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DAC, AMP, Headphone Balanced Cables for Desk and Portable Applications

wacomme

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This is my first post, though I've been lurking for a couple of weeks. I'm a total newbie.

I recently purchased Hifiman Sundara headphones. I want to use them both at home with Apple Music through a Macbook Air (M1), but also at work. I have Windows 10 at work, but I'm struggling with iTunes on the PC, so I'm using an old IPad as my Apple Music player connected through a Hidezs S9Pro dongle - mostly desktop use, not for portability. I'm seeking a better AMP/DAC for home use. I have a Samson Q2U USB/XLR Microphone at home that I often use for Zoom meetings and the like; the mic is currently used via USB. Here are my questions/thoughts. I'd love your input.

1) Since the S9 dongle has a 2.5mm balanced output and I'm using Sundara headphones, I'm thinking I might benefit from a balanced headphone cable (Hart cables?) for more power - not for volume, but to drive the headphones better than the stock headphone cables. Good idea?

2) If I opt for balanced headphone cables, should my desktop amp/dac also be balanced? I'm considering a Topping DX3Pro+ for a dac/amp combo at home. However, it's not balanced. It also doesn't have XLR connectors if I want to use my Samson Mic through the dac/amp - is this even something I'd want to do? The only other home connections I'd want to make is to pass my Audioengine A2 powered speakers through the dac (via RCA cables). Should I opt for a separate AMP and DAC - Schiit Modi/Magni or Modius/Magnius (getting pricey), or Topping equivalents? If I want balanced headphones and the ability to plug in my Mic via XLR inputs, could I use a Modi/Magnius combo to bring down the cost, though without benefit of balanced cabling to the headphones (likely not needed with the power of the Magnius amp)? This might not make any since - the Magnius is only one circuit, correct? In other words, I can't use both the Mic and headphones when plugged in to the Magnius, or can I? Is there something out there that isn't too pricey that allows me to use both the headphones (prefer balanced, I think), and the Mic (via XLR)?

Thank you. Michael
 

JanesJr1

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This is my first post, though I've been lurking for a couple of weeks. I'm a total newbie.

I recently purchased Hifiman Sundara headphones. I want to use them both at home with Apple Music through a Macbook Air (M1), but also at work. I have Windows 10 at work, but I'm struggling with iTunes on the PC, so I'm using an old IPad as my Apple Music player connected through a Hidezs S9Pro dongle - mostly desktop use, not for portability. I'm seeking a better AMP/DAC for home use. I have a Samson Q2U USB/XLR Microphone at home that I often use for Zoom meetings and the like; the mic is currently used via USB. Here are my questions/thoughts. I'd love your input.

1) Since the S9 dongle has a 2.5mm balanced output and I'm using Sundara headphones, I'm thinking I might benefit from a balanced headphone cable (Hart cables?) for more power - not for volume, but to drive the headphones better than the stock headphone cables. Good idea?

2) If I opt for balanced headphone cables, should my desktop amp/dac also be balanced? I'm considering a Topping DX3Pro+ for a dac/amp combo at home. However, it's not balanced. It also doesn't have XLR connectors if I want to use my Samson Mic through the dac/amp - is this even something I'd want to do? The only other home connections I'd want to make is to pass my Audioengine A2 powered speakers through the dac (via RCA cables). Should I opt for a separate AMP and DAC - Schiit Modi/Magni or Modius/Magnius (getting pricey), or Topping equivalents? If I want balanced headphones and the ability to plug in my Mic via XLR inputs, could I use a Modi/Magnius combo to bring down the cost, though without benefit of balanced cabling to the headphones (likely not needed with the power of the Magnius amp)? This might not make any since - the Magnius is only one circuit, correct? In other words, I can't use both the Mic and headphones when plugged in to the Magnius, or can I? Is there something out there that isn't too pricey that allows me to use both the headphones (prefer balanced, I think), and the Mic (via XLR)?

Thank you. Michael
You probably don't need balanced headphone cables using a desktop amp. At the rated sensitivity of 94 db/1vRMS* and Amir's measured impedance of 40 ohms, you could drive a very loud 100 dBSPL with 100 mW into 2v and 50 mA, which most desktop amps will exceed (and which you couldn't listen to very long that loud). Your S9Pro will deliver 100 mW single ended with a 90 amp limiter on current, so you may not need balanced cable there either.

