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a short diary of some part of my life.

Posts tagged audiophile

There is no optical audio output at the back of the new Apple TV. It’s a big bummer for an audio enthusiast like me. I’m aware that there is a way around this but I need to have an AirPort Express, next to the Apple TV, connected to my DAC via its’ optical input or a powered speakers via its’ analog input. By having an AirPort Express in the audio chain, it’s going to add another complexity to my audio setup. What if the AirPort Expess goes bananas and I would have to fiddle with resetting or re-routing the audio output setting on the Apple TV to HDMI. I prefer not to use my TV’s HDMI to optical output. The sound quality is going to suffer.

I consider myself to be a minority user who likes to have the least hassle but also to have the best sound quality out of an Apple TV. But regular users will still face a major issue; with the older Apple TV, they can easily connect a separate analog audio line  to a powered speaker. Now, they cannot do it anymore with the new Apple TV. They need to have a TV with audio output jack(s). Usually, if the TV is not turned on, you won’t be able to pass an audio signal thru it. I have seen a lot of TVs without any kind of audio output.

you won’t be able to AirPlay audio directly to your speakers

I’m going to buy the new Apple TV but if I don’t like it, I’m going to return it. I don’t care about tvOS App Store. The UI looks awful. Now, there is a compelling reason to get myself a PlayStation 4. My Android-TV-equipped-Sony-TV might become my permanent Plex client.

I might buy the 3rd gen Apple TV just to keep it around for AirPlay.

Here are the scenarios that I’m considering:

  • new Apple TV -HDMI- Sony TV -optical- DAC -analog- powered speakers
  • new Apple TV -AirPlay- AirPort Express -optical- DAC -analog- powered speakers
  • 3rd gen Apple TV -optical- DAC -analog- powered speakers
  • PlayStation 4 -optical- DAC -analog- powered speakers
  • Sony TV -optical- DAC -analog- powered speakers

I’m seriously leaning towards the last setup. Perhaps, I should add, I will be installing a Wyred 4 Sound Reclocker before the DAC to whatever setup I end up with to improve sound quality.

The almighty amp.

Pros:

  • Small, Light
  • All in one box: DAC, preamp, & amp; no more messy cabling
  • Easy to use
  • Simple remote control
  • Lots of input: digital & analog + USB driverless input
  • 100 watts per channel
  • User selectable voltage setting
  • IMO, pretty good looking box and very well made

Cons:

  • Not very musical
  • No phase inversion
  • Requires warm-up time before it reaches its full potential
  • Probably not upgradable

I really like the mINT. I will pick another unit for my second system.

How to Choose the Right Speakers

The way to find good speakers requires a little legwork and you can’t do it online.

  1. Take your iPod/iPhone, (portable) DAC, or favorite good sounding CDs to an audio store
  2. Chase the salesman away and pull out a yellow pad or whatever note-taking app you have in your phone
  3. Play the first song on every speaker in the store, regardless of price and write down notes on how they sound
  4. Repeat the process with all of your reference songs
  5. Figure out which speakers sounded the best with the largest number of songs
  6. Now look at the prices and see what the bargain is
  7. Buy the speakers and take them home and set them up, paying attention to room acoustics
  8. Get a good prograde equalizer and balance the response
  9. Now, enjoy your music

Nowadays, my music reference is set and won’t be changed anytime soon. I usually bring HeadAmp Pico DAC or Wyred 4 Sound mINT if the audio store allows me to drive their speakers with it. When I chose my speakers, I also brought along with me, speakers that I bought online but I personally know the owner of the audio store. This is a unique case. It’s not like I didn’t buy anything from the store, I bought a lot of stuff from the store.

As usual, rules of thumb: spend less on amp and DAC, more on the speakers, and a bit more on room acoustics.

Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 digital board

Wyred 4 Sound have built their reputation solely based on their superb products. I have had nothing but superb experiences with EJ Sarmento (the man behind Wyred 4 Sound). Unlike many others who run established brands, EJ is almost a complete opposite of those mostly arrogant personalities. He is very helpful, listen and interact directly to his customers on various forums and countless emails. I honestly do not know who else does this except Paul McGowan (CEO of PS Audio) and Jason Stoddard (Schiit). Speaking of PS Audio, Wyred 4 Sound had a direct connection with PS Audio. EJ, together with Rick Cullen of Cullen Circuits who was a manufacturer for PS Audio started Wyred 4 Sound.

Complete Solutions

Wyred 4 Sound now offer complete solutions to your hi-fi needs. They have two DACs, arguably the best preamps at any price, and various option of amps. They also offer good quality cables. They do not sell speakers, I do not think they will ever build speakers. Just FYI, EJ uses a pair of AV123 LS6 as his reference speakers at his home.

