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Some Help with First DAC/amp/HP Please

RAledr

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I'm just starting my audio journey and would appreciate a bit of guidance.

I've been doing a lot of reading on here and other sites, but I'm still pretty unfamiliar with a lot of stuff. I've just graduated with a math degree (from UW, so I'm in Amir's backyard) and managed to stay entirely in the wonderful fantasy land of pure math, i.e., no physics. Learning the technical aspects of this hobby is giving me a great reason to remedy that. So if I say something that seems odd or doesn't make sense, I've probably got no idea what I'm talking about and have misunderstood something.

Between graduation gifts and a birthday, I've got a bit of cash burning a hole in my pocket, which I'd like to put use getting my foot into the door. In total, I want to keep the cost under $1000. I spoke with someone at a Hi-Fi shop the other day about what my strategy should be when putting a setup together. His thoughts/advice was: "When people first get into audiophile stuff, they put too much emphasis on the headphones/speakers and neglect the other components, which leads to good speakers and headphones sounding crappy. It's a balancing act between all the components." My takeaway is that I should prioritize a good DAC and amp leaving room to grow as for HP.

As far as buying HP goes, my understanding is the following: while in a sense headphones can objectively be measured for quality, they are still heavily dependent on preference, and there's no best at everything HP so it's important to try before you buy. That being said, with covid going on, it seems like most places in the Seattle area have stopped doing demos of HP. Of course, one solution to this is to buy, try, and return headphones, but I'm not sure how common or acceptable this practice is considered.

My ideal outcome (which doubtful is realistic because life isn't like that most of the time) would be to get a DAC and AMP that I'll never have to upgrade to get the most out of any future HP I might get, and leave some room in my <$1000 budget to get some decent, possibly blind buy "starter" HP.

My use case would be listening at home in a room on my own, probably not doing anything else, sourcing music from a computer. As for genres, I primarily listen to classical, instrumental, indie, and electronic (not a bass enthusiast, though). For volume, I tend to keep it on what I think most would consider the quieter side. I'm the person who puts on both earplugs and earmuffs when at a concert/sports event.

for amps, I think(?) I'd want something that has XLR in and out, so I could use it with balanced HP, but I'm not sure how much XLR HP out vs. 6.35mm HP out matters. It seems like plenty of amps with a high SINAD score used 6.35mm. Good amps which are probably in my price range with XLR out (based on the review index):

SMSL SH-8S ($230, SINAD: 121dB, 3.9V)
Schiit Magnius ($200, SINAD: 120dB, 4.5V)

Some DACs
Soncoz LA-QXD1 ($200, 114dB, 4.3V)
SMSL SU-9 ($450, 122dB, 4.7V)
Schiit Modius ($200, 114dB, 4.0V)

Picking these out basically consisted of looking in the review rankings table, sorting by Metric Value in descending order, looking if it was XLR, and going "yeah that price seems like it might fit." So please let me know what I should be doing because I'm sure I'm missing quite a bit.

Thank you in advance for your time reading and replying.
 

Bimbleton

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Hey congrats on jumping into the audio world. I strongly believe that the majority of your hard-earned monies should be spent on the headphones first. You’ll get excellent results buying a nice simple dongle DAC/amp to start with. This is from personal experience, but I think others will agree.

A great starting headphone is the new 2020 Hifiman Sundara. It is tuned closely to Harman, and lacks a bit of bass slam. You can give it a try from Amazon, and it’ll give you a sense of what you like and what you still desire.

I tried the Sundara, loved it but found it lacked some bass slam and low end. Ultimately ended up with a 2021 Audeze LCDX ($1099 open box) and a Qudelix 5K ($100). The Qudelix is a lovely little DAC/amp with parametric EQ, which I promise makes more of a difference than buying more expensive DAC/amps.

The great thing about the LCDX is that it has nearly no distortion. Distortion often determines how well a headphone can be EQ’d. With minimal distortion I can make my LCDX sound exactly how I want. Sometimes I’ll swap EQ’s just based on my mood!

