A fair bit after building my tiny stereo amplifier I started drinking the headphone and amplifier kool-aid.
First I had purchased a Fiio e10k dac/amp to go with my sweet Audio Technica open backs. People on Reddit, Amazon, and Zeos said the Fiio was alright. It seemed good to me and made things louder. It was “cheap” at $70, though at that time, $70 seemed like a lot of money to spend on something and I got for free with every computer I had ever owned. I suppose it sounded better than the audio on my motherboard. I’m sure I couldn’t actually hear any difference except in volume. I do have found memories of listening to Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on full tilt a few evenings with that thing. Good times.
But, like a good self-proclaimed and newly minted audiophile, I needed to be sure that it did make an improvement. I needed to compare it with something else. It’s like that eMac – it was good, but there had to be better for the same-ish price. If I could get more for the same price, I needed to. And I needed to be sure.
This other company was making waves around that time. It was called Schiit and they had a competing, around $100, dac/amp they sold. It was called the Fulla and it this cute little thing. In your mind you say “Fulla Schiit” and giggle so that made it even better. I bought that too, even though I’d just spent money on this other dac/amp that I already felt was a lot of money to spend.
As soon as my order shipped, Schiit released a new Fulla that was slightly bigger, more cute, and well… “better”. So, I bought that too. I had no choice at this point.
All this happened over the course of perhaps 2 months. To prove it, here was my collection of entry -level audiophile dac/amps.
During the same period I’d also acquired some new headphones too: Beyerdynamic DT990s, DT770s, and Massdrop Hifiman-HE350s. I still had my Audio Technicas.
Yeah – over the course of perhaps 3 months I started out thinking that $70 was a lot to spend on a thing to make some headphones work “better” and spend upwards of $600 on stuff. I did realize the hilarity of the whole thing but didn’t really care as I was now able spend time attempting to pick out nuances in music that I swear must have been there.
For the record, I still think the DT770 is a great headphone. Treble cannons, yes, but super fun cans. If you’re looking for nice cans for a lil over $100, those are them.
Alright anyways, so there I was with three dac/amps and small collection of what normal people would call “expensive” headphones. In the headphone game this is what’s called entering Mid-Fi Hell. It’s a thing and I was in the middle of it. Spending time swapping gear around, listening for which gives the best transients, if one combination gave the best decay or if the DT770’s bass sounded flabbier through one device or another. Not that I really knew what any of those words meant or actually sounded like, but it’s the kind of thing people posted about on Reddit, HeadFi, and Super Best Audio Friends, so it couldn’t all be bullshit. I just hadn’t acquired the right combination to show me it wasn’t bullshit.
If you’re not someone already in the audio world, you’re probably thinking something like – Omg this is nuts, this is like some sort of weird bullshit addiction. Yep, it is. Addiction, materialism, whatever – audio gear is like that. Remember, this is the industry where you can spend stupid amounts of money on cables that people think genuinely affects how music sounds. And people will defend it.
After a week of careful comparison of the three dac/amps, I decided that the newer Fulla 2 was the best of the bunch. It was bigger, had a bigger knob, and therefore must sound better. I think it did. It did, didn’t it? The spec sheet for it had a bunch of numbers that seemed cool. Some were higher and lower than the other devices. Some had more zeros behind the decimal place, so that must be good too. It sounded better, right? Convincing one’s self that something sounds better is a key part of being an audiophile.
I sold off the two smaller devices on Craigslist and decided I’m good with the big Schiit.
But was I? Not really. I had just sold some gear, so I had funds – I had spent about $300 total for all three devices and recouped about $150 of it while retaining the big Schiit. That meant I could upgrade something!
The common thought among audio junkies is that the dac is the part that matters least – at least until you decide it does matter. So, if I used the big Schiit as the dac, I could spent the $150 on a bigger amp that would sound better. People on the forums would approve of my upgrade. So I bought a Fiio K5 – it was a headphone amp but had a dock so you could dock a portable player (yes, they’re still a thing) and use that portable player as the dac. Best of both worlds – I could have a portable lossless player, use it as a computer dac, and have a good amp too! Super upgrade! I’d be set after that.
You can see where this is going. This cycle of gear acquisition, evaluation, purging, and re-acquisition is what the audio game is all about. Having a pile of headphones like this is a badge of honor, not a sign of insanity. This cycle continued for me for a long time. It still does, to an extent. I bought the new headphones people on Reddit or Zeos said was awesome, sold the old headphones that no longer sounded good to me or was no longer thought of as awesome by the community, bought a slightly better amplifier, sold it, and bought another.
What is the moral of this story? Being an “audiophile” is kinda silly. It’s materialism, addiction, and snake oil. It’s also a lot of fun sometimes, just really reflecting on it is funny. I don’t mean to make fun of anyone or make folks think less of folks in this hobby, but this is what it is. It’s largely the same as the hook in addictive video games. I do love it, don’t get me wrong. Hell, I’ve got so much audio gear sitting around it is laughable. I enjoy listening to all of it and swapping stuff around. However, make no mistake, it is certainly ridiculous.
Bah, I’ve written all this and still haven’t gotten to anything DIY. It’s coming, I swear.