Budget, a starting point


published: Mar-9-2013, updated: Oct-17-2020

post separation
Budget considerations

In an audio system the transducer (being the electro-mechanical part) is the major determining factor in sound quality together with the quality of the actual recording we are listening to.

In every price range there are some pretty good headphones that give a good sound quality.  In the recommended headphones section there is a list of headphones that sound ‘realistic’ and thus are suited for Hi-Fi. Those looking for thumping bass or otherwise skewed sonic signatures should look elsewhere.

The physical source (media player, audio format) is of less importance if your goal is to spend as little as possible money and achieve highest sound quality. The recording quality (actually the recording AND mastering process) is MUCH more significant than the recording medium / format.

The amplifier (if used) needs to be capable of driving the headphone and needs to meet the demands of the headphone/speaker.

I wouldn’t advise people to invest in expensive cables/interlinks, simply look for a decent build quality, doesn’t need to cost much!

Budget is usually the constraint. To achieve maximum sound quality with minimal costs Do It Yourself is your biggest friend. Some, however, do not have (or think they have) the ability to modify or build things and will either have to find someone that can do that part for them or resort to ‘over the counter’ equipment making the hobby more expensive. How much anyone wants/is going to spend determines in what price range to look for equipment.

It should be noted that ‘more expensive’ does NOT necessarily mean ‘better sounding’ and this is true for all components (player, DAC, amplifier, headphone, music). For the upper range in the segment (multi thousand €/$ equipment) the differences get smaller as the price iincreases.
The lowest possible price segment can be (quite) disappointing sometimes. There are, however, some gems in the low price bracket.
Comfort, ease of operation and sound quality, in general, do increase with the price-range though.

The big question is how MUCH do the increasingly smaller differences in sound quality weigh against the increase in price. Something you must decide for yourself as there is no clear-cut answer. It also depends on how ‘trained’ you are in discriminating (subtle) differences and personal taste as well as qualities of the used equipment. A question of diminishing returns.

Are you going for a never ending search for the highest obtainable sound quality and are listening out for ‘nasties’ (which one is sure to find) OR simply plan to buy something that is to your liking and start enjoying music. This is an important question you will need to answer yourself. The never ending search route means you will need a bottomless wallet AND it is literally never ending as the next (or someone else’s) combo is always sweeter sounding than the one(s) you own. It also implies you will never be satisfied and will constantly be wondering if you should have bought A instead of B or if ‘upgrading’ to this or that might be the holy grail. The ‘buy something decent and enjoy it’ approach spares your wallet and limits the time spent searching for the right equipment. The grass of someone else might always be greener though.

How to ‘start’ in this hobby.

Since the headphone is the part that defines the sound quality the most, this is where one should spend the biggest portion of the budget on. The optimal way is to audition (listen to) the headphones you like to try. Make sure you take your preferred music along to the store. HiFi-stores generally demonstrate their wares with their own repertoire which may not be your personal taste and/or are ‘demonstration quality’ only. Make sure there is no trickery involved  with tone controls. Mega-stores, more often than not, tend to increase the bass or bass and highs so cheaper headphones sound ‘fuller’. Simply ask if they use it or not. The better Hifi-stores (high-end stores) usually do not resort to this kind of trickery though. Trying out headphones in a store (or at a friend who owns the sought headphone) is is not always possible though, a way around this is to postal order from a reliable web-store that allows you to return them if you don’t like them. The loss in postal costs should be considered as ‘education costs’. An advantage of listening in a store is the headphones are likely to be driven from able amplifiers. When auditioning at home it’s best to use equipment that is known to sound well. If the headphone is to play well directly out of a player/DAP/smart phone take it along when auditioning.

various seal plots to 1khzTake sealing issues due to head- or ear-shape into account.
Some people trying out / owning headphones may find their evaluation of their headphone(s) differs considerably from those of other users. Before blaming it on the headphone(s) find out if you aren’t plagued by fit/seal issues.
The shape of your head, amount / type of hair and ear-shape, wearing glasses may be causing a bad seal in combination with some headphones. Good seal, glasses with thin legs, glasses with thicker legs, a 3.5mm plug tucked under the pads. These measurements have been made using a Philips SHL9505.