After that feel free to upgrade further up the chain, or just stop there.

Happy listening!
 

ziddy76

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I have 3 different DAC and a headphone amplifier. And then I have my laptop headphone output. Which gets the most use do you think?

The laptop.

2nd most get most play is my phone.

I only use my desktop setup when I'm at the desktop obviously, I'm on my laptop far more often. HD58x and Elegia are easily powered and frankly don't find the Realtek DAC to be nearly as awful as some make it out to be.

HD58x gets most play cause it's what I use with the laptop. The 2nd would be Enac wireless IEM with my phone. My best Elegia and R70x get the least listening, cause desktop setup. Just throwing it out there as you consider your listening habits.

I would rather own a great pair of closed, and open back headphone and a in ear wireless before buying a DAC/Headphone. And I'm always looking for more mileage for my money. I see no reason why DAC and headphone amp should never be a 2 in 1 setup for desktop use. Topping EX5 with it's balanced output for speaker monitors is perfection for me.

My suggestion is just keep in mind, audio is simple. Digital signal, convert it, amplify the output, listen on your headphone or headphone. With the current craze with audio and the amount of $$$ flying everywhere, confuses hell out of me. I'm convinced lot of people are just collecting for sake of collecting and they are listening to their hardware and not the music.

Qudelix 5K ($100). The Qudelix is a lovely little DAC/amp

Thanks bookmarked, may consider getting it, for my ultrabook laptop, seems like a reasonable upgrade, price/what it offers. Hmm very tempting.

@RAledr I would probably take a hard look at that. That thing you will be able to use with a laptop, tablet, phone and desktop setup. And then spend the savings on a pair of powered monitors or another headphone IMO.

I used a Schiit Fulla2 with my laptop for long time, but I gave up. I'll proabably get this Qudelix and then use same 3M dual tape it to the lid of laptop.
 
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BDWoody

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I spoke with someone at a Hi-Fi shop the other day about what my strategy should be when putting a setup together. His thoughts/advice was: "When people first get into audiophile stuff, they put too much emphasis on the headphones/speakers and neglect the other components, which leads to good speakers and headphones sounding crappy. It's a balancing act between all the components."

Welcome!

Salespeople at Hi-Fi shops have a different motivation than you do. At least it sounds like he wasn't pushing fancy interconnects...

I'd say start with good headphones/speakers, and fill in with any appropriately powered/capable electronics built within the last 10 years or so and you'll be laughing. Generally speaking, Solid State electronics are the least likely to provide meaningful or even noticeable differences between them (under non-patholigical, normal listening conditions), again assuming they are appropriately powered or spec'd for the task.

Powered 'monitor' speakers can be a great way to go if you are starting from scratch. JBL's 3 series are well reviewed and offer great value.

Congrats on graduating! Now time to learn some applied physics. ;)
 

julian_hughes

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...
Salespeople at Hi-Fi shops have a different motivation than you do....

My favourite understatement of the week! They really do. I'd put the money into the speakers and headphones. There are a zillion amps and dacs out there that nobody can identify blind by their sound, but speakers and headphones have very large and distinct differences and will alone make more difference to your listening enjoyment than all the other stuff combined.
 

Suppa92

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I recently purchased JDS Labs Atom+ DAC & Amp, & I really love it.
before this stack I thought about the schiit magni & modi as well but modi's (even modius) micro-usb was a deal breaker for me. I think for a desktop dac, it should have a more robust usb-b port or usb-c, but that's only for me.

Currently I use it with Blon BL-03. Last week I ordered Verum 1 mk2 as well but based on the comments I'll have to wait 3,4 months for that to arrive.
 

rfernand

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I’m assuming you want to have fun (as opposed to having everything 100% neutral) but still get a good bang for your buck.

