FAQ - Headfonia Headphone Reviews

Frequently Asked Questions

1. What is the best headphone/amplifier/DAC?
What is the best automobile today? A Ferrari Enzo supercar can go really fast around a race track, but it’s probably useless for a trip to the beach or grocery shopping (I’d rather have a big SUV for those trips). And while the latest BMW 7-series may be one of the most comfortable sedans around, again it’s pretty useless for off-road trips. Vintages like the Ferrari Dino are also nice for certain reasons, but a reasonably priced Acura sedan these days can probably beat it in 0-60 times, gas mileage, and comfort levels as well. The point is that there is no single best, ultimate, can-do-it all headphone, just like there is no such thing in automobiles. It all depends on the type of music you listen to.

From Classical to Rock to Electronica, they all need different things. If you’re listening to Electronica, bass quantity and quality would probably be more important than soundstage imaging or micro details. So a headphone that’s good for one genre may not be as good for another. There are some headphones with a fairly wide genre-compatibility factor, and we call them “all rounders” or headphones with good genre bandwith. On the other hand there are headphones that are really good at specific things and for certain music, but are awful for others.

2. Will I notice the difference if I upgrade my gears from A to B?
Sometimes the difference between audio gears can be subtle, yes, but that doesn’t mean that they all sound the same. It also depends on the listeners, just as I can’t differentiate the taste between a cheap wine to a $1,000 a bottle wine so for some people picking out the difference between DACs can be difficult.

Amplifiers and DACs alter the signal in a more subtle way than a headphone transducer does, and the difference may or may not be too obvious, depending on the resolution of your headphones and overall system, the quality of the recording you listen to, and most importantly how sensitive your ears are. Most people probably can’t tell the difference between a 1-2 psi change in tire pressure, but a good race car driver can.

3. What is the most important part of a Hi-Fi system?
First and foremost is the ears — if they can’t pick up the difference then there is no point upgrading.

The next most important thing is recording quality. Recording quality is a very big factor in the overall Hi-Fi chain, as you simply can’t get a good sound with a bad recording. Good music is always good music regardless of the recording, but the recording is what will give you that Hi-Fi sound through your headphones. Try playing a mono Beatles recording through your $50,000 headphone system and you’ll know what I’m talking about. Sadly, many great music and albums have sub-par and even bad quality recordings.

It’s also important to be able to differentiate the different types of recordings so you can tell if a certain fault in the sound is caused from the recording or from the headphones. A very common example is sibilance. Some recordings have very high level of sibilance and it’ll show through in almost all headphones — that’s not the fault of the headphone. Another important fact to notice is the recording technique. Most Pop/Rock recordings these days are done in a closed, soundproof studio, and there would be no real soundstage inherent in the recordings. So don’t blame your headphones if the soundstage sounds flawed, constricted, or artificial, because that’s not the fault of the headphone.

Live recordings are almost always the best types of recordings to evaluate the overall acoustic performance of a headphone — there you’ll be able to tell an accurate soundstage from a fake one, micro detail levels, ambiance feel, et cetera.

4. What is the most accurate headphone system — the one that sounds closest to real life?
High end headphones tend to have higher levels of fidelity than standard Hi-Fi headphones, but as for which is the most accurate, that is impossible to say. Why is it impossible? Because again, recordings differ greatly from one to the next.

Take two solo piano recordings, for instance. The piano on recording A sounds darker, while on recording B sounds brighter. This is because of variations done in the recording process, anything from the brand of the microphone, microphone angle, microphone distance, microphone height, room dimensions, the material of the wall, the material of the floors, up to the difference in the piano itself. Any slight changes to any of those variables will produce a slightly different piano tone, and when they are stored into a recording format, you will get two different types of piano tones. So in that case, say a Beyerdynamic headphone sounds very accurate with piano recording A, while a Sennheiser headphone sounds very accurate with piano recording B. Then how are you going to pick between the Sennheiser and the Beyerdynamic?

Now that’s just a simple piano recording. Add in brass instruments, wind instruments, strings, vocals, guitar plucks, drums, cymbals, each instruments with their own little variations and it’s almost impossible to say which headphone system is the most accurate sounding since the recordings by nature never have an absolute standard in themselves. Same thing with vocals. The same singer, singing in different venues, with different microphones, holding the microphones at different distances, will produce a slightly different vocal recording. As a matter of fact, it’s actually quite common that the songs in one CD album come with different levels of recording qualities. I don’t know why that is, perhaps they assign the best sound engineer only for the potential hit tracks.

So the next time you hear someone say that headphone A has the most accurate guitar plucks, you can assume that all the guitar CDs that he has in his library are recorded in the same venue, with the same guitar, microphones, microphone stands and positioning, and by the same recording engineer. Or he is only listening to one particular CD/recording when he made that statement.

5. Do I need an amplifier?
When I started my headphone journey, I couldn’t tell why everybody insists on using amplifiers as my ears couldn’t pick up the difference. After years of listening, I am now convinced that all amplifiers, good or bad, alter the signal in some ways (read: it can improve, or degrade the sound).