Now, let’s get to the main event.

The Usual Setup

  • I’m pairing the DAC-2 with the marvelously good W4S’s very own STI-500. The pair allows the flexibility to swap one of them with any amp or DAC with or without volume control. In essence, both of them are designed to be flexible.
  • The sources are MacBook Air – via USB, Apple TV – via optical, Squeezebox Touch – via coax, and Wyred 4 Sound uLINK – via BNC.

In this short review, I will not name the top-tier DACs that I pitted against the W4S DAC-2, they are some of the best performing DACs in the market today.

The Results:

  • immediate improvements in transparency, speed, and clarity. Especially if compared with non-discrete output DACs and over-built DACs. The DAC-2 simply throws everything that the song has. Some people suggest a hi-fi DAC tend to sound bright. A lot of them think bright means details, it’s not. As Tyll Hertsens of InnerFidelity.com put this, “Good parts have black backgrounds and sound smooth with depth but still not missing any of the details that are actually there.” There are plenty of characteristics, but there are very few DACs that have black backgrounds, sound smooth and at the same time, not missing any of the details. This is the traits of a great DAC.
  • superior soundstage. Some DACs are claimed to produce huge soundstage. I have auditioned many of them and all I can say about the DAC-2 is that the DAC-2 produces soundstage just ‘right’. It does not go over the top. One DAC that I auditioned produces rather boomy soundstage, it doesn’t sound right.

Any other improvements? Yes, those two are the major differentiators, the rest is probably too small to be mentioned one by one.

There is no point comparing well-engineered DACs because they almost sound pretty much the same. Inferior DACs may sound good for some people. I’m not going to argue with that as we all prefer many different things. My goal is to create the most enjoyable musical experience. And I believe I have achieved it with my current setup. So, thank you for EJ for making this superb sounding affordable gear. 🙂 😉

As a Pre-Amplifier

One of the main differences between DAC-1 and DAC-2 is the preamp feature in the DAC-2. It can also be operated via an IR remote which is pretty handy for lazy people like me, people who prefer to enjoy his or her music from a couch.

As a preamp, it performs great. When I had ModWright KWA 100, I used a preamp in between the DAC and the power amp. The level of grunge introduced from the preamp, versus driving the KWA 100 directly from DAC-2 is at astonishing level. The DAC-2 does the job better than a superb dedicated preamp. The digital volume control allows me to fine tune the volume level. And it’s always well balanced and linear.

Design & Build Quality

Don’t expect the level of spanking shiny precision chassis like amps from D’Agostino, formerly of Krell. W4S offerings are designed to be utilitarian. It probably does not look pretty for some people but to me, it looks sensible and no-frills. EJ could have designed it around beautifully milled chassis, but he didn’t, to keep the price reasonable.

Once the top cover is opened, the innards are assembled neatly. There is no excess solder, no cold solder, no resin mark anywhere on the boards. The PCBs are also well secured onto the chassis. All cables are tied and shielded safely, you won’t complain there will be safety risk. Connectors used are all high quality. It is a very well built electronic. Perhaps, the best I’ve seen.

Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2 discrete output stage analog board

Cons

There are weaknesses, right? Yes, there are two.

  • The top chassis is somewhat cumbersome to remove and reinstall. There are a few misaligned screw threads.
  • The USB input does not represent the true potential performance of the DAC. Luckily, W4S offer a dedicated USB to S/PDIF converter that is worlds better than DAC-2’s built-in USB input.

Customizations

You’ll probably wondering why I tape the gills on the side of the DAC-2. It’s to prevent dust from entering the unit. The unit barely gets warm, even in the summer.

The digital inputs on the backside is also a bit different than a regular DAC-2. On standard unit, there is no BNC jack and shutter type TOSLINK jack. BNC will allow true 75-ohm S/PDIF connection and shutter type TOSLINK will allow me to get away without the easily misplaced plug on the plug type TOSLINK jack.

This issue probably an afterthought for most buyers and most manufacturers tend to dismiss requests from customers to make these little changes. EJ was very accommodating. He’s open to little customization and he did not charge extra for them. I would imagine he had to pick one unit and opened it up. That changes although small would at least used his valuable time that he could use to do something else, like designing the new excellent mPRE. EJ Sarmento’s willingness to do it is a real testament how much he cares about his customers.

75-ohm BNC Jack

Shutter Type TOSLINK Jack

Plug Type TOSLINK Jack

Hi-Fi is NOT expensive and often times, HYPED!