I think this would be a very good stack for you, but it’s out of you desired range:

- Schiit Magnius ($199)
- Schiit Modius ($199)
- Dan Clark Audio Aeon 2 Noire ($899) - they’re a magic trick. Seriously.

To get closer to $1000, consider this stack (or mix n’ match):

- Drop + THX AAA 789 Linear amplifier ($299) - LINEAR! :D
- Topping D50s ($250)
- Massdrop HD6xx ($220) - These are the Sennheiser HD650. They are open back, pleasant (warm), and comfortable.

Enjoy the music!
r
 
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ASRaddict

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I'm just starting my audio journey and would appreciate a bit of guidance.

I've been doing a lot of reading on here and other sites, but I'm still pretty unfamiliar with a lot of stuff. I've just graduated with a math degree (from UW, so I'm in Amir's backyard) and managed to stay entirely in the wonderful fantasy land of pure math, i.e., no physics. Learning the technical aspects of this hobby is giving me a great reason to remedy that. So if I say something that seems odd or doesn't make sense, I've probably got no idea what I'm talking about and have misunderstood something.

Between graduation gifts and a birthday, I've got a bit of cash burning a hole in my pocket, which I'd like to put use getting my foot into the door. In total, I want to keep the cost under $1000. I spoke with someone at a Hi-Fi shop the other day about what my strategy should be when putting a setup together. His thoughts/advice was: "When people first get into audiophile stuff, they put too much emphasis on the headphones/speakers and neglect the other components, which leads to good speakers and headphones sounding crappy. It's a balancing act between all the components." My takeaway is that I should prioritize a good DAC and amp leaving room to grow as for HP.

As far as buying HP goes, my understanding is the following: while in a sense headphones can objectively be measured for quality, they are still heavily dependent on preference, and there's no best at everything HP so it's important to try before you buy. That being said, with covid going on, it seems like most places in the Seattle area have stopped doing demos of HP. Of course, one solution to this is to buy, try, and return headphones, but I'm not sure how common or acceptable this practice is considered.

My ideal outcome (which doubtful is realistic because life isn't like that most of the time) would be to get a DAC and AMP that I'll never have to upgrade to get the most out of any future HP I might get, and leave some room in my <$1000 budget to get some decent, possibly blind buy "starter" HP.

My use case would be listening at home in a room on my own, probably not doing anything else, sourcing music from a computer. As for genres, I primarily listen to classical, instrumental, indie, and electronic (not a bass enthusiast, though). For volume, I tend to keep it on what I think most would consider the quieter side. I'm the person who puts on both earplugs and earmuffs when at a concert/sports event.

for amps, I think(?) I'd want something that has XLR in and out, so I could use it with balanced HP, but I'm not sure how much XLR HP out vs. 6.35mm HP out matters. It seems like plenty of amps with a high SINAD score used 6.35mm. Good amps which are probably in my price range with XLR out (based on the review index):

SMSL SH-8S ($230, SINAD: 121dB, 3.9V)
Schiit Magnius ($200, SINAD: 120dB, 4.5V)

Some DACs
Soncoz LA-QXD1 ($200, 114dB, 4.3V)
SMSL SU-9 ($450, 122dB, 4.7V)
Schiit Modius ($200, 114dB, 4.0V)

Picking these out basically consisted of looking in the review rankings table, sorting by Metric Value in descending order, looking if it was XLR, and going "yeah that price seems like it might fit." So please let me know what I should be doing because I'm sure I'm missing quite a bit.

Thank you in advance for your time reading and replying.

Lots of excellent advice. I purchased a Qudelix 5K (~110 USD) for my Thieaudio Oracle IEM and the feature / convenience of this DAC + AMP is fantastic. I doubt I can hear the difference between 24/96 and 32/384, and I would suspect not many would. I think the convenience of the device is going to be far more important in the long run than the specs and power ratings and will eventually determine which one gets most "ear" time.
 

rfernand

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I doubt I can hear the difference between 24/96 and 32/384, and I would suspect not many would.