The new rule of thumb on amplifiers is that if you are using a big circumaural headphone (the one that covers your ears), regardless of the impedance or sensitivity rating, an amplifier in most cases would help. This is extremely true if you are talking about driving the headphones from a portable player, a mobile phone, or a laptop. Even if you can get the volume to go loud enough, a separate amplifier will do a better job in delivering current which will improve bass punch, among other things.

Medium sized headphones, say like the Sony MDR-7506, Audio Technica M-50, or the Sennheiser HD202 would also benefit from an amplifier. Small portable headphones like the Sennheiser PX100 or the Jays V-Jays can still benefit from an amplifier, but sometimes I skip them since I am not that picky when listening to music from small headphones.

6. What is a DAC?
When you are playing from a digital music source (CD, MP3 and so on), the music data is stored in the digital format (i.e 1001010101010110101). It needs to be converted to an analog format before it can be played into soundwaves, that’s what the DAC does, convert the 0101010101 to analog. Thanks to paconavarro for the edit.

7. What is a DAP?
DAP stands for digital audio player, such as the Ipod, Zune, etc.

8. What is an LOD?
LOD stands for line-out-dock and is a cable built specifically to tap the music signal from a DAP’s line out. The signal from the line out is always cleaner and of higher quality than from the headphone out.

9. What do you mean by “bright”? (i.e a bright sounding headphone)
Bright refers to a headphone with a lot of treble presence.

10. What do you mean by “dark”? (i.e a dark sounding headphone)
Dark is the opposite of bright, hence it refers to a headphone with little treble presence.

11. What do you mean by “bassy”?
Bassy, as in a bassy headphone, means a headphone with a lot of bass. Also known as a basshead headphone.

12. What is a boomy bass?
A boomy bass is bass without good control — boom boom boom. The opposite of a “tight” bass — bass with very good control.

13. What is PRaT?
PRaT stands for Pace, Rhythm and Timing, or simply known as “the toe tapping factor”. Some fast paced music requires a good PRaT otherwise the energy of the music is lost in the headphone/amp/system. If you want to test a system’s PRaT, try playing a fast Rock music (ie Muse) and see if you can get the energy from the music. Systems with slow pace, low PRaT will kill the energy and over mellow the presentation.

14. What is Cold/Warm?
Cold and Warm are used to describe the character of sound. A good example would be comparing a Compact Disc to a Tape/Vinyl, where the same song played through a Compact Disc would sound a lot colder than through Tape or Vinyl.

15. Multi Driver IEM versus Single Driver Full Size Headphones?


Multi driver IEMs:
– Easier to tune to a perfect frequency response as the designer intended. – Multi driver usually means more complete frequency presentation, especially at the bass end. – BA drivers means good articulation across the frequencies, no instruments getting mixed up. – Easier to drive, doesn’t demand a high current amp.

– Multi driver usually is less coherent than single driver IEM or headphone. – Multi driver IEM doesn’t have the refinement of the big flagship headphone drivers.
Big Full Size Flagships:
– Overall fidelity, sound quality most of the time better.
– Single driver gives a very coherent sound.
– Scales up better to more sophisticated amp/DACs.

– Harder to pull off a perfect tonal balance, which often also results in a more polarizing presentation. ie Awesome with this music, not so with that music. – Can’t deliver an equally “complete” frequency response as a multi driver BA IEM.
Hope that helps.

16. Balanced versus Unbalanced Amplifiers

(this is very different than talking about XLR versus RCA interconnects which mainly deals with removing interference from the signal)

Balanced amplification was initially a feature seen on the flagship $2,000+ desktop amplifiers. It makes sense to have them priced as a flagship, since a fully balanced amplifier require twice the amount of circuitry of single ended (or unbalanced) amplifiers. Not to add the additional requirements such as the dual mono power supplies (though not a must, but often goes together) and dual transformers, quad-stack potentiometers, additional input and output paths, bigger chassis requirement, heat management, and so on. So, if a single ended amplifier costs $1,000 to make, then the same amplifier in balanced configuration would at least double that cost into the $2,000 region. The long associations of balanced topology with flagship models somewhat correlates to the “ultimate set-up” stigma surrounding a balanced amp, while it is not always the case.

What happens in a balanced topology is that you have two amplifiers driving one side of your headphone, and another two driving the other side of your headphone for a total of four amplifiers working simultaneously to drive one headphone. On a conventional unbalanced topology, you only have one amp driving one side for a total of two amplifiers working simultaneously to drive one headphone. Because two is better than one, then four is certainly better than two? At least that’s what you often hear — and it does make sense to a certain degree. When you have two amplifiers driving one side of your headphone (aka two amplifiers driving one driver), you get double the slew rate, which will improve the amp’s square wave response and make it more accurate to the input signal. Feeding a fully balanced signal also helps to raise the effective gain, giving you double the amplitude of the same signal, unbalanced. So, with a fully balanced system, you get twice the voltage swing, and twice the slew rate as the same system running in single ended. Power output will increase due to the increase in voltage, but due to heat and current output constraints, probably slightly less than double the single ended output. Good stuff, but amplifiers are not merely about voltage swing, slew rate, and power outputs.

