M0N’s Shit LIST

You’ve heard of the Shit Scale™, but what about the Shit LIST? Don’t think I can claim that name though. Welcome to the eternal WIP where I’ll try and collect my favorite things I’ve heard over time, from Headphones, IEMs, DACs, Digital Sources, Portables, and more (like working on full pairings). Finally figured it was time to do this, more as a thought exercise for myself, it’s really more for fun than anything else. You can probably guess this is somewhat of a tier list, although in the form of the shit scale (since for some reason, that’s helpful to people), it’s just what I like in immaturely named groups of performance. Honestly more of a “best of” list as it’s all things I would suggest and enjoy in the end (with one exception lol). I’m going to have to expand the levels of shit to properly convey things. Not really meant as a reference guide or buying guide or really even a tier list, just a collection of stuff I appreciate and find worthwhile myself at various different levels.

I actually hate tier lists btw, but at the same time it finally felt right/fun to write one for myself (if this can be considered one). But it’s only going to be useful to myself, so keep that in mind. Now includes notes and writeups about others things that I feel like writing about too. See those at the bottom

NOTE: New gear will no longer be added, taking a break from the hobby for a bit. Will revisit and refresh in the future at some point.

This will get updated frequently as I fine tune my rankings and add or remove things, sort of a work in progress. Sorry for mobile viewers in advance, you’ll see what I mean. Also sorry for people who care about spelling, since the article is so large my spellcheck gives up, and spelling isn’t my strong suit (to be honest, neither is writing in general lol).

Jump to specific section (just please read the disclaimers first at least lol)


Ranking/Sorting, Filtering, and Simplifying:

For simplicity, I’m only going to include stuff I actually like, things I’d want to listen to, and potentially buy myself within the range. Basically things I’d consider stand out/remarkable in some or multiple regards within their tier/range. So even things that are good, but unremarkable won’t make it on here, and things I don’t really like won’t make it on here either (except the Dogshit tier, which is reserved for the worst of the worst, more on that later, for fun). Tried to keep it to currently manufactured products, but there will be out of production stuff too from time to time if I don’t think there’s a suitable, reasonable alternative to them. Also tried to not put products from the same mfg on here too many times.

Amps will only include headphone amps, not speaker amps (unless they have a headphone jack that’s kickass), but no pure speaker power amps or anything like that. There is a speaker section, but treat that as it’s own thing, not for use with headphones. Digital Sources are mainly streamers, servers, and DDC/reclockers, not including CDT (if you can’t tell I don’t have as much experience with these as I do for DACs lol).

I’m only adding things I’ve had in house and/or demos where I had time to play around with them, so not adding things I only had brief demos of (or no experience of course) unless they extremely impressed me. For fun, I’ll also note things that I currently own with a *.

Price isn’t exactly included in the ranking, but you’ll likely see some correlation, and if something is what I’d consider poor value it’s likely not going to be on here anyways, so I’d consider most of these to be moderate to high value options (some make way more sense used, some are actually good value new, depends).

Everything will be sorted into 3 general tiers: Good Shit., Oh Shit!?, HOLY SHIT!! (which I’ll explain later), but there’s also tiers inside of those general tiers called Top Class, Mid Class, and Low Class which also differentiate performance tiers within the general groups. Along with that, items are all sorted by best to worst (I use that term loosely) inside the categories, so higher is better within the lists. I do think that the jump from let’s say Mid to Top is pretty noticeable/substantial enough to care, so they aren’t marginal or smaller differences despite already being in an overarching Shit tier.

Ranking is mainly both combined preference and technical ability, sometimes more technical ability, sometimes more preference, I’ll try and note that in the Why? section. It’s only based on quality of sound, not build, functionality, features, convenience, etc (unless that affects sound quality noticeably). There are big, massive, glaring flaws with this list though:

The Biggest Drawbacks: Synergy, Pairing, and Scaling:

Getting synergy and pairings right is exceedingly important the higher and higher you go up, to where it is very much “make or break” multiple times over. For this list, it assumes ideal and/or appropriate source chain to achieve it’s ranking (which will absolutely skew things for some items, but I tried to place them with the assumption of reasonable “to the limit” source gear). Scaling is a powerful and sometimes very worthwhile tool, and some of these items are ranked the way they are due to that powerful synergy/pairing and scaling, without that they might be a decent bit lower. I am someone who puts a heavy emphasis on source as you continue to go up, so that’s something I should call attention to, and something to keep in mind

You’ll notice there’s a section called Source Demands for transducers or Pairing Pickiness for electronics (basically mean the same thing in this case for the most part), with the possible options of Extremely High, Very High, High, Moderate, or Low, and sometimes in between. It’s important to make note of that, and also assume that the higher the demands or pickiness, the higher scaling that can be achieved (typically). But really though, it is pretty critical, don’t ignore it as it highly influences the places of some things on these lists.

I did add the shortlist section, where I’ll attempt to share some good pairings that offer good value with multiple options for different sounds, basically just what I like at various ranges, not all possible pairings, and not explaining too much on that for now. Also only mostly going to be including things already mentioned in the list, believe me I want to add more, but for my own sanity I won’t. Ok perhaps a few, but I’ll keep it limited. You’ll likely notice that most all headphones on my list really have a lot of scaling capability and aren’t that forgiving to poor source gear lol. I’m also not just going to suggest the top amps for every tier of headphones, I will try and keep it reasonable where it still makes sense to pair them together financially/value wise (and will note the bang for buck range for each as well). Not every headphone will make it into the shortlist, I have to feel as though you can put together an overall chain that offers a level of both performance and value that I feel is worth my (and potentially your) time and money. If you’ve got questions on what I’ve come up with chain wise, want more info on a specific thing on the list, or whatever synergy or pairing questions, feel free to message me on the forum and I’ll see if I can help you out.

Accounting for Features & Extras:

For things with tubes, I’m ranking as if it’s already got higher than factory quality in there. For DAC’s, upstream digital components I’m assuming are appropriate for the tier. Same with cables, or any extras not explicit mentioned. It’s hard since some of that stuff will influence where things are placed, so I think for general list comprehensibility that’s the best way of doing it.

Detailed Information/Explanations, or Lack Thereof:

There’s only going to be a short blurb on why something is where it is, if you want more info just ask me on the forum, because I’m too lazy to give a super detailed description/info for each thing on here, I don’t have that much time or energy lol. It’s also going to be fairly “audiophile” term heavy, for more info on how I’d describe those terms, check out the glossary at the bottom, although not everything is covered and not everything is applicable. A lot of these differences and reasons why they’re worthwhile are typically going to be a lot more than the small blurb or info I give.

A lot of these will be extremely source/pairing dependent, already mentioned that above, but figured I should reiterate it again. And I don’t have the energy to give pairing information for every item (I also wouldn’t want to rely that hard on my memory for things, wouldn’t feel confident doing that).

It’s Only My Experiences:

I haven’t heard everything, that should be a given lol, and if there’s something you think I’ve missed or should check out, let me know. It’s really just how I feel about things, might be (will likely be) different for everyone. It’s just my opinion and experiences, nothing more, see more caveats and disclaimers in other articles.

In general, don’t really take tier lists or anything of the sort seriously, it’s more for the writer than anyone else reading, just figured it would be fun to share the information, experiences, and thoughts I’ve had over my time in this hobby in a more condensed and potentially useful format, use at your own risk, and use responsibly lol.

I’m Not up to Date:

Ever since getting the setup that I want to just live with dialed in, my interest in a lot of things has kinda decreased so I have no desire to keep up with all the new latest and greatest, especially in categories where that seemingly changes week to week (such as IEMs), I’ll update things if I try something notable for my opinion changes, but I don’t really plan on going out of my way to make sure I try all the hyped or otherwise products that are released each year. Not interested trying things out for the sake of putting it in the list because: 1. that’s not the point as only my faves ended up here for the most part and I’m going to leave out anything that I don’t mostly like, and 2. again it’s more for myself than it is for anyone reading it. On that note…

My Sonic Priorities and how they Define this List:

While I’ve tried to make the list putting aside some of my preferences and personal gripes for what I think deserves to be on here, the list is obviously going to be colored by what I personally prioritize within audio/music, and likely the higher something is up on this list, the higher it nails those priorities (although there are exceptions of course, so take that into account). Right off the bat, I would say these are my main priorities:

  • Immediacy/Directness – I truly think this is one of the most important aspects into getting convincing and enjoyable sound, giving you that “there” feeling and making music a more emotional and tangible experience. I am willing to ignore more shortcomings of something if this trait is carried out really really well since I think it contributes so much to my personal enjoyment and what I perceive as more real. If I had to describe the overall general feeling, for most things it would be like sitting in a house looking out of a window (the window could be dirty, squeaky clean, warped, colored, reflective, etc), vs something more immediate and direct is like just being outside, you’re seeing everything more realistically, but you’re also actually feeling the environment around you with your other senses. You might get a bit of that environment in the house (hearing muffled sounds from outside, perhaps the tempature a bit, sometimes the sun through the window), but it’s just not the same lol. Stupid comparison, but harder to put into words. Don’t read this as representing transparency, since that’s not what I mean here and a different thing in general.
  • Overall Dynamics (both macro and micro) – Want to say this also ties into the first, giving things more life of music and deeper insight underneath. I personally do favor microdynamics a bit more over macro but I don’t like to lean too heavily into either and prefer an accurate balance.
  • Overall Spatial Recreation – Creating space in either a convincing, interesting, and engaging way (ideally all of the above) really adds to the experience and makes the other aspects come alive as well, I personally do prefer a bit more grandness and space than not but only if it isn’t at the expense of accuracy/potential realism of stage/space. Aspects such as stage: width, depth, verticality, boundary, placement accuracy, coherency, presentation openess, background blackness, all contribute to this.
  • Scaling – while not exactly a sonic trait, I do really value things that can continue to improve when being fed better and better allowing one to grow with a chain and not have to change off something they like because it can’t scale with the rest of potential upgrades or improvements, so a lot of stuff on here can scale quite well and that’s also how it might get so high up on the list lol.

Here are some of my really important but not main priorities:

  • Weighting – The ability for something to convey the proper sense of weight or “meat on the bone” of aspects of music does contribute a lot for me personally, I do value adaptable accuracy rather than flavor for this trait. Something that can more accurately shift it’s weighting depending on the music is an important goal rather than something that is just consistently always rich or thin or middleground.
  • Texture & Liquidity – Having good tangible texture and being able to present it in a natural and liquid manner is important to me, that being said I don’t think I need to have both at the same time and am fine favoring one or the other depending on the unit. I do think this ties into immediacy/directness somewhat but there’s absolutely cases where things have nice texture and liquidity but not immediacy/directness. An important part of something feeling tangible, but can also potentially easily lead to something feeling artificial if poorly executed (or absent lol).
  • Resolving Power/Detail – While this is important, I think it’s more important to present that information in a convincing manner rather than just having it, so I actually might prefer something that pulls less information but presents it more accurately than something that just shoves information to you without any care for realism. All depends though, it’s still a really important aspect to get connected to the overall music and reveal more nuance, both sacrificing this too much or focusing on this too much can be detrimental. Again I think it plays into some of the above still.
  • Timbre – Very time domain dependant and typically feeds into a lot of the other aspects here, but I put this in the not main priorities category because even if something has really solid timbre but not much else to show for it, I’m still not really going to gravitate toward it. I do really value timbre, but not at the expense of some other aspects at times. Also, should clarify timbre is not tonality, it’s more how accurate is something at creating the time domain/more intangible aspects of an instrument/sound, not focusing on overall tonality, basically how true to life does an instrument sound?
  • Overall General Control – This is actually harder to attain well imo, something that’s well controlled without being over or under done to where it sounds realistic. Don’t like an overly loose/sloppy or overly hamfisted approach, something with proper balance and also something that is able to really more accurately track the music and offer strong command when needed and a softer touch when called for is appreciated.

And here are some aspects I actually don’t really care about:

  • Vocals – yeah I really don’t care how accurate or true to life vocals sound, and I really don’t like when they take priority over other aspects of sound. Unless they’re egregious or stand out shockingly good at vocals I don’t pay attention. Don’t listen to vocal centric music, and it’s not something I put emphasis on.
  • Overall tonality based on frequency response – this is a bit of a half truth, because I do care, as I think this is very important to getting quality in the entry level realm, but I stop putting much focus or emphasis on it once you get into the upper echelon, because the mass majority of the time it’s plenty good enough to not be a problem, and I think a lot of the intangible aspects end up coloring the sound of things overall a whole lot more than just FR does, and that’s also what you pay for as you move up as well, not really tonality or FR. Again unless it’s really stand out in one way or the other, I’m not really going to put much emphasis on it.
  • General amount of coloration – I’m honestly OK with something going for more of a sweeter and colored sound or something going for a very neutral and accurate approach or something more analytical and in your face, I appreciate both and inbetween, and aren’t really swayed toward or against something because of it most of the time, but I dislike things going too far in either direction or awkward middlegrounds. Basically, I’m not someone who finds themselves only enjoying or considering one sort of specific sonic goal.
  • Overall completeness – This might seem like a weird one and also somewhat contradictory, but I think for myself I’ve found that if I try to find the most well rounded and “complete” chain, it typically is somewhat disappointing in the end, by trying to get everything to an equal level you just end up with an equal amount of mediocrity and disappointment lol. Ends up feeling like striving for perfection to then realize it doesn’t exist, same thing, honestly also could have been a bullet too but I think completeness is a bit easier to describe than perfection. I’m just looking for complete enough, as in tradeoffs are still being made in what I prefer they are made in, but not enough to ruin balance, and not too little where things just homogenize and end up as mediocre in all aspects. Hard to really explain this one lol, but I swear it makes sense in my mind. Real completeness and well roundedness is fucking expensive and rare anyways, it’s a lot cheaper and easier to put together a setup that sounds amazing with a few specific genre or trait focuses, rather than something that sounds amazing with everything lol.

I don’t really have one preferred signature/voicing/presentation/what have you as mentioned, I tend to appreciate whatever is well executed for what it’s going for, but I will say I tend to not be a fan of things that go to the extremes of things. These are all tied together in one way or another though and hard to separate, but hopefully this gets the point across. Things traits not mentioned (such as extension, speed, smoothness, forwardness, forgivingness, slam/impact, etc) fall into the important but not main priority category lol. Again though there will still be some exceptions. For more info on what these phrases mean check the poorly made glossary at the bottom.

Music wise, I truly listen to anything that interests me, except modern country music and anything that rides solely on vocals. I listen to both absolute garbage (from both a music and fidelity perspective) and absolutely pristine works, and yes I’m the sort of person who has massive playlists they shuffle through until they find an album they want to listen to. Really whatever piques my interest will be what I listen to, in the end I’m more concerned about being connected to the music and having an emotional experience and whatever does that best is what I like to use (although exceptions of course depending on what I want out of listening to music). I do make sure most everything I listen to is in lossless if possible though, although I’m willing to make exceptions if something is truly amazing but only in lossy lol. I do care a little bit about things like high res, a decent bit about DSD, but really most importantly mastering when choosing what copy of music to pick up (if there’s an option of course), and I’m not going to poopoo something not in high res/DSD just because of that.

For my listening habits, I am willing to trade quality over convenience really most of the time, so I’m willing to put in the work and hassle for getting something that sounds better to me, I mainly am a headphone user so most of this list really is from the perspective of someone who started with an interest in headphones and continued to have that interest while branching into other aspects of the hobby. My goal in building a setup/chain for a location is more focused on quality over quantity and making sure all aspects are up to snuff, I’m not one (anymore) to focus on having a billion different setups and combos and systems, and would rather suggest consolidating and improving one or a few different setups depending on use case and needs, so the list is going to be tilted toward that sort of thinking. I’m also someone who does place great emphasis on a good source, as that’s where everything comes from, so the rest of the chain can only be as good as that source.

One big aspect is that this list really is based off of max performance chains, as in top tier DACs, amps, cables, digital sources, etc. Basically assuming as ideal pairings as I could make for how they got their placement in the list. So some items are really going to scale and move themselves up higher on the list than others will, so that’s important to take into account. Pretty sure I’ve said this somewhere else on here but it’s really something to account for when looking at this stuff. There are absolutely a lot of things which would be in entirely different places on the list (or even cut or added) if I didn’t have the experience with different and mainly higher end chains as I do.

I do skew high end and ultra dedicated these days, and I’ve been able to dedicate most of my free funds, time, and energy toward this hobby and literally nothing else (seriously this is the only thing I care about anymore), so I’m likely going to be a bit more loose/less financially responsible when it comes to costs, willing to make more compromises and put more effort in than normal, and also be more picky than normal because it’s just what I focus on. That’s def something to take into consideration when looking at this list and does highly color it. I’m not one to really settle for easy but lackluster options/solutions for convenience and simplicity sake, this hobby really isn’t easy and does take considerable time, energy, and funds to really get the most out of it imo. If it was that simple, this list wouldn’t exist really lol. Would rather take my time though the hobby to truly understand things rather than just getting in and out or jumping to a specific point, so what I tend to put on the list here at times might reflect that. Also value achieving proper balance within chains to reduce bottlenecks, maximizing value/sound per dollar even in the higher end, and taking steps to really move through the hobby in a meaningful and enjoyable way, as in fully enjoying the journey along with the destination.

If I haven’t mentioned it already (which I think I did), I really am more a headphone guy than anything else, and that’s what I feel as though I have the most experience in, that along with headphone amps and DACs. I do think that I’ve gotten a decent feel for higher end IEMs although my experience and interest is lacking in lower end IEMs these days, but I have explored a lot of portable source gear as I commonly took headphones portable in the past so feel pretty confident on that as well. Already mentioned hp amps and DACs, I am getting more experience with higher quality digital sources like streamers/servers/transports/etc but it’s not to the level of experience I have with DACs overall as that’s something I’ve more recently sort of realized the importance of (more important than I had thought in the past especially when moving up lol). While I’ve listened to a lot of speaker and 2ch setups growing up from family and friends, shows, dealers, etc, I’ve never really paid much attention vs headphones until recently (where my living situation, time, and finances have allowed me to do so somewhat lol) so I don’t feel that confident with my speaker experience in comparison, same goes for speaker source gear aside from DACs as well. Know jack shit about vinyl or analog sources so nothing about that will be on here lol. Also getting more experience into the tweaking side of things with cables, tubes, isolation, etc but wouldn’t consider myself well experienced there either.

Other Potential Biases: I would be foolish to think that the only thing that colors what I put or don’t put on the list and where I put it would be purely sound quality. That truly is my main focus, but of course there are other things that have made me hesitant to add/remove/change aspects of the list. One aspect I’ll acknowledge is my tendency to look at things more negatively if there’s a prominent and irritating community/user base/individuals that I either have to read or interact with often that bother me, if I already don’t like the thing surrounding it, that’s just going to amplify my distaste (holo and zmf stuff is a good example of that for me). If I have to read and talk to people who constantly praise more like worship, or attack something at every living second, that’s going to irritate me (especially if the praise or attacks have no merit). Again really most of my opinion is based on it’s sonic merits and my experience, but I can’t deny that stuff like that does get to me and amplify my distaste a bit (that was initially acquired through sonic merit, more accurately lack thereof).

Another one is a clear preference against initially checking out a lot of the measurement focused stuff, simply because my own experience has shown time and time and time and time again that it isn’t worth putting much stake into that. I will likely be less interested in trying something that focuses on measurements as a main selling point rather than actual sound quality (once I actually have my hands on it though, that concern is mostly irrelevant as then it’s only judged on sonic merit if I’m able to hear it for myself). I’ve been in the hobby for quite awhile and demoed, owned, and heard quite a lot, so I feel as though I’m both pretty open minded when it comes to giving things a chance when I actually get a listen in, but also a bit jaded when it comes to a lot of the hype/fomo/fotm/marketing/etc for when things are announced or pushed, so that’s been making me increasingly averse to going out of my way to try everything new now (but also because I’m well satisfied with what I have now as well). Not like I’m not trying anything out anymore or willingly letting my experience crystalize, I’m just waiting until hype dies down and trying when is more convenient to me if I want to. This is also from a North American perspective so that will skew my perspective in what I can actually get my hands on, what actually is good value compared to other parts of the world, and the types of gear I’m commonly exposed to at shows, dealers, friends, etc.

Otherwise though, I truly don’t care much about build and fit and finish, don’t really care about the mfg or anything related and moreso the product itself, I don’t really care about brand image or anything related, don’t really care about sticker shock or the price putting me off, don’t care about how I end up getting something, don’t really care about what others have said about a piece or fitting into a community much, don’t care about the history of something, don’t care what’s under the hood and the tech it uses, don’t care about spending the effort and work it takes to get something to it’s best, etc etc etc, and don’t really have any incentives to do this whatsoever and I get nothing for doing this (outside of wasting my own time, energy, money, and life I guess), so in my mind I felt as though that my potential bias or conflict of interest is plenty low enough to not feel too bad about making something like this. Really this list is basically just a wrap up of things I found worthwhile during my journey, really nothing more, nothing less. The only benefit I get from writing this is the potential enjoyment from writing it, and having some discussion about it with forum friends. Though I wouldn’t call all the money, time, and effort that went into buying, trying, and enjoying & evaluating this stuff over the however many years I’ve been alive a waste either, it’s all part of the journey, and that’s what can make audio fun lol. I’m just ready to settle down now, so I figured why not wrap it up with a short collection of what I liked and some of my thoughts on the hobby. Might get more into more stuff like the above in the rambling section, but now to the actual list.

Read all the disclaimers? If not, go back. If so, here it is:

Good Shit.Oh Shit?!Holy Shit!!
Stuff that I think is pretty good and has more positive traits than negative, enjoy more than not, would actually call it pretty good from my perspective. Pretty capable, but not overly impressive, above average.Stuff that is starting to impress me somewhat and make me want to listen to them over others, all fairly strong capability with a reasonable range. Things that have actually floored me in at least a few respects and what I hold to the highest regard, what I would consider the best I’ve heard, what I’d say is the most capable.


Holy Shit!! Tier: Best of the best, extremely exceptional options

Headphones:Class:Source Demands:General Sonic Description: Why?
*LB-acoustics Mysphere 3.1/3.2Top+Extremely HighSee Here.Pretty much my favorite headphone of all time. I hesitate to put it at the top, but with how I feel about it I think it belongs here in the end for my own list.
Hifiman Shangri La SRTop+Extremely HighTruly fantastic all around headphone with such a nuanced and delicate yes massive and immersive sound, perhaps a bit more weight and a bit less intensity would be nice although can’t really complain for what else it does lol. Skip the stock amp, not worth.If the Mysphere couldn’t scale as well as it does (more accurately if they made better stat amps), this could be top, insane levels of technicalities without being boring or artificial.
Sennheiser HE90Top+N/AExtremely organic and realistic headphone altogether that is truly incredible with organic music, if I didn’t listen to such a wide range of music this would be one higher than the shang. While I did like the SR more for the wider range of music I listen to, the HE90 is better for organic music and sounds more realistic with realistic music.
*Hifiman SusvaraTopExtremely HighPerfect balance of extreme technical ability and nuance with an inoffensive and well rounded sound, everything always sounds amazing. Can be sometimes lacking some energy and be too smooth though depending on pairing.Another one of my favorites, although not as capable as the SR in most cases, it offers a different take that’s more generally pleasing and also more rich and impactful which is nice. Lack of directness is what keeps it from being higher, and a bit more homogeneous than others, but can be mostly solved with pairing, can scale extremely well.
Warwick AperioTopN/AHas all the technical chops in spades, but doesn’t sound as convincing as the rest in top and lacks scaling potential, insane but uninteresting at the same time. I want to put this a spot lower but it’s pure technicalities and neutrality keep it here. This isn’t to say boring, it’s absolutely not, but I just never felt the deep long term satisfaction as I have with other setups of this or higher caliber for whatever reason. I want to say it’s more of a tool than a listening device in sound, but that wouldn’t be doing it justice either, comes with some negative connotations. I respect it, but I just don’t enjoy it as much of some of the other options. Also can’t take advantage of higher and higher end sources like some other chains can at this level.
RAAL SR1aTop/MidVery/Extremely HighIncredibly technical and impressive headphone for analyzing the recording, but has some characteristics that hold it back from sounding realistic to me (would be closer to the top if it weren’t for the Mysphere lol), I really want to like it but I couldn’t really live with it. I’m really torn, this could literally be higher or lower each time I think about lol. Awesome, but not for me, but I also wouldn’t be upset owning one lol.
Stax SR-009SMid+Very HighEthereal sound without sounding too inorganic and very impressive technical ability make this a unique listen, although not the most organic because of that but technicalities pull it very forward, weird balance of real and too pretty for real.Not exactly my jam, but really these on the right setup can be top tier, would like to hear the new X9000 since that might be more to my tastes.
Sony MDR-R10 BassMid+Extremely HighReally unique time domain, fantastic bass, although hit or miss on what actually sounds good on it due to wonky tuning and presentation so it’s a bit lower due to inconsistency, can sound extremely organic and convincing, and then go to meh or wonky sounding.Tough call for these, prices have gotten insane, but they are also headphones that do something that others don’t on the right chain, but I also think they don’t hold up to some of the aforementioned and a few below options for overall consistent experience, they are super unique though.
*Final D8000 Pro/LEMidVery/Extremely HighVery organic bass shape and texture, surprisingly organic intimate presentation for a cleaner U shaped signature, but might have a bit too sucked out mids at times and stage could be wider and more expansive. Go for LE if you want a warmer more balanced bit more relaxed signature, slightly more technical, and different pairing needs, but worse bass texture and uniqueness.These really grew on me for how both clean and almost studio sounding but also pretty natural as well due to the awesome texture and shape these portray in the bass. LE is a bit more normal and balanced but lacks the special bass shape and texture. I like the Pro more and find it more worthwhile in most cases and it’s bass is what mainly put it here on this list.
*OG Focal UtopiaMidVery/Extremely HighUnique spatial recreation and very strong macro and micro dynamics and nice clean tuning, and surprisingly sweeter with good low end and punch, not the most organic presentation but that’s sort of the appeal to me, very very engaging.Another one that grew on me and impressed me with the right synergy and setup, way better than you might think on the right chains.
Abyss AB1266 Phi TCMid-Very HighFantastic bass impact, slam, and physicality, stage that adds to music that doesn’t have it, a bit of compression for extra energy, surprisingly forgiving, but not as technical as others in the range, dryer overall. Would be a bit higher but I have somewhat soured on it a decent bit.Really more of a few trick pony compared to the other top in it’s range, it’s cool and all, great with inorganic or poorly recorded music, but not as impressive as others with organic well recorded stuff.
Sennheiser HE60Mid/LowVery HighScaled back HE90, what more can I say? Although I wish it kept just a bit more of the HE90 technicalities.Pretty much what the sonic description said.
ES Labs ES1aMid/LowVery HighA bit of a more oddball signature but there’s something really special and engaging about the sound that I can’t put my finger on, great technicalities considering price, perhaps lacking some refinement though, not exactly sure where to put it, nice space compared to the stax. Almost a weird middleground between the 009 and 007, but a good weird middleground that’s worth checking out and solid value new price wise.
Hifiman HE1000seLow+Very HighSomewhat a scaled back Susvara with a different more grandiose (but less open) presentation and micro focus, and actually a bit hotter and sharper at times but not in a bad way, can sometimes be more direct.Also easier to drive which makes it a good alternative, although it isn’t the same experience as mentioned.
OG Hifiman HE6 4s/6s (not HE6se)LowVery/Extremely HighIncredible slam and impact, density and thickness that’s still somewhat unmatched, very traditional yet impressive staging and macrodynamics, great technical ability overall, although not as organic as other options. The 6 screw offers more of a warmer and more macro focus whereas the 4s is a more cut and dry micro technical approachI mean they just don’t make em like they used to, in this case lol, very different from modern planar. It just takes a really good chain to get them there.
Stax SR-007 MK2.9LowVery/Extremely HighA warmer, richer, and more organic Stax with great technical ability to boot, reasonably forgiving, although not stand out in specific aspects.A different approach for estats, a warmer and more bassy stat that actually pulls though with that goal, impressive in that sense, fairly organic, although not as capable as the 009.
Audeze LCD RLow-Very High/NAA cool blend of estat and planar sound with fantastic all around time domain. Jot A is lackluster and these take off with a better amp if you can. Spatially somewhat lacking and mediocre macro capabilities, could be more refined. Wish this was a mainstay product, was pretty amazing, just needed some further refinement, also amp wise be careful but you at least do have options.
*Audio Technica ADX5000Low-Very/Extremely HighA more intimate and up close, sweet, technical, and very refined and sculpted treble and midrange makes this a fantastic pick for organic music although somewhat unforgiving.Honestly something that still feels fresh and different in the current high end space, occupying a role others don’t, and very capable in that role.

