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ElvisNixon
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Best Headphone Amp or DAC to use as a preamp

I am new to high end audio. I want to slowly but together a high end system with the best bang for the buck. I also want the ability to stream from a laptop since this is the future. I want to start with a good set up for headphones since this will get me going for $2-3K and I can hopefully use this as a preamp and pick up some used monoblock amps and speakers later. I am currently thinking of a Benchmark DAC1 or Grace m902 or HeadRoom Desktop Balanced Amp.

Can I use these as a satisfactory preamp in the future? If so which of these would be the best set up? If these will not work as a good preamp what budget preamps should I look at?

ohfourohnine
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Re: Best Headphone Amp or DAC to use as a preamp

I have to make a couple of assumptions in order to address your question:

1- the music you have on your laptop is at 16/44 resolution or equivalent - if it is compressed to any extent, nothing you put in the system following the laptop will get you to high end sound.

2- you want to take it from the laptop in digital form.

If those assumptions hold, the Benchmark DAC1 is a single box approach to where you're trying to go. Word is it can function very well indeed as a DAC and adequately as a preamp. Whether, in the long run you'd find it a satisfactory preamp remains to be seen, but in the event you don't, it functions admirably as a line level source.

The excellent Headroom Balanced amp is another animal altogether. If you have or plan to get balanced headphones to enjoy their particular virtues, it will certainly do the trick. Normal input to that amp, however, is analog. Holding with your desire (if I'm correct) to come out of the laptop with digital, you'll need to introduce a DAC into the stream. Headroom has one, and perhaps you meant you'd include that as part of the Headroom package.

My inclination were I you, would be to go the Benchmark route in pursuiit of the best bang for the buck, but perhaps I'm missing something. Why is it, out of the wide array of Headroom offerings that you settled on the Balanced amp?

ElvisNixon
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Re: Best Headphone Amp or DAC to use as a preamp

I will be using uncompressed data from the computer and adding a digital out from a used cd Player. You can have a good DAC added to any of the Headroom amplifiers. I was looking at their balanced amp under the assumption that balanced outputs would be a better source for amplification as well as for headphone listening. I am also planing on getting some balanced Sennheiser HD 650 headphones. I am open to suggestions if you think one of there other amps would suit my situation better. At this point I am leaning to the DAC1 which has a new $300 usb interface option. Getting digital out from a laptop is another problem. The hardwire choices for getting digital out would be sonos, squeezebox, apple airport, or what looks best to me would be the fireaudio 4. It is impossible to tell which would give me the best digital out (I know that theoretically they should all be the same but that never seems to be true). So At this point I am thinking of the fireaudio 4 for digital in to store the cd data and I am still trying to find out if is is good enough on the digital out so I can skip the $300 usb upgrade on the DAC1)

ohfourohnine
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Re: Best Headphone Amp or DAC to use as a preamp

Hi Elvis,

Balanced vs. Unbalanced - that'll set off an extended discussion/debate among the kind of people who hang around here. There is, however, one point on which all will agree: balanced provides the best quality where long interconnect runs are concerned. I don't see how long runs of that sort get involved in the system you're planning.

You're planning on getting a pair of balanced Sennheiser 650s - have you listened to the standard unbalanced 650s (or 600s for that matter)? What more than what they deliver do you expect to get from the balanced conversion?

<<"I was looking at their balanced amp under the assumption that balanced outputs would be a better source for amplification as well as for headphone listening.">>

Not a valid assumption in my opinion. If you were to set that assumption aside and go back to square one, what would be the order of your priorities?

struts
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Re: Best Headphone Amp or DAC to use as a preamp

ElvisNixon,

I think I'm with Cheapskate on this one. For someone looking to 'slowly' put together a high-end system you seem in quite a hurry here!

Several folks on this board (Elk, JeffWong and myself for example) have the Grace m902 and use either Sennheiser HD650 or AKG701 cans (or both - see JeffWong's and Elk's comments on which they prefer in this recent thread). I for one feed mine directly from my PC and I think we're all pretty happy with the sound. I am sure there are a good few Benchmark users here and I'm sure they're happy too.

