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Apr
17
Latest Weapons in the Battle for Audio Perfection
It's been almost two months since my last blog, and although plenty has happened (family came out to visit, I played a whole bunch of quick games, etc.), my broader focus in life has not changed much. I'm still very much enamored with music right now.

I've previously written about The Stax as well as a more general overview of the audiophile hobby. But apparently I still have more to say. Today I figured I'd do a quick run-down of what's been fueling my listening for the last few weeks.

  • Sennheiser HD6xx by Massdrop
Sennheiser HD6xxSennheiser HD6xx
Sennheiser's HD650's have been my favorite headphones for as long as I can remember. Not that I shopped around a great deal. I simply did an absurd amount of research, plunked down a bunch of cash and was so satisfied with the result that I never saw any reason to keep searching for anything better.

Despite all the gear I've been accumulating--even the Stax--that still holds true today. My recent lust for HiFi is more about satisfying my own curiosities than it is about improving upon what I already have.

The 6xx is Massdrop's collaborative redesign of the 650's. They have the same drivers and same basic industrial design--just new (and improved, imo) colorways, a shorter cord and a couple other minor refinements.

It was these cans specifically that set off my whole recent crusade to try out desktop amps, other headphones and just generally upgrade and modernize my headphone listening options. They're finally here, and they're my first choice for daily listening.

  • AKG 7xx by Massdrop
AKG 7xxAKG 7xx
Another Massdrop-made version of popular cans, I picked these up just to try something different. I keep reading about the "Sennheiser veil." Are there other great options out there?

These arrived before my 6xx's, so I've had more time to check them out. They are very comfortable, and they sound great, but I still prefer the Sennheisers. The AKG's do seem to have a more expansive soundstage, and they also seem to resolve more detail, but the Sennheisers sound more refined and more musical to me. I'll describe those differences in more detail and why I prefer the Sennheisers when I get into listening impressions.

Because of the different presentations these two cans offer, I've taken to grabbing the AKG's more for gaming and the Sennheisers for music.

  • AUNE X1S DAC/Amp
AUNE X1SAUNE X1S
One of the biggest challenges with digital music is turning it back into a clean analog signal. The conversion from digital to analog requires precise timing, and the analog output of that conversion is more susceptible to noise before it is amplified. Standalone DAC units may be the most critical part of the audio chain for producing clean music. And the AUNE X1S is a remarkably good DAC.

If I had to name a favorite piece of equipment on this list, the X1S gets that honor hands down. Not only does it output very clean audio, it also boasts an impressive set of features. It is a capable amp that works just fine as an all-in-one solution. It also passes audio out for an external amp or speakers. In addition to the USB connection for PC audio, it also has optical, digital coax and RCA inputs. A button on the front face toggles the source. My RCA-in takes the output of my desktop mixer, so I can now listen to audio on any (or every) screen through any of my amps!

  • AUNE X7S Amp
AUNE X7SAUNE X7S
The AUNE X7S Amp has the same form factor and general appearance as the X1S DAC. But the X1S already has an amp, so why would you need another, dedicated amp?

The simple answer is "moar powa!" The extra juice of the X7S translates into a slightly tighter, more refined sound out of the 1/4" jack than that of the X1S. It also has a balanced (XLR) output, which might offer another step up in sound quality. And it can drive passive speakers out of its RCA outputs.

Another benefit, for me, is driving two sets of headphones. I can listen with someone else through both the X1S and X7S at the same time. But my main justification for getting this amp was as a solid-state reference against which to compare "tube sound."

  • Little Dot MkIII
Little Dot MkIII AmpLittle Dot MkIII Amp
For as long as I've had my Sennheisers I've heard "you've got to try those with a tube amp!" I've been reading about "warm tube sound" for years, but have never had the chance to hear for myself what all the hype is about.

The Little Dot series of tube amps are generally well-regarded, particularly when paired with Sennheisers. The MkIII seemed like a pretty good model for my entry into the world of tubes; it's at roughly the same price point as the X7S, so it feels fair to compare them. Plus it looks damn cool--like something straight out of Fallout. smile

Another fun fact about tube amps is that you can fine-tune the sound by swapping out (a.k.a. "rolling") the tubes. There is a very detailed Vacuum Tube Rolling Guide for Little Dot amps over at Head-Fi. Experimenting with different tubes can easily turn into an open-ended and expensive pursuit; the existence of this guide was a key factor in my choosing a Little Dot amp. I've ordered some Russian "Voshkod" tubes that were apparently manufactured during the Cold War era for Russian rockets. Fun!

  • Coming Soon(ish)... Noble K10 CIEMs
Kaiser 10 Custom In-Ear MonitorsKaiser 10 Custom In-Ear Monitors
So, am I done with this HiFi-gear-collecting foolishness? Far from it.

