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Another obligatory "What Headphone DAC/Amp Should I Buy?" thread

derKoekje

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Hi all, I'm getting the Nan-7's that Amir just reviewed and looking for a nice setup to support it. Currently just have the Fiio BTR7 to drive some IEM's and looking for a good desktop setup with some headroom that can support future headphones like the HE6se V2 and older Audezes.

I'm looking to spend between €200-400, and I will primarily be looking for used deals so feel free to suggest gear that costs more. What this does mean is that I prefer a single DAC/Amp unit, otherwise I'd have to track down a stack and that's not nearly as easy. I'd also really like an XLR and maybe a 4.4mm input, even if it's for convenience (sturdier). Connectivity features like Bluetooth or a remote are certainly nice but not required.

I live in Europe with decent connections in China so buying from there is definitely cheaper than buying from the USA, so no Schiitt please.

Currently on my radar are:

1. Topping A90 (non-Discrete) for around €325, add something like the E30II to it for a decent setup under 500
2. Topping DX7 Pro+ for around €400
3. Fiio K9 (non-Pro) for around €375
4. Fiio K7 BT new for €250
5. xDuoo TA-22, my throw-caution-to-the-wind-option which will probably measure poorly but seems like an incredibly fun ride, considering Amir's review of their TA-10
6. The Hifiman EF500, I really like the streaming connectivity but I am concerned about their QC and performance

Feel free to share your thoughts, thanks in advance!
 
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doalt

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If your end goal is HE6SE V2 or similarly hard to drive headphones, most of these combos may fall short on power. I would consider Topping A90 or The Hifiman EF500.

Based on above review link, HE6SE needs 1.37W to reach 94dB. If you want some headroom and set the goal as 100dB, you need 1.37*4=5.48W. And 100dB is not a very high bar for headphones.
 

Dunring

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I've had the HE6SE many times. If you want to power those with headroom without melting down a credit card, this combo works.
Sabaj A20h which is designed to use a 5 volt DAC for best performance, currently $80 on Amazon. The SMSL DL200 is an amp DAC combo but it outputs 5 volts and $172 on AliExpress with the 11/11 sale. Also coupons can be stacked there.
For under $300 you get a new stack that will give headroom to equalize the he6se plus every output connection for headphones.
The autoeq profile for the he6se sounds great, but needs a -6db preamp reduction. They are good, but the 7hz Timeless AE has all the fun and sounds as good, but doesn't need an amplifier that can start your car.
 
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derKoekje

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If your end goal is HE6SE V2 or similarly hard to drive headphones, most of these combos may fall short on power. I would consider Topping A90 or The Hifiman EF500.

Based on above review link, HE6SE needs 1.37W to reach 94dB. If you want some headroom and set the goal as 100dB, you need 1.37*4=5.48W. And 100dB is not a very high bar for headphones.

This is silly but I checked out the A90D too which I could grab for this price range possibly. Am I correct in assuming this can't drive the Nan-7 with its 14Ω because it will drop into protection mode or did I misunderstand Amir's graph?
 
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derKoekje

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I've had the HE6SE many times. If you want to power those with headroom without melting down a credit card, this combo works.
Sabaj A20h which is designed to use a 5 volt DAC for best performance, currently $80 on Amazon. The SMSL DL200 is an amp DAC combo but it outputs 5 volts and $172 on AliExpress with the 11/11 sale. Also coupons can be stacked there.
For under $300 you get a new stack that will give headroom to equalize the he6se plus every output connection for headphones.
The autoeq profile for the he6se sounds great, but needs a -6db preamp reduction. They are good, but the 7hz Timeless AE has all the fun and sounds as good, but doesn't need an amplifier that can start your car.

Thanks for the reply. What makes you keep getting rid (but then keep rebuying) the HE6SE? I'm no stranger to rotating gear around in a given hobby but I'm always curious to hear the motivation.

I'll consider the DL200, it looks good. They also seem to have released the DL300 too. The Sabaj looks a bit cheap, which isn't too much of a knock on it because it is cheap but I would prefer something that's nice even if I'm not listening to music. Do you really think the DL200 could fully drive and EQ the HE6? Maths was never my strong suit.

And oh yeah I've heard of those IEMs. They sound like a lot of fun even if they do look ridiculous (but better than the tie fighter iSine).
 

doalt

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Am I correct in assuming this can't drive the Nan-7 with its 14Ω because it will drop into protection mode or did I misunderstand Amir's graph?
Judging by the graph and description, the protection mode kicks in at > 10 volts. With a 14Ω load, that's 10*10/14=7.14 watts of power. It's one of the most powerful headphone amps ever measured. Protection just means it'll shut down to protect itself if you ever push it to that high.
 

