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Recommendations for headphone AMP & DAC options/requirements to accompany Focal Elear headphones.

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#1
I thoroughly appreciate that I am potentially going to be crucified for asking this question - so in advance I ask for your patience and forgiveness.

I have purchased a pair of Focal Elear headphones. I own other home theatre gear of a reasonable standard (which I wont get into unless you have any specific questions), but this is my first pair of 'high-end' headphone - this product came up at a price that was too good to ignore ($499AUD = $294USD) and I was excited at the opportunity. I love great quality sound but do not wish to go absurd with the cost with supporting equipment. I will be running audio out from a Denon 3400 amp, a Mac Mini, but most predominantly (90%) a 2019 Macbook Pro 15.4" on my desktop.

In essence, I have spent many hours trying to figure out what is right for me, but I am humbly confused beyond belief. I assume I need a DAC and a headphone amp; either separately or together. However, I have no idea what to buy. Each google search and subsequent review suggest something different. So I come to this community with my hat in my hand, hoping someone can provide me with some advice on what options/factors I should consider.

I sincerely apologise is this has been covered before, but I could not discern the multitude of reviews into a clear decision as to what is right for me.

Thank you in advance for any assistance you can provide.
 
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flipflop

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#2
Apple tend to know what they're doing when it comes to audio. If you can drive your headphones loud enough from your laptop and you don't hear any weird sounds coming from your headphones when nothing is playing, you might not need to buy anything at all.
 

Jimbob54

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#3
Apple tend to know what they're doing when it comes to audio. If you can drive your headphones loud enough from your laptop and you don't hear any weird sounds coming from your headphones when nothing is playing, you might not need to buy anything at all.
+1 on this. Do the Elears sound good via the Macbook headphone socket? Get loud enough for you without obvious distortion? If yes, then stop there. There will be all manner of kit (DACs, amps or combos), some quite affordable, that may objectively be "better" but in the real world, unlikely to offer much noticeable gains if you answered Yes to both questions.
 

Fluffy

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#4
+1 to the above, with a caveat – the open Focal headphones like the Elear tend to have an elevated and muddier mid-bass when connected to an amplifier with relatively high output impedance. You can see it in the measurements here, under " output resistance / damping-factor". A trusted headphone amplifier (meaning, you have the specs for or have been measured) with an output impedance of 1 ohm or lower is preferred to get the frequency response that these headphones were intended to have. on top of that, these are not especially efficient phones, so powering it from a mobile device/laptop might be limited in volume and dynamics.

Generally, what is recommended in terms of headphone amps are ones with a flat frequency response, output impedance of 1 ohm or lower, at least 500mw of power into 33 ohm, and SINAD of 96 db or better. You could do without a separate DAC if you can connect it either to your computer or amplifier (stereo line out), and when doing so don't hear any unwanted hiss or ground loops.

All of these may well be achieved by the headphone jack of your computers, but since they probably don't come with accurate specs and measurements, it's not guaranteed. I do advise against using the headphone out of the Denon receiver, because those are known to sometimes have very high output impedance (and thus will affect the FR of the Focals).
 

Ron Texas

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#5
Topping DX3 pro is a nice DAC/Headphone amp for about $200.
 

A800

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#7
XtremPro X1.
Good enough imho.
 
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#8
Might start with a JDS Atom and see if you need anything after that. Seems like the DAC/HPA are pretty well solved for $100/part or less....If you really want to go crazy there are the THX HPAs, but price increases significantly for those.
 

Tks

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#10
As @flipflop said, unless you need connectivity or something of that nature, your Apple products do well enough as is. So the most important thing you need to answer is, what is your budget, and what is it you're trying to achieve?

If you want one of the best performing amps Geshelli has two varients depending on if you want balanced inputs or not, the 2.0 which is the single-ended RCA version, was reviewed not too long ago and is simply amazing, this guy is selling the Geshelli Archel 2.5 Pro here recently on our marketplace section. You can also get the new Magni Heresey, or a JDS Atom. And if you need a DAC, you can try the new Topping E30, or the SMSL Sanskrit 10th Anniversary MKII.


So you might be wondering, "this guy is throwing stuff at me just like the rest of the stuff I've been reading". Point being they're all really good, and regardless of which you buy, it's down to things outside of performance concerns.
 