If you're sure you want a desktop amp in addition to the S9 Pro, StaticV3 is sharp on these things and recommends these for the Sundara:

Topping L30
SMSL SH-6
Sabaj A10H

See his and other postings at Forums/Audio, Audio, Audio! /Headphones and Headphone Amplifier Reviews/
Amplifier for Hifiman Sundara on this website.

If you don't have a DAC maybe Topping DX3Pro DAC/Amp which can be pre-amp for powered speakers and has bluetooth.

If you think you're going to buy other headphones in the future, I also use the JDS Labs Atom+ AMP/DAC stack, which is highly rated and pretty powerful, single-ended, also can be a pre-amp. If you're going to want to consider more inefficient planars in the future, you can buy a balanced schitt dac/amp stack, but they're overkill for just the Sundara's.

This discussion looked at balanced connections only as amp output; i.e. a more powerful headphone connection. If money's an issue, you may not need balanced inputs from your DAC to your amp. If you need balanced inputs from your mic then you'll have to pay probably $100-$150 more, as you know. Otherwise, I would prioritize balanced headphone output ahead of balanced amp inputs, unless you've got a long cable run or are worried about ground loops. I've got a Topping A50s with just balanced output (not input) for my very low impedance and mediocre-impedance headphones,. It's less expensive than balanced for both in and out, but it's probably overkill for even my phones.

(If you do ever get hard-to-drive planars (harder than the Sundara) I use the S9 Pro balanced and it works really well. For a dongle, balanced output will leverage the lower-power amp, except perhaps at the very lowest headphone impedances.)

* If the sensitivity is actually dB/1mW rather than 1vRMS, then the power required is a lot less. (Their specs do not say. "Sensitivitiy" is supposed to be vRMS and "Efficiency" is supposed to be mW, but manufacturers are inconsistent and lots use mW for sensitivity without saying which .)
 
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JanesJr1

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You probably don't need balanced headphone cables using a desktop amp. At the rated sensitivity of 94 db/1vRMS* and Amir's measured impedance of 40 ohms, you could drive a very loud 100 dBSPL with 100 mW into 2v and 50 mA, which most desktop amps will exceed (and which you couldn't listen to very long that loud). Your S9Pro will deliver 100 mW single ended with a 90 amp limiter on current, so you may not need balanced cable there either.

If you're sure you want a desktop amp in addition to the S9 Pro, StaticV3 is sharp on these things and recommends these for the Sundara:

Topping L30
SMSL SH-6
Sabaj A10H

See his and other postings at Forums/Audio, Audio, Audio! /Headphones and Headphone Amplifier Reviews/
Amplifier for Hifiman Sundara on this website.

If you don't have a DAC maybe Topping DX3Pro DAC/Amp which can be pre-amp for powered speakers and has bluetooth.

If you think you're going to buy other headphones in the future, I also use the JDS Labs Atom+ AMP/DAC stack, which is highly rated and pretty powerful, single-ended, also can be a pre-amp. If you're going to want to consider more inefficient planars in the future, you can buy a balanced schitt dac/amp stack, but they're overkill for just the Sundara's.

This discussion looked at balanced connections only as amp output; i.e. a more powerful headphone connection. If money's an issue, you may not need balanced inputs from your DAC to your amp. If you need balanced inputs from your mic then you'll have to pay probably $100-$150 more, as you know. Otherwise, I would prioritize balanced headphone output ahead of balanced amp inputs, unless you've got a long cable run or are worried about ground loops. I've got a Topping A50s with just balanced output (not input) for my very low impedance and mediocre-impedance headphones,. It's less expensive than balanced for both in and out, but it's probably overkill for even my phones.

(If you do ever get hard-to-drive planars (harder than the Sundara) I use the S9 Pro balanced and it works really well. For a dongle, balanced output will leverage the lower-power amp, except perhaps at the very lowest headphone impedances.)

* If the sensitivity is actually dB/1mW rather than 1vRMS, then the power required is a lot less. (Their specs do not say. "Sensitivitiy" is supposed to be vRMS and "Efficiency" is supposed to be mW, but manufacturers are inconsistent and lots use mW for sensitivity without saying which .)
PS I re-read Amir's review of DX3 Pro+ and it looks like it is great equipment but not for low impedance headphones, probably including the Sundara.
 
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wacomme

wacomme

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PS I re-read Amir's review of DX3 Pro+ and it looks like it is great equipment but not for low impedance headphones, probably including the Sundara.
Oh really! That's interesting. How about the Topping EX5? Otherwise, what would you suggest?

