Welcome to another official guide here at GND-Tech. This one is about audio products ranging from headphones to speakers, sound cards, amplifiers, and more. This is primarily a buying guide, sorting highly recommended audio products by category and price range. But of course, we will provide you with some basic information on different kinds of audio products and their function.
Although most of us are gamers, gaming headsets (headphone and microphone combinations from companies like Logitech, Razer, Steelseries, and Corsair) are really not the way to go. Especially $100+ ones, not only are they not worth the money, they're complete ripoffs: inferior, dirt cheap products with gimmicks and a name slapped on and a ridiculous price. Much like the old gaming keyboards that used to exist, like the Logitech G15 and Logitech G19.
Gaming headsets are really cheap headphones with a microphone attached. You're paying for the brand name more than anything. Headphone users should always look for audiophile grade headphones. Don't let that scare you, you can get some for under $150. These aren't meant to sound like headphones; their purpose is to make it sound like the wearer is actually hearing the music live, perhaps even on-stage with the musicians. However, audiophile grade headphones aren't designed just for people who spend their life listening to music, they're better for every single purpose including gaming.
On a related note, avoid "gaming" speakers from gaming companies too. They're just cheaply built, inferior, and you're paying for the brand name.
When shopping for headphones, you'll come across Open Back and Closed Back headphones. These are easily recognizable by their appearance too: closed back headphones have fully sealed ear cups on the outside, like most gaming headsets. Open back headphones have open ear cups with mesh or a grill covering it. See the images below.
Pictured below is the Audio Technica ATH-AD2000X, which are open back headphones.
Pictured below is the Audio Technica ATH-A2000X, which are closed versions of the above headphones.
Closed back provides one key benefit: isolation. Since the ear cups are sealed, sound barely leaks out and outside noise barely leaks into the headphones. They isolate the wearer from the environment, and they isolate the environment from the wearer. They can also make bass more present and punchy. The downside to closed back headphones are slightly reduced soundstage: because they're sealed, sound has nowhere to go on the other end. This limits the soundstage and provides a slightly less natural sound. Open back headphones have a more broad soundstage and sound more natural, and can help pinpoint things like footsteps or instruments more easily. Closed headphones generally have harder hitting bass though.
So it boils down to personal preference and your personal needs when it comes to open back vs closed back headphones. If you live in a busy, somewhat noisy household, you'll probably want closed back headphones to drown out the outside noise. If you want headphones for travel, you'll also want closed back for the same reason. Open back is best for quiet, isolated environments.
Another thing to pay attention to when it comes to headphone shopping is the impedance value for both the headphones in question, as well as the impedance value for any amplifier you might be looking at. High impedance headphones require more power, therefore they require a high impedance amplifier in order to work properly. Low impedance headphones should be paired with an amplifier designed for lower impedance applications. But, even more important than impedance is the efficiency also known as sensitivity. This is measured in dB/mW. The higher the efficiency, the easier it is for the headphone/speaker to get loud. This is why the 50 Ohm HiFiMan HE-6 is so hard to drive. 50 Ohm isn't high, but it has a very low efficiency of 83.5 dB/mW.
If you listen to many different music genres, then you'll never find one headphone that's right for you. Different headphones have different sound signatures. You may find yourself in need of more than one.
When it comes to speakers, you'll find both active and passive speakers. Passive speakers need an amplifier, while active speakers have one built-in. Passive speakers are generally recommended, since you can upgrade them with any amplifying source you want. If you have the money, go for passive speakers since they lead to further customization down the road. You'll want to get quality passive speakers, a good subwoofer, and a good amplifying source (be it an amplifier or receiver). Receivers are speaker amplifiers with other functions; in this day and age they usually offer multichannel surround support.
One of the first things people look at when buying headphones or speakers is the frequency response, which is the sound range of the headphones measured in Hz. Lower means deeper sound, with the lowest range being bass. The highest, shrieking range is referred to as treble. Speakers generally don't produce very low frequency sounds, which is what subwoofers are for.
Looking at a frequency response graph will help you get an idea of how the headphone or speaker in question will sound. A headphone with boosted mids (as in there is a bump in the mid range) will make the mids more prevalent and forward, while one with a dip in the midrange will make mids recessed.
