Budget, a starting point

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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.

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. How to distinguish them can be found HERE.

When opting for over the ear headphones in the lowest price range it will be hard to beat a modified Superlux HD662-EVO.

HD662-EVO

When you are looking for the most neutral headphones in a lower price range the Beyerdynamic DT250-250 (closed headphone)is a good choice. A second hand Sennheiser HD580 / HD600 (open headphone) may be an even better choice.

My personal favourite home system is the Sennheiser HD650 or HD800 driven from the Kameleon amplifier using the FiiO X3 as a source

HD800 kl X3 DSCN2435

vol control Kameleon

 

 

 

 

My favorite portable system is .. well … the same
But when going portable, without resorting to the Kameleon, I mostly use the FiiO X3 +  or the modified Superlux HD662-EVO

X3HD662-EVO

When I want/need to take along something really small the Sansa Fuze (or FiiO X1) + Koss KSC75 (or KSC35).
The FiiO M3 is also an option and similar in performance to the Sansa Sport but works more intuitive and has a better display.

DSCN2749KSC75DSCN2430

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