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A journey in setting up a personal listening station. The Good The Bad and The Ugly

312elements

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Oct 29, 2020
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It was about 10 years ago that I bought a pair of Grado 225's and I thought it was a real big deal. The local shops here in Chicago push Grado hard, they looked cool, and they fit the budget. I think at the time I purchased a little Fiio amp to go with it, and I was as happy as could be. Ignorance is bliss they say. Fast forward a few years, I set up a home theater and caught the audiophile bug. Recently with Covid and two younger kids, I spend more time sitting in my chair, working from home and managing e-learning from the center of the house. It was time to create a more enjoyable listening experience for my daily operations.

At some point over the last few years I had grabbed an Apogee Groove and it was a solid step up from the built in MacBook amp. It's a great pairing with the Grado's, wonderful clarity and plenty of volume on tap. It's super convenient to toss in a bag, and it's powered by USB. Great little tool and I've always been happy with it, but given the circumstances, I felt it was time to step up to a full size solution. It's not that I really thought it was a bottleneck as much as the form factor wasn't conducive to my current needs. After some poking around, it seemed like the majority believe that the RME ADI-2 was a can't go wrong proposition and being a guitar player that's dabbled in home recording, RME was a brand I was familiar with, so I made the jump.

It was around this time that I started looking at YouTube headphone reviews of headphones. I stumbled across the usual subjects, Z-Reviews, Josh Valour, and a handful of others. I consumed a lot of information really quickly and started to realize that there's really more to the headphone world than Grado. On a whim one night, I pre-ordered some HD6XX's. They seem(ed) like a right of passage headphone and have a high value proposition. In the month leading up to their arrival, I also had a chance to actually audition a pair Hifiman Arya headphones. That was a pivotal moment for me and my journey and they became a must have. After reading 100's of reviews, I convinced myself to buy them and that was the most satisfying purchase I've made along this journey. It's not that I think they're the best headphone ever, it's that I think they're a really great headphone and the money spent felt justified. I could heard a $1000+ difference between the Grado's and the Arya's. I really love it when money spent leads to a feeling of satisfaction.

There were 2 recurring themes in the Arya reviews. They're hard to drive and they benefit from a balanced connection. It didn't take long for me to start thinking that maybe I would like the Arya headphones even better with a more powerful amplifier that utilized a balanced connection. What's another $500 at this point right? I placed an order with Hart Cables for Arya's as well as the HD6XX's that had quite arrive yet, but I figured it was probably the right thing to do and I ordered the Topping A90.

The A90 arrived before the balanced cables, and when it did, I was beyond excited. I wired everything up using the ADI-2 as a dac. I plugged in the headphones and waited for audio nirvana to take over. Don't get me wrong, the A90 is awesome. It's really nice looking, it's built like a tank, and it sounded great. It just didn't sound any different than my RME ADI-2. Perhaps as I reached the top listening level I could tolerate, I could say it sounded better than the RME, but at normal listening levels, they sounded exactly the same to my ears. I tried everything I could think of to find the difference and always came back to thinking that they sounded indistinguishable. I started to buy into the idea of burn in, so I ran it around the clock hoping to wake up each morning and find that it magically sounded different and it didn't.

Eventually the balanced cable showed up. I was beyond excited to finally hear the magic. The balanced cable definitely made a difference. The A90 single ended was a louder version of the ADI-2 single ended. The A90 balanced is a louder version of the A90 single ended. There was no magic. My great headphones still sounded great, and perhaps if I had some legit hearing problems, I really wanted to keep the A90, but as it stood, I could not justify keeping both. It made zero difference to my listening experience. I considered moving up to something like a Violectric or an SPL, but ultimately decided that a good solid state amp sounds like a good solid state amp. Maybe there are subtle differences, but nothing that my ears could easily decipher. A sane person would have ended their journey here, but I was in search of audio nirvana, so I decided to keep looking.

I spent the next couple of weeks emailing back and forth with tube amplifier vendors. There wasn't a budget per se, but I knew I didn't want to spend more than $2k, so anything outside of that range was mostly disqualified. I'm not going to throw anyone under the bus, but I will say that the only manufacture that made me feel like they wanted my business was Woo Audio. Mike from Woo was pretty fantastic to deal with. I generally avoided brands that were often associated with a solid state sound. I feel like with the ADI-2, I've got that buttoned up. I wanted something different, and given my current headphone options, I felt like the WA6SE was the best fit. A few days later, it arrived, I fired it up and I waited... Mike strongly suggested that I avoid tube rolling until later, but the internet convinced me that was a bad idea. I've got about 120hrs on the Woo Audio amp now and guess what? It sounds an awful lot like the RME. Like the A90, it's louder than the ADI-2, but any differences in sound signature, IMO can be achieved with a very small EQ correction. I've tried and even without EQ, I can't tell them apart. There's a very minor noise floor grumble with the HD6XX, but I'm guessing if that bothered me I could correct that problem fairly easily. Think of all of the colorful adjectives you've heard associated with tube amps... I don't hear it. It sounds absolutely fantastic, but I wouldn't call it warm, or thick, or gooey, or wet. There doesn't seem to be any there there.

I really would like to have some type of A/B box that made comparing them easier. I'll bet there's some type of difference there, but I'm done trying to find it. From now on if I feel the need to spend money on this hobby, it will be on headphones. I read early on in a reddit post that the sound is 1% DAC, 4% Amplification, and 95% headphones. I'd have to concur with that. I'm excited to have all of this behind me, and look forward to enjoying my setup. I'm not going to send the Woo back. I think it's a neat conversation piece, and I find that turning the volume knob to be super satisfying. That said, I think I'd gain significantly more satisfaction from adding another pair of headphones to the lineup. It's your money, spend it however you want, but my quest for audio nirvana is over.
 
@BDWoody its really hard to find a place to audition any of this stuff in person so we end up spending countless hours in forums like this, Reddit, YouTube, etc. hoping to not make a mistake. It does feel good to just crank it up, close my eyes and enjoy the experience.
 
QUOTE="312elements, post: 563004, member: 21503"]read early on in a reddit post that the sound is 1% DAC, 4% Amplification, and 95% headphones.[/QUOTE]

Congrats - your journey led you to the right conclusion, it's been known for quite a long time how to build a good amp... If the engineer hasn't committed any severe fault, they will most probably all sound the same, and if there are measurable differences - most of them will be beyond audibility.

My personal experience with A/B-Box-Comparisons, BTW, was rather 'shocking': Where I was convinced there were huge differences between amps, there were none. It makes you humble. I don't trust anymore any sighted, not controlled comparison ( instantaneous switching, matched voltage, blind).

To your percentage rates which make the sound - which I subscribe - I'd add an additional 100% for the quality of the recording.
 
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