Oh Shit?! Tier: Impressive, but not exceptional

Headphones:Class:Source Demands:General Sonic Description: Why?
Grado PS2000eTop+Very/Extremely HighVery dense yet spacious and open, microdynamic, and impactful with intensity with an interesting presentation. Decently organic, but may get aggressive despite it’s sweetness.Also something I didn’t really appreciate until I got the right amp, shows why Grado is still around lol, would like to hear some of the newer Grado though.
Abyss Diana v2Top+High/Very HighA warmer more relaxed Abyss tuning with scaled back technicalities but some similarities to their higher end models, great slam and impact, spatially immersive, reasonably smooth with slight compression.Honestly a good well rounded can in most aspects that’s more usable than other Abyss but not as technical and not as special sounding.
Audeze LCD-24Top+Very HighA more modern take on a LCD 2 PF in spirit without the modern Audeze weirdness although can sometimes get a bit hot in the treble.Actually reasonably forgiving for the level of performance it offers.
Fostex TH900MKII/909/LTDTopVery/Extremely HighA bright v shape basshead classic or a more even focus with ltd or 909, great control and command, more depth focused, awesome energy and intensity although tonality can be hit or miss and may be too much at times.Another classic, not many options can replicate what that driver does in both the bass and the treble although not to the level of more modern flagships.
Audio Technica AWKTTopHigh/Very HighSweeter brighter closed back that’s a bit lean and forward but very engaging and technical for closed but might be a bit thin and overly forward in some cases. Very great closed back in most all respects, hard to not mention, although more unique signature can be hit or miss for some.
ZMF Verite ClosedTop/MidModerateInoffensive, impressive for closed, technical enough, forgiving, organic, but not matching the technical level of those in it’s range.One of the better closed backs, but the value isn’t as strong, but it’s still a pretty enjoyable experience, the open is lackluster though, if that says anything. Gets higher on here for being closed.
Sennheiser HD800/STop/Mid-Very HighExtremely wide and open sounding, great resolving power and microdynamics, but somewhat more dimensionally flat and lacking some engagement. Classic that while has it’s flaws, still easily holds up, still great value, scales very high.
Hifiman Arya v2 OR StealthMid+High/Very HighThe v2 is on the leaner and cleaner side of things, more grand presentation, more micro focus, capable but not organic and refined, somewhat dry, cool layering, a bit dynamically flat though. The stealth version is more organic, better weighted and actually somewhat more bass focused, more resolving, and better nuance and microdynamics but a bit more boring in space being smaller and less grand and flatter presentation. Another solid value within the range although making a bit more tradeoffs for more interesting aspects, not as well rounded, but still very capable and enjoyable.
OG Focal ClearMid+High/Very HighA scaled back Utopia for the most part with a more neutral signature but also not as much of the energy, refined for the tier.Great flexible option with great scaling and great refinement in the bracket.
DCA Ether 2Mid+HighA more organic and uniquely tuned DCA with solid technical ability and an inoffensive experience although can come off as a bit compressed at times, great midrange in general though.A DCA without a lot of the things I’d normally complain about, a more organic and warmer planar option in comparison to others at the point.
Audeze MM500MidHighMore studio midrange focused Audeze with great overall technical chops and engaging, well rounded, although can be a bit intense and could be a bit more organic in presentation.A good middleground for a technical and neutral planar option that’s not too demanding and reasonably priced.
Audeze LCD 2 PFMidModerate/High/VeryRich, liquid, and meaty without sacrificing technical performance, relaxed without lacking energy, spatially impressive and big. Can feel like it lacks texture and slightly overly smooth though.Classic option that the newer LCD can’t compare to, excellent value if you can find a good used deal, not as technical as other options in this range but really special and still worth using over some.
*Koss ESP950MidModerate/High/Very/NAThe most well rounded and organic estat anywhere near the performance level, can scale greatly with better sources than stock energizer, perhaps a bit compressed though.Sleeper estat at this point, really my favorite estat under 1k and gets really good with nicer energizers.
Kennerton GH50 (not LSA HP2)MidHighHorn driver that almost ever so slightly sounds like an actual horn, directness, microdynamics, and nuance with warmth and body, but that takes getting used to, not the most balanced sound.Very unique, very engaging, and also can scale pretty well too, a bit less technical than right below but more unique and engaging.
Beyerdynamic T1.2MidVery HighLaid back and smooth Beyer with great technicalities and scaling, with an interesting deep presentation, isn’t the most even in response though.Mainstay with awesome scaling potential, very refined overall, although not the most immediately impressive.
ZMF Auteur/EikonMidHighNeutral brighter and more warmer unique tuned sets that offer great biodyna technicalities and organicness, although not too much is standout about it.Great balanced and technical option that represents the best value out of the ZMF.
*OG Black Silk/Paper Sennheiser HD600Mid/LowModerate/High/VeryI feel like this doesn’t even need an explanation lol, overall fantastic midrange and refinement with fantastic timbre and microdynamics help make up for the lack of technical ability (specifically resolution and spatial capability) in comparison to other options within this range. And yes, the older ones are better.I mean, how can I not have this high up, it’s just so good at what it does.

Good Shit. Tier: Good, but not super impressive

Headphones:Class:Source Demands:General Sonic Description: Why?
Focal ElexTop+ModerateGetting a great taste of the higher end Focal without the higher end prices with a more fun tuning to boot, although can be exaggerated at times. Impressive presentation and dynamics for the range.
Audioquest NighthawkTop+HighUnique tuning, unique staging, unique dynamic, unique time domain, unique value proposition, as you can guess extremely hit or miss on the person. Very unique presentation and really everything.
E-MU Teak/Fostex TH-00 EbonyTop+Moderate/HighSort of gives you a taste of a scaled down TH900 in some aspects with a bit more linear signature.Solid biodynamic bass and timbre, fairly refined.
Hifiman Edition XSTopModerate/HighA lower end Hifiman egg that gives you a taste of what’s above at a great price, not the most organic though. Something more refined (and demanding) than you’d expect for the range.
*Beyerdynamic DT880/990 600ohmTopModerate/High/VeryScales incredibly well, extremely neutral and refined, very technical for the money, classic, but is on the more dry and flat side of things.Another classic, not as on high regard as the HD600 but couldn’t not include them.
Grado HempTopModerateA warmer and sweeter tuned Grado with a very punchy and engaging sound, but can sometimes end up congested, but pretty enjoyable listen.More agreeable tuning and more unique within the range.
Verum 1Top-Moderate/HighSurprisingly good planar for the price, can’t say much more…One of the better planar options for the range although picky.
Audio Technica R70xTop-ModerateA great reference headphone for the price without much to complain and write home about.Good alternative to the HD600 but lesser in the end.
Beyerdynamic TYGR 300RTop/MidModerateA more consumer tuned and easy to drive Beyer that’s more approachable while keeping a lot of the positive traits of the older.Solid reliable option on most cases.
Hifiman HE400seMid+ModerateCheap yet very impressive planar, not many other good planar at this price point, can be a bit wonky in general though. Best planar I’ve heard at the range, although don’t know if that’s saying much.
Grado SR80XMidModerate/LowSurprisingly good space and microdynamics for the level, solid timbre and resolving power too if you aren’t bothered by a more elevated and harsher highs and a bit of grain.Actually really good for the range if you can get past signature and build in the range.
AKG K612 ProMidModerate Nice wider stage, more neutral monitor tuning, pretty technical, although can be pretty dull and boring. Surprisingly decent reference and work can if needed.
Sony MDR7506MidLowBrighter studio monitor that doesn’t do anything wrong for the price, old reliable, although coloration doesn’t work with everything and it’s on the flatter side of things in space and dynamics.Another classic I couldn’t leave out, still holds up very well.
Sennheiser HD58xMidLowA mix of a consumer and traditional Senn that’s easy to drive, forgiving, and well built, but a bit grainy and lacking some underlying information/technicalities.Hard to go wrong although not super impressive either.
*Koss KSC75Mid/LowLowKing of bang for buck as long as you don’t mind a brighter more airy signature, can’t complain about anything at this level.True GOAT.
*Creative Aurvana Live SELow+LowBiodynamic bass at dirt cheap price (and build) and rest is average.Can’t complain for the price and a nice taste of what might be at the 100-200 buck range cans.
Sennheiser PC37XLowLowComfy, decently tuned, technical performance is fine for the price, has quality mic, but whatever.Does the job, nice sound for a headset.
*Cooler Master MH751Low-LowSee above, but has detachable lesser quality mic.Same.


Holy Shit!! Tier: Best of the best, extremely exceptional options

IEMs:Class:Source Demands:General Sonic Description: Why?
*Rhapsodio Infinity MK2 w/ EVO Copper upgradeTop+Extremely HighThe most energy and incisiveness I’ve heard in an IEM, all things micro end up excelling to the extreme without lacking in macro, mid focus is unique, end up feeling the most engaged. Not many iems really seem to capture what this offers.
*Oriolus Traillii JPTop+Very HighJack of all, master of all (almost), really just so well rounded and refined and balanced that it’s hard to dislike, and even slightly forgiving, although might get a bit congested with super busy tracks.Most well rounded IEM I’ve heard.
Obravo EAMT-1cTopExtremely HighExtremely unique, extremely immersive, and very open almost headphone like, although weirder tuning that takes time to get used to and only likes desktop amps lol, tuning could be better. Awesome but usability suffers a bit, but seriously overlooked.
*MMR ThummimTopVery/Extremely HighVery fun while being pretty technical, extremely immersive and engaging with most all music if you don’t mind a warmer and meatier lean, great biodyna slam and impact, slightly rounded and sometimes overflavored though.The best balance of warm and immersiveness vs technical performance.
UM Mason FuSangTop/MidVery HighI don’t exactly know how to describe what this was doing, but it’s awesome representation of texture and more nuance really sold me in the midrange (mostly everything there is great like separation, dynamics, general tangibility), although outside of the midrange it’s less remarkable putting it in a weird spot for me but still should be mentioned. Needs refinement and very situational but seriously something going on in there is unlike other’s I’ve heard. Question it’s value at times
JVC FW10000Mid+Extremely HighMore of a reference sound with a focus on time domain perfection and really really well balanced presentation and still being fairly organic, although resolution wise isn’t as strong and it might be slightly restrained in macrodynamics. A fairly solid overall reference albeit somewhat more limited.
Elysian Labs AnnihilatorMidVery/Extremely HighA very fun and energetic v shape but more focusing on technicalities and tightness in the bass and really well done airy treble that give it great physicality make it a very fun listen at the expense of some organicness and coherency.While it’s not unique or special at first listen, it keeps me wanting more and is just really overall enjoyable, the name fits lol.
StereoPravada SB7MidExtremely HighNo nonsense embodied, it’s an extremely technical and balanced listen yet still engaging and enjoyable, although can be too intense and dry at times. Ouch, but it does what it says lol.
Final A8000MidVery HighClean and slightly brighter leaning, spatially immersive yet balanced, very tight, great texture and detail, dynamically strong, surprisingly well rounded and organic given it’s more upper focus, also liquid. Might be a bit too bright at times.A sweeter and more immersive take on a reference signature that’s not offensive.
FIR M5MidHigh/Very HighA monitor gone warmer slightly fun, with great energy and dynamics without shoving it in your face, a bit more smooth and organic, presents in a pretty spacious and open way too, great depth. Sometimes feels a bit mechanical though in delivery.Another option for a more fun and almost casual take on a more reference signature, and not that picky either but still scales.
InEar ProMission X/ProPhile 8Mid/LowHigh/Very HighA studio tuned IEM with a bit of extra fun and immersion, well balanced and refined, slightly warmer v lean, nothing to complain about but also not much super stand out either. Pick the PP8 if you want something more refined in signature and just purely neutral reference.Great neutral reference iem with nothing overly stand out in any way, perhaps a bit too light footed at times but very refined and technical.
FAudio Project YMid/LowVery HighRelaxed yet fun W tune that offers a great level of energy and clarity despite it’s more chilled out focus, pretty fun, although sometimes the coloration is a bit distracting.Weird one where it’s something that sounds like it shouldn’t work, but still does.

Oh Shit?! Tier: Impressive, but not exceptional

IEMs:Class:Source Demands:General Sonic Description: Why?
*Hyla Sarda Top+High/Very HighA very technical v shape signature that offers lots of depth, bass control and slam, fantastic treble extension, and great fun overall with a lot underneath, midrange could be a bit more prominent though. I will admit this one is likely a bit higher than it should be, but it’s so enjoyable lol.Think there’s a level of refinement and specialness in the bass and treble that isn’t captured by many others in this range.
Canal Works CW-U73LVTop+HighMore of a specialist with a strong Japanese tuning but very vivid and technically impressive, almost W shaped in both signature and technical ability. Surprisingly balanced and refined given the signature and focus, incredibly fun but composed at the same time.
Sennheiser IE900TopVery/Extremely HighVery technical in most all aspects with a more fun and organic tuning, pretty wide and grand sounding, coherent, and pretty refined, stronger bass focus overall. Very nice texture and timbre. Treble is sometimes a problem area. Great refinement and awesome technicalities although perhaps doesn’t grab me as much as others.
Kinera Imperial BaldrTop/MidHigh/Very HighA more fun technical focus that’s focused on being forward and engaging but still reasonably sweeter leaning, very spacious, fairly direct too. Not the most organic tonality (but organic timbre) but the technicalities make this one for me. Treble a bit unrefined overall. I would want to say balanced, but it’s a bit of an oddball, a pretty enjoyable oddball though lol. A bit more refinement overall would improve it further, but it’s impressive as is.
Symphonium HeliosTop/MidHigh/Very HighFairly complete package with a stronger focus on dynamics, stage, and resolution, very refined bass and treble (esp treble), but midrange is more meh in comparison, a do it all with one specific standout being treble for me. A weird example of a jack of all but also a few extra focuses. Very enjoyable all around.
UM Mest MK2Top/MidModerate/HighAwesome low end in a different way being more tight and clean, great texture and physicality, great separation, and nuance and micro focus are good, but it’s not the most organic, and I also don’t know why but didn’t ever feel satisfied after using it. It’s nice, I can see why people like it, I think it deserves a spot here, but other than that, I donno.
Campfire Andromeda Gold LE/AraTop/Mid-Very HighSpatially very immersive and unique, a fun and organic yet cleaner tuning, dynamically pretty lively, but overall technical ability is a slight bit below some of the other options in this tier, easy to love though, it’s so engaging it gets placed higher. Gold LE is richer and more organic (also more picky), Ara is a bit more technical a bit more open sounding.While it’s technicalities aren’t super strong in this range, it’s overall fun factor and enjoyment I get from these keep it high.
MMR Gae BolgMid+HighSort of a cleaner leaning mini scaled back Thummim, great space, weighting, and pretty dynamic, although not the most resolving for the tier and not the most organic presentation although nice sweetness and smoothness which help. Great immersion although not the most refined but unique for the range.
FiR VxVMidModerateRefined neutral slightly v tuning that makes a fantastic all rounder, but also not too much stand out either, well balanced but sometimes can be slightly lacking engagement, solid technicalities.Feels like more of a do no wrong option and while it’s enjoyable it’s a bit less engaging than others. But still really great.
Sony MDR-EX1000Mid-Very HighAlmost a focus on openness and vividness with great overall technical performance specially in stage, control, and dynamics, although tuning is an iffy balance and can sometimes be jarring.Classic, it’s a bit wonky, but in a good way.

Good Shit. Tier: Good, but not super impressive

IEMs:Class:Source Demands:General Sonic Description: Why?
Penon TurboTop+Moderate/HighMore forward and energetic v shape with great space scale and dynamics, nice impact and control too. Pretty coherent for what it’s going for in the range. Perhaps a bit more focused toward macro than micro especially in resolution and presentation. Just really fun but not cutting technical ability, well refined for the range for something more macro leaning.
Etymotic EVOTop+Moderate/HighMore of a reference cleaner tuning with overall great resolution and separation with a more well balanced and laid out spatial recreation than other Etymotic, great overall balance between excellent tuning and balanced technicalities for the tier, very refined, although a bit more on the flat side of things and could have better bass.Takes an ER4XR and adds more life to it and gives it a nice boost to make a price point benchmark.
Dunu SA6 MK2TopModerateOverall very well balanced in most all aspects outside of a bit lacking dynamics and stage, smoother a bit more relaxed. A good mostly do no wrong option for the range.
JVC FDX1Top-Moderate/HighA more midrange focus on dynamics, texture, and timbre although does lack some energy.More specialized but offers characteristics typically not found within the range.
Audio HekiliTop-ModerateGreat overall energy, bass focused without being sloppy, great dynamics, wish it had better overall space/stage though. Unique for being a bass focused in ear without being sloppy at this range, and overall really fun in ways most in this range aren’t.
*Final A4000Top/Mid+Moderate/HighA brighter v lean that doesn’t feel dry or overdone at this tier is stand out, solid technical ability as well especially in the stage, still organic.Sorta a scaled back a8000 by a significant degree with a more fun v tuning, but still great.
7Hz TimelessMid+Moderate/HighSurprising resolving power and speed, not thin, and reasonably extended and even too, but lacking spatially and dynamically, but interesting presentation. One of the overall better both tuned and technical planar iem around the price point, fairly unique but not my favorite.
Simgot EA500MidLowHarman but actually good, a lot of the positive aspects without the negatives, fun set, fairly technical for the money too. Good at most things, agreeable, not much I can complain about for the price. Surprised me when I wasn’t expecting much. It’s on here for now, but we’ll see if it stays long term with more time.
Etymotic ER2XRMidModerateA less technical and more flat presenting EVO for the most part.Yep, long time reference for a reason.
iBasso IT00LowLow/ModerateWarmer energetic signature, nice technicalities, nice overall space and dynamics which isn’t as common for the range.Bit more lively and fun without sounding wonky or lacking in technicalities for the range.
I’m not up to date on what’s good with the sub 100 stuff


Holy Shit!! Tier: Best of the best, extremely exceptional options

DACs:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
*Totaldac d1-sublime w/ d1-driversTopVery/Extremely HighSee Here.Just check the article. The sublime is just better, and a bit more macro shifted as well.
*Lampizator HorizonTopVery/Extremely HighSee Here.Just check the article.
Aries Cerat Kassandra II Ref G2Top/MidExtremely HighA bit more of a macrodynamic focus without losing the sense of organicness, amazing macrodynamics, great command and control, impact and slam, solid resolving power, great speed and separation, and well balanced weighting, but might be on the more dry side of things and slightly lacking some of the lowest level nuance and microdynamics.One of the few higher end DACs I’ve heard with both so much energy yet being composed enough to not disturb anything. Would love to hear a Sig LE.
*Berkeley Alpha Reference 3Top/MidExtremely HighSee Here.Just check the article.
APL HIFI DSD-MR MK2Top/MidVery HighSee Here.Just check the article.
Audio Note DAC 5 Special v2Mid+*Extremely HighVery very natural, convincing and correct sounding without overstating itself, doesn’t call attention to the sound but more lets you grab whatever you want out of it, excellent micro focus overall while maintaining strong. This has a * because I think it could be a lot better with a better digital source and synergy than I had at the time. Super picky on chain, but if you can make it work then it really does work quite well lol.
EMM DV2/DA2 v2Mid+Very HighSee Here.Initially was mixed on this, but after trying setups that better suited it and revisited with more time, it’s absolutely worth including here.
Nagra HD DAC + MPSMid+Very HighSmooth, but also technical, liquid and flow but still tight and clean, really good overall balance and all rounder that happens to be a slight touch warm and slight touch soft, very micro focus but makes it easy to pick up on that low level information. It can be sometimes lacking engagement and energy at times though, and stronger macro capability would be nice. I think there’s a specialness in being extremely capable but also fairly unremarkable at first listen.
Bricasti M21 PlatinumMidVery/Extremely HighA very balanced DAC that just kinda gets out of the way, neutral smoother, I do like this one, but honestly I never really have much to say about it either lol. It is a bit more intense in edge and macrodynamics yet doesn’t feel that forward either. Another option where nothing immediately jumps out, but it continues to impress and grow on you over time. I think of it as a berkeley from another mother.
Lampizator Golden Gate IIMidVery HighSweetness and refinement of the signature, coupled with the organic staging and placement with lots of depth, tonal density with excellent balance, and a more micro and nuance focus, although on the more rich and smooth colored side of things with still great technical ability though.An awesome option if you like a richer coloration without sacrificing technicalities.
Totaldac d1-unity w/ live-powerMidVery HighI want to call it a scaled back twelve, but it lacks the same openness and directness the twelve and the triunity encompass, opting for a more warmer and slightly thicker approach that’s actually a bit more forward, of course with much scaled down technicalities, but still strong. Offers some characteristics that I think are typically uncommon at it’s range.
Rockna Wavedream Signature BalMid/LowVery HighThis DAC is a great balance of wow factor and not sounding overstated or exaggerated, has all it’s traits well refined and in balance, yet with a great bass, space, and dynamic focus, great presentation of texture as well, it’s actually got a nice sense of almost rawness which is appealing, although I don’t know if I’d consider it super organic.Fairly versatile, good value new, just overall pretty enjoyable.
*Mojo Mystique EVO Pro 21Mid/LowVery/Extremely HighA very fun, organic, and rich sort of DAC with both fantastic micro and macro ability, great impact and slam, great control and grip, and organic presentation with a bit thicker weighting, and pretty great stage too, more forward in things, although sometimes strangely picky.Does what it does really well, super fun and engaging without being offputting, limits of coloration for me.
Lavry QuintessenceMid/LowHighIt’s hard to place this, but I think there’s a special aspect of this DAC that I don’t fully understand but greatly appreciate, it’s a more technical and no nonsense approach with some added richness and smoothness that’s non distracting or overdone, real nice.A studio technical focus with added warmth and sweetness, interesting balance.
Weiss DAC502LowHighGreat all in one, will specifically call out the DSP on here as being very good, sound wise it’s neutral but sweet ish with great liquidity and technical ability, and very balanced too, very nice texture, although makes more sense as an aio rather than on it’s own.Does everything pretty well and great features although not as impressive as other options in this range.
Lampizator Baltic 3LowVery HighA more forward and technical Lampizator approach, more like an extremely scaled down Horizon or Pacific rather than Golden Gate or Amber.Trickle down in a great way.
Sonic Frontiers SFD-2 MKIILow-*Very HighIt’s been awhile since I’ve heard one, but I still think it deserves a spot even among more modern offerings, it was so fun yet so capable, awesome dynamics, spatial recreation, and very organic, think this is higher than it should be, but I remember it very fondly lol. Resolution might not have been the strongest thoughClassic that still holds up, worth finding one if you can.

Oh Shit?! Tier: Impressive, but not exceptional

DACs:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
SW1X DAC II SpecialTop+Very HighSee Here.Just check the article. Really want to hear the higher end SW1X now.
Meitner MA-1 v2Top+Very HighA more smooth, liquid, and organic micro focus on things, while macro takes a backseat what this can accomplish in nuance makes up well for it, although at times can sound a slight bit dull and could use some more energy.Like if you took an analytical focus but wanted it to appeal to people on the other spectrum.
Merason DAC-1TopHighSolid balance between sweetness and technicalities, pretty organic, sometimes can be a bit too rich leaning at times though, not overpowering. Was pretty impressed for what it offered. Surprisingly refined, organic, and rich without fully overdoing it.
Berkeley Alpha Series 2TopVery HighA pretty scaled down RS3 with a fair amount of similar focuses and characteristics.Great neutral reference for the price if you can find them.
Rockna WavelightTopHighSee Here.Just check the article.
Aqua La Voce S3TopHighSee Here.Just check the article.
Lampizator Amber 3Top-HighSee Here.Just check the article.
Exogal Comet PlusMid+Moderate/HighA more neutral and very slightly smoother and rounded DAC but with pretty impressive dynamics, liveliness, and overall refinement for the tier, spatially more depth than width focused, and great speed and separation, weighting was good as well, perhaps could use a bit more expansive stage. Great organic yet technical option if you can find them.
Crane Song Solaris QuantumMidHighA more studio focused DAC but with a bit more or a warmer and organic approach, still fairly neutral though, very technically balanced and impressive, and impressive refinement for the tier.Sort of a studio approach that doesn’t sound like it, very well balanced.
OG Schiit Yggdrasil A2MidHighSee Here.Just check the article.
*Soekris DAC2541LowHighNeutral more of a no nonsense approach that’s still reasonably organic, and pretty great overall technical ability, can be a bit on the dryer and flatter side of things at times though.An outlier in performance and signature at the range for what it offers over others.
Chord Qutest w/ better psuLowModerate/HighA brighter and more forward, yet smoother and more inoffensive sound that makes things sound holographic and embellishes things, but it’s hit or miss overall.Chord sound isn’t for me, but I do think it’s the most reasonable Chord and offers something unique in the range. Stock PSU is bad, get a nice linear.
MHDT OrchidLowHighSweet, organic, and pretty spatially big, although on the more smooth, rounded, and slightly sloppy side of things, technicalities are good but not great. Leaning into the stereotype in a good way.

Good Shit. Tier: Good, but not super impressive

DACs:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
*OG Schiit Bifrost 2Top+ModerateRefinement in the tier is impressive, a warmer slightly more macro focus with great width and also control and impact, solid timbre, solid resolving power, sometimes slightly too relaxed.One of the few DACs in this range that I was pretty impressed with for it’s refinement and characteristics.
Wyred 4 Sound DAC-2TopModerate/HighOnly including this as a used option around 500, it’s pretty killer with a warmer and richer but technical, although sometimes a bit unrefined. Oldie but potentially goodie, although can be hit or miss.
Denafrips Aries IITopModerate/HighMore on the warm, fun, and rich side of things with a focus on holographicness and microdynamics, sometimes a bit too fun and sometimes congested. Gives people what they want when they think R2R for better or worse.
*Allo Revolution w/ Nirvana SMPSMid+ModerateSee Here.Surprisingly capable for the price, and awesome features and upgradability.
Geshelli J2 AKMMid+LowBalanced, technical, more forward.Balanced, and well rounded.
Massdrop Airist R2RMid+ModerateSurprisingly good and surprisingly unique for the range, sweeter without being overly rich or dark, nice space, although lacking control and resolving power.Unbalanced but not common for the range.
JDS EL DAC II+ MidLowOverall more a neutral and slightly cleaner yet sweeter sound, well balanced.Solid all rounder with some added sweetness.
Schiit ModiusMidModerateWarmer, wider, smoother, and more relaxed while still having good technicalities. Somewhat of a weird one for me, a bit pairing dependent for it’s range.
Monolith Liquid Spark DACLow+LowWarmer, richer, wider and a bit more relaxed leaning. Actually has some mild differentiation in the range.
Schiit Modi 3+Low+LowFairly neutral and balanced with a slightly more fun focus.Works, balanced enough, sounds great.
Earmen Donald DACLowLowA bit more on the brighter but fun side of things.See above.
JDS Atom DAC+LowLowNeutral slightly cleaner, well balanced.See above.

Digital Sources:

Holy Shit!! Tier: Best of the best, extremely exceptional options

Digital Sources:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
— Streamers/Servers —
Taiko SGM ExtremeTop+Extremely HighJust really next level from anything I’ve heard so far, only have a more limited demo of it, but wow.Best of the best, hard to argue with that.
*Antipodes K50Top-Very HighPreviously simply the best I’ve heard, most technical while sounding the most organic and realistic, works great for both USB and SPDIF type sources, warmer leaning USB with more neutral SPDIF outputEverything awesome in one box for the most part.
*Sonore Sig Rendu SE Opt Tier II w/ opticalModule Deluxe & Plixir Elite BDCTop/Mid-Very HighExtremely well done for USB sources, somewhat think of it in a similar vein as Antipodes for me signature wise perhaps a bit more balanced and potentially even refined. ‘Surprisingly great USB performance for the money, impressed.
EMM NS1Mid+Very HighA great boost in technicalities with a bit of extra smoothness and clarity at the same time with a stronger focus on stage and control. While it shines the most with an EMM over Optilink, it’s still awesome on AES.
dCS Network BridgeMidVery HighMore of a clean and forward, also somewhat smooth improvement, although more well rounded but a bit less technical than the EMM. Well rounded without much to really complain about sound wise.
Auralic Aries G2.1LowVery HighJack of all, master of none, a bit dry and flatter in presentation but still worth a mention. Good, but not great, and somewhat boring, but still worth mentioning.
— DDC/Reclockers —
*Ideon Absolute Time Top+Extremely HighCleaner and dryer leaning USB reclocker that greatly enhances most technical ability and realism of whatever is connected to it. Can be a bit overly forward or unforgiving though.No nonsense USB option that elevates most things.
*Totaldac d1-digital-mk2TopVery HighA warmer, smoother, more organic signature DDC that’s still pretty technical, focus on timbre, stage width, and texture. A more fun DDC within the range with great technical ability.
*Berkeley Alpha USBTop-HighBalanced, slightly more forward and clean but not analytical, pretty refined for the tier, great DDC.Great balanced DDC that works well in most cases and hardly disappoints.
Mutec MC3+ USB w/ a nice clockTop/MidVery HighAdding a nice clock def enhances this unit, overall pretty well balanced with little qualms.Well rounded and refined overall without much to complain about.

Oh Shit?! Tier: Impressive, but not exceptional

Digital Sources:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
— Streamers/Servers —
Sonore opticalRendu w/ Plixir Elite BDCTop+Very HighA scaled down Signature Rendu for the most part. PSU improves a decent bit.Basically that.
SOtM sMS-200ultra Neo SE w/ tx-USBultra SE + 2x sPS-500TopHighMore of a sweetened and a bit richer focus that’s still reasonably balanced, PSU improves a decent bit, reclocker adds to it, great combo.A bit of a unique sound to them while still offering competitive performance.
Lumin U1 MiniTop-Very HighClean, technical, and a bit forward and analytical focusing a bit more on separation and control, solid for the tier if that meshes well with the system but can be a bit dry. Great technicalities for the money despite the more dry lean.
PI2AES w/ Small Green Computer LPSMid/LowLowThe best AES or SPDIF source in the tier, hard to beat until you get a decent bit higher, more neutral signature and well balanced, PSU improves a decent bit.Benchmark for the range, not much else I can say.
Allo USBridge Signature Player w/ Shanti LPSLowLowThe best USB source in the tier, hard to beat until you get a decent bit higher, more on the signature and well balanced, PSU improves a decent bit.Benchmark for the range, not much else I can say.
— DDC/Reclockers —
SOtM tX-USBultra SE w/ sPS-500TopHighMore of a sweetened and a bit richer focused USB regen that’s still reasonably balanced, PSU improves a decent bit.Great balanced USB that works well in most cases and hardly disappoints.
Denafrips GaiaTopHighA bit more of a gritty and raw DDC, but it’s techincal ability is pretty solid, although a bit more organicness and liquidity would be appreciated.Lots of options and features without sacrificing sound.
UpTone ISO REGEN w/ UltraCap LPS1.2MidModerate/HighSort of an in between for the Sonore and SOtM USB regen, balanced but a slight bit sweeter leaning.Great USB option for the range that others don’t occupy as well.
Singxer SU6MidModerateSmoother yet pretty clean and distinct DDC, interesting tuning, although it seems a bit exaggerated at times.A bit more unique in sound with great features.
Matrix X-SPDIF 2 w/ Small Green Computer LPSMidModerateCleaner but smoother and more refined focus for the range. PSU improves a decent bit.Nonoffensive and capable DDC for the range.
Wyred 4 Sound Recovery USB ReclockerLow-LowThe cheapest USB regen that I tried that made a generally positive difference, can’t say much more than that though. Basically that.

Good Shit. Tier: Good, but not super impressive

I don’t really think it’s worthwhile to consider digital sources at this range.