I would say that sound quality differences aside (and by all accounts these are quite small, see JM's and JA's comparisons) there are two main differences between these units:
1. The Benchmark has single-ended analog ins and balanced outs while the Grace has balanced analog ins but single-ended outs. Might be an issue if you wanted to combine with a source or amp down the line that was balanced-only (like my current loaner Accustic Arts AMP 1 and my old Nagra VPAs) since converters are kludgey and have issues of their own.
2. Some feel that the Grace is a bit more 'polished' as a product. The industrial design, fit 'n finish are all arguably a tad better than the Benchmark, but then it costs more too. You pays your money and you takes your choice.

However both give by all accounts excellent sound, good value for money and both would give good service as preamps later down the line. Since you would probably find it hard to find a dealer where you could listen to them side-by-side you might find it easier to base a choice between them (if that's what you come down to) on the above factors which may end up being more significant for you than any sound quality differences.

My advice would be to apply Occam's Razor and resist any temptation to make this any more complex than it need be.

Good luck!

jazzfan
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Re: Best Headphone Amp or DAC to use as a preamp

A few quick corrections/clarifications to what been say so far.

The Headroom Balanced Desktop amp does not have any outputs, single ended or balanced, other then the headphone outputs. The regular or single ended Desktop amp does provide a set of single ended (RCA connections) outputs on the rear panel.

While I applaud your efforts to enter the world of "high end" sound with a single box solution I really not that sure you will be well served by this approach. Sure any of the three units you've selected will do a fine job as a DAC and a headphone amp but as soon you move onto a speaker based system you start to run into problems.

Perhaps a better approach would be to go with a top notch DAC (with single ended and balanced ouputs) and a less expensive but still high quality single ended headphone amp. For example the the Headroom Desktop amp with a max module or the Heed head amp. You can always switch to balanced later on especially if you go with the Sennheiser HD650 headphones. In addition you could go with either a preamp to power amp setup or an integrated amp to drive your speakers.

struts
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Re: Best Headphone Amp or DAC to use as a preamp


Quote:

While I applaud your efforts to enter the world of "high end" sound with a single box solution I really not that sure you will be well served by this approach. Sure any of the three units you've selected will do a fine job as a DAC and a headphone amp but as soon you move onto a speaker based system you start to run into problems.

What sort of problems have you found, jazzfan? I only use my m902 with headphones but it seems it would make a perfectly good preamp to me.

jazzfan
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Re: Best Headphone Amp or DAC to use as a preamp

Struts,

By "problems" I was referring to the difficulty Elvis would have in finding an all-in-one which meets all of his requirements. For example the Grace m902 does not have balanced line level or headphone outputs, the Headroom Balanced Desktop amp does not have any line level outputs, single ended or balanced and the Benchmark DAC1 has just about everything except for balanced headphone outputs.

I was going to write that there is no product presently available which has all the features he is looking for. However, after checking the Headroom web site I discovered that both the Headroom Balanced Home ($3K) and Balanced Max ($4K) amps have everything that EN wants but at some fairly steep prices. Therefore I still feel that he would be better served by going with separate units for each function, i.e. headphone amp (with or without a built-in DAC), DAC and preamp.

struts
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Re: Best Headphone Amp or DAC to use as a preamp

jazzfan,

I realize you, like all of us, are just trying to help but I think ElvisNixon's requirements have spun a little bit out of control and so helping him satisfy them won't actually end up helping him at all.

I don't think any of us would seriously suggest that a self-confessed high-end newbie has to dump $3-4k on a balanced preamp to get sonic satisfaction. I think the thoroughness of ElvisNixon's research is starting to backfire and turn his list of requirements into a bit of a laundry list of every high-end design feature currently being toted as the ticket to sonic bliss. I think your difficulty in coming up with a recommendation that ticks all his boxes proves this.