While I seemingly fixed my humming problem for my Audioengine A2 speakers with a shorter 3.5mm cable, I'm concerned about interference, and thus balanced cables would be nice. Necessary? I don't know.
 

JanesJr1

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Oh really! That's interesting. How about the Topping EX5? Otherwise, what would you suggest?

While I seemingly fixed my humming problem for my Audioengine A2 speakers with a shorter 3.5mm cable, I'm concerned about interference, and thus balanced cables would be nice. Necessary? I don't know.
If you've got a humming problem, maybe you need balanced cables after all. I think if you do some searches or page through the Forum table of contents, you will find some posts on how to debug humming.

As to amp or dac/amp recommendations, I suggest you consider the recommendations by StaticV3 I provided earlier. He is electronics savvy and I believe works in the industry. He has more insight than I do.

However, I have another angle on it. Consider what family of brands you're going to consider, and peruse the Reviews section here to become familiar with equipment of interest.

For example, Topping has affordable, top-of-the-line performance at different price points. I own a Topping amp. At the same time, Topping has a limitation: no U.S. service presence, so returns and warranty repairs require the owner to freight the equipment to China, which apparently takes a while. (Even for stuff purchased on Amazon.com.) And phone support seems to be sketchy. I picked a Topping amp knowing this, because of price/performance and because I knew that I could use either my JDS Labs Atom Amp or my surprisingly-versatile Hidizs S9 Pro as backup if I had to get the Topping serviced. Despite what I think are troll or competitor rumors on the web that Topping uses cheap parts, there are two or three teardowns on this Forum that show they have good parts and construction. I've had no problems and the equipment gives the impression of quality, so I'm happy.

Yet with hindsight, I probably didn't need the Topping or its balanced connection when I bought my hard-to-drive headphones. My Atom Amp/DAC stack is a top product at any price (it was $210). Not jewelry-like, like some audio gear, but top-performing and powerful; and JDS has cosmetically-luxe models, too. JDS is a U.S. company with a Sterling rep for customer service, the opposite of Topping. JDS Labs is iconoclastic about customer service, a bias against balanced connections for consumer gear, and pursuing good design ahead of mindless pursuit of ever-more inaudibly-low SINAD stats. (This last even though they were the pioneers of a trend to affordable-while-sporting-industry-leading-performance-stats a few years ago, before Topping and Schitt and others joined the bandwagon.)

Schitt, as you know, provides good-performing equipment, including full balanced connections, at good prices. I'm not sure what their customer-service profile is, but you could find out easily enough on the web or maybe on this forum.

And so forth. I'm just saying, there's the electronics on the one hand. and the company on the other.

PS, this is a little off-topic for this posting, but I will say that if you want to use your sundara's as a mobile as well as desktop solution, I really endorse the Hidizs S9 Pro dongle, that I think you said you have. That dongle has enabled me to go mobile with very hard-to-drive headphones, twice a day most days. I also have an E1DA 9038s G4 (balanced) dongle that has similar power. They both have top specs, are powerful for dongles, sound very clean and can take planars down to the sub-bass; I like the slightly more open sound of the Hidizs amp but that's subjective and YMMV. The Hidizs will also run single-ended, e.g. with IEM's.
 
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wacomme

wacomme

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After a lot more reading, I have even more questions/thoughts:

1) Can I connect an Audioengine A2 powered speakers (desktop) to a headphone amp/dac? If so, how? I have rca connections on the speakers? Do I connect them to line out on the headphone amp? Can I connect RCA on the speakers to TRS on the amp (e.g., Topping A30 - for a balanced cable connection)?

2) To where do I connect my TRX terminal mic? Amp? Dac? Amp bypass? There's only one TRX terminal on the mic - not a L and R. Is this even feasible? I can use the USB connection from the mic to the computer, but it would be nice to have more control (i.e., volume control knob) by connecting the mic to the headphone amp.

3) I most likely will buy a balanced headphone cable for the Sundara to take advantage of the additional volume ceiling the Hidezs S9 can offer with its 2.5mm balanced port. But for my home desktop amp, if the amp has enough power, a balanced headphone cable port isn't necessary - though I'll likely use the balanced cable regardless of which amp/dac I use (Hidezs S9 [office and portable use] or home amp/dac). However, if I need amp/dac inputs (e.g., connection to powered desktop speaker or mic connection) I would like them balanced to eliminate electrical interference (see post above).