When shopping for high end audio products, you'll want to replace your motherboard's onboard audio solution. Why? Because it's cheap and it sucks. Certain high end audio equipment, namely very high impedance headphones, may not work at all with onboard audio. If replacing onboard audio, chances are you'll be looking at sound cards which can be great for gaming. Another solution which is best for audiophiles is a combination of an external amplifier and digital to analog converter (DAC). After all, a sound card is a DAC with other features for virtual surround and the like, and sometimes with an amp as well. If you're getting a sound card, it should be for a gaming/home theater setup where music isn't the priority. Getting a separate amp to go along with the sound card is a good idea for high end headphones that would benefit. If music is your top priority and you don't care for surround effects, get an external amp and DAC, since the best DACs are separate and not found on sound cards. Top tier sound cards do include a decent DAC and sometimes a basic amp, but not exceptional ones. Also, as a rule of thumb, don't use receivers or speaker amplifiers with headphones. You can try it out, but the result usually isn't the best.
It is possible to use a sound card, an external DAC, and an external amp to get the best of both worlds. Pairing a sound card with an external amp is straightforward; just plug the amp into the sound card, usually using two RCA plugs. Using an external DAC with a sound card is more tricky though; since you have to bypass the sound card's DAC while still retaining the sound card's gaming features like virtual surround. You'll need a sound card that supports optical output, and a DAC that supports optical input. So connecting the DAC to the sound card via optical, and then an amp to the DAC, will give you the sound card's virtual surround/gaming features, the quality of the external DAC, and the quality of the external amplifier. This is ideal for people who seriously game and listen to music on the same PC.
A note about hardware accelerated sound and 3D audio in gaming
True 3D sound is a dying breed in modern gaming. Its downfall began with Windows Vista, thanks to patents by Creative. Prior to Vista, many PC exclusive games offered true 3D sound (binaural) thanks to the advanced DirectSound3D API coupled with X-Fi CMSS-3D's 3D sound processing (a technology exclusive to Creative's X-Fi DSP, found on X-Fi sound cards). DirectSound and DirectSound3D are no longer included with Windows, ever since Vista, due to patents from Creative. This, coupled with EAX no longer being used for no good reason, leads to where we are today: games with no 3D sound support and usually terrible multichannel surround support as well.
The one saving grace is OpenAL, a new sound API that has basically taken on the roles of DirectSound3D. I don't know if it's open source, but it's used in some PC exclusive games today and has amazing features, like reporting the 3D positional coordinates of sound effects. Every game should really use it. You can get true 3D sound from OpenAL games by following this guide.
[PSA] For games using OpenAL (including Minecraft and anything that runs on Linux) turn on HRTF audio processing! : oculus
However, those steps aren't really necessary for those with X-Fi sound cards, since X-Fi CMSS-3D automatically does advanced OpenAL 3D sound processing. This feature seems to be absent from modern Creative sound cards, which now only have multichannel downmixing (virtual surround).
For all the games that supported 3D sound through DirectSound3D, you can still get 3D sound in these games with Creative X-Fi sound cards. To do so, you need to download Creative ALchemy. Add DirectSound3D games to it (though many are added by default) by searching for their directory (the one with the game executable). Once added, ALchemy will add a "dsound.dll" file to the directory you or ALchemy chose, which converts the game from DirectSound3D to OpenAL, thus enabling 3D sound processing.
Compared to virtual surround, 3D binaural sound using the methods mentioned above is far more effective at providing positional audio cues and immersive sound. This is because the binaural sound effect it achieves is meant to replicate how human ears work. For a demonstration of binaural sound, watch this video.
Binaural sound recordings like that are recorded with two microphones, just like a normal person has two ears. Two microphones, picking up all sounds in a 360 degree arc, like you have two ears hearing everything in a 360 degree arc all around you. The directional audio you hear in that video is not created by special software processing, it's your ears doing all the processing. This is as realistic as it gets, more realistic than virtualized surround which just downmixes multichannel surround to stereo. 3D sound processing through OpenAL and the late DirectSound3D replicates this sound very well.
Virtual surround also harms sound quality more than X-Fi CMSS-3D's binaural 3D sound processing, so it's worse in every way. So if you play pre-WinVista PC exclusive games, and/or any OpenAL game (OpenAL is still used today), you're going to want to enable 3D sound processing.