Dunring

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I sell audio equipment as a business, so over the years I've had most of what's out there multiple times. IEM planars have gotten really good, but they still do best on balanced for the extra current.
The DL200 can't cut it even the M500 mkii can only handle them down to a -4db reduction before it runs out of gas. I use the extended version of the song Tonight, tonight, tonight by Genesis for real world testing. Getting the quiet parts of that song loud are pretty challenging for any amplifier.
For something better looking, the original A90/D90 I have can handle it, the DL200 and SP200 is affordable. I'd just stick with a 5 volt DAC and an amp that won't clip (like the Drop THX789 will at over 2.1 volts in high gain).
I use an HE5xx for daily use, just well rounded and comfortable. The HE6SE is a white whale for many people, but new models sound just as good without needing an amplifier that can power a lighthouse to do the -6db preamp reduction to really shine.
 
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derKoekje

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Judging by the graph and description, the protection mode kicks in at > 10 volts. With a 14Ω load, that's 10*10/14=7.14 watts of power. It's one of the most powerful headphone amps ever measured. Protection just means it'll shut down to protect itself if you ever push it to that high.
Ah I think I misread the graph. I assumed the line went from left to right and was 'flat' due to being protection limited all the way.
 
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derKoekje

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I think the A90 Discrete may be the ticket. I've seen some listings for around 280-300. Not too sure how good the QC on it is though, and if it's smart buying one used as I did hear some reports about bricking during firmware updates.

Then it's just a matter of choosing a DAC to pair it with, the D90 is nice and is a visual match but does anyone need that type of level of refinement other than for measuring? Any DAC with balanced outputs and maybe some connectivity should do right?
 

doalt

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Not too sure how good the QC on it is though
You are not the only one. Every now and then there will be a thread about Topping QC, and the result is often "some have issues, some don't. And we don't know if it's getting better".

And the A90D thread has reported some failed units too. Even with warranty it takes money and time to send the unit back for repair.
 

zonk

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I use the Hifiman HE6SE (non V2) with an A90 and D90SE. Equalizing via EAPO on Windows.

The A90 has three gain levels Low/Medium/High. I use medium gain for listening to music.

Alternative to the A90 I tried an A90 Discrete as well, but I prefer the toggle switches on the A90. Soundwise are both absolut excellent.

Instead of the E30II DAC, I would recommend to use a DAC with balanced output (for example E50) and use a balanced connection between the DAC and A90/A90D.

There are so many hardware options. The L70 would be an option to consider too.

Regarding reliability of Topping devices, I had and still have a couple of Topping devices and never had an issue. It's important that you buy at a seller that is located close by and in case of a defect you have not to return the device to China. That's my experience and opinion.

I cannot say anything about the other items in your list like the Fiio etc. because I never used or owned those.
 
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zonk

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I've had the HE6SE many times. If you want to power those with headroom without melting down a credit card, this combo works.
Sabaj A20h which is designed to use a 5 volt DAC for best performance, currently $80 on Amazon. The SMSL DL200 is an amp DAC combo but it outputs 5 volts and $172 on AliExpress with the 11/11 sale. Also coupons can be stacked there.
For under $300 you get a new stack that will give headroom to equalize the he6se plus every output connection for headphones.
The autoeq profile for the he6se sounds great, but needs a -6db preamp reduction. They are good, but the 7hz Timeless AE has all the fun and sounds as good, but doesn't need an amplifier that can start your car.

I cannot understand how can someone compare an IEM with an over-ear headphone.

The fit/comfort, insertion depth and the choice of earptip (size, material - foam or silicone), nozzle size makes the IEM to a kind of a lottery for me.

I have 4 IEMs here, all measure great according to Amirs or other people measurements. But when I use them my listening experience is non-deterministic. That means sometimes I think "wow they sound great", next time I think "they sound thin, earpiercing and have no base". I equalize all my headphones or IEMs (with EAPO on Windows or RME DAC or Qudelix 5k), it's not the frequency response, it's simply the seal and fit and insertion depth in the ear channel that causes the variance in sound.

When I use an over-ear headphone I always have same listening experience. When I use for example an HD560S, it sounds always same, it's not that sometimes it sounds thin and sometimes has no base.

If I use IEMs and then switch to an over-ear headphone it's a total different experience. To be honest I have problems to describe sound with words, but with IEM I defenitely miss something that over-ear headphones have.
 
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derKoekje

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I use the Hifiman HE6SE (non V2) with an A90 and D90SE. Equalizing via EAPO on Windows.