Headphone Amplifiers:

Holy Shit!! Tier: Best of the best, extremely exceptional options

Headphone Amps:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
Aries Cerat Genus IntegratedTop+Extremely HighTop tier technical ability, specially extremely tight control and grip, incredible dynamics, resolving power, organic presentation, loads of texture, extremely immersive stage, etc, just incredibly engaging and energetic although very picky and unforgiving overall.Overall mastery of most aspects, one that I constantly almost end up buying lol, just expensive.
Riviera AIC-10Top+Very HighMore of a rich and fun amp with a more relaxed focus that maintains strong energy and directness despite it’s tuning and characteristics, although depending on the tube swap. Just lush, engaging, and capable. A great balance of fun, organicness, and technical ability that others don’t match as well, want this one back as well lol. This doesn’t sound as glowing and unique as the rest in writing, but trust me it’s hard to forget.
Angstrom Stella SHA20 MK2TopExtremely HighA focus on extreme organicness without taking away any technical ability, it’s an amazing balance of sweetness, refinement, and nuance while having the grunt and control to keep macro up to par as well, it’s just really picky like the AC.Overall great technicalities leaning more toward the tight and energetic side of things that I kept coming back to.
Trafomatic PrimaveraTopExtremely HighTends to focus on the middle more than the outer edges and is a pretty sweet and nuanced amp but also pretty dry. A slightly mid centric leaning signature that is direct and surprisingly fast and very accurate, but perhaps fairly pairing dependent.While it needs the right match, it’s awesome for adding a level of directness and immediacy to whatever you plug into it.
Viva Egoista 845TopVery/Extremely HighA very grand and macro focus in presentation and stage, dynamics, resolution, and impact and slam, but not lacking on the lower level either, on the dryer side of things. Has great energy, but sometimes comes off as exaggerated and coherency could be a bit better, massive sounding though.Super fun and engaging, lots of wow factor, just really always an impressive listen.
*Eddie Current Studio TTop-Very/Extremely HighNuance, organicness, and a really impressive micro focus overall, but with a more clinical and no nonsense focus, not that dry either, great overall speed and lower level control too, fantastic stage accuracy and overall accuracy, although it could use a bit more macro prowess at times. Feeling pretty transparent and almost at times slightly analytical.Amazing for some of the less power hungry headphones more than the 33, but can’t quite get it done with some of the really hungry headphones.
Oji Special BDI DC-44B GT II + SiIB-1 + TM-1Top-Very HighA more subtle performer, this really had to grow on me before I understood how great it is, it’s very understated but also very overachieving, a more warmer and relaxed sound that doesn’t grab you immediately, but what lies underneath is surprising given it’s tuning.It grew on me a fair bit, one of the better solid state options at this level previously filled by a sea of tube amps lol.
2x Re/Leaf E3 Hybrid dCTop/MidExtremely HighThis one is amazing with specific headphones that can take advantage of current drive, but due to limited pairings it ends up lower than others, truly transforms cans that can fully take advantage of it to entirely different headphones, very very picky.Best current drive amp I’ve heard, hard to describe what it can do on paper with the right headphones, but limited to a few headphones to get it’s best, and a bit expensive for what it is.
Woo WA33 EliteTop/MidVery HighVery technical with a dryer lean for a tube amp, overall well rounded in most all aspects, easily impresses and doesn’t let down, although could use a bit more sweetness and organicness and perhaps be a bit more overall engaging, slightly flatter.Does everything well and drives anything, but without much fanfare.
Crayon CHA-1Mid+Very/Extremely HighSpeed and separation maxed while also being impressively smooth or liquid without detracting is a weird but really pleasing experience, and it’s got amazing overall microdynamics and microdetail with fantastic texture and really great control, but it can sometimes feel a bit too smooth or relaxed at times, could use a bit more bite as well. A bit of a specialist in signature and focus but if it has what you are looking for, you’d be hard pressed to find it elsewhere.
*Mass Kobo 394 IIMid+Very HighClean and accurate but with a bit of added sweetness makes an incredibly balanced yet fairly organic experience, really great overall technical ability, and it’s extremely textured while presenting it in a really impressive way, can sometimes be a bit lean or dryer though. Sort of a great reference baseline for most things yet is also still an enjoyable and engaging listen, great value.
Allnic HPA5000 XLMidVery/Extremely HighAlmost a more raw and pure sort of sound, but not in terms of being incredibly natural or incredibly linear, but in a very almost ethereal way in staging, presentation, tonality, and most overall technicalities while being surprisingly coherent or not overly unbalanced/tilted, can be really hit or miss because of that but when it hits it hits lol. Pretty unique in sound, what it’s meant to drive, and when I wanted to use it, but there are times where it really just called to me lol.
Modwright HA300MidHigh/Very HighMore neutral and organic signature with great technicalities, a bit soft though, and a bit sweeter leaning, balanced in most all aspects. Somewhat of a traditional safe bet, yet not boring or middling for it’s tier, all around nice but not super standout.
LTA MZ3Low+Very HighThe background blackness, cleanliness, speed and separation, depth and more spherical stage, overall midrange, and overall control is really impressive here. Very dynamically alive in both macro and micro, clean but organic tonality and timbre, slightly not as dense but very accurate there. Main gripe might be bass is extended but slightly lacking real heft and weight with less low end control but not enough to cause too many problems. I don’t know why but I really enjoy what this does with a lot of cans, love the dynamics and presentation it offers.
DNA StratusLow+Very HighSweet, soft, and smooth, with a lot of space and energy still to boot as well, very organic, pretty microdynamic, and really enjoyable weighting and tonality, fantastic presentation and ability to provide energy and directness without being forward overall, although can be somewhat overly soft and more on the looser side of things at times and would be a bit higher if not for that.While it’s not my jam focus wise, I can’t ignore how enjoyable some pairings are and it’s easily worth it’s salt.
Eddie Current Studio BLow+Very HighOverall a very well balanced and nuanced pairing that focuses more on stage size, space, and lower level information and microdynamics without disappointing in the macro either, slightly warmer and richer depending on the tube, pretty detailed, solid control, great smoothness, great speed and separation, basically a very engaging and organic pairing.More up my alley preference wise and on a similar level to the above, but more consistently great rather than meh to awesome if that makes sense.
Bakoon AMP-13RLowVery HighGreat warmth, smoothness, and richness while still offering a high level of technical performance, more of a relaxed micro focus with great organicness, although can be too relaxed or smooth at times. Can get somewhat dull or overly smooth with the wrong pairing. An inoffensive warmer relaxed sound done right, doesn’t turn into mush like some others.
OG Cavalli Liquid GoldLowVery/Extremely HighA more macro take on things with great command and grip, large stage, and nice density and smoothness, reasonably technical too, it gives a great sense of fun and enjoyment overall without skimping on other aspects, stage could be a bit more defined though. Can get somewhat dull or overly smooth with the wrong pairing. Somewhat like the above but more pairing dependent and more macro than micro focused.

Oh Shit?! Tier: Impressive, but not exceptional

Headphone Amps:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
Cayin HA300Top+Moderate/HighA warmer, sweeter, more rich sort of sound with a focus on sounding grand and enveloping while trading a bit of technical ability for it, a bit looser control but organic presentation, great spatial recreation, fairly dynamic, a good all rounder if you don’t mind a more colored and richer sound and a slightly lower technical ability.It’s an embodiment of the idea of DHT “tubeyness” in a good way.
Pass HPA-1Top+Moderate/HighVery well balanced with a slightly more smoother and softer lean, reasonably technical and composed, really just refined all around, great all rounder option and more on the fun and engaging side of things that have a level of refinement that most don’t at this tier.Doesn’t look like much on first glance, but this thing really is satisfying long term.
Allnic HPA-3000GTTopHigh/Very HighOverall a more neutral cleanly reference, slightly sweet, organic but neutral and clean and refined, great overall control and extension, very direct and forward, fairly large stage, although might be a bit too much on the dry side at times. Overall refined cleaner approach that’s pretty reliably good.
Modwright TrystTopHighA smoother and slightly warmer neutral balanced amp, solid control, great balance between macro and micro, overall great all around without much to complain about but also not immediately stand out either, great balance for this tier. Nice option, didn’t get too much time with it, but can’t fault it with anything from the limited experience.
Aurorasound HeadaTopVery HighWarmth, sweetness, and nuance without going overboard, really focuses on the more micro side of things with a slight hit to macro, but special in the sense of it’s fairly organic and smooth nature that also wasn’t really forgiving either. A bit of a specialist but with the right pairing and goals it’s quite impressive for the range.
2x Questyle CMA800RTop-HighMore of a micro and smoother focus, being very organic, liquid, and coherent while still having great control and technical ability, it’s a voicing that you’d think would end up somewhat lacking technical ability, but it’s able to deliver softness and sweetness without dropping the ball elsewhere. Having 2 really improves it, but only one is good as well, might be a bit lacking overall in macro capabilities. Good value when used and when monoblocked really impressive with the right headphones.
ECP DSHA-3FTop-Very HighSomething designed with Focal in mind that works for other headphones, a cleaner yet sweet and nuanced sort of signature, interesting contrast overall. Great clarity, great stage depth and placement accuracy, slight smoothness, fairly tonally dense, and great microdynamics overall, more micro than macro focus, although very hit or miss from time to time. Very specific pairing requirements make this unreliable in how good it can be.
Bryston BHA-1Top/Mid+Very HighNeutral/natural tonality with a bit of a warmer lean, impressive spatial recreation scale and accuracy, very accurate dynamics and also time domain, and solid weighting and overall organicness, great speed and lower level control. Could have a bit more energy but otherwise really solid for the tier, somewhat hit or miss at times. Super refined for the range, very honest. Really solid value and all around capable, still unique in the market for how well rounded it is and how refined it is where it sits.
Schiit Mjolnir 3Top/Mid+Warmer a bit more fatter weighted, bit of bloom, but tasteful and doesn’t trade much away in overall control and sharpness/edge either. Awesome resolving power and presentation for lower level nuance, very dynamically alive but not in your face and more in micro. Spatially lively with almost a verticality focus and smaller more intimate stage, very black background. Great timbre, still reasonably fast. Could use a bit more slam at times perhaps and spatially while impressive in info sounds a bit small.It’s so fun and engaging without trading away technical performance, makes things pop in an organic way. Use balanced output, and no feedback with se instead of pp output for best sound. Does vibrate but not bad.
Violectric V550Top/MidHighOverall fairly studio neutral but still reasonably organic, well balanced and technical without being harsh, it’s able to provide good low level information that’s well presented, have pretty great grip and control, offer solid dynamics, and while spatially it’s not the largest it does have good depth, good texture, although could use a bit more of the magic the 281 had, as it’s a little on the flatter side of things.A refinement and slightly different direction from the past Vio house sound in a good way.
Headamp GSX MiniTop/MidVery HighI’m actually not the biggest fan of this amp, but there are some parings that I can’t ignore, and I needed another solid state in here lol. It’s got great levels of resolution, a fairly deep and accurate stage, and almost a warmer v shape tonality is nice too. Solid macrodynamics, good timbre and weighting, but lacks microdynamics, a bit blunted and overly smooth at times, and speed feels somewhat unnatural, but has it’s moments.Weird yet potentially worthwhile balance in sound and if it works well for you it can be a pretty solid option.
Ferrum OOR + HypsosTop/Mid-ModerateThe definition of an all rounder and jack of all but master of none, stronger macro focus overall, great control and command, really fun impact and slam, great macrodynamics, cleaner and neutral without being analytical and still has good density and weight, although a bit lacking when it comes to spatial recreation and more micro focus and nuance (specifically texture) that make it feel pretty 2d and flat. It’s good, and again jack of all master of none, but this barely makes it as it’s borderline not something I’d buy unless I had a super wide range of headphones and needed something that just worked.
Quicksilver Headphone AmpMid+HighSee Here.Just check the article.
LTA MZ2 w/ LPSMidHigh/Very HighScaled down MZ3 for the most part. Honestly you could also check the article above, but pretty unique for the range and similar traits as the MZ3 on a lower level.
Dragon IHA-1 w/LundahlMidHighA clean, dynamic, and spatially large sounding amp without sounding overly clean and overall while it sounds pretty “normal” there’s a certain charm in how it presents things and reasonably both transparent and forgiving which is weird, really changes depending on the tubes used. Pretty resolving too, bass is a bit lean and lacking though, although it’s not a huge issue.I don’t think I gave this enough time but it really was pretty good despite not immediately grabbing me right out of the gate, might deserve to be a bit higher even but we’ll see when I revisit it.
RSA Emmeline II The RaptorMid-High/Very HighInteresting for the tier, a cleaner and more composed OTL that does end up working well with lower impedance cans, a more dynamic and holographic amp with otherwise solid technicalities, although somewhat hit or miss at times.Older but still holds up, not many other options like it in the range for the sound it provides imo.

Good Shit. Tier: Good, but not super impressive

Headphone Amps:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
*Rupert Neve RNHPTop+HighExtremely refined for the tier, more neutral/natural, more intimate but very accurate and deep stage with pretty black background, excellent timbre, fairly tonally dense, lots of resolution and nuance but presented in a very organic way, a bit more forward and raw, very dynamically alive with a more micro focus, but pretty picky overall. Not really a direct upgrade to in the higher end, which is a shame since it’s so unique and worthwhile even over some higher end options, I just keep coming back to it.
Hagerman Tuba/SW51+Top+HighA more dryer mid centric forward signature, very accurate and precise stage, good control, overall good clarity, very nice timbre, more micro focus for dynamics, pretty good speed and separation, nice technicalities. Tube wise with the right tube it can either become pretty neutral or a bit warmer sweeter but still on the dry side, somewhat unforgiving and the more midcentric focus can sometimes be a bit too much. One of the cheaper tube amps that actually makes an effort to be on the more neutral or at least cleaner than it’s peers side with great technicalities and refinement typically not found in this range.
*Little Labs MonotorTop+HighSomewhat of a mix between the RNHP and the G111 that ends up with a cleaner and dryer focus but without being overly analytical with great technicalities and organic presentation, but can be too clinical at some points and is picky. A bit less interesting than the RNHP but only by a bit, great more forward and clean alternative that goes under the radar while offering great value.
Feliks Echo MKIITopModerate/HighIt has a more neutral slightly warmer more relaxed signature, with a bit more richness and weight to things, a wider and more grand stage with a bit less depth, very smooth overall, pretty resolving nonetheless, tends to take a more micro focus, reasonable speed and separation, although it’s more soft than I personally prefer. Not exactly my thing but for a more rich and warmer sounding amp it worked with a surprisingly wide range of headphones and sounded pretty good.
Monolith Liquid PlatinumTopModerateGenerally a slightly warmer and relaxed signature perhaps mild w shape, pretty spacious overall, lots of slam and impact, great control and grip, solid speed and separation, good tonal density and richness, reasonable resolution, solid timbre, more macro focused overall, very high gain though. Great power for harder to drive cans, although a bit much for some sensitive options, you get some solid cavalli sound for a solid price considering what these sell at typically.
Cayin iHA-6TopModerateA more neutral and slightly warmer and more bodied approach, more depth than width with sharper placement, great control and command overall, solid timbre, tonal density is good, pretty speedy actually, more macrodynamic focus overall but might be lacking a bit underneath. I would call it a jack of all master of none, but I do think it has it’s focuses while still being a well rounded amp with most pairups, reliable pick.
Lake People G111TopModerateTends to lean more studio linear/flat/neutral, with a wider and more grand stage but slightly more hazy placement, lots of command and grip, more impact and punch, actually somewhat forgiving, more smoothness and slightly relaxed, dynamically alive with a more macro focus.Another reliable pick although didn’t prove to be as long term satisfying as the Neve/Monotor for me.
DIY WhammyTop/MidModerate/HighDepending on how you build it and what you use it can sound different, but it’s generally a more neutral slightly warmer leaning amp with the right opamps, pretty dynamic and lively, good resolution and control, reasonably neutral overall and good all rounder although more picky than other options.Great option if you want to build and tweak something yourself, great value and works well with a wide ish range of headphones.
Bottlehead Crack w/ SpeedballTop/Mid/?ModerateA classic that’s incredibly fun and engaging with a warmer, wetter, and richer lean with great microdynamics and space, although not the most technical but very fun. I think for how fun this is it should be higher, but I’m very mixed on where to put it lol. Classic that’s really good value if you like what it does.
Meier Corda JAZZ-FFMidModerateSweeter and softer lean that’s almost voiced to be like a tube amp by design, pretty interesting, somewhat lacking drive though.Unique voicing with great technical ability.
*Schiit Asgard 3MidLow/ModerateMore weighty and impactful, warmer and smoother lean with great macrodynamics and resolving power, refined for the tier.Stand out within the price range for me.
Lake People G103SMidModerateA scaled down G111 for the most part, perhaps a bit softer.See above.
Geshelli Archel2.5 ProMid/LowModerateMore of a neutral no nonsense focus with an emphasis on technical ability but could be a bit more organic. Technical albeit a bit dry and flatter leaning.
*Monolith Liquid SparkLow+LowA warmer and richer focus with a wider stage and more body, good timbre and technical performance although a bit soft and lacking a bit of definition. Somewhat more standout to me in the price category.
Little Dot MK2LowModerateWarmer, richer, on the wetter side of things and while not the best technicality wise for the range, it’s fairly engaging and inoffensive. Likely cheapest premade OTL that I might like for the price.
Schiit Magni 3+LowLowOverall in the slightly warmer middle of things with nothing super stand out in good or bad, well balanced.Does everything well enough for the price.
JDS Atom+ LowLowCleaner and more linear leaning and technical without going overboard, slightly sweeter leaning as well. See above.

BONUS: Electrostatic Energizers/Amps

Dislaimer, I’m not as experienced here, and I’ll be using the High/mid/low method to sort entirely in this case

Electrostatic Amps:Class:General Sonic Description: Why?
Woo 3ES EliteTopA great balance of mostly everything although nothing stand out either, a cleaner leaning option that’s not dry and is very well rounded without fanfare, although could be a bit more engaging overall. Awesome with the shang, mainly what I used it with and wasn’t as impressive as t2 for stax.
DIY T2 (Kerry)TopRemoving a lot of the complaints I have with the bhse and giving it a large technical boost, awesome with stax. Focused more toward getting peak stax performance.
LTA Z10eTop/Mid+Something a bit more focused on midrange, spatiality especially background blackness, a bit more rounded, extremely dynamic, and cleaner leaning despite this, really great directness although signature might not jive well with everything, also great micro focus.Worked well with most estats and offered a unique sound that would be higher if it weren’t for the bit of technical deficit in comparison to the first 2.
Mjolnir Carbon CCTop/Mid-Overall fairly balanced in most aspects without much stand out as really good or bad. Very technical but not that engaging, favors power hungry stax.
Trilogy H1MidGreat staging overall, warmth, richness, and very solid presentation although not the most resolution for the range, but still very direct, slight extension problem.Really engaging and enjoyable but not most technical for the money.
Cavalli Liquid Lightning 2MidA fairly neutral but slightly forward and more energetic focus but still fairly organic at the same time, very refined sound. Honestly to me it’s a better and fixed BHSE although slightly less technical.
Headamp BHSEMid-Intimate, cleaner and forward yet sweet and well extended with a bit of bloom and lots of resolving power but has dynamic and spatial deficiencies. Technical but issues with dynamics and stage irritate me, too forward as well.
Mjolnir (or other) KGSSHVMid/Low+A focus on clarity, speed, and separation with a more forward focus although a bit dry and limited spatially and dynamically, but still pretty technical. Great for the 007Cleaner leaning with some edge that’s well rounded but not my preference in coloration.
Stax SRM-727IIMid/LowMore of a energetic and controlled and more speedy option than the 007tII but also a bit more flat and surface level, but not to where it’s a huge problem for the price compared to others. More of a surface level focus in comparison but good alternative with a different signature vs the next option.
Stax SRM-007tIIMid/LowA bit of a richer and slightly darker and smoother sound with nice spatial characteristics although might seem a bit loose at times and might lack some low end heft. Pretty sweet and colored but still nice technicalities although can lean too far for some pairings.
Stax SRM-353XLowAll around good enough, cheapest new estat amp I’d really suggest otherwise stick with the entry L series bundle amp or koss stat amp. Balanced and affordable, feel as though most other estat amps aren’t worth it below.

AIO/Combo Units:

I’ve actually not heard many AIO that I’m all that fond of, so there’s not going to be a ton of examples, but there’s still solid options out there, think it’s hard to find proper balance for combo units.

Holy Shit!! Tier: Best of the best, extremely exceptional options

To be honest, I don’t really think there’s anything that fits here at least going off the standards of the DACs and amps mentioned in other sections

Oh Shit?! Tier: Impressive, but not exceptional

Combo Units:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
DCS BartokTopVery HighFor a DAC of it’s caliber it’s actually got a solid headphone out, although still very much DAC focused, and that’s what pulls it ahead. A smoother more liquid approach that sounds pretty organic but at times lacks energy and immediacy. Somewhat embellished and questionable value but still deserves to be included. The DAC pulls it though, but the headphone out still is good enough to get it a spot on this list as a feasible option to consider, other higher end DACs don’t have as good of an amp.
T+A HA200Mid+HighSlightly smoother, warmer, and richer focus without sacrificing technical ability and overall also very refined, although can be a bit soft in the treble at times, but awesome technical ability.A very safe and reliable pick with great features, do no wrong.
*Fidelice RNDACMid+HighOverall fantastic balance, neutral/natural leaning signature, great slight micro focus for resolving power and dynamics, very sharp and accurate very black stage, great overall technical performance and refinement for the range.Overall completeness and refinement that I really haven’t heard in other all in ones.
Goldmund HDAMidHighStrange balance between speed and weightiness, overall technical and very sweet, didn’t have as much time with this one but felt it warranted an inclusion.A bit much for what it is, but it’s pretty unique compared to other options.
Bricasti M3HMidHighHonestly somewhat like how I’d describe the Bartok, although less smooth, more neutral, a sort of “gets out of the way” sound that I appreciate more and more. A very safe and reliable pick with great features, do no wrong.
Sony DMP-Z1?Mid-HighA rich and weighty yes fairly technical focus, warmer and meatier lean without smoothing over information nor distracting too much, great liquidity and timbre, sort of grander presentation overall, a bit of softness and bloom though that I’m not the biggest fan of. Does this count? Like, sure it’s “portable” but feel like it fits in more here lol.
Questyle CMA Twelve MasterLowHighMore of a slight midrange micro focus overall, great nuance, detail, speed, and separation, dynamically very good too, although wish it had more macro capability and a more open feeling presentation. Not many other options in it’s range really pull off what this does as well.

Good Shit. Tier: Good, but not super impressive

Combo Units:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
Holo Cyan PCMTop+Moderate/HighWarmer smoother focus, more holographic stage, a bit more of a micro focus, more slightly embellishing things and not that natural though. While I’m not the biggest fan of Holo DACs, it is a pretty decent all in one.
Monoprice Liquid Gold XTopModerateBasically a Liquid Platinum in sound and technicalities with a fairly decent DAC that carries similar sonic goals as the amp.Only had a shorter demo but actually pretty great all in one.
Yulong DA-ART Aquila IIMidModerateIt’s a reasonably more neutral focus but also a bit more nuanced than I would have expected, slightly softer overall, really nothing to complain about. Actually decent features, sounds good, good price for the point.
JDS Element IIMid/LowModerateNeutral but a bit more forward and also a bit more sweet, well rounded and refined but nothing really stand out. Sleek, good, does the job, interesting balance.
Schiit Asgard 3 + DAC ModuleMid/LowLow/ModerateAsgard 3 with a DAC module, sounds like a Schiit stack. While the internal DAC card isn’t as good as something like a Modius, it’s serviceable as an AIO for the price.
iFi Zen DACLowLowA more forward warmer focus that’s a bit more on the rich side of things, although somewhat unrefined and can be peaky. Weaker on the amp side of things, but there’s not many good AIO at this range imo.


Holy Shit!! Tier: Best of the best, extremely exceptional options

Portables:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
— DAPs —
Luxury & Precision LP6 TiTop+Extremely HighExtremely overall balanced and technical, natural-neutral slightly forward, a bit thicker leaning, awesome energy, very accurate time domain, very accurate spatially, very accurate dynamics, most resolving DAP I’ve heard, just very accurate overall, most impressive overall package I’ve heard.Best sound I’ve heard from a portable, along with one of the worst UX lol. Only reason I don’t own this is because I’m waiting for the LP7
*Luxury & Precision P6 ProTopExtremely HighBit scaled back LP6 and a warmer and slightly closer and more dense relaxed lean, a stronger micro focus overall, awesome resolving power, liquidity, texture, stage depth and accuracy, tonal density, separation, etc. Might be a bit thickly colored at times and slightly lacking drive. Mostly see above lol
*Lotoo PAW Gold Touch TiTopVery HighThe most refined DAP I’ve heard in sound and use, it’s a very mature and well refined balance of everything, a more deadpan neutral (slightly brighter with the Ti) focus with all around fantastic technicalities only bested by the P6P, without being dry or uninteresting. Might be a bit harsh at times because of that. Also fantastic DSP. Getting there to best sound with best UX.
iBasso DX300MAX Top-HighSomething geared more toward headphones with stellar amp performance, pretty overall neutral slightly cleaner leaning, very tight with lots of control, excellent impact and slam in the low end, very large stage that’s likely the largest I’ve heard from a DAP. Texture is good, resolution is good, not super organic but loads of fun. Dynamically pretty alive but might be more macro focused, nice timbre.Beast for driving headphones without an external amp, focuses a bit more on headphones then iems from my experience.
Questyle QPMTop/Mid+Very HighA sweeter, more midrange neutral ish focus on things that really focuses on liquidity, overall nuance and micro, and fantastic lower level control, with a slight bit of softness and roundness, very organic. Can be somewhat hit or miss at times though on pairing, and sometimes wish it had more stage depth and macro command. Great value considering how cheap they get and how simple yet great they are.
Astell&Kern SP2000 CUTop/MidHighGood all around performance with a more fun take by emphasizing lower level info in an inoffensive way, sweeter tuned, more wide and open presentation, great resolving power, more understated in it’s performance, nice smoothness, although at times that can be a bit less smoothness in the treble and macrodynamics might be nice. Not the best value but respectable performance and mature UX, there’s something about the sweetness and presentation that makes me want to keep this on here, very harmonically rich without being overdone.
Cayin N7Top/MidVery HighVery spacious, very smooth, a bit warmer more bass focused, more relaxed treble but very natural sounding. Class A is better weighted, more organic, and better nuanced with more depth focus, AB is more macrodynamic and cleaner width focus. DSD upsampling is more technical and forward the higher you go. Could use a bit better edge/bite.Very organic overall, and very technical for the range, fairly safe as well. Impressive DAC inside.
Cowon Plenue LTop/Mid-Very HighHonestly somewhat like a middleground of the LPGT and QPM at a lower level (with really fantastic DSP as well), a bit more on the mid focused side of things with some sweetness but more width and a more forward push, pretty smooth, can be hit or miss though.Bit of a sleeper with a lot of great flexibility when it comes to DSP.
iBasso DX320Mid+High/Very HighOnly heard the default AMP11 mk2s, but fairly neutral a bit cleaner dryer leaning, very fast, nice edge, great lower level resolution, reasonably well balanced, spatially sharp and accurate, although feels a bit dynamically limited, and could be a bit more organic in weighting and presentation. While I won’t say analytical, great technicalities forward focus for the price as long as you don’t mind a bit of overall dryness and slightly less than organic presentation.
— Portable amps —
*Mass Kobo 424/428Top+Extremely HighThe best portable amp I’ve heard, a more clean yet slightly sweeter and never harsh sound with a very strong focus on texture, overall control, speed, and resolving power with fantastic microdynamics and still solid macro, all while sounding fairly organic, can sometimes be a touch bright and lean though. Desktop grade performance for the price point with the right pairing.
Bakoon HPA-21TopExtremely HighJust like how I’d explain the Re/Leaf, this is super dependent on if you can use the current drive out, with the right headphones, extremely transformative, with the wrong, super bad lol. Above, to a bit lesser extent for the performance and a lot more important for pairing.
Phatlab Phantasy IITopExtremely HighA more dryer forward technical lean to things but with still good sweetness and stage spaciousness, organic presentation, and great resolution too, nice speed and separation, but could use a bit more bass extension and slam and not the most forgiving. Probably the most developed portable tube amp I’ve tried although harder to pair.
*Woo WA8TopVery HighRich, traditionally wetter/thicker lean with a stronger micro focus, very sweet, great space, great timbre and tonality, and good resolving power too, although sometimes might be too thickly colored and use a bit more control. Next best with a signature I found more pleasing and a wider range of pairing options.
XI Broadway BalancedTop/MidHighNeutral warmer smoother lean, overall reasonably balanced, solid technicalities, great micro focus, although somewhat lacking in overall macro capability (but still has great control)Kinda portable, but quite good if taken that way, although nothing to write home about either.
Cayin C9MidVery HighA jack of all master of none situation with a warmer but still reasonably clean lean, different sound options for different flavors (although not all that different from each other), but because of that felt like it was worth including. Once again a jack of all master of none that kinda blinds you with features that don’t exactly justify the result, but unique enough and flexible enough to be consistently good.
— DAC/Amp combos —
Chord Hugo 2MidVery HighThe awesome DAC performance really pulls this through, but tonality is bright and on the leaner side of things, it’s hard to pair, and the chord coloration isn’t always beneficial, but the DAC really carries. Awesome yet a bit overbearing DAC, the amp feels like a bit more of an afterthought.

Oh Shit?! Tier: Impressive, but not exceptional

Portables:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
— DAPs —
Hifiman HM-801*TopHighOldie but goodie, a very organic and engaging classic DAP that really showed me what a good portable player can sound like. Been awhile since I’ve heard it thoughClassic for a reason, introduced me to what a portable could really do in the high end, and from more distant memory it still holds up. But perhaps it’s a bit too high lol
Lotoo PAW 6000TopHighA scaled down and a bit more bass focused LPGT.Pretty much that.
Hiby RS6TopModerate/HighWhile the coloration isn’t to my taste with this one (a more sweetened, smoothed, and relaxed focus), it’s technical ability is actually quite strong in resolving power, texture, separation, and stage depth although more on the intimate side of things. Somewhat blunted transients and a bit over-smoothed macrodynamics but pretty impressive nonetheless.Standout in the range for it’s unique and impressive yet mildly unpolished sound, but absolutely worth checking out regardless.
Questyle QP2RTop-HighA scaled down warmer and smoother focused a bit more relaxed QPM.Basically that.
Cowon Plenue M2MidModerate/HighSort of a scaled down LYep.
Astell&Kern SR25 MKIIMidModerate/HighA scaled down and a bit more sweetened SP2000.More refined signature and focus for the range although value is less strong, but still worth looking at.
— Portable amps —
CEntrance AmpersandTopHighOverall great all rounder with very balanced and refined signature and technicalities, jack of all master of none, solid for the tier. Capable of driving some really hard to drive loads with ease and offering a great value.
Vorzuge VorzAMP PURE IITopHighGood all around balanced sound with a bit of a bass bump, slightly smoother with a cleaner signature, interesting balance. Really well balanced in most all aspects.
Romi LessFox BX-2 plusMidModerate/HighClean, powerful, and technical for the tier, although a bit more on the dryer and flatter side of things when it comes to lower level nuance and microdynamics (and stage depth). Really liked it at first, but more of a surface level amp in the end, but crazy power and control keeps it up.
— DAC/Amp combos —
CEntrance HIFI-M8 V2TopModerateOverall great all rounder with very balanced and refined signature and technicalities, jack of all master of none, solid for the tier. Do it all without many qualms.
Chord MojoMidHighA warmer and more organic tonality than the Hugo with scaled down DAC performance, but I actually do generally prefer the sound of this to the Hugo if it weren’t for the big technical jump the Hugo has.I like the signature of this more than the Hugo 2 but not as technical. I’d like to hear a Mojo 2 though.
iFi micro iDSD SignatureMidModerateWarmer and more rich focus with nice sweetness, a more impactful and slammy sound, nice stage width and good driving power, although not the most generally technical in the range, can get a bit unrefined up top. Used to like this more, but soured on me a bit, signature upgrade helped somewhat though.