Hardware accelerated sound is dead now, due to the death of DirectSound3D and X-Fi sound cards. So modern OpenAL games only have software acceleration. Therefore, X-Fi sound cards have no benefit in such games over software HRTF. So sound cards are no longer necessary for modern PC gaming, because hardware accelerated sound is dead. Just stick to Razer Surround, which is often said to be the best virtual surround solution, and software HRTF for OpenAL games following the Reddit link above.
Note: 3D sound processing via ALchemy may work with newer Creative sound cards, but I can't personally confirm this.
Anyway, I think that's enough talk. Let's take a look at some of the highest recommended audio products, first by brand and then by price range. Note that a high end speaker setup will cost a lot more money than a high end headphone setup, which is obvious given the size and amount of components needed for speakers.
Recommended Headphone Brands
- AKG (monitoring/mixing, accurate/neutral listening, classical/orchestral music)
- Audeze (rock, R&B, jazz, rap, hip hop, reggae, electronic, metal)
- Audio Technica (they have headphones for pretty much any purpose)
- Beyerdynamic (they have headphones for pretty much any purpose)
- Denon (older discontinued models, current production ones are generally thought of as not worth the price)
- Fostex (basshead)
- HiFiMan (most are geared toward a combination of neutrality and inviting musicality and are good for all types of genres)
- JVC (basshead)
- Koss (budget electrostatic)
- MrSpeakers (mostly colored, "fun" sounding headphones, except for the Ether and Ether C and Flow models which are made to be neutral)
- Paradox Audio
- Stax (electrostatic headphones)
Note about Denon: they had some great headphones in the past that are now discontinued. Their newer models haven't been as well received. So below is a listing of recommended headphones by price range. To narrow down your search even farther, find out which ones are best suited to your needs (e.g., closed vs open, genre of music) as you will not find a headphone that's perfect in every regard (except maybe the > $4,000 Stax SR-009 which is still bested in certain areas by other headphones). Some headphones are certain for better music genres than others, it really boils down to personal preference.
Dynamic vs Planar Magnetic vs Electrostatic
There are three commonly discussed types of headphones in the audiophile world; dynamic, planar magnetic (aka orthodynamic), and electrostatic. Dynamic and electrostatic speakers also exist. Almost all speakers and headphones are dynamic. These are three distinct technologies, although planar magnetic stems directly from dynamic. Below is a brief breakdown of each.
Dynamic (the most common) - The cable is connected to a voice coil, which is installed inside a diaphragm. The voice coil is driven by a magnet which causes it to vibrate within the diaphragm. These vibrations create the sound waves that we hear. So we have uneven distribution of vibrations across the diaphragm. This is the baseline driver technology for speakers and headphones, and the cheapest to produce.
Planar Magnetic - Like dynamic, although the voice coil is attached to the diaphragm differently, in such a way that thinner, less resonant diaphragm materials can be used (e.g., the nanometer-thick diaphragms in the HiFiMan HE1000 and Audeze LCD-4, technically the two best planar magnetic headphones ever made). In addition, magnets are installed on either side of the diaphragm (some headphones have just one magnet on one side, others have one on each side) which the voice coil's magnetic field reacts to. This means vibrations across the diaphragm are more even and uniform, resulting in potentially less distortion and more transparent sound than dynamic drivers.
So to sum up the pros and cons of planar magnetic technology:
- (+) Potentially more transparent, less distorted sound than dynamic drivers.
- (+) Seems to deliver sub bass and bass impact better than any other driver type.
- (-) Harder to create a large sound stage (perceived area of sounds). Dual sided planar magnetic drivers are inherently limited in sound stage compared to dynamic and electrostatic drivers, although a fairly large sound stage can still be created (HiFiMan HE-6). Single sided magnetic drivers are less limited in this regard, especially if weaker magnets are used. Weaker magnets mean no backplate is needed; this backplate can limit sound stage. But weaker magnets don't perform as well, and sound closer to dynamic drivers. Is there a middle ground? Yes, through very clever engineering of said backplate (e.g., HiFiMan HE-560, HE1000, JPS Labs Abyss AB-1266, Audeze LCD-2F/LCD-X/LCD-3F/LCD-4 which are dual sided unlike the others I just listed).
- (-) Costs more to produce than dynamic and electrostatic drivers.
