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How do I know it'll be good?

Tricky

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Hey,

For about three months now, I was learning about Hi-Fi trying to know how you create a setup, and for the most part, I've got the grasp of it but there are some things that are still a total mess in my mind and I don't know how the hell you can choose without making an A-B testing which is impossible if you don't have a ton of money or have someone that can let you try... Let me resume what I understood and didn't understand about everything :

First the drivers :

Headphones: Quite easy to know if it's good or not, first you can check measurements that are quite consistent since it doesn't depend on the room where it's used. then the audio signature, which can please some people while displeasing others, so that's purely subjective. You can also choose for the technology (planar, dynamic, electrostatic, amt) but the technology doesn't mean everything since a good dynamic is better than a bad planar. And finally, the item himself is comfortable, well build, etc. Most reviewers can give you a good idea for all of that

IEM: Overall it's the same that headphones.

Cable: Some people still believe that it makes a difference, some study says that it doesn't, some says that it does, my take on it if it didn't change anything on my Blessing 2, except the look and the fact that it doesn't tangle as much. So I don't think it changes anything for a common mortal like me.

Speaker: Here is the first problematic one, the measurements are quite hard to verify since it depends a lot on the testing room, I would say that as the headphones you should try to find a sound signature that pleases you, but since there's no 100% valid measurements for your room the only way to know for sure is to test it in your room. And it's even worse when you try to compare with reviewers since someone like cheapaudioman will rank it for the value, while Z review ranks it for his taste, both are great but sometimes contradict themselves. Then you have someone like Andrew Robinson that sends you a bunch of expensive stuff saying that this is the way. So what should I believe? That the Ascend Acoustics CBM-170 SE Bookshelf Speaker is a better choice than the KEF LS50?
The only thing I can be sure of is some universally acclaimed speakers that seem to tend to my tastes (like the Klipsch RP-600m) but even then I have the impression to pick it blindly.

Now the funny part... the electronic

First, the DAC: Well, a lot of people say that it's snake oil, and from what I could try (some USB interface and DAC) it doesn't change the sound at all (positively I mean, a bad DAC can impact negatively). So, from what I understood, you should take anything that has a neutral impact and have the features needed for what you want (in terms of connections and options) and that's about it. And since I would take an integrated amp to decrease the cost I didn't pay more mind to it but I don't think there's that much more about it.

Now the speaker AMP: and here it is the thing that I don't get at all. In theory, the amp is just a device that amplifies the signal of the source. Until there, it's quite simple, so you need an amplifier powerful enough for the speaker to work. To know that you need to look at the maximal watt that can take the speaker and the decibel sensitivity to know how much power you need. Alright, but then, you need the electronics to be good enough to avoid the noise and the distortion. But modern electronics should be enough in nearly every amp to do so, and it's not even that costly, so why in the world would I buy a 10k+ amp from McIntosh? If I ask that most people will answer me that "it sounds better" but if the signal is amplified 1 to 1 it shouldn't have any effects since the goal is to allow the speaker himself to express his sound signature, doesn't it? Furthermore, how the hell am I supposed to know what amp works with what speaker since I don't have all of them in front of me to A B test them. So yeah, all I know: the amp needs enough power to power the speaker, enough connections to get everything plugged in, and good enough to avoid distortion and noise.

The headphone amp: same thing as the speaker one, except that I feel like nearly every amp got enough power for headphones, well for the questions is about the same as above

Equalizer: Anything different from a built-in equalizer from the source?

AVR, USB interface: Well, I see them as a "plug it all in this and it'll work", it does everything but not as well as separate units (usually)

So what am I not aware of? Do you have any well-made guide or something like that?
 
Last edited:

Joe Smith

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Lots to unpack there. I'll let others chime in, but just some general advice: 1. Set your overall budget, 2. Make an "approximation" based on your knowledge to date (you've done a lot of work) as to how you would apportion that down between speakers, amp, dac, headphones, etc. 3. Make an initial list of your top 3-4 items in each category and winnow from there. The good news is that there is a LOT of equipment today where you don't have to spend a lot to get really good sound. It's chasing that final 5% of the experience where people drop a lot of cash, if they have it. I'm 63, and still haven't felt the need to do that. A simple one room setup is one thing; people buying for whole house capability, full A/V room setups or giant listening rooms have different things to consider (all outside my desire or experience).