20 bits or so is where the effective measurement of current tech is. Higher sample ratios make it easier to produce better reconstructions, so more samples don’t hurt. So no, you’re not listening wrong :)

I’m sure the horse has been sufficiently beaten to death, but 16/44.1 can and does sound great with the right equipment and filters, and for most modern stuff, 24/96 is likely to sound better to you on your modern dac than your CD player.

Who knows what tomorrow will bring!
 

nessism

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Topping L30 amp and D30 dac are very hard to beat from the bang for the buck standpoint. These components give up a few features but not much in terms of distortion free listening quality. For headphones the Drop Sennheiser 6XX or 58X are hard to beat. You will have to pay a lot more money to beat these components.
 
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RAledr

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Thank you all for your replies, you've brought up good things for me to consider that I overlooked.

I don't think I had put enough thought into where I planned to listen. When I listen, That's pretty much all I'll be doing, no working, reading, just relaxing and enjoying the music. If I'm listening to music while doing anything, it's generally only to block out other sounds, be nondisruptive background noise, and I'm not actually paying attention to it. It seems pointless to use hifi in those situations when any old earbud will do. Therefore, I'll really only be listening at home and portability wouldn't matter.

Initially, I was thinking I'd listen just at my Desktop. However, I realized I'd probably want to listen on my couch, chairs, and bed as well, and putting the DAC/amp in there would pretty much lock me into using that room. Hence, I started considering other locations I could put the stack and how I might get the music to it.

I've included an image of my floor plan, created by a vacuum robot and paint. The following are my thoughts on potential solutions:

Between the two chairs, there is a table that is semi-central to the 4 places I might like to listen and I could place the DAC/amp there. To get the signal from the amp to headphones, I could use a balanced extension cable long enough for me to be in any of those locations, and an adapter to use with headphone cables. I am not sure if there could be issues caused by this.

To get the data to the DAC, I've got 3 thoughts. On the image of my floor plan, there is a purple line going from the router and modem to the desktop, this is a network cable. I mention this because it would be easy to run another cable along with it to the DAC's location from either my router or desktop. If from the desktop, I could use a USB cable, if from the router, I would need to get a DAC that could work with the network. A wireless alternative that I'm still learning about would be to use a Raspberry Pi connected to the DAC, but that would be down the road (I do love DIY when I have the time). A non-DIY might involve a NUC. The dashed green line that runs along the purple one part of the way would be the USB cable.

I should mention that, aesthetically, visible cables don't bother me at all.

Concerns:
My intuition is that there shouldn't be any quality degradation due to a long USB cable from the Desktop to the DAC since it's still digital, but I'm not sure. Another thing would be the extension cable from the amp to the headphones. My understanding is that one of the reasons to use balanced cables is that they perform better for longer distances, so I would think this bit would be ok in terms of signal quality. From my extremely limited EE knowledge I've been picking up, longer cables have increased impedence. Would this cause any issues as far as driving the headphones go? Also, I'm unsure if using an adapter for headphones which have a different connector might lead to any problems.


1631840894880.png


Some other clarifications, please let me know if these are, in general, true or false:

My understanding is that EQ can be done entirely on the computer in a setup as such: computer -> DAC -> amp -> headphone.
Having balanced out of an amp is good for primarily 2 reasons: balanced cables to the headphone which reduce noise pick up by the cable, and given the amp supports it, differential driving of the headphone.
 
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OP
R

RAledr

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Salespeople at Hi-Fi shops have a different motivation than you do. At least it sounds like he wasn't pushing fancy interconnects...

Actually, he did try to push fancy interconnects. I worked in a neurology lab for a bit. We were having some trouble with noise in our extracellular recordings which seemed to be solved by using "nicer" cables, so what he was saying seemed plausible.
 

Bimbleton

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This extension/floor plan scheme seems unnecessarily complicated, but you do you.