Going back to the start of the thread ElvisNixon's original goals were good sound and best bang-for-the-buck, initially through headphones and later through speakers too. I think this whole balanced amp/headphone/cable thing and monoblocks versus stereo amps are impressions he has picked up along the way that he should attempt to validate with his own ears before parting with his hard-earned. But as far as his original goals go I would contend that one of the all-in-ones mentioned here would be an excellent way of achieving them. We can agree to differ, that's fine, we're all entitled to our opinions.

I think once again I'm with Cheapskate on this whole balanced/unbalanced thing, it has gotten a bit 'religious'. As far as I can see (with my electronic engineer's hat on) when price is taken into account there is no reason why balanced working should have any inherent sonic advantage over single-ended. I think as with so many of these things it is how a circuit is implemented that counts. And I (now with my audiophile hat on), as I'm sure most of us, have heard great sounding balanced products and great sounding single-ended ones. That in itself should be proof enough that balanced does not have an exclusive lock on the high-end.

Balanced working has a couple of theoretical advantages and a couple of theoretical disadvantages but it isn't really a 'silver bullet'. And in balanced working pretty much everything in the signal path has to be doubled, so it very rarely offers best bang-for-the-buck.

I happen to have a balanced-only preamp in my main system and it is, frankly, a pain in the ass. I bought it because of how it sounded and certainly not because it was balanced. Now I can't run single-ended connections (e.g. the S/PDIF output of my Sonos) without adapters which introduce issues of their own. And how many tonearms come wired with balanced cables out of the chute? Jeez!

My previous system was even more hilarious, a preamp (Nagra PL-P) and power amps (Nagra VPAs) supposedly designed to work together and yet the PL-P only had single-ended outs and the VPAs only had balanced ins. Madness! So how does Nagra justify it? Quote (from the PL-P manual):


Quote:
Designing a high-quality symmetrical output is an extremely difficult task that increases the cost of the output stage, offers no audible advantages, and no technical advantages. For these reasons, the outputs of the PL-P (like the majority of preamplifiers) uses an asymmetrical output through high-quality gold-plated RCA connectors.

Food for thought. Anyway, I am not trying to reignite the great balanced/single-ended debate here, merely point out that there comes a point at which further reading and seeking advice only leads to a mushrooming set of options and greater confusion. That's when in my experience you need to stop reading, cut your shortlist and start listening.

ElvisNixon, I would respectfully submit that you have now passed that point. You've gotten a lot of sound advice and a spread of opinions and frankly I don't think it's going to get any better. Time to grab a handful of your favourite discs and jump in your car.

Good luck!

jazzfan
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Re: Best Headphone Amp or DAC to use as a preamp

Struts,

Wow, what a great post. I couldn't agree more that the idea of using balanced wiring on headphones, a balanced source and a balanced headphone amp is currently the "flavor of month" over at Head-Fi. Headroom saw a very nice way to get back in the game as far as the Head-Fi crowd goes with their new balanced Desktop amp but that in no way means that a high quality single ended headphone amp is not going to still sound very, very good. One has nothing to do with the other. (Written more for Elvis' benefit than yours )

However, in Elvis' defense I will say that it can be very confusing when one is just starting out in this wacky hobby and I fully understand his desire to get what he believes is the current state of art without throwing away good money. What Elvis may be failing to realize is that a simple USB based outboard DAC feeding a headphone amp in the $300 to $500 range and pair of Sennheiser HD580s (now available for around $150) will sound so much better than what he may be used to listening to that he might just be chasing after something completely unnecessary.

As for his future plans, again I think that he is trying to bite off more than he can chew. The future is rather unpredictable, to say the least (hey, if I knew the future I won't be working for a living), and trying to prepurchase one piece of equipment without knowing about or having the rest of the system is not such a great idea, as good as it may look on paper.

struts
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Re: Best Headphone Amp or DAC to use as a preamp

Amen to all of that jazzfan. My comments weren't intended to imply criticism, just put things in perspective.

I would also agree that G4 > Apogee Mini-DAC > MF X-CANv3 > HD580 would be a killer starter system. I still cling to my opinion that a BM DAC-1 or Grace m902 would have more legs, but they both cost considerably more so they should do.

As for predicting the future well, tell me about it. I have a hard enough time trying to predict the past!

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