The Ultimate Lurker's Guide to a Winning Budget Setup, SBAF-Style

Discussion in 'General Audio Discussion' started by caute, Dec 6, 2022.

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  1. caute

    caute Friend

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    This thread's intention is to gather in one repository, any member who wants to contribute their knowledge, time and experience in creating addictively listenable, superbly ratio'd price : performance setups.

    Are you new here, just looking around, and don't know what to buy? Don't have an account, but still sifting through pages of threads on individual pieces of gear? Are you from Reddit or Discord and searching for the experience that the SBAF community has, condensed in one place? Well, this thread is for you.

    The collective here is dedicating this page to you as a guide, driven by our wide-ranging experience and individual personal tastes, to help you find a budget setup that will actually rock.

    The rules are:
    • Synergy. is. important.
    • Only pieces of gear that have a high cost : performance ratio, or a paragraph on why a more expensive piece is better in a certain case
    • Aimed at maximum availability, even promoting the Piety (and I am guilty of this in my pf post leading up to this thread!) is discouraged because it is, as of right now, OOP. Esoteric gear is fine, so long as it's gettable
    • Allow for personal taste to guide your decision-making, but please explain why gear fits together synergistically, bias is fine so long as it serves a purpose (for instance, off the top of my head, @rhythmdevils, please tell us why your modded orthos are a great deal if you'd like, @purr1n please provide perspective on why sub-$500 Grados kick so much ass, @Merrick this is right up your alley, having owned gear in the multiple kilobuck range still but love a Fulla 2, tell us why it's amazing, @loadexfa—being bourgie isn't bad if you can get a great deal on it! and so on)
    • Total pricing should be under $2K, but if we can get even more realistically "budget" in the around-or-under $1K setups that fucking kick, I'll donate again to SBAF. I love this place, it's full of people who have hands-on familiarity with excellent gear in all price ranges, kindness to share their impressions and understanding, as well as the wisdom to turn that knowledge into insight for the budget space, and I think lurkers and new members alike would agree,
    • Edit: Must be as little nervosa-inducement as possible. Have a great vintage suggestion that you love that is cheap and easy to get and usually doesn't need repairs/recapping? Great, list it (not even sure what this would be, but if it's out there, I'm not against it). Have plans for a wild hunt for some vintage gear that is 9/10 a dead-end except in very, very limited cases that also require knowledge of soldering? Please take your suggestions to another thread. Think of it this way, is it both easy to obtain and maintain? If yes, post. If no, don't.
    Please contribute to this open forum if you have anything to add in the budget category. If I missed anything, please let me know and I'll edit.

    This is meant to be a love letter to all our lurkers, who make up a not insubstantial portion of this site, who might otherwise be persuaded to buy SINAD gear based on SINAD, who may not know about Jupiter Audio Research and what he can do for Sennheisers, who are looking for straight up, the best budget, bang for your buck setup you can get.
     
    Last edited: Jan 16, 2023
  2. caute

    caute Friend

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    I'll start off:
    • Source: Modi Multibit 2 (possibly even a silent/outright v3, but definitely with Unison USB) will be available around Dec/Jan per @schiit's thread on Head-Fi. If the pricing stays the same, hopefully, that's $250. EDIT: Modi Multibit 2 is out now! But $299 instead of $249.
    • Amp: I'm gonna break my own rule here, but I just have an intuition, call it a hunch, that this amp will enter into a second production, the Nitsch x Schiit Magni Piety. There's $150.
    • Headphone: Jupiter Audio Research (JAR) offers two mods to the eternal HD600, the JAR600v1/OG and the JAR600B/v2, the former of which costs $600, the latter, $350. I'm biased toward the B version of the 600 myself, having heard both, the 600B is more open, incisive, and hard-hitting, but either version is sublime. Grab a new HD600 off Amazon right now for $278 (headphone not included with mod)—or go the used route in the nervosa-inducing search for a vintage black screen version of the HD600—and go with the cheaper mod at $350 and you're at $628 for headphones.
    Total for all new gear is a relatively acceptable $1028 plus tax and shipping where applicable. With this setup you will get a truly special amount of competent synergy—worry about cable interconnects later, worry about a better source than Unison (which is really, really, good) later, buy cheap PYST cables, or make your own out of some Canare if you're so inclined. Swap out the HD600 cable for an HD650 one if you really wanna go crazy with it, but this setup stands on its own without anything fancy necessary for it to just work, and work well together impeccably for a huge variety of genres.

