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Portable DAC

Discussion in 'Headphones & Amps' started by FredtheFilmFan, Nov 25, 2018.

  1. FredtheFilmFan

    FredtheFilmFan Active Member

    Hi Gents. Recently I was fitted for custom ear pieces for my Shure se 315 IEM's(primarily for noise isolation) and I thought, what else could I do to maximize my listening experience. So, I've been doing some reading online about portable headphone amps/DAC's to use with my iPhone X. I think I trust the opinion of this forum more than that of (potentially paid by manufacturers) websites. With all that in mind, any suggestions for a portable DAC?

    On a side note, based on what I've read here, I purchased the AT-PHA05BT portable bluetooth receiver. My technical review: Meh. It works but it seems to have a bit of background noise. I don't notice it when I'm listening to music but when the music is paused it's audible so I would believe it's having an impact on the sound.

    One other thing, I'm considering upgrading my IEM's to the 425's or 535's to take advantage of what I expect to be improved sound isolation with the custom ear pieces and I'd love to have any thoughts about any experiences with the 315/425/535 IEM's from Shure. Lots there to go through!
  2. Flint

    Flint "Do you know who I am?" Superstar

    I am surprised the AT Bluetooth amp isn't working for you. I find it is dead silent with my setup, but I am using a Samsung phone, so maybe the way it communicates is different than your iPhone. I know Shure just launched a new Bluetooth cable which supports all the latest BT standards, some of which are said to improve audio, so maybe that's an option. I am unaware of wired DAC/Headphone solutions for iPhone X data port, so I am of no use for dedicated wired solutions.

    As for the higher-end SE series IEMs, I have used the 215, 315, and own the 535 and 845 models. I find with each upgrade I got the anticipated stronger bass and extension in the treble, and so forth. But just as importantly they also seemed to offer slightly clearer midrange and more detailed (which was hard to believe given the clarity of even the 215), and they tended to be capable of playing louder, which I rarely need from an IEM. There is something to be said for the improvements, though. If you spend as much time wearing IEMs and I do, often for a whole day while traveling, every little improvement seems well worth it.
  3. FredtheFilmFan

    FredtheFilmFan Active Member

    Well, the little bluetooth amp is working, I'm just not 100% sure of of it's sonic capability. I bought the little one, not the larger one that I thought you purchased, based on the write up on the forum.

    I'm doing more reading about digital playback via iPhone/Android and other smartphones and I have to say I'm pretty disappointed. I enjoy listening to music but I feel a little cheated as the quality of the audio I'm downloading to my phone is not as good as I'd like and I'm having trouble figuring out how to get a higher quality file via iTunes. I can buy a portable DAC, get some new se535's with custom sleeves and it won't matter because the quality of the audio on my iPhone is garbage. All that I'm going to do at this point is really resolve the bad audio. Frustrating. I'm still getting the sleeves as I want the sound isolation for traveling but I need to get better audio files on my phone before I consider anything else.

    Any suggestions on that I would love to hear them!
  4. Flint

    Flint "Do you know who I am?" Superstar

    I am not sure I agree. I know the iPhone has one of the best audio sections of all the phones on the market. Nearly all purchased downloadable media is so well encoded these days that it is hard to tell it apart from the CD red book version, in most cases. I would be surprised to discover music from iTunes isn't very good sounding.
  5. Towen7

    Towen7 Well-Known Member Staff Member Moderator

    Did you think the audio quality was garbage before you did all that reading?
  6. FredtheFilmFan

    FredtheFilmFan Active Member

    Well, yes? I've felt that there's something missing. But I haven't been sure that it's the way the IEM's sound, the "lack" of processing power or amplification or the source itself. There are so many variables that It's been fought to figure out. When I use the outputs on my receivers for headphones I never know if I am getting good amplification. Frankly, when I have used my Denton receiver headphone output with my AKG headphones I thought it sounded terrible. The trouble is I don't know why. Was it the source or the receiver output? I have, unfortunately, not had the time to set up a way to do some a/b testing with multiple sources and changing from my headphones to my IEM's.

    On a side note, the IEM's definitely sound different than the AKG's. There's a sound stage on the AKG's that is impressive. But the noise isolation on the IEM's is awesome.
  7. Flint

    Flint "Do you know who I am?" Superstar

    You don't really explain what you think it missing, but headphone listening cannot replicate certain aspects of stereo speaker listening. For instance:
    1. Headphones cannot create a solid soundstage which is in front of you the way speakers can. Headphone create great stereo separation, but it ranges from the sides of your head to the center of your head. Attempts to remedy this with crosstalk can sometimes help, but I feel it does more harm than good.
    2. The limitation on imaging to the space between your ears prevents headphones from providing the soundstage depth many can achieve with good speakers in a good room. The perception of performers being scattered on a stage in front of you, some closer and some farther away is difficult for headphone to accomplish.
    3. Headphones cannot create the impact and bodily vibration that good speakers (and/or subwoofer) can. They can generate tons of bass to well below 20Hz, but only your eardrums will sense that bass where a great home speaker system can shake your skin and bones.
    4. Headphones isolate the sound to your ears without room interaction, so any sense of ambience you are familiar with from your room's reverb and echoes won't be present in headphone listening. I consider this an advantage, but many folk who have learned to define high end sound by the way things sound in a room with all the room decay struggle with the only ambience you experience with headphones being in the source recording.
    5. Sense of scale is also a problem for headphones. I think a combination of everything I listed above contributes to a sense of size and scale that headphones simply cannot, nor never, will provide.
    Those things are just the nature of headphone listening versus speaker listening. However, headphones offer benefits such as:
    • Extremely low distortion
    • Unlimited peak dynamic output which can exceed the capacity of your ears to handle
    • Ultra-precise stereo imaging where you can define the location of the virtual sound source between your ears and in relation to the other sounds in the recording
    • Extreme resolution and detail
    • Surprisingly accurate midrange clarity
    • Few, if any, speakers can provide those characteristics the way headphone can. Really, the experience is two different things. Headphones has benefits but also limitations, as do speakers in a room.
    So, when you say something is missing, I struggle to understand what you mean since in certain aspect there are things missing which are impossible to accomplish through headphones. The same also goes for speakers which cannot do everything headphones can do easily.