Most audiophiles tend to think if a hi-fi product is priced at extraorbitant price or if the chassis is precisely milled from unobtainium materials, the sound must be good. The truth is there is little correlation between price and real world performance. It saddens me when I read the first thing a person wrote on a forum is a performance of a product based on its price. A famous local headphone site specifically make performance categories based on price. IMHO, that is just wrong. When I came by to their brick & mortar store, it turns out that they have little knowledge about hi-fi in general. Surprising, huh? I’m not saying I know more about hi-fi than them, I came to this hobby, not knowing anything, but I want to be a smart buyer, I want to play safe so I learnt and I am still learning. Just like when researching modification parts for my car and actually installing them by myself, I learnt a lot from those processes.

Why?

Like everything else, a journey may end at some point. I just didn’t expect this would end so soon. I was an advocate Head-Fi reader – not a frequent poster. I have gradually but surely, walking away from Head-Fi. It has become a place where I buy and sell my headphone gear. There are only very few respected Head-Fi members whose comments/replies are worth reading. To make it even worse, most if not all of them are Head-Case members (they provides better users’ impressions due to their vast knowledge about audio electronics in general and anti-hype approach). Head-Fi user interface has also become dreadful (did I mention that Head-Case interface is MUCH better than Head-Fi’s?). A prominent Head-Fi member have summed up the problems, he too decided to leave.

Head-Fi’s Major Issues

There are many other major (disturbing) issues that prompted me to say good-bye. Issues like their over-protective approach over their site sponsors, post deleted without any notice (I have seen this myself, several times. I refreshed the page after 5 minutes and some posts were gone), users’ idiocies (of defending their purchases, users’ incompetencies… make the forum very uninformative, unfriendly, and useless. There is another issue (another issue and another issue?) about sponsors trying to make easy money. Head-Fi is going to be a much worse place for those who cheer good sound if the admins decide not to do anything about those issues. Many have left, many have not posted useful posts for some time.

Head-Fi DGAF about Regular Folks

Even after issues after issues are exposed, Head-Fi still do not give a crap about us regular folks who spend countless hours on honest jobs. If I were to run a forum, read by millions of unique visitors per month like Head-Fi, I would make sure that the vendors are always kept in check, especially after vendors are caught lying or making very questionable products at extraorbitant price. They could have made the forum much safer for users with a bit more effort but they don’t.

It’s not fair to leave without saying anything, so here is a few bits of my story:
During my time searching for the right headphone, amps, and sources, I have learnt a lot. This headphone journey led me to speakers system which I think sounds superior to any headphone systems on the planet. I’m grateful for my experiences on Head-Fi. Without it, I would not know how to start looking for the right system. For those who have the funds, the space, and the time to set up a speaker system, but you are still using headphones, I urge you to try a good speaker system. It will blow you away!

I figured, it will be fair to list what headphones and amps that I have owned and tried. So, you’ll know how far I have gone. Here are the lists:

Headphones:

  • JH Audio JH16 Pro
  • Sennheiser HD650
  • Sennheiser HD800
  • Grado RS2i
  • Grado HF2
  • Audeze LCD-2 Rev.1
  • Beyerdynamic T1
  • HiFiMan HE-5
  • HiFiMan HE-6
  • Shure SE535
  • Grado HP2
  • Sennheiser HD600

Amps:

I think I have had a few more amps but I can’t remember the names.

Which headphone and headphone amp are the best and the worst?

From the owned lists above, I consider Audeze’s LCD-2 and AMB B22 as the best headphone and the best amp. The worst are Sennheiser HD800 and Audio-gd Phoenix. Although I did not own them all at the same time, I can definately tell you that HD800 and Phoenix are my least favorite headphone and headphone amp.

I dislike HD800 due to its’ artificial-like sound signature. Anything that comes out from HD800 do not sound right to me. Audio-gd Phoenix sounds too smooth, is not as transparent as other top-tier amps, and has its’ own sound signature. My only requirement for a good amp is complete transparency. Its’ sound signature masks almost everything and changes my source’s sound signature. A reference amp must be transparent to the source, otherwise, you are better off settled with a tube amp like I once did with a Woo Audio 6 SE. AMB B22 and HeadAmp GS-X are much better amps than Audio-gd Phoenix, they are much more dynamic and transparent. I can easily do DBT on what source is used with AMB B22 and HeadAmp GS-X but with Audio-gd Phoenix, the differences between sources are very subtle. Even with ACSS, the Phoenix sounds soft and dull compared to AMB B22. I’m beginning to think, Audio-gd is not good at designing headphone amps. I have also briefly auditioned their Compass and C-2C and found them to be mediocre at best. A small headphone amp like AMB M^3 and HeadAmp Gilmore Lite are also much better alternatives than the big honking space heater Phoenix. Audez’e LCD-2 should pair well with any top tier amps like the GS-X. It is a very transparent headphone, I think it’s a better headphone than HiFiMan HE-6 which is quite piecing on the ears. I sold the LCD-2 because I simply wanted a retro headphone and I was also disappointed with LCD-2 build quality. It’s gone now and I don’t miss it at all.

