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Spend more on Amp or DAC?

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#1
I'm currently looking for an amplifier and DAC for the hd800s. It is my first experience going from "mid-fi" to the "hi-fi" world :) and I'm wondering if it is best to spend slightly more of my budget on the amp or the DAC.

Since I need an amp with remote control support (which limits my options), I'm considering the following:
Option 1: SMSL SH-9 and SMSL SU-9
Option 2: Gustard H16 and Schiit Modius

I've read that the hd800s are pretty picky. Will the extra power of the Gustard H16 help keep the bass tighter (especially if I use equalizer settings with high gains for the hd800s, similar to what amirm is suggesting), or will the power from the SMSL SH-9 be more than enough? Will the Schiit Modius' slightly lower specs noticeably affect the sound? Any other suggestions?
 

RickSanchez

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#2
Welcome to ASR. You may find it beneficial to read through some things on ASR first to get a better sense of how measurements are done and how those measurements apply to some of the options you're considering.

General articles
  1. https://www.audiosciencereview.com/...derstanding-digital-audio-measurements.10523/
  2. https://www.audiosciencereview.com/...-thresholds-of-amp-and-dac-measurements.5734/

Device measurements

I think what you'll find is that it's not about spending more on an amp vs. a DAC (or vice versa). It's really about you figuring out what features you need, aesthetic preferences, build quality, warranty and/or return service levels, etc. for both devices (or for a DAC/amp combo unit). From there you would want to find devices that measure well and fit within your budget. How the money ends up being divided between the amp and the DAC doesn't matter, as price ≠ audio performance.

Based on your post I'll add:
  • Both the SMSL SH-9 and the Gustard H16 are more power than you need for your HD800S's, even when using parametric EQ settings that drive down the pre-amp value.
    • Just look at the conclusions where Amir performs listening tests with the HD-650's, which I believe have very similar power requirements.
  • Extra amp power will not improve sound quality other than delivering the SPL you want without clipping.
  • It is true that the Modius measures slightly worse than the SMSL SU-9 in SINAD, jitter, and dynamic range. But these differences are not going to be audible. With both DACs you're well beyond the threshold for being audibly transparent.
  • It is worth taking a look at the Drop THX 789 and the Monoprice THX 887 headphone amps as well.
  • Why do you need an amp with remote control support? If you're buying a stack wouldn't having a remote for the DAC be enough?
 
OP
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Thread Starter #3
First, thank you very very much @RickSanchez for your detailed answer! I already started reading the two articles that you suggested, which are incredibly interesting.

You asked why I need a remote. Well I have two young kids, and therefore I need to keep these out of reach, and I guess I'm too lazy to reach up so high whenever I want to adjust the volume :).

My (perhaps misguided) understanding of the "dos and don'ts of volume control" is that everything before the amp/pre-amp should be at max volume. If I permanently set the amp volume to a high level and adjust the volume of with the DAC, I asume that this can result in some low level noise in the signal (ex: from the cables) being amplified by the amp and is therefore not recommended. But please correct me if I'm wrong.
 

3125b

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#4
The HD800S is a fairly easy load for any amp worth a damn.

If I permanently set the amp volume to a high level and adjust the volume of with the DAC, I asume that this can result in some low level noise in the signal (ex: from the cables) being amplified by the amp and is therefore not recommended.
That's true in that a higher signal level gives you better SNR with the same noise level. But with the kind of quality DACs and amps you are looking at here, connected via balanced cables, it simply does not matter in practice.

I've just changed from my Atom and E30 stack (230$ or so) to a RME ADI-2 Pro FS (for measurement purposes, 2000$ new). Can you guess how much difference that made for headphone listening? Exactly zero. Just like the measurements would suggest.
If you buy any of those stacks you are looking at, do so for features, looks or whatever, but not for 1dB more SINAD.
 
OP
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Thread Starter #6
Thanks everybody! I think I've made up my mind and I'll mix it up and go with a third option that meets all my needs at a slightly lower price: SMSL SH-9 + Schiit Modius.

Thanks @3125b for answering my question about the viability of setting the volume from the DAC. I totally believe you that in practice this would work without any real world compromise with amps/DACs of this quality. But I also know myself enough to know that I'm a "rule follower" :), and if I go violating a rule like "max the volume on everything before the amp/pre-amp" it will bug me even though the science and the numbers tell me it's ok :facepalm:.

Thankfully, we live in an audio world full of good options, and it's easy to find an amp with good specs and a remote for a reasonable price :).
 

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