Does a DAC or amp provide a significant benefit? - AVS Forum | Home Theater Discussions And Reviews
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post #1 of 12 Old 03-31-2020, 11:33 AM - Thread Starter
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Does a DAC or amp provide a significant benefit?

I've searched this thread (and the net) and can't find an honest answer as to whether a DAC or amp makes a significant difference when using headphones to stream music (or play music via iTunes). Amp retailers claim you need an amp for accurate sound reproduction; DAC retailers say the same about DACs. I've found lots of threads about WHICH DAC or amp to buy but nothing that quantifies the (hopefully objective, to the extent possible) benefits of either. a 10% improvement? 30%? Etc.?

I don't often listen to music via headphones but when I do it's directly from my Dell laptop to my Sennheiser HD600 headphones. Since DACs seem to cost about $200 or so, and amps cost about twice that, and I'd rather spend my money on other things if not needed, does anyone have the impression that the improvement from a DAC or amp is significant enough to justify their cost?

Thanks for any thoughts and apologies if this thread is out there somewhere and I've just missed it!

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post #2 of 12 Old 03-31-2020, 12:52 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tnilsson View Post
I've searched this thread (and the net) and can't find an honest answer as to whether a DAC or amp makes a significant difference when using headphones to stream music (or play music via iTunes). Amp retailers claim you need an amp for accurate sound reproduction; DAC retailers say the same about DACs. I've found lots of threads about WHICH DAC or amp to buy but nothing that quantifies the (hopefully objective, to the extent possible) benefits of either. a 10% improvement? 30%? Etc.?

I don't often listen to music via headphones but when I do it's directly from my Dell laptop to my Sennheiser HD600 headphones. Since DACs seem to cost about $200 or so, and amps cost about twice that, and I'd rather spend my money on other things if not needed, does anyone have the impression that the improvement from a DAC or amp is significant enough to justify their cost?

Thanks for any thoughts and apologies if this thread is out there somewhere and I've just missed it!
Sound is subjective. Can't put a % on it.

There are many components that contribute to sound quality, starting with the source, DAC (the sound card on the Dell is a Digital to Analog device), output power, headphones, and user.

The prices of DAC's and AMP's can vary. Some people can tell the difference, but they don't feel it's worth investing the time and effort.

300 Ω on the HD600 could use an AMP.

This forum might be a better place to search for this topic:
https://www.head-fi.org/forums/
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post #3 of 12 Old 03-31-2020, 01:16 PM - Thread Starter
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Thanks, I'll check the other forum. And thanks for your thoughts.

And I debated whether to note in my original post that I understand that sound is subjective! While I agree with that claim to some extent, much of sound reproduction is objectively measurable. And even that which isn't is likely subject to the law of averages such that if some people greatly value, say, expensive audio cables, but the vast majority believe it does nothing, it's probably more likely that the vast majority are correct, at least for most listeners. And while it's perhaps totally subjective to say "I thought this provided a significant benefit" or a "I thought this provided a 25% improvement," I still think it's helpful as it provides more information than anyone asking about the benefits of something likely had to begin with. Caveat emptor, but still useful data.

Thanks again!

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post #4 of 12 Old 03-31-2020, 02:02 PM
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I would absolutely spend the money on a Schiit Modi & Magni combo (DAC & AMP) desktop combo or similar. That will run you about $200. I really couldn't recommend buying a headphone amp without also using an outboard DAC as well. I would think with HD600 headphones you would notice a substantial difference.

If you want portability, look into the Radsone ES100 on amazon.
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post #5 of 12 Old 03-31-2020, 05:29 PM
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Quote:
Originally Posted by Tnilsson View Post
does anyone have the impression that the improvement from a DAC or amp is significant enough to justify their cost?
It really depends. Headphones interact a LOT with many sources (PC, phone) and then tremendously with your physical ears.
- Some PCs (older iMacs!!) sound like crap out of the headphone jack. All kinds of low level noises, awful. Others might be OK.
- DAC quality inside iPods and phones can vary, usually good but not tip-top.
- Amps-assuming they have a low output impedance-will change the frequency response compared to no amp. This is NOT always for the better, again depending on those interactions.
- Your Sennheisers are high impedance, so get an amp with high output voltage. This needs some checking; so far all the USB-powered DACs I know of are 2 volts maximum output which is NOT enough for my 600 ohm AKGs. For your Senns I'd want at least 4V.