If I talk to people in the high end audio circle, surprisingly very few of them are even aware of the unbalanced vs fully balanced debate. They would go into lengths debating the merits of branded power cables and even branded IEC connectors, but, interestingly, for them balanced or unbalanced is just something that a pre-amp manufacturer may choose to include for compatibility with studio gears. Now, it happens that every headphone enthusiasts that roams the internet knows the benefit of balanced drive. My brother in law happens to be in favor of a balanced system for his 2-ch set up which consists of a Mark Levinson No.32 preamp, some Krell monoblocks and a pair of Magnepans. But even then, the Krell monoblocks doesn’t output a differential signal to the Speakers (the Magnepans’ transformers are what created the differential signal to the ribbons). Are speaker guys really that ignorant?

As with everything in life, you have to look at both sides of the coin. The transistor vs vacuum tube debate. The discrete vs chip debate. The single vs multi drivers debate. The push-pull vs single-ended debate. The OT vs OTL debate. The Planar vs Dynamic debate. Sennheiser vs AKG debate (just kidding). And this time, unbalanced vs fully balanced debate.

So, what’s the downside with balanced amps? I’ve played around with a few balanced amps, both big and small, also the four portables being discussed. What I witness is that although the soundstage widens, the imaging accuracy and center image in general, suffer. Several factors come into play here. First and foremost is the issue of component matching. Very critical in obtaining a perfect symmetry between the right and left channel, which would in turn affects the soundstage image. Matching for pairs is not that difficult, but matching for quads are far more difficult. I am building an electrostatic amplifier at the moment, and I’ve yet to come up with a decent paired quad after going through 40 pieces of transistors ordered from the same vendor (and likely close in manufacturing batch). The Beta22 amplifier comes with 30+ transistors in one channel, and at four channel, that means matching 120+ transistors, not to mention the diodes and the resistors. Now, if you’re talking about a medium-large quantity production such as these amplifiers, how tight of a tolerance can you afford to implement on the assembly line? The effect of component asymmetry can be quite profound when you’re listening critically through headphones.

The second factor is space constraints. Although I am not familiar with the circuit design used in these amps, it’s common sense that it’s easier to build a good amplifier if you have a big enclosure to design a circuit around. There are exceptions of course, like the 47Labs Gaincard, but most high quality amplifiers come in really large enclosures. The third factor may sound insignificant, but also just as important: volume control. As of now, all these balanced portable amps are limited to the lower resolution analog potentiometer options, whereas the unbalanced amplifiers come with fancy digital volume controls and stepped attenuators. Analog potentiometers are very critical to the input signal, and this puts the balanced amplifier in a strong disadvantage against single ended amplifiers that come with sophisticated volume controls.

One of the reason that desktop balanced amps sound so good is that they have all the space they need to double the size of the amplifier circuitry without having to cut corners. High quality balanced volume controls are also plenty. And given the premium price the desktop balanced amps command, they can afford to be critical in their component matching. With the portables, however, there are a lot of constraints with a portable balanced amp, and so the result has been quite mixed. Some people love them, some people hate them. Some people love the wider and bigger soundstage that they get, some people hate the inaccurate imaging and the lack of a proper center image. Some people love the bass response, some people prefer a more articulate and the better texture of the single ended amps.

I think it boils down to each individuals, and what they are looking for in an amplifier. But the bottom line is quite simple: The balanced amps here give you more power output, wider soundstage, and more bass quantity. The single ended amps here will give you better soundstage imaging, some of them have better resolution levels, and better articulation.

17. How long do I need to burn in my headphone for?

I think it is inaccurate to say that headphones need hundreds of hours before they open up. In my experience most headphones settle down within 12-24 hours. Here is an article that is somewhat related to the topic of burn in: Burn-in and Production Variations.

18. What is the recommended way to burn in my headphones?

While people come up with recipes that includes frequency sweeps and pink noises, I personally just let some music flow through the headphones.

19. Why is Toslink considered inferior to Coaxial S/PDIF and USB connection for Audio Playback?

The digital signal is actually transferred natively as an electrical signal (how else would you do it otherwise). With Toslink, the electrical signal needs to be converted to an optical signal for transmission over the toslink cable, then reconverted back to electrical at the DAC end. Whenever you have these additional conversions/processes, it’s another window for Jitter. With Coaxial S/PDIF and USB such conversion is not necessary.

20. How do I know if my headphones are wired with a reverse polarity?

First, a reversed polarity is not when you switch out the left and right channels (that’s reversed channels). A reversed polarity is when you wired the + and – incorrectly, like swapping the red and black wires on a speaker set up.

The most obvious effect of a reversed polarity wiring is on the soundstage image. Things that are supposed to play in the center of the soundstage image (that’s right in front of your forehead) instead is like split into two and now playing on the left and right edges of the soundstage image.

Do this for illustration purposes: take both of your hands and put it in front of your forehead. With a correct polarity (and a good heapdhone and a good recording), a certain singer or instrument would be projected there right in front of your forehead.

Now, spread your two hands apart to the left and right. This is how an incorrect polarity would sound. The instrument or the singer is no longer in the center, but rather split and is now playing on the left and right edge of the soundstage image.