    This is admittedly a very SBAF recommendation, each of the three components is a Schlong (our Award for outstanding pieces of gear) winner or nomination. The Modi Multibit in 2016, and in 2022, the Piety and JAR600, v1/OG, however). And though it's really not a great idea just to pick components willy-nilly from a list of past winners, I've heard the Piety fed by a modded Modi Multibit with a pair of HD6XX and have heard both variants of the JAR600 from a Piety and my own Gungnir A1 in my own setup at home, and it is revelatory—rivaling my much more expensive Monolith Liquid Gold X > LCD-X setup, and I can imagine with just changing out to the Modi Multibit, you won't be losing too much from going "down" from the Gungnir.

    I've been listening to nothing but the Piety > JAR600B for all of last night and all of today, I have no urge to switch over to my $1K amp which was whispered into existence using an LCD-series headphone, and which is therefore excellent for planars, nor do I wish to have the more-than-half-a-kilogram, $1.2K value-king (yes, in terms of upper-mid-fi, it's a steal, esp at much lower at B stock prices) LCD-X on my head. Like @purr1n in, if I'm keeping it on my head for more than half a song, I know it's good, and the JAR600 and Piety are excellent together, as good or even better a pairing than my own LAuX and LCD-X.

    The best part? No rabbit holes to go down, no nervosa if you don't want any. I only linked to the Modi mod because I wanted to show off the ingenious things that the community can do. @ext1 or JAR, will mod your headphones himself, no need to even touch dynamat or a soldering iron. The Modi and Piety (hopefully, we're begging for a second run @CEE TEE) will be shipped to your door. All you have to do is buy some cables, or use the ones you have lying around. Easy peasy, more time to discover great new music than worry about your gear.
     
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    Last edited: Jan 2, 2023
  3. Merrick

    Merrick A lidless ear

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    Cool idea for a thread! I do suspect the Modi MB 2 will be $300 with the recent round of cost updates that Schiit did, plus the relative difficulty in acquiring all the parts for it, but still a deal!

    I can go much, much, much lower though. :)

    Fulla e ($109) and 7hz Timeless ($224) or Lethsouer S12 with RD tape mod (~$150). Fulla e is an all in one DAC and amp with a really satisfying huge volume knob that just sounds effortlessly musical. It has nice detail but doesn't sound like it's straining to pull out every last scrap and it's an ESS without any etch or treble weirdness. The 7hz Timeless or Letshouer S12 are planar magnetic IEMs that produce a rich, enjoyable sound without being pushy or being overly affected by the plasticky planar timbre some planar transducers exhibit (don't kill me for that generalization, RD). The result is a relaxing, enjoyable, won't want to turn it off combo that is compact, portable, and offers you plenty of savings to spend on actual music instead of gear.

    If IEMs aren't your thing, the Grado SR225 (in whatever variant you can find) would make a nice combo with this, being easy to drive, inexpensive, and at the right level of technicalities that you won't miss anything nor will you be wasting money on a transducer that is way beyond the limits of your DAC/amp.

    A slightly more expensive but still well within a smaller budget setup would be an ETA Mini S or C ($499) with the Fulla e or a mobile dongle of your choice. Both ETA models are incredibly efficient so you only need a bit of power to get them rolling, an ifi Go Blu ($199) would make a great companion, or a Qudelix-5K ($109). Again, this is portable, convenient, and has better sound than you would ever expect for the price. Of course you could also use a Grado with these mobile dongles or either of the above mentioned IEMs.

    Any of the above listed configurations come in well under $1k, and to my mind represent the point of sanity for someone who just wants to enjoy their music and not worry about gear.
     