Some amount of power matching between speakers and the amp is good to consider. This is not a hugely complicated thing. Buy enough power that if you listen loud, you won't have the signal clip. If you don't listen terribly loud, that's less of a concern. For most single room needs, a 100w or 125w amp is plenty.

Speakers have the largest effect on the sound you get. My general advice is to adjust your budget to tip as much as you can towards them. But, there are many good speakers in the $200 - 500 range today. And still great vintage options, if you go that route.

I like a dedicated headphone amp for phones listening, if your budget will allow.

Happy hunting!
 

Joe Smith

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One further thought - it is indeed very helpful to audition speakers when making your final selection. You can go round and round on reviews, but personal preference is the biggest factor. If any hifi dealer options are nearby, use them, even if you don't ultimately buy from them. Unless you audition in your room, of course, it's just an approximation - but far better than buying without hearing a set at all.
 

EdTice

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Hey,

For about three months now, I was learning about Hi-Fi trying to know how you create a setup, and for the most part, I've got the grasp of it but there are some things that are still a total mess in my mind and I don't know how the hell you can choose without making an A-B testing which is impossible if you don't have a ton of money or have someone that can let you try... Let me resume what I understood and didn't understand about everything :

First the drivers :

Headphones: Quite easy to know if it's good or not, first you can check measurements that are quite consistent since it doesn't depend on the room where it's used. then the audio signature, which can please some people while displeasing others, so that's purely subjective. You can also choose for the technology (planar, dynamic, electrostatic, amt) but the technology doesn't mean everything since a good dynamic is better than a bad planar. And finally, the item himself is comfortable, well build, etc. Most reviewers can give you a good idea for all of that

IEM: Overall it's the same that headphones.

Cable: Some people still believe that it makes a difference, some study says that it doesn't, some says that it does, my take on it if it didn't change anything on my Blessing 2, except the look and the fact that it doesn't tangle as much. So I don't think it changes anything for a common mortal like me.

Speaker: Here is the first problematic one, the measurements are quite hard to verify since it depends a lot on the testing room, I would say that as the headphones you should try to find a sound signature that pleases you, but since there's no 100% valid measurements for your room the only way to know for sure is to test it in your room. And it's even worse when you try to compare with reviewers since someone like cheapaudioman will rank it for the value, while Z review ranks it for his taste, both are great but sometimes contradict themselves. Then you have someone like Andrew Robinson that sends you a bunch of expensive stuff saying that this is the way. So what should I believe? That the Ascend Acoustics CBM-170 SE Bookshelf Speaker is a better choice than the KEF LS50?
The only thing I can be sure of is some universally acclaimed speakers that seem to tend to my tastes (like the Klipsch RP-600m) but even then I have the impression to pick it blindly.

Now the funny part... the electronic

First, the DAC: Well, a lot of people say that it's snake oil, and from what I could try (some USB interface and DAC) it doesn't change the sound at all (positively I mean, a bad DAC can impact negatively). So, from what I understood, you should take anything that has a neutral impact and have the features needed for what you want (in terms of connections and options) and that's about it. And since I would take an integrated amp to decrease the cost I didn't pay more mind to it but I don't think there's that much more about it.

Now the speaker AMP: and here it is the thing that I don't get at all. In theory, the amp is just a device that amplifies the signal of the source. Until there, it's quite simple, so you need an amplifier powerful enough for the speaker to work. To know that you need to look at the maximal watt that can take the speaker and the decibel sensitivity to know how much power you need. Alright, but then, you need the electronics to be good enough to avoid the noise and the distortion. But modern electronics should be enough in nearly every amp to do so, and it's not even that costly, so why in the world would I buy a 10k+ amp from McIntosh? If I ask that most people will answer me that "it sounds better" but if the signal is amplified 1 to 1 it shouldn't have any effects since the goal is to allow the speaker himself to express his sound signature, doesn't it? Furthermore, how the hell am I supposed to know what amp works with what speaker since I don't have all of them in front of me to A B test them. So yeah, all I know: the amp needs enough power to power the speaker, enough connections to get everything plugged in, and good enough to avoid distortion and noise.