Other effects of a reversed polarity may include a shift in the frequency balance. You may get more treble, less midrange and such. Of course this may be give the impression that the headphone is now better (i.e with more treble comes more apparent detail), but the fact is that the soundstage image is plain wrong.

The best recording to evaluate this phenomenon would be a good live recording. A one instrument live recording like live piano solos would be even better since you have no distraction from the other instruments.

Some headphones like the Grado HP1000 comes with the polarity switch (so you can reverse the signal at will) but I personally have never encountered a recording with an erroneous polarity so I don’t see what the need is for such switches (Although I don’t doubt its cool factor). Likewise some DACs like the Cambridge Dacmagic also comes with a polarity reverse button. If you happen to have the Dacmagic you can play around with the button to see the effect of a reversed polarity.



— work in progress —

Please submit any additional FAQ you feel necessary down at the comment section. Thanks.

  • What is a DAC?When you are playing from a digital music source (CD, MP3 and so on), the music data is stored in the digital format (i.e 1001010101010110101). It needs to be converted to an analog format before it can be played into soundwaves, that’s what the DAC does, convert the 0101010101 to analog.

    • Anonymous

      Nice. I will edit that one

  • Obbie Hadrian

    PRaT, cold, warm, natural, neutral sound

  • Hmm… Bright/dark seem quite straightforward as they refer to an objective measurement of a certain frequency. Warm and cold on the other hand… If it’s a frequency response related thing then we could try replicating it by tweaking the equaliser. My take is that warm/cold could be a complex phenomenon thats consists of a ratio between certain frequencies and the “fastness” of a system.

    In any case it’s a complex term to explain. I have heard vinyl records that aren’t warm.

    • Anonymous

      Yes, warm and cold are harder to explain, though I certainly think mid and low quantity have a role in a warm sound. But what I’ve heard that may be true is that warm sound is somewhat related to the harmonic distortion of the system.

  • joe

    mike, what about transient response?? i don’t know what that means and you use this term quite often..

    • Anonymous


      You know how the driver of a headphone/speaker has to vibrate to create sound? At dead silent the driver is not moving. Apply a signal into it and it starts moving to produce the soundwave. Stop the signal and the driver stops moving, back to stationery. Transients response is the time it takes for the driver to complete that cycle: stop > moving > stop.

      Because of the mass of the driver, even after you stop the signal, it will continue to vibrate though in lesser and lesser amounts until it comes to a complete stop. So the heavier the driver the harder it is to make it stop, and also the harder it is to start it moving.

      That’s just in the micro scale. stop > move > stop. But in music there are many different sounds going on at once and things can get very complex very fast. That’s why transients matter a lot. Bad transients = overlapping instruments, bad clarity, bad control, bad articulation.

      Someone has got to create an explanation that’s easier to understand. I tried searching youtube but all I can find is boring lectures.

      • I think that it boils down to how fast the diaphragm can dissapate the energy given to it. And how fast the the coil/magnet can give energy to the diaphragm.

        Transients or headphone “fastness” most often can be interpreted by looking at various square wave graphs. The more squar-ey they are the more efficient the mechanism. Judging from the graphs at InnerFidelty the best squares are made by planar headphones as they employ very lightweight diaphragms and quite powerful ways of driving them. The LCD-2 is a good example of how a good square wave should look like.

        Also keep in mind that vibrations of various frequencies tend to “linger” differently.

        Hope this helps a bit. 

        • Anonymous

          Thanks, Rudolfs.

      • dalethorn

        Your explanation is good. There was a concept in loudspeakers called damping factor, which is impedance-related, and suggests how well the woofer is damped by the power amp. How that applies in headphones I don’t know exactly, but I think there can be problems if you have impedance mismatches.

  • jin

    Mike, could you explain  what grainy means. See that mentioned quite often. This is the definition from head-fi:

    Grainy – A slightly raw, exposed sound
    which lacks finesse. Not liquid or fluid.

    Could you highlight the frequency range that often result in graininess.

  • Anonymous

    Mike, I was wondering if you knew of any review sites hiding out there on the web with the same thoughtfulness quality as Headfonia, but focusing on stereo hi-fi and home theater. Any suggestions? 

    • Anonymous

      Well the two that I read occasionally is 6moons and stereophile.com. I don’t know if they’re good enough though. Srajan’s writing style (6moons) can be quite puzzling sometime, and in this sense stereophile is better, but both of them covered a lot of speaker stuff that I absolutely have no idea about.

    • 6moons can be quite helpful though what concerns me is the amount of advertising they are putting out. It means that they must be very dependent on the ad income. I don’t think that they are very likely to try upsetting their partners. Though headphone wise most of the reviews ring the same bells as others I have seen on the net.

      Also be cautious with stereophile. Before plunging in take a look what Arthur Salvatore has to say- http://www.high-endaudio.com/RR-STEREOPHILE.html
      When I read stereophile I stick only to columns.

      • Anonymous

        Thanks for the link, Rudolfs. I will take some time to read it.

    • dalethorn

      Not that I know of, and I’ve been following Stereophile since the late ’70s.