Planar magnetic headphones are the ultimate basshead headphones, potentially. Better than dynamic to my ears, but complicated engineering makes it a less efficient technology than electrostatic. For example, the $3,995 Audeze LCD-4 is the only planar magnetic headphone that, to my ears, reaches a level of transparency comparable to cream of the crop electrostatic headphones (Stax SR-007 and SR-009). That headphone is the result of many years of research and experimentation and is $4k. Extremely hard to justify when both of those Stax models are cheaper, and you can get a killer stereo speaker setup for less.
Electrostatic - The most advanced, most expensive technology for headphones and speakers. Also the best. Best how? Well, we'll get to that. There's no voice coil or anything like that. Electrostatic drivers consist of the thinnest diaphragms (an inherent benefit, which is why Audeze and HiFiMan are going for the thinnest diaphragms possible with their flagships) which are also electrically charged. This diaphragm is suspended between two metal plates (electrodes). The analog sound signal received from the cable is applied to these electrodes creating an electrical field. The diaphragm is drawn to one of the plates depending on the polarity of this electrical field.
No voice coils, no uneven vibrations across the diaphragm. Planar magnetic technology was designed to be a way to make dynamic drivers perform closer to electrostatic, but they still fall short of the real thing. Because of the lack of moving parts, the even distribution of vibrations from the diaphragm, and because vibrations are created and stopped much faster, electrostatic drivers can produce better sound in numerous ways detailed below.
- (+) Much more transparent (clear) sound than all other types, thus far more realistic sound.
- (+) Much better at resolving details.
- (+) More even, linear frequency response, leading to better detail retrieval and more realistic tonality.
- (+) Much faster, more realistic decay, which also improves detail retrieval.
- (-) More costly to make than dynamic drivers, but cheaper than planar magnetic.
- (-) Requires special electrostatic amplifiers. Due to the niche market of electrostatic equipment, electrostatic amplifiers cost more (also referred to as "Stax tax"). Electrostatic amplifiers are also generally more expensive to produce, which of course also contributes to them having higher prices.
Electrostatic technology is much closer to what professional grade microphones use. They don't use moving voice coils. Actually, said microphones are much closer to electret technology, which is essentially the little brother to electrostatic.
I'm only going to recommend over-ear (circumaural) headphones. On-ear headphones are just too uncomfortable and become painful after a short while, I can never recommend them. I'll also list a small remark about the sound signature, quality, and comfort for headphones I've tried or owned.
$100-140 -> You don't really need anything more than $100-200 headphones for gaming, as diminishing returns for this purpose set in quickly.
$401-500 - As a general rule of thumb, if you have headphones in this price range or higher, you should have an amplifier with a similar to much greater value.
But remember, don't just buy one of the above headphones and happily skip your merry way home. Certain headphones are better for specific genres than others. If rock/metal is your thing, Grado headphones might be your best bet. If you got something like my Audio Technica ATH-A900X for metal or EDM, you'd be disappointed.
Also don't be surprised if you get something like a Stax headphone and see it has no way of connecting to your computer. Electrostatic headphones need electrostatic amplifiers. Don't be surprised if you get a $500 set of headphones, plug it into your onboard audio, and be disappointed in sound quality. Expensive gear needs more expensive gear; high end headphones need a good amplifier and DAC to shine, and they also shine best with lossless recordings (FLAC or ALAC music files for example).
If you want headphones just for gaming, go with the Audio Technica ATH-AD700X (or A700X if you need isolation and are willing to sacrifice sound stage/positional audio for it). Combine it with the AntLion ModMic and this will outperform any gaming headset by a landslide, except for the Audio Technica ATH-ADG1 which is in fact an AD700X + a good microphone for a terrible price.
AD700X + ModMic + Creative Sound Blaster Z is about as good as it gets for gaming headphones.
Recommended Speaker Brands
Shopping for speakers is much more tricky, especially if you're going with passive speakers and want to build your own surround system (passive speakers are certainly recommended). So I'll just make a list of recommended brand names.
- Adam Audio
- Ascend Acoustics
- Audio Note (they make some of the absolute best speakers and speaker amps)
- BIC America
- Bowers & Wilkins
- Cambridge Audio
- Definitive Technology - Their BP9000 series are the best home theater front/surround speakers I've ever heard.
- Philharmonic Audio
- Polk Audio
- Sanders Sound Systems
- Yamaha - Their receivers are exceptionally well... received, amazing prices on decent all-in-one 5.1 surround systems too. Their budget subwoofers outperform Dayton's from my experience.
