Pimp my listening experience!
May 4, 2012 7:58 AM   Subscribe

Audiophilia-on-a-budget advice needed: I want to upgrade my desktop listening experience for around $200 or less. Currently reasonably happy using Sennheiser HD-280 plugged straight into my Mac Pro, but borrowing a friend's Total BitHead has inspired me to look further.

I think I definitely want to add a headphone amp (so I can give this one back), but I wonder if a sub-100 USB DAC/headphone amp would work as well as the ~150 Total BitHead. I've been looking at (in increasing price order) the FiiO E10 (also the E7, though I'd really prefer a physical volume knob), the NuForce uDAC-2, and the Total BitHead.

I'm also thinking about changing headphones. I find the HD-280s to be a little uncomfortable over time, and would prefer something lighter. I think the Audio Technica ATH-M50s qualify, but I'm totally open to suggestions. (Closed headphones are necessary in my work environment, though.)

Or if it would be more worth it to keep the HD-280s and spend the money on a more expensive amp (like the Total BitHead or a FiiO E17), that's a reasonable suggestion too. (If other headphones wouldn't be a reasonably-sized upgrade, I'll probably just keep these. The Sennheisers aren't mine, per se, but close enough for the foreseeable future that they might as well be.)

Thoughts, audiophiles of MeFi?
posted by supercres to Technology (11 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
With that setup, and presuming you're already using lossless source files, I think a combination outboard DAC/headphone amp (the Total Bithead and E7 are examples of these) might provide the best bang for the upgrade buck.
posted by box at 8:13 AM on May 4, 2012

If you don't mind having another piece of kit floating around, I'd probably also recommend going with the Total Bithead (or, I guess, another DAC/amp). My home rig is Total Bithead + HD-280, and I'm pretty sure it goes well past my ears' ability with high-quality source files.

As for the comfort of the cans, I've heard that some people will stretch the headband a bit by putting them around a head-sized ball for a while (basketball or soccer, though if that amount of stretch worries you, you can probably scale down a bit). I can't vouch for that, because I find them pretty comfortable, if a little warm for extended listening.
posted by stufflebean at 8:58 AM on May 4, 2012

Response by poster: I'll mention that I have been using my friend's Total BitHead for a couple days now and am really impressed with what I hear. (Actually, to be more accurate, what I don't hear-- the amount of digital noise coming from the MP's headphone out was ridiculous.) That's the main reason I think my primary purchase should be a DAC/amp; I just figured I'd ask around before going with the only DAC I'd ever heard.

Thanks for the responses so far!
posted by supercres at 9:17 AM on May 4, 2012

The FiiO is cheaper, nicer looking (man the BitHead stuff is ugly) and I have heard good things. I'm in the market as well.
posted by Cosine at 9:29 AM on May 4, 2012

You're on the right path with the external DAC. It's the best bang for the buck on the road to sonic quality. I use the Total Bithead and enjoy Headroom's crossfeed processing for extended listening sessions.

Look into in-ear monitors for noise reduction/no sound leakage. Here's Head-Fi.org buying guide.
posted by llin at 11:37 AM on May 4, 2012

Or you could spend $34 and get a Behringer UCA-202.

I have one (and a BitHead somethingorother) and I really don't recall hearing any digital noise. I'll go home this evening and try it out again.

But really it doesn't make a ton of sense to pay a lot for an external DAC.

Although I do like the setting on the BitHead that bleeds the stereo channels together a bit.
posted by MonsieurBon at 11:39 AM on May 4, 2012

I have a uDAC-2. It sounds great, but very occasionally stops working and gets hot. I love having a real volume control knob, though.
posted by zsazsa at 11:58 AM on May 4, 2012

I found in-ear headphones to be much more comfortable to wear all day, and do a better job of blocking workplace noise than closed headphones. I use Etymotics, but many more companies have entered the market in the last few years.
posted by startled at 12:11 PM on May 4, 2012

Get the fiio E10 over the E7. It's cheaper and has better sound quality. It doesn't have a battery, but since you want a desktop solution that's not an issue. There's also the E17 (which I'm listening to at the moment, with Grado headphones), but from the reviews I've seen I don't believe there's enough improvement in sound quality to justify the cost over the E10.
posted by daveje at 2:16 PM on May 4, 2012

Response by poster: I ordered the uDAC-2 from Crutchfield. They're pretty close so even with free shipping it'll be here Monday.

I went with that over the FiiO E10 because of the more flexible outputs and... well.. I like the industrial design more. Will post impressions with my HD-280s then. I think I'll stick with them for now.
posted by supercres at 2:33 PM on May 4, 2012

Mr Susurration says that any amp will probably sound better than the Mac's internal amp. His opinion (having listened to it) is that the Total Bithead is over-rated. But also, choosing an amp is a pretty subjective experience - each one has its supporters. "An amp with character is broken. Any amp that colors the sound is poorly designed."
There's a whole buzz over at Headfi.com just now about the Objective2 amp - the first amp designed to be objectively HiFi rather than subjectively nice-sounding.
As to the headphones, I have a pair of AudioTechnicas and I love them. I'd rate them much higher than the Sennheisers (which is what I had previously).
posted by Susurration at 8:08 PM on May 4, 2012

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