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#11
If you really feel the need to buy something and/or want peace of mind, I’m with WesParker, JDS Labs Atom through your custom setup it’s more than enough transparency wise (I assume you’re not looking for coloration/distortion)
 
OP
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Thread Starter #12
I sincerely appreciate the feedback from you all - it speaks volumes (pardon the pun) to the quality of this forum and its members.

I will try the headphones through the Mac to start with - however, the tinkerer and enthusiast in me will likely venture down the path of buying ancillary equipment.

I have taken the feedback on board which puts me in a good position to do some further research and review the products selected. Thanks again!

I'll also update the title of the thread so it is more identifiable and can provide a reference/assistance to those who come after me seeking similar answers.

The only other question I have currently is related to the fact that the cord for the Elears ends in a 6.5mm plug, where as Mac output at 3.5mm. Are there any recommendations for the type or quality of a 6.5mm to 3.5mm adapter - or is it better to buy a complete replacement cord for the headphones?
 
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#13
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#14
Matty Hi

Another Aussie here. I also have Elears (and other headphones) and also have Macs so can speak about this combo.

These headphones scale well and sound much better with a dedicated dac/amp unit. Macs are ok but like many notebooks have some electrical noise and power out might be limited. Some of the newer and more powerful SMSL or Topping combo DAC and headphone units would work well. Atom is not the same value here as it has to shipped from USA and they charge a$60 for that, whist SMSL and Topping both ship for free. The other route is to use your Mac notebook and then an Audioquest Dragonfly red or cobalt. I wil pm you but the real answer is to try by listening if possible. Vincent
 

Jimbob54

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#15
The other route is to use your Mac notebook and then an Audioquest Dragonfly red or cobalt. I wil pm you but the real answer is to try by listening if possible. Vincent
If going down the dongle/ thumbdrive route, the likes of the Meizu Hifi pro, Hidisz S8 (or its cheaper identical twin the Tempotec Sonata HD pro) give measurably better results for the same functionality as the Dragonfly for far less money.. The first 2 are reviewed on this site, I think one of the Dragonflys too. The ones I mentioned are all shipped for free/ little from manufacturer stores on Ali Express. check the reviews on here for key specs like output impedance, power out etc that @Fluffy refers to.
 

Fluffy

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#16
These headphones scale well and sound much better with a dedicated dac/amp unit.
The scalability issue has been talked about recently. Using that word is more misleading than useful, because it implies that the pricier your gear, the better the sound you will get with headphones that "scales" – and that is not true. What's important is the specs (and actual measured performance, if available), and they have a very loose association with cost. The jump from an onboard headphone jack to a dedicated amp is the biggest one (given there is an advantage, and it's not guaranteed), but as soon as you get an amp that have the minimal specs required to operate the headphones decently, upgrading further will do little good.

The only other question I have currently is related to the fact that the cord for the Elears ends in a 6.5mm plug, where as Mac output at 3.5mm. Are there any recommendations for the type or quality of a 6.5mm to 3.5mm adapter - or is it better to buy a complete replacement cord for the headphones?
An adapter like the one proposed is definitely good enough, sound-wise. It will have no adverse effects on sound, and neither a cable replacement. Though I need to add here that the headphone cables of this Focal series are subjectively very stiff and heavy, and a lot of people complain about their comfort. If you feel like the cable is bothering you, feel free to replace it with something affordable. My personal favorite is this Meze standard headphone cables, that are extremely flexible, light and durable (and also pretty!). really no need to spend much more on this.
 
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Spocko

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#17
I thoroughly appreciate that I am potentially going to be crucified for asking this question - so in advance I ask for your patience and forgiveness.

I have purchased a pair of Focal Elear headphones. I own other home theatre gear of a reasonable standard (which I wont get into unless you have any specific questions), but this is my first pair of 'high-end' headphone - this product came up at a price that was too good to ignore ($499AUD = $294USD) and I was excited at the opportunity. I love great quality sound but do not wish to go absurd with the cost with supporting equipment. I will be running audio out from a Denon 3400 amp, a Mac Mini, but most predominantly (90%) a 2019 Macbook Pro 15.4" on my desktop.

In essence, I have spent many hours trying to figure out what is right for me, but I am humbly confused beyond belief. I assume I need a DAC and a headphone amp; either separately or together. However, I have no idea what to buy. Each google search and subsequent review suggest something different. So I come to this community with my hat in my hand, hoping someone can provide me with some advice on what options/factors I should consider.

