Affordable Hi-Fi Audio Headphone Setup

So, I’ve been trying to get more out of my music in terms of sound quality and experience. 6 years ago, I thought $30 Sony in-ear earphones were just as good as $200 earphones. Clearly my ears were not trained to know any better. As time went on, I slowly began to notice the difference between quality speakers and crappy ones. I still wanted earphones for their small size and I eventually settled on the BeatsX (bluetooth) which cost $109. The BeatsX are definitely much better than my $30 Sony earphones. Then, as time went on, I noticed that music played in my car sounded better than my BeatsX. One particular experience is the surround sound feeling you get from music in your car. With 6 separate speakers, the sounds from different instruments would appear to come from different directions in a very harmonious way. Since I wanted that experience at home, my research led me to a sound factor called soundstage. The soundstage is a speaker’s or headphone’s ability to add spatiality to the music you’re listening to. Rtings.com explains soundstage in detail and sorts headphones by soundstage. You can see the explanation and ranking at

https://www.rtings.com/headphones/tests/sound-quality/soundstage

With this ranking, I just went down the list and picked the best headphones in my budget. Here are the prices for the top 4 headphones as of this writing:

Sennheiser HD 800 S: $1,574.86 (sale price)
HiFiMan Edition X: $1,799.00
Sennheiser HD 700:  $497.00
HiFiMan HE-400i: $219 (sale price)

I decided to go with the HiFiMan HE-400i.

Volume

These headphones have an impedance of 35 ohms so you can drive them with your laptop or phone. However, if you like your music somewhat loud, which also makes music sound better, you’ll need an amplifier. An amplifier simply amplifies (increases) the audio signals to a higher level resulting in a higher volume.

Fidelity

During my research, I also discovered that if you want to take advantage of the speaker capabilities of hi-fi (high fidelity) headphones, you need a good DAC (Digital to Analog Converter) assuming your source audio is in digital format, e.g. mp3 files. The reason for this is because most DACs found in laptops or phones are cheap and of low quality. Some people say that the DAC in the iPhone and Macbook are good but they’re still not as good as a dedicated DAC. Fortunately, there are many combo DAC/Amplifier devices so you don’t need to chain together a bunch of devices. DACs and amplifiers can range from $40 to hundreds of dollars, if not more. Since I wanted something small and portable, I went with the highly rated Dragonfly Red DAC/amplifier. Surprisingly (or not), this thing itself costs $200.

Source Music Quality

Most of my music are in MP3 format which has the benefit of being small in file size but at the expense of sound quality. Some of my older music were probably compressed with an encoding bitrate of 128 kbps. For the last 5 or so years, my music has mostly been sourced from Amazon where the bitrate is between 256 and 320 kbps. Following is a comparison of bitrates:

MP3: up to 320 kbps
CD Quality: 1411 kbps (44.1 KHz sample rate, 16 bit word size)
Hi Res: 4608 kbps (96 kHz sample rate, 24 bit word size)

To calculate bitrate, you multiply the sample rate by the word size by the number of channels (2 for stereo – left/right).

bit rate = sample rate × bit depth × channels

e.g.

44.1 kHz  x 16 bit x 2 channels = 1,411 kbps

The higher the bitrate, the higher the quality.

FLAC is an open-source lossless audio file compression format. There is no loss in quality in these files. Some FLAC files I have range from 2000 kbps to 3250 kbps. The file sizes range from 53 MB to 196 MB. Though lossless, these files are much larger in size than MP3s. Windows 10 supports FLAC files natively. FLAC audio can be purchased from HDTracks.com.

Testing the headphones

The $30 Sony earphones I have are garbage compared to the BeatsX. The BeatsX, even though there’s some loss in quality due to bluetooth transmission, sound much better than the $30 Sony earphones, however, they sound like garbage compared to the HiFiMan HE-400. Also, there’s hardly any, if any, soundstage with the Sony and BeatsX earphones. This makes sense since they’re in-ear earphones. Most sounds seem to come from the same location, e.g. in the middle of your head right on your ears. The HiFiMan HE-400i has a much wider soundstage with crisper sounds allowing you to notice even subtle sounds very clearly. For some songs, the soundstage felt like music came from a foot away from your head and from different directions. Of course, soundstage will also depend on the quality of the source audio as well.

Testing the $30 Sony earphones with and without a DAC

Even though the $30 Sony earphones are the worst compared to the BeatsX and HiFiMan, the Sony earphones still sound better with a DAC, though not nearly good enough compared to the BeatsX without a DAC.