Good Shit. Tier: Good, but not super impressive

Portables:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
— DAPs —
iBasso DX160 2020TopModerateA bit warmer neutral sweeter focus with a stronger emphasis on the lower level when it comes to control, dynamics, and resolving power, overall great width as well although could use a bit more depth and sharper placement.A bit more mature of a sound than you’d expect for the range.
Cayin N3ProTopModerateVery sweet, warmer focus, ultralinear tube mode is where it really shines spatially, dynamically, and energy wise, although a bit less control focused and can sometimes get muddled. A bit gimmicky but reasonably nice sounding so it gets a pass.
Hiby R3 ProLowLowThe lowest I’d consider for a DAP, really just get a DAC/amp instead, but otherwise this is decent. It works, it sounds good, small, but why get a dap at this point.
— DAC/Amp combos —
Luxury & Precision W2TopModerate/HighCleaner but a bit more relaxed with slight warmth, a pretty wide stage, great rawness and sense of energy when needed, surprisingly controlled as well, impressive resolving power specifically on lower level nuance, great microdynamics and macro, sometimes could use a bit more liquidity and less grittiness at times.Really like this one overall, well balanced and technical with an extra bit of energy.
Cayin RU7TopModerateSmoother, very liquid, but not soft and not lacking control or dynamics. Great depth and presentation in stage, very nice microdynamics, good resolving power as well, awesome timbre. Texture is also standout. DSD64 is smoother and laid back, DSD128 & 256 is more energetic and technical. Fairly neutral slightly sweeter, honestly not much I can complain about, but perhaps a bit more lower level resolution would be appreciated. Very safe pick, very impressive for the price.
Questyle M15Top-Moderate/HighSomewhat carrying some of the greatness of the QPM in dongle form, similar signature and goals, solid for the tier.Overall solid for most aspects albeit a bit forward at times.
CEntrance DACport HDTop/MidModerateGreat power and control for it’s size, a neutral warmer slightly more dense sound, great energy, solid overall technicalities, more width than depth in stage and balanced dynamics, not really much I can complain about here either.Sleeper, older but still great.
Earmen-TR AmpMidModerate/HighClean and brighter leaning, but not offensively so, fairly technical for the price. Actually not much to say about this one aside from that.
Lotoo PAW S2MidLow/ModerateSomewhat carrying some of the greatness of the PAW 6000 in dongle form, similar signature and goals although a bit cleaner and more smooth and relaxed, stronger micro focus for the tier.Feels a bit gimped from other Lotoo, otherwise would be higher.
VE MegatronMid/LowModerate What a surprise for the tier, actually headphone focused rather than IEM, more of a neutral/natural tuning, impressive power and control and pretty overall technically capable, nothing I can complain about for the price, and might even compete with a few of the aforementioned in some areas…Great for something that needs a bit more juice but without losing too much finesse.


Yep. So in this case I’ll be doing only one table for each type, and will segment the table depending on cable type (so it doesn’t take up too much space, and because I don’t have too much I want to put in here). This comes with even extra salt because these should be the last step, need to be paired with the right system, and also aren’t where you’re going to find the most drastic improvements. You’ll know yourself when you have to care about these, hopefully. Otherwise ignore lol. Only stuff that was tested in my own system, no other system demos. Also tested cables with low loss adapters if possible to get a sense of how they were on different things that weren’t natively terminated for them.

Holy Shit!! Tier: Best of the best, extremely exceptional options

Cables:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
— USB —
*Final Touch Audio SinopeTopHighThis is likely the most convincing USB I’ve heard, only one that really really surprised me so far, great organicness, space, dynamics, and tonality, only might want a bit more clarity. Works well on most all things I put it on with a great balance of technicalities and organicness.
Purist 30th Diamond Revision USBTopVery HighA warmer and smoother lean with still great technicalities, although can sometimes be a bit too laid back in the treble, but impressive nonetheless when it comes to things like weighting, presentation, and timbre.Overall great also with a warmer approach, but I think it lacks some of the directness of the FTA
*Audience FrontRow USBMidVery HighGreat balance of richness and energy while still being reasonably on the more neutral/natural side of things, great overall balance of technicalities too, jack of all master of none. Something that’s great for being a bit more forward yet also smoother, although not matching the technicalities of the first 2.
*Echole Limited Edition AESTop+Very/Extremely HighVery lively, very liquid, very organic. Very accurate and technical overall, natural time domain and control, and very direct. It is a bit softer and a bit lacking the nth impact, but other than that, just great. So good at mostly everything, if only it had slightly more impact and slam.
Transparent Reference XL TopVery HighWhile a bit on the smoother side of things and more micro focused, it’s overall very balanced, organic, and immensely technical, although some pairings can sound a bit dull or dark.Lives up to the name of reference in my mind, although an overly smoother system doesn’t suit it well.
*Allnic ZL MU-7R AESTopVery HighVery black background, fairly neutral with a very slight warmer lean, spacious leaning, great overall balance and technical performance. Jack of all master of most, but not quite to the technical level of the first 2.
*Black Cat TRON Reference TopHighClose to the Transparent with some similar aspects but a bit less technical, and more on the energetic and richer side of things which can sometimes be appreciated, hard to find fault here as well lol. Takes what the reference does and makes it a bit more engaging and energetic which is appreciated.
Tara Labs ISM Onboard 0.8 Top/MidHighSomewhat an inbetween of the last 2, although it’s more picky on what works well with it, and feels a bit more on the cleaner side of things.Another solid example of something neutral done right but not as immediately impressive as the 2 above it.
— Interconnects —
*Audience FrontRowTop+Very HighVivid, liquid, reasonably rich, but still manages a neutral tonality and awesome technical performance without sacrificing much at all. Really one of my personal faves to listen to. Best balance between technicalities and engagement I’ve tried in an interconnect.
*Purist Dominus Luminist Top+Very HighAlmost a sleeper by design, being a bit warmer, richer, smoother, and a bit more relaxed, but still very direct, dynamic, and technical, great tangability which isn’t what you’d expect from this signature, although I think texture and directness was a bit lacking. While I don’t like them in already laid back chains, really understated overperformer.
*Cardas Clear BeyondTopHighNeutral, but very very technical and a bit richer leaning and fairly open, although perhaps a bit more focused on micro than macro. Hard to go wrong with the level of technicalities it offers and how nicely it slots into most systems, although a bit expensive compared to the older clear which isn’t too far off.

For best value get the regular Clear used, I just didn’t want to include it twice, but I’d put it below the tara labs but above zenwave.
*Allnic ZL MU-7R RCA/XLRTop-Very HighSimilar to how I’d describe their AES, but with a bit more focus on overall control and grip, slightly sweeter leaning. Revealing of the system in what it does, more subtle overperformer.
*Snake River SignatureMid+HighFairly balanced but perhaps a bit warmer leaning, almost remind me a bit of the audience to a lesser extent, fairly dynamic, fairly spacious, great tonal density and timbre, really not much I can complain about for the tier. Great balance between technicalities and engagement while leaning more toward fun.
Tara Labs RSC Air EvolutionMidHighFairly neutral and open sounding, great edge and bite without going overboard, really solid detail and nuance, although a slight bit more ethereal than I prefer at times.Great for adding more liveliness to a setup without tilting it too far in one direction.
ZenWave D4MidVery HighWhile brighter and dryer leaning, it’s got really solid timbre and tonality, nice smoothness and liquidity, and also pretty spatially and dynamically strong. Just wish it had a bit more body to it. A bit more pairing picky but really nice in an already warmer system.
Harmonic Technology Armour Link IIIMid/LowHighReally just sounds good (better than good enough for sure) with most anything, warmer, richer, and smoother lean and while a bit less technical it’s just a really enjoyable sound with most pairings. One of the few that can get away with being a bit more on the less technical side of things that makes up for it in just sounding overall pleasing.
— Power —
*Purist Dominus Diamond PowerTop+Very HighTakes a more upfront and technical approach than the interconnects with a similar sound, hard to complain about much. Wish the interconnects had the better energy and texture this does.
*Audience FrontRow HP PowerTop+HighReally similar effect to the interconnects.Basically that.
Inakustik AC-4004 AIR TopVery HighI want to say these are the most transparent sounding power cables I’ve heard, but at the same time I didn’t find them as engaging as some of the above, but it does it all without adding much of any flavor or changes. Overall very impressive, but I like a bit more realism at times which these refused to give.
*Allnic ZL-5000Top-HighA bit warmer, more relaxed, but very dynamically capable, nice directness, and spatially blacker background. Could use a bit more energy in the treble. A reliable consistent pick for something more subtle but capable.
Shunyata Alpha v2 NRTop/MidVery HighSomewhat focused on wow factor, a smoother more fun leaning sound that emphasizes technicalities in a bit of an exaggerated but pleasing way.Harder to describe what this one does, but I didn’t find it to work in all systems well.
*Triode Wire Labs The ObsessionMid+HighAwesome directness and nuance, fairly neutral perhaps ever so slightly more body than normal, focuses a bit more on the upper ranges than lower though. Really good signature and characteristics, I just wish it was a bit more technical.
Synergistic Atmosphere X Alive PowerMidHighOverall technical and a bit cleaner leaning without losing body, slight bit smoother, but overall does the job with elevating technicalities without much fanfare. It’s been a reliable but unexciting pick across most parings although wasn’t as engaging as the above.
— Headphone —
*Danacable Lazuli NirvanaTop+Extremely HighWarmer, richer, and more spacious and dynamic lean without losing any technicalities, very fun yet organic, although a tad bit more directness would be appreciated. Works really well on most things I put it on, hard to really complain.
*Double Helix Prion4Top+Very HighMore energetic and forward, very technical, more depth and micro focused without letting down in macro, although potentially overbearing or overly clean tonality (but not lacking body or too much organicness). Great texture.Great for adding a bit more energy and directness although wouldn’t pair with overly forward chains.
Audience FrontRow HeadphoneTopVery/Extremely HighOverall vivid in presentation being very liquid and slightly rich but also very technical while being reasonably tonally neutral as well and a bit forward.Didn’t get as much time with this one but comfortable putting it on here due to experience with other audience frontrow stuff.
*Brise Mikumari Ref. 2MidVery/Extremely HighVery well balanced and refined sound that’s honestly a great all rounder, perhaps ever so slightly laid back and smoother without a loss in technicalitiesNot as technical as other options in this range, but one of the most refined sounding.
Nordost Heimdall 2LowVery HighReally nice tonality and timbre, and nice smoothness and liquidity but is a bit soft and more relaxed than I normally like, and pretty micro focused. More of a specialist but when it fits well it really is nice for the tier.
— IEM —
*Dita CelesteTop+Very HighVery smooth, very natural, very technical, really intoxicating blend overall, most refined I’ve heard. Could use a bit more of a macro focus, but otherwise very well balanced and capable.This really makes it up for overall enjoyment, just lacking that ounce of grunt at times.
PW 1950s 4wTop+Very HighOverall fairly organic and natural sounding that’s reasonably well balanced albeit a bit richer leaning, a bit more relaxed as well, could use a bit more energy but overall technicalities are strong. Best balance across a lot of pairings although could be a bit more direct at times.
*Eletech AeneidTop+Very HighVery technical, a bit micro focused overall, more depth than width focused, cleaner leaning, very resolving, great but doesn’t do well with brighter leaning iems even though in some pairings it actually wasn’t what I’d consider bright. Pretty much that.
*Rhapsodio Evolution CopperTopExtremely HighVery neutral, very technical, very good, but very pairing dependent, hard to say much more because of that. Just wish the pairings were as strong with other non Rhapsodio iems.
Plussound Verse Copper+Top-Very HighA neutral/natural tonality with a bit of a bass focus and also a wider stage, fairly dynamic, fairly resolving, fairly balanced overall. Consistently good with most pairings.
Wagnus Zillion Sheep NU-1Top/MidVery HighOverall very balanced and refined, a bit more intimate and micro focused, organic without being overly rich, and very dynamic. Almost a reference cable with a bit of an organic lean that I found to really work well for a neutral but nuance focus.

Oh Shit?! Tier: Impressive, but not exceptional

Honestly in this case I think I haven’t tried many that would fall into this range, think it’s represented well enough only with Holy and Good.

Good Shit. Tier: Good, but not super impressive

Cables:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
— USB —
*Triode Wire Labs PassionTopModerate/HighSimilar types of improvement to their power cables.Basically that.
*Curious Evolved TopHighFairly neutral and more forward cleanly focus although a bit more on the dry and a bit flatter side of things.Older option but still reasonable for the tier.
Mad Scientist Black Magic Top/MidModerateA bit cleaner leaning overall and reasonably organic, well rounded and open with a bit of extra smoothness and liquidity.Pretty refined for the range and also reasonably technical.
Phasure Lush^3MidModerateHard to say for sure since it gives you a lot of options, but generally a pretty organic cable that tends to lean more smooth, great body, warmer bass focused, wide stage, but a little hazy.Can tune to system although I do think it’s a more chilled out option regardless of settings. Not going to run down all the configurations.
Audioquest Carbon Mid/LowModerateWeirder tonality but reasonably technical with a hint of sweetness, great timbre, nice depth in stage, nice dynamics, although the coloration can be hit or miss depending on the person, nice smoothness too, almost a bit exaggerated overall.Honestly not sure, I’ve heard it many times, but it’s just something that I can never make my mind up on as it ends up being hit or miss depending on the setup.
Supra Excalibur LowLowReasonably technical for the range without many shortcomings, a bit cleaner leaning overall. One of the few cheaper USB that I didn’t really mind and could see being worthwhile, although I still think saving up for one of the above is a potentially better idea.
*Snake River Boomslang TopHighA more lively and balanced cable, pretty dynamic, pretty resolving, pretty solid spatial recreation too, overall really nice for the tier. Personal favorite, although it looks weird.
Black Cat Silverstar 75 Mk. IITopHighPretty refined and well balanced cable overall, perhaps a slight bit mechnical sounding though to me. Really good for the tier and reliably good although I don’t know if anything about it is stand out on it’s own.
*Cerious Graphene Extreme DigitalTop/MidModerateMore forward and clean with a bit of a midrange focus, fairly energetic and alive, and great technicality although actually a bit more smooth than I’d want in the bass. Has a bit of pleasing bloom and sweetness. A weird one, don’t know why I like this one so much, but it’s a reliable pairing with most things.
Mad Scientist Heretical DigitalMidModerateVery balanced and refined, a bit more cleaner leaning but still pretty organic, well rounded and open, honestly no complaints given tier. Basically that.
*DH Labs D110/D750LowLowWarmer smoother a bit more relaxed leaning, wider focus and great technicalities overall, although at times could use a bit more bite. Surprisingly good AES for the money.
Apogee Wyde Eye**The first digital cable that made me care, one that made me notice some differences between whatever I was using at the time. It could still be really good, I don’t know, it’s been too long, so not ranking it, but it deserves to be mentioned.That.
— Interconnects —
*Anticables 6.2TopHighOverall fairly balanced and technical in most all aspects, perhaps a bit dryer leaning, but really nice overall and hard to not suggest. Really like these despite the goofy look as long as you don’t have an ultra dry system.
*Cerious Graphene Extreme RCAMidModerateForward and fun, neutral ish enough with great body, nice timbre and organicness, and also solid texture for the range which is uncommonRight behind the anticables although I think they’re a bit less well rounded but really good still.
Analysis Plus Copper Oval-InMidModerateGenerally a sweeter and warmer sounding cable, but still pretty technical and pretty refined, reasonably balanced nonetheless, more depth and separation than widthThis one gets in because of how cheap you can get them sometimes lol.
Kimber Hero LowLowMore energetic v shaped cable with a noticable signature shift, solid technicalities for the money. More colored than I personally like, but can see it being a welcome change in some systems.
Transparent Cable The LinkLowLowOverall fairly balanced sound without much standout, basically the cheapest new cable I’ve heard that might be worthwile for a sonic improvement. Nothing really standout though.It gets past the v shape or overly midrange focused sound of some cheaper common studio focused cables, which is special for the range.
— Power —
Triode Wire Labs Ten PlusTopModerateAlmost focused more on the upper than lower ends and perhaps a bit contrasty in a good way, very open, dynamic, and spacious sounding.Overall just really fun and pretty technical too without being inorganic or offputting, really nice.
Synergistic Research UEF Blue 12awgTopModerateOverall technical and a bit cleaner leaning without losing body, slight bit smoother, but overall does the job with elevating technicalities without much fanfare. It’s been a reliable but unexciting pick across most parings although wasn’t as engaging as the above.
Shunyata Venom V10 NRMidModerateWarmer, smoother, and more of a blacker focus almost (in background and treble lol), solid and pretty great macrodynamics, although a bit more surface level and can sometimes be a bit too smooth. Both reliable in sound but hit or miss in pairing, but good overall.
Audio Quest NRGLowLowEnergetic almost W focus, general improvement although might be a bit grainy at times. Outside of custom DIY options, the cheapest power cable I thought was worth the cost.
— Headphone —
Cardas ClearTop+HighA neutral yet slightly forward vivid and rich sound with great overall technicalities that’s pretty refined for the range, a bit intimate at times though. Great unique sound for the range, very solid.
*Lavricables GrandTop+ModerateWell balanced and refined, really nothing to complain about with a lot of great aspects, very well rounded. Slightly smoother on both ends and slightly a bit softer, but great technicalities, slight micro focus. Sort of a jack of all master of none with a hint of smoothness and sweetness.
WyWires PlatinumTopModerate/HighA bit of a neutral yet slightly midrange focused cable that’s forward in an inoffensive way and very technical focusing on clarity and speed and more depth than width, a bit of a micro focus, great energy for the range.Interesting balance which I don’t know if I thought it worked with all pairings but was quite nice with the right chains.
Double Helix Complement CTopModerateNot warmer but a bit more dense yet technical, slightly lacking organicness but otherwise fairly technical. Didn’t like the overall balance as much but very solid technical performance for the range.
Norne Draug 3MidModerateWarmer and while a bit laid back still very technical and pretty refined sounding for the range. Great paring for something you want to lean warmer, wider, and richer without losing technical performance.
Corpse GravediggerMid/LowLowCleaner more neutral focus without being overbearing, although a bit too forward at times. Great for something that needs a bit extra energy for the price although otherwise not super impressive.
Forza Audio Works Claire HybridMid/LowLowWarmer and a bit more laid back without being overwhelming, reasonable technical performance. Entry into getting something that will more noticeably color the sound without undesirable aspects.
Audiophile NinjaLowLowIt’s cheap, it works, typically better than stock cables for midrange to lower end headphones, great stuff, minimum, not sure I’d suggest going lower in most cases. Basically that.

Dogshit Tier: Self Explanatory

I don’t really have many things that I truly dislike this much to mention them, but I figure I might as well say the few I have in mind. Not going to bother with like airplane/dollar store stuff or more consumer oriented products, will be actual hifi products. No internal ranking/sorting here, just a list of stuff that truly bothers me, and price is accounted for as well, since I can overlook some things at lower prices, but I can’t for anything higher end. Also skipping IEMs since that would draw this out a lot longer. This is truly don’t enjoy these whatsoever, and don’t understand how others do as well, not just bad value, things I’d likely actually toss out. But if you own and enjoy these, continue to own and enjoy them of course, they don’t work for me, but they clearly work for others lol.

I also try to not focus on the negative stuff if I don’t have to anyways lol, so I’m sure this will slowly fill up when I get reminded of things, but it’s not like I really have a ton of stuff to put on here.

Headphones & IEMs:Source Demands:General Sonic Description:
ZMF AeolusModerateGross gross gross, over smoothed, lacking so much information, really flat, in the goal of least offensive it removes most of what you want to enjoy within music, offending me the most.
MrSpeakers ETHER C FlowModerate/HighWay too over compressed and forward, so compacted it hurt.
Audeze LCD 2 ClassicModerateFailed colab, sure sounds like it.
Flare Audio R1Moderate All that was there was the midrange, and it wasn’t even good.
Sennheiser HD500 (and a lot of other cheap Senns around this time)LowNothing redeeming, this was a Sennheiser?
Fostex T50RPModerateDon’t really hear anything redeeming with these in stock form and don’t enjoy listening to them, getting into modding them can make them more tolerable though.
Koss Pro4AALow/ModerateWhy are these still sold.
Hifiman HE350LowPainful treble and has little to no technical performance
Sony MDR-V150LowSomehow worse than any modern sony consumer can, truly awful.
Amps & DACs:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description:
Massdrop/Monoprice/SMSL THX ampsModerateIt’s so bright and harsh and analytical, yet so lacking in most all technical ability at the same time, nothing really worthwhile there.
A lot of the old & new Topping ampsLowI actually respect the old topping amps more than the new ones, but those were bright and peaky but they did have ok technical ability, but new topping just seem like THX, except they’ve made them more smooth and dull with equally little technical ability, like them marginally better than THX stuff, but that’s not saying much.
Older Schiit Magni, Modi, and JotLowReally dynamically compressed and peaky harsh, wasn’t great, glad they for the most part fixed this.
Denafrips Pontus IModerate/HighGot really gross and muddled sounding
Audio GD DACsModerateSee above, more a “fun” sound but executed pretty poorly, no technicalities, bloated and loose but also fairly harsh, everything is smoothed over, nasty.
Anything with a tube under 100 bucks.N/AGeneral observation pointed out to me by a friend that I ended up feeling was true, most really aren’t great for one reason or another. Don’t like to generalize like this, but I honestly can’t think of a time where it didn’t hold true lol.
Borderpatrol DACHighWarm creamy mush, low technical ability, really makes me mad lol.
Fiio M11LowPros: Has 2 sd cards, that’s pretty cool. Cons: everything else
RME ADI-2 DAC FSModerateYou pay for features, anddddd that’s about it

Brief Speaker Section

As mentioned previously, I’m not a big speaker guy. My speaker and general 2ch experience pales in comparison to experience with headphones, so really take that into consideration lol. Because of that I’m going to really limit what I put on here for both what actually gets to go on, and the amount of info I give on each piece because I’m not sure how valuable it would be because of that. But I’ll try to get a few brief lists together for standmount/bookshelfs, floorstanders, preamps, integrateds, and power amps, but again don’t expect too much here outside of a very simple list. Will be relying on extended dealer demos and loans along with friends setups more here since I haven’t owned as many speakers myself, but only demos where I feel as though I actually got proper time and tried on at least 2 different chains at some point. Again take this section with a bigger grain of salt vs the rest of the list. This is more being treated as a “what would I buy for myself” even moreso compared to the rest of the list.

Edit: you know what, I’m lazy, and not speaker focused, so I’m not even going to put descriptions, for now. Don’t really take this section as seriously as the rest. This is something I’ll fill in later when I have time, and potentially get more demos with what I’ve heard to reaffirm it should be there and get a better picture of things. Not ready yet, but these are still awesome things that I feel at least confident enough listing as awesome.

Bookshelf/Standmount:Class:Source Demands:General Sonic Description:
*Voxativ Pi 2 AC4Xof it’s ownExtremely HighBasically floorstander but technically counts lol,
*Børresen 01Top+Very/Extremely High
Vimberg AmeaTop+Very/Extremely High
Harbeth Monitor 40.2 40th AETop+Very HighBasically floorstander but technically counts lol,
Stenheim Alumine 2TopVery/Extremely High
Marten Parker DuoTopVery/Extremely High
TAD ME-1Top-Very High
Voxativ Hagen AF1nTop/Mid+Very/Extremely High
Joseph Pulsar2 GrapheneTop/MidHigh
ATC SCM19v2Top/Mid-Very High
Dynaudio Special 40Mid+Very High
Fritz Carrera BEMid+High
Scansonic MB1 BMidModerate/High
Harbeth P3ESR SE or Falcon LS3/5AMidHigh/Very High
BMR PhilharmonitorMid/Low+Moderate/High
Omega Compact AlnicoMid/LowHigh
Goldenear BRXMid/LowModerate/High
*SVS Ultra BookshelfLow+Moderate
Polk R200Low+Moderate/High
Focal Chora 806LowModerate
Klipsch RP600MLowLow/Moderate
Emotiva Airmotiv B1+Low-Low

Don’t have as much experience with floorstanders outside of dealer demos and shows, most speakers I’ve been either able to take home and try or spend time with at friends or allowed to mess with at dealers setups have been bookshelf/standmount for a variety of reasons (lower cost and typically better value imo, smaller size making them easier to ship/store/use, more flexible placement in rooms), and because of that I don’t feel comfortable making a list for floorstanders as it would rely too much on less than ideal demos to populate the list and be very strangely skewed since most all would be high end lol.

Integrateds:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description:Why?
Aries Cerat Genus 845Top+Very/Extremely High
Vitus SIA-25Top+Very High
Viva Solista MK3TopVery High
Riviera AIC-10TopVery High
Allnic T-2000 30th AETop-Very/Extremely High
Ayre AX-5 TwentyTop/Mid+Very High
Octave V80SE + Black BoxTop/Mid+High/Very High
LTA Ultralinear IntTop/MidVery High
Luxman L-590AXIITop/MidHigh
Coda CSiBTop/Mid-High
Modwright KWH 225iTop/Mid-High
Leben CS-300XSMid+Very/Extremely High
Bakoon AMP-13RMid+High/Very High
Coincident Dynamo MKIIMidExtremely High
Parasound Halo Hint 6MidModerate/High
Elekit TU-8900MidVery High
Outlaw RR2160Low+Low/Moderate
Exposure 2010S2Low+Low/Moderate
Rotel A11 TributeLowLow/Moderate
Musical Paradise MP-301 MK3LowModerate/High
Vista Spark IILowModerate/High
NAD C316BEE v2Low-Low/Moderate

I’ll just say preamps are what I have the least amount of experience with, since I never got to experiment with pairings as much, and also found that a lot of the only preamps that I really liked were really expensive (and didn’t want to pony up until late lol). Only including preamps that I was able to hear in multiple different setups to understand what they did for the chain, so excluding preamps I have heard multiple times but not heard in other setups (I mean I guess I already said that, but figured I’d mention it again). Way more important than you realize the more you go up, don’t skimp (learned that the hard way lol).

