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Recommend me a Headphone Amp and USB DAC

Alacris

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Budget: No more than $250 USD all up.

Hi, I've owned a Schiit Magni 2 and Modi 2 since Dec 2014 and while they have served me well, the DAC is unfortunately failing to work most of the time now. I've also always been concerned that the channel balance of the amplifier isn't quite right, so I wouldn't mind getting a new amp either.

A couple of years ago I saw the measurements on this forum for the Modi 2 and how terrible it performed, so I guess it'd be nice to have a component that is better engineered.

I will primarily be listening with my headphones at my desktop. My main requirement is that the amp can cleanly handle up to +20dB of a sub-bass boost. Before you ask, I listen at low volumes and depending on the bass extension and seal of the headphone, I want to allow up to +20dB even if that may seem excessive. For reference, my Magni 2 does this just fine with my ATH-MSR7. On the other hand, the Qudelix 5K I had could not tolerate even up to +12dB (I'm guessing more power is needed for such a substantial boost?). As well as that, I might buy a headphone in the future that is much more power hungry than my MSR7, so I do need to make sure I have an adequate amount of power.

Because I listen at relatively low volumes, I'm quite concerned about channel imbalance. This is why I was considering going for a DAC/AMP combo (like the Fiio K5 Pro), due to digital attenuation in the DAC for perfect channel balance. I've read that going for anything with a potentiometer (hope that's the right word) is a gamble; but supposedly JDS paid close attention to this with the new Atom Amp+ so that might be an okay option for me?

Finally, I should mention that I can't even use the headphone jack on my computer because of how noisy it is (sounds like I can hear creepy CPU noises lol); and I've read that some users on this forum have had grounding issues with some of Topping's DACs (I specifically was looking at the D10s). Because I know my motherboard already has existing noise issues, is that potentially going to have an impact if I get a Topping D10s (or any DAC for that matter)?
 

AnalogSteph

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On the other hand, the Qudelix 5K I had could not tolerate even up to +12dB (I'm guessing more power is needed for such a substantial boost?).
I'd suspect not enough digital processing headroom instead. Reducing the preamp setting and/or digital input levels while upping the output volume setting as required may have fixed this. The MSR7 is quite sensitive at something like 117 dB / 1 Vrms, the Qudelix-5K should be able to drive that to 120+ dB SPL peak.

That being said, the Atom DAC+ / Amp+ combo is basically a no-brainer. The DAC+ has enough dynamic range for 16 bits effective still to be left even when providing 20 dB of headroom for EQ. If you then select low (unity) gain on the Amp+ on top of that, I consider it very unlikely that you'd get anywhere near typical volume pot trouble zones (<-40 dB, roughly below 10 o'clock)... at 103 dB SPL tops, chances are you'd be at around -20 dB, around 1-ish o'clock. Should you ever crave for more output, you can still select high gain.

I also have a hunch that you may not be using playback volume normalization, like ReplayGain. That really tames hot recordings as well.
Finally, I should mention that I can't even use the headphone jack on my computer because of how noisy it is (sounds like I can hear creepy CPU noises lol);
Is that the front headphone out? The blame may just as well be resting with the case (front panel), a lot of them screw up the grounding.
Because I know my motherboard already has existing noise issues, is that potentially going to have an impact if I get a Topping D10s (or any DAC for that matter)?
As long as you stick with an amp with a floating power supply like the Atom Amp+, I don't envision any problems.
 
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Alacris

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I'd suspect not enough digital processing headroom instead. Reducing the preamp setting and/or digital input levels while upping the output volume setting as required may have fixed this. The MSR7 is quite sensitive at something like 117 dB / 1 Vrms, the Qudelix-5K should be able to drive that to 120+ dB SPL peak.

That being said, the Atom DAC+ / Amp+ combo is basically a no-brainer. The DAC+ has enough dynamic range for 16 bits effective still to be left even when providing 20 dB of headroom for EQ. If you then select low (unity) gain on the Amp+ on top of that, I consider it very unlikely that you'd get anywhere near typical volume pot trouble zones (<-40 dB, roughly below 10 o'clock)... at 103 dB SPL tops, chances are you'd be at around -20 dB, around 1-ish o'clock. Should you ever crave for more output, you can still select high gain.

I also have a hunch that you may not be using playback volume normalization, like ReplayGain. That really tames hot recordings as well.

Is that the front headphone out? The blame may just as well be resting with the case (front panel), a lot of them screw up the grounding.

As long as you stick with an amp with a floating power supply like the Atom Amp+, I don't envision any problems.

Thank you the great information. I think you're quite right about the Qudelix 5K; I ended up having a faulty unit so I sent it back. I think part of the problem was with their own EQ software being a glitchy mess. Any time I would reduce the preamp setting, somehow I guess it didn't like the minus value and would go from -12dB to +9.6dB, causing horrible distortion. However, when I finally got the device to work as a playback device on my computer, I decided to just treat it as any other DAC/AMP and use Peace GUI on my PC. It was able to handle some boost without distorting, but was still very limited in its output. I had plenty of volume left if I wanted to listen louder so I'm not too sure about that one.

If you don't mind me asking, this next question is just me being a bit paranoid. I've heard some horror stories of people getting a sudden power surge and their headphone amp temporarily going to an extremely loud value while they're listening, causing sudden and permanent hearing loss. I have a surge protector my appliances go into, so this shouldn't be a concern for me, right?
 

AnalogSteph

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If you don't mind me asking, this next question is just me being a bit paranoid. I've heard some horror stories of people getting a sudden power surge and their headphone amp temporarily going to an extremely loud value while they're listening, causing sudden and permanent hearing loss. I have a surge protector my appliances go into, so this shouldn't be a concern for me, right?
DAC and headphone amp supply voltages are generally regulated with a substantial amount of PSRR, and they are generally using tons of negative feedback anyway. If there is any equipment whose gain clearly is very dependent on supply voltage like your horror stories would imply, I would consider it quite broken. I imagine it could happen with simplistic tube circuitry operated on an unregulated supply, but that's about the exact opposite of what you're looking to buy.

There is no telling what a bad surge could damage in the power supply section, but in many cases I would expect a blown fuse before anything too bad can happen on the output side.

If you're that concerned about mains quality, you should probably be running your equipment on an online UPS anyway (with some form of central overvoltage protection in your electrical installation). Not one of the usual cheap SOHO shoeboxes, but rather a substantial unit from about 750 VA up with a true sinewave output. We were operating a beige era APC 1000 VA rackmount job until last year when it finally decided to call it quits (during a thunderstorm I think...), that thing must have been well over 15 years old. You will often find these cheap on the used market as the prices for a new battery pack tend to be a good upgrade incentive. Battery packs tend to be sort of user rebuildable with new SLAs (which is way cheaper) if they aren't so far gone that battery acid has corroded everything to hell.
 
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