I have plenty of great ways to listen to awesome tunes ... at home. I don't really have a great means to take the high-end experience on-the-go. Heck, I didn't think that was even really possible. At the very least it didn't seem practical. And then I discovered "custom in-ear monitors" (a.k.a. CIEMs).

Yes, they look like earbuds. No, they are not earbuds. And custom is not just a marketing term here--custom means manufactured just for me, to the exact dimensions of my ears.

I was eating packing peanuts, and fell asleep on some gum....I was eating packing peanuts, and fell asleep on some gum....
The custom fit completely blocks and seals your ear canal. This has several benefits that you cannot get from universal-fit earphones--phenomenal sound isolation, superb bass reproduction and unmatched comfort.

The primary target customers for CIEMs are professional musicians since they both protect hearing and enable artists to closely monitor their performance while on stage. However, due to their exceptional sound quality, CIEMs are also great for audiophiles.

For a proper fit, you need to visit an audiologist and get silicon "impressions" made of your ears. And they need to be deep. Like, scary deep--past the second bend of your ear canal so they will lock into place when you insert them.

I've mailed my impressions off to Noble; they should have arrived last week. Noble will take ~10 weeks to manufacture my monitors. I'm not sure whether to expect anything like "Stax on the go," but I do know these will be utterly unlike Apple earbuds, lol. The "10" in the model name (Kaiser 10) refers to the 10 drivers in each monitor. Yegads....

  • Listening Impressions So Far
It's challenging to put listening experiences into words. It's even more challenging to make definitive statements about certain pieces of gear when there are so many variables at play: song selection, recording quality, amps, headphones and even personal factors like listening fatigue or mood can affect listening impressions.

However, I do feel comfortable making a few general observations. Like, an external DAC/amp makes a night and day difference in sound quality over plugging headphones directly into a laptop. For example, the very first thing I noticed after plugging in the X1S is that it made YouTube music sound good! I got clear imaging (separation of sounds, as opposed to a music "soup" where everything blends together into a samey soundscape). I would not have guessed that to be possible. FWIW, YouTube sounds like complete garbage playing on my speakers from the XBox app--like listening with a cardboard box on your head. Everything sounds smaller and muffled instead of open, clear and detailed like it does with my nice playback chain.

I can also say that the X1S and X7S have an extremely similar sound. A quick A-B between the two reveal a level of tighter control out of the X7S, mainly as slightly improved imaging and better presentation of bass. The X7S is clearly better when you listen to it, but the X1S is such a huge improvement over direct PC audio that listening to it without the X7S doesn't suggest that anything is missing.
Desktop Audio Setup, April, 2018Desktop Audio Setup, April, 2018

I'm still trying to figure out "tube sound." I heard it described once as drizzling a layer of honey on your music, which is a nice metaphor that maybe feels kinda right, but it still doesn't help me put my finger on what is different, exactly, from solid-state sound. Both amps sound detailed and neutral. There is some almost intangible factor with the tubes that I feel like I enjoy more, but exactly what that is eludes me. Honey, I guess.

Listening on the Little Dot does give me a feeling of being in a soundproof room, where there is a noticeable lack of echo when you speak. Sounds have a nice velvety soft edge to them, but no sense that notes with long, slow decays are rolled off excessively or prematurely. Maybe that's "warmth?" I dunno.

In any case, while going back and forth on the desktop setups certain tracks come across as exceptionally enjoyable. And, naturally, those demand a second listening on the Stax. And, without fail, the Stax have utterly ruined what I had just moments earlier deemed to be an amazing listening experience.

I've linked a couple such tracks below. The Delerium one is a long-time favorite that I pulled up for the vocals, not realizing how great the sweeping harp and backing melody would sound. On the Stax, this track sounds cavernous and expansive. Every musical detail is utterly vivid. If the desktop setups render music like beautiful photographs with the subjects presented in sharp detail against a soft background, then the Stax would render those same photographs in high definition with infinite depth of field.

This was even more apparent with Pink Floyd, which was literally almost too much to handle. I had just finished ripping the Discovery box set, and pulled up a select list of tracks to preview. Immediately, "Run Like Hell" stunned me with the crowd in the background of the opening of the track. Before the first (spectacular) guitar note dropped, I had the sense of being among the crowd--I could pinpoint each separate voice from its own source! Then that first note, and the echo rolling out like thunder. Forget it.

Delerium - "Innocente" (ft. Leigh Nash)

Pink Floyd - "Run Like Hell"
Posted by SpeleoFool on 17 April 18 at 22:25 | There are 2 comments on this blog post - Please log in to comment on this blog.

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