Again, like everyone else, I’d suggest spending the lion’s share of funds on a headphone, and just get a dongle DAC. The differences vs a desktop DAC/Amp will likely be minimal.
 

ziddy76

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Thank you all for your replies, you've brought up good things for me to consider that I overlooked.

I don't think I had put enough thought into where I planned to listen. When I listen, That's pretty much all I'll be doing, no working, reading, just relaxing and enjoying the music. If I'm listening to music while doing anything, it's generally only to block out other sounds, be nondisruptive background noise, and I'm not actually paying attention to it. It seems pointless to use hifi in those situations when any old earbud will do. Therefore, I'll really only be listening at home and portability wouldn't matter.

Initially, I was thinking I'd listen just at my Desktop. However, I realized I'd probably want to listen on my couch, chairs, and bed as well, and putting the DAC/amp in there would pretty much lock me into using that room. Hence, I started considering other locations I could put the stack and how I might get the music to it.

I've included an image of my floor plan, created by a vacuum robot and paint. The following are my thoughts on potential solutions:

Between the two chairs, there is a table that is semi-central to the 4 places I might like to listen and I could place the DAC/amp there. To get the signal from the amp to headphones, I could use a balanced extension cable long enough for me to be in any of those locations, and an adapter to use with headphone cables. I am not sure if there could be issues caused by this.

To get the data to the DAC, I've got 3 thoughts. On the image of my floor plan, there is a purple line going from the router and modem to the desktop, this is a network cable. I mention this because it would be easy to run another cable along with it to the DAC's location from either my router or desktop. If from the desktop, I could use a USB cable, if from the router, I would need to get a DAC that could work with the network. A wireless alternative that I'm still learning about would be to use a Raspberry Pi connected to the DAC, but that would be down the road (I do love DIY when I have the time). A non-DIY might involve a NUC. The dashed green line that runs along the purple one part of the way would be the USB cable.

I should mention that, aesthetically, visible cables don't bother me at all.

Concerns:
My intuition is that there shouldn't be any quality degradation due to a long USB cable from the Desktop to the DAC since it's still digital, but I'm not sure. Another thing would be the extension cable from the amp to the headphones. My understanding is that one of the reasons to use balanced cables is that they perform better for longer distances, so I would think this bit would be ok in terms of signal quality. From my extremely limited EE knowledge I've been picking up, longer cables have increased impedence. Would this cause any issues as far as driving the headphones go? Also, I'm unsure if using an adapter for headphones which have a different connector might lead to any problems.


View attachment 153802

Some other clarifications, please let me know if these are, in general, true or false:

My understanding is that EQ can be done entirely on the computer in a setup as such: computer -> DAC -> amp -> headphone.
Having balanced out of an amp is good for primarily 2 reasons: balanced cables to the headphone which reduce noise pick up by the cable, and given the amp supports it, differential driving of the headphone.

So confused why you are doing all this elaborate stuff when you can just buy a ultrabook laptop for cheap and use that in your media room. As for music source, do you not have a home network? I have foobar setup on my laptop to connect to my external networked drive and my desktop.

Also ultrabook laptops are cheaper than audiophool cables.
 

Beershaun

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I would not run a cable from your desktop to your listening room. I'd recommend using a streaming endpoint and just use wifi to serve your music to your listening room. There are many ways to do this. Apple airplay and Chromecast are the most well known ways. If you are using headphones with a smartphone or handheld device then you can use an app on the device. If you are going to set up a fixed set of components like a DAC and amplifier then I'd recommend either a Chromecast audio or a raspberry pi with Moode audio or volumio.
 

AnalogSteph

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There are many ways of skinning this particular feline. For example, I am keeping a copy of my music collection (sync'd via Total Commander) on a 10-year-old 15" Dell Latitude upgraded with a 1 TB SSD that runs Foobar2000 and Amazon Music, with my trusty Sennheiser HD590 plugged into it as my "bedside-fi" and for general mobile use around the apartment. My PC listening setup is more focused on speaker playback these days - chances are, once you have some good ones, you're not going back to cans. (I'm talking Genelec 8030 / Neumann KH120 class or thereabouts, with a pinch of acoustic treatment thrown in.)