  4. wbass

    wbass Friend

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    A note upfront that my choices for a budget system might not align with the general tastes of the forum. Given the choice, I would probably sub in Schiit electronics for the below, but when I moved from Chicago to London and started poking at putting together a budget rig to tide me over till my DNA/EC amps and Utopia and HD800 come out of storage, I quickly found that Schiit is quite a bit more expensive on import than it is in the US.

    So, here's my "get it anywhere in the world" system:


    Streamer: Bluesound Node 2 (older models can be found cheap) or WiiM Pro (shortly to be released and by all accounts just fine).

    DAC: SMSL SU-9. This is maybe a heretical choice on here, but I don't personally hear huge variance between DACs, especially delta-sigma models, so I'm fine with something like this. A pricier choice would be the RME ADI-2 DAC FS, which could actually serve as an okay all-in-one DAC amp for some HPs and most IEMs.

    Amp: SMSL SH-9. More potential SBAF heresy here, but my semi-extensive online searches turned up this as a solid choice that can be gotten easily and cheap in the UK (and pretty much anywhere). It's a THX-based amp that, by all accounts, sounds just like the Drop and Monolith THX amps, only, again, it's way easier to get. It's compact, stacks with the DAC above, has enough power for most headphones, and is dead silent on IEMs. As far as sound quality goes, it's pretty decent, too. It will give you some bass kick and avoids treble nasties. My big knock against it is that it's a bit airless or bland. But it doesn't particularly do much wrong either. There are other solid-state amps I prefer--SPL Phonitor SE or, thus far, Piety--but it's a fine place to start. Note: Don't bother with balanced cables, b/c the XLR out on the SH-9 is a "convenience out."

    It one wanted tubes, I'd try to track down a ZDT Jr, but it's hard to come by these days.

    Headphones: Focal Elex, Audeze LCD-2 Classic, Sennheiser HD58X, Hifiman Ananda or Edition XS.

    I like the HD600 plenty, but for a neutral sound, I'd go with the Focal every time. The HD58X will be a bit more relaxed but not as capable on the frequency extremes. The Audeze if you want a little more bass and slam. The Hifiman HPs for a bit more comfort and a touch more resolution.

    Depending on what you choose above, you'd be in around $1000-2000. Maybe not the ultimate, but very listenable. The SMSL probably isn't forever stuff, but it won't break the bank, sounds fine, can be gotten anywhere, and will let you sleep soundly if you've been seduced by measurement chasing. It's, IMO, a fine place to start, and one can explore nicer electronics from there.
     
    Last edited: Dec 6, 2022
  5. ductrung3993

    ductrung3993 Facebook Friend

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    I'm quite sure that Schitt stacks with HD5-6sth will be the staple here. No objection from me of course, but also want to suggest HD800 + MCTH which has great synergy imo. I used a GO2A DAC but since that is hard to find, a Modi Multibit or Modius should work too.

    Speaking of synergy, I think that should be the primary focus of this thread. We kinda all know that the 600, 650 is good, sames goes for Magni Vali SW51 with amp etc so it's probably useful to give a quick summary of each component's sound profile and how they work together to compensate for each other:

    Example: Amp A + DAC B + Headphone C synergize well together because
    Amp A: Thin wide Sound
    DAC B: lush concentrated but lack mids
    Headphone C: fairly balance minus overexaggerated mids

    => sum all these up together = Bing Pot!
     
  6. Woland

    Woland Friend

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    The best tip for price: performance is buying good second hand or clearance gear. There are loads of people upgrading or moving onto the next hyped thing, but the pace of progress is slow. Superficial scuffs and scratches can make a big difference to price and no difference to sound.

    A great gear setup from 5 years ago + new pads is the way to go. Because it's older gear you will find better quality and longer-term reviews to know it really is loved by owners. Launch hype will have faded.

    A final benefit is that older gear holds its value. Buy 5 years old and sell 6 years old, and you may recoup everything you paid.

    I know thats not quite what you had in mind for a specific setup with wide availability @caute !
     
