Updated April 5th, 2020
When starting, everything might look tempting and, even if you can afford to spend thousands of dollars just to start with, you might not even know where to actually start. While discovery clearly is one of the most exiting part of the experience, here are a few notions which will help you make the most of your journey.
Nota bene: when they are mentioned for the first time, terms in-between quotes such as “this one” link to the two glossaries available in the second part of the guide. This will help the reader understand some of the vocabulary in use.
Music files & streaming serviceS
With “High-Resolution Audio (Hi-Res Audio)” music files, however, note that there is a bit of a controversy in terms of whether one can hear a difference in-between CD quality and Hi-Res/better-than-CD quality music files.
The main services streaming CD quality and/or Hi-Res music files are Amazon Music Unlimited HD, Qobuz and Tidal. To buy CD quality or Hi-Res music files, HDTracks and Qobuz are good places to start with although the latter lets you buy music tracks instead of whole albums only. As you can imagine, the higher the quality — whether real or perceived — the higher the price.
If you are reading this, it is likely that you are at least considering getting some lossless, CD quality, music files and/or subscribing to a streaming service with such capabilities. That being said, the best is to try it for yourself and decide whether you can hear a difference. Now, in order to do so, you will need a good (not decent) pair of “Headphone” or “IEM (Earphones)” .
Headphone or In-EAR-Monitor (IEM)?
Bulkier than IEMs, the fact is that you are less likely to take them with you everywhere.
Essentially, you have two kinds of headphones: Open- and Closed-back. To keep things simple, you are likely to have a better “Soundstage” with open-back headphones than closed ones. However, people around you will hear what you are listening to and, depending on the volume level, the opposite applies. You will also get less warm/hot with open-back headphones.
In terms of comfort, over-ear headphones tend to be the biggest but even people with big ears might have some fit issues. On-ear headphones, well, sit on your ears. Some do not have any issues with them, others hate them.
Smaller than headphones, the fact is that you are more likely to take them with you pretty much everywhere.
Similar to earphones or earbuds, IEMs imply a superior quality than the former two, particularly earbuds which are often found bundled with smartphones.
IEMs often come with various tips such as foam, silicon, etc. While everyone’s ears are different, the tips used and the fit/seal obtained with said tips can alter the sound signature of an IEM to a significant extent. Regardless of the cost, one person can have a wonderful experience with a pair of IEMs and another can have a horrendous one with the same pair due to comfort/fit/seal issues. To remedy this risk, one can order a Custom IEM or “CIEM” .
Impedance mainly applies to headphones (but also applies to IEMs) and is measured in ohm/Ω. Essentially it is is how much power you will need to make your headphones work or “drive them”. The higher the headphone impedance (think Ω300 ohms), the more power (measured in milliwatt/mW) you will require to make them work — sometimes to the point of requiring an external “Amplifier (Amp)” .
Sensitivity mainly applies to IEMs (but also applies to headphones) and is measured in decibel (dB). Essentially, it is how loud your IEM will be at a given power (milliwatt/mW) level. The higher the IEM sensitivity, the less power you will require to make them loud. The downside is that a sensitive IEM will pick-up everything, from the hiss of the amplifier to electrical noise. Accordingly, such IEMs must be plugged to a high-quality “Digital Audio Player (DAP)” .
Digital AUdio Player (DAP)
A “Digital Audio Player (DAP)” can come in many different flavours so, in order to keep things simple, we will focus on the main feature which separating them: some DAP can use music streaming services, other cannot.
If you rely on music streaming services at some point or another, you will likely lean towards a DAP which has this capability. Keep in mind that some streaming services such as Tidal uses the Hi-Res “MQA” format with which your DAP will have to be compatible if you would like to benefit from the audio quality provided by that format.
If you plan to solely rely on your local music collection, a DAP which do not have streaming capabilities will be enough. The advantages of such DAPs are usually better battery life, a customised operating system and an overall more reliable experience than the pure or lightly modified Android-based DAPs with streaming capabilities.
