standard target frequency response, called the Harman response curve, which takes into consideration typical human hearing.
So technically, the most “linear” or “even” sound to a person will be something like that. Let’s look at some real world frequency graphs for different headphones now.
That graph shows three headphones: the Fostex T50RP MK2, Fostex T50RP MK3, and MrSpeakers Alpha Prime which is a heavily modified Fostex T50RP. Notice the big nose dive in the lower frequencies for the T50RP MK2 and MK3 (green/blue lines respectively, left side of the graph). What does this mean? It means no sub-bass. The response in the lower frequencies (sub-bass region, under 100 Hz) is so low that it won’t be audible. This is what affordable headphones and speakers are like, people. This is also what higher priced dynamic headphones/speakers are like (typical cone driver tech), since this tech is just inferior, but more on that later.
Notice the orange line, the MrSpeakers Alpha Prime. Not only does it have actual sub-bass, but overall it is a more linear frequency response. Straighter line. Linear is used in conjunction with the term ‘neutral’ in this sense, so a neutral headphone or speaker has a more linear frequency response, more closely adhering to the Harman response curve.
Let’s look at one more example below:
This is the Fostex TH900. Notice how the entire bass region (200 Hz and below) is above the mid-range region? Also look at how the treble response is nearly as strong as the mid-range response: remember, humans hear high frequencies (treble) far more than they hear everything else, so this means that treble will completely overpower the mids. The bass also completely overpowers the mids, so when listening to these headphones, the mids (vocals, most instruments and sounds in general) will sound as if they are behind and snuffed out by the bass (percussion) and treble. See how this all translates into what we hear? This is how Beats headphones are too. This is known as a V-shaped frequency response; not literally V-shaped, but to us it sounds like it, since the bass and treble (left and right spectrums) are far more prominent sounding to us than the mids (middle). Get it?
Onboard Audio Can Never Be High End
When shopping for high end audio products, you’ll want to replace your motherboard’s onboard audio solution. Why? Because it’s cheap and it sucks. Scientific reasoning? Even though the fancy motherboards that isolate the audio components on the PCB, they are still using digital to analog conversion that is imprecise and full of all kinds of errors and higher distortion than elite solutions, and very cheap and ineffective amplifiers with excessive sound distorting components in the signal path, for starters. Certain high end audio equipment, namely very high impedance headphones, may not work at all with onboard audio.
If replacing onboard audio, chances are you’ll be looking at sound cards which can be great for gaming. Another solution which is best for audiophiles is a combination of an external headphone amplifier and digital to analog converter (DAC). Or for active speakers, just an external DAC with line level outputs, or perhaps a DAC and a line preamplifier if the speakers and DAC have no volume control. And for passive speakers, a DAC and a power amplifier or an integrated amplifier, which is a line amplifier and power amplifier in one, sometimes with a DAC and other features too. After all, a sound card is a DAC with other features for virtual surround and the like, and sometimes with a headphone amp as well. If you’re getting a sound card, it should be for a gaming/home theater setup where music isn’t the priority.
If music is your top priority and you don’t care for surround effects (which has no business in a music setup really, due to the way most music is recorded and mastered), then:
– For headphones, get an external DAC and headphone amplifier. But not just any, we will help you decide later.
– For active speakers, get an external DAC.
– For passive speakers, get an external DAC and either an integrated amplifier or separate line preamplifier and power amplifier, unless the DAC you choose has good volume control and all the connectivity you require.
It is possible to use a sound card, an external DAC, and an external amp to get the best of both worlds. Pairing a sound card with an external amp is straightforward; just plug the amp into the sound card, usually using two RCA plugs. Using an external DAC with a sound card is more tricky though; since you have to bypass the sound card’s DAC while still retaining the sound card’s gaming features like virtual surround. You’ll need a sound card that supports either optical TOSLINK output or S/PDIF coaxial output, and a DAC that supports the same input. So connecting the DAC to the sound card via optical, and then an amp to the DAC, will give you the sound card’s virtual surround/gaming features, the quality of the external DAC, and the quality of the external amplifier. This is ideal for people who seriously game and listen to music on the same PC.
And regarding game audio, modern sound cards aren’t even useful, they’re just DACs with virtual surround, microphone DSP features, and quirks like that. In this day and age the only useful sound card is the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD which is long discontinued and can only be found used, and it is only useful for 1990s and 2000s PC games that use DirectSound3D since you can make use of those games’ hardware acceleration (this applies to some OpenAL games too). Sure, you can omit a sound card and use DSOAL (a wrapper that converts DirectSound3D to OpenAL Soft), but this still sounds worse on a multichannel system (but not for a stereo/headphone system). At least until someone improves the OpenAL implementation for surround systems. More details here.
Anyway, I think that’s enough talk. Let’s take a look at some of the highest recommended audio products, first by brand and then by price range. Note that a high end speaker setup will cost a lot more money than a high end headphone setup (if not, then the headphones are overpriced as hell, which is often the case), which is obvious given the size and amount of components needed for speakers.
Dynamic vs Planar Magnetic vs Electrostatic
There are three commonly discussed types of driver/transducer technology in the audiophile world: dynamic, planar magnetic (aka orthodynamic, ribbon, or the trademarked Magneplanar name from Magnepan), and electrostatic. Almost all speakers and headphones are dynamic. Below is a brief breakdown of each.
Dynamic (the most common) – Typical cone, dome, or horn driver tech. The cable is connected to a voice coil, which is installed inside a diaphragm (preferably towards the center). The voice coil is driven by a magnet which causes it to vibrate within the diaphragm. These vibrations create the sound waves that we hear. Because of how the voice coil is simply installed (glued) into the diaphragm, sound resonates outward from the driver. So we have relatively uneven distribution of vibrations across the diaphragm. This is the baseline driver technology for speakers and headphones, the cheapest to produce, and certainly the worst sounding for headphones which are notorious for massive sub-bass rolloff below 100 Hz, in other words weak to no response below 100 Hz so weak or no sub-bass.
But some of these dynamic driver shortcomings are made up for in the loudspeaker world with advanced diaphragm materials, voice coil designs, motor implementations, and simply having several of them. The reason this technology is worse for headphones is, this driver tech is inferior when only using a single driver in a full range application, which is what a headphone is. For loudspeakers, dynamic driver tech remains the most favorite even in the high end. It is undeniably the best for bass reproduction, and it must be the best for producing accurate mids and bass sound considering all studio monitors use dynamic drivers for them. Many studio monitors use this tech for the tweeters as well, but not all.
Planar Magnetic – Like dynamic, although the voice coil is attached to the diaphragm with super flat wires stripped across the diaphragm so to speak, in such a way that thinner, less resonant diaphragm materials can be used (e.g., the nanometer-thick diaphragms in the HiFiMan HE1000 and Audeze LCD-4 and newer models from these companies). In addition, magnets are installed on either side of the diaphragm (some headphones have just one magnet on one side, others have one on each side) which the voice coil’s magnetic field reacts to. The diaphragm is thus suspended between a magnetic field. This means vibrations across the diaphragm are more even and uniform, resulting in potentially less distortion and more transparent sound than dynamic drivers.