The A90 has three gain levels Low/Medium/High. I use medium gain for listening to music.

Alternative to the A90 I tried an A90 Discrete as well, but I prefer the toggle switches on the A90. Soundwise are both absolut excellent.

Instead of the E30II DAC, I would recommend to use a DAC with balanced output (for example E50) and use a balanced connection between the DAC and A90/A90D.

There are so many hardware options. The L70 would be an option to consider too.

Regarding reliability of Topping devices, I had and still have a couple of Topping devices and never had an issue. It's important that you buy at a seller that is located close by and in case of a defect you have not to return the device to China. That's my experience and opinion.

I cannot say anything about the other items in your list like the Fiio etc. because I never used or owned those.

Thanks for this! Going over the spec sheet on the A90D I did notice that I need to use a DAC with balanced outputs. A question is: would I be alright with a Dac/Amp combo? The Topping EX5 is pretty affordable nowadays and features balanced outputs for the A90D, measures, a remote and good connectivity.
 

zonk

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Thanks for this! Going over the spec sheet on the A90D I did notice that I need to use a DAC with balanced outputs. A question is: would I be alright with a Dac/Amp combo? The Topping EX5 is pretty affordable nowadays and features balanced outputs for the A90D, measures, a remote and good connectivity.

You can use any kind of DAC or DAC/Amp combo to connect to your A90D that has unbalanced or balanced outputs. The A90D has unbalanced and balanced inputs.

For example a Topping E50 with balanced output (TRS) that is currently available on Amazon Germany for 169€. Amir has tested it as well.

Almost all DACs have a remote control. But after the DAC once is configured you will rarely use the remote control. Which DAC, which brand you choose is really upon your personal taste and budget.

The A90D has a remote control too, and you will use this remote more often than the remote for your DAC. The A90 has no remote control, only the toggle switches. I use the A90 on my desk, so I am close to the A90 therefore I don't need a remote.

As far as I could see on Amazon the prices for Topping devices have Black Friday discounts of 10 or 15%. As long as Amazon is responsible for the delivery, you have no problems to send it back to Amazon or get a replacement device. Other brands may have probably discounts too, I have not checked it.
 
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derKoekje

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You can use any kind of DAC or DAC/Amp combo to connect to your A90D that has unbalanced or balanced outputs. The A90D has unbalanced and balanced inputs.

For example a Topping E50 with balanced output (TRS) that is currently available on Amazon Germany for 169€. Amir has tested it as well.

Almost all DACs have a remote control. But after the DAC once is configured you will rarely use the remote control. Which DAC, which brand you choose is really upon your personal taste and budget.

The A90D has a remote control too, and you will use this remote more often than the remote for your DAC. The A90 has no remote control, only the toggle switches. I use the A90 on my desk, so I am close to the A90 therefore I don't need a remote.

As far as I could see on Amazon the prices for Topping devices have Black Friday discounts of 10 or 15%. As long as Amazon is responsible for the delivery, you have no problems to send it back to Amazon or get a replacement device. Other brands may have probably discounts too, I have not checked it.
I think I should have phrased my question a bit better. Assuming that a DAC and amp have different components and that better or more poweful amps and more precise DACs generally take up more space, is there a penalty to using a dac that also has an integrated amplifier as opposed to using just a standalone DAC?

For example, I could imagine that a combo unit has to dedicate more room to adequate shieldibg of components, and that there's simply less room to include all of the components.
 

doalt

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I think I should have phrased my question a bit better. Assuming that a DAC and amp have different components and that better or more poweful amps and more precise DACs generally take up more space, is there a penalty to using a dac that also has an integrated amplifier as opposed to using just a standalone DAC?
I think the question you are trying to ask is: if the DAC part of a combo unit seems good enough, what is the benefit of a dedicated DAC?

The common belief in this forum is: if the measured SINAD of a DAC is higer than a threshold (some say 100dB, some say 115), it becomes "transparent" with "no sound signature". So a combo like EX5, measured at 117dB SINAD, should sound exactly the same as a dedicated DAC like D90SE, measured at 123dB, and no one can tell them apart in a blind test. There could be corner cases, like D90SE can output 5 volts, and with a 5 volts input amp its noise floor could be lower than EX5, but this shouldn't matter if you plan to use power hungry (= not sensitive) headphones.

On the other hand, this belief is not universal, and some other hifi forums laugh at this idea as "listening with one's eyes, not ears". If you ask in those forums, people may tell you a dedicated unit is always better than a combo, and if you upgrade from EX5 to D90SE, it's "a night and day difference" and the sound gets "more musical, more detailed, more impactful" etc. Don't expect those answers here in ASR though.
 
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