Wether they can stream or not, most DAPs feature a Bluetooth connection allowing wireless transmission of Lossless or even Hi-Res music files to wireless headphones, IEMs or speakers using codecs such as Qualcomm’s aptX HD Audio or Sony’s LDAC.
All DAPs come with a “Digital to Analog Converter (DAC)” chipset integrated from different brands such as: Asahi Kasei Microdevices (AKM), Burr-Brown (now Texas Instruments if not mistaken), Cirrus Logic and ESS Technology. While all these DACs have their own signature sound, the way they are implemented impacts more the sound than the actual chipset used.
Whether you will mainly use headphones or IEMs is also worth considering. As previously mentioned, some headphones with high impedance will require a good amount of power so make sure the DAP you are considering has what it takes. Conversely, some IEMs can be particularly sensitive and will require a DAP with what is commonly referred to as a low noise floor.
Last but not least, many mid- to high-end DAPs now come with both 3.5mm Single-Ended (SE) and 2.5 and 4.4 Balanced (BAL) outputs if not all three. Without going too much into details, balanced outputs often have a larger voltage swing, sound larger and more dynamic.
The DAP alternative: DAC or DAC/Amp combo
Some Android-based smartphones are equipped with DACs which allow you to play and stream Hi-Res music files. One point of attention if you plan to use Tidal with Hi-Res audio files: as previously mentioned, it relies on the MQA format and your device will have to be compatible with it.
On the Apple side of things, since the iPhone 7, the Lightning to 3.5mm Headphone Jack Adapter from Apple is equipped with a DAC chip from Cirrus Logic which allows you to pay Hi-Res music files up to 24-bit/192kHZ. While this allows for streaming Hi-Res music files from services such as Amazon Music HD or Qobuz, it will not be compatible with Tidal’s MQA format. If you plan on using your local music collection, you will have to transfer them to your iPhone (I recommend iMazing as macOS’s transfers to iPhones doesn’t even feature a progression bar) and getting an iOS app which supports the playback of Lossless and/or Hi-Res music files (I recommend VOX Music Player, it looks gorgeous, integrates with Spotify, works well and is free unless you want other options I don’t find relevant).
As the name implies, a DAC/Amp combo is a device which features a DAC with the added benefits provided by an Amp. The advantages of such as device is that you can connect them to pretty much any source such as a laptop, smartphone or even a DAP. While remaining in the realm of portable audio with devices such as the Cozoy Takt and Audioquest DragonFly series, it borders on the transportable with the likes of the Chord Electronics Mojo and Hugo series.
One word of warning though. As these are strongly dependent on the source, any modifications to the source’s software, such as a firmware update or system’s upgrade, can impact your experience. While some never had issues, other had their experience ruined following an update/upgrade as the source simply didn’t work with their DAC/Amp combo anymore.
Cables can make a difference and impact sound. You will have to try for yourself and check whether you can hear a difference and whether you feel it is worth the price.
The most controversial subject is for the end. Burn-in. 🔥 “Burning-in” can apply to headphones, IEMs as well as DAPs. For some, it is a psychological effect at best and a myth a worst. For others, it simply is essential. The idea is that you turn on your DAP, plug your headphone or IEM and play something (pink, white noise or simply music) for a few hours usually ranging from 24 to 200 hours. Of course, if you play music and listen to it, there will be no way for you to tell whether it made a difference or not.
Sony officially recommends 200 hours of burn-in the “Guide to High Quality Sound” of its NW-ZX300 DAP. That’s 200 hours of burn-in per output: 200 hours for the 3.5mm Single-Ended output and 200 hours for the 4.4mm Balanced output totalling 400 hours of burn-in if you plan to use both outputs. Over at the unavoidable Head-Fi (a must stop in the world of portable audio) Ken Ball of Campfire Audio recommended “3 days straight” of burn-in for their Cascade headphone.
As you would have figured out by now, while the aim of this guide is to accompany you throughout your journey, you will have to try a few things and experience for yourself… and it’s the best part 😊 !
Just remember one thing: there is a point where a certain amount of money (usually a consequent sum) won’t necessarily give you your money’s worth in terms of what you’ll gain for the price…