  • Scion

    Thanks a lot for the info! But I have a question about balanced amplifiers. I know the original standard of these so-called “balanced amps” was a pair of 3-pin XLR’s that run on separate channels, like you said above. But what about the more recent single 4-pin XLR output? How does that compare with the typical 1/4” single-ended output, and more importantly, dual 3-pin XLRs? Overall, is the 4-pin XLR the superior output? I’m buying a balanced headphone amp that does both 3-pin and 4-pin, but I also need to choose the right aftermarket balanced cable to connect my headphones to it.

    • Anonymous

      There is no difference, it’s just a choice of connectors.

      Stereo headphones need four individual “lines” for the signals. Left +, Left -, Right +, Right -. A four-pin XLR is enough for this purpose (one pin for one line), and it’s simpler since it only requires one connector. However some people use 2x 3 pin XLRs since 3-pin XLRs are more common and is easier to obtain (for instance I can’t get a 4-pin XLR anywhere locally, but 3-pin XLRs are very easy to get). In a 2x- 3 pin configuration you only use 2 pins on one connector and another 2 pins on the other connector and the total is four connectors.
      Same thing.

      • Scion

        Oh~ so dual 3-pin XLR’s were actually in fact 2-pin XLR’s. I had no idea 4-pin XLR was rare though. So since there is virtually no difference between the two I guess I’d go for 4-pin XLR because that would be more convenient. Anyway thanks a lot!

  • Guest

     hey mike, not sure if I can request a review. But would there be any chance you would look into reviewing this : http://www.ebay.com/itm/Finished-2496-AK4396-CS8416-DAC-Transformer-case-/110712416420?pt=LH_DefaultDomain_0&hash=item19c6f968a4

    I don’t know if I should get this or the DACport LX since this is half the price and some people on the thread says this sounds really good (ebay diy)

    • Sorry, no plans to do review on Chinese no-brand stuff for now. 🙂

      • Guest

        lol, no worries, thanks for still replying 🙂 even though it has a AKM4693 🙂

        • Yea. I hope you’d understand. I’m not looking down at a product because of where it comes from (my favorite DAC is still a chinese made Audio-Gd), but a no-brand unit is a bit hard to recommend since you never know if they can make it consistent enough.

          • Guest

            no problem mike. I do understand your reasoning. 🙂

  • Yoon

    It would be nice to add something about the different kinds of headphones: dynamic, planar, electrostatic, etc.


    • Like an explanation on dynamics, planars?

    • dalethorn

      Years ago, planars were way behind electrostatics in sound qualities, but thanks to Hifiman and Audeze, they’re catching up.

  • Mike, thank you for this great article! much understandable than Wikipedia and cleared many of my doubts & questions. Please do continue your excellent work mate!!

    • You’re welcome, Nirun.

  • An explanation on sound stage would be very informational. Not many people fully understand what sound stage is. Other than that, I find this page very informational. This website is the best!

    • That’s a good point, thanks Allen. 

    • One reason that a sound stage explanation is very difficult, is because 99% of people have never heard one. A close friend of mine has his speakers stacked one on top of the other – of course, the result is essentially “mono” (but these days most people could not tell stereo from mono either).
      Part of the problem is that most of music listening is to music which is 100% synthetic – even when one instrument is not synthetic, such as voice, usually only one microphone is used.
      Another problem is that soundstage and imaging is most of what you get by spending $500 instead of $100, on any given piece of audio gear.
      Having said all that, the best answer is “listen to Dark Side of the Moon with headphones”. 🙂

      • Yes the biggest factor in soundstage performance is the recording.

      • dalethorn

        Great point!

      • L.

        Good headphones he means 😉

      • True on most of the points Ken, but does Dark Side of the Moon actually has a true soundstage? I don’t know how they did the recording process and yes it’s very three dimensional but it doesn’t sound like the average live recording take.

        • Ken Stuart

          The difference is that while Dark Side of the Moon is equally artificial, it is carefully crafted to have three-dimensional positioning. At that point, Pink Floyd was touring with a surround sound setup in live concerts. Alan Parsons recorded DSotM specifically for Quadraphonic, as you can tell by listening to the original Quad release, where sounds spin around the room and bounce back and forth.
          Anyway, the idea here was simply that it is still very popular, and so remains an easy way to educate people about the idea of a soundstage.

          • That sounds right. Thanks Ken

  • It would be nice to see a tube-guide sometime in the future.  There are many different types of tube amps out there using different types of tubes (i.e., OTL, Transformer Coupled, etc.), it sometimes confuses me myself. Lol.

    • L.

      Read read read….

  • Damián Bonadonna

    Hi Mike! I’m getting addicted to your site 😛

    A good Q&A should be: Which ring do you use(most) at work? at home? At the cafe? On the go? Amp + DAC + Headphones/IEMs.

    Then you can update it :).

    I would really like to know that!

    • Unfortunately (or fortunately depending how you see it), I’m always changing rigs. New gear arrive, I have to spend time to evaluate the sound so it changes quite often. 🙂

  • lcamtai

    Hi, Mike. I just want to ask two question. What is the laid-back and what is the forward in headphones? Thanks!