Preamps:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description: Why?
*Robert Koda Takumi K15EXTop+Very HighReally hard to describe, but extremely balanced in all aspects, do it all, excel at all, closest thing I’ve heard to what people might consider transparency. But doesn’t mean that it’s always the most lifelike or exciting either, but it’s close lol.Best balance of everything I’ve ever heard in most setups.
*Lamm LL1.1 SignatureTop+Extremely HighMost alive sounding pre I’ve heard, a bit slightly sweet, a slight bit soft, but I haven’t heard anything as dynamic, direct, textured, and nuanced, and really well weighted. It just pretty selective with it’s magic on the pairing, otherwise it would be higher.When it pairs well, it really really pairs well, and could be over the Koda in some cases, but below in others.
Aries Cerat Impera II RefTopVery/Extremely HighVery impactful, very controlled, very macro in most all aspects without skimping in micro, aggressive would be a good word, in a good way. Fairly neutral and balanced tonally, although it’s nuance and true depth of info isn’t as standout. Still great richness and body despite it’s clarity. Great for adding more liveliness to a system that really needs to get up and go while just improving it overall, really enjoyable.
VTL TL7.5 Series 3Top-Very HighCleaner and a bit dryer leaning, however very technical, fairly honest, and impressive energy although a bit more restrained than the above options, and was fairly consistent across pairings too which was nice, could potentially use a bit more organicness.Likely seeing a trend in my tastes here lol, although this gets more though on it’s merits of technical performance, but I’d rather have the AC for a similar but more engaging experience.
*Allnic L-7000 w/ CI/L-9000Top/Mid+Very HighHas a characteristic to makes things sound really spacious, dynamic, organic, and sweeter without feeling as though it’s heavy coloration or lacking technical ability, still has a level of balance and clarity that’s just a really enjoyable experience. Pick 9000 for more direct, more depth focused, more bite, more dynamic, more forward and clean, and perhaps a bit more resolving at the cost of some organicness, sweetness, and space. For pure enjoyment factor it’s extremely strong while also being technical and honest, very unique, although this makes it this high out of raw enjoyment and a bit less so on technicalities. The L9000 is more technical but for enjoyment I like the 7000 a slight bit more, both close though.
FM Acoustics FM155 MKIIRTop/MidExtremely HighVery fast and technical, just really speedy and clean, but also a bit smoother and a bit rounder sounding? It’s a weird signature to describe, very grand sounding which was interesting, very picky as well in what it sounds good with.Never felt like I was able to fully pin down how this sounds, but it’s very special, and very picky, it’s what you’d want when you hear the word “reference”.
Backert Labs Rhythm 1.3Top/MidVery HighOrganic leaning while being pretty technical, and fairly balanced, perhaps a bit smoother and not as sharply defined as it could have been, it just made things sound really enjoyable and engaging. Really good capability for the range considering cost, really enjoyable with most setups.
Pass Labs XP-32Top/Mid-HighA bit more focused on being both neutral but a bit sweeter and smoother with great coherency, richness, nuance, and liquidity, although somewhat chilled out and compact in dynamics, spatial recreation, and directness which could be improved.While it’s not my cup of tea, it’s still really impressive and deserves to be here for the right setup, not overly picky either.
Atma-sphere MP-3 MK3.2MidVery HighA nice balance between something technical and more fun and organic leaning, nice liveliness and directness while still having good body and smoothness but not overly thick or rich either.Really pleasing focus and balance, great technicalities. Get the caps and caddock, very good with that.
Coincident Statement MKIIMid-Very/Extremely HighVery nuanced, very organic, very direct, although a bit more spatially limited in width and macrodynamically limited, but great lower level control and micro capability. Also sweeter leaning and well weighted. Something that’s a bit more focused on it’s priorities and not as overall well balanced but really nice for what it does well.
LTA ZOTL Preamp L2Mid/Low+Very HighThe background blackness, cleanliness, speed and separation, depth and more spherical stage, overall midrange, and overall control is really impressive here. Very dynamically alive in both macro and micro, clean but organic tonality and timbre, slightly not as dense but very accurate there. Very overall engaging and technical, although always felt like it was missing the last ounce of organicness that held it back for me, also was a bit more hit or miss in pairing for what I liked.
Hornshoppe “The Truth”Mid/LowVery HighVery technical for the range, very chameleon like, impressively open sounding, hard to describe but most preamps in this range don’t sound this direct and unrestrained. I don’t think it sounds as realistic/convincing or engaging as some of the stuff right above (and especially higher up), but from a technicalities perspective it could be closer than it should be lol, can’t complain.Awesome for the range it lies in, really hard to go wrong unless you’re looking for a specific character. Somewhat taking the best of an active and passive design.
Audible Illusions Modulus 3BMid/LowHighA bit more on the richer side of things and a bit more laid back, perhaps lacking some clarity and reasonably colored, but really nice character and very enjoyable listen, not the most technical, but great dynamics and space, a bit softer a bit smoother, great lower level information, but a bit lacking in directness, energy, and clarity for me.Sort of a bit more romantic option but something that also worked well in a wide range of chains and was very enjoyable overall.
Quicksilver LinestageLow+HighA great balance of a bit dryer leaning but organic and a bit exaggerated dynamics and stage (grand and larger than normal), a bit added smoothness, but really just impressive for the range, although could be a bit more direct and neutral. Also nice body and density overall.Standout in enjoyment with still strong technicalities for the range.
AVA FET Valve CFLow+Moderate/HighGreat level of energy and clarity, a bit more macrodynamic focused, nice directness, and good technicalities and balance. Fairly speedy and well controlled.Overall fairly well rounded and pretty technical for the range but lacking a bit of lower level nuance.
Luminous Axiom II Passive WalkerLowLowNeutral and extended although a bit sweeter leaning, more direct and immediate, a bit lean but not to overall detriment, very technical for the range although not the most dynamic or authoritative, very defined space but not expansive.Overall more lively and technical than some other passives, but not TVC level (although more technical).
Promitheus Reference TVCLowModerate/HighRich, engaging, and sweeter leaning. Nice organicness and smoothness without removing much lower level info and great dynamics and space, great body and weight, although a bit limited on both ends of the spectrum and coloration hit or miss, limiting a bit of resolving power for the range but forwardness of info makes up for that.Really interesting, and for some could be higher ranked if you really value added character, engagement, and a unique sound for the money.
Goldpoint SA2XLowLowCleaner leaning a bit more dry but well extended and technical.It does the job, no nonsense, can’t complain for the price, but not as noteworthy as the previous 2.
Pine Tree Audio SP-1Low-LowNeutral, but a bit less flat and dull and more technical than the last 2.Somewhat above the last 2, but still think similar idea.
Palmer MoniconLow-LowNuetral, flat and dull.Just get if you want a basic volume control for an entry level potentially midrange setup.
Schiit SysLow-LowNeutral, flat and dull.Just get if you want a basic volume control for an entry level potentially midrange setup.
Power amps:Class:Pairing Pickiness:General Sonic Description:
*Lamm ML3 Signatureof it’s ownExtremely High
*Riviera AFM-50Top+Very High
Aries Cerat Diana Forte/Concero 25 Top+Very High
Grandinote DemoneTopVery/Extremely High
Pass Labs XA 160.8Top-High/Very High
FM Acoustics FM108 MKIITop/Mid+Very/Extremely High
darTZeel NHB-108Top/MidVery High
Bricasti M25Top/MidHigh/Very High
Parasound JC 1+Top/MidHigh

*Yamamoto Sound Craft A-08S
Top/Mid-Insanely High
Atma-Sphere M-60 MK 3Mid+Very/Extremely High
Coincident M300B Frankenstein MKIIIMid+Very/Extremely High
VTL ST-150MidHigh/Very High
LTA Ultralinear+MidHigh/Very High
Bryston 4B3MidHigh
Quicksilver Mid MonoMid-High/Very High
First Watt F8 OR J2Mid-High
*JOB 225Mid/Low+Very High
Parasound Halo A21+ Mid/Low+Moderate/High
AVA UltravalveMid/LowHigh
Odyssey Stratos Stereo ExtremeMid/LowModerate
Adcom 535 IILow+Moderate
Schiit AegirLow+Low/Moderate
Pass Amp Camp AmpLow+Very High
Parasound Zamp v.3Low-Low
Emotiva BasX A-150Low-Low

The Shortlisted Shitlist: (mostly done)

What if I changed things up based on value within the segment? Will put a few of my favorite value*** picks in each greater tier. This is a really tricky thing to do due to basing most of this on used pricing (sometimes new though), and also that value being greatly impacted by the chain for both synergy and tier. Going to pick headphones which I think can be had for good value used, then put together a chain that I think will maximize performance per dollar for said headphone at each performance level, to get the most out of them reasonably, while keeping some sense of value in mind (somewhat lol). Full chain, every aspect considered (mostly, not tubes though since those are too much a hassle). I would have a lot of these, but I have to limit myself somehow otherwise I’ll never finish lol. You could likely put together a more value system if you considered some of the more obscure or deeply discounted used options as they come up, but that’s a bit less reliable/more hit or miss, so I’ll play it a bit safe here with things I’m pretty confident in as entire chains for the most part. As a general rule of thumb, prioritize the headphones and the DAC and amp over things like cabling and digital source, those can always be added down the line. Look USED for everything, I previously had pricing included but it became a hassle so do some research to find going rates used. OR means similar enough tier alternative, >OR= means a bit lower tier or less synergy, >OR> means lower tier. NOT going to do anything outside of headphones and headphone amps, so no speaker amps for headphones even if it might make sense (just lazy).

You WILL see some repeats of gear, and that’s because I can only test with so much, and also because it’s mostly off the shit list, which is stuff I already like lol, so don’t be surprised if you see the same amp/DAC/cable/digital source suggested for multiple different headphones. Also don’t be surprised if the same stuff ends up in different tiers or different levels of comparison, some stuff has better synergy with others, but still might make sense to pair.

Constantly going to be tweaking things and reorganizing, feel as though it’s mostly done, but nothings set in stone, and this is going to be one of the more updated sections of the list.

Mysphere 3.2 OR 3.1:

Bit of a more up to date rehash of the Mysphere article pairings in a bit more detail lol.

Maxing out options: Max I’d consider going for to push these headphones to close their limits within some semblance of value.
Digital source: Sonore Signature Rendu SE optical Tier II OR Antipodes S30 + S20 + S60
DAC: Lampizator Pacific OR Totaldac d1-triunity >OR> Berkeley Alpha Reference 2
Amp: (for 3.2) Riviera AIC-10 >OR> Mass Kobo 394 II, (for 3.1) Viva Egoista 845 OR Eddie Current Studio T
HP Cable: Brise Mikumari Ref. 2 (haven’t tried higher)
Digital Cable: FTA Sinope USB OR Black Cat TRON Reference
Interconnects: Audience FrontRow/SX RCA >OR= Snake River Signature RCA/XLR >OR= Cardas Clear RCA/XLR
Power: Triode Wire Labs Obsession

Higher tier options: A great place to be to really take advantage of most of what the headphones have to offer.
Digital source: Sonore opticalRendu + Plixir Elite BDC OR Totaldac d1-digital-mk2
DAC: Totaldac d1-unity >OR> Mojo Mystique EVO B4B
Amp: (for 3.2) Mass Kobo 394 II >OR> Paltauf HPA-100, (for 3.1) DNA Stratus >OR= Allnic HPA3000GT
HP Cable: Brise Mikumari Ref. 2
Digital Cable: FTA Callisto USB OR Snake River Boomslang AES
Interconnects: Cardas Clear RCA/XLR >OR> Anticables 6.2 RCA
Power: Triode Wire Labs Ten Plus OR Synergistic UEF Blue

Middleground options: Pretty great, there’s more to be had, but good value and performance meet.
Digital source: Pi2AES + SGC Linear PSU OR Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Lampizator Baltic 3/4 OR Meitner MA-1 v2 >OR= Aqua La Voce S3 OR Rockna Wavelight
Amp: (for 3.2) Paltauf HPA-100 >OR= Pass HPA-1, (for 3.1) Allnic HPA3000GT >OR= Cayin HA300
HP Cable: Lavricables Grand
Digital Cable: Triode Wire Labs Passion USB OR Cerious Graphene Extreme Digital
Interconnects: Audience Studio ONE XLR >OR= Anticables 6.2 RCA >OR= Cerious Graphene Extreme RCA

Lower tier options: Min I’d consider going for to get these headphones going but there’s a lot more they can do, but still good.
Digital source: Pi2AES + SGC Linear PSU OR Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Crane Song Solaris Quantum OR OG Schiit Yggdrasil A2 >OR> Soekris DAC2541
Amp: (for 3.2) Violectric V550 OR Bryston BHA-1, (for 3.1) Woo WA22 >OR> Quicksilver Headphone Amp
HP Cable: Lavricables Grand
Digital Cable: DH Labs D110 OR Phasure Lush^3 >OR= Audioquest Carbon
Interconnects: Audience Ohno RCA/XLR >OR= Transparent Cable The Link RCA

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAP: Luxury & Precision P6 Pro >OR= Lotoo PAW Gold Touch Ti
Amp: (3.2) Mass Kobo 424/428 OR (3.1) Woo WA8

Hifiman Susvara:

This section will only have a maxing out and higher tier options, because I don’t think this headphone is what I’d consider a good value otherwise unless you’re looking to really go big or go home for a setup, otherwise I’d rather have a different headphone if you aren’t. I also think speaker amps make some potential sense here, but not covering those. If you can’t swing these chains, you’re better off with a HEKSE.

Maxing out options: Max I’d consider going for to push these headphones close to their limits within some semblance of value.
Digital source: Sonore Signature Rendu SE optical Tier II OR EMM Labs NS1
DAC: Lampizator Pacific OR Totaldac d1-triunity >OR= Aries Cerat Kassandra II Ref G2 >OR= Berkeley Alpha Reference 2 >OR= Rockna Wavedream Signature
Amp: Riviera AIC-10 OR Trafomatic Primavera OR Aries Cerat Genus 845 >OR= Viva Egoista 845 >OR= Woo WA33 Elite
HP Cable: Double Helix Cable Prion4 (potentially Danacable Lazuli Nirvana)
Digital Cable: FTA Sinope USB OR Tara Labs ISM Onboard 0.8 AES
Interconnects: Audience FrontRow RCA/XLR >OR= Cardas Clear Beyond RCA/XLR >OR= Snake River Signature
Power: Purist Dominus Diamond Power OR Audience FrontRow HP >OR> Triode Wire Labs Obsession

Higher tier options: A great place to be to really take advantage of a decent bit of what the headphones have to offer.
Digital source: Sonore opticalRendu + Plixir Elite BDC >OR= Berkeley Alpha USB
DAC: Rockna Wavedream Signature OR Bricasti M1SE MDX >OR> Mojo Mystique EVO Pro >OR= Lampizator Baltic 3/4
Amp: Woo WA33 (non elite) OR Modwright HA300 >OR= Bakoon AMP-13R >OR= Cayin HA300
HP Cable: Double Helix Cable Prion4
Digital Cable: FTA Sinope >OR> Snake River Boomslang
Interconnects: Tara Labs RSC Air Evolution OR ZenWave D4
Power: Triode Wire Labs Obsession

OG Focal Utopia:

Can really scale surprisingly well, and consistently rewarding.

Maxing out options: Max I’d consider going for to push these headphones to close their limits within some semblance of value.
Digital source: Sonore Signature Rendu SE optical Tier II OR Antipodes S30 + S20 + S60
DAC: Lampizator Pacific OR Totaldac d1-triunity >OR> Rockna Wavedream Signature
Amp: Angstrom Stella SHA20 MK2 OR Viva Egoista 845 OR Riviera AIC-10 >OR= Eddie Current Studio T >OR= Mass Kobo 394 II
HP Cable: Danacable Lazuli Nirvana >OR> Ultra
Digital Cable: FTA Sinope USB OR Black Cat TRON Reference
Interconnects: Audience FrontRow/SX RCA >OR= Cardas Clear Beyond RCA >OR= Snake River Signature RCA/XLR
Power: Triode Wire Labs Obsession

Higher tier options: A great place to be to really take advantage of most of what the headphones have to offer.
Digital source: Sonore opticalRendu + Plixir Elite BDC >OR= Mutec MC3+ USB
DAC: Totaldac d1-unity >OR> Mojo Mystique EVO B4B >OR= Lampizator Baltic 3/4 OR Rockna Wavedream OR SW1X DAC II Special
Amp: LTA MZ3 OR DNA Stratus >OR= Eddie Current Studio B
HP Cable: Danacable Lazuli Ultra >OR= Reference Plus
Digital Cable: Audience FrontRow USB >OR= Snake River Boomslang >OR= Triode Wire Labs Passion USB
Interconnects: Cardas Clear RCA >OR> Anticables 6.2 RCA
Power: Shunyata Venom V10 NR

Middleground options: Pretty great, there’s more to be had, but good value and performance meet.
Digital source: Pi2AES + SGC Linear PSU OR Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Lampizator Amber 3/4 >OR= Exogal Comet Plus OR Crane Song Solaris Quantum
Amp: Pass HPA-1 >OR= ECP DSHA-3F >OR> Bryston BHA-1
HP Cable: Danacable Lazuli Reference Plus >OR> Nordost Heimdall 2
Digital Cable: Triode Wire Labs Passion USB OR Snake River Boomslang
Interconnects: Audience Studio TWO XLR OR Harmonic Technology Armour Link III RCA

Lower tier options: Min I’d consider going for to get these headphones going but there’s a lot more they can do, but still good.
Digital source: Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Chord Qutest >OR= OG Schiit Bifrost 2 (potentially Soekris DAC2541)
Amp: Quicksilver Headphone Amp OR LTA MZ2 + LPS >OR> Rupert Neve RNHP
HP Cable: Cardas Clear OR Nordost Heimdall 2 >OR> Norne Draug 3/Drausk 2
Digital Cable: Mad Scientist Black Magic USB
Interconnects: Anticables 5.2 RCA OR Analysis Plus Copper Oval-In RCA/XLR

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAP: Luxury & Precision P6 Pro >OR= Lotoo PAW Gold Touch Ti >OR= Questyle QPM
Amp: Mass Kobo 424/428 >OR= Woo WA8


Bit of a weirder setup, but I think without getting into speaker amps, the HSA-1b is a pretty nice place to be, not exactly sure on what DAC to go with but I did quite like the Bricasti with it so I’ll just go with that. Not too many options outside of speaker amps otherwise imo (no I’ve not heard the other RAAL amps).

Digital source: Built in streamer
DAC: Bricasti M1SE MDX
Amp: RAAL HSA-1b
HP Cable: Danacable Lazuli RAAL
Interconnects: Tara Labs RSC Air Evolution XLR
Power: Honestly, not experimented around enough, but get something nice

Final D8000 Pro:

Easier to drive and a bit more forgiving, but harder to master, and driving them to their higher potential can really reveal what this headphone does that most other’s can’t.

Maxing out options: Max I’d consider going for to push these headphones to close their limits within some semblance of value.
Digital source: Sonore Signature Rendu SE optical Tier II OR Antipodes S30 + S20 + S60
DAC: Totaldac d1-triunity OR APL HIFI DSD-MR MK2 >OR= Lampizator Pacific >OR> Rockna Wavedream Signature
Amp: Riviera AIC-10 >OR> Eddie Current Studio T >OR= Mass Kobo 394 II OR Allnic HPA5000XL >OR= ModWright HA300
HP Cable: Brise Mikumari Ref. 2
Digital Cable: FTA Sinope USB OR Black Cat TRON Reference
Interconnects: Audience FrontRow/SX RCA/XLR >OR= Cardas Clear Beyond RCA/XLR >OR> Snake River Signature RCA/XLR
Power: Audience FrontRow Power

Higher tier options: A great place to be to really take advantage of most of what the headphones have to offer.
Digital source: Sonore ultraRendu + SGC Linear PSU >OR= Mutec MC3+ USB
DAC: Mojo Mystique EVO Pro >OR= Lampizator Baltic 3/4 >OR= SW1X DAC II Special >OR= Merason DAC-1
Amp: DNA Stratus OR Eddie Current Studio B >OR= Cavalli Liquid Gold OR Cayin HA300
HP Cable: Brise Mikumari Ref. 2
Digital Cable: FTA Callisto USB OR Snake River Boomslang
Interconnects: Audience Studio ONE RCA/XLR >OR= Harmonic Technology Armour Link III RCA/XLR >OR> Anticables 6.2 RCA
Power: Shunyata Delta v2 NR

Middleground options: Pretty great, there’s more to be had, but good value and performance meet.
Digital source: UpTone ISO REGEN OR Singxer SU2
DAC: Crane Song Solaris Quantum OR Exogal Comet Plus >OR> Soekris DAC2541
Amp: 2x Questyle CMA800R OR Bryston BHA-1 OR Dragon IHA-1 w/ Lundahl
HP Cable: Lavricables Grand
Digital Cable: Phasure Lush^3 USB OR Mad Scientist Heretical Digital

Lower tier options: Min I’d consider going for to get these headphones going but there’s a lot more they can do.
Digital source: Matrix X-SPDIF 2 w/ iFi iPowerX
DAC: Exogal Comet Plus >OR= Chord Qutest >OR> OG Schiit Bifrost 2
Amp: Quicksilver Headphone Amp OR LTA MZ2 + LPS >OR= Rupert Neve RNHP OR Cayin IHA-6

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAP: Luxury & Precision P6 Pro >OR= Lotoo PAW Gold Touch Ti >OR= Astell&Kern SP2000
Amp: Mass Kobo 424/428 >OR= Woo WA8

Stax SR-007 MK2.9:

You’ll notice there’s no middle and maxing out options here, that’s because I think with estats you should really just get something pretty nice or fairly entry level, but also not go completely nuts (at least with this headphone). You could go farther, but at that point I’d really suggest looking into something like the 009S and above (although didn’t do pairings for the higher end stats).

Higher tier options: A great place to be to really take advantage of most of what the headphones have to offer.
Digital source: DCS Network Bridge OR EMM NS1
DAC: Rockna Wavedream Signature OR Bricasti M1SE MDx
Amp: Mjolnir Carbon/CC >OR= Cavalli Liquid Lightning 2
Digital Cable: (Nice I2S for Rockna) OR Snake River Boomslang
Interconnects: Cardas Clear XLR >OR= Zen Wave D4 XLR
Power: Triode Wire Labs Obsession

Lower tier options: Min I’d consider going for to get these headphones going but there’s a lot more they can do.
Digital source: Pi2AES + SGC Linear PSU OR Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Crane Song Solaris Quantum >OR> Soekris DAC2541 OR Chord Qutest
Amp: Quality KGSSHV Build >OR> Stax SRM-727II with feedback mod OR 717
Digital Cable: DH Labs D110
Interconnects: Cerious Graphene Extreme RCA/XLR

Hifiman HE1000se:

This headphone could go higher than mentioned here, but at that point then it might make sense to go for the Susvara instead.

Higher tier options: A great place to be to really take advantage of most of what the headphones have to offer.
Digital source: Pi2AES + SGC Linear PSU OR Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Meitner MA-1 v2 OR Lampizator Amber 3/4 OR Rockna Wavelight
Amp: Pass HPA-1 OR Cayin HA300
HP Cable: Double Helix Cable Complement C15 >OR= Cardas Clear
Digital Cable: Tara Labs RSC Prime M Digital AES OR Triode Wire Labs Passion USB
Interconnects: Anticables 6.2 RCA

Middleground options: Pretty great, there’s more to be had, but good value and performance meet.
DAC: Holo Spring 3 KTE >OR= Crane Song Solaris Quantum OR OG Schiit Yggdrasil A2
Amp: Headamp GSX Mini >OR= Violectric V550
HP Cable: Cardas Clear >OR= WyWires Platinum
Digital Cable: Mad Scientist Black Magic USB

Lower tier options: Min I’d consider going for to get these headphones going but there’s a lot more they can do.
DAC: OG Schiit Bifrost 2 OR Soekris DAC2541
Amp: Quicksilver Headphone Amp >OR> Monolith Liquid Platinum OR Cayin iHA-6
HP Cable: Norne Draug 3/Drausk 2

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAP: Luxury & Precision P6 Pro OR iBasso DX300MAX
Amp: Cayin C9 >OR> CEntrance Ampersand OR Vorzuge VorzAMP PURE II

Audio Technica ADX5000:

Another one that can scale really well, and offers a still unique experience, although I will say that it’s not unique enough to justify going too far for this specific headphone, so will be capping it a bit, can go farther if you wanted it to past higher tier into maxing out. Consider going for a Mysphere instead at that point though.

Higher tier options: A great place to be to really take advantage of most of what the headphones have to offer.
Digital source: Sonore ultraRendu + SGC Linear PSU >OR= Mutec MC3+ USB
DAC: Totaldac d1-unity >OR= Mojo Mystique EVO Pro >OR= Lampizator Baltic 3/4 >OR= SW1X DAC II Special
Amp: Mass Kobo 394 II >OR> DNA Stratus OR Eddie Current Studio B >OR= Cayin HA300 OR Pass HPA-1
HP Cable: Brise Mikumari Ref. 2
Digital Cable: FTA Callisto OR Snake River Boomslang
Interconnects: Cardas Clear RCA/XLR >OR> Anticables 6.2 RCA
Power: Triode Wire Labs Obsession

Middleground options: Pretty great, there’s more to be had, but good value and performance meet.
Digital source: Pi2AES + SGC Linear PSU OR Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Meitner MA-1 v2 >OR= Aqua La Voce S3 >OR> Crane Song Solaris Quantum
Amp: Aurorasound Heada OR 2x Questyle CMA800R >OR= Bryston BHA-1 >OR= Violectric V550
HP Cable: Brise Mikumari Ref. 2 >OR> Lavricables Grand
Digital Cable: DH Labs D110 OR Triode Wire Labs Passion USB
Interconnects: Cerious Graphene Extreme RCA/XLR

Lower tier options: Min I’d consider going for to get these headphones going but there’s a lot more they can do.
Digital source: Pi2AES + SGC Linear PSU OR Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Exogal Comet Plus >OR= Chord Qutest >OR= OG Schiit Bifrost 2
Amp: Quicksilver Headphone Amp OR Dragon IHA-1 >OR> Rupert Neve RNHP OR Hagerman Tuba OR Feliks Echo MKII
HP Cable: Lavricables Grand
Digital Cable: DH Labs D110 OR Audioquest Carbon USB
Interconnects: Analysis Plus Copper Oval-In RCA/XLR

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAP: Luxury & Precision P6 Pro >OR= Lotoo PAW Gold Touch Ti >OR= Questyle QPM
Amp: Mass Kobo 424/428 OR Woo WA8

Audeze LCD-24:

While I like these headphones, I always felt a bit wishy washy on pairing for them for what I ended up liking long term, I think I have some options I’ve come up with that I was confident I liked, but this one is a bit more iffy to me than the others since I didn’t think I could ever “nail it” with synergy with what I had in house.

Higher tier options: A great place to be to really take advantage of most of what the headphones have to offer.
Digital source: Sonore opticalRendu + Plixir Elite BDC >OR= Berkeley Alpha USB
DAC: Totaldac d1-unity >OR= Lavry Quintessence >OR= Lampizator Baltic 3/4
Amp: Allnic HPA5000XL >OR> LTA MZ3 OR OG Cavalli Liquid Gold
HP Cable: Danacable Lazuli Ultra >OR= Refrence Plus
Digital Cable: Audience FrontRow USB OR Snake River Boomslang AES
Interconnects: Audience Studio ONE
Power: Shunyata Delta v2 NR

Middleground options: Pretty great, there’s more to be had, but good value and performance meet.
Digital source: Sonore ultraRendu + SGC Linear PSU >OR= Mutec MC3+ USB
DAC: Lampizator Amber 3/4 >OR= Holo Spring 3 KTE >OR= Crane Song Solaris Quantum
Amp: Pass HPA-1 >OR> Headamp GSX Mini OR Violectric V550
HP Cable: Nordost Heimdall 2
Digital Cable: Triode Wire Labs Passion USB OR Snake River Boomslang AES
Interconnects: Anticables 6.2 >OR> Audience Ohno

Lower tier options: Min I’d consider going for to get these headphones going but there’s a lot more they can do.
Digital source: Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Crane Song Solaris Quantum OR OG Schiit Yggdrasil A2 >OR> OG Schiit Bifrost 2
Amp: Monolith Liquid Platinum OR Rupert Neve RNHP
Digital Cable: Phasure Lush^3 USB

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAP: Luxury & Precision P6 Pro >OR= iBasso DX300MAX
Amp: Cayin C9 OR Woo WA8 >OR> Vorzuge VorzAMP PURE II

Fostex TH900 MKII/LTD:

Higher tier options: A great place to be to really take advantage of most of what the headphones have to offer.
Digital source: Sonore ultraRendu + SGC Linear PSU >OR= Mutec MC3+ USB
DAC: Totaldac d1-unity >OR= Mojo Mystique EVO Pro 21 >OR= Rockna Wavedream Signature >OR= Lampizator Baltic 3/4
Amp: Allnic HPA5000XL >OR> LTA MZ3 OR Eddie Current Zana Deux Super (ZDS, not ZDSE) OR Cavalli Liquid Glass OR Gold >OR= Pass HPA-1 OR Eddie Current Studio B
HP Cable: I haven’t really tried many higher end cables for the TH900, but get something nice.
Digital Cable: FTA Callisto OR Snake River Boomslang
Interconnects: Snake River Signature >OR> Cardas Clear RCA/XLR
Power: Purist Venustas Diamond Power >OR= Shunyata Delta v2 NR

Middleground options: Pretty great, there’s more to be had, but good value and performance meet.
Digital source: Pi2AES + SGC Linear PSU OR Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Rockna Wavelight OR Aqua La Voce S3 >OR> Crane Song Solaris Quantum >OR= Schiit Yggdrasil A2 >OR= Chord Qutest
Amp: Bryston BHA-1 >OR= Headamp GSX Mini >OR= LTA MZ2 + LPS OR Quicksilver Headphone Amp >OR> Rupert Neve RNHP
HP Cable: Norne Draug 3/Drausk 2 OR Moon Silver Dragon
Digital Cable: DH Labs D110 OR Phasure Lush^3 USB
Interconnects: Audience Ohno XLR OR Anticables 5.2 RCA

Lower tier options: Min I’d consider going for to get these headphones going but there’s a lot more they can do.
DAC: OG Schiit Bifrost 2 >OR= Denafrips Aries II
Amp: Rupert Neve RNHP >OR= Monolith Liquid Platinum >OR> Schiit Asgard 3

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAP: Luxury & Precision P6 Pro >OR= iBasso DX3000MAX OR Lotoo PAW Gold Touch
Amp: Mass Kobo 424/428 >OR= Phatlab Phantasy II >OR= Cayin C9

Sennheiser HD800S:

WARNING, these are skewed higher end than they should be in comparison to the rest of the shortlist, but I’m keeping it anyways. Some of these options might seem a bit high for the simple HD800s, but for some I can see how they’d be justifyable with how much they can scale, and how there’s not really a headphone that’s a direct upgrade to the HD800 even all these years later, so a bit more unreasonable than other sections, but worthwhile if you are overly attached to these headphones. But more questionable value here but it’s what I’d personally go with if I were buying an 800s, and wouldn’t consider it otherwise.

The Re/Leaf is really special, pick that one if you want to entirely transform the headphone.

Higher tier options: Getting the most out of the headphone possible.
Digital source: Sonore opticalRendu + Plixir Elite BDC OR Totaldac d1-digital-mk2
DAC: Totaldac d1-unity >OR= Mojo Mystique EVO Pro >OR= Lampizator Baltic 3/4 >OR= SW1X DAC II Special
Amp: Re/Leaf E3 Hybrid dC, Eddie Current Studio T OR Crayon CHA-1 OR Mass Kobo 394 II
HP Cable: Audience FrontRow Headphone OR Cardas Clear Beyond Headphone >OR> Brise Mikumari Ref. 2
Digital Cable: FTA Callisto USB OR Snake River Boomslang AES
Interconnects: Snake River Signature >OR= Harmonic Technology Armour Link III >OR> Anticables 6.2
Power: Triode Wire Labs Obession

Middleground options: Getting almost the most, at minimum quite a lot lol.
Digital source: Sonore ultraRendu + SGC Linear PSU >OR= Mutec MC3+ USB
DAC: Lampizator Baltic 3/4 (or Amber) OR Meitner MA-1 v2 OR Merason DAC-1 OR Aqua La Voce S3 >OR> Exogal Comet Plus OR Crane Song Solaris Quantum OR OG Schiit Yggdrasil A2
Amp: Eddie Current Studio B OR DNA Stratus >OR= Cayin HA300 OR Pass HPA-1 OR Aurorasound Heada OR 2x Questyle CMA800R >OR= Bryston BHA-1 OR Violectric V550 (or V281)
HP Cable: Brise Mikumari Ref. 2 >OR> Nordost Heimdall 2 >OR= WyWires Platinum
Digital Cable: Triode Wire Labs Passion USB OR Snake River Boomslang AES
Interconnects: Anticables 6.2 RCA/XLR >OR> Analysis Plus Copper Oval-In RCA/XLR
Power: Triode Wire Labs Ten Plus

Lower tier options: Actually reasonable setups.
Digital source: Pi2AES + SGC Linear PSU OR Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Exogal Comet Plus >OR> Chord Qutest >OR= MHDT Orchid >OR= Schiit Bifrost 2
Amp: Quicksilver Headphone Amp OR Dragon IHA-1 w/Lundahl >OR> Hagerman Tuba OR Feliks Echo MKII >OR= Rupert Neve RNHP OR Lake People G111
HP Cable: Norne Draug 3/Drausk 2
Digital Cable: DH Labs D110 OR Phasure Lush^3 USB
Interconnects: Analysis Plus Copper Oval-In RCA/XLR >OR> Transparent Cable The Link RCA

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAP: Lotoo PAW Gold Touch >OR= Questyle QPM
Amp: Bakoon HPA21 >OR= Mass Kobo 424/428 >OR= Woo WA8 >OR> HPA-01M

OG Focal Clear:

While this can go a bit higher, just get a Utopia before going too far.