The headphone amp: same thing as the speaker one, except that I feel like nearly every amp got enough power for headphones, well for the questions is about the same as above

Equalizer: Anything different from a built equalizer from the source?

AVR, USB interface: Well, I see them as a "plug it all in this and it'll work", it does everything but not as well as separate units (usually)

So what am I not aware of? Do you have any well-made guide or something like that?
What are you trying to setup? A two-channel stereo system, home theater, or hybrid?! That would help a lot and will get you some nice starting recommendations. Also what is your room size?
 

DVDdoug

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Speakers have the largest effect on the sound you get.
Right!!! (And you need enough power to drive them, which isn't much of an issue with most receivers in a typical home listening situation. (About 100W is usually more than enough.)

it is indeed very helpful to audition speakers when making your final selection.
Right!! You don't necessarily have to buy something from the store but it should give you some ideas about different speakers.

Headphones: Quite easy to know if it's good or not, first you can check measurements that are quite consistent
Yes, but different people do have different opinions & preferences, and there are preferences for comfort and style and closed or open styles. So, again it can be helpful to try them out yourself.

Now the speaker AMP: and here it is the thing that I don't get at all. In theory, the amp is just a device that amplifies the signal of the source. Until there, it's quite simple, so you need an amplifier powerful enough for the speaker to work.
Right!!!

If I ask that most people will answer me that "it sounds better"
"Most people" wouldn't hear a difference in a proper blind listening tests. And, most "audiophiles" would be embarrassed! ;) The audiophile community is mostly nuts and they might start making up excuses why blind listening tests are invalid.
 
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Tricky

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"Most people" wouldn't hear a difference in a proper blind listening tests. And, most "audiophiles" would be embarrassed! ;) The audiophile community is mostly nuts and they might start making up excuses why blind listening tests are invalid.
So, if I follow you, even if they do sound a bit different it's really hard to which is the best and I should just go on the one that fits my budget and power my gear while having options that I need? No need to go further than that?
For the headphones I agree, if they sound good but are unbearable (I look at you etymotic iem...) it's not a good headphone to buy.
 
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Tricky

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Speakers have the largest effect on the sound you get. My general advice is to adjust your budget to tip as much as you can towards them. But, there are many good speakers in the $200 - 500 range today. And still great vintage options, if you go that route.
So no needs to spare thousands of dollars to get a good setup, that I understood. But at which point are we spending for the 5% you spoke about? Is it at 1k+? 2k+? I tried some headphones in a store by testing one after the other in each price tier. As I can say some are clearly overpriced, the Audeze LCD 5 was clearly something else compared to the Sennheiser HD 660 (while being 10 times the price), so what is the price range that you would consider as a "sweet spot"?
 
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Tricky

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What are you trying to setup? A two-channel stereo system, home theater, or hybrid?! That would help a lot and will get you some nice starting recommendations. Also what is your room size?
More than recommendations, I want to learn how to make those choices. I'm the type of person that wants to get a grasp of everything, and since I was a bit frustrated about some things that I couldn't figure out, I asked here to understand what is the difference between 1 amp and the other outside of power
 

EdTice

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More than recommendations, I want to learn how to make those choices. I'm the type of person that wants to get a grasp of everything, and since I was a bit frustrated about some things that I couldn't figure out, I asked here to understand what is the difference between 1 amp and the other outside of power
If you want to compare amps specifically, other than power output, there is the noise/distortion curve. Audio is a big subject and so you're not going to get a grasp of everything right away. That would be like saying you want to get a grasp of special relativity. You will have to start with the most important things. For amplifiers, specifically, there is noise floor and then incremental noise/distortion. Amir posts these graphs for every amplifier that he tests. This can be expressed either as a percentage or the inverse, SINAD. The reason the graph matters is that some amplifiers will sound better relatively quiet, some will sound better louder, and others (usually much more expensive) will sound good at the quietest and loudest levels. It is rare conditions where one needs more power in amplifiers. Desktop amps are around 40wpc and stereo/home theater amps are all around 100wpc. That's because those work for the vast majority of situations. Rather than trying to learn everything in general at first (which is a big subject), why don't you start by learning enough to ensure that you can setup something with confidence and start enjoying it and build your knowledge from there?
 