    • The sound presentation. Some headphones present the music in a more laid-back manner, some more forward. If you’re listening to say Jazz, most of the music are the laid back kind so laid back headphones would work better. If you’re listening to Rock, it would be better to have a forward sounding headphone to carry on the energy of the music.

  • I have a couple question about OTL tube amps. Now I’ve never used an OTL amp before, but I’ve heard many people say different things about OTL, their strengths and weaknesses. First, I want to verify whether what I’ve generally heard about OTL amps are true. These are some of what I’ve heard…

    1. OTL amps lack sufficient power to drive low efficiency headphones, like orthodynamic cans from Audez’e and Hifiman.

    2. Yet, OTL amps excel at driving high impedance headphones. The higher the impedance, the better it matches with an OTL amp.

    Are what I said above all true? If so, what are some of the high-end or flagship headphones (around $1,000 or higher) that does an excellent job when driven by a high-end OTL amp?

    Lastly, what do you think of pairing closed headphones with low impedance (such as ATH-W3000ANV you recently reviewed) with an OTL amp?

    • Yes those points you listed are true.

      The problem with not having a transformer at the end is a big mismatch in output impedance of the amp to the headphones being driven. When you have impedance mismatch, power output (watts) is going to be low.
      Now, on low Z cans, you have the easy to drive ATH W3000ANV and other similar headphones, and you also have hard to drive planars like the Audeze and Hifimans. This “easy to drive” factor is mostly related to physics, how big the headphones, how much force is needed to move the drivers physically, et cetera. With the easy to drive ATHs, most of the time even an OTL amp should still have enough power to drive them since the drivers are relatively easy to drive. With planars, not so, hence they require more power, and if you can’t deliver the power demand, you get distortions.
      With the high Z cans, the Senns have always had the highest scalability. First with the HD650 and now the HD800. The Beyers perhaps second with the DT880 line up and now the newer Tesla T1. ATHs, improve to a certain degree, but I don’t think as much as the previous two.
      For this reason I think everyone I know with a high end amp always own an HD800.

      • L.

        With my 339 OTL and some powerful 5998 tubes the OTL amp drives the planars as well. I do agree with Mike on everything

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  • Luke Ma

    I have a few questions as to the science behind headphones, not really how they work, but rather how different components and factors come together to create a sound signature or coloration, like materials used, the driver and… thats more or less all i have right now. if you could help me with that list, or with the how they change it and details, itd be an amazing help. of course, any links to any other ressources would be equally welcome.


    • L.

      Have you read the Philips article?

      • I was about to say the same.

        • Luke Ma

          i have, but any more details?

          • Sorry I really am not that much of an expert in designing headphones.

    • dalethorn

      For many of the 75 year history of just one headphone, the Beyerdynamic DT48 (built like a tank, and felt like wearing one), there was much discussion about how the sound was influenced by the materials and design. Then one day they changed the earpads and the sound was totally different – all of the small things became suddenly irrelevant.

      So from that (now discontinued) example, I learned a few things, like how the various physical materials are engineered to produce the best sound – but the biggest part of the story (I think) that’s also the least discussed is resonances. In most loudspeakers, there’s room enough in the cabinet to trap and damp resonances, but headphone mfrs. are struggling to keep the size down, so damping materials are added sparingly.

      Most users are probably unaware of how big a problem resonances are, especially in ordinary dynamic headphones. The work Dirac has done with a few IEMs and loudspeakers has yet to penetrate the headphone world, but when you read about the type of DSPs (basically, several-thousand-band equalizers) they engineer for their target systems, you begin to understand how resonances are the wildcards that add peaks and harshness to headphone sound, which can spoil an otherwise pleasant listen.

  • alfminus

    I have ordered a two pairs of headphones both Superlux, the HD-330 & HD 668B’s and want to avoid using the supplied coiled cable.So is it possible to cut close to the entry point on the HD-330 in order to attach a female 3.5mm adapter to run better cable like an ”Apure Cable” – Will it make any difference as the HD-330 drivers are still connected internally with the original cable ??

    Would I have to rewire the headphones totally ? Any idea if I did how difficult that might be for the above models for a beginner ?

    I didn’t see any advice above but really enjoyed your article on the Superlux HD Series by
    the way !

    One last question was the Aune T1 compared to the JD Labs Cmoy how would you describe the difference is sound or any benefits as regards the two models above ?

    • You can definitely make those mods. And different cables will still make a difference. Of course you can change the internal cable as well, but most people using aftermarket cables on the high end headphones never change the internal cables. It’s not going to be an easy mod, but should be doable. Except when changing the internal cable, that’s trickier and I wouldn’t recommend it if you’re not an expert with the solder as you can easily fry the drivers.
      I’ve never listened to the Aune. The JDSLabs is a good headphone though I don’t remember if I’ve used it with those Superluxes.

      • alfminus

        Thanks Mike that’s sound advice – excuse the pun 🙂

        Any idea on which cables you’d go for having herd all the new Superlux’s first as a upgrade to the headphone to amp stage of the cable leaving the internals on a back burner for now ?