Higher tier options: Getting most out of the headphone without going too far where you might as well upgrade the headphone at that point.
Digital source: Pi2AES + SGC Linear PSU OR Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Crane Song Solaris Quantum OR Exogal Comet Plus OR OG Schiit Yggdrasil A2
Amp: Bryston BHA-1 OR Violectric V550 (or V281) >OR= LTA MZ2 + LPS OR Quicksilver Headphone Amp >OR> Rupert Neve RNHP OR Little Labs Monotor
HP Cable: Cardas Clear (heh) >OR= Lavricables Grand
Digital Cable: DH Labs D110 OR Audioquest Carbon USB
Interconnects: Analysis Plus Copper Oval-In

Lower tier options: Getting good performance out of the headphones although it’s still potentially worthwhile to move the chain up to the next level.
DAC: OG Schiit Bifrost 2 OR Soekris DAC2541 OR Chord Qutest
Amp: Rupert Neve RNHP OR Little Labs Monotor OR Lake People G111 OR Monolith Liquid Platinum
HP Cable: Norne Draug 3/Drausk 2

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAP: Lotoo PAW 6000 OR Hiby RS6
Amp: CEntrance Ampersand >OR= Vorzuge VorzAMP PURE II
DAC/Amp: Chord Hugo 2 >OR> CEntrance HIFI-M8 V2

DCA Ether 2:

Somewhat overlooked for what it offers, but it deserves a spot here.

Higher tier options: Getting most out of the headphone without going too far where you might as well upgrade the headphone at that point.
Digital source: Pi2AES + SGC Linear PSU OR Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Lampizator Baltic 3/4 >OR= Bricasti M3 >OR= Rockna Wavelight OR Berkeley Alpha Series 2 >OR> Schiit Yggdrasil A2
Amp: Allnic HPA5000XL >OR> Cavalli Liquid Gold OR Eddie Current Studio B >OR> Bryston BHA-1 OR Violectric V550
Digital Cable: Cerious Graphene Extreme Digital OR Mad Scientist Black Magic USB
Interconnects: Cerious Graphene Extreme RCA/XLR OR Audience Ohno RCA/XLR

Lower tier options: Getting good performance out of the headphones although it’s still potentially worthwhile to move the chain up to the next level.
DAC: Chord Qutest OR MHDT Orchid >OR= Schiit Bifrost 2 OR Denafrips Ares II
Amp: Quicksilver Headphone Amp >OR> Monolith Liquid Platinum OR Cayin IHA-6

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAP: Lotoo PAW 6000 OR Hiby RS6
Amp: CEntrance Ampersand >OR= Vorzuge VorzAMP PURE II
DAC/Amp: Chord Hugo 2 >OR> CEntrance HIFI-M8 V2

Audeze LCD 2 Pre Fazor:

While I might want to go a bit higher I don’t know if it’s truly worth it for these headphones, so I won’t, but they’re absolutely interesting cans with a sound you really don’t get from today’s planars.

Higher tier options: Getting most out of the headphone without going too far where you might as well upgrade the headphone at that point.
Digital source: Pi2AES + SGC Linear PSU OR Allo USBridge Signature Player + SGC Linear PSU
DAC: OG Schiit Yggdrasil A2 OR Crane Song Solaris Quantum OR Exogal Comet Plus >OR> Soekris DAC2541 >OR= Schiit Bifrost 2
Amp: Violectric V550 (or V281) OR Bryston BHA-1 >OR= Quicksilver Headphone Amp
HP Cable: Cardas Clear
Digital Cable: Mad Scientist Heretical Digital OR Mad Scientist Black Magic USB
Interconnects: Cerious Graphene Extreme RCA/XLR

Lower tier options: Getting good performance out of the headphones although it’s still potentially worthwhile to move the chain up to the next level.
DAC: OG Schiit Bifrost 2 >OR> Geshelli J2
Amp: Monolith Liquid Platinum OR Cayin IHA-6 OR Lake People G111 >OR> Schiit Asgard 3
HP Cable: Norne Draug 3/Drausk 2

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAP: Lotoo PAW 6000 OR Hiby RS6
Amp: CEntrance Ampersand >OR= Vorzuge VorzAMP PURE II
DAC/Amp: CEntrance HIFI-M8 V2

OG Black Silk Sennheiser HD600 (or at least older/early rev):

WARNING, these are skewed higher end than they should be in comparison to the rest of the shortlist, but I’m keeping it anyways. Some of these options might seem a bit high for the simple HD600, but for some I can see how they’d be justifyable with how much they can scale, and how there’s not really a headphone that’s a direct upgrade to the HD600 even all these years later, so a bit more unreasonable than other sections, but worthwhile if you are overly attached to these headphones. But more questionable value here but it’s what I’d personally go with if I were buying an 600s, and wouldn’t consider it otherwise.

Higher tier options: A great place to be to really take advantage of most of what the headphones have to offer.
Digital source:
HP Cable:
Digital Cable:

Middleground options: Pretty great, there’s more to be had, but good value and performance meet.
Digital source:
HP Cable:
Digital Cable:

Lower tier options: Min I’d consider going for to get these headphones going but there’s a lot more they can do.
DAC: OG Schiit Bifrost 2 >OR> Allo Revolution DAC w/ Nirvana SMPS OR Geshelli J2
Amp: Bottlehead Crack + Speedball OR Little Labs Monotor OR Lake People G111 >OR= Meier Corda JAZZ-FF >OR> Schiit Asgard 3 OR Lake People G103s
HP Cable: Forza Audio Works Claire Hybrid

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
HP Cable:

Koss ESP95X:

Only giving 2 sections here, one if you stick with the stock energizer, one if you want to consider other options for better performance but a bit worse value. Can scale, and plenty of reasons to pick one over stax.

With higher tier energizer: Getting more from the headphones than the stock energizer can offer with an adapter.
Digital source: Singxer SU6 OR Matrix X-SPDIF 2 w/ SGC Linear PSU
DAC: Crane Song Solaris Quantum OR Exogal Comet Plus >OR= OG Schiit Yggdrasil A2 >OR> Soekris DAC2541
Amp: Stax SRM-007tII OR Stax SRM-717 (KGSSHV would be cool but harder to justify value)
HP Cable: Fong Audio ESP950 to Stax adapter
Digital Cable: DH Labs D110 OR Audioquest Carbon USB
Interconnects: Analysis Plus Copper Oval-In RCA/XLR
Pads: Vesper Audio ESP950 OR Yaxi ESP950

Stock options: Sticking with the base energizer.
DAC: OG Schiit Bifrost 2 >OR= Denafrips Aries II
Power Supply: Small Green Computer 25w 9v PSU (200 ish new), OR other great 9v lps
Pads: Vesper Audio ESP950 OR Yaxi ESP950

Focal Elex:

If you’re going any higher than this, consider getting a Clear.

Higher tier options: Getting most out of the headphone without going too far where you might as well upgrade the headphone at that point.
DAC: OG Schiit Bifrost 2 OR Denafrips Ares II
Amp: Rupert Neve RNHP OR Monolith Liquid Platinum OR Little Labs Monotor OR Lake People G111
HP Cable: Norne Draug 3/Drausk 2 >OR= Corpse Gravedigger

Lower tier options: Getting good performance out of the headphones although it’s still potentially worthwhile to move the chain up to the next level.
DAC: Allo Revolution DAC + Nirvana SMPS OR Geshelli J2
Amp: Schiit Asgard 3 OR Lake People G103s >OR= Geshelli Archel2.5 Pro

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAC/Amp: CEntrance HIFI-M8 V2 >OR> Chord Mojo >OR> Luxury & Precision W2

Audioquest Nighthawk (and Carbon):

While it can scale higher I question if it’s worthwhile to or not, but can grow with the rest of the system.

Higher tier options: Getting most out of the headphone without going too far where you might as well upgrade the headphone at that point.
DAC: OG Schiit Bifrost 2 >OR> Geshelli J2 OR Allo Revolution DAC + Nirvana SMPS
Amp: Monolith Liquid Platinum OR Rupert Neve RNHP OR Lake People G111
HP Cable: Corpse Gravedigger

Lower tier options: Getting good performance out of the headphones although it’s still potentially worthwhile to move the chain up to the next level.
DAC: JDS Atom DAC+ OR Schiit Modi 3+
Amp: Schiit Asgard 3 OR Meier Corda JAZZ-FF

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAC/Amp: Chord Mojo >OR= Luxury & Precision W2 >OR= CEntrance DACport HD

Grado Hemp:

Higher tier options: Getting most out of the headphone without going too far where you might as well upgrade the headphone at that point.
DAC: OG Schiit Bifrost 2 >OR> Allo Revolution DAC + Nirvana SMPS
Amp: Rupert Neve RNHP OR Hagerman Tuba >OR= SW51+

Lower tier options: Getting good performance out of the headphones although it’s still potentially worthwhile to move the chain up to the next level.
DAC: Monolith Liquid Spark DAC OR Schiit Modi 3+ OR JDS Atom DAC+
Amp: Meier Corda JAZZ-FF OR Schiit Asgard 3 >OR= Lake People G103s >OR> Monolith Liquid Spark

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAC/Amp: Questyle M15 OR CEntrance DACport HD

Hifiman HE400se:

Higher tier options: Getting most out of the headphone without going too far where you might as well upgrade the headphone at that point.
DAC: Geshelli J2 OR Allo Revolution w/ Nirvana SMPS >OR> Monolith Liquid Spark DAC OR Schiit Modi 3+
Amp: Monoprice Liquid Platinum >OR> Schiit Asgard 3 >OR= Lake People G103s
HP Cable: Audiophile Ninja

Lower tier options: Getting good performance out of the headphones although it’s still potentially worthwhile to move the chain up to the next level.
DAC: Monolith Liquid Spark DAC OR Schiit Modi 3+ OR JDS Atom DAC+
Amp: Monolith Liquid Spark OR Schiit Magni 3+

Portable: Getting a lot out of it on the go, focused a bit more toward the higher end
DAC/Amp: xDuoo XD05 Plus >OR> VE Megatron

Will stop for now lol.

Ramblings & Random Experiences:

Just writing about what’s on my mind, trying to either add clarification or insight, potentially complaining about something, or trying to make sense of some random experience. Don’t take any of these too seriously, it’s just for fun. Not here to “prove” anything nor make any claims of fact, all opinions of course.

Why tier lists suck (including this one):

Tier lists suck. Not in concept/theory, they’re an easy way to convey an opinion of what one likes the most and rank their experiences. But they suck in practice, for both how and why they’re created, and how they end up being used and viewed within a community. People tend to take them at face value without any potential nuances, either blindly following them to a tee treating them as gospel, or entirely dismissing them after they notice one ranking that either isn’t there or they don’t agree with. They get passed around, dumbed down further, to where they become hard to potentially even tell how things got ranked that way or why, missing a lot of other aspects of the thing being ranked in the first place. Sure you can rank off a single metric to make it more objective, easy to rank, and easy to understand, but you lose so much information and value from the list as a whole that way. Not providing context to these lists really doesn’t help, creating a further void of information at times, furthering the blind follow/hate mentality I see at times. Of course not all are like this, but a lot of the popular ones I see end up becoming this to some extent. They end up being only worthwhile to the person who wrote them, unhelpful at best and misleading at worst for others.

But they’ve become increasingly popular and trendy to do, they pull massive clicks and become highly referenced and referred to sources for many who either don’t know better or just want to say they have “the best” or shit on “the worst,” and there’s a surprising amount of people who will buy only on simple rank, and not give much other thought aside from position. It’s crazy, I don’t know how it’s become like this (perhaps it’s always been, but I’m no tier list aficionado), and it really started to get to me. It’s a great idea in theory, but really just sucks in practice. I’d make one if there weren’t so many issues that come along with them that make them mostly worthless. Seems like a great way to get some helpful info out to newer members or bring some great discussion from experienced members, but it typically doesn’t give out helpful info and the discussion around them tend to be less than productive lol. Perhaps they work better for other applications outside of audio, but I’m getting increasingly irritated by them within audio.

Aside from strict “tier lists,” I’ve also come across a fair amount of those sites, you know the ones, the “buyers guides.” They tend to suck, a lot of them are AI/autogenerated garbage, but even a lot of the ones made by real people for higher end gear really just leave so many questions and things to be desired. The autogenerated ones just farming affiliate links with random popular products being slotted in listing irrelevant (and often incorrect) specs with nothingburger sentences about how it sounded. The real ones either ended up being from big publications which only promoted the popular stuff and strangely lacked much information helpful to someone who might actually buy said product, but at least they were sometimes thought through although fairly sparse in usable content. Or they came from random reddit guides which most read like they were written “by newcomers, for newcomers” which I really wouldn’t suggest taking advice from the guide if the person writing is just as experienced as you are, or they were guides coming from more prominent reviewers or just popular people in the community which ranged from “these are fairly reasonable, good helpful guide.” to “what is this person on” or “is this a cult?.” There were more of the last 2 than the first, and the first tended to be harder to find on popular platforms anyways, you really have to go digging and already know what you were doing.

Don’t really feel that most of those would help anyone put together an actually good setup. I could rant about how I think guides (just like tier lists) have way too many limitations to guides and that getting a quality setup from a lot of these guides was unlikely and that experiencing things yourself or talking to different communities to weigh in and find some real human help from people who know what they’re talking about, but some people really don’t want to (or can’t) do that, and would just prefer a guide, and guides are way more visible than the aforementioned approach to a wider range of people. So I thought to myself, why not make my own buyers guide site? That sounds fun, and potentially would offer something that would address my own qualms with what’s out there, and I started one with a friend.

The name of it was Audio Possum, no real meaning behind the name, cept possums are cool, and the goal was a stupid simple site with enough information to help someone make an informed decision on a higher end setup. A friend even made a little mascot, look at how cute it is with it’s KSC75s. Not exactly to strictly guide through the entire process, but just give some examples of nice setups, what to look for, where sweet spots were, what things sounded like, etc and at least put people on a path toward a setup that actually made sense, was quite excited about the project. Had a lot of information set up to add to it, working on a system to link though a chain and aspects of the chain, answer questions before they were asked, offer some insight on how to get a good deal and navigate the hobby efficiently, and so on.

Not sure why this is starting to look like the about page of AudioPossum and the startup story, because it’s not. I gave up on the project. It became unmanageable in how many things I would need to account for, I started the site in a stupid way making actually working on it a pain in the ass, and most of all, I just didn’t think I could convey enough information and didn’t think it was wise to make such a guide in the first place after thinking about all the shortcomings of it. But I still wanted to document a lot of the things I’ve learned in a potentially helpful, or at the very least interesting manner. So, I looped back around to the concept of the tier list, and just came up with a variation that attempts to avoid some of the nonsense that comes along with how people treat and use tier lists, but also take the format to try and convey some of my experiences in a simple and easy to parse manner.

Some aspects of audio tier lists that I think really make them not that useful:

  • Lack of synergy and pairing information
  • Lack of proper information about how something was tried
  • Lack of information on what the person values within audio
  • Arbitrary rankings of performance in overgeneralized ways (technicalities: 10 tonality: 7)
  • Lack of information about what the person has heard before outside the lists at time
  • The idea of a piece of gear standing on it’s own rather than something evaluated as a chain
  • Almost the general feeling that a tier list is more “objective” when it really isn’t
  • Honestly some of them are just used for publicity to bait people and views, it’s used as throwaway content at times which is irritating
  • And so on, I think I’ve voiced my concerns at the beginning of the list really
  • Really it’s just too many compromises to make them readable, too little context about everything, and too subjective by nature to be as usable as they might be with other formats.

An important thing to note is that this disproportionately affects the higher end side of audio than lower. The higher you go, the level of experience you have and listening ability, the conditions in which you hear something, the other equipment and their synergy, and the mindset you have toward the hobby all matter a lot more than they do in the lower end, and the higher end tends to be both more multifaceted and the offerings tend to be way less homogenous and more differentiated between each other. All in contrast to the lower end where things tend to be more samey, less picky on synergy and pairings, less dependent on many aspects, and more approachable to the average person where experience doesn’t play as large of a deal, and so on.

Does my list fix these problems? Hell no, but I tried to address all the ones I could think of, at least to some extent, and either make the shortcomings way more clear to the reader to put them in the correct mindset to better provide needed context, or formatted/written it in a way to minimize some of the problem areas if possible. If anything, this list could potentially be considered MORE flawed than others which focus on the mainly lower end stuff geared toward newcomers (this is kinda written for people who are already well experienced in the hobby, rather than newcomers). But hey I tried, if nothing else, hopefully it’s interesting. I ended up somewhat merging my idea of what I wanted to do with AudioPossum into the idea of a personal tier list, to try and mitigate some issues with both to try and get the positives of both (the more personal approach of a tier list and the more informative approach of a guide), and I feel like I did a decent enough job to my own standards, but if it meets yours, I have no idea, let me know if it does or doesn’t on the forum under the thread of the same name, and any potential suggestions are greatly appreciated.

Make sure to take all tier lists with many grains of salt, including this one. Doesn’t mean they can’t be helpful, but consider all the potential limitations and what’s actually provided and what isn’t when looking at any to get any potential value, at least if nothing else they can be interesting or entertaining hopefully.

Brief notes on differences observed during DAC progression though tiers/performance levels:

Sort of remaking my initial classification of DAC tiers from my PT1 DAC shootout. For those who don’t have experience with higher end dacs, I might as well try a sloppy way of conveying what you get with each tier, from top to bottom. This is literally off the top of my head overall so it’s not going to be the most thought out, again greatly generalized (notice a trend here lol?), but perhaps this will give some context. Going to try and convey the level of difference rather than describing what the potential differences might be, because those depend a lot more on the DAC at hand.

When mentioning prices, they are within new prices rather than used (even if you should be buying some of these things used). This doesn’t include specific synergy, just how I think making the jumps through the tiers end up turning out. Examples are just examples, they don’t mean anything more than that, just showing random options in the range. Assume synergy demands increase with each tier for simplicity, and DACs are evaluated with the highest tier amps, headphones, and sources to totally take advantage of synergy. Don’t worry about the names lol

Good Shit (Low), or entry level: DACs that exist soley to get the job done, and nothing much extra. Typically around the 100 buck range, these tend to produce better than phone or PC audio with some slight differences between each other and are realitively simple plug and play devices. Basically they get the job done, they are more similar than not, and the differences between them are reasonably smaller, just pick the one that has the features you need and you’ll be fine.

Good Shit (Mid), or upper entry: Now you’re starting to get into some slightly more interesting features (typically balanced and more IO, some volume controls, potentially upgradable PSU or swappable OP amps or something), and also a bit more difference between the offerings in sound and synergy, typically around 200-300 bucks. Smaller but noticable step up from the previous tier, basically a refinement of merely OK/servicable, might be worth skipping if you already have an entry level offering, but potentially worth considering if you want a bit of a step up or the potential extra features. Synergy doesn’t matter that much, but good pairings will be slightly better and it’s still worth considering.

Good Shit (Top), or midrange: While a price jump from the upper entry level at around typically 600-1k, a pretty noticable upgrade from the previous tier also occurs. DACs somewhat start to meaningfully differentiate themselves from each other in overall focus, it’s not world changing, but it’s noticable and will be meaningful for people paying attention. There’s not really a feature jump here (perhaps more IO, wireless, or more meaingful filter options), moreso focused on sonic improvement. Skip the stuff inbetween upper entry and midrange, it’s typically just a no mans land and there’s not much worthwhile in that range. Digital sources can now be somewhat differentiated from each other and matter more, but not enough to invest in anything yet imo. Synergy is becoming more of a thing and requires a bit more system matching than previous tiers, this is where you start to care about pairings.

Oh Shit (Low), or upper midrange: Typically taking another step up, but more of a further refinement and balance of the previous tier, but still large enough to potentially justify upgrading if you already have a midrange level DAC. Typically around the 1-1.5k range. Potentially some new interesting features (like less common inputs like I2S or BNC, or multiple output, or enhanced volume control, potentially built in headphone amps, potentially more sound tuning options, tube rolling?). Also a lot more options in terms of difference in sound, DACs differentiate themselves even more than the past. Digital sources are more apparent here than the last, potentially now worth looking into the more entry level digital sources and/or upgradable PSU to get the most out of these options (but keep it reasonable), you can still get by just fine with the DAC itself here though. Synergy plays a larger role than the past but you can get away with pairing most things together as the drawbacks aren’t as large yet.

Oh Shit (Mid), or entry high end: A wider price range, typically more around 1.5-2.5k, and typically a pretty significant step forward from the last range. Bigger jump than you’d expect, good options in the range. Potential feature upgrade (might now include things like streamers built in, more sound tuning options, potential clock inputs, more IO), but it’s still more sound focused. Pretty immediately noticable upgrade from the last, and options with a lot of flavor are available and a more complete experience can be had. Digital sources are now something to not ignore, and it would be worthwhile getting a midrange digital source option to really show off what some of these DACs can do, some might be fine directly out of the DAC, but depends on the unit. Synergy gets important here, and will determine what you consider out of the range and you get into the realm of DACs only being worthwhile on a subset of gear.

Oh Shit (Top), or high end: Getting decidedly to some of the fairly high end stuff at around 2.5k-5k, there’s a wide wide range of options you have at your disposal in terms of sonic palette, very refined features, and sound is once again typically a noticeable step up from the past, and you’ll also find that digital sources now play a fairly significant role, and you really should be looking at some of the more entry high end digital source options and pay attention to synergy as it can really drastically shift the setup pretty easily. Synergy is getting very important and can become the deciding factor.

Holy Shit (Low), or upper high end: Another pretty drastic jump, covering the range of 5-10k ish. More of a step up from entry high to high end. Digital source is getting really important, and neglecting it will really cripple the DAC, still eversoslightly potentially worthwhile without a good digital source, but you absolutely aren’t getting what you pay for that way. Synergy can be make or break. Feature wise you might get some more esoteric options to play around with, and the internal streamers or volume control can be getting pretty decent here too.

Holy Shit (Mid), or very high end: Now at 10-20k. Fairly immediate jump above the last, again more than you’d expect, kicking everything up a notch. Digital source is make or break, so is synergy. If you are going to neglect either don’t consider this range.

Holy Shit (Top), or ultra high end: 20k+ likely more around 30-60k. A potentially massive jump that will completely catch you off guard. There’s so much at this range that sound so wildy different from each other that it’s hard to comprehend (same could be said about very high end to some extent as well). Digital source is just as if not sometimes more important than the DAC (yes, sounds weird, but true), same with synergy. Hard to describe much else.

I will likely refine this later since I just did this briefly and today I’m slightly out of it, so sorry if it’s hard to understand or slightly inconsitant for now. Hopefully this would give some insight on to what potential changes you would see as you move up. But again this is assuming you already have top tier amps and headphones. If you handicap that area this will all change of course. And again, this is over generalization and it will depend on the specific dac at hand. The price category is more for reference of what most of the options I mention within that range fall in, not saying that anything within that price range will automatically perform to the capability of what I use as reference. The price just happens to be the most consistent and I only base it off of what options can be had at that price point that I thought were top in the range, there will always be things that don’t hold up despite being in the price point/tier.

The importance of the Digital Source, and how I think it fucked over my first DAC comparison (WIP):
An off the cuff attempt at explaining when to consider better than bargain bin cables:

So cables in general, touchy subject for sure lol. I will explain some of my experiences and thoughts below, but I’m not here to try and push you toward or away from cables, nor try and explain the why and how either, just note my experiences and what I have personally found out.

I will say flat out I have experienced more than marginal differences with cables, enough to invest in them to a reasonable amount and personally find them worthwhile to pursue with reasonable importance.

But this does not mean buying higher end cables will always make sense, as they generally:

  • Are pretty system dependent, may work amazingly in one, but terrible in another
  • Are one of the last steps to take with your system, not something you consider first or build your system around
  • Almost never completely transform a system (unless you create the worlds largest bottleneck, or are genuinely at a level where most all system changes are extremely drastic)
  • Cannot correct for poor performance or synergy elsewhere in the chain, they enhance what’s there, not fix what isn’t
  • Are generally only worthwhile for both higher end systems and more dedicated/experienced listeners, you just aren’t going to get much out of a nicer cable if your system isn’t capable enough and your listening experience isn’t strong

Well what could they do? Potentially enough to justify shelling out for them. Basically affect all aspects you would expect any other component to be involved in, depending on the cable of course. Let me touch on the above first though:

Regarding system dependency, in each system cables won’t sound the same, they have synergy aspects just like other more traditional components, and what may work well in some systems might not in others. Generally this requires experimentation and trial and error, this can get high in cost to do, but I do think it is worth trying out at least a few pairs at one point just to experience it.

Regarding the last step, I would really really suggest people to figure out everything else in their setup before messing around with cables. Make sure your transducer, amp, and dac/turntable/other source are on point and where you want them before getting too far into cables. Make sure they sound the way you like, have great synergy, and are at a high performing level. Then potentially think about cables once you have reached that part.

Regarding transforming a system, it really just doesn’t happen, at least for me. They can indeed improve a system, but I rarely observe a “night and day” cable swap experience in a reasonably matched system. In some really really really high end setups, I can easily and really noticably tell, but while they are close to night and day in those cases, it’s still not to that level. Perhaps if you have some insane 100k+ system and swap from bottom of the barrel or entry level cables to the highest tier cables possible, you can get a night and day experience, but for most systems, I have not experienced cables really entirely making or breaking a system unless it was purposefully limited in stupid ways to do so. Cables can give a nice performance lift to your system without being unreasonable if done right, but don’t expect your world turning upside down with a simple single cable swap.

Regarding correction of a poor chain, if there’s a problem with the rest of your chain, a cable generally isn’t going to be able to fix that. If you have a poor source, a cable isn’t going to improve said source imo. So make sure your chain is right before going in, kinda in relation to the last step thing.

And finally onto the high end system thing. Yes I personally do think that higher end cables are only worthwhile on higher end systems. Do I think I might be able to hear a difference in more midrange systems (by midrange I’d say sub 1k systems)? Actually yeah, sure they can be heard if you have a well trained ear, but I would say that difference likely isn’t going to be worthwhile and you would be better putting your money toward that next higher end step first, that’s going to give you a much larger ROI than cables will. But once you make those leaps and settle down where you want to be for the time being in the higher end space, then consider cables.

So when should I consider grabbing some higher end cables?

  • When you have moved past the midrange setups into the higher end side of things
  • When you have finalized the more substantial aspects of your chain and are generally happy with the results but looking to tweak it a bit more to eek out a bit more performance
  • When the costs of your next potential upgrades far outweigh the costs of bumping the level of cabling in your system
  • When you really know what sound you are after and want to fine tune your experience
  • When you have lots of experience listening to your chain and experimenting in other areas
  • If you have an open mindset and are willing to experience new things
  • If you have an extremely high end system and haven’t looked into them before

When shouldn’t I consider higher end cables?

  • When you are still working out your chain, trying to figure out pairings and synergy
  • When you are unsure of the final sound you are after
  • When you have a new chain that you don’t have much time/experience with
  • When you are still dabbling in the midrange and entry level side of things
  • When your next upgrade for more substantial components isn’t all that more expensive than a cable upgrade
  • If you are going into this with a closed mindset

What cables should I start with, and generally what makes the largest difference?

From my experience I’d personally say address the headphone/iem/speaker cables first, generally to me those make a pretty noticeable difference depending on the chain, and have been the most reliable things to give a larger change.

Next thing I’d consider are actually digital cables, specifically USB, for some reason usb cables tend to be noticeable and impactful to the chain, and after that aes, spdif over rca or bnc are worth considering next.

After that, I might place power cables, but this is really hit or miss from my experience, in some situations they can really change things just as much as or more than the digital cables, and in some cases they can barely change much, so again trial and error. In my own setups I have found that power cable differences are noticeable straight into the wall, but potentially not worthwhile, but with a good power regenerator or a good power conditioner (conditions are also hit or miss, I personally use ps audio power plant 20s) I have found the difference pretty worthwhile. Then again there are situations where they are better direct out of the wall rather than the power plants. It really will be hit or miss though compared to the 2 above.

And actually last, I personally have found interconnects to make a reliable yet lower difference level in my personal setups. I do think that it’s still worthwhile investing in depending on the setup, but I just haven’t found them to be as substantial as the above. Then again, they can become a bottleneck quick if you ignore them.

With this said, I wouldn’t suggest skimping on any of these, don’t leave yourself pouring all your funds into lets say a digital cable and ignoring interconnects, or putting everything in power and ignoring speaker/headphone/iem. I think it’s fine to favor what you find makes more of a difference, but don’t go far enough to be a few tiers ahead in one cable and a few below in others. Generally a balance for all cable types is good imo

What if I don’t hear anything different?

Well, I’m not going to tell you what to hear, nor am I going to tell you that you are correct or wrong either. In some cases there may not be a large enough difference to justify for various reasons. Could be system limitations, could be lack of proper listening time or experience, or it could be the cable just isn’t an upgrade from what you have already. It happens, not something to worry about. Don’t force yourself to imagine a difference or ignore what you are hearing either, just roll with it. If it works for you great, if it doesn’t no big deal. It’s really something one has to try for themselves in their own setups and their own ears to see if it’s worthwhile. Trust what you hear and trust your own ears and experiences, if you aren’t going to do that, then it isn’t going to be a worthwhile endeavor imo.

Personally I find that with a quality cable in a quality setup, it’s not hard to hear the differences fwiw, but I’ve also found times where I couldn’t really tell or was doubting if I was really hearing a difference, and at that point just try something else or stick with what you have and move on. All depends on the previously mentioned aspects, but generally if things are right you might find that it’s not that hard to notice something going on. But listen and come to conclusions yourself in your own setup, they might differ from mine and that’s a ok lol (this should be obvious, but apparently to some it’s not)

So how much should I actually spend on cables for my setup and how much difference should I expect?

This is a harder thing to really say, as it could be different for everyone, there’s no real answer to that question tbh. I mean I know some say spend like 10% of system cost on cables, and for a 2-3k system that’s only like 200-300 bucks, and imo that’s not enough to get into the meaningful cable upgrades (considering that’s only 200-300 for the entire cable budget), but I also wouldn’t want to spend more than 50% the cost of the system either, so start experimenting with some of the cheaper yet good range things and if you start to notice things, move up to higher end cables but don’t go crazy, find your own desired stopping point. I generally think the sweet spot for most cables tend to be more around that 300-500 mark for bang for buck for an average entry level higher end system, but that also doesn’t mean that range can be justified per cable in some setups, like in budget (ignore), or ultra high end setups (go higher). Buying cables used can allow you to gain maximum value and make more reasonable balance of cost within your system. I think the whole percentage thing doesn’t really check out most of the time, since it’s way too dependant on the types of cables you can get within those margins, and don’t really account from other needs, so I wouldn’t read too much into it.