LTig

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i think what you've detected about importance is right on spot - congratulations!

Whatever you're looking for, the most important choice are the speakers. If you go with active speakers you don't need to worry about the power amp any more (Edit: make sure that hiss aka signal to noise is good enough). I've gone active in 2004 and all systems in our flat were changed to active in the following years. The ratio of sound quality to price is hard to beat.

The next step is to ensure that the speakers perform at their best in your room. That means invest in a measurement microphone like the Umik and use REW (free) to measure the frequency response in your room. Try to fix problems with room treatment and/or better positioning of both speakers and listener first, and fix the remaining problems (believe me they will exist) with room EQ.

The latter means that you need an EQ somewhere in your chain. Nowadays where many people use some kind of computer to play music a free software EQ is all you need. Otherwise you'll need a hardware EQ like the Behringer DEQ2496 Ultracurve Pro or a DAC with builtin EQ like the RME ADI-2 DAC, or an AVR or AVP with builtin room correction.

Don't worry about anything in front of the power amp/active speaker. Problems there are minor if the speaker/room problems haven't been fixed before.
 

krabapple

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So, if I follow you, even if they do sound a bit different it's really hard to which is the best

More fundamentally it means that even if people report that they 'sound different', much less 'better', that could well be due to something as trivial as different volume control settings on the amps. Or due to the way the amp looks, or what preconceived notions the listener brought with them when comparing. Nothing to do with the intrinsic 'sound' of the amp.


and I should just go on the one that fits my budget and power my gear while having options that I need? No need to go further than that?

Correct. Unless what you actually want is a receiver --- preamp + amp -- and have any interest in home theater/multichannel sound, and any interest in performing acoustic 'room correction' to improve the sound.

If any of that's true you also have to consider what *features* your hardware offers apart from simple amplification.
 

Jim Taylor

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More than recommendations, I want to learn how to make those choices.

Well, @EdTice was trying to help you with that. Larger rooms usually benefit from higher output, unless you're in love with nearfield. I doubt that you are, because you're looking for good 'phones. Also, multispeaker playback can both give you different benefits and cause different problems than 2-channel playback. The soundfields are different, so you'll need to tell us which one you prefer.

I also notice that you used the word "good" several times. People can tell you what is more "accurate", but no one can tell you what is "good" for you; only you can do that. 'Accurate" is impersonal, "good" is personal.

So stick around and be patient. There will be more people soon to help (and probably confuse) you. ;) Jim
 

Joe Smith

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So no needs to spare thousands of dollars to get a good setup, that I understood. But at which point are we spending for the 5% you spoke about? Is it at 1k+? 2k+? I tried some headphones in a store by testing one after the other in each price tier. As I can say some are clearly overpriced, the Audeze LCD 5 was clearly something else compared to the Sennheiser HD 660 (while being 10 times the price), so what is the price range that you would consider as a "sweet spot"?
I'd point back to budget on this. My personal view is, you can get awesome sound with say a $700 speaker budget. But the sky's the limit when it comes to speakers, really. You pay more for really low (<50hz) , clean, but gut-punching bass. You pay more for really delicate high treble. You pay more for a noticeably impressive soundstage. You pay more, more, more for the aesthetics and luxurious finishes. It's a little like wine. Can I taste the difference between a $10 bottle and a $110 bottle? Yes, usually, Do I hate drinking the $10 wine? No, and I can drink more of it.
 
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Tricky

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If you want to compare amps specifically, other than power output, there is the noise/distortion curve. Audio is a big subject and so you're not going to get a grasp of everything right away. That would be like saying you want to get a grasp of special relativity. You will have to start with the most important things. For amplifiers, specifically, there is noise floor and then incremental noise/distortion. Amir posts these graphs for every amplifier that he tests. This can be expressed either as a percentage or the inverse, SINAD. The reason the graph matters is that some amplifiers will sound better relatively quiet, some will sound better louder, and others (usually much more expensive) will sound good at the quietest and loudest levels. It is rare conditions where one needs more power in amplifiers. Desktop amps are around 40wpc and stereo/home theater amps are all around 100wpc. That's because those work for the vast majority of situations. Rather than trying to learn everything in general at first (which is a big subject), why don't you start by learning enough to ensure that you can setup something with confidence and start enjoying it and build your knowledge from there?