So to sum up the pros and cons of planar magnetic technology:
- (+) Potentially more transparent, less distorted sound than dynamic drivers.
- (+) Potentially deeper, harder hitting bass but only in headphones, since the magnetic force driving the diaphragm is far more powerful than electrostatic driver tech. The ultimate basshead tech for headphones.
- (–) Needs well designed damping materials to clean up frequency response. The planar magnetic assembly involves materials that alter the frequency response, such as the magnets themselves. HiFiMan tries to address this issue with special magnet designs that interfere with the frequency response less, which they call “stealth magnets.”
- (–) Costs more to produce than dynamic (and electrostatic?) drivers.
- (–) Less potential bass slam for loudspeaker woofers (not really the case for headphones).
- (–) Planar magnetic loudspeakers (i.e. Magnepan) are extremely room picky and difficult to drive, to the point where they’re not worth the hassle in my opinion. Very small “sweet spot” as well with regards to speaker placement.
This technology is popular for loudspeaker tweeters, such as the RAAL ribbon tweeters which are the most popular. Similar tweeters are found in some studio monitors, such as Adam Audio with their X-ART tweeters and others.
As for single sided vs double sided planars, this refers to having a magnet on just one side of the diaphragm, or one magnet on each side. Obviously single sided is lighter, and it increases efficiency making such headphones easier to drive. But the magnetic force is reduced, which leads to less potential impact, slower decay, and possibly other issues and limitations. Typically you will see affordable planars use single sided magnet setups, and flagship models use double sided. Double sided doesn’t mean automatically better; the single sided HiFiMan Sundara outclasses many planars 4x the cost.
Electrostatic – Electrostatic drivers consist of the thinnest diaphragms (an inherent benefit, which is why Audeze and HiFiMan are going for the thinnest diaphragms possible with their flagship planar magnetics) which are also electrically charged. This diaphragm is suspended between two metal plates (electrodes). The analog sound signal received from the cable is applied to these electrodes creating an electrical field. The diaphragm is drawn to one of the plates depending on the polarity of this electrical field.
No voice coils, no uneven vibrations across the diaphragm. Because of the lack of moving parts, the even distribution of vibrations from the diaphragm, and because vibrations are created and stopped much faster, electrostatic drivers can produce better sound in numerous ways detailed below. Unlike planar magnetic drivers, it accomplishes this with no materials that interfere with sound!
- (+) Much more transparent (clear) sound than all other types.
- (+) More even, linear frequency response, leading to potentially better detail retrieval and more realistic tonality.
- (+) Potentially much better, more linear, more realistic treble performance than any other type of driver. This can be challenged in loudspeaker designs, however.
- (+) Much faster, more realistic decay, which improves transparency and also detail retrieval.
- (+) Does not have the sub-bass rolloff of dynamic driver tech in headphones, meaning a full range electrostatic transducer can actually produce sub-bass.
- (–) Less driving force than planar magnetic (and of course dynamic woofers in the loudspeaker world), leading to less possible bass slam. As such, high end electrostatic loudspeakers are often paired with dynamic (sub)woofers for best results (see Martin Logan speakers). For headphones, this means no electrostat will thump as much as the thumpiest planar or dynamic headphone, but top of the line electrostats like the Stax SR-009 with a good enough system do thump more than most dynamic headphones and even most planars (or at least all of those from HiFiMan).
- (–) More costly to make than dynamic drivers, not sure about planars.
- (–) The electrodes distort the frequency response slightly, though the net distortion is still lowest in top of the line electrostatics.
- (–) Electrostatic headphones require special electrostatic amplifiers (or power amplifier + transformer box aka energizer, but this isn’t as good), although electrostatic loudspeakers do not require specialized amplifiers. Due to the niche market of electrostatic equipment, electrostatic headphone amplifiers cost more (also referred to as “Stax tax”). Electrostatic amplifiers are also generally more expensive to produce (due to the extremely high voltages they need to produce), which of course also contributes to them having higher prices. It is possible to use power amplifiers with an energizer (transformer box essentially) to power electrostatic headphones, but I’m not sure how this compares to Kevin Gilmore designed electrostatic amps such as the KGSSHV Carbon or HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE.
Electrostatic technology is much closer to what professional grade microphones use. They don’t use moving voice coils. Actually, said microphones are much closer to electret technology, which is essentially the little brother to electrostatic. Stax even made electret headphones in the past, but not anymore.
But of course, things aren’t so clear cut. Every electrostatic speaker or headphone won’t be better than every planar magnetic or dynamic. On the contrary, the absolute best speakers in the world are at least mostly dynamic, because they use separate drivers for treble (tweeter), mids (woofer), and bass (woofer again).
On that note, we should briefly mention different dynamic driver technology that exists. We mentioned different diaphragm materials before, and different driver materials and shape also exist. Shapes were mentioned already: cone, dome, and horn, but we won’t go into the pros/cons of each as it’s a complex subject.
Different speaker/driver manufacturers have different philosophies about the stiffness of driver material and what is ideal. Some prefer metal drivers, with Beryllium being one of the highest end examples of metal drivers, due to low distortion ratings as their stiffness makes them respond to sound very linearly. Though there are harder, more rigid drivers than metal of course, like carbon fiber and possibly ceramic. Others prefer softer, fabric materials due to resonance from metal drivers. Don’t get too hung up on material though. There’s no clear cut best or worst. It boils down to subjective preferences.
I’m only going to recommend over-ear (circumaural) headphones. On-ear headphones are just too uncomfortable and become painful after a short while, I can never recommend them.
- Audio Techncia ATH-M20X (closed)
- Audio Techncia ATH-M30X (closed)
- Audio Techncia ATH-M40X (closed)
- Audio Technica ATH-AD500X (open)
- Audio Technica ATH-A500X (closed)
- Beyerdynamic DTX 710 (mostly open)
- Beyerdynamic DTX 910 (open)
- Philips SHP-9500/SHP-9500S (open) – If you can find them, by far the best for this price. These days these usually go for more though.
- Samson SR850 (mostly closed)
- Samson SR950 (closed)
- Sennheiser HD 419 (closed)
- Sennheiser HD 429 (closed)
- Sennheiser HD 439 (closed)
- Sennheiser HD 449 (closed)
- Sennheiser HD 518 (open)
$100-140 -> You don’t really need anything more than $100-200 headphones for gaming, as diminishing returns for this purpose set in quickly.