        • There are a lot of choices.. what are you trying to achieve? Generally Moon’s Blue Dragon (they used to sell bulk, please check if they still do) is a good performer, all rounder. If you want to keep a low budget, Canare cables are good but not as spacious as the Blue. Mogami is also popular, less dark, less bassy than the Canare.

          • alfminus

            I think I am just trying to tweak the best out of the Superlux HD-330’s by recabling without ending up going through the HD range with undoubtedly poor stock cables which isn’t really making use of what’s there (just scratching the surface kinda), also I don’t really listen to rock music but like the spatiality and audible range of the 668’s for example intrigued me… I guess I’m also trying to definitely take advantage of the low cost of the headphones to experiment and learn a little also make my headphones personal to my listening experience :-0

            I have herd very good things of both Mogami and Moon Silver Dragon V3 Cables but new nothing about the Blue Dragon (I just sent them a mail re bulk) – thanks for the gd advise !

            I was personally thinking about Oyaide for separation and clarity earlier but Mogami you mentioned sounds like a better suggestion ?

            Q: Maybe both are good ?

            Possibly one inside connected to the drivers trailing out of the headset and the other used as an extension cable (yin & yang). The HD-668 has a very sharp top end seems like their is no end to it.

            Q: I herd Mogami is a warm cable which might tame or soften the ends higher spectrum slightly on the Superlux’s ?

            it’s range can be a bit much though sometimes.

            Oyaide appears nice an airy although the bottom end tends to get lost a bit from my experience from their spdif/usb cables….but there is an Headphone Oyaide HPC-35 cable for reasonable cost with mini xlr fitted pre made on ebay.

            It’s effectively extension cable although I think adding a mini xlr to the 330 will be difficult unless all the cables are replaced or temporarily – there isn’t going to be much left of the coiled cable once cut to fit a corresponding Xlr. I could create a connection with a small piece of cable to bridge into the xlr to patch it in though.

            Q: Have you tried Oyaide Cables ?

            I will try to make contact with the person who posted the articles linked below who has done a 330 mod by changing all the cables, then the headband and ear pads to that of the DT 770 Pro ones for comfort although doing that would also alter the sound.

            He reckons it was worth doing but there is limited info within his
            article so hopefully he will respond 🙁



            Anyway ”Thank You” Mike for your time and your work on Headfonia it’s very much appreciated !!!

            • Mogami vs Canare
              Canare is warmer, darker, weightier and smoother. Mogami is brighter, less smooth, less body. I’d always go for Canare but that’s just me.

              Moon audio
              Silver Dragon boosts the treble
              Blue is the all rounder cable
              Black is the dark bassy cable.

              In general, and I sell the complete line up of oyaide, their cables boosts the mid and low treble. Pushes instruments and vocals forward. Not my type of a sound but I think people like this kind of a sound as you hear guitar strings and vocals being more intimate.

              • alfminus

                Thanks Mike looked on their site quite a lot there ?

                Which Canare Cable do you prefer ?

                • L.


                  the red one, cause everyone knows red gives the best sound

                  • George Lai

                    The red herring-boned one

                    • alfminus

                      L-4E6S is microphone cable with 4 x the conductor size of a std headphone cable what benefit would that have if any ??

                    • alfminus

                      L-4E6S is a microphone cable with conductors 4x the size of a normal headphone cable what benefits would that have over a std cable conductor size ?

                      Im assuming you meant the cable linked below http://www.canford.co.uk/Products/30-622_CANARE-L-4E6S-CABLE-Red

                  • L.

                    It’s a good cable, I use it for everything headphone related.

                • Generally they sound the same. I just use whatever is available.

  • Citizen

    I brought the Beyerdynamics DT1350 headphone yesterday on amaons cyber monday sale. I am looking for a portable amp that will make the DT1350 shine like a Diamond. 🙂 Max budget 150.. might move to a better more expensive amp at a later date.. but right now i need something. please guide.

    • I don’t really have a specific recommendation… but for $150 and dynamic driver my first recommendation would be the JDSlabs Cmoy

  • Michael Brglez

    hi i would need an advice on my headphones i recently bought sennheiser hd 558s and i use them with my external sound card xonar u7 which has a built in amp now here is a stupid question the headphones have an impedance of 50 ohms and my sound card has 3 stage amplifications which stage is most suited for them i use the -6db medium gain option is this okay and would i harm my headphone drivers if i would use 0db high gain thank you in advance

    • dalethorn

      I don’t know if your soundcard has any special electrical properties that would make the gain perform differently than an ordinary headphone amp like the FiiO E17 for example. But if your soundcard is just an ordinary DAC and headphone amp out to the headphone jack (as most soundcards are a combined DAC and headphone amp), then set the gain to low and see if you get enough extra volume to accomodate the maximum dynamics in your music. If not, set the gain up one step higher and try again. Note that when you’re set for maximum musical dynamics, there is always a possibility of danger if “spikes” of any kind come through the system. Most systems have spike protection, but not all are equal, and some of them reduce the sound quality. The best sound and safest is probably a battery operated amp separate from the desktop computer, or use a laptop computer on battery power.

      BUT, you should worry more about your ears than your headphone.