Well, I know that I won't get a degree in sound engineering after reading a few articles and posts about Hi-Fi. But I'm trying my best to get at least a good overview of it :)
And yeah those measurements seem to be part of the answer that I'm looking for ^^ I'm in the process of learning to read it properly, this website is an amazing resource.
For the reason that push me to learn as much as I can is that I'm a bit of a perfectionist wanting to do everything right from the start, I don't want to buy pieces for a setup that I'm going to replace "because I didn't knew that at the time", I'm far from rich and I think that audio can be a good investment since a good Hi-Fi system can last your whole life, I'm not planning on upgrading it afterward.
And the topic is interesting so I love to learn about it :D
 

EdTice

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Well, I know that I won't get a degree in sound engineering after reading a few articles and posts about Hi-Fi. But I'm trying my best to get at least a good overview of it :)
And yeah those measurements seem to be part of the answer that I'm looking for ^^ I'm in the process of learning to read it properly, this website is an amazing resource.
For the reason that push me to learn as much as I can is that I'm a bit of a perfectionist wanting to do everything right from the start, I don't want to buy pieces for a setup that I'm going to replace "because I didn't knew that at the time", I'm far from rich and I think that audio can be a good investment since a good Hi-Fi system can last your whole life, I'm not planning on upgrading it afterward.
And the topic is interesting so I love to learn about it :D
Keep in mind that audio is getting better and better *because* quantitative measurements now exist. I own some *great* vintage equipment for which I paid hundreds of dollars. But the original owners paid thousands. A set of speakers that retailed for $2500 a decade ago are now bested by the JBL 530s that you can get for $250 a pair on sale. Yeah there is a lot to read and learn and, unfortunately, we've all made mistakes and bought equipment that we thought was great for our situation only to have to return, resell, or repurpose it (i.e. the speakers that sound great in my bedroom but were awful in my living room). There's always something you don't anticipate. The good news is you will rarely do awful. i.e. you might by four components and three out of four work great for your situation and one has to be "upgraded." If I had to do it all over again I would probably not have bought any AVRs new! The used market is flooded.
 

RickSanchez

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The next step is to ensure that the speakers perform at their best in your room. That means invest in a measurement microphone like the Umik and use REW (free) to measure the frequency response in your room. Try to fix problems with room treatment and/or better positioning of both speakers and listener first, and fix the remaining problems (believe me they will exist) with room EQ.

The latter means that you need an EQ somewhere in your chain. Nowadays where many people use some kind of computer to play music a free software EQ is all you need. Otherwise you'll need a hardware EQ like the Behringer DEQ2496 Ultracurve Pro or a DAC with builtin EQ like the RME ADI-2 DAC, or an AVR or AVP with builtin room correction.
+1

@Tricky : these comments by @LTig are really important. It's not just about what equipment that you by, but how you make the most of the equipment that you buy. And that is done via EQ. Purchasing quality speakers is important, but you still need to put in the effort to take your own measurements and EQ as needed. EQ will allow you to get the most out of your speakers because it helps you integrate your mains with your subwoofers, it adjusts the output to the specific quirks of your room, it compensates for your primary listening position, etc.
 

Galliardist

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I want to come specifically to the original comments about headphones, since everything else seems to be covered.

Go to any of Amir's headphone review and read the disclaimer. Headphone measurements are not 100% reliable, and on top of that your ears (physical shape, not the golden ear stuff) affect the results.

You should aim to have EQ for the headphones (do as I say not as I do) and sufficiently low distortion that you can apply a fair bit of boost at the right points, especially in the bass. If you can meet that (the reviews on this site are useful) then you don't have to use the current Harman curve, but you can start from that point with no problem.