Also look into these companies when it comes to subwoofers, amplifiers, receivers, and related audio equipment.
Some stand-out budget passive speakers include:
- Micca MB42X ($80, might want to try it without the grill)
- Polk Audio OWM3 ($100)
- Pioneer SP-BS22-LR ($130, don't bother using the grills)
- Fluance SX6 ($130, supposedly the best in this price range)
- Cambridge Audio S30 ($200)
- Audioengine P4 ($250)
- Wharfedale Diamond series, if you're in Europe. These usually aren't worth the price outside of Europe.
- Ascend Acoustics CBM-170 SE ($350)
- Paradigm Atom Monitor ($200 each, $400 for a pair).
These are all passive, so pair them with a decent speaker amp or receiver (you can get some for under $150), and an affordable subwoofer like the Dayton SUB series or Pioneer SW-8MK2 and you have a real winner, better than any complete active speaker setups from companies like Logitech and Corsair.
For budget active speakers, look into these:
- Behringer MS16 ($80)
- M-Audio Studiophile AV 32 ($80)
- M-Audio Studiophile AV 42 ($150)
- M-Audio BX5 D2 (should be superior to the AV 42 so get this instead if the price is right)
- Monoprice 5" Powered Studio Monitors ($170)
- Swan D1010IV ($130)
- Swan D1080IV ($170)
- PreSonus Eris E4.5 ($200)
- Fostex PM0.4n or PM0.4d (around $220 for a pair, outstanding value)
- Audioengine A5+ ($400 for a pair)
- Vanatoo Transparent One ($500)
- Adam Audio F5 ($275 each, $550 for a pair)
These have their own amplifier built in, and the Transparent One also has a pretty good DAC built in.
We're aware of the ever so popular Audioengine A5+, but it is hard to recommend for the price. The Audioengine P4 is the passive version of the A5+, and you can combine it with a good speaker amplifier for the same price as the A5+, which would provide superior sound quality. In addition, you can find comparisons of it to the Fostex PM0.4n and other speakers online, and despite costing nearly double, the A5+ is in the same league as the PM0.4n according to reviews/comparisons.
Recommended Sound Cards - Sound cards combine a special sound processor with a DAC that's superior to onboard solutions, and sometimes an amplifier. However, read the section above about hardware accelerated sound and 3D in gaming. There's not much of a need for sound cards anymore, unless you play older games. (pre-WinVista PC exclusives).
Aside from the Creative Sound Blaster Zx, everything below represents a serious step-up in audio quality compared to sub $100 cards (excluding used cards like the Titanium HD I listed). However, it takes high end headphones or speakers to actually notice this. If you have a typical active speaker set from someone like Logitech or Corsair, or a gaming headset, don't bother going with a $100+ sound card.
As you can see, all recommendations are for ASUS and Creative. Creative sound cards have one key advantage over ASUS, and that's game support. Back in the day, games were built specifically for Creative sound cards since ASUS hadn't entered the market yet. EAX is Creative technology, though keep in mind only older games use it and nothing will ever use it again. Creative X-Fi sound cards are the ones that support advanced 3D sound processing in games - both older DirectSound3D games, and any OpenAL game. Again, older games are the ones that truly benefit from this. If you are playing any modern OpenAL game (that lacks hardware acceleration, aka anything released for Windows Vista and later), you can just follow these steps to get 3D sound processing, which should be identical to Creative X-Fi CMSS-3D. Only older games with hardware sound support will benefit from an X-Fi sound card.
Other sound cards have questionable value due to the release of Razer Surround which is a free virtual surround solution on par with SBX Surround, the leading edge today. Since hardware accelerated sound is absent from modern gaming, a sound card, which is a piece of hardware, is just hard to justify now.
Creative has the best surround options, both real surround and virtual. ASUS relies fully on Dolby; Dolby Headphone (virtual) and Dolby Digital Live. Creative on the other hand offers Dolby Digital Live, as well as DTS Connect with DTS Neo: PC (higher quality than Dolby), THX TruStudio Pro for movies (also seems to work as virtual surround), and either X-Fi CMSS-3D or SBX Pro Studio (both virtual) depending on which Creative sound card you have (both are much better than Dolby Headphone, with SBX Pro Studio being the best). Creative X-Fi CMSS-3D is also the only way to get true 3D, binaural sound with hardware accelerated DirectSound3D and OpenAL games, as mentioned above.