Overall, I'm seeking an amp and dac (or combo) that will fill my current/future needs:

  • drive my Sundaras and IEMS (Ety ER4s), and future headphones, be they hi or low impedance. Need sufficient power.
  • have balanced inputs if needed - to drive my desktop speakers through the headphone amp/dac - improved sound quality over computer, control volume with amp volume knob, be able to switch back and forth between headphones and desktop speakers, balanced to prevent potential interference (I've had it before and it's a devil to eliminate).
  • connect my TRX terminal mic and use the amp/dac to control it's volume, preferably separate from the headphone volume control - not sure if this is possible.
  • I'm confused as to how the cabling would be connected.
  • Under $500 for both amp and dac.
  • Prefer an internal power supply.
Please give me suggestions for dacs and amps.

Thank you. Michael
 
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wacomme

wacomme

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I will likely keep the Sundara headphones and the Hidezs S9 dac/amp. I just received AKG K-371 headphones (closed for work purposes) and the Topping DX3 Pro+ dac/amp for home use. I will try out the 371's and Topping dac/amp this weekend at home. My thinking is that I'll use the 371 and Hidezs mostly at work and the Sundara and Topping dac/amp at home. However, my concern with the dx3 pro+ is that it doesn't have balanced inputs (needed for connecting desktop speakers?), no place to add my mic (again, not sure if this is even possible if there were TRX connections [or adapter connections]), no internal power, and I'm not sure if it has enough power for even the Sundaras to drive them to their fullest potential.
 

staticV3

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I'm thinking I might benefit from a balanced headphone cable (Hart cables?) for more power - not for volume, but to drive the headphones better than the stock headphone cables. Good idea?
That's not how it works. More volume is the only thing you get with more power.
If your headphones are loud enough with your current Amp, and you replace it with an Amp that's twice as powerful, but run it at 50% volume, then the sound quality will be identical to your previous Amp. That having more headroom improves the sound quality is a myth.

If I opt for balanced headphone cables, should my desktop amp/dac also be balanced?
You can use balanced headphones with both balanced headphone amplifiers and regular, single-ended ones.

I'm considering a Topping DX3Pro+ for a dac/amp combo at home. However, it's not balanced. It also doesn't have XLR connectors if I want to use my Samson Mic through the dac/amp - is this even something I'd want to do?
Even if you wanted to, you couldn't.
The DX3Pro+ is a DAC + headphone Amp. To use your Samson microphone via its XLR port you need a microphone Pre Amp + ADC. They're entirely different devices.
(You can also get a DAC + headphone Amp + phantom power supply + microphone Pre amp + ADC all-in-one device. It's called an audio interface. One example is the Motu M2/M4 or the Focusrite Scarlett Solo)

If I want balanced headphones and the ability to plug in my Mic via XLR inputs, could I use a Modi/Magnius combo to bring down the cost
Again, no. Schiit Modi/Magnius are output devices, not input devices.
 

staticV3

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JamesJr read Amir's review of the DX3Pro+ and noted that it can't handle low impedances.
You answered with "Oh really! That's interesting"
To which I replied "No, not really" because measurements that other people have done of the DX3Pro+ show that it can handle low impedances just fine, therefore whatever Amir measured was likely a measurement error.
 
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wacomme

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That's not how it works. More volume is the only thing you get with more power.
If your headphones are loud enough with your current Amp, and you replace it with an Amp that's twice as powerful, but run it at 50% volume, then the sound quality will be identical to your previous Amp. That having more headroom improves the sound quality is a myth.


You can use balanced headphones with both balanced headphone amplifiers and regular, single-ended ones.


Even if you wanted to, you couldn't.
The DX3Pro+ is a DAC + headphone Amp. To use your Samson microphone via its XLR port you need a microphone Pre Amp + ADC. They're entirely different devices.
(You can also get a DAC + headphone Amp + phantom power supply + microphone Pre amp + ADC all-in-one device. It's called an audio interface. One example is the Motu M2/M4 or the Focusrite Scarlett Solo)


Again, no. Schiit Modi/Magnius are output devices, not input devices.
1) I'm thinking I'm maxing out the volume limits with the S9 and Sundara. Thus, a balanced cable would provide me more volume with the S9.

2) Thanks for the mic explanation - two separate devices. Good to know. How about connecting my powered desktop speakers to a headphone amp?