Portable Amp (w/ DAC)

There are a few things that I want to talk about portable amps. If you really need portability and you are using a notebook computer, look no further, get a CEntrance DACport. It has a superb DAC and a superb Class A amp for its size. Don’t bother buying portable DAC/amp from various unproven manufacturers, they are all inferior. Most general DAC/amp combo use battery and they need to be recharged. This is not the case with DACport, DACport only needs a USB cable to connect it to your laptop or your iPad because it does not have a battery. It draws its power from your computer’s USB port. You don’t even need to install any driver. It’s that easy. Oh yes, you can use a DACport with an iPad. If you are using a portable music player, don’t bother buying a portable amp. It adds bulk and weight. You may also end up spending too much money on LODs, interconnects… Look at this set-up: Cypher Labs AlgoRhythm Solo. Honestly, I think it looks rather stupid. If I have to use a portable music player like an iPod, I greatly prefer to use my old trusty iPod Mini (that’s right, iPod Mini) without an external amp or DAC. Sometimes, audiophiles may turn into audiphools. They are willing to sacrifice everything for one thing called sound quality. I bet CEntrance DACport offers much better SQ than that bulky set. That bulky set is NOT a portable setup. Instead of wasting your hard-earned money for silly things like LODs for an external amp or DAC, get yourself a nice pair of headphone. You will be much more satisfied in the long run.

Do I keep any headphone and headphone amp?

Now, I’m settled with Schiit Asgard (3/16 /11 – oops, got a Lyr now, purely for the tubes) and Grado RS1i. I consider both of them to be the best in their price ranges. Surprisingly, I find Asgard superior to Audio-gd Phoenix (yep, a $250 made in USA amp Vs. $1200 made in China amp). Grado RS1i is a very fun pair of headphone. It excels with rocks. Guitar strings sound superb. It’s just magical with rock genre. The RS1i fits better on my head, LCD-2? not as good and very heavy. You may question why I decided to scale back a bit. Well, the reasons are:

  1. I no longer listen to headphone that much. I listen to headphone ± 1 hour a day.
  2. I don’t feel comfortable wearing headphone for hours.
  3. My fear of hearing impaired.
  4. Speakers are superior in every way. Headphone cannot resolve the same level of resolution and imaging as a good pair of speakers.
  5. I could have splashed a chunk more for a GS-1 which had always been my number one preference for a single ended solid state amp. It’s been well known that GS-1 and GS-X are the most transparent headphone amps in the market. My reason is simple, sometimes, good enough is good enough. Asgard Lyr is good enough. 😀

Now, I’m obviously a headphone lover, but the truth is, as much as I love headphones, they will always be secondary to speakers in my life, because speakers are just that much more dimensional, natural, and convenient to listen to; there’s nothing on your noggin that could fall off, or prevent you from hearing important audio cues like phones, doorbell, neighbor screaming for help, and it’s much easier to share music with others.

Schiit Asgard Lyr and Grado RS1i are my last headphone system. I will likely not going to add a headphone, unless it is broken. That Schiit amp will likely outlast me, so there you go, a long-lasting headphones system. And this is where I stopped: A Happy Ending (Hi-Fi) ~ [I also explained a bit about how you should spend your money, where to spend it on, and various issues about audiophile in general]

Head-Fi users’ impressions and reviews…
I think it will be wise for those of you who are reading reviews to make sure that the reviewer has considerable knowledge about various amps in the market. A review like this is pointless IMHO… The reviewer did not compare his gear with top-tier amps and DACs or even worse, the reviewer has little to no experience with top-tier amps and DACs. I imagine the reviewer will be completely floored with an AMB M^3 or a HeadAmp Gilmore Lite .

From those many reasons above: Head-Fi is no longer a useful place and headphones are inferior to speakers, I decided to leave Head-Fi world. It’s been a fun experience. Thank you Head-Fi!

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Update (3/19/2011): ~ read links on the top of this page: https://ravenda.wordpress.com/2010/09/10/nuforce-udac2/
Looks like Head-Fi has become extremely hostile towards NwAvguy, links to his blog have been deleted. Let’s wait and see what will be deleted next… This is not the first time I have seen this happened on Head-Fi. I just didn’t expect them to be super protective of their sponsors. I have all the print screens and PDFs of the deleted posts if anyone wants to read them. No wonder there are more and more bad guys roaming free on Head-Fi. 😦 I guess, a farewell to Head-Fi is a good thing after all…