Of course, virtual surround isn't flawless. It's basically fake surround designed for headphone users: it downmixes multichannel surround sound to stereo. I personally have a Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD which uses X-Fi CMSS-3D for virtual surround. I don't find virtual surround to be very effective, and it harms sound quality, so I never use it. I only use X-Fi CMSS-3D for true 3D sound processing in OpenAL games and ALchemy enabled games (which are the same thing basically).
When it comes to pure audio quality, the ASUS Xonar Essence ST/STX and STX II, as well as the Creative Sound Blaster X-Fi Titanium HD and Sound Blaster ZxR are the very best. The Xonar D2 and D2X will be the next best in terms of pure sound quality.
The Essence STX and Titanium HD don't support true hardware surround systems (as in, you can only plug in two channel systems). The Essence ST actually doesn't support it either, unless you pair it with the Xonar H6. So if you want a combination of top level audio quality (for a sound card) and true surround support, your choices are the ASUS Xonar Essence ST + Xonar H6, ASUS Xonar Essence STX II 7.1, and the Creative Sound Blaster ZxR. Between these, the ZxR has more features for games and better surround effects.
After these, the next best card for audio quality + true surround is the Xonar D2/D2X. Despite being discontinued, the Xonar D2/D2X have a quality DAC and high end components (PCM 1796 DAC, similar ones are found on the Essence ST/STX, Essence STX II, Sound Blaster ZxR, and X-Fi Titanium HD), it supports DTS Connect (DTS Interactive and DTS: Neo PC), and it supports EAX 2.0. The other ASUS sound cards don't support EAX or DTS.
Although if you have really good speakers, you should probably look into getting an A/V receiver instead of a sound card.
Recommended Headphone Amplifiers
This isn't a complete list, but it lists many of the well known, sought after amplifiers. Tube amps can usually be modded with different tubes to modify the sound. Typically, using receivers or speaker amplifiers with headphones doesn't yield the best results (the HiFiMan HE-6, AKG K1000, and Audeze LCD-4 being exceptions).
Vacuum Tube vs Solid State
There are different types of tube amplifiers. OTL stands for output transformerless, which are only suitable for high impedance headphones like the Sennheiser HD 600/650/700 and certain Beyerdynamic models.
OTC stands for output transformer coupled which, as the name implies, means transformers control the output stage. These can work great for any headphone depending on the amp in question.
Then there are tube hybrid amps, which combine tubes with some solid state components. These amps are versatile and some can work well with any headphone.
So, as far as capability goes, only OTL tube amps are truly inherently limited, and to high impedance headphones at that.
Tube amps generally have more warm and lush sound, but this depends on the tubes and the amp in question. It's usually just a design target to make a warmer, more lush, inviting sound. They can also have some neat "holographic" imaging tricks, creating a more convincing 3D sound, the result of distortion actually. Lovely harmonic distortion. Solid state amps can provide better measurements on paper, but our ears aren't paper!
Balanced vs Single Ended
Amplifiers (headphone and speaker) and DACs are either single ended or balanced. Balanced is more rare and more expensive; in balanced amplifiers and DACs, each channel (left and right, we're discussing stereo equipment after all) is handled separately but not only that, the positive and negative signals are handled separately (amplified separately for amplifiers, duh). All of this creates far more power output and also a cleaner signal that measures better. If you have a balanced DAC, you should use it with a balanced amplifier and vice versa. If you have a single ended DAC, it will usually be best with a single ended amp and vice versa.
Balanced equipment use XLR cables, but not everything with XLR is truly balanced. Some balanced designs convert single ended sources to balanced using phase splitter circuitry, which results in negligible benefits at best.
The same for headphones; headphones (and speakers) can be wired for single ended or balanced configuration. Almost all are wired for single ended by default, so in this case they'd work best out of single ended DACs and amps until the whole chain is made balanced.
To our ears, the biggest difference balanced configuration makes is power output. Some headphones and speakers will sound much better with more power (usually current, but sometimes voltage too), especially planar magnetic headphones. Also, balanced equipment use XLR cables which are better than RCA cables; less degradation over distance.
I will make additional comments about the amplifiers I've tried or owned.