Michael
 

staticV3

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1) I'm thinking I'm maxing out the volume limits with the S9 and Sundara. Thus, a balanced cable would provide me more volume with the S9.
That's correct. Using the S9Pro's 2.5mm port with a 2.5mm headphone will give you more volume than you can get with the 3.5mm port.
However, what you said was:
I'm thinking I might benefit from a balanced headphone cable [...] not for volume, but to drive the headphones better
That's not correct. Volume is all there is to it. No "control", "dynamics" or whatever else people claim overpowered amps will do for you.

How about connecting my powered desktop speakers to a headphone amp?
You can connect your active speakers to either the DAC's output, the Amp's pre out (if it has one), or directly to the single-ended headphone output. All of them will work fine.
 
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wacomme

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You can connect your active speakers to either the DAC's output, the Amp's pre out (if it has one), or directly to the single-ended headphone output. All of them will work fine.
Is one method preferred over another? And would this be the place where balanced inputs would be advantageous if electronic interference is an issue?

Thank you. Michael
 

staticV3

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Is one method preferred over another?
I guess connecting your speakers directly to a DAC would technically be the best way, but in practice it won't make a difference.

And would this be the place where balanced inputs would be advantageous if electronic interference is an issue?
Yes. Should you have interference issues with an RCA DAC, cable, and speaker input, then switching to a balanced XLR/6.35mm TRS DAC and speakers with XLR/6.35mm TRS input would most likely get rid of the interference.
 

JanesJr1

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That's not how it works. More volume is the only thing you get with more power.
If your headphones are loud enough with your current Amp, and you replace it with an Amp that's twice as powerful, but run it at 50% volume, then the sound quality will be identical to your previous Amp. That having more headroom improves the sound quality is a myth.
Another learning moment with StaticV3. I didn't know that for sure about the audio effect of power.

I have a related question related to the audio effect of network bandwidth throttling. I spend long hours at work and listen to streaming audio. With my Hidizs S9 Pro dongle, I heard an intermittent audio effect that I initially took to be the effect of an underpowered dongle driving difficult headphones (DCA Closed X). The effect was primarily bass-pumping, where bass seemed to suck out at volume spikes. There were other sounds of bass congestion.

Despite my initial feeling that this was the effect of inadequate power, I began to suspect it was a side-effect of other traffic on the office network, even though it surprised me that a network that handles streaming video would choke on streaming audio. I mean, if you can buffer video, then why would audio be hard to buffer? I kept a diary of SQ and sure enough, the problems, while intermittent, cleared up by mid-evening and on weekends. And the dongle works well on my home network. There is also a lower-bandwidth network VPN that I observed re-started itself even after I defeated it on my PC. (I should have charted network download speeds but never got around to it.)

Do you know if bass-pumping is a sign of bandwidth-throttling? I'm trying to learn the technical underpinnings of audible problems.
 

staticV3

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I have yet to experience this sort of interference.
I don't know if it can be attributed to buffering. Sorry
The kind of network interference that I'm familiar with is caused by cellular comms and sounds like this (5MB .WAV download link)
 
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wacomme

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I guess connecting your speakers directly to a DAC would technically be the best way, but in practice it won't make a difference.


Yes. Should you have interference issues with an RCA DAC, cable, and speaker input, then switching to a balanced XLR/6.35mm TRS DAC and speakers with XLR/6.35mm TRS input would most likely get rid of the interference.
And can I connect my speakers with RCA connections to a dac or pre-amp with balanced connections eliminate or reduce interference issues? Or do I need a speaker with balanced connections (XLR, TRS) too to make the system balanced?
 
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wacomme

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Thus, if I can deal with interference issues without the need for balanced inputs into a dac or pre-amp, then the Topping dx3pro+ should fit my needs perfectly fine, right? I could connect my powered speakers to the rca outs, and the amp should be able to handle the Sundaras as well as IEMs (both impedance extremes) just fine. Is there any downside to the dx3pro+ for my current needs? Future needs - hard to say, but for $200 . . .
 

JanesJr1

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I have yet to experience this sort of interference.
I don't know if it can be attributed to buffering. Sorry
The kind of network interference that I'm familiar with is caused by cellular comms and sounds like this (5MB .WAV download link)
Yeah, different animal. Maybe I will go back and keep a diary of download speeds and SQ and see if there's a correlation. It's a very distinct phenomenon: bass disappears when volume spikes. Or maybe it's something else entirely. Thanks.
 
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