Building the Signal Chain:
When you really dive into the world of great sound, you need to move beyond just which headphone to buy, and really look at the other pieces of the equation.
First off, you need to make sure your song files themselves are of sufficient quality. There’s a massive debate amongst the initiated about whether or not so called Hi-Res is really a necessary thing, and various audio companies have created a labeling system for music and equipment that is certified to as being approved for Hi-res. I’m clashing with the community here, but in my opinion, Hi-Res audio is not worth the money or the effort involved in totally redoing your music collection. HOWEVER, unlike HD vs SD video, there’s a whole range of traditional audio formats, some of which are great, and some of which are an insult to the ears. A good rule of thumb is to use the highest quality files available from the mainstream music providers. I personally use music exclusively downloaded from iTunes, and used iTunes Match at one point to upgrade my older files to the best available quality Apple offers. These files are at at a 256kbps rate, which is good enough for me. Amazon, Spotify and other offer comparable quality, but you’ll want to replace those old bitrate mp3s you ripped in the days of Napster (look it up, kids).
Complicating the sound quality debate is that every band goes through a different mastering process, where the raw recordings are mixed together and compressed for distribution. The painful truth is, I can guarantee that many of your favorite bands, regardless of genre, are very bad at mastering, which means some of your top songs are just not going to sound as good as they could, no matter what you do. Note that even within a band’s repertoire of hits, there will be variances in mastering, so it’s not uncommon to have two versions of the same song, one of which is mastered much better than the other. My advice is, stick to 256kbps AAC or better tracks, and experiment with different versions of your favorite songs to find the one that sounds best. For those nervous about it, a Tidal subscription is a great option for Hi-Res music, and even if you don’t believe in being able to hear the improved resolution, they tend to use superior masterings of songs when available.
In the modern world, every device that produces sound has two critical circuits. The first is a digital to analog converter, or DAC. Dac’s take the digital 1s and 0s and convert them into an analog wave, as all headphones and speakers are themselves analog.
The second is an amplifier, which takes that tiny low volume sound wave and amplifies it until its powerful enough to shake the drivers inside your headphones. The DAC translates the signal into something that headphones can work with, and the amp makes it loud enough to hear.
Why does this matter? Because tiny chips that cost cents to make don’t sound very good, and limit the potential quality of your sound. True audiophiles rectify this problem by buying their own amplifiers and DACs to maintain high quality throughout their entire audio signal chain.
Schiit audio is a company purpose built for reasonable audiophiles. Their entry level headphone amp and DAC, the Magni & Modi models, offer a startling improvement over iPhone or PC mediocrity, at a price that won’t result in a custody battle. They’re stackable, compact, and Magni is powerful enough to get very respectable sound out of a midrange headphone like the K702 ——note how we’ve now entered the realm of the audiophile, where an audio system worth several hundred dollars is just “respectable.” The truth is, if you’re not a gadget freak, but you’re a huge music buff, this is a reasonable place to draw the line. I could have been perfectly happy here, if I hadn’t been ruined by superior technology.
Once you go from integrated to a basic discrete DAC, the upgrades from there come with seriously diminishing returns. Unless you’re being pulled hard into the gravity well of the audiophile world, the Bifrost Multibit is where you draw the line. This high quality DAC will improve detail retrieval, lower your noise floor, and in some cases improve imaging over an entry level DAC like the Modi. Schiit even has a history of providing paid upgrades for its boxes, so if you want to keep up with the latest and greatest in DAC chips, you’ll likely have an affordable upgrade path for many years to come.
The amp upgrade is a much more complex recommendation, and it comes with a big asterisk. The Asgard 2 is a well respected amp, with enough power to handle any headphone that isn’t electrostatic (those use an entirely different type of amplifier anyway). There’s another endless discussion among audiophiles debating how much an amp can “color” the sound, and many will argue that a good basic amp like the Asgard is all you need. As for me, I use an amp I built myself, of a design by AMB Labs called the M3. To my ear, the M3 offers a wider soundstage than the Asgard and a slightly cleaner sound, but to get an M3 you’ll have to learn to solder, or approach a customer builder (email links are available through the AMB website). Beyond these recommendations, you’re well into subjective quality improvements, so I don’t dare suggest anything beyond this level for components. I’ll also say that a good headphone upgrade will always be a bigger improvement than upgrading these components (unless you’re running a $2000 headphone plugged into an iPhone, and if you are… God help you).
Cables, the great debate:
Any tech aficiando has at some point stumbled accidently into a Magnolia AV, only to find themselves faced with a $100 HDMI cable that’s only 10 feet long, but made out of solid gold and wrapped in Kangaroo leather. I joke, but a large swatch of tech industries have tried to sell consumers on the idea that better cables will improve picture and sound quality. In my experience, this is the best way to waste your money.
I’ve read several “Double Blind” scientific studies, where various cable thicknesses from various brands are compared, to see if the listeners can discern the difference between a cable from just listening. The only time a consistent difference has been noted is at the extremes (where offbrand $5 speaker wire is compared against a quality 12 Gauge cable).
Nevertheless, I’ve heard and compared a variety of exotic cable setups (the latest one being a massive power regenerator strip designed to remove noise from the power circuit feeding into your audio gear). As enthrawled as I was by these intense setups, I’m sorry to report that they generally didn’t improve sound quality in any repeatable way.
My ruling on this is, for digital cables (Usb, optical, etc) pretty much any old cable will work. If it’s on Amazon and it’s got decent reviews, that’s all you need to know. For analog cables, you want something reasonably well built that will shield the signal as it heads from box to box. Get the shortest cable that will work for your setup, and avoid super cheap cables. My go to source for audio cables (and most cables in general, really) is Monoprice. I’ve never gotten a bad cable from them, and they won’t try to sell you on golden wire blessed by dragons.
One final caviat on audio connections… If possible, use optical or coax to connect your DAC to your PC. All computers, but especially desktops with built-in power supplies, generate a lot of noise. There’s also complex issues involving internal computer clocks that can introduce jitter into your sound, which will slightly but noticably affect quality. In the last few years, this issue has been mitgated, and companies like Schiit have done a great job of upgrading their usb boards to mitigate these problems. For most, it’s a non-issue, but if you’re trying to make the most out of a new DAC, I can confirm that optical will probably be a slight improvement to your sound, especially in older dacs. If you’re feeling paranoid about it (like a true believer), Schiit offers a colorfully named Eitr box which will clean up a USB signal and convert it to coax for transport to your DAC.
A quick note: Purchases made through links on this site earn me a commission, which will in turn support the future of this site. I only endorse products that I’ve personally used and loved, or thoroughly researched and genuinely recommend.