ON-ear, IN-ear and earbuds are VERY dependent on having a good ‘seal’ if they are to sound good.
No soundpressure should ‘leak’ from small openings between the ear(canal) and the driver/earpad.
Also over-ear headphones with very large diameter pads or very stiff pads may have a bad seal caused by head-shape or hair trapped between the pads and your head.
If this is the case TEST if you are getting a good SEAL with your headphone(s).
Especially when there is less bass than ‘expected’ or the sound is nasal or otherwise ‘coloured’ in a way that isn’t usually described.
To test for seal simply press the earcups more firmly on your ears. When the sound changes dramatically (most obvious in the bass) then experiment with other pads and or clamping force to address that issue, or find another headphone that doesn’t have sealing issues

When you have selected the headphone you want to use you need to find a source/amplifier that is capable of driving the headphones in question. This depends on the impedance of the headphone, the efficiency of the headphone and the maximum SPL (listening volume) you want to achieve. Other considerations are portability, looks, ease of operation and price.

which headphones are ‘hard to drive’?

There are only a handful of headphones that are ‘hard to drive’.
There are a lot of headphones that are said to be hard to drive but in reality aren’t.
It’s just that some headphones require a higher maximum output voltage swing (gain related) than others.
Usually these are high impedance headphones (> 150 Ohm)
These headphones have a low dB/V efficiency rating but because of their high impedance may well have a high dB/mW rating.
They thus require a higher voltage (and gain) to play loud and still sound good.

When an amp does not have enough gain or a too low max. output voltage for a particular headphone it will not go as loud as the owner wants or starts to sound less nice at too low levels.|
This is the point where folks claim they are hard to drive.
They are not, they are just not using a suitable amp.

Then there are low impedance headphones which usually have a high dB/V efficiency and thus require very little voltage to be driven quite loud.
Still here too there are some (usually inefficient planars) that have a low dB/mW efficiency and require the used amp to provide more current than what a device, like a phone or dongle, can provide.

When an amp is limited in their max output current capabilities for a particular headphone it will not go as loud as the owner wants or starts to sound less nice at too low levels.
This is the point where folks claim they are hard to drive.
They are not, they are just not using a suitable amp.

So whenever it appears or is said a headphone is hard to drive they are just using an amp that is not suited to drive those headphones.

Basically when you have a high impedance headphone your amp has to have a high power output rating at 300 Ohm.
With ‘high’ I mean > 100mW (0.1W)

When you have a low impedance headphone you need to look for an amplifier that has a high power output rating at 32 Ohm.
High can be >200mW (for some 20mW is already too high, these have a high dB/mW rating) to 2W or 3W (low dB/mW rating but high power rating)

This means that when you buy an amp that has a high power rating in 32 Ohm (and low gain option) and a high power rating (and higher gain option) you can drive any headphone you like.

This is where this table comes in handy when you want a certain (over- or on-ear) headphone and/or an amplifier and you want to find out if you can drive it properly.

The player/transport itself does not determine the sound quality when an additional amplifier is used. A Player should have enough output voltage and adequate frequency response, low distortion and low noise (this is in order of importance). Also it must be able to support the types of media files you want to play such as CD, WAV, or other (un)compressed audio formats. Ease of operation and the ‘features’ you like as well as the looks will also determine the price. When choosing a DAC also connection possibilities and bit speeds/bit depths are of importance.

For around 100 to 150 Euros you can be the owner of a very capable ‘portable sound system’ with a good sound quality.
Koss KSC35  or KSC75 earclips, Superlux HD662-EVO, Koss Portapro or Sennheiser PX100-II on ear headphones with a Sansa Clip+, Sansa Fuze, or FiiO X1.
Of course a lot of other players and or mobile phones also can give excellent SQ.

When looking for Koss PortaPro headphones beware there are fakes out there that do not remotely sound anything like the original and are very bassy and lack highs.


post separation


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