I would not recommend trying to cram everything into just one setup... diversify.

My list of priorities (spending wise) would be Music > Transducers > Electronics. You can cover so much ground in the headphone department with only about $200 worth of Schiit (Modi 3+ / IEMagni) or JDS Labs (Atom DAC+ / Amp+) stacks, it's really quite amazing... and if you happen to have some good onboard audio with 2 Vrms out, you can even plug one of the amps into that and save 100 bucks that way.
You won't have balanced output but a Sennheiser HD600 cable is pretty much as "balanced" as any headphone needs anyway - the important part is keeping the ~1 ohm ground returns in the headphone cable separate, the ~40 mOhms worth of shared ground resistance in the headphone jack is small potatoes in comparison. (Balanced outputs will allow for more output when supply voltages are quite limited, but when you can get over 10 Vrms out like the IEModi as-is, who cares.)

This is what I might be looking at for the PC. I would even consider getting a little audio interface instead of a DAC and running its headphone out into an amp, which would give you access to a ton of good microphones (including measurement, for speaker EQ) and also feature balanced outputs to run some of the many good active monitors from the home studio space - this is where you very much do want balanced connections. Audient iD4 MkII perhaps (in lieu of MOTU's M2 that's forever out of stock due to industry-wide supply chain issues). Microphone choice would depend on how crap your acoustics are, but about $150 (e.g. AT2035) can already get you to the point where you would basically never have to upgrade the microphone itself again, just improve the acoustics. But there's plenty of other choices as well depending on what you need, at all kinds of budgets.

For mobile use around the apartment, you may very well get along with some sort of notebook / ultrabook plus dongle DAC... just make sure it's generally quiet to silent fan wise.
 

ziddy76

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@RAledr Just keep this in mind, buy what you want, buy what you like. Don't conform to what some person says you're supposed to like. If you love the DT990, more power to you, don't let some Harman crazed dude from this forum dissuade you. Don't let someone tell how you should enjoy your music.
 
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JWAmerica

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I don't agree with the guy at the hifi shop. You should spend more on the headphones. Diminishing returns from the dac/amp are reached quickly.

How do you intend to use the headphones? What audio source(s) do you want to use?
 
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RAledr

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Yeah, I was needlessly overcomplicating it. For some reason, I got mentally stuck on sourcing it from the desktop. I have a Microsoft Surface (literally the most helpful thing ever in school) which I've just used for note-taking, but there's no reason it can't be the music source.

My budget has gone up, so I've got some more wiggle room. Based on what you all have said, I think the solution is to have two setups, and I was making the mistake of looking for one thing that did it all. For the two, one would be giving up some performance for portability, and the other giving up some portability for performance.

As for headphones, I watched the Audioholics discussion with Sean Olive, which was extremely enlightening. Based on that, I'd like to go with something closed, and probably one of Dan Clark's headphones. The ones I have in mind are the Drop Ether CX (review), Aeon RT (review), Drop Aeon Closed X, and Aeon 2 Noire. Also, my understanding is that the Noire is just the 2 with perforated earpads.

For the portable DAC/amp combo, I was thinking of the Topping NX4DSD (review). It seems like it beats out the Qudelix 5K (review) in most areas, and I'm not concerned about EQ since I'll be sourcing from either an android or surface, so I can get eq from the source.

Fortunately, pretty much everywhere I'll sit, I'll have an outlet (all with extenders) and a place I could set something. It doesn't seem like that much work to move around a single box and cord in the form of a DAC/amp combo like the DX7 Pro (review) or EX5 (review). However, there's also the D30 Pro/A30 Pro, which probably aren't that hard to move around either but perform better. And it's not like I would be moving them around every time; I might want to switch up where I listen now and then, though.
 
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