The Myths of High End Audio Fidelity Blown Apart – Plus Photos of a £100,000 system

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From today onwards there will be a few more posts covering audio components and headphones. I am going to speak from my 20 plus years of experience in the high end audio through to my more extreme budget set up. Jumping back in history to my bachelor days I loved music and audio equipment. My flat had a lounge/dining room. It had one sofa on one side of the wall and the other side was 3 racks of equipment, and speakers as tall as myself. Married life and modern living and common sense later, that outrageous set up is long gone. The photo above was from about 5 years ago when I tried tube amps. I used the direct line out of the iPod Classic and amplified it into a Little Dot Tube amp and then connected some 600 ohm Beyer Dynamic headphones. This set up looked good and sounded amazing especially when I used a pair of Sennheiser HD600 headphones. That experience was frighteningly good. But alas, along came some sprightly labradors and delicate tube amps were not ideal. Just as a side step, the Little Dot tube amps were not an expensive option at the time. Before I started Gavin’s Gadgets I wrote a review of the Little Dot Tube amp which I have published today.

On twitter recently, there was a thread providing a link to a £1,000 cable. FLAC sound files were played and no difference could be heard from their iPhone by one of my friends. One is assuming a dedicated app was used to play these files, but what I am unsure about is whether a dedicated and separate USB DAC was used along with a headphone amplifier. But what is my point here?

Simply this, for some people better sound quality is irrelevant. They might be able to hear a better sound if you gave them different audio setups, but in reality they could not care less. Then you get the next level, people that can and do care but don’t want to spend the earth and then you have people who spend more and more and more.

If you spend £100 on a few components to upgrade the sound, spending £1,000 will not give you ten times the improvements, maybe just 10-15%. And if you spend £10,000 plus you might get 10 times the improvement of a £100 set up but in reality what you should get is beautifully made products too. I can compare it too driving a Mini Metro and a Ferrari. Both will get you from A to B, but one will do it in more style and cost you a bomb. Below are 2 photos I took at a Hi-Fi Audio show a few years ago. What you are seeing is £100,000 of equipment. I leave you make your own comments about this system yourself!

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Sometimes, spending less can be more fruitful too. This is because of technology and the improvements it can bring also reduces costs too. If you use your phone to play music, typically it is broken down in stages. The phone acts as a music transport to play music, that is sent into a DAC (digital to analogue converter) that is then amplified out in to your headphones. As DAC’s improve it is not unreasonable to expect in the future that a phone can have a superb sound without the need of all the extra pieces. Wolfson DAC’s for example are found in several smartphones and do a stellar job.

If you do decide to try out different audio components it can become an expensive hobby. It is also about balance. If you only use MP3 recordings at say 320 bitrate, then spending £10,000 on a system is overkill by miles. Other factors that you need to take in to account are the headphones you are going to use. You can of course use different types of audio files like FLAC. Problem with these is that will the quality is above CD’s the downside is that you need 1 GB for a typical album! Next week I am reviewing 3 different pairs of headphones. One of these is the well established Sennheiser HD518. These have been made by Sennheiser for years and well before portable audio quality became more mainstream. So they have an impedance of 50 ohms. Sennheiser are now making trendier looking headphones that are much easier to drive direct from a phone’s headphone jack.These new breed are anything from 16 to 32 ohms and as the impedance is lower, are much easier to drive. Whilst the HD518 can be connected to say your iPhone, these headphones only sound their best when amplified.

So where am I with all this. I have decided that the best solution is one that can fit in my pocket and that is truly portable and works off batteries. It is cheap as they come but provides that 10% increase in performance. It is a set up that can power most headphones so that they reach their best performance nearly. It is also all in balance in terms of price too. I use my Note 4 to store the music, USB Audio Player Pro app to play the sound into a HiFiMe DIY Sabre Android USB DAC which then connects to a Cayin C5 portable headphone amplifier. The Cayin C5 can also act as a battery back and recharge your phone or other device too. This all costs in total around £130. I use this set up as I prefer over the ear headphones.

However, if you used in ear canal type headphones you could remove the headphone amplifier and just spend £26 on the USB DAC as that is powerful enough normally to drive in ear canal headphones.

Everything is about balance, and also about whether you can hear the difference or whether you want the hassle of extra components. It also is about deciding if you want something stylish. But never get fooled in to thinking spending guarantees a better audio fidelity.

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5 thoughts on “The Myths of High End Audio Fidelity Blown Apart – Plus Photos of a £100,000 system

  1. In the old analogue days, Linn pushed the importance of source quality. I still believe in that and for me the biggest improvement has been to use FLAC encoded music. I also agree I like a Smartphone based solution. I am also thinking that wireless option like BT with aptx may be better than spending money on expensive cables.

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    1. I once heard mp3 tracks at 320 bit rate at a show played via a 10,000 pound dac. You couldn’t tell the difference between flat either . Hardware company was making the point how vital a dac is etc… Next week aptx is put to the test with some awesome cans ☺

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  2. I also endorse the price/performance balance theory. Because i am not unreasonably rich. Also no better option do I find for a transport than a smartphone. I believe some day headphones will come with their own processor and amp unique to them, tuned by their manufacturers. That day we can relax and listen to whatever source we have at hand (transport) without worrying about synergy and all that. Bluetooth audio is another solution getting more relevant to me.
    Lightning headphones usb headphones.

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