Silver: Should be close to the best amp in its class/category.
Gold: Among the best amps in its class/category.
For those interested in the very best headphone amps, your first considerations should be (in no particular order):
- Apex HiFi Audio Pinnacle (OTC tube)
- Apex HiFi Audio Teton (OTL tube)
- Eddie Current Balancing Act (OTC tube, sometimes said to be the Pinnacle's little brother, close in performance and less than half the price, and more flexible)
- Woo Audio WA5 fully upgraded (OTC tube)
- Woo Audio WA-234 Mono fully upgraded (OTC tube)
As these are all tube amps (I believe tubes provide the greatest transparency), it's necessary to use top quality tubes in them. But if tubes aren't your thing, prioritize the following:
- Balanced Beta22. Headphone amp and speaker amp, ridiculously powerful. YBM Audio uses top quality components and can build you a phenomenal one.
- Ray Samuels Audio The Dark Star, which is also insanely powerful like the Beta22.
- Violectric HPA-V281
As for the best electrostatic amps, I suggest putting these at the top of your list:
- Properly built KGSSHV Carbon (Mjolnir Audio)
- Properly built Nanotube aka Circlotron (nobody openly sells this)
- Properly built DIY version of the Stax SRM-T2 (nobody openly sells this)
- HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE w/ Alps RK50, or an equally well built equivalent Blue Hawaii
Some of these amps have an incredible amount of functionality. This is highlighted in the table below.
There are a few tube DACs, which color the sound so they may not be for everyone.
Get Me Started With Headphones
Below is a list of popular headphone systems for a specified usage. I haven't tried every one of them, but they should not disappoint.
- Strictly Gaming: Creative Sound Blaster Z (which includes a mic) or maybe ASUS Strix Soar, AKG Q701 or Audio Technica ATH-AD700X or AD900X or Beyerdynamic DT 990 Pro, AntLion ModMic 4.0 if you must have the microphone attached to the headphone. $230-350
- Entry Level Reference: Schiit Modi 2 + Magni 2 or ODAC + Objective2, and Sennheiser HD 559. $210-310.
- Bore me to Death: ODAC, Objective2, and AKG Q701 or K701 or K702. $470-570
- Open-back Studio Monitoring on a Budget: ODAC or Schiit Modi 2, Little Dot MK2 or Garage1217 Project Horizon III, and Beyerdynamic DT 880 250 Ohm or 600 Ohm. $650-700
- Mid-Fi Fun and Punchy: Schiit Lyr 2 with good tubes, HiFiMan HE-400 with velour or Focus/Focus-A pads, and whatever DAC you can afford.
- Warm and Cozy: Jolida Glass FX Tube DAC III (aftermarket NOS 5751 tubes recommended), Antique Sound Lab MG Head DT OTL MKIII, and Sennheiser HD 650. $1600
- Somewhat Affordable Universal Hi-Fi: Parasound ZDac v.2 and Beyerdynamic T1. $1350
- Simple Hi-Fi for Jazz, Blues, Rock, Rap, or Chamber: Burson Conductor Virtuoso and Audeze LCD-2. $2500-3000
- Entry Level Electrostatic: Cambridge Audio Azur DacMagic 100, Stax SRM-323S, Step down transformer (from your country's AC voltage to 100v, not needed if you're in Japan), and Stax SR-L500. $1490 if importing the amp and headphones from Japan, a steal.
- Tube Roller's Dream: Upgraded Jolida Glass FX Tube DAC III, Cavalli Liquid Glass, and whatever non electrostatic headphones you want.
- Bare Minimum for the HiFiMan HE-6: Cambridge Audio Azur DacMagic 100, Amp Camp Amp (pretty simple DIY monoblock speaker amp), and HiFiMan HE-6. $1800 (what a bargain, seriously).
- Kicks the Ass of Most Dynamic or Orthodynamic Setups: Parasound ZDac v.2, Stax SRM-353X, Step down transformer to 100v (unless you're in Japan), Stax SR-L700. $2390
- The Best Headphone System I've Ever Heard (and many agree): Ayre Acoustics QB-9 or Holo Audio Spring DAC 3, HeadAmp Blue Hawaii SE w/ Alps RK50, and Stax SR-009. $12795 with the QB-9 and $13695 with the Spring DAC 3 (which is probably better), both if you import the SR-009 from Japan.