I sincerely apologise is this has been covered before, but I could not discern the multitude of reviews into a clear decision as to what is right for me.

Thank you in advance for any assistance you can provide.
I recommend the JD Labs Element II for $399 (https://jdslabs.com/product/element-ii/ ) or just the headphone amp JDS El Amp II $249. The reason I like these models is simple: (1) the volume knob is to die for, and (2) sound/build quality is top notch. End game in my opinion is the RME ADI2 DAC because with its tunable EQ it is a tinkerers delight.
 
OP
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Thread Starter #18
Ok. So the headphones arrived today. First impressions are the build quality is great, the delivery box is absurd, and they sound good, but not amazing; albeit, certainly better than my practicality and affordability based foray into headphones so far which is limited Airpods, Airpod Pro's, Sony WH-1000XM2, and Sony MDR-EX650AP. I am of the (perhaps naive) view that speakers take time to run in - at least I find this in my limited personal experience. Over the past few hours of listening I feel as though they have improved (or perhaps it's the beer I've been drinking that is the contributing factor). The commentary around the cable being absurdly heavy is warranted - I'm not complaining at the price I paid, but it does seem like slight overkill, and for desktop listening the length and weight is not practical, as such I'll definitely be replacing this.

Because I haven't decided on a clear direction with supporting equipment, on the way home from picking up my headphones from the office I went to a local electronics store and picked up a cheap 3.5mm to 6.5mm adapter. For curiosities sake, I also bought a USB-C to 3.5mm adapter that had a 'Built-In Realtek DAC Chipset' - it was $20 and returnable, so I figured nothing ventured, nothing gained. Link for those who are curious - specs on the box list 192KHZ, 24 Bit. Initial impressions are the headphones sound discernibly better through this output, as opposed to the Macbook's 3.5mm out. This leads me to believe I need not just something to drive the headphones harder, but likely a DAC too. Otherwise, bass output is not what I expected, but perhaps this is a headphone thing generally?

At this point, I feel I need to admit to being one of those desk nerd/OCD people that tends to buy everything in white, silver/space grey, and that (shamefully) is a decision making factor in something I have to look at on my desk for the next 'X' years. Based upon this, the Geshelli gear looks too homemade (maybe I should just get over this though), the JDS gear is potentially excusable despite being the wrong colour because the design appeals to me (but they are not shipping currently due to Covid) and we have no local supply, and I would snap up the Magni Heresey + Modi if they made the Heresey in silver.

I recognise this is all a complete contradiction, so feel free to put me in my place. I am massively indecisive by nature and genuinely welcome any constructive feedback on what I have said.

Otherwise, I hope you are all keeping safe and well amongst this madness!
 

Fluffy

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#19
Do you mean bass output in terms of how much bass? in open headphones you should definitely expect a more subdued bass respond. Especially compared to consumer level cans like the WH-1000XM2, that tend to have emphasis on bass because this is what the general population likes. You can easily correct for this using an EQ to boost the bass to your liking.

If the color of the Magni Heresy is not to your liking, you can get the Magni 3+ in silver. Both their performance is solid, with the Heresy version just a bit better, but I don't think that difference is audible.

The improvement you supposedly heard with the dongle is probably not because of the DAC chip. Psychological effects are always the first suspect, but if there is a real improvement (of which one can only be sure of if you do a proper blind test to find out), it's more likely do to a change in output impedance or better power delivery. Getting a descent DAC like the modi is still a good idea, just to be on the safe side of things. A modi/magni stack is obviously made for you OCD people.
 
OP
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Thread Starter #20
I apologise for my inability to describe my concerns in a technical way, and again I am humbled by everyone's patience.

In very simple terms, there are many songs that I would listen to on alternate equipment and I seem to get more bass 'feel' on that equipment. I suppose I was expecting more in simple terms. I'm not faulting the headphones, I am just questioning my equipment and setup currently.

@Fluffy I hear you on the 'change in output impedance or better power delivery' via USB-C and had hypothesised that the USB-C output power might be a contributing factor.

In response to your comments re. modi/magni stack - you are right. That being said, the OCD also conflicts me to suggest I should go for the superior Heresey based upon specs and performance.
 
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