      • Michael Brglez

        thank you for your brief reply i will keep my ears in mind the next time i crank up the volume

  • Alton Britt

    Please help me decide between the Koss DJ Pro 200 and the UE 6000! General music listening on an Ipod Touch 5th gen. and listening to Music & TV/Movies via Onkyo 629-keyed home theater. I have the Fiio E11 and the Fiio EO7K. Appreciate your responses!

    • From the reviews I’ve read the Koss has very good sound quality for the money. From my personal experience, the UE6000 is quite different: In active (noise cancel) mode the UE6000 has a very bloated bass and strong treble. In passive mode the UE6000 bass is better, but the treble is quite weak. The Koss is passive only. With either headphone, I’d make sure that it’s easy to exchange a defective item, and that’s from personal experience. Both would be good I think for movies etc., but for critical listening I’d choose the Koss.

  • Aoi

    Sennheiser HD-598 is good for classical music?
    violin, piano, harp, mainly string instrument

    • The reviews describe it as favoring accuracy, not the more common colorations such as thumpy bass. So the 598 looks good for strings.

      • Aoi

        Thanks for the reply!
        and sorry for the delay in responding
        After a couple of time thinking about which headphone to choose for this price range
        I ended up with the Sennheiser HD-598, but .. which AMP / DAC to buy?
        there will be a better use of the headphone with AMP and DAC, correct?

        fiio, qinpu, schiit .. any suggestions? i’m really undecided

        budget .. 120 U$

        • How will the amp be used?

          • Aoi

            Will be used on a PC that uses a Realtek onboard sound card low price
            with the Sennheiser HD-598 for classical music.
            Reading more about the Amp / Dac is much said about not making great improvement in the type headphones, and it is also said to make a reasonable improvement.
            however, even in this price range would be better than this sound card. right?
            expect an improvement in the overall sound. not a surprising improvement, only a reasonable overall improvement.

            • I wouldn’t expect a FiiO to make an appreciable difference, but some FiiO’s like the E07k or E17 can also get double use as portable amps. The Schiit amp may be better, but the problem I would have with a 598 connected to most low-cost DAC/amps is it could increase the brittleness of the sound more than the fidelity. I’d check the reviews and go for a darker sound, or possibly a tube amp, unless your music tracks are so clean there’s no chance of any harshness. Even some of the pricy amps can be a problem with certain headphones and music.

              • Aoi

                I see
                I will buy the Xonar DGX
                and wait for the next upgrade
                Thank you.

  • Cullen Cochlan

    What does it mean when someone says that a headphones sounds thick? I am looking at maybe purchasing the sennheiser urbanite and read on reviews that they sounded thick. Also, any thoughts on that headphone and whether or not it is a good purchase?

    • Urbanite is a nice starter headphone or one for the young. Why? Because it sounds thick 😀

      It means it has a lof of body and less clarity, detail

  • Cullen Cochlan

    Sounds good! I am a twelve year old boy looking for stylish headphones but still with great sound quality. So would you reccomend the urbanites to me? And if not, what other headphones around the $200 price range would be better. That is to say if there are any other headphones out there that are better at that price range. And definitely not beats, I do not like those at all.

    • I just got the Symphonized Wraith, a reissue (apparently) of the LSTN Troubador. The Troubador was $150 and the Wraith is $60 USD (MSRP). It’s very stylish, very comfortable, sounds good, 50 mm drivers – amazing deal for the money. The Soundmagic HP150 is good, $200 I think, sounds really good, but which is the better value – hard to say.

  • Jayjohnson

    I have also been checking out the sennheser urbanites on-ear, and was wondering if i should buy those or the sol republic tracks HD, and how those compare to each other.

    • The urbanites are fun, haven’t listened to the SR, sorry. I think Senn will be the safer choice though

  • Robbyjones

    Hello, everyone! I just had a simple question and stumbled upon this web site to ask. I was only wondering if any model made by beats by dre are any good. I have come across many reviews of people saying they love them and many people saying they sound terrible.

  • bear

    Just purchased my first amp for my headset. pretty basic, just using my mp3 player on my smartphone. the sound had been greatly enhanced but none of my inline controls work on my headset. This sucks !!! My headset has a 3.5 mm jack so from the connectors shipped with the amp it looks like amp supports a 2.5 mm jack. The question is would a 3.5 mm(female) to a 2.5 mm (male) remedy my problem ?

    • If the headset has a standard 3.5 mm stereo plug, and the amp has a standard 2.5 mm stereo jack, then an adapter with 3.5 mm jack to 2.5 mm plug sounds like the fix.

      • But i am not sure the controls will work. Trial and error I guess

  • Anonymous

    hey guys do you know where i can get the best lossless recordings for cheap? thanks!

    • HDTracks?

    • You can get many samples at Blue Coast and their sister sites. Bakoon the amp people have some free and cheap stuff (good stuff). AIX has some. Also look at Linn Records, and Soundkeeper (Barry Diament).

      But google isn’t good for finding these. You need to scour the forums to find them.

      • Dave Ulrich

        eclassical.com is good if classical is your thing

      • And Linn yes indeed, how could I forget them