- Audio Technica ATH-AD700X (open) -> This is the cheapest awesome gaming headphone due to its sound staging and relative clarity and resolution, very light bass though
- Audio Technica ATH-A700Z (closed) -> Open sounding closed back for the price, light bass but relatively good clarity and resolution
- Audio Technica ATH-A550Z (closed) -> Bassier than similarly priced closed back Audio Technicas
- Beyerdynamic DT 440 (open)
- Sennheiser HD 559 (open) -> Relatively neutral sound signature
- AKG Q701 (open) -> Probably the most resolving open headphone in this price range, relatively neutral sound signature
- AKG K612 PRO (open)
- Audio Technica ATH-M50X (closed, very popular for the average youngster, better version of Beats)
- Audio Technica ATH-M60X (closed, get it for monitoring purposes, not gaming)
- Audio Technica ATH-AD900X (open)
- Audio Technica ATH-A900Z (closed)
- Beyerdynamic DT 660 Premium (closed)
- Beyerdynamic DT 770 Pro (closed)
- Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro (open)
- Fostex T20RP MK3 (open) -> Best bass below $200 along with the T50RP MK3
- Fostex T40RP MK3 (closed) -> One of the best sub $200 closed headphones
- Fostex T50RP MK3 (semi open) -> One of the best sub $200 headphones, best bass below $200 along with the T20RP MK3
- Sennheiser HD 598 Cs (closed)
- Sennheiser HD 599 (open)
- AKG K550 (closed)
- AKG K551 (closed)
- AKG K7xx (open, very similar to the K712 Pro but made in China and with different pads)
- Audio Technica ATH-M70X (closed, get it for monitoring not gaming)
- Audio Technica ATH-A990Z (closed)
- Beyerdynamic DT 880 Pro (mostly open) – Neutral sound
- Beyerdynamic DT 880 Premium 32 Ohm (best DT 880 for portability, although it’s not a closed headphone so I see little reason to get it)
- Beyerdynamic DT 880 Premium 250 Ohm (same as the Pro but different grill, headband, and cable, so only get it if you prefer its cable and if the price is about the same as the Pro)
- Beyerdynamic DT 880 Premium 600 Ohm (mostly open)
- Beyerdynamic DT 990 Premium 32 Ohm (open, best DT 990 for portability, although it’s not a closed headphone so I see little reason to get it)
- Beyerdynamic DT 990 Premium 600 Ohm (open)
- Mod House Audio Argon MK3 – Modified Fostex T50RP MK3, get this if you’re a basshead
- HiFiMan HE-5XX (open) – This is a Drop exclusive headphone, a modified HiFiMan HE-500 (former $900 model) with a thinner diaphragm, lighter magnets, improved pads, improved damping including an equivalent to Audeze’s Fazor technology or something like the HiFiMan fuzzor mod. This technically outclasses every other headphone in this price point and below, and it has a sound signature that appeals to most, so while other open back headphones listed here are very good, I can’t recommend them because of this. Forward bass and mids, not overly energetic treble though with very slight upper mid/lower treble recession but some won’t even notice this. Deepest bass extension for the price, best stereo separation and imaging for the price perhaps, best transparency and decay for the price, some of the most detail for the price. Also surprisingly easy to drive for modern solid state amps.
- Philips Fidelio X2 (open)
- Sennheiser HD 6XX (open) – It’s a Sennheiser HD 650 but with slightly worse build quality. Same sound.
- HiFiMan Sundara (open or closed) – Technically the most accurate headphone below $1,000 I’d say, going as far as outclassing plenty of > $1,000 headphones so it is a bargain for the price. Relaxing, laid back sound due to lower treble energy (but not blatant recession, and certainly not a lack of extension), but doesn’t skimp on detail and the transparency can’t be beaten by any non-electrostat for under $1,000. Good for all genres. It even outperforms many > $1,000 models like the Final D8000 (humiliates this one) and much more. It’s hard to justify spending more than this on a headphone. As good as the HiFiMan HE-5XX is, if you can spend $350 on this, consider it.
- Stax SR-307 (open, by far the most transparent and detailed headphone for the price, unless you find an SR-407 for a similar price)
- Verum 1 (open, hand made)
- Argon T60RP (closed) – Modified T60RP, slightly less bass and more treble than the Argon Mk3 which would also mean slightly more treble than the ZMF Classic too.
- ZMF Classic – Modified Fostex T50RP MK3. Sounds very similar to the Argon Mk3 but with a tad less bass (but still a lot).
The Sennheiser HD 600/650 are not worth this price unless the HD 6XX isn’t available and all you listen to is chamber music. For the price they’re lacking in bass, upper mid range refinement, and treble extension.
$401-500 – Diminishing returns have already kicked in here. I can no longer recommend open back headphones for home listening beyond this price point due to the insane value of the aforementioned HiFiMan Sundara and Sennheiser HD 6XX. Those with big budgets should invest in loudspeakers instead.
- Stax SR-L300 (open, by far the most transparent headphone for this price along with the SR-407)
- Stax SR-407 (open, by far the most transparent headphone for the price along with the SR-L300)
- Stax SR-L500 (open) – Improved version of the SR-507 and its successor, the most transparent sub $1000 headphone
- ZMF Blackwood (closed) – I reviewed it here under the name Rhamnetin. The best closed back headphone in the world in my opinion, and my 2nd favorite sub $1,000 headphone. I like it more than most over $1,000 headphones too, more than any dynamic headphone (including the Sennheiser HD 800, HD 800 S, Focal Utopia) and some much more expensive planars like the HiFiMan Edition X, all Audezes including the LCD-4, JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266. Sounds more natural and realistic than all of those, except for classical music where it’s still good. One of the only headphones with no sonic weaknesses (considering it’s closed back) to my ears, I am mentioning the others as I go along so this is the first so far.
- ZMF Ori (mostly closed) – Similar to the ZMF Blackwood but partially open which gives it a tad more mid-bass presence, more airy realistic treble, makes certain details slightly easier to hear, faster/more realistic decay. My favorite sub $1,000 headphone, and I like it better than 99% of > $1,000 headphones since it sounds more natural and authentic. One of very few headphones with no sonic weaknesses to my ears.
$1000+ – At this point you should really be considering loudspeakers instead for home listening. Headphones are just going to lose to them.
- Stax SR-007 (open, electrostatic so needs an electrostatic amp, preferably a very good and powerful one such as the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE, KGSSHV Carbon, or KGSSHV minimum). Extremely comfortable. The best value open back Hi-Fi headphone, and it resides within the top 5 best open back headphones in existence. There are different variations of this headphone: most noticeably the SR-007Mk1 early version (brown leather, champagne metal), SR-007Mk1 late version (brown leather, champagne metal), SR-007Mk2 early version (all black), SR-007A early version (black leather, silver metal), and the current production SR-007Mk2 (all black) and SR-007A (black leather, silver metal, same as the Mk2). There is also an SR-007BL which is a Mk1 (late edition I believe) with the black leather and silver metal finish. I’ve listened to the Mk1 which is amazing: very natural, transparent, and musical at the same time. I consider it to be a step above every headphone listed above, particularly in transparency and realism (the superior decay of electrostats is a big reason for this).
