If you are here reading this, you will most likely be an audio enthusiast or will be one soon. So I would first welcome you to this 'audiophile hobby'.
Although I enjoyed listening to music right from my childhood, I started spending effort to get the best possible tonality from my car speakers, which was way back in 2006. But, I wouldn't call that a craze, as when I explored and found a good, speaker, amp, player combo with a subwoofer, I was more than happy. Many years passed by, and that was when I happened to hear Beats pro Over headphones at my relatives house. The music and sound it produced left me awestruck, and I would call that as an eye-opener to my audiophile journey as it made me realize how good a headphone can sound. In around 2012 I got a Beats in-ears, which shipped with HTC mobiles. It was a real step-up compared to the rest in-box earphones with mobiles. This then followed with few other purchases on low to mid-fi audio gears from Shure, Mee audio and many others.
I would not be to list all the gears I have auditioned or bought, as that in itself would end up being a project :-). Now here is the point, once you start your chase for the ultimate sound, your passion for that will keep pushing you to get better headphones or source equipment, and at one point you will realize, your definition for ultimate sound is a actually a 'moving target'. There are just too many audio equipments at any price you name (Yes, Hifiman Shangri-La costs as much as a 1 BHK in remote area :-) ), and after some time at a certain point you get the realization that you have actually spent more than you ever imagined, for that illusive ultimate sound. Why I call it illusive is because the moment you hear a higher priced and better equipment, you understand that you no longer possess the one that meets your definition of 'Ultimate tonality'. Now here is the tricky part, if you are a truly passionate audiophile, you can't stop entering this rabbit hole :-) However, following your passions will help you reach that state of bliss. As great music heard in the way you desire to experience this, is the passion of your soul.
A friend once told me that you can even enjoy a song from a tea-stall speakers and player. I would agree to that. Ideally we need to condition our minds to think on ‘listening to songs’ as to ‘watching movies’. Irrespective of the screening quality ( unless it's too bad), we enjoy the movie if that’s good, because our focus is on the movie and not on the screen, which is just a tool. Similarly we need to focus on the enjoyment we get from good songs and not on the quality at which the equipment is rendering it. Once we reach this ideal state, we escape from the rabbit hole aspect 😅😇, and begin to appreciate the underlying emotions of the music. This would be my most important advice to fellow audiophiles.
Key take-aways from my experience:
- Trust your ears and not "theirs"- Yes this is a very subjective hobby, and although something is rated high and recommended by your acquaintance, it may end-up not impressing you too much. So the best thumb rule is to try auditioning before you buy.
- Practically, I know its hard to audition always, and I too have bought things without doing it. So if you want recommendations, the best shot is to go with user reviews in head-fi, and the more you can see the better, as it can help to average out the opinions. The reviews you find in dedicated websites are often paid, and may end up being a hit or miss for your tastes, so this is something to approach with caution.
- Synergy, synergy and only Synergy: No headphone, iem or source (DAC, Amp), may be the best match for the equipments you own or buy. So you need to experiment to get the best match for your audio chain. (Eg) for Sennheiser HD6xx, the best match is using tube amps. Also, there are good high-end Solid state (SS) amps which would make this shine, but not every SS would sound good or pleasing with 6xx.
- Each component matters: What I want to stress is the ear-tips, earpads and esp the cables do make subtle, but significant difference in tonality and timbre for the trained ears. It may be apparent when you compare these side by side.
- Burn-in is not a myth: Burn-in is a differentiating aspect for headphones and iems, but may not be so prominent with audio sources and cables. I found this to be significant for dynamic headphones/IEMs, not so much for planar or BA ones.
- Source cable interconnection: If you use a dedicated desktop DAC and amp, balanced XLR interconnections seems to be always better sounding than RCA ones. The only exception was for Chord DACs where the RCA performance matched XLR when tested with same amp.
- Power source: This is not the power output of your source, but I mean the actual electricity supplied. Indian electric lines, or house wirings have lot of issues stanrrting form noise, ground issues and many more. I have in fact lost few DAC/amp components due to bad electric supply, and due to plugging directly to this. The clear-cur solution for this is to use a power conditioner, but unless this is realy high end, it wont give you the desired results, as sometimes it may overdo and reduce jitter too much so as to make the tonality too clean. Also power condtioners are good for speaker set-ups, but for headphone stack in a desktop, this can take up more space. So, if you are not using a DAC or amp that requires too much power, there is a simple hack to get rid of electicity issues. Just use a battery :-). How? Well its not a simple battery use a high capcity battery with AC converter. You will just need to charge occasionally as the battery will be 65000Mah or higher. One such brand you can find from Amazon India is Coolnut, which is really good and comes with AC converter. RavPower is another international brand offering higher quality. With this you can say Good-bye to RFI, jitter or and other weird electric issues for desktop audio chains.
Best ones auditioned:
I have heard many popular ones with Sennheiser HD660s, Aeon 2C, Audeze LCD2C, isine20, 64 audio U6, Ifi micros idsd, Chord Qutest etc. The best equipment-chains I have auditioned so far:
Audio-chain 1: FIIO K9 Pro ESS (DAC) -> Bal dual Schiit XLR cable -> Gustard H16 (Amp) -> Hifiman Arya V2 (with Hifiman Single Ended cable)
Audio -chain 2: Astell & Kern SP2000T (DAP) -> 64 Audio Trio (IEM) with 4.4 mm Effect Audio Cadmus cable and Spinfit CP145 eartips
Audio chain 3: Iphone-> Meenova Lightning cable -> Ifi Xdsd Gryphon (Dac& Amp) -> Fiio FDX/FD7 (treble bore) with FIIO FIIO - LC-RE PRO 2022 bal cable and Spinfit CP100 eartips.