I'd surely want to try an amp/DAC combo, but absolutely from someplace it was easy to refund and not expensive to return. Due to the factors I noted, very good equipment could possibly sound WORSE for you.
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post #6 of 12 Old 04-04-2020, 10:41 PM
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Originally Posted by Radio81 View Post
I would absolutely spend the money on a Schiit Modi & Magni combo (DAC & AMP) desktop combo or similar.
I have that combo and run my HD650 (300 ohm) on it. I have the DAC mostly for the convenience of a multisource digital switching box, but the amp is very important in giving me sufficient power (my laptop, phone and tablet don't sound bad, but run out of steam). They are a steal at the current price of 200$ for the amp/DAC pair (I have a previous generation of each that, back in the day, was 300$ for the pair and I found it a bargain then). Been running mine for five years with zero complaints (the amp/DAC combo--only two years with the HD650).
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post #7 of 12 Old 04-04-2020, 11:25 PM
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I think they do.

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post #8 of 12 Old 04-07-2020, 01:11 PM
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There are also lots of USB headphone dacs that can run out from your device.

These are all $99 or less.

Audioquest DragonFly 10 - 32-bit ESS Sabre™ 9010
AudioEngine D3 - AK4396 24-bit DAC
Cyrus soundKey -
Cambridge Audio DACMagic XS - ESS9023 24-bit DAC

https://hifimediy.com/DACs/ready-made-dacs

I have the Hifime S2 USB (Sabre ES9038q2m) and the older HiFime UAE23HD USB DAC (ES9018K2M+SA9023).

I am debating going to more of a true headphone dac VS the USB style I am using.

Dacs come in different flavors:
ESS
AKM
BurrBrown
Wolfson
TI


The two dacs you will see in most devices right now seem to be the ESS or AKM DAC. Especially the $500 and up price range.

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Last edited by cburbs; 04-07-2020 at 01:17 PM.
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post #9 of 12 Old 04-07-2020, 01:19 PM
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post #10 of 12 Old 05-18-2020, 10:04 AM
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JDS Atom amp comes well regarded for $99

Drop has the Grace Design standard DAC for $80

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post #11 of 12 Old 05-18-2020, 07:36 PM
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Any updates OP?

I am new to headphone hifi and have many of the same questions about DACs.

Regarding amps...

Quote:
Originally Posted by irishluck73 View Post
JDS Atom amp comes well regarded for $99

Drop has the Grace Design standard DAC for $80
I bought the JDS Atom. My experience has been it simply amplifies the signal i.e. allows the volume on my headphones to go higher than my phone or laptop can provide. The Atom doesn't add any perceivable noise - or sound quality for that matter - that wasn't there before. Kind of boring actually. At least that is my perception 99% of the time so far. The Atom does provide some value when I use my Senn 58X Jubilees (166 ohm) since when I use a laptop or cell phone I have to put the device on max volume without an amp. My Sony WH1000-XM3's (16 or 47 ohms, when ANC off or on) and Sony MDR-V6 (63 ohms) don't need the amp at all and don't seem to benefit in any apparent way if I use the amp to drive them any way.

I have heard tube amps can color sound - and perhaps that will be something I will desire and grow into over time. I can especially imagine a tube amp in a 2 ch system in a dedicated listening room, some day.

May 2020 update: home is sold, 9.1.4 HT is in storage! Surviving lockdown with Sennheiser HD 58X & Sony WH1000-XM3 & JDS Labs Atom headphones/amp
HT gear: Denon X4400H; Klipsch RP; SVS PC-4000; Buttkicker Advance.
Future upgrades: dual subs; room treatments; Monolith 7x amp; DIY BOSS riser; MiniDSP; speaker upgrades (SVS?)
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post #12 of 12 Old 05-18-2020, 09:33 PM
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That's what you want from an amp - it shouldn't distort or color the sound. It should be completely clean. And that's what amps do - they add power to the signal to drive harder loads. So you get more volume out of your headphones.

Amps that distort the sound, even if it sounds pleasant, are bad. Devices that color the sound are what should be altering the signal and he sole source of audio alteration in the chain.

And if you want he tube sound, there are processing plugins that can distort the sound the way you like. That is what tubes do, after all.
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