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    Last edited: Dec 7, 2022
  7. dBel84

    dBel84 Friend

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    Find some old curmudgeon sitting with a hoard of gear in the basement, offer to help clean it out and you have 2 happy people....
     
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  8. penguins

    penguins Friend, formerly known as fp627

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    My favorite "inexpensive" chain I've heard recently is the Schiit Fulla ($109 as of today) + HD6xx ($220 as of today). Plus taxes and shipping probably at about $350-375. +$10-15 if you need an extra USB cable that is probably good enough to not mess up the sound.

    Probably $250-270 after shipping if you buy all of the above used, well under the maximum of $2k, and all readily available.

    Why:
    Fulla is neutral enough and works well enough with almost all other "not hard to drive or gear picky" HP that I've heard on it before. Enough that it can be used to "get a decent idea of what is going on" with another HP if someone eventually gets curious about branching out. It has "enough" synergy with the HD6xx IMO.

    Next Step after Fulla + HD6xx:
    After finding "the right HP" while branching out as mentioned above, the next step would be to go on the gear selection journey... if someone wants to spend the time + money. Not absolutely needed though. And journey because as many have stated before on SBAF and other forums, synergy >>> just buying a bunch of the most expensive gear a place sells and then slapping it together unless you're really really lucky (I'd say less than 0.01% chance).

    Other:
    I am not recommending any particular piece of "more expensive and better DAC, amp, or HP" to start with because:
    1) It's still above what I consider inexpensive for many people - i.e. enough people I know can not just go out and casually drop more than this X amount. For example, with shipping and taxes rolled in, "favorite $125 amp here" and "favorite $125 DAC here" from whatever forum is still a $250 combo + popular ~$250 HP (quite a few options here) + $20 not crappy RCA cables = slightly over $500.
    2) You will develop your own preferences after some listening and experimenting which will then determine what you choose to do anyways as I mention in "Next Step" above.
    3) The Fulla and 6xx are inexpensive, convenient, and good enough that they are worth keeping around even with TOTL level gear. Unless you really need the $250 (used pricing) or just want out of the hobby.
     
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    Last edited: Dec 12, 2022
  9. joch

    joch Friend

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    I initially thought this thread was a great idea. But as I'm thinking about how I would recommend something to someone I don't know, it's really not that easy without understanding what that person is like and what they're looking for.

    I think we can make suggestions, but really, at the end of the day they might need to be doing their own homework on what they want out of it. We can recommend something--based on our own preference profiles--but that might not be what they're looking for. Part of the hobby is the exploratory process, asking questions and finding things out about their music or gear or even themselves.

    PS--I really enjoy reading about what people are recommending that works for them.
     
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    Last edited: Dec 7, 2022
  10. Lyander

    Lyander Official SBAF Equitable Empathizer

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    I think the best course of action for someone new to this hobby and is genuinely serious about finding something that works for them on the higher end would be to get something along the lines of the new Beats Solo or Airpods Pro/Max and see where they'd like to go from there, maybe a Koss Portapro if you don't need the wireless functionality.

    I'm not kidding.

    The state of higher-end mainstream consumer-tier stuff (anything at the ~USD100 price point or above) that isn't RGB-infused fluff marketed at gamer teens with parents who can't say no is leagues better than it was about a decade back, and while you'd be hard pressed to find something that excels at timbre or transient response or headstage dimensions or imaging delineation or textural resolution at that price, you're less likely to be left with an extremely shrill and etched ice pick than you might have been not all that long ago.

    From there, go put a very rudimentary system together (I'm gonna shout out the iFi Zen DAC or the baby Schiit stack as options for a great starting point depending on what each will cost where you live) and try to sample some popular affordable headphones, ideally in a home setting. Stuff like the Grado SR-80x, HiFiMan HE4XX, E-Mu Purpleheart, and the classic Sennheiser 6X0/Beyerdynamic DT880 (250 or 600ohm)/AKG K701 trio aren't too hard to come by nowadays and are different enough in presentation that you'll be able to get an inkling of where your preferences might lie.

    Buy used if you don't mind possibly having to replace pads or get your hands icky cleaning stuff; you'll minimise losses in the "exploration" phase.

    Depending on where you live, there could even be some stores that'll let you hang out to demo without any meaningful time constraint. Borrow from friends if you're able so you can listen at your leisure, because there's a massive difference between critically evaluating something with laser focus and just living with a system for a few days/weeks. DON'T DISRESPECT ANYONE BY DAMAGING GEAR THAT DOESN'T BELONG TO YOU.

    Think of it like working a compound microscope: start with the coarse adjustments (dynamic, planar, or estat [lattermost less accessible]? headstage size? voicing?) before moving to finer gradations (Audeze vs HiFiMan vs old school Verum-style planar approach? biodyna/AlMg/Be PVD/TPU/PEEK dynamic diaphragm? romantic smothering warm cheek caress vs crippling gut punch? wider or deeper headstage with assorted layer presentation? fast and lithe presentation that resolves a lot of macrodetail but doesn't feel as visceral versus a slower, possibly smearier, but more groovy, verve-y, and texturally rich presentation?). That's to say nothing of amps and DACs and how the differences between these things grow inexplicably more irreconcilably disparate the more closely you examine them, and how it takes a lot of experience to be able to predict whether the interplay between all the components in a chain might end up with a sound pleasing to an individual (synergy matters!).

    I really don't think that there's any one easy way to find a sound that really works for you. Just take care not to play favourites with reviewers or take it for granted that, just because someone well-respected in a community or a community as a whole likes something, you'll find yourself enjoying the same thing every bit as much-- so many people in this hobby appear determined to like something just because it's popular with others when deep down they're actually miserable and dissatisfied because it doesn't work with the music that they like or presents it in a way that speaks to them. They then end up churning through gear like a rolodex and claiming everything is the best thing ever because they need to have their life decisions and inability to determine things for themselves validated, even at the expense of others' wellbeing.


    Or really, just stick with the Airpods or Bose or Beats and just have fun travelling, creating art, going on dates, reading books, or appreciating a great day out in temperate weather.
     
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  11. Johnny Opps

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    Not to change the premise, but if I’m letting a friend listen to something that I think might shake them out of AirPod Pro apathy and which they might be able to afford and integrate into their lives, it’s one of two rigs:

    1. 7Hz Timesless or Campfire Audio Andromeda 2020 (depending on how freaked out I think they will be by the thought of a $800+ IEM existing, let alone being in their ears) with fresh spiral dots tips + Fiio Q3 / KA3 + their own phone + Qobuz
    2. HD6xx + Fiio Q3 + their phone (and then let them listen to a Magni/Modi stack of whatever generation) + Qobuz
    For me, the bigger barrier to overcome seems to be form factor and experience/convenience (bigger headphones / IEMs, dongles, not using Spotify) than it is budget. Anyone with AirPod Pros is spending a free hundred bucks on audio already.

    If I’m honest, I have a much better hit rate convincing people to get a nice 2-channel system (by helping them select how to spend $2500, often including used but not always) than I do convincing people to get into headphones.
     
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  12. Ksaurav402

    Ksaurav402 Friend

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    Have seen such threads in past but does any newcomer with disposable income and access to head-fi ever stick to budget system?
    It's experienced audiophile with growing family and diminishing disposable income who come back to budget system.
     
  13. Armaegis

    Armaegis Friend

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    ... or one happy person and one missing. :eek:
     
  14. Jinxy245

    Jinxy245 Vegan Puss

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    This may be the absolute best place to start for those starting out. Unfucked frequency response that sounds good out of almost anything. Sure there's bass & treble roll off and the bass isn't the tightest, but the enjoyment factor will imprint the joy that music listening can give into the psyche. From that memory figure what you might want more or less of & go from there.
     
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  15. ufospls2

    ufospls2 Friend

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    For me, it would be the following

    -Adorama HE6seV2 - $400USD
    -Aiyima A07-$70USD (exchange for decent thrift store receiver depending on needs and preferences)
    -Your choice of sonics in terms of affordable DAC (Modi, Zen Air DAC) - $100USD
    -Some form of aftermarket pads, DCA Ether Angled are good - -$89USD.
    -Speaker Taps to XLR Adapter - $100USD

    Honestly seriously good and enjoyable set up. $759USD

    Alternatively, Drop HD6XX for $200 and plug it into some powerful Chi-Fi dongle for $100bucks. Job done for $300USD.

    Or, alternatively, Hifiman Open Box HE400SE, EQ, plug it into your laptop - $89USD.

    Buying used to max out cost/performance and sonic preferences can change things
    . These recommendations are simply stuff you can buy new and will likely appeal to most ears in some way.
     
  16. Gazny

    Gazny Friend

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    Porta pros($40) & KCS 75 ($22)
    These are great. Intimacy and Vibrancy that is captivating.
    No aftermarket pads necessary.

    For amp and dac, the google dongle or apple dongle and possibly Samsung
    anything past this and you can get lost in the sauce.

    These can lead one in many directions, for better or worse.

    Above this price point for only 600% more I would recommend the Grado sr325x.
    Along the same fit but nicely crafted aluminum metal cups, generational driver improvements.
    Quality is not only sound, but feel also.
     
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    Last edited: Dec 7, 2022
  17. Claritas

    Claritas Friend

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    My #1 recommendation, provided that the person doesn't mind using IEMS, is buy a used Gaudio Nair for ~500 , and use it with a mobile phone, tablet, &c.

    For on ear, Drop Porta Pro X with Yaxi pads or Koss KPH30i, also straight from a phone, &c.

    The best cheap DAC I've heard is the Mousai MSD192. Review by LFF here: www.changstar.com/www.changstar.com/index.php/topic%2C1792.0.html Drop sells it from time to time, for a ridiculously low price. (I think it was down to $199 last time.)

    For a less expensive solid state amp that's a very good all-arounder, I've enjoyed Meier Corda Jazz ff.

    I think buying a Sennheiser HD-6 is pointless without a decent tube amp, such as Valhalla 2. It makes more sense to save up for a decent amp to use with HD-6 than to buy a cheap amp, such as Vali. So buy an HD-6 when you can afford a better amp.

    If one wants a closed headphone, the ZMF v1 (Zach's first T50RP mod) was quite good. It was later renamed ZMF Classic. A used Classic comes up for sale about every six months. It's somewhat hard to drive, but I think a Magni would swing it.
     
    Last edited: Dec 7, 2022
  18. Thad E Ginathom

    Thad E Ginathom Friend

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    Heresy, I know, but some of us never wanted a tube amp and never will.

    More generally, I do think that a decent pair of chain-end transducers is never a wrong choice. They sound good now, with the option of sounding better further down the line.
     
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  19. Garns

    Garns Friend

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    iFi Go blu $199 - like the new Sansa Clip, pint size, smooth unfatiguing, engaging, great soundstaging. Play from your phone. Get Neutron player on android to play back files at their native sampling rate without resampling.

    Sennheiser HD25-ii $120 - I flat out prefer these to the 600/650s. Upper bass emphasis rather than mid bass, bass overall sounds cleaner, same Sennheiser midrange, but very snappy and energetic overall presentation. Use the velour pads and coin mod or they are bass heavy and wooly. Moreover the stock cable really holds them back so you should get:

    Oyaide HPC-HD25 $50. Direct replacement for stock cable, slightly shorter so perfect length, removes the gross graininess of the stock cable, smoother treble, better bass extension, better soundstage.

    Aaand you're done.
     
  20. Claritas

    Claritas Friend

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    And here I thought I was saying the heretical thing: that cheap amps aren't good enough for HD-6.

    I've never heard a solid state amp good enough for HD-6; also never heard one good enough to fix what's wrong with HD-6. That said, I've never heard a Black Widow. But I'd be fairly surprised if that changed my mind. (As an aside, I think HD-8 can work well on some solid state amps with the right source. Yet, supposedly, that's the picky one.)
     

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