Testing the HiFiMan HE-400i with different songs and DACs

For testing, here’s my setup:

  • Headphones: HiFiMan HE-400i
  • Laptop: Lenovo Yoga Windows 10 laptop
  • DAC/Amplifier: Dragonfly Red
  • Song:
    • Beat It by Michael Jackson (MP3 at 160 kbps – 5 MB filesize)
    • Beat It by Michael Jackson (MP3 at 268 kbps – 8.5 MB filesize – bought from Amazon.com)
    • Beat It by Michael Jackson (FLAC at 6155 kbps –  194 MB filesize bought from HDTracks.com) (176 khz, 24 bits)

Here are my results.

Without the DAC:
  • Volume: Each song had the same volume as expected.
  • Quality: The quality of the 6155 kbps file was somewhat better and cleaner than the 268 kbps file but the differences were mostly subtle. The 268 kbps file was much better than the 160 kbps file. The 268 kbps file made some parts of the 168 kbps file sound distorted.
With the DAC:
  • Volume: For some reason, the lower the bitrate, the higher the volume. Though the max volume of the 6155 kbps FLAC file was loud, I felt that it wasn’t loud enough for my taste.
  • Quality: The sound quality for all versions of the song was IMMENSELY better with the Dragonfly Red. This proves that the internal DAC in the laptop is a cheap piece of garbage. The relative quality improvements between each version of the song were the same as in the case without the DAC.
Conclusion:
  1. Dedicated DACs make a HUGE DIFFERENCE!!!!
  2. Sufficiently loud music tends to sound better. Therefore, amplifiers can make a big difference if your music isn’t loud enough without one.
  3. MP3s at 160 kbps are garbage.
  4. MP3s at 6155 kbps are only slightly better than MP3s at 268 kbps.
  5. For some reason, the 6155 kbps audio file was not as loud as I’d like it to be. The volume of the 268 kbps was good at max volume.
  6. Based on these findings, I recommend the following setup for the beginner audiophile:
    • HiFiMan HE-400i – $220
    • Dragonfly Red – $200
    • Minimum 268 kbps MP3s available from Amazon for about $1 per song
Update:

The Dragonfly Red doesn’t work with the Nexus 6P. Since I have the Nexus 6P, that’s unacceptable. Dragonfly states that you can fix this issue by playing music through the USB Audio Player Pro app ($8) but all my music is in Google Music, some of which are downloaded for local playback and some are online for streaming. Plus, if I want to listen to something like a YouTube video, I still want to use a DAC for improved sound quality. As such, I had to get another DAC/AMP.

Fiio E17K ALPEN 2 USB DAC Headphone Amplifier
This $100 DAC/AMP sounds just as good as the Dragonfly Red, offers the same volume amplification, allows you to adjust bass, treble, etc, has a battery that lasts 13 hours, and is $100 cheaper than the Dragonfly Red. The sound quality and volume appear to be exactly the same when playing music from my Lenovo Yoga laptop and my Nexus 6P. So yeah, it works with the Nexus 6P. The only downside is it’s bigger and heavier than the Dragonfly.

Fiio K1 Portable Headphone Amplifier & DAC and USB DAC
The $40 Fiio K1 doesn’t sound as good as the $100 Fiio E17K ALPEN 2 and the volume was definitely not loud enough. I’m returning it. I’m also returning the Dragonfly Red and just keeping the E17K. FYI, the Fiio K1 does work with the Nexus 6P.

I know I said this before but after listening to music with and without a DAC and hearing such a huge difference in quality, I have to say this again.

DO NOT LISTEN TO MUSIC WITHOUT A DEDICATED QUALITY DAC!

(unless the DAC in your laptop or phone happens to be good, which is unlikely)

I can’t believe I’ve been listening to music without a dedicated quality DAC all my life! There should be a periodic public service announcement telling people that they should try listening to music with a dedicated DAC. The difference will likely be like night and day!

Troubleshooting

If you connect the E17K over USB to your Windows laptop and the device is not recognized, e.g. you get the error “Unknown USB Device (Device Descriptor Request Failed)”, then your USB cable is probably no good. Try another USB cable. That worked for me.

Note

In order to bypass the cheap DAC in your laptop, you need to use a USB DAC. When you connect the USB DAC to your laptop’s USB port, you can then choose the USB port instead of the internal soundcard DAC for outputting digital audio. The digital audio will then get converted to analog in your external USB DAC before being sent to your speakers (headphones, etc). If your USB DAC supports a 3.5mm line in and you connect it to the 3.5mm audio out of your laptop, then your USB DAC will merely relay the converted digital signal from your laptop’s cheap DAC to your headphones. Or, if your USB DAC has an amplifier feature, then you would just be able to use the amplifier feature since you’re not using the USB DAC’s USB input.