On a separate point, if you can find a good store for demonstration purposes - and they have what you want - do buy there, even if you are paying more. Be gentle but firm when it comes to them trying to sell you their preferred expensive cables, etc. and pick your ground for arguing other points with them. Most store staff are extremely subjectivist, and some are real know-it-alls. From being thrown out of the shop after my first system demo back in 1979 (I preferred a different turntable to the de-rigeur Dual 505) to this year (I wanted some cheap balanced cables for my over the top electronic purchases, not multi-hundred dollar snake oil RCA that they had in stock, and you should have seen the look of horror on the young guy's face at that!) I've found that audio is one case where the customer is rarely right.

Headphones are the one product where you really need a store with open-minded and helpful staff, though, and demos should really otherwise be about features and reassurance that you can live with the product, unless you really want a distorting product's properties in your system. If you can find a store that will let you find out what you want, rather than force their products on you, help to keep them in business. Amazon will always have another customer, a good dealer may not.
 

ADU

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+1

@Tricky : these comments by @LTig are really important. It's not just about what equipment that you by, but how you make the most of the equipment that you buy. And that is done via EQ. Purchasing quality speakers is important, but you still need to put in the effort to take your own measurements and EQ as needed. EQ will allow you to get the most out of your speakers because it helps you integrate your mains with your subwoofers, it adjusts the output to the specific quirks of your room, it compensates for your primary listening position, etc.

EQ can fix many sins on both headphones and speakers. If you are a beginner to this kind of thing though, then I would try to start with components that measure pretty well to begin with, because EQ can be a bit of rabbit hole for some kinds of devices. :)

That's a bit easier with speakers, now that we have more reliable spinorama data for comparison from sites like ASR and EAC (Erin's Audio Corner), and some of the vendors. It's still a little bit more of a challenge with headphones though. So I would still pay a little more attention to the reviewers and user feedback (and also your own ears, if possible) on the HPs, rather than relying just on measurements there.

As far as frequency response is concerned, generally speaking, a speaker with a very flat on-axis/direct response, and a fairly smooth off-axis response that slopes more downward (I usually look at sound power for this) will get the job done. Many speakers will have a little depression or plateau somewhere around 2 to 2.5 kHz in the upper midrange of their off-axis/sound power response, where the midrange driver and tweeter cross over, which is normal. So I would not sweat that too much, if you see it on a spinorama graph... unless it's a more pronounced dip.

There are also some electronically-calibrated speakers with built-in DSP which are capable of achieving an extremely linear slope in their off-axis response, in addition to a very flat on-axis response. But those are more the exception than the rule, and can run into some large $$. And I'm not sure they will necessarily sound "better" than other speakers, because most music content is still also mastered and produced on less than perfect speakers (often in less than ideal conditions).

The shape and treatment of your room will always effect the response of a speaker to some degree though. Particularly in the lower frequencies (and less so in the treble). So that is also something which needs to be taken into account.
 
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ADU

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Go to any of Amir's headphone review and read the disclaimer. Headphone measurements are not 100% reliable, and on top of that your ears (physical shape, not the golden ear stuff) affect the results.

I agree with the first part of this statement. The shape of the ear (or more correctly, the absence thereof) will have more effect on the sound of an IEM than a full-sized over-ear headphone though, imho.

How well and reliably a headphone seals around your ear is also important, particularly with closed-back over-ear headphones... If you want a more consistent sound each time you listen to them.
 
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Tricky

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I agree with the first part of this statement. The shape of the ear (or more correctly, the absence thereof) will have more effect on the sound of an IEM than a full-sized over-ear headphone though, imho.

How well and reliably a headphone seals around your ear is also important, particularly with closed-back over-ear headphones... If you want a more consistent sound each to time you listen to them.
Well, lucky me my ears are REALLY average like if you ask someone to draw an ear, that's mine. For my headphone choice, I already committed to the Hifiman edition XS, and I'm sparing for the Fiio K9 pro to replace my amp. Still wondering if the K9 pro isn't a bit too much but that amp is universally acclaimed and doesn't cost an arm and a leg.
And yeah ear shape can change the sound a bit, but as said, EQ are quite useful to improve that.
My biggest problem is for the speaker and speaker amp that are quite the nightmare to figure out and as said by @LTig , there's a ton to learn to be able to choose confidenlty.
 
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