    Unfortunately, most online opinions and theories on headphone use are messed up and this notion that somehow spending more money and complicating a playback chain magically solves every problem are just wrong.

    Nearly all of today's mobile phones, tablets, and notebook PCs have surprisingly good headphone and audio sections which do not need help in generating a very robust and accurate headphone output signal. Likewise, since about 2011 nearly all audio encoders perform better than our ears can hear (though data rate still matters). Pretty much any audio file with a data rate of over 192kbps, be it MP3, AAC, WMA, or whatever, will sound virtually identical to the original source. Some more complex recordings require a higher bit rate, but generally those are not the popular musical choices. High resolution audio is a snake oil gimmick 95% of the time, and the other 5% is rarely music anyone wants to listen to in the first place.

    So, my struggle to understand your issue with headphones or IEMs limits my ability to help.

    Keep in mind, getting higher resolution and clarity in the playback section can often be disappointing with the original music is not well recorded in the first place. No amount of upgrades will make Radiohead or Christina Aguilera sound like Steely Dan or any ECM jazz combo recording. This is an issue for many music fans who discover too late that their favorite songs sound just as good on a Kenwood stereo from the 1970s and it does on a state of the art $1M system from today. In those cases, just enjoying music knowing the playback cannot get any better is all you can hope for.

    So, what is missing and what are you looking for?
  8. Akula

    Akula Well-Known Member

    What I found with the iPhone is more that it could use a better and more accessible EQ than it has. It has the "idiot's EQ" (under the settings for Music) where you can pick one of the presets of "rock/electronic/pop/etc." (there's a lot of choices), but at no point are you able to set the points yourself. The best you can do is find a preset that you like more than others.

    In fact, now looking at the presets, it appears there's more now than there were before... I don't know if iOS 12 increased the number of presets or I just don't remember, but I need to toss my cans on and see if I can find a preset I like more than I have now.
  9. Zing

    Zing Retired Admin Famous

    Akula likes this.
  10. Flint

    Flint "Do you know who I am?" Superstar

    Curious, why use an EQ if you have a good set of headphones?
  11. Akula

    Akula Well-Known Member

    Because my "good set of headphones" has been appropriated by the lovely and otherwise wonderful Mrs. Akula, and I make do with a Bose wireless set that pales before my Sennheiser HD580s but is way more convenient when traveling. But seriously, I do tend to prefer some tweaks to the sound. I just hate being unable to fiddle with bass/treble or specific freqs, only being given various scenarios (what on earth does "pop" mean anyway?).
  12. FredtheFilmFan

    FredtheFilmFan Active Member

    I guess when I say the something is missing I mean that some of the music I listen to just doesn't pop or seem to sound as clear and as rich as I think it should. I find trying to describe sound is tricky. Perhaps it is my choice of music as I do listen to RadioHead and other "pop" music. But, listening to I Robot by The Alan Parsons Project on my iPhone sounds pretty good. I would think that album would be well produced and recorded. The 'remastered" Led Zeppelin
    Mothership also seems to be pretty good on most tracks. But, on both the original and the remastered versions of Since I've Been Loving You I hear some kind of audio artifact in my right ear when the opening guitar is playing on the left channel. Is that the result of the original recording being flawed or is it the gear that I'm using to play it back; I have no idea. I enjoy listening to the song anyway.

    I understand that the imaging on earbuds or headphones will never be anything like a stereo setup, but I also have an expectation that listening via headphones should resolve some sounds and instrumentation more than my stereo setup, perhaps this isn't a good assumption. I guess I'm trying to figure out how to get the best audio experience from my iPhone. Is that simply using the dongle that comes with the phone and continuing to download music via iTunes? Getting a different DAC and FLAC files for music playback? I don't know what the technical differences are, but I know they cost money and I don't like to spend unless I have to.
  13. Flint

    Flint "Do you know who I am?" Superstar

    Radiohead records sound incredibly bad. So never use them as a reference.
  14. Flint

    Flint "Do you know who I am?" Superstar

    And, yes, in some recordings when you get extremely good reproduction you can sometimes hear artifacts like clicks, studio noise, tape bleed, and so on which the producers chose to keep in for whatever reason. When the reproduction system is above par, the listener can hear the limits of the recordings. That sometimes means the recording may not sound all that good.

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