- Stax SR-009 (open, electrostatic so needs an electrostatic amp, preferably a very good and powerful one such as the HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE or KGSSHV Carbon) – Far more transparent than everything except maybe the SR-009S which likely has worse tonal balance, best headphone I’ve ever heard in every category except sub 30 Hz performance.
- Stax SR-009S (open, electrostatic)
- Stax SR-X9000
- ZMF Closed Backs
But remember, don’t just buy one of the above headphones and happily skip your merry way home. Do research.
Also don’t be surprised if you get something like a Stax headphone and see it has no way of connecting to your computer. Electrostatic headphones need electrostatic amplifiers. Don’t be surprised if you get a $500 set of headphones, plug it into your onboard audio or phone, and be disappointed in sound quality. Expensive gear needs more expensive gear; high end headphones need a good amplifier and DAC to shine.
If you want headphones just for gaming, go with the Audio Technica ATH-AD700X (or A700Z if you need isolation and are willing to sacrifice sound stage/positional audio for it) or AKG K7xx. Combine it with the AntLion ModMic (unidirectional) or a desktop mic and this will outperform any gaming headset by a landslide.
Recommended Speaker Brands
Shopping for speakers is much more tricky, especially if you’re going with passive speakers and want to build your own surround system (passive speakers are certainly recommended). So I’ll just make a list of recommended brand names.
- Adam Audio – Professional studio monitors with ribbon tweeters
- Ascend Acoustics
- ATC – Extremely detailed, accurate studio monitors with hi-fi range too. Often said to be the most accurate and brutally honest speakers in the business, especially in the mids.
- Audiosolutions – Known to hit far above their price range, especially the Figaro lineup
- BIC America
- Bowers & Wilkins
- Cambridge Audio
- Deep Sea Sound (DSS) – Top of the line subwoofers
- Definitive Technology – They have particularly good home theater speakers (BP9000 series)
- Denon – They also have great A/V receivers, the first to use HDMI 2.1.
- EVE Audio – Professional studio monitors that can also be used at home
- Fluance – Good low budget options
- Kii Audio
- Klipsch – Some great high efficiency options
- MartinLogan – Electrostatic (full range or hybrid with dynamic woofer) which means they are very room picky, don’t bother if you have an imperfect listening room
- Micca – Good minimum budget options
- Phase Tech
- Polk Audio
- Power Sound Audio
- Rythmik – Elite subwoofers
- Salk Sound – Their more affordable speakers are worth it, higher end not worth it compared to similarly or even lower priced ATC models
- Sanders Sound Systems – Electrostatic which means they are very room picky, don’t bother if you have an imperfect listening room
- Seas – They don’t sell complete speakers, but they do sell kits. Their drivers are excellent.
- Seaton – Elite subwoofers
- Vanatoo – Good all in one budget active speakers
- Vaughn – Great high efficiency speakers, but note the plasma tweeter model might be a hazard to health
- Yamaha – Their receivers are exceptionally well… received, amazing prices on decent all-in-one 5.1 surround systems too. Their budget subwoofers outperform Dayton’s from my experience. They also have pro audio speakers and more.
Also look into these companies when it comes to subwoofers.
Some stand-out budget passive speakers include:
- Micca MB42X ($80, might want to try it without the grill)
- Polk Audio OWM3 ($100)
- Pioneer SP-BS22-LR ($130, don’t bother using the grills)
- Fluance SX6 ($130, supposedly the best in this price range)
- Cambridge Audio S30 ($200)
- Audioengine P4 ($250)
- Wharfedale Diamond series, if you’re in Europe. These usually aren’t worth the price outside of Europe.
- Ascend Acoustics CBM-170 SE ($350)
- Paradigm Atom Monitor ($200 each, $400 for a pair).
- KEF LS50 ($1,200)
These are all passive, so pair them with a decent speaker amp or receiver (you can get some for under $150), and an affordable subwoofer like the Dayton SUB series, Pioneer SW-8MK2, Polk Audio affordable subs, or Yamaha’s affordable ones, and you have a real winner, better than any complete active speaker setups from companies like Logitech and Corsair.
For budget active speakers, look into these:
- Behringer MS16 ($80)
- M-Audio Studiophile AV 32 ($80)
- M-Audio Studiophile AV 42 ($150)
- M-Audio BX5 D2 (should be superior to the AV 42 so get this instead if the price is right)
- Monoprice 5″ Powered Studio Monitors ($170)
- Swan D1010IV ($130)
- Swan D1080IV ($170)
- PreSonus Eris E4.5 ($200)
- Fostex PM0.4n or PM0.4d (around $220 for a pair, outstanding value)
- Audioengine A5+ ($400 for a pair)
- Vanatoo Transparent One ($500)
- Adam Audio F5 ($275 each, $550 for a pair)
These have their own amplifier built in, and the Transparent One also has a pretty good DAC built in.
We’re aware of the ever so popular Audioengine A5+, but it is hard to recommend for the price. The Audioengine P4 is the passive version of the A5+, and you can combine it with a good speaker amplifier for the same price as the A5+, which would provide superior sound quality. In addition, you can find comparisons of it to the Fostex PM0.4n and other speakers online, and despite costing nearly double, the A5+ is in the same league as the PM0.4n according to reviews/comparisons.
Recommended Speaker Amplifiers/Preamplifiers and Brands
This list is sorted by budget, from lowest to maximum. First and foremost though, an overview of amplifier classes which refers to the biasing of the output stage. Avoid class D amps, they are objectively highly inferior in sound quality due to greater distortion and significant phase shifting at high frequencies. Class A is the best sounding on paper as it can provide the lowest distortion figures, but the very best amplifiers ever made aren’t all class A. Amplifier class is not the end all, be all.
You have to be very selective about amplifier selection. Many amplifiers, especially from lesser known brands, are poorly built to the point where they can damage speakers and even explode.
Some important specs to keep in mind besides power are THD (Total Harmonic Distortion) which is rated differently depending on the manufacturer. Best to look at reviews that measure this. Other important numbers are SNR (signal to noise ratio, higher is better), damping factor (higher is better), slew rate (essentially how fast it can change voltages, higher is better and the less output devices means the higher the potential slew rate at the cost of power), output impedance (the lower the better, anything decent and solid state should be under 0.5 ohms), noise (lower is better), bandwidth (wider range is better), but specs aren’t always reliable and numbers aren’t everything.
It is also worth noting that standalone amplifiers are not a necessity as you can always go for active speakers, which is what the professional industry uses. The really good ones from brands like ATC, Neumann, Genelec, Adam Audio, and others cost a LOT though, and their lack of a floorstanding tower chassis might limit bass response somewhat.
Note that tube amps generally have far lower output power than solid state. Most tube amps are geared towards sensitive speakers, while power hungry speakers will be paired with solid state. The exceptions include EL84, KT88, KT90, KT120, KT150, tubes, which can deliver enough power for any speakers in the right amp.
Before going further, let’s go over some amplifier basics.