I will say you can reach a point where the costs of the cables almost never justify themselves in the mass majority of setups, but likely people won’t get to that level so it’s not that big of a concern. Just remember that once you get to the point where you are spending the amount that would have equaled the cost of a substantial upgrade for a main component, you likely are spending too much and would have been better off upgrading that other piece. But honestly as you move higher and higher end, the affect cables make increases too, so it can quickly become a bottleneck if not kept up with when you move the rest of the chain, but we are talking pretty high here too. The amount of value depends on the listener

A few general notes about things I see people ask about regarding cables

  • Connector quality, personally I’d say high quality upgrade connectors (like kle, wbt, etc) can be worthwhile, but they also aren’t needed for a good sounding cable either
  • Connector types, for rca vs xlr just use whatever your system works best with
  • Cable overall material (metal, shielding, etc), don’t get stuck in the idea of something like silver = bright and copper = warm or whatever, as it really can depend from cable to cable
  • Cable gauge/amnt of wires/strands, see above, don’t get caught up with that too much, all depends
  • Cable length, general advice is shorter is better, if you don’t need the extra length you will be better off without it, but don’t go too short where it isn’t practical either (although for digital cables I’d go at minimum 1-1.5m to avoid reflections)
  • Cable “burn in,” depends on the cable, for some putting time on the cable does change things enough to notice, for others it many not. Either way though, I would listen to it a lot before passing judgement, even if there is anything going on or not, you might need to acclimate to the change, aka brain burn in lol
  • Cable cryo treatment, personally no feelings on this one so no comment, I wouldn’t pay any extra money for this

I do think one takeaway is that you generally get what you pay for, but that also doesn’t mean that because something is more expensive that it will be better, or more importantly mesh with your system well. There are cases where I’ve experienced that spending less on a cable with better synergy in my setup was a more positive result than a higher end cable with lesser synergy in that same setup. It all becomes trial and error at some point lol. Just keep it reasonable is really the main takeaway when it comes to discussing cables.

That’s likely all for now lol

Approaching the high end: the concept of diminishing returns vs the reasonable stopping point, addressing the elephants in the room, and all the pitfalls in between:

I’m going to keep this one pretty brief, and state right off the bat that I don’t think I’ve actually experienced significant practical diminishing returns in this hobby yet, I have heard it, but it was so high up that there’s not many people I know who could really afford to reach it, as long as you allow components to put their best foot forward. Also want to say that while more money doesn’t always mean more better, the general sentiment of “you get what you pay for” holds pretty true as well, just make sure you pay for the right stuff. People also tend to sadly use the term as “I can’t afford this or I don’t want to spend the money so it’s diminishing returns” which I don’t think is helpful to anyone. Have I lost you yet? Of course those are some extreme statements as attention grabbers, but I do think they aren’t too far off from what I’ve experienced.

There’s a lot of asterisks behind these statements, because there’s a lot of ways to mess up in this hobby and end up feeling burned in the high end. Common pitfalls include (which I will elaborate on later):

  • Lack of dedication or priorities elsewhere besides audio
  • Moving too high without experience, either lacking experience as a listener or experience in creating said system
  • Poor synergy/mismatched components, or a system not aligned with one’s preferences, lack of care and effort/research/trial and error into setup
  • Ignoring or not being able to locate system bottlenecks
  • Getting stuck up on one specific audio approach/philosophy and/or being closed minded, unwilling to allow for change
  • Only considering a small group of products, limiting due to specific brand, topology, suggestion group, etc
  • Sticker shock and lack of information on the used market
  • A focus on features and fit and finish over sound, not paying for the right things
  • Not making the effort to care and try stuff out yourself and deciding before giving things a chance
  • Lack of a plan, lack of guidance, and/or lack of priorities, or not willing to deviate
  • Expectation vs reality
  • Actual assessment and decision making, taking time

There’s a lot of them as you can see lol. It’s easy to see why the claim of immediate diminishing returns is thrown around, but it can really be quite rewarding if you can get past that. That being said, doesn’t mean the high end is for everyone, so it’s totally understandable if entering those upper ranges isn’t feasible or doesn’t make sense for a person. But does that make everything automatically fall under diminishing returns for both yourself and everyone else? No, when I personally hear the word diminishing returns, I think of it in a more universal, given, basically “everyone will experience this drop off” sense. Which it very much isn’t the case from my own and other’s experience, the higher you go, you keep getting rewarded with each step (but the concept of where the steps lie vary) without much drop off. But again keep in mind this is coming from someone who feels like their whole life has been audio, and nothing else.

Which is why I much much prefer the term “reasonable stopping point” over diminishing returns, because it’s both possible to find a stopping point for yourself where spending more isn’t giving you enough benefit, but also acknowledge that it’s potentially worthwhile to go up higher for others and that there’s a good reason why a lot of the higher end stuff exists and can be justified by others. It’s different and specific for each person, rather than some hard defined point for anyone, which is why I don’t like the term “diminishing returns” since it implies that it’s the same for everyone. Just like everything else in this hobby, value is subjective, and value can be separated from raw performance as well.

I would say from what I’ve seen, most people within this hobby at these higher ranges are spending the money because they find the returns just as strong if not stronger than what they’ve experienced in the lower end at this higher range, not just to throw around money because they can (but there are of course people that do that, but it’s also sometimes easy to spot from poorly matched systems lol). You really wouldn’t have this many people throwing around fat stacks simply for an extra 1%, it’s hard to justify anything for that marginal of a difference. A 1% to you could be a 50% for someone else, don’t entirely dismiss someone else’s opinion and call it “wrong” simply because it doesn’t 100% agree with your own, might not be worthwhile for you but very worthwhile for them. I’d personally like to be in a position where I can fling around money like it’s nothing (although even then, I wouldn’t waste it on something that only gave me marginal benefits for significantly more), but instead I have to dedicate everything to my setup and choose to live cheaply for the rest of my life to sustain the addiction hobby, which brings us into the first pitfall:

Priorities: Simply, most people within this already niche of a niche hobby either:
a. don’t see the reason to move up when they are already content with the level of performance they get
b. have other hobbies they attend to, and don’t feel like allocating most of their time, energy, and funds to audio
c. are more interested in some of the more either social/community, collector/hoarder, or financial aspects of the hobby
d. all of the above
Which is fair enough, it’s understandable why for those reasons, moving up higher and higher doesn’t make sense. I will say though, you might be suprised at the results of dedicating most of your efforts toward audio and how rewarding it can truly be, but of course that depends on the person. You have to really make audio your first priority if you want to experience the higher end to the fullest. It takes a lot of time, effort, and experience to allow things to truly shine, and if you aren’t willing to or can’t put that in, then it doesn’t make that much sense to pursue in my mind, that’s something that will be pretty easy to figure out on your own through your own experiences. Speaking of:

Experience is another huge factor, if you are just starting in the hobby and don’t have experience, you likely won’t find jumping to the high end rewarding from a value perspective. Hearing is innate, but listing is a learned skill that needs to be trained and developed with time and experience. You can’t just jump into anything and expect to understand all of it, and I would say that audio really isn’t something you can learn by reading information about it and such, you need to get your hands dirty, experience things first hand, and grow as a listener, hobbiest, and as a person, and greater understanding, enjoyment, and skill will follow. It’s also a different path for everyone, what works for someone else may not work for you, only way to know is to try, and try multiple times in different situations and scenarios. There is no replacement for direct experience and trial and error, which ends up being pretty important for the next point too:

Synergy & Preference mismatch: Unfortunately, you can’t just buy a group of amazing things on their own (if it’s even possible to come to that conclusion in the first place) and expect them to work fantastically. The concept of synergy and pairings gets increasingly important as you move up, easily entering the “make or break” realm of difference at times. You can’t listen to pieces on their own, the final result you hear will always be the combination of the chain, so optimizing the whole chain over a single component is more worthwhile. Sadly it’s also very hard to judge what pairs well without trying that chain yourself. It’s incredibly common to have one piece end up lackluster in one chain, to then shine in another. That’s really why reports on higher end gear can be so wildly different from each other, because each chain is different, and said pieces will react differently from each other. Sometimes you get lucky, sometimes it really takes time to dial things in properly. Another thing to consider is that just because a pairing works for someone else, doesn’t mean it will fit what you initally were looking for either, could be a great combo as expected, but not great for you. You need to both match things to where they work well with themselves, and work well with you. Every component becomes equally important at a point, and you have to make sure that one of them isn’t handicapping the rest.

Bottlenecks within systems are somewhat unavoidable at some point, you’ll always have one to some degree, but what’s important is making sure those bottlenecks are small. A chain is only as strong as it’s weakest link. But what is the weakest link? Well, that’s hard to know without experience and trial and error, and will vary depending on the specific setup at hand. Which is why it’s helpful to make sure to take everything into considering the chain and not skip over things. Achieving good balance takes time and effort but it’s a rewarding and somewhat necessary thing to do. Something else to consider is that bottlenecks can shift in unpredictable ways as you continue to move forward, what worked for you in the past may no longer work for you now.

Changing how to approach the hobby can be a critical step in actually understanding the value and taking advantage of what’s above. What you learned starting can only carry you so far, you have to let your experience guide you, and also prevent yourself from getting overly caught up on specific trends, ideals, and perceptions you may have had in the past. An open mind is one of the best things you can have for this hobby, and this is incredibly true within the higher end. Feel like that’s really all that needs to be said here lol.

Limiting options, somewhat ties into the above, but sticking with only one group or type of thing limits what you hear, implementation is everything, and most everything

Navigating the market can be pretty daunting, you have a lot more options from both large and very small companies, obscure gear with little information out about there, things where you can only access them with dealers, and prices that can make you faint. First tip I’d give is buy used, you will almost always knock 50% off the prices you see, sometimes more, and it makes the high end a lot, lot more viable for people, and most of the time you can’t even tell they’re used. Also new/msrp/sticker aren’t representative of the real price you might pay with a dealer doing a bit of negotiation. The hard part is really finding out what you want in the first place, plays a lot with some of the aformentioned, narrowing down options is critical, but you have limited information typically lol. I would prioritize anything that you can actually try and demo first, but this is now beyond the scope of this point, moving on lol.

Paying for the right stuff, sound not looks: In the high end, if you want to you buy an art piece disguised as an audio product you can do that, or go for something with a larger focus on the brand and everything surrounding, there’s options for that too. Make sure you know if what you’re getting is one of those, or something that actually focuses on the sound for the money you spend, there’s options that are either extreme (looks/brand/build vs pure sound), and can sometimes be either very easy, or sometimes harder to figure out. Obviously the best way to know is to try, but do your research beforehand to seperate the two.

Putting in the effort, a bit of a redundant point considering how it was already covered in others, but I really need to reiterate it because it truly is important. You get out what you put in here.

Going in with a plan: You really need to make sure you have some sort of end goal, a plan to pair things and what you might want to do if things don’t end up well, but also don’t hold yourself to it overly strictly. You may find things to turn out different from what you expect in a way that you didn’t account for, or trying something totally changed the game, be equally willing to change around that experience, although don’t fully lose site of what you were after in the first place. It’s really easy to get overwhelmed and lose focus if you aren’t careful, so keeping some sort of plan is a worthwhile idea

Expectation vs reality is a hard one, it’s best to go in without much expectation, but it’s really hard to do that too. The open mind thing also plays a large role, but again it’s pretty hard to ignore some of the potential pitfalls here. I’d suggest not getting yourself overly hyped up by looking at reviews or forums and whatnot, also not trying to actively downplay things in your head either. It will likely take time as with most things in audio, to truly understand and come to a conclusion/assessment past the typical honeymoon period.

Allowing gear to put it’s best foot foward, and giving it time can’t be overstated in importance. For how you do that will depend on what works best for you, but don’t go off of first impressions. Give things time to settle in, time to adjust and acclimate to the sound, time to listen rather than jumping to things right away. Really goes for anything in audio at any level, but people still tend to forget. I’d just use it as normal, adjust the chain to suit and try things slowly, don’t compare right away, just listen until you get a decent feel for things. And so on, somewhat getting out of scope.

You get the point, there’s a lot of ways things can go wrong, it’s not for everybody, and it’s a lot harder to navigate with more things to care about, requires more experience, and may be different from what you’re used to, but it can still easily be worthwhile considering. Just depends on the person, can be worthwhile many times over for some, not for others.

What did the artist intend? Will I ever know? Should I care?:

The idea of realizing the intent of the artist, or at least hearing it the way they intended you to hear it is an appealing proposition. But you’ll quickly realize how that’s not really an attainable goal, and not worth pursuing. It’s a great question, what the hell did the artist intend? It’s not like you can go and ask them, assuming you can even talk to them, they probably can’t fully explain their intent in words, if they even know themselves that is. There’s really no way of knowing, there’s so, so many factors that go into it. The closest you might get would be “what did the mastering and production engineers intend and hear” and even that’s a long shot, because typically even their intent is adjusted or potentially ignored at times.

One big problem is the question of “was intent ever realized in the first place”, it’s a game of compromises, who’s intent took priority more? The artist themselves? The recording engineer? The mastering house? The label/publisher? And more. And let’s say to take out variables, the music was entirely created, advertized, and sold/published throughout the entire process by the artist, did they actually have the skills and tools to realize their internal intent and then try and convey that with the medium and all surrounding it? Then we get into the actual process and idea of how things are produced and how there are limitations there. Which will take awhile to talk about. Basically just assume that true intent is a lost cause at this point.

The closest you can get is most likely what the mastering studio hears or the mixing process, and to recreate that, you would need the exact same room, same equipment, and exact same ears and brain to hear that with yourself, which you can see most likely isn’t reasonable to do. That’s not intent either, that’s just getting as close as to hearing what they might hear. And another question would be do you really want to hear that anyways? You have to keep in mind that a large amount of music is recorded for the common person on their common setup, so the final product is optimized to sound good on that lower end gear. It could have sounded excellent if it were geared for playback on higher end gear, but then the common person wouldn’t enjoy it as much. And yes, as soon as you actually have to record that music, some intent may be lost, but that all depends on the artist and how they feel, which you can’t really know anyways.

The closest thing you can basically shoot for at this point is the idea of making something that will “most accurately represent the source material” or something that is “the most faithful to the final recording” which again is a tall order and a whole ‘nother topic, but it least it could be more potentially possible than figuring out what an artist intended, but that’s still difficult enough to potentially throw in the towel there too (at least there’s a chance there though).

Getting to the question of “should I care” is really of personal preference. I’m personally of the mindset that I will just enjoy the music for what it is, how I hear it, and how I interpret myself. So while I’d gladly listen to music the way it was intended to be listened to if it was actually possible, I’ll just listen to it in the way that brings me the most enjoyment and call it a day lol.

Tubes vs Solid State, and why it really doesn’t matter in the high end:

Going to keep this brief, I truly think that it shouldn’t really influence your decisions all that much from a sound perspective. If something uses tubes or is solid state or is hybrid or whatever in the high end, you’ll find your preconceptions of what either sound like shattered if you’re coming from the lower end, and find it’s not a reliable metric to try and judge what something sounds like. You’ll find tube amps that sound so much like solid state you’d never know they had a tube in them, or solid state amps you’d swear were tubes. It becomes really unreliable to try and guess how products sound with tubes or ss in the high end so it’s just not worth doing. Just basically saying don’t buy something in the high end looking for “tube” or “solid state” sound, but rather just look at how each piece is described individually because that’s actually going to give you an idea of what you’re getting into. Sure it absolutely is something to consider in terms of other aspects like warm up/burn in, maintenance, tweaking and potential tube swapping, but all I’m really suggesting here is to not get caught up in “I won’t consider tubes or ss” or “I’ll only consider tubes or ss” because really there’s going to be fantastic options on each side that likely go for the same sound.

The preconceptions of “tube sound” imo really come from the lower end and in the distant past, where truthfully a lot of lower end tube products embrace that sort of warm, rich, soft, sloppy/loose, holographic/large, dirty tube sound that people expect. For why that is I can’t really say, could be because that’s what people are told to expect so they cater to that market, could be because a lot of tube designs are simple yet rely on high quality components (especially transformers in tc designs) which aren’t reasonable to sell in the lower brackets so they have to compromise, don’t really know, but this really leads people to think that the higher end stuff sounds the same, when it really doesn’t. Sure that sort of sound can be had in the high end, but there’s so much more variety that just because something has tubes doesn’t mean it will sound one sort of way, especially if you get into swapping around tubes in designs where the differences really shine. Of course there are cheaper tube amps that have cleaner and more technical characteristics that are uncommon for the range, but those are less popular, typically more expensive, and harder to come by in comparison for what typically pops up when searching for a tube amp under 1k.

The preconceptions of “solid state sound” really come from the same place, a lot of cheaper solid state end up being more spatially and dynamically flat, potentially brittle, very clean and dry, faster and tighter, more technical in comparison to their tube counterparts within the range, but once again higher end solid state tend to offer a lot more variety within the ranges, and as mentioned you can easily find solid state amps that are richer than some tube amps and so on.

Of course there are some consistant trademark traits of both that will still be notable throughout different voicings/focuses/signatures (mainly I think tubes do microdynamics really really well, have distinct time domain proprities more than anything else, whereas solid state stuff tends to be more focused on the macro side of things and etc etc etc), but I don’t think that they dominate over the potential differences that different products can have that use the same technology.

Upgrading transducers vs upgrading source, how far can scaling take you? (WIP):
Trying to explain what I hear and how it gets exponentially harder as I go on:

The higher you get in performance, the harder and harder it is to articulate what you’re hearing. Things become more complex in sound, and require more complex and thought out wording that becomes increasingly subjective in interpretation, and you’ll hit a point where you really can’t put it into words anymore without dumbing it down to where you don’t feel it accurately represents what you’re hearing. It’s so much easier to describe an entry level system than it is a high end system for this very reason, and aside from all the other complications that come about from discussing higher end systems, it makes trying to get info on how these systems sound compared to lower end ones a true crapshoot lol. You really have to pretty much know a ton of context behind how the person reporting on it writes, how they interpret things, their common lexicon, and to see if you can really read beyond the words and understand their emotions they’re trying to convey. Otherwise, can come off as a bit nonsensical or unhelpful or inconsistent. Or you end up with so watered down takes that they just feel lazy or disingenuous (like “this just sounds real” or “ultimate musicality” and so on). I wouldn’t blame people reading either cases from being put off from it lol, and I think that it’s a big aspect of what gives people some of the misconceptions about the higher end side of audio, it’s just not something that’s easy to digest, it feels too foreign, and can give false impressions of what people are actually trying to accomplish. But there’s just not much of a solution to this problem unless you can significantly hone your writing and communication skills if you’re the one trying to explain this stuff, or hear some of this stuff yourself to better gain the experience and context to try and decipher what’s being said and what’s going on if you’re on the receiving end lol.

I know for myself I’ve pretty much hit the point where I struggle to really explain what I love about my current setups and why I feel like they’re worth the effort and expenditure over what I had before, I’m really not a good writer (you should have figured that out by now), so I’ve not really been able to comment on my setups when others ask or really offer super detailed comparisons, which is frustrating to me. I could really work to improve my articulation, which I try to do, but truly the other half of the of the problem lies with the other person being able to understand as well, and sometimes for some, that just won’t really happen lol. I do feel like the greater the context, the more potential for things to be effectively conveyed, so when talking about a lot of this stuff, it’s really helpful to give a bit of a precursor to what you say, and talk more in references to other pieces (that aren’t too far apart otherwise it becomes more complicated again lol). Giving the background of the chain, how you might have gotten there and what pieces led you there, try and chunk it up a bit if possible, but also what aspects you value and see if you can apply that to what you’re trying to describe, and see if you can help relate it to the reader as well. I also think carefully choosing words in more plain language if possible is a bonus, but if you have to use some terms which you feel might cause some confusion to some might be worthwhile to explain them quickly after, basically be more verbose if possible. Avoid the habit of oversimplification though, some of it is ok, but too much isn’t really helpful and can be offputting to some. Sometimes calling attention to specific aspects of music can be helpful, but imo more often than not it doesn’t add much extra value unless it’s incredibly specific and highlights only a single aspect of what you’re trying to describe. I feel like I’m rambling on now without adding much value, so I’ll come back to this one later when I think of a good method to try and decipher some of this stuff lol. But just know that this shit is hard sometimes, and that causes a lot of problems and perceptions within higher end audio that shouldn’t be immediately viewed negatively, you just need to learn to work around some of it and avoid doing it yourself when you reach that point yourself lol.

Past experiences of being stuck in “midfi hell” with hifi level equipment (WIP):
Deterioration of my music tastes over time and the conflict with high fidelity listening (WIP):
Starting from the bottom is the best way to experience this hobby (WIP):
There’s too many ways to make excellent sounding gear, implementation is everything (WIP):
Warm up, burn/break in, and the inconvenience of having to care, sometimes:

Somewhat addressing the issue without addressing the issue, I’d say the best way to go into this topic is just to always assume it exists, and give things proper time. Leave them on for a few days, listen to it thoughout, have it playing music during, etc. Nothing all that special. Why? Because I think this is beneficial no matter how you look at it. If things truly did need to break in or burn in, or have significant warm up, you’re making sure you don’t ignore that. If they don’t, you’re still making sure you get more time with it and giving it a chance regardless. I’d say a lot of the time, it’s about equal actual componet burn in/break in and brain burn in/break in, all depends on the product, as it can vary wildly depending on thing to thing. Sometimes things just sound their best right out of the box with minimal warm up and not really any significant burn in if new (although I’d say this isn’t that common), sometimes they genuinely need that time or some adjustments to get going. Either way, giving them more time helps with your acclimation period and prevents rushing to conclusions because you don’t like the first hour of listening.

It’s really hard to tell with new gear you’ve not heard before if the equipment is changing, or you’re just acclimating. It’s a lot easier to tell if you’ve heard the componet before or something very similar. It is worth either asking the mfg and/or reading the manual, checking forums or talking to other owners about what they think as well. Sometimes the time it takes for something to settle in can be lengthy, other times not. Although of course make sure things are within reason, I can’t say I’ve experienced some of the levels of changes some describe, or things have taken as long as claimed (but there are cases where I have been surprised).

Don’t want to care about burn/break in? Buy used, something with decent time on it already, so you bypass any potential burn/break in, but you still might have to care about warmup. Don’t want to care about warmup? Leave it on all the time if you can then, although I wouldn’t advise this with tube gear, or very high power and hot stuff (as in something constantly drawing 600+ watts 24/7 will make a pretty noticeable dent in your power bill). Of course all depends on the componet and enviroment if it’s safe to actually do so, but I’ve personally had no issue leaving most things on all the time if I can get away with it, typically sounds better that way (I mean some mfg even don’t let you fully turn off their equipment, it might only be standby where it’s kept partially warm, by design).

I think it’s somewhat foolish to say burn in/break and warm up in doesn’t exist and dismiss it entirely, it’s a well known phenomenon within electronics (like capacitors, resistors, tubes, etc) and transducers (like diaphrahms, voice coils, spiders, surrounds, cones, etc), and important in more than just audio/hifi listening applications. THIS BEING SAID, this doesn’t mean it’s actually always audible. The question really isn’t “does it exist” but rather “is it audible/does it matter”. The answer to the question from my experience basically always ends up at “it depends.” I’ve heard things that changed noticeably and took awhile to get there too, and others that really didn’t. It depends on the equipment at hand, the rest of the chain used, the experience of that listener and critical listening skills, and so on.

Just give things time and the benefit of the doubt, for the sake of acclimation more than anything else. Unless you’re in a situation where you can’t afford to give that time (try to though), don’t really see a reason not to, you kill two birds with one stone and avoid the potential problems/concerns altogether. Just keep it reasonable.

Don’t get trapped in tube rolling hell:

Another brief one, I don’t think that trying as many possible combinations of tubes as you can or spending tons of money on really rare and high quality expensive tubes is a good idea most of the time unless you really know what you’re doing, and you have a good reason to do it. While I do think it’s important to get a high quality set of tubes for most tube gear, and I do understand that it will shift the sound in different directions, I have rarely found a tube product where changing the tubes totally transformed the sound of the amp into something almost entirely different, and that at some point you’re going to be better off either upgrading to something else, or cutting your losses and changing direction if you don’t like it. Basically, don’t keep trying to put lipstick on a pig if you don’t like the tube product, and don’t expect that just by upgrading the tube more and more that your amp can reach the next tier of performance if you do like it. Especially when it comes to transformer coupled amps, imo you’ll find that the transformer really does define the sound quite a lot, and changing tubes, while potentially worthwhile to fine tune to preferences and/or give a nice performance bump, isn’t going to make it sound like a different amp and magically work with things it didn’t. There absolutely are tube products that change more with tube swaps than others, but it’s not consistant, and still make sure you’re doing the swaps within reason, as even with those cases I don’t think they turn into products they aren’t

I would say for myself, the only time I’ve really taken a ton of time to try and find the “best” tube combo for myself was with gear that I basically knew was going to stick around as long as I could, which I saw no real upgrades for, and wanted to basically perfect my setup after addressing the more significant upgrades/aspects of the chain. Otherwise though, tubes are not really a super high priority for me, I just try a couple pairs that people suggest or that I have lying around, pick what I like the best out of that, and call it a day in most cases. I’m likely a bit biased in that I don’t really like to dick around with sourcing and swapping tubes very often (and also not really experienced in all the different tube stuff out there), but I do think it’s way too easy to get caught up in swapping where you lose sight of what you really wanted and/or spend too much time/effort/funds that would have been better used elsewhere. Some tube types might be more intensive to deal with, especially the really common preamp or smaller linestage tubes where NOS reign supreme, whereas some tube variants might have more limited options or quality new production that makes things easier, but all depends. Getting into NOS or lightly used vintage can really be something that deserves a section all to itself lol.

Don’t go overboard, and don’t expect a tube product to turn into a different product with a simple tube swap imo, but do try and take a reasonable approach to swapping as it can be a nice way to give a bit of a technical bump and sonic change to your system and makes sense to do, as long as it isn’t taken too far.

Speaker amps for headphones, and cases like the Susvara where it can actually make sense:

Right off the bat, from my personal experiences, speaker amps for headphones typically aren’t worth considering the mass majority of the time. Unless you already have a killer 2ch setup and want to drive some top tier headphones off it without fully investing in a headphone setup, I don’t think it’s worth it to buy a speaker amp to drive the mass majority of headphones from a value perspective in most cases. You’ll typically spend more to get less than a comparably priced headphone amp in sound quality and also potentially risk damage to the speaker amp or headphones depending on what you pair together, it can also just be more of a hassle in general.

You simply don’t really need the level of power speaker amps output the mass majority of the time, so being able to get higher quality power but lower quantity from a headphone amp is typically a bigger win. Speaker amps might carry issues with noise floor depending on the amp, some speaker amps don’t take well to higher impedance of some headphones and either freak out or sound worse, and it’s just a case of most designers not really designing a speaker amp for a headphone load, and the tradeoffs and decisions they try to optimize for are designed around powering speakers, not headphones, which have different needs, and drive differently.

This being said, it doesn’t mean that it’s always a worse idea than a headphone amp. Some headphones end up being as demanding as speakers and might actually make a suitable load for a speaker amp. They also might lack suitable/good value options for headphone amps in a specific price point, and some speaker amps used might make for a crazy good value used where a comparative headphone amp holds it’s value too well. Or, there’s a point where if you want to take the next step in your setup, you might be forced to move to a higher end speaker amp because there’s not really a headphone amp that’s a step above what you have already (but you have to go really high for that to make sense, and by then you really aren’t getting as much value from an upgrade like that either). There’s still potential reasons to drive headphones with speaker amps, and there’s still people (somewhat myself included) that understand how it can be worthwhile in these specific cases. I should say up front that I don’t have as much experience with the 2 channel world as I do the headphone realm, and I’m also not an avid speaker-amp-for-headphones enthusiast, but I still feel like I’ve heard some nice pairings that did make sense over some headphone amps at some price points so documenting my experience felt worthwhile. Also people ask alot, so why not.

For an example of this, I’m going to run down my experience with the Susvara on speaker amps, and how there are times where it really ends up being a better deal than a headphone amp. Although this is more going to be focusing on the “pushing to the extreme” side of things than the more budget focused speaker amp pairings, because frankly, I don’t think it’s worthwhile to get a Susvara if you aren’t going to go big with it right off the bat, I think you’ll be served better by something else otherwise. I know the allure of driving a headphone like that for cheap is high, but it truly isn’t going to give you what it’s mostly capable of on cheaper setups from both headphone and speaker amps in the end. Let’s start at the ultra high end, since that’s where I’ve currently found myself for driving the headphone as of writing.

Before starting, some general advice when going about this for both safety and sound quality:

  • Don’t power on the speaker amp without the headphone connected and don’t disconnect the headphone when it’s powered on.
  • If using a power amp, always turn the preamp on first at lowest volume, then power on the power amp, and turn off the power amp first then preamp if shutting down. If using an integrated amp, make sure the volume is low before powering on and off.
  • Consider using a load box or resistors on the taps of tube amps or solid states known for getting unstable with higher impedance loads. Either going the premade route that offers tap boxes with a headphone port and binding posts on the other side with built in resistors to show the amp an 8 ish or around there ohm load, or put parallel resistors on each channel going from positive to negative for that channel, for both channels. The quality of the resistor does matter, and you want to get nice ones for best sound quality, there’s calculators for what resistor value to use. Just remember the best resistor is no resistor, and a tap box also adds more potential bottlenecks in cabling even if it doesn’t have parallel resistors in it. Look up a proper guide on how to do this stuff if you aren’t sure, since I’m not fully sure either, but nothings blown up on me yet.
  • A lot of solid states can handle direct spades/bananas to 3.5mm headphone cables, and this is going to sound better than going though multiple cables with a bare tap box, and better yet than a box with load resistors on it.
  • If a mfg warns against using a tap box or a headphone load on their amp (common for balanced output speaker designs such as Ayre for example), really don’t do it.
  • While a longer cable is more convenient, the lower cable length the better.
  • Consider getting a cable with long splits for left and right speaker connectors for better compatibility especially with monoblocks.
  • If you go for a power amp, don’t skimp on the preamp, make sure it’s got good synergy and up to snuff in order to get solid performance out of the amp, I’ve heard some setups where a cheap passive or active pre just kills the system overall.
  • For this to really be worthwhile in the lower end, you really want to look used, and look for amps that really drop down/are good deals, I’d typically say on average in most cases for most headphones, you’ll end up spending 1.5-2x more on a speaker amp compared to the cost for the same performance as a headphone amp could offer, so look for good deals.
  • While specs can be sometimes helpful for ruling out obvious things that won’t work or might be underpowered (or overpowered), most of this is trial and error. There’s a lot of speaker amps out there and most people haven’t tried them with your headphones most of the time, in a lot of cases to find out how something will actually pair you just need to dive in and try yourself, this is not for those who are looking for safe bets/easy decisions.

