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$500 - $1000 upgrade paths

I love music, but I'm not an audiophile. I haven't the ear. But I do know what I like.
  • I listen to music on Sennheiser 595s
  • I have Bose noise cancelers and love them but don't regard them as being exceptionally hi-fidelity
  • my favorite earbuds were a pair of old style UE Triplefi 10vi , from before Logitech bought them. I've had Sennheiser IEs and Sonys and Apples and Shures and Boses, but never had a full on IEM.
  • I listen to a wide range of music, some of which is quite lo fi and analog, but some of which is acoustically interesting. Again, not cutting edge as I haven't the ear, but the last five bands I had on repeat were Mogwai, Iron Maiden, Lord Huron, Lacuna Coil and The Birthday Massacre, so i obviously dig bands that can bring powerful sounds to bear.
  • I currently serve most music off iTunes or Amazon Music.
Taking these as a given, if I was going to drop a modest sum like $500 or maybe even $1000 here, what -- in YOUR opinion -- gives me the biggest upgrade over where I am now?

Sep 21, 2019
Here is a link to an old thread post (by me) on Head-fi... It may not be the clearest read to many people; to be fair Head-fi, like many communities evolve and change over time. At the time of writing, and for the target audience (anyone trying to figure out where to spend their budget for sound), it gave some very basic notions as to what would prove ‘good value’. Sorting out a great source is important. Make sure the headphones suit the music/sound that you are after!! Have an appropriate amplifier to serve the headphones -amps are NOT just for volume, but alter the perceived sound quite noticably. What nets the best bang for budget? Well I will write this for the internet and not just one person- for the Original Poster; you have a few headphones, so consider the headphone part of your requirement sorted and make OTHER changes, say to the value of $500, and then you have a budget leftover for headphones if you still want to change the sound ;-) A budget of 500-1000$... Look to the source- Massdrop were selling FIIO X5s recently, but there has been a nice mixup of some high quality DAPS, some of which double as DACs (using USB generally) for other kit. This would allow an iDevice or a PC to serve up the best sound possible. Having heard a DAP (digital audio player) of sufficient quality as the aforementioned FIIO X5; what it can do for average sound files (eg lossy net sourced stuff) really gave ME reason to sit up and pay attention. Would I personally go on listening to lossy files? No- but I am a different breed of audio file/don’t listen in noisy environments, and generally do not listen to genre’s that give 100% when ‘squished’. A budget alternative, also has been on Drop, is something like a Creative E5. (More of a DAC/headphone AMP of the lowest quality that still nets massive improvements over every phone out there, bar maybe an LG V?0, which pale in comparison to a FIIO X5 btw) The E5 by Creative has license for AAC codec and will handle Apple files without an extra conversion stage when sending wirelessly. That is worthwhile. The amp section is ‘good enough’ for portable/low ohm headphones (eg the typical 32ohm headphones everyone sells for portable use), and the DAC is good enough to be an upgrade for many car sound systems. When I used to passenger in the partners’ car I would always use the AUX IN and feed sound via an E5 as it massively improved on the headunit, a relatively cheap aftermarket part, for soundstage and instrument placement/layering etc. The reality is DROP have lots of DAPs that are great pricepoints. The problem for many consumers getting into audio is the ‘upgrade bug’/upgradeitis that can be caught. I recommend by the best you can in the first instance, that you are happy spending money on (it will save you in the long run), and whereever the project is modular, invest big in one part, and save for the next. -this may leave parts initially underperforming vs their full potential, but in the long run you will win bigtime!! The supercheap R2R DACs (home hifi) that Drop has been doing is ‘the next level’, generally require matched tier amps, and will generally render Apple music unlistenable (if not ‘remastered for Apple’ engineered), and start to really up the cost of getting good sound. For the OP- the music you listed is genres that don’t like being squished, and your Senn 595s are good enough to reveal better sound files sounding better. If this was my setup; I’d start with something like a Nuforce/Optoma Icon HDP (a bargain recently on Drop), I would buy a USB cable from Schiit ($20), and I would source from a DAP like the aforementioned FIIO X5 (or better!). This would prove a setup that would get you out of trouble ‘on the road’ and at home... Even the Bose headphones, wired, can be improved by feeding from great sources, with good amplification.. An X5 has bigger brother alternatives, such as the X7, which now has a THX amplification module (truly a part for upgraders?).. Whilst I wouldn’t need the X7s power, nor would the OPs in-ear parts.. it might be a more ‘future proof’ upgrade option. With regard to headphones; Drop presently has some Beyerdynamic DT177X, which would offer a very different sound, and be very revealing. Some entry level planar headphones would blow ‘half the $1000 budget’, but might be the right way to flesh out a sound changeup, and the tech would offer very different sound to the existing parts. I would definately start with the sources... DACs/DAPs/Amps etc,.. and personally , I’d spend a part of the budget on sound files. I LOVE buying CDs/Vinyl etc. There is something wonderful about supporting artists that I love, having their art, and having their product in formats that I can put on every device (today and in the future). I have FINALLY convinced my child to let us let the Apple music subscription go. How? Gave her a collection of lossless files on her ipad. Even with some cheapie Senn Momentums, she finds Apple music stuff unlistenable by comparison. Now I give CDs as homework incentives and I have a few legendary LPs in the box (Nirvana Nevermind and Unplugged/Led Zep IV/some Nine Inch Nails etc) Homework gets done voluntarily now in the early afternoon ;-) Even from the iPad, using bluetooth, the Apple music files sounded soooo much better into the Creative E5 than straight from the iDevice, and iDevices are electrically/‘by the spec sheet’ ‘pretty good’. Don’t by DACs by ‘the spec sheet’. Something like the Nuforce/Optoma Icon HD was a top tier product for $600 not that long ago. For the OP using compressed files, DSD/DXD etc isn’t a requirement... For the average person, a well regarded part, even antiquated, will be better than a ‘modern part’ that plays ‘spec sheet bragging rights’. Too Long; Didn’t Read? play via a nice DAP/DAC into a decent amp (amp isn’t just for volume but will greatly improve headphone driver control; better soundstage/soundfield, instrument placement etc) spend leftover budget on better soundfiles (once you have the nice kit that shows why this hobby becomes a time & $ sink)- source files that give your kit the best chance to shine.
Sep 20, 2019
What is your source currently a pc? dac?amp?
Sep 26, 2019
You have a good point, I have posted elsewhere that the Elex is the best starter can. A bit tongue-in-cheek, but true also, and you save money & time... so yes, some argued ‘they will miss the journey’,, well,,,, we have all been on a quest if you are even posting here;) give me the damn music. Reswright, I think you see the direction we are recommending here. The sound quality available today, at these prices, was reserved for the few, not too long ago,, you are only steps away. Balance your choices to budget, though do not put a bad link into the chain, nor carry a marginal one too far. Or, screw it and dip into the retirement fund, and buy the Elex, THX, the Airist R-2R and some decent cables, a player & files,, and,, nirvana will seek you;)
rastusAgreed, I personally have enjoyed what others call "mid-fi hell"... I learned a lot about what type of sound and experience I want out of my gear. I've "built up speed" slowly over the last decade but I know that path won't be agreeable to everyone. I've owned at least one pair from the vast majority of established headphone makers and I can appreciate the varying "house sounds".
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