Vacuum Tube vs Solid State
This discussion usually arises in the context of amplifiers, which will either use vacuum tubes or, more commonly, transistors in the output (and input/voltage gain) stage.
Vacuum tubes look appealing and have a cult following, despite the fact that they command a higher price and technically perform worse than transistors (more distortion, more susceptible to picking up noise from power transformers, less power). But some people can like the sound of that distortion even though you’re no longer listening exactly to what the artist intends. And they do have some advantages in stability, resulting in tube amplifiers typically not relying on feedback loops for output correction which is ideal as feedback loops do bring audible downsides.
Vacuum tubes are naturally suited for high impedance speakers/headphones, but there are different types of tube amplifiers. OTL stands for output transformerless, which are only suitable for high impedance headphones like the Sennheiser HD 600/650/700 and certain Beyerdynamic models.
OTC stands for output transformer coupled which, as the name implies, means transformers control the output stage. These can work great for any headphone depending on the amp in question, but output impedance will still be too high for the likes of IEMs. Speaker tube amps tend to be output transformer coupled, as for amplifier design it’s just easier to work with and delivers better potential results.
Then there are tube hybrid amps, which combine tubes with some solid state components. Some of these use tubes for voltage gain and a solid state output stages, others only use tubes for the output. For non-electrostatic headphone amps, over 90% of tube hybrid amps likely do not run tubes within their recommended settings, so be weary of them. They will not sound optimal.
Tube amps generally have more “warm” or “lush” sound which means mid-centric, looser bass, slower decay, softer attack and transients, and reduced (rolled) treble extension. This is just in the nature of how vacuum tubes perform compared to transistors. Their added harmonic distortion can also result in some neat “holographic” imaging tricks (referring to the placement of sounds). Solid state amps can provide better measurements on paper, but our ears aren’t paper which is why some people prefer tubes in certain setups.
Different tubes have different sounds, and you can’t just mix and match. There are consistent sonic characteristics for every type of tube, particularly tubes used in the output stage. They also have different power levels. For example, 300B vacuum tubes are probably the most sought after in audio because they generally have obtainable prices and the mid range (500 Hz to 2 KHz give or take) sounds very full, but 300B also generally has slower decay and softer attack than other types of tubes. And the limited power output of 300B tubes, even with a push/pull driver configuration, limits their usefulness only to very efficient loudspeakers (e.g. over 90 dB/mW ideally). 300B is also only really good for mid range frequencies, it is poor at bass control and treble extension.
Whereas 211 and 845 tubes are substantially more powerful and expensive, but still not enough for low efficiency speakers. Some of the only vacuum tubes that deliver enough power for low efficiency speakers (well under 90 dB/mW) are KT88, KT90, and most of all KT120 and KT150 tubes, but these lack the refinement of 211 and 845 tubes which are some of the best sounding output devices subjectively (845 usually being ranked above 211 but not always).
Things vary greatly within the solid state amplification world too. You can have a push/pull design or single ended design here too, and there are different types of transistors which are the devices used in the input stage, voltage amplification stage, and the output stage. The most common types of transistors used in the output stage are MOSFETs (for which there are different kinds, such as vertical vs lateral) or Bipolar Junction Transistors (BJTs). There are of course other kinds of field effect transistors such as Junction FETs (JFETs) and Silicon Carbide FETs (SiC FETs), but JFETs are not seen in output stages and I only know of one amplifier design (with some variations) that uses SiC FETs. I won’t go into the technical differences about each type of transistor, but each has its reputation.
Most MOSFETs are considered to produce a warmer (as described above) sound in the output stage making them perhaps a little closer to vacuum tube sound potentially, but then there are EXICON lateral MOSFETs and IXYS N-Channel MOSFETs which have a reputation for speed and clarity. BJTs are known for clarity/transparency and not rolling off treble, but none of these characteristics are concrete. There are plenty of exceptions, an amp isn’t fully defined by the devices in its output stage.
There’s a lot to read about on these subjects, such as Pass Labs technical articles and many others like these. Since I prefer transparent, extended (opposed to rolled treble), fast and strong attack and transients, and fast decay, this usually gears me towards BJT solid state amps, but I’ve also had positive experiences listening to other kinds of gear.
But at the end of the day, you can spend around $5,000 on a solid state Pass Labs XA25, or even less on a good First Watt design, and those will deliver technically superior performance to any tube amp with similar power specs, including the $150-250k flagships that are out there (that’s right, $150,000 to $250,000). But you might not prefer the sound of the “technically superior” amps.
Here is another good article with some relevance to amplifiers, namely transformer designs: Power Transformers for Audio Equipment
Balanced vs Single Ended
Amplifiers (headphone and speaker) and DACs are either single ended or balanced. Balanced is more rare and more expensive; in balanced/differential amplifiers, the positive and negative signals for both the left and right channels each have their own separate amplifier with no shared ground, so that’s four amplifiers in total. Then there is at least a pseudo dual power supply in place to drive all this, one for left channel and one for right (or on even more rare occasions, four power supplies). All of this creates far more power output and also a cleaner signal that measures better. Goodbye noise floor.
If you’re spending thousands on an amplifier, likewise if you’re spending thousands on a DAC, then they should really be truly balanced, otherwise you’re paying extra for snake oil. There’s no way around it. The industry professional standard at these price points are balanced because they use what’s best and don’t care for snake oil. More power, less distortion and noise.
Most balanced amps need to be fed a balanced signal in order to operate in fully balanced mode, but some have circuitry that converts single ended signals into balanced, and there are various ways of doing this, some better than others. Using an opamp to create a balanced signal is the lowest fidelity way to do this, transformers yield better results and there are more advanced methods that go over my head, most particularly Nelson Pass’s super symmetry design which is a godsend.
On a related note is the subject of single ended vs push/pull amplifier topologies. This discussion is usually brought up specifically about tube amps but it doesn’t have to be. For tube amps there are Single Ended Triode (SET) amplifiers, which as the name implies are single ended (opposed to balanced) amplifiers that use a single triode (type of vacuum tube) for the voltage gain stage, whereas push/pull amplifiers use a pair of devices (tubes when it comes to tube amps) with antiphase inputs to generate an output with the wanted signals added and the distortion components subtracted. In other words, push/pull results in increased power and reduced distortion, a win/win for class AB amplifiers although it is technically costlier to implement (especially transformer cost). There is the factor of no two parts being identical, so component mismatching between two push/pull devices is something to consider. This means component matching must be top notch, which again adds cost. For more technical details, read this.
SET amps have the benefit of operating in class A while not all push/pull tube amps are class A, but a class AB push/pull amp may or may not have lower distortion than a SET amp due to design.
There are also single ended tetrode and pentode amplifiers, which are like SETs except they don’t use triode tubes. For low power applications, single ended is fine. For higher power applications, you’re going to want a really good push/pull amplifier.
Don’t forget: balanced equipment uses XLR cables, but not everything with XLR is truly balanced!
To our ears, the biggest difference balanced configuration makes is power output and noise reduction if you were having noise issues before. Some headphones and speakers will sound much better with more power, especially planar magnetic transducers. Also, balanced equipment uses XLR cables which are better than RCA cables; less degradation over distance.
Low distortion (THD rating or Total Harmonic Distortion) and power are not the only keys to high performance amplification, however. Most amplifiers employ a feedback loop to stabilize the circuit and reduce distortion. Likewise, most solid state amps use degeneration in the gain stage for similar reasons – to stabilize transistor characteristics. Not using these things demands more precise component matching to achieve similarly low distortion, which is time consuming and costly.
Feedback loops make so much sense from an engineering perspective. To those getting into electrical engineering, the use of feedback loops to correct the output seems like a no brainer. However, the other school of thought is this: if the circuit produces so much distortion and instability to begin with, to the point where feedback loops and degeneration are needed, then it is a flawed design to begin with. The simplest, shortest circuit path is ideal, and if sticking to this concept and optimizing the circuit then ideally high levels of distortion and instability won’t be produced in the first place, eliminating the need for feedback loops and degeneration and thus removing active components that might pollute the signal path.
I’m not sure if there are any solid state amps that claim to use no degeneration besides the Pass Labs XA25 and INT-25, though I believe darTZeel also eliminates degeneration since from what I can tell, their NHB-108 amplifier is like a 150W version of the above Pass Labs amps.
Another thing to consider is “less is more” when it comes to analog circuits. Using the minimum required components and shortest possible signal paths will result in better signal integrity. High power amps will use an insane amount of output transistors, e.g. the Gryphon Mephisto Stereo is a 175W RMS rated amp that uses 40 total bipolar junction transistor output devices (20 per channel). Whereas the darTZeel NHB-108 Model 2 uses just two bipolar junction transistor output devices per channel, for a total of 4. Literally 10x more output devices in the Gryphon! This is one major reason why I’d rather have the darTZeel between the two.
So ultimately, at least to my knowledge, the ideal high power amplifier is a push/pull fully balanced and differential class A parallel monoblock design using only discrete transistors for input and voltage gain and output, with no feedback loops and no degeneration, with minimum distortion, wide bandwidth and high damping factor, and as few output transistors as required to meet power requirements. One of the closest amps to this description is the darTZeel NHB-108, though this is class AB and isn’t a monoblock.
The Tandberg TPA-3006a, TPA-3026a, TPA-3036a, and possibly others in their lineup don’t advertise no degeneration and aren’t parallel monoblocks but meet the other criteria (4 output devices per channel).
But not all feedback is bad. You want feedback in amps that don’t cost a fortune. Furthermore, several long discontinued Kenwood amps such as the L-01A, L-06M, L-07M, L-08M, L-09M, and the KA-1000 are some of the best amplifiers ever designed (note that Accuphase may have had a hand in them), showcasing true brilliance and very short signal paths, they use negative feedback but in a way that should produce less negative side effects. They’re biased into class AB but should have very low distortion anyway, their damping factor is extremely high. Here is a good read about them. Accuphase applies some lessons learned from these designs in their own amps.
Also, do not be afraid to buy used! You can save a lot of money. Most manufacturers below also make preamplifiers (more on preamps below).
- Behringer KM750 – A $150 power amp with 200W RMS into 8 ohms in normal operation and class AB, amazing value.
- Amp Camp Amp – Like the Behringer KM750, unbeatable value at about double the price. Full class A monoblocks designed by Nelson Pass, one of the best amp/preamp designers of all time if not the best.
- Antique Sound Labs – Well respected, more affordable tube amps including some 845 amps that don’t cost an arm and a leg, and high power KTxxx amps that are relatively affordable. EDIT: They no longer exist, rest in peace.
- Line Magnetic – More affordable, well respected tube amps including 845 amps that don’t cost an arm and a leg!
- VTL – Very well made tube amps and preamps.
- Jadis – Top of the line tube amps, including push/pull and even balanced designs using the best audio tubes like 845 for low power and KT120 or KT150 for high power and far more. Some of the best build quality of any electronic devices.
- Thomas Mayer amps – Top tier tube amps.
- Audio Note – Audio Note is a legendary manufacturer making some of the best tube preamps and tube amps of all time. Audio Note UK mostly keeps the original Audio Note designs, with some new ones. Their higher end (level 4 and above, maybe even level 3) 300B amps are not worth it since even their best 300B is single ended, but for much less money you can get a superior push/pull 300B amp from Kondo or Thomas Mayer. ANK Audio Kits makes affordable Audio Note products, as well as their own designs inspired by Audio Note and using Audio Note components. If going with ANK, you always want the transformer upgrades, or else they’re known to be mediocre. KONDO is a Japanese Audio Note brand run by the Audio Note founder – due to a falling out the Japanese founder split and formed KONDO. They are the best of Audio Note with more updated designs than Audio Note UK and they’re not afraid of push/pull topology.
- Manley Labs – Boutique tube preamps and amps. The Neo-Classic 300B preamp doubles as a top tier headphone amp.
- Mcintosh – I do not recommend their solid state amps, they’re overpriced and I would say too colored (warm sounding). But their tube amps are supposedly fabulous.
- ATC – A bargain for high end amplification, not enough people talk about them. Their two power amps stem from their active speaker amps. Dual mono, low distortion, high power, largely uncolored amps that are also rack mountable.
- CODA – Refined, very high power designs, with more class A biasing than most class AB amps. Capable of immense current, some of their higher end models can do up to 100W RMS class A at 8 ohms, another can do 800W class AB at 8 ohms and twice that into 4 ohms. Their amps have a major safety concern though; don’t put anything heavy on the top panel or push it in, due to the placement of its components (being close to the top) this can cause it to explode.
- Sanders Sound Systems – Good prices on high power amps that I believe are based on CODA designs (CODA at least used to build their amps and their current ones look very similar to CODA). Don’t bother with the monoblocks though, you can do much better for those prices, but the stereo amps are a decent value.
- Used Tandberg – Only get a Tandberg amp (and check local listings first!) if you are or know an engineer that can perform necessary repairs, because these are all old. At the very least they’ll need the capacitors to be replaced, but many of them need a lot more servicing than that. Still, a restored Tandberg TPA-3006a, TPA-3026a (if you’re lucky enough to find one), TPA-3036a, and possibly others can cost less than $1,000 after repairs and compete with any amp in at any price, including the likes of Pass Labs. They are timeless designs, excellent examples of a zero feedback linear class A amplifiers, and can drive 99% of speakers. The only other high power amps I know of that are technically comparable on paper are Gryphon amps and maybe darTZeel. The TPA-3026a is the most desirable Tandberg power amp, essentially being a TPA-3006a with an even beefier power supply, but it’s extremely rare. These two use lateral MOSFET outputs and are rated for 150W RMS per channel. The TPA-3036a uses BJT output devices and is rated for 100W RMS per channel. These amps (the MOSFET ones at least) have less distortion and higher slew rate than the darTZeel NHB-108 for example, while delivering the same output power rating entirely in class A and also having no feedback loops just like darTZeel. That’s how good they are. The only downside to these amps is that they’re single ended and only have RCA inputs; this means if you have a truly balanced DAC, you’d only be using half of it when using these amps, in addition to using RCA cables which means you’ll want short cable runs and high quality cables.
- Accuphase – Japanese made solid state amps, preamps, and more. Lots of top of the line class A designs.
- First Watt – A subsidiary and mostly DIY brand belonging to Nelson Pass, all First Watt amps are designed by him. All pure class A, all top tier but mostly low power amps for high sensitivity speakers.
- Pass Labs – Pure class A operation for their flagship lineups but also a more “affordable” class AB lineup. Their flagships are pretty much the benchmark for which all other solid state power amps are compared, with true no cost limitation designs but then they also have arguably the best ever designed amplifier XA25 and INT-25 (the former is even under $5,000!). I don’t think they’ve ever gotten it wrong, the safest high end choice. Their amps are known to have an ever so slightly warm tilted sound signature.
- darTZeel – They might look like ketchup and mustard, but they are top tier, usually said to be above Pass Labs even. Low distortion dual mono push/pull solid state (BJT) designs with no negative feedback, minimal components (the dual mono stereo power amp only uses a single pair of output devices) and seemingly high class A bias, they also cost an arm and a leg. Known for neutral sound signature and being excellent in all regards.
- Gryphon – Danish top of the line reference audio. Mostly pure class A zero feedback designs, though they have some class AB stuff too but they’re all extremely expensive. Sound quality is legendary, at least on the same level as Pass Labs but might be unparalleled. Questionable reliability though. Their Diablo and Antlion amps, as well as most of their older models, are known to have a dark sound signature, but the Colosseum (which is discontinued) and Mephistos go for absolute neutrality. I’m not sure about the Essence series sound signature.
- Boulder – The most powerful amplification money can buy, with heavy class A biasing. Up to 1500W, they are also some of the best measuring amps in existence, and are known for tonal neutrality and top notch transparency and obviously power.
But again, don’t get too caught up in amplifiers because active high end speakers exist. Don’t ignore the class AB active speakers from professional brands.
For loudspeaker usage, preamplifiers can be problematic. Active preamps often have poorly implemented and unnecessary gain stages, or they flat out aren’t a good electrical match for your preamp. Passive preamps act as volume control, only get one if you have no other way to control volume. Passive preamps can create gain mismatch and some other issues.
For cheap passive preamps if you just require passive analog volume control, check out Nobsound. For higher end passive preamps, Goldpoint has decent but still imperfect options (due to system matching) with their balanced stereo and balanced dual mono passive preamps that use their wonderful stepped attenuators.
The best preamplifier is one that’s perfectly matched to your power amp or active speakers. This usually comes in the form of an integrated amplifier – thus no separate preamp at all. Otherwise, you’ll have to get a preamp and power amp (or active speakers) from the same brand, this way there’s no gain mismatching or other issues. This is the best solution, but also typically the most expensive.
The one universal preamp is a Nelson Pass design: the B1, and it’s cheap unless you splurge on the volume control. What makes it so universal? It has no gain stage, so it colors the system far less than any other active preamp. It is merely a buffer preamp. Here is an explanation.
The downside is it’s not officially sold as a complete product, but you can get a full kit from here (the only authorized seller for this), however this kit includes the noisy and undesirable Korg NuTube. That site does sell boards for the Mezmerize B1 which does not use any kind of tube, but you have to get all the parts yourself and there’s no build guide. It’s also set up for the poorly rated Alps RK27 volume potentiometer which will deteriorate sound quality, so if you get a better alternative you will end up having to modify the design. It’s also only single ended; balanced systems will need two and more DIY work. The B1 will have lower distortion figures than any autoformer preamp even.
But note the original B1 design was capacitor coupled, you do not want this one as it puts a capacitor in the signal path which will increase distortion and lesser performance, even with the finest capacitor in the world. The Mezmerize B1 is DC coupled.
As for digital volume control, it is lossy but the professional audio industry does use this, but with very high resolution DACs such as the Dangerous Convert series.
Recommended Headphone Amplifiers
Standalone headphone amps have gained traction lately, largely thanks to Massdrop, but be warned that >95% of what’s out there is crap. Overpriced crap with fundamental design flaws, using cheap components where component quality matters most (e.g. cheap Chinese transformers, cheap capacitors in the output stage, cheap resistors, etc.). PLEASE educate yourself before buying. Look through http://www.head-case.org/ forums, look up threads there on Cavalli, Eddie Current, Ray Samuels, and ALO Studio amps. AVOID THESE BRANDS! Poor quality and longevity for high prices!
You see, sites like Massdrop and Head-Fi typically hype up garbage inferior yet higher priced products. Flavor of the week stuff because people don’t know any better.
Recommended Headphone Amplifier Brands
As I said above, most headphone amps are crap and can damage equipment or even explode. This includes brands like Schiit which is popular. The few brands I know of that consistently put out good ones are listed below.
- AMB Laboratories – DIY designs though you can get prebuilt AMB headphone amps and power supplies from YBM Audio.
- Apex HiFi (these are all Pete Millett designs)
- Bottlehead (DIY only)
- ECP Audio
- HeadAmp (they make Kevin Gilmore designed amps) – Along with other Gilmore designs, these are among the best solid state headphone amps money can buy, not counting custom jobs
- Kevin Gilmore designs – Not a brand, an individual who has designed some of the very best amps in existence. His amps measure exceptionally well and really reveal weaknesses (or strengths) everywhere else in your audio chain.
- Pete Millett designs – Pete Millett has some legendary headphone amplifier designs that measure extremely well, from great, cost effective designs like the Starving Student Hybrid to flagships from Apex HiFi mentioned above.
- Mjolnir-Audio (they make Kevin Gilmore designed amps)
- Objective2 – This is not a brand but an actual amp that various companies sell (like JDS Labs) because it began as a DIY project. Legendary for being perhaps the cleanest measuring amp ever, and this is a low budget amp.
- JDS Labs Atom Amp – JDS Labs’ attempted successor to the Objective2. Measures similarly well, the best $100 amp you can get and better than amps twice the price.
Don’t limit yourself to buying only new condition, popular brands. They are generally worse. Schiit and Cavalli for example, everyone blindly buys them but look for used/DIY amps and you can do much better. Sites like mjolnir-audio and other known DIY builders, some of which have ebay stores. Amps like the KG Dynalo, KG Dynahi, AMB M3, AMB Beta22 demolish pretty much every popular headphone amp.
Some ebay sellers to keep an eye on:
If you have an engineering background, DIY your stuff. That way you can make just what you want and save money at the same time. Otherwise, do your research. Be mindful of output impedance and output power ratings (RMS), avoid amps with opamps and capacitors in the signal path, be weary of tube amps from brands outside of these especially tube hybrids.
DACs are another flavor of the week subject in the audiophile community, like headphone amplifiers. But here we will recommend things that are tried and true.
Before purchasing a DAC, it is good to know the basics of the different kinds of common DACs, namely delta sigma DACs vs resistor ladder (R2R, and if this then discrete R2R vs integrated circuit), oversampling vs non oversampling (NOS), digital filters vs no digital filters.
I generally suggest avoiding NOS R2R DACs, they just are not capable of a proper treble response (they’re always rolled off) and they are too slow/soft including bass response, and all of these attributes serve to limit transients, macrodynamics, and detail.
I also recommend avoiding R2R in general unless your budget is massive, which would mean you can afford DACs in which the R2R arrays are custom discrete matched modules opposed to the far cheaper, far less accurate integrated circuits (ICs) that are out there in DACs such as Schiit and Holo Audio. And in addition to that, for an R2R DAC to be any good technically, the R2R arrays (which have to be discrete, as matched as possible, and not ICs) must be FPGA controlled for proper error correction to compensate for the inevitable fact that no level of resistor matching today can even achieve sufficient accuracy for 16-bit, let alone 24-bit audio. This simple fact is why R2R will never be present in the pro-world, it’s simply not good enough. You can achieve technically better results from Delta Sigma conversion for far less.
Oversampling is objectively a must for the best quality audio. Most DACs are oversampling but use the DAC chips’ built in optimized oversampling, but quality oversampling methods require immense computing power (beyond what a Ryzen 9 can handle even). So the best DACs in the world use a designated FPGA or better yet ASIC for oversampling, but the latter costs a fortune.
But using something like a Ryzen 9 processor is still better than the default oversampling a DAC chip provides. For this reason, some people choose NOS DACs and use HQPlayer, a paid but reasonably priced oversampling music player, for oversampling. They build a dedicated music server with a strong CPU for this. This is a high budget option, personally I don’t trust any NOS DACs below the Rockna Wavedream which is in the five figure price range.
So ultimately this boils down to generally avoiding R2R unless you have a big enough budget for the likes of MSB or Rockna Wavedream Signature Balanced, as those have the tech needed to compensate for R2R’s objective shortcomings. But even those are hard to justify next to Wadax, which uses a delta sigma ASIC with feed-forward error correction and oversampling. Again this is why R2R has zero presence in the professional world which is all delta sigma instead – in order to subjectively match high end delta sigma performance (e.g. Dangerous Convert-2, Bricasti M1 and Bricasti MC1) you need a much more expensive R2R product that doesn’t even have many pro audio features. And notice I said subjectively match; R2R can’t objectively match delta sigma performance in most regards.
Now for some actual recommendations:
- JDS Labs Atom DAC ($100)
- MOTU M2 – $170 pro audio interface, includes headphone amplifier and much more. Great value, hits above its price range.
- Topping D50s DAC 2 ($250)
- SMSL SU-8s if you need a balanced DAC for $250 (same DAC chip as the D50s, but balanced and has a remote, also measures slightly worse than the Topping)
- Chord Mojo ($350-500 used)
- Chord Mojo 2 ($775 so shop used, the best sub $1,000 DAC)
- Chord Hugo 2 ($2,695 so shop used, only if you need high end portability otherwise get a Dangerous Convert-2)
- Dangerous Convert-2 ($3,000 so shop used, but note this is only balanced but it outclasses everything below and most costlier DACs even)
- Bricasti M1 and M1 SE for the $10,000 range and $5,000 – $6,000 range used which is a bargain, as this DAC is competitive at any price point. Note I don’t recommend the Bricasti M3 because it’s too similar to the Dangerous Convert-2 which costs much less.
- Wadax Atlantis Arcadia ($22,500) – most likely outclasses every other DAC besides those listed below
- MSB Technology for no cost limitation DACs. The Rockna Wavedream Signature Balanced should surpass the MSB Discrete though; those looking at MSB DACs usually go for the Premier and above, and I’m not so sure the Premier wouldn’t lose to the Wadax Atlantis Arcadia…
- Wadax for no cost limitation DACs as well. Not R2R based like MSB is which would make me more interested in them over anyone else if I had a limitless budget.
Also remember to buy used! You can save a ton of money as I indicate above. As you can see I have a difficult time justifying the Chord Hugo 2 (really only get it if you need the best portable device), and any DACs in the $4,000 range and above besides the (used) Bricasti M1 which is just too good of a value. Unless you’re a millionaire or greater and want to splurge on Wadax.
There are other good or great DACs that I didn’t list because I consider them to be very poor value, like Nagra DACs. Nagra’s HD DAC X could be an interesting cost-no-object DAC, if you’re rich.
On a related subject is the source. Most of us use a digital source these days, like a computer or phone. Phones are insufficient for top quality listening since most if not all are incapable of bit-perfect playback. Using the correct playback software and, if you’re going to use Linux, using a music/media related Linux distro matters a lot. There are tons of higher end streaming devices out there that serve as good sources as well.
But once you get into higher end DACs, like the Chord Mojo and above, source matters less. My Chord Hugo 2 and Bricasti M1 SE have a good enough clock and inputs to make fancy sources not matter at all, so don’t worry too much about source and buying expensive music servers, if you have a higher end DAC. Expensive music servers from audiophile brands are all snake oil.
We’ll now end this article with some general speaker system recommendations as component matching is vital. You don’t want an underpowered or even overpowered amplifier for your speakers.
Flagship headphone killer system – A 3-way loudspeaker system that will beat any similarly priced (or more) flagship headphone system with ease, and this system has a lot of room to grow with DAC upgrades.
High efficiency loudspeaker system:
- Klipsch Forte IV – $4,000 (can also step it up to the Cornwall IV for $6,000 if you have the space and budget)
- Fully upgraded Bottlehead Steromour II ($1,608), Accuphase E-280 (around $5,000), or Pass Labs XA25 ($5,150) if you can build a Mezmerize B1 or Pass Labs INT-25 ($7,600) if you have the budget.
- Whatever is the best DAC you can afford. If you’re looking at speakers and amps in this price range then your DAC is probably going to range anywhere from the Topping D50s to a used Bricasti M1.
End game system for a lower cost than you’d expect
- ATC SCM50ASL Pro or ATC SCM50ASL – Around $15k new, those are the same speakers except with different cabinet finishes and the latter comes with a stand so the former would need a custom stand (but then you could get a height adjustable one which is ideal). The Pro version is also much more widely available. If you have the space and budget then you can step it up to the ATC SCM100ASL Pro or ATC SCM100ASL which are closer to $18k (same thing but 12″ woofer instead of 9″).
- Used Bricasti M1 or M1 SE – Around $5,000 – $6,000
- Consider building or commissioning a balanced Mezmerize B1
These are just some examples of matched systems that will sound great within a set budget.