I’m going to start by covering the “above the headphone amp” range of things I’ve tried with the Susvara and felt they were worthwhile enough pairings at that level to actually consider. These offer performance above the highest quality headphone amplifiers I’ve heard, and also typically come in at price points above the highest quality headphone amplifiers I’ve heard as well lol. Just going to do this in a similar format to the rest of the shit list for simplicity. Basically, these amps have to essentially offer a step above the Genus Integrated, BDI DC-44B GT, AIC-10, Primavera, Egoista 845, and WA33EE for the Susvara to make it on here, and I’d say stuff within Top is multiple steps above, with Mid being at least 1 tier above.

Above top headphone amps:
HOLY Power & Integrateds:Class:Preamp Used:General Sonic Description:Direct, Box, and/or Resistor?
Riviera AFM 50Top+Robert Koda Takumi K15EXLike the AIC-10 but a whole lot better, not much more to say than that lol.Direct
Aries Cerat Concero 25 AND Diana Forte Top+Robert Koda Takumi K15EX OR Aries Cerat Impera II RefLike the Genus 845 but a whole lot better, not much more to say than that lol. Direct
FM Acoustics FM108 MKIITopFM Acoustics FM155 MKIIRClean, fast, neutral, energetic and direct, but slight bloom, crazy technical but also somewhat understated at the same time, feels pretty effortless and unrestrained and pure, although might be too garbage in garbage out for some, also surprisingly grand sounding. Box (w/o)
VTL MB-185 Series 3TopVTL TL7.5 Series 3While this was a brief demo, it was impressive in being both fairly vivid, macro focused, and awesome heavy control, without lacking in organicness, also just massive and huge sounding, although might come off as a bit exaggerated at times, but not enough to be a problem and was an awesome combo. Resistor
Pass Labs XA 160.8Top/MidPass Labs XP-32If you want something a bit softer and sweeter leaning really straddling the line, this is the combo, still alive enough to not be a problem, and still surprisingly technical, liked it more than the Dart simply because I thought it offered better balance and was more neutral in comparison, but somewhat similar goals and the Dart had a bit better lower level nuance, and still a bit too relaxed and soft for me in the treble in this case, but still very impressive. Direct
darTZeel NHB-108Top/MiddarTZeel NHB-18NSThis was really love hate, but still easily above other headphone amps I’ve heard. The richer and a bit more smoother and laid back signature was really pushing it for the Susvara, but I think it still worked overall for keeping enough overall energy and directness to prevent the headphone from leaning to smooth, but very nuance and sweetness focused, and the high micro, smoothness, and richness focus was almost too much, but if you want a romantic but still very technical combo this is it lol. Direct
Viva Solista MK3MidN/A, IntegratedLike the Egoista 845 but a fair bit better, not much more to say than that lol.Resistor
Allnic T-2000 30th AEMidN/A, IntegratedSorta like the HPA5000XL but better? Although it’s honestly a more refined, composed, and by the books sound in comparison, but similar ish in overall signature and focus, depends on the mode though as triode mode leans richer and sweeter and might reveal a bit more nuance and tetrode was more cut and dry and forward and expansive. Didn’t get as much time with this one, barely made it here. Resistor

Now getting into parings I thought were more on par with, or perhaps a slight bit below some of the named headphone amps. Still good enough to be worthwhile and can be found used for less than some of the aforementioned headphone amps, but they aren’t going to be steps (or leagues) above like the above. Top tier is around similar level, mid being around one or two steps below.

At (or somewhat below) top headphone amps:
OH Power & Integrateds:Class:Preamp Used:General Sonic Description:Direct, Box, and/or Resistor?
Spectral DMA-260 Series 2Top+Spectral DMC-30SS Series 2Energy, directness, dynamics, and actually great resolution and nuance, spatially really impressive too. This is what the AHB-2 wants to be on a much much higher level. That being said, it does sound a bit mechanical for my tastes with the headphone, but potentially deserving of being in the above section rather than here, but there was something I can’t really put to words holding it back for me.Direct
Octave V80SE + Black BoxTopN/A, IntegratedIt does basically everything really well, great match for the Susvara overall, however I never really found myself as engaged even though there was nothing I could complain about, weird, but very good. Resistor
Line Magnetic LM-845 PremiumTopN/A, IntegratedSurprisingly great balance with a more energetic and direct focus for the range, quite nice overall pairing wise for what it was, although only got a limited demo so can’t be entirely sure.Resistor
Bryston 4B3Mid+Bryston BP-173Clean, nice smoothness, great overall control, solid resolving power, and has nice energy but somewhat more dimensionally and dynamically flat that makes it feel a bit lacking underneath and around you.Direct
Luxman L-509XMid+N/A, IntegratedCheating a bit, I lived with the L-590AXII with the Susvara and demoed the 509X but never tried it with the Susvara, however given both my experiences I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s a better pairing, would offer more energy and more macrodynamics without being too rich or overly smooth that I thought the 590 was bordering on, but just guessing here somewhat.Direct
Pass XA25MidPass HPA-1 OR LTA MZ3Sweeter and smoother leaning, a bit more relaxed, not going overboard though, once again on the line of what I personally like, but it’s nice space, timbre, and lower level information and dynamics makes it a viable pairing.Direct
Coda CSiBMidN/A, IntegratedSomewhat of a brute force approach, but actually worked well in this case, overall good at everything but standout in not much, but very reliable, and very safe without being boring or coming with some of the downsides associated. Direct

Admittedly I don’t really want to get into lower than this, because I think a lot of the things I’ve tried in the range don’t really impress me. I’ll leave that to someone else, because I don’t really know if it’s something I’d consider worthwhile or not in the end.

More risk for more reward? Sometimes, but I think that the top of the line headphone amps out there do a plenty good job, and going for a speaker amp is really only something reasonable for those looking to go past what the current offerings of headphone amps can offer, or those stuck in a weird price range where a speaker amp might be a more viable and much cheaper option than a headphone amp. But cases like this are the outliers not the norm. And this is only with the Susvara as an example, there are other headphones which benefit (SR1a, stats with a transformer, Mysphere, potentially 1266, LCD R, and HE6 immediately come to mind), but make sure that suitable headphone amps aren’t an option first, a speaker amp for a headphone should be something you end up at due to lack of a reasonable headphone amp in the range, not something you set out to go with to begin with imo. But hey that’s just me, go nuts if you want to lol, it’s your money not mine, you could find something awesome value wise (or terrible, all depends). Just be careful.

Oh, if you’re looking for cables, adapters, and boxes, here are some of the ones I like for the job:

For cables, I think a DHC Prion4 with speaker tap adapters (spades better) is really the general way to go for the headphone when it comes to direct tap options, it’s just an awesome pairing and really high quality stuff. Danacable also makes great cables something like the Nirvana or Ultra with their spade adapter is equally good depending on the setup synergy if it works well for you or not. While I’ve not heard them, I’ve heard good things about the higher end Norne offerings with their speaker tap adapters. On the cheaper side of things (or higher end, but I’ve only tried the cheaper stuff from them), Zynsonics make a cheap cable terminated in speaker connectors for Hifiman (really there’s likely a lot of companies who will do this for you if you ask). In theory, it’s better to get a cable directly terminated in speaker connectors, although realistically going with an xlr to speaker adapter cable from the same mfg is a more versatile and reasonable option.

Speaking of Zynsonics getting into speaker tap boxes, they have nice options for reasonable prices both with and without load resistors and attenuation resistors, I’d skip attenuation but get load resistors if you need them with your amp. The ampsandsound Black Box headphone adapter is also nice for a simple just wire box although no resistors in that one so more for convenience. You might want to make a custom one or commission a custom one to go even higher though quality wise, there’s not that many options. But really I’d rather have a direct tap cable (and add resistors if I need them) if possible instead of a box, but I understand the convenience of a box.

IF I were a reviewer (which I’m not), what “reference” chains would I put together for testing headphones at various price and performance brackets? (WIP):


Somewhat of an interesting question to think about, trying to make chains for a wide range of things to try and cover your bases currently, and cover what might be introduced in the future, along with also properly evaluate synergy, scaling, and get an actual sense of how the headphone sounds. It’s a tough proposition, to try and put together chains which you don’t know the specific headphone and something both capable but also wider capability, something not specialized enough to only work with a few things, and not wide range enough where it does everything mediocre. For the sake of reason, 3 chains for each level of performance, and I’ll explain why I picked each component. And for the sake of pandering, I’ll make sure to have one of the chains have a tube and one solid state, and one r2r and one sigma delta since that’s what people like and ask about right? (I’m not going to get into how that’s ignorant, I’m sure I did that elsewhere, but as a reviewer keeping your audience happy most important right??? least like it feels that way with a lot of recent reviewers I’ve seen)

A lot of people just use what they like and call it their “reference” which is a perfectly valid approach, and that’s actually better for personal enjoyment and going about the hobby, but I feel as though if one’s going to review stuff, they need equipment that they enjoy but also serves a purpose in a chain and can provide flexiblity and alternatives to better feel out pairing and ensure compatiblity with a wider range of things that might come though the door. These are what I would pick personally if setting up a chain for reviewing for headphones for a higher end/more experienced audience, but not over the top higher end like I might want to deep down lol. These chains would be different if I wanted to make personal evaluation chains for myself and not focused on reviewing to an audience lol (they’d likely be higher end and more toward my personal preferences, but don’t get me wrong what’s below is still very much leaning toward my preference mostly, just not as far as it could go for sure)

The upper high end reviewing chains:

This is likely the most challenging to cover, it’s something where synergy is make or break, so trying to make a generalist chain becomes difficult lol

Digital Sources: Sonore opticalRendu + Plixir Elite BDC, Antipodes S30 + S20 + S60, EMM NS1

Reasons why: Firstly you’ll notice there’s no servers, because that would likely exceed budget for most with these combos, and also because I’d get the streamers and ddc down first, also for the sake of convenience and neutrality in running a file server for reviewing and pulling from the same source that’s not branded one way or another. Also 2 of them allow for external PSU to allow for evaluating any external PSU one might get, or using that external psu for something else if needed. All also tend to pair well with most things compared to other more specific options.

The Sonore is a staple of a really really well done USB source, is neutral ish in character, pairs well with mostly anything, and also takes the concern of noise from ethernet and tosses that out the window as well with optical isolation. UI is simple and options for what you can use with it are flexible. I was considering swapping this with something from Innuos ZEN MK3 or ZENmini + psu which is a bit more well known and also would offer some potential server capabilities, but I think this sounds better and is also a more neutral signature for a lower cost.

The Antipodes stack is a mix of both, it offers you a bit more of a warmer USB source, or using the S20 a but more neutral slightly sweeter leaning AES/spdif source along with bnc and i2s support which is handy to have when people ask. Upgradable later on with a server being the S40 if you want which might be worthwhile for testing. Again it pairs well with a lot of things and offers a whole lot of flexibility

The EMM is a strictly AES/spdif source design, and it’s more neutral slightly cleaner leaning and technical approach gives a nice difference from the Antipodes, just again overall great source for AES and spdif, and I guess if you get an EMM down the line optilink is there lol.

DACS: Totaldac d1-unity w/ live-power, Bricasti M1S2, and either a Rockna Wavedream Signature or Lampizator Baltic 3/4

Reasons why: In general all these can be bought new and have cheaper options available for those interested but can’t swing the cost as well. All receptive to cable and source changes for evaluating but aren’t extremeley dependent on it either, and all have some level of volume control for reviewing flexiblity. Also all within the range of top, but not overkill for top tier headphones imo, and all have some level of recognizability and availability, and all can work well in a wider/wideish range of systems and aren’t overly specialized.

The Totaldac would be sorta the traditional “nos r2r” fill in, it does have that sound, but it’s still pretty well balanced and closer to neutral than something overly colored. It does nuance really well, microdynamics really well, accurate staging really well, weighting really well, timbre really well, etc all the lower level and organic aspects of music are focused to a high technical level in the class (potentially class leading) and doesn’t sacrifice macro much at all. It’s flexible with it’s digital inputs as both USB and spdif/AES are viable, and same for bal vs SE. The digital volume control is actually pretty great so no problems either, and in terms of pairing with equipment it really tends to pair well with most things unless they’re on the extremes of being already really warm, rich, and relaxed. I think the Mojo Mystique EVO could also fit well here instead, but I think the Unity is better than any of the Mojo dacs currently, and I also think the Mojo is more heavily colored in comparison and also more source and pairing dependent.

The Bricasti would be the traditional “sigma delta” fill in as well, again having the common sound associated with them but being very well executed and having a lot of filter options to play around with too. A bit of a more macro focus without lacking in micro, and just almost getting out of the way in most cases which is a valuable trait to have. I was thinking of replacing this with something from Berkeley RS1/2 but I think that’s too dependent on digital source, more pairing picky, and has a more lackluster volume control (the Bricasti volume control is quite good) but higher sonic potential. Also was thinking about potentially Weiss 501 which I actually think would be a better pick if you wanted something with built in streaming and absolutely fantastic DSP, but I think the superior sound quality from the Bricasti made it my pick in comparison, better value on a pure sound basis. Digital inputs on the Bricasti do favor AES/spdif but USB is still a viable option if needed. Really jack of all master of perhaps a few in the macro side of things, good balance, and a reliable option that pairs well with most although if something’s already leaning more on the aggressive and hotter side of things it could be a bit much.

The 3rd wildcard pick is a bit of a toss up for me, I think that either the Rockna Wavedream Signature or Lampizator Baltic 3/4 would be a good option. Being more forward, fun, and a bit exaggerated with some tweaking potential especially for the Baltic when it comes to tube rolling hell. While I don’t think either are on the same technical level as the above 2 options, they offer a different approach that again seems to work well with a lot of pairups, and also have a lot of digital inputs to test too. I might lean a bit more toward the Lampizator since to an audience a tube output stage DAC might be more eye catching and offer more flexiblity in sonic changes with tube rolling, and has a better preamp overall, although the Rockna is more technical and can take advantage of higher end digital sources more. I was honestly considering something like a Chord Dave + Mscaler or Mola Mola Tambaqui, as I think those would fill the role quite nicely and be a technical improvement over the aformentioned, but I myself am not too partial to the coloration those have and wouldn’t use them as much, although they would offer a different perspective so I could be convinced. I could just say fuck it Pacific but most people wouldn’t get something like that for a headphone setup addmitedly, even if you actually can get them cheap enough to fit in this price bracket used.

On the note of going higher, if I had to pick a lineup to really max out the amps below without going absolutely insane, it would be the d1-triunity, Pacific, and Berk RS2/3 or APL DSD MR MK2

AMPs: Woo WA33 EE (maybe Viva Egoista 845 or Eddie Current Studio T though), Mass Kobo 394 II, Riviera AIC-10

Reasons why: Bit of a tougher choice here, but all 3 options here offer plenty of IO, are close or at the limits of what most would spend, somewhat/fairly recognizable (cept the kobo), and would together cover a wider range of headphones, and also are fairly receptive to source changes and pairings but not overly so. Again though these branch off more for sure.

The Woo is surprisingly versatile and consistant across pairings, yet still has a decent amount of scaling potential and reveals plenty about the rest of the chain. It’s a great amp to drive home the idea of just because it has tubes doesn’t mean it sounds “tubey,” and is just a reliable high performer, although to be honest it’s a bit too much of a reference ish amp for me in that it can sometimes be a bit boring in comparison to the other high end amps, but with how flexible it is in pairing and such, it’s a solid option for someone who wants something reference and what works well with a wide range of cans with high performance. I’d really rather sub in an AC Genus instead since it’s much better and still works with a ton of stuff, but that’s a much larger, much more expensive, and much harder to get option in comparison so it didn’t make the cut. I’m really tempted to also consider swapping to the Viva Egoista 845 since I’d rather have one over the Woo, but it pairs with a bit less than the Woo does reliably, and is overall a less “reference” sound as a whole, but equally technical, and more enjoyable to listen to (much better in stage and potentially dynamics too). The EC Studio T would have been an awesome fit, but much too rare, but potentially counting since it since the Studio B is obtainable.

The AIC is a great pick since it really feels like a jack of all master of all without being absolutely insane. While it’s warmer and sweeter lean can be offset a bit with more neutral tube choice, it’s still going to have it a bit, but it seems to really pair with most any higher end can I throw at it, and same with most DACs too, it’s both really revealing of the chain but also not super picky, do I need to say more lol? Great pick for someone evaluating a wide range of stuff, and don’t have a runner up option since this is such a strong pick for a reviewer chain.

The Mass Kobo is less known in the west and potentially violating my pseduo kinda has to be known rule, but it’s a by the books solid state amp of moderate power that drives most things really well, neutral, clean, actually great reference and while not as technical as the amps mentioned previously, it’s still close enough and scales enough to warrent it. I do think it’s a bit more picky in chain and pairing than the others, but not enough for it to be that big of a problem imo. Some potential runner up options might have been the Oji Special DC-44B GT but so hard to get and also just really similar role to the AIC, Crayon CHA-1 would have been good but more focused on higher impedance gear and also really hard to find.

Audience FrontRow, Snake River Signature, Cardas Clear for interconnects
FTA Sinope/Callisto USB, Audience FrontRow USB, or Triode Wire Labs Passion USB
Transparent Reference AES, Black Cat TRON SPDIF, or Snake River Boomslang AES
DHC Prion4, Danacable Lazuli Ultra, and Brise Mikumari Ref. 2 with a whole lotta DHC Ultrashort adapters for headphone cables to have on hand for widest compatibility imo

Reasons why: because these are still fairly attainable, are really high performing but not overkill, give you lots of sonic options, and while they lean in different directions they all aren’t too extreme one way or another, and pair well with a lot of things in general. Also important to talk to audience about cables at this point and how they can really shift a system in this range

The Audience FrontRow & DHC stuff is fairly vivid, extremely technical, pretty natural, and overall would be pushing things to the max while still being fairly neutral and barely falling into what I could consider using for a reference setup.

The Snake River, Danacable, and FTA would lean warmer, richer, and bit more relaxed but still very technical and direct, not as technical when it comes to interconnects but the best usb is FTA

The Cardas Clear, Transparent, and Black Cat, and Brise would lean more toward the neutral reference sort of sound perhaps slightly more forward slightly cleaner leaning and a bit sweeter but nothing too much and a good balance of everything, reliable is what I’d call it.

I’d give you some pairings of how I’d mix and match these, but the whole point is that these would be mixed around according to what one would be reviewing, so I’m not gonna lol. I do think that regardless of how you mix and match them in most cases they all have potentially good synergy with each other, so with these you wouldn’t be left with an awkawrd setup or one without filling a role. Some obvious lacking options for pairing at least on a tech wise would be the amp lacking an OTL but that doesn’t matter too much at this range.

The lower higher end reviewing chains:

Digital Sources: Sonore ultraRendu + SGC LPS, Mutec MC3+ USB, Lumin U2 Mini

Reasons why:

DACs: Lampizator Amber 3/4,

Reasons why:

AMPs: LTA MZ3, Eddie Current Studio B, and either a Pass HPA-1 or OG Cavalli Liquid Gold

Reasons why:


Reasons why:

The upper midrange reviewing chains:

Digital Sources: Pi2AES w/ SGC LPS, Allo USBridge Signature Player w/ Shanti LPS, Matrix X-SPDIF 2 w/ iFi iPowerX

Reasons why:

DACs: Crane Song Solaris Quantum, Schiit Yggdrasil A2, Exogal Comet Plus

Reasons why:

AMPs: Bryston BHA-1, Quicksilver Headphone Amp, and either a Violectric V550 or Ferrum OOR + Hypsos

Reasons why:

Cardas Clear, Lavricables Grand, WyWires Platinum headphone cables

Reasons why:

The lower midrange reviewing chains:

DACs: OG Schiit Bifrost 2, Denafrips Aries II, Soekris DAC2541

Reasons why:

AMPs: Rupert Neve RNHP, Monolith Liquid Platinum, Hagerman Tuba

Reasons why:

Luminous Monarch II Signature, Kimber Hero, and either Audioquest Red River or Analysis Plus Copper Oval-In for interconnects
Norne Draug 3, Corpse Gravedigger, Forza Audio Works Claire Hybrid with a whole lotta DHC Ultrashort adapters for headphone cables to have on hand for widest compatibility imo

Reasons why: I’d only really get these later, but again it’s so people can’t complain about lackluster cables, but also not showy or expensive enough to put people off either. You could try to sometimes slightly mention cable differences but I wouldn’t focus on it too much, but you’ll potentially have a more receptive audience in this range. These are more for you than they are for them, and you’ll have a nice option to take something more neutral, more clean, or more warmer and fun for either headphones or IC a little bit.

The upper entry reviewing chains:

DACs: Allo Revolution DAC w/ Nirvana SMPS, Geshelli J2, Massdrop Airist R2R

Reasons why:

AMPs: Schiit Asgard 3, Lake People G103S, Bottlehead Crack w/ Speedball

Reasons why: While they’re all single ended and it’s trendy to be balanced, this is because single ended is just a better value at this price point, I wouldn’t worry about balanced stuff. All great versatile amps.

The Asgard is a great option for mostly anything with a warmer wider lean, great control for the price range, and hard to complain about anything in the range, suits lower impedance a bit more but does just fine with higher, cool example to show higher gain sounding better due to lower feedback. The Lake People handles the higher impedance cans with ease with also a bit wider focus although more on the neutral side of things and can also be used to show how power output might not work as one might expected/linearly and that it’s more on a curve. The Crack is one of the best OTL in it’s price range and well known, great for pandering to “tube sound” and tube rolling and something worthwhile having for some of the classic cans in the range.

Canare or Mogami interconnects
Audiophile Ninja headphone

Reasons why: They’re cheap, if you need them, otherwise ignore, but might be helpful, don’t harm the sound like other cheap cables. It also is overkill a bit for the interconnects but ensures you don’t get random cheap cable issues down the line. Just wouldn’t suggest commenting on sound though for this audience.

The lower entry reviewing chains:

This is hard because it’s not hard lol, it both does and doesn’t matter, most of these sound similar enough, there’s some reasonable differences but all of them do the job.

DACs: Schiit Modi 3+, JDS Atom DAC+, Earmen Donald DAC

Reasons why: They’re all fairly similar, top for the price, and they do the job. The Modi 3+ likely being the best for overall balance, the JDS for something a bit cleaner and more forward, Earmen somewhere inbetween. The Modi and Atom have all the IO you could ask for considering the price.

AMPs: Schiit Magni 3+, Monolith Liquid Spark, Little Dot MK2

Reasons why: All have plenty of power to drive whatever sans the tube amp, the tube amp is the cheapest tube I’d get for sounding decent with higher impedance cans, the magni 3+ being fairly neutral and well balanced in all aspects, the liquid spark taking a bit more unique for the range warmer, wider, and richer approach that’s actually well executed, and the little dot going for a bit more rich, sloppy, and spatious take lacking a bit of technicalities but for how cheap it is can’t complain too much.

What (notable) things have I not heard?:

Some of these I’m interested in, some not, will get around to things eventually lol.


Abyss: Diana TC
Audeze: LCD5, MM-100, CRBN, Maxwell
Audio Technica: W2022, some of the older AT
Beyerdynamic: DT 900/700 PRO X
ETA: haven’t heard any of them
FiiO: FT3
Focal: Utopia 2022, Clear MG, Celestee, Radiance
Grado: RS1x, RS2x, GS3000x, GS1000x, GH series, a lot of older models
Harmonicdyne: Zeus, Helios, Athena
Hifiman: HEKv2 Stealth, Ananda Nano, Arya Organic, Audivina, HE1000 Stealth, HE-R10D/P, Sundara Closed, RE-R9
Kennerton: Thekk, Rognir, Wodan, any JM mod
Meze: Elite, 109 Pro, Liric, Empy 2
Nectar Sound: haven’t heard any of them
Ollo: S5X
Onkyo: A800
Phonon: SMB-01L
RAAL: CA1a, SR1b
SJY: haven’t heard any of them
Sendy: Peacock
Sennheiser: HD660S2
Sivga: Luan, Phoenix, Robin
Sony: MDR-MV1
Spirit Torino: haven’t heard any of them
Stax: X9000, a lot of vintage stax
T+A: Solitaire P
Ultrasone: A lot of them
Yamaha: YH-5000
ZMF: Atrium, Caldera, new Auteur


There’s so. many. new. releases. I’ll focus on higher end stuff that’s come out that I’ve not heard, but not even going to try for sub 500-1k stuff. Just assume I haven’t heard the latest forcefed hotness or rando company release. Not up to date with chifi for a reason.

64 Audio: U4s, Duo, U6t, U18s, Fourte Blanc
Acoustune: HS2000MX
Aful: Anything
Ambient Acoustics: MAD24, MAD16
Aroma: ACE, Thunder
Campfire: Trifecta, Solaris Stellar, Solstice, Equinox, Supermoon, Andro Emerald
Custom Art: Fibrae 7
Dita: Perpetua
Elysian Labs: Diva, Gaea, Poseidon
FATFreq: Anything
FIR Audio: Radon 6, Neon 4, Krypton 5
Faudio: Mezzo LE
Final: A5000, MAKE
FitEar: Anything
Hifiman: Svanar
Jomo: Alpha TI, GT600
Kinera: their lower end
NGaudio: Anything
Noble: Sultan, Viking Ragnar, Ronin, K10, Sultan, Kadence
Nostalgia Audio: Anything
Penon: any aside from the Turbo
QDC: Blue Dragon, Dmagic, 8SH, V14
Rhapsodio: Supreme, Bomber
SeeAudio: Kaguya, Neo
Sennheiser: IE200
Sound Rhyme: Anything
Symphinium: Helios SE
Thieaudio: Monarchs, V16, Voyager 14
UM: Maven Pro, Mentor V3+, Mest MKIII, Red Halo, Multiverse, Mext
Vision Ears: Phonix, VE8, EXT
Yanyin: Anything

Digital Sources:
Headphone Amplifiers:

Quick Glossary:

These are somewhat how I would define the terms used in my ranking system (and also just used in general), I can’t say these are too well thought out, but hopefully it gives a bit more clarity on what I’m saying (although likely not lol). Moreso applicable to ranking in these specific category rather than general use, but most of them still line up close enough regardless of context.

Macrodetail/Surface Level Detail: How much upfront clearly apparent information can something pull out of the source and present it accurately?
Microdetail/Low Level Detail: How much lower level and more nuanced information can something pull out of the source and present it accurately?
Speed: How fast can something respond overall to quick changes in music and track with the signal?
Separation: How well can something differentiate sounds happening at the same time, and accurately portray that space between things in three dimensions?
Control & Grip: How tightly can something follow the music and how much force can it also exert while doing it?
Impact & Slam: How well can something give visceral power and slam to things while keeping moderately composed overall (more in the lower ranges)?
Punch: How well can something give smaller and quicker hits of energy and perceived tactility and swing (more in the midranges and slightly higher)?
Midrange Texture: How well can something represent perceived tangibility and feeling in the midrange?
Bass Texture: How well can something represent perceived tangibility and feeling in the bass?
Treble Extension: How far can something extend into the treble while remaining refined and composed?
Bass Extension: How far can something extend into the bass while remaining refined and composed?
Microdynamics: How well can something convey quick low level changes in volume while remaining audible and apparent, not being overwhelmed by more prominent information?
Macrodynamics: How well can something convey large changes of volume and scale while remaining audible and apparent, not feel limited or out of control?
Background Blackness: How well does something create a sense of nothingness between instruments, its ability to recreate empty space without the feeling of something being present when nothing should be? (Note, this is not noise floor aka background hiss)
Stage Width: How far can something extend in creating its space while still remaining coherent enough?
Stage Depth: How deep can something extend into the stage, how much range something has inside the stage between the farthest and closest aspects?
Stage Verticality: How high or low can something go in its three dimensional space?
Stage Boundary: How sharply/clearly can something define the boundaries and limits of the stage, and how well do they shift depending on the source?
Placement Accuracy: How accurate is something at creating a convincing overall stage, accurately representing the location of sounds in space and time with precise definition?
Presentation Organicness: How realistic is the overall balance of something (all combined aspects), in a way that leans closer to live?
Presentation Openness: How open and expansive does something present within its boundaries?
Timbre: How accurate is something at creating the characteristics of an instrument or sound, other aspects that don’t directly focus on tonality, the general nature of the sound, how true does the instrument sound to life?
Tonality Organicness: How balanced is something in frequency response and how well does it prevent things from being masked or overwhelming each other throughout the entire range?
Tonal Density Quantity: How much weight and meatiness/thickness does something place on notes?
Tonal Density Quality: How well does something vary its weight to be accurate to the recording, and its ability to control the weight and prevent it from affecting other aspects?
Smoothness: How smooth and non fatiguing does something portray its sound, potentially blending together sometimes?
Softness/Roundness: How rounded and softened does something represent sharp attacks, potentially blunting or dulling them?
Liquidity: How well does something handle the natural flow of music without adding or subtracting things, flowing through without imparting any extra texture or sound of its own?
Coherency: How well does something portray a sense of unity and seamlessness overall?
Forwardness: How close does something bring the sound from where it should be, how much things are pushed toward you more than they normally would be?
Energy & Incisiveness: How directly, clearly, and energetically does something represent sound (personally think this is one of the biggest factors into getting realistic sound)?
Forgivingness: How forgiving is something of both bad synergy with other components and bad source material, the ability to make even lesser recorded or poor matches sound more enjoyable?
Overall Treble: How capable, polished, and complete does the overall treble range sound on something?
Overall Midrange: How capable, polished, and complete does the overall midrange sound on something?
Overall Bass: How capable, polished, and complete does the overall bass range sound on something?
Overall Subbass: How capable, polished, and complete does the overall subbass range sound on something?
Overall Space: How capable, polished, and complete does the overall spatial recreation and presentation sound on something?
Overall Incisiveness: How overall direct and decisive something is, how well does something overall meet the needs and adapt to what’s being played?
Overall Transients: How accurate, polished, and realistic are the overall transients and associated time domain aspects of something?
Overall Realism: How overall realistic and convincing does something sound as a whole?

Questions, Comments, Concerns, Bored?

Visit the thread associated with the list on the forum: https://forum.sonusapparatus.com/t/the-shit-list/1804
Would be happy to see you there!

Never ending WIP

Last updated: 11/23/2023
Completion: 85%

If you want to know more about me and my current setups, see the profile linked in the user card below: