A friend once told me that he would never buy a pair of headphones because the stock Apple earbuds are good enough. He really does not see the point of spending money on something that would not make a difference. Meanwhile, my best friend constantly switches his audio gears. He would buy new earbuds, headphones, DAPs (digital audio players/mp3 players), and amplifiers once in a while. He always says to me things like “you must buy a good amp”, “your HD 650 sucks without an expensive amp”, “Fiio X1 is a bad DAP, only X5 can provide good sound”.
The question is between the two, who enjoys music more? Which approach leads to the musical heaven/nirvana? Unfortunately, there is no simple answer. It depends on many aspects, both technical and personal. In this article, I will give my thoughts on the issue of investing on audio gears.
Audio Gears Basics
I will focus on the most popular music playback method of today, i.e. using audio files with extensions such as mp3, m4a, and flac. The music sound (which we can hear) is converted by some machine called ADC (analog-to-digital converter) to digital files (which we obviously cannot hear) for storing purpose. From a scientific perspective, it is really magical that human can convert natural sound to a long string of ‘0’ and ‘1’.
When we listen to music using computers or smartphones, we need to use several parts that make up an audio chain. First, we use a DAC (digital-to-analog converter) to convert digitized data back to analog signal — natural sound that human can hear. Then that signal is usually processed and amplified by an amplifier. The output of the amplifier is exactly the headphone out that we use to plug our headphones or speakers. Of course, the audio chain can get much more complicated, but basically there are two sections mentioned above: a DAC and an amplifier. Any computer, smartphone, or mp3 player that can play audio files will have a DAC and an amplifier integrated. Although the quality of audio also depends on the circuit design or circuit parts, for the sake of simplicity, let’s assume only the DAC and the amplifier will decide the final quality.
You may wonder what is the big deal with this DAC and amplifier discussion. After all, any functional computer can play audio files, right? The problem is, computer and smartphone makers have no reason to focus on the audio section of their systems. They only need it to work. As a result, designers tend to use parts with acceptable quality, but nothing that can be considered hi-fi. Size is another matter. It would be suicidal to add a big amplifier circuit to the iPhone and make it look like a cube. That said, it is wise for a beginner to invest in a good (and affordable) DAC/Amp combo, especially if you mainly listen to music via a laptop. It will make a huge difference because you probably have always used onboard sound.
Examples of affordable DACs for computers are the FiiO E10K and the AudioQuest DragonFly. I do not know about Android devices, but from my experience, the DAC from the iPhone and iPod are quite good. As long as you can get the line out (means you can bypass the built-in amplifier) and feed it to an external amplifier, you are good to go. Talking about portable devices like smartphones lead to the discussion of DAPs – Digital Audio Players. They are portable music players like the iPod, but besides playing audio files, they also try to achieve high-fidelity.
Currently I only own one DAP, an iPod Video. I used to have the Sansa Clip, Sansa Clip+ and some Rocoo DAP which I did not even remember the model name. Right now I’m happy with my iPod Video (5.5th generation) plus the CmoyBB amp (made by JDS Labs, only $59.99). I plan to buy a Fiio X1 next fall. I would like to try Fiio hardware, and it is good to have a backup DAP just in case. Note that quality players like Fiio X1 already has capable DAC and amplifier integrated so unless you have a fancy pair of headphones, you do not need to think about buying another DAC/Amp combo for a while.
To sum up, my recommendation for beginners is to buy a good-quality DAC early on. A DAC/Amp combo like the Fiio E10K is not expensive, and it will improve your computer-based audio system immensely. In case you do not want to enjoy music near a computer, a Fiio X1 or similar players, even an iPod Nano, will be enough.
Now let’s discuss the front men of the band: headphones.
What do Headphones bring to the table?
The stock earbuds by Apple are ok. Indeed for many people, these earbuds are the best sounding devices they have. I must say I like these earbuds myself. They are comfortable, they sound good, and their price are acceptable at $30. The question is: what can higher-quality headphones do that the stock earbuds cannot?
The short answer is, more expensive headphones tend to do everything better. The ultimate goal of headphones is to reproduce the music as realistic as possible. And the stock earbuds cannot satisfy that goal. While there are many aspects in sound, I will only focus on two things that quality headphones (like my HD 650) gain the upper hand.
The first thing I notice with quality headphones are the details in their sound. I will hear new things when I listen to a familiar album. With better instruments separation, for example I can focus on guitar lines in a song instead of the vocals. The musical instruments would sound much more natural as well. Some music, supposedly boring with ordinary headphones, really comes to life with quality ones. You can close your eyes and imagine the band playing in front of you. I doubt you can do the same with the stock earbuds.
Another important thing in music that I recently realize is the bass. I heard somebody said the bass is the soul of any song. The bass makes you feel the music. I don’t think I’m a bass-head, but I always miss the bass impact of the HD 650 when I listen to other headphones. The bass from the stock Apple earbuds are not only inadequate in amount, but also muddled. It is challenging to hear a bass line in a song with these earbuds. A high-quality headphones may change all that. Deep, strong yet controlled bass will keep you engaging with music for hours (and forget checking your Facebook at the same time.)
Choosing Headphones 101
I think there are roughly five tiers of headphones as followed:
~ $10: With this price, the best you can expect is something durable and functional. If I have $10, I will mainly look at earbuds. VE Monk and Fiio EM3 may be smart choices for this budget. I also owned the Koss KSC75 and was satisfied with these babies.
~ $50: Believe it or not, you can get musical headphones for roughly $50. They will be upgrade from the stock earbuds. The Koss Portapro used to be my dream when I was in high school. Though I never listened to it, I think I would love it because they are mostly known as good dark headphones (translate: bassy and musical headphones). Another example: Sennheiser PX-200.
~ $150: I bought the Audio Technica ATH-M50 when I was a freshman in college. It is still very popular in this price range. But another headphones that I own, Sennheiser HD 598, cost only $150 nowadays. They are both very good all-round headphones, and there are many many other choices in this range. You should expect better details, clarity, and bass from the $50 tier.
~ $400: This is the current price of the HD 650. You may question the big jump from $150 to $400. It is normal. You need to invest more and more money to reach another stage in the headphones game. I will write about my beloved HD 650 in more details later. For now, I will just say, they are worth every penny even though they are $400. In this price range, many headphones can be considered hi-fi, and most of you can forget about buying another pair of headphones. Also, this is the end game for all-round headphones. More expensive headphones will be designed towards a unique sound that you may not like. Other examples: Hifiman HE-400i, NAD Viso HP50, Philips Fidelio X2.
> $800: I doubt I will buy these expensive headphones anytime soon. I know next to nothing about the expensive headphones, so just skip reading this article if you have this much money to burn.
For me, the headphones are the most important section in the audio chain. If I have $400, I would spend on the HD 650 instead of the ATH-M50 plus a DAC/Amp combo. The HD 650 may not reach its potential with an iPod or a smartphone, but it still sounds better than the ATH-M50 does. As I mentioned in earlier paragraphs, an acceptable DAC/Amp combo that can drive the HD 650 is not expensive. It is better to prioritize the headphones instead of DAC/Amp/DAP.
Instead of giving you advice or recommendation about headphones because each of you has a different taste of music, I will discuss my method of choosing headphones for myself. I like to focus on music so my ideal listening setting must be comfortable and quiet. That means I like enjoying music at home. It leads me to prefer full-size headphones. For me it is the most comfortable type of headphones.
I like many genres of music, and I want to discover other genres so I like all-round headphones. I also want deep bass along with laid-back and musical sound, not analytical and crystal clear sound. The reason is I want to feel the music without fatigue (analytical headphones tend to cause fatigue). That might be the reason I am a fan of Sennheiser headphones. They make quality, open-back, comfortable, dark headphones geared towards home use. As simple as that.
Back to the Title Question…
I believe listening to music is actually a cheap hobby if you spend money wisely. A simple yet very musical system (for example, Fiio E10K + Koss Portapro) may cost only a little over $100. You can even just buy the Koss Portapro and forget about DAC/Amp at the moment. Unless you are unlucky, audio stuffs are reliable and will keep working for a long time. Let’s assume you will enjoy that system for two years, then $100 is next to nothing when compared to other expenses in your life. Just remember to prioritize the headphones when building a system.
A common reason that people are reluctant to spend money is they cannot see the improvement in the sound. For some newcomers, the Koss Portapro might even sound worse than the familiar Apple earbuds. It is not surprising and easy to explain. If you never listen to a variety of headphones before, your ears will not be very sensitive to different frequencies of sound. Take your time. Gradually you will begin to hear new details. Sooner rather than later you discover that your favorite albums just sound better. No doubt you will be happy in the long run.
Though I am not an audiophile nor an expert, these days I usually have a beaming smile on my face each time I put the HD 650 over my ears. Music with them is just wonderful. Indeed, at these moments everything is wonderful. I’m glad that all the years with this hobby have paid off.
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