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Audio setup for a budget

TheKurse
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Hello hello!

I have been running a Creative Labs Sound Blaster AE-5 internal card and HyperX Cloud II headsets for years now (replaced the Cloud IIs with another set last year). Long story short: the AE-5 died and the driver issues it was having with the latest iterations of Win 10 were...well lets just say I had acoustic trauma of the ear for three days as a result of a little 'event'. I'm on the fence about replacing it with an AE-7 or going to something else. Onboard audio is decent (MSI MPG B550 Gaming Plus board), but I definitely noticed a difference with the AE-5 over it. So I'm past being satisfied with onboard audio.

Now I'm no audiophile, but I have several times experienced that 'new world' or 'game changing' sound of a better setup. I'm interested. At the same time, I like to use my headset for both music and gaming (all genres, mostly singleplayer). I put particular consideration into my music quality, especially the bass levels which a lot of gaming headsets sorely lack, and boom microphone since a desk mic picks up waaaay too much ambient - aka convos around me. I also (don't kill me) did like the virtual surround effect of the card for the atmosphere it seemed to add. Though I wouldn't be adverse to dropping it for better suggestions.

The Cloud IIs have been great out of what I've experienced for headests under $300 in the past and I'm not keen on putting the money out to replace them right now, but I'm open to suggestions. So what would you fine folks recommend for I suppose a beginner audiophile setup with a $200ish budget?

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So this is a subject that I have been trying to figure out lately with personal experience.  I recently got the shp9500, k240 studio and k361-bt in an attempt to solve this question.

 

I have for quite some time said that a shp9500 with vmoda boom pro was the go-to solution however when I got them, I couldn't listen to them for more than 10 minutes with onboard audio, the treble was just far too harsh.  Short of that it is really difficult to compete in this price category.  My next go to would be the x2hr with vmoda boom pro/neego deal that is available on amazon and I honestly don't know if that can be beat.  For transparency sake I have the X3 which is said to be close to the X2HR but I don't have first hand experience with it.

 

The shp9500 cleaned up very nicely when I went away from an onboard solution so I'm hoping that the shiit fulla along with the shp9500/vmoda combo is clean while still coming in under $200usd.  I have also started to explore the k240 studio with an adapter to hook the neego boom mic to it which will come in under $100 but I haven't put my ears to that yet.  Also the 240 has virtually no bass or sub bass but it does sound better with onboard vs external.

 

Going off everything I know first hand or can assume your best bet is the X2HR with neego or vmoda boom pro for about $150 or the 9500 with neego or vmoda and schiit fulla for sub $200 but I'll know more within a month.

 

I have both the neego and vmoda and need to test them against one another.

Cans                                          Amps                                                               Speakers                                      Mic

Sennheiser 6xx                          Topping DX7 (dac/amp) (class D balanced)     Micca RB42                                  Antlion ModMic Uni

Beyerdynamic DT880-600         Emotiva A-100 (class A)                                                                                         Vmoda Boom Pro

Phillips Fidelio X3                      Nobsound Little Bear P7 (pure tube)                 Accessories                                Neego boom mic

Harmonicdyne Zeus                   Little dot MKII (pure tube)                                  Dekoni, Brainwavz and ZMF pads

Fostex T50RP                            Darkvoice 336SE (pure tube)                            Hart and Periapt cables

HiFi-man HE400i (2017)            Crown XLi1500 (power amp class A)                Yoga Blocks (headphone stands)

Blue Microphones Lola               Xduoo MT-602 (class A hybrid tube)

Koss KPH30iCL                          Schiit Fulla (class D dac/amp)                          Headset

AKG K-361-BT                                                                                                      Turtle Beach Stealth 700 v2 + adapter

Phillips shp9500

AKG K240 studio

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19 hours ago, Psittac said:

So this is a subject that I have been trying to figure out lately with personal experience.  I recently got the shp9500, k240 studio and k361-bt in an attempt to solve this question.

 

I have for quite some time said that a shp9500 with vmoda boom pro was the go-to solution however when I got them, I couldn't listen to them for more than 10 minutes with onboard audio, the treble was just far too harsh.  Short of that it is really difficult to compete in this price category.  My next go to would be the x2hr with vmoda boom pro/neego deal that is available on amazon and I honestly don't know if that can be beat.  For transparency sake I have the X3 which is said to be close to the X2HR but I don't have first hand experience with it.

 

The shp9500 cleaned up very nicely when I went away from an onboard solution so I'm hoping that the shiit fulla along with the shp9500/vmoda combo is clean while still coming in under $200usd.  I have also started to explore the k240 studio with an adapter to hook the neego boom mic to it which will come in under $100 but I haven't put my ears to that yet.  Also the 240 has virtually no bass or sub bass but it does sound better with onboard vs external.

 

Going off everything I know first hand or can assume your best bet is the X2HR with neego or vmoda boom pro for about $150 or the 9500 with neego or vmoda and schiit fulla for sub $200 but I'll know more within a month.

 

I have both the neego and vmoda and need to test them against one another.

I'd be willing to go up to $300. Why I said $200-ish. I've been hit with a few 'adult events' (aka everything breaking) recently so I'm more limited on budget than I'd like. I was half expecting to be replacing my sound card/DAC/amp and continue using my Cloud II headset, but after reading more into this I find myself corrected. I won't lie and say that I've looked this far into the subject in the past. Though I can't say I'm surprised by the amount of smoke and mirrors in the industry. Anything to fleece consumers.

My primary concern with using the onboard audio of my MSI MPG B550 Gaming Plus is that I can find no real information about the audio side of it. Mostly just the codec it uses and some marketing chaff about PCB layering and such. They don't even state if it works with Nahimic software (pretty sure it does, but you get the point).

Anyways, in terms of headsets, I'll admit (clean) bass is important for me. In the past I've boosted it on just about every audio device I've had since it usually comes off as weak or 'shallow' (gotta love the adjectives). So I'm hesitant on the k240 suggestion. I've also become a fan of cloth ear pads after my HyperX set and those appear to have leather. As for the other models, I must ask, why Philips? Not bashing the brand, just curious that all of your suggestions are from that brand. I'll be looking deeper into them tomorrow.

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1 hour ago, TheKurse said:

I'd be willing to go up to $300. Why I said $200-ish. I've been hit with a few 'adult events' (aka everything breaking) recently so I'm more limited on budget than I'd like. I was half expecting to be replacing my sound card/DAC/amp and continue using my Cloud II headset, but after reading more into this I find myself corrected. I won't lie and say that I've looked this far into the subject in the past. Though I can't say I'm surprised by the amount of smoke and mirrors in the industry. Anything to fleece consumers.

My primary concern with using the onboard audio of my MSI MPG B550 Gaming Plus is that I can find no real information about the audio side of it. Mostly just the codec it uses and some marketing chaff about PCB layering and such. They don't even state if it works with Nahimic software (pretty sure it does, but you get the point).

Anyways, in terms of headsets, I'll admit (clean) bass is important for me. In the past I've boosted it on just about every audio device I've had since it usually comes off as weak or 'shallow' (gotta love the adjectives). So I'm hesitant on the k240 suggestion. I've also become a fan of cloth ear pads after my HyperX set and those appear to have leather. As for the other models, I must ask, why Philips? Not bashing the brand, just curious that all of your suggestions are from that brand. I'll be looking deeper into them tomorrow.

The main reason I recommend philips so much is they're the only brand I have experience with in the easy to drive category.  Out of the 10 pairs of headphones I have I only really like 5 of them (6 if you count the kph30i) and of those 5 only 2 of them are easy to drive being the X3 and Zeus.  Considering the Zeus is $350 it's not one that I have the chance to recommend all that often.  So going off reviews of the other phillips products saying that they have the same signature they're in turn the only thing I have first or rather second hand experience with that is reasonable on cost.  And I do in fact love my X3.  Also the fact that the 9500/9600 and X2HR have the option of a Neego or Vmoda boom mic makes them a go to for a headset.  I'm trying to find other options to use these boom mics with because in the budget category the extra $25-40 of not going with a modmic uni can go a long way.

 

In a perfect world everyone would have the budget for a modmic and a pair of headphones because that opens up so so many options.  Throw in an affordable stack and the options just grow even more, but at the same time a very healthy budget of $300 can disappear fast.  I jumped straight into tubes and high powered amps so I have little in terms of experience with a one and done setup on a budget, which I'm working on expanding my experience of.

 

I'm going to do some thinking and come up with my perfect headset with dac and amp at $300 and I'll edit this post to add it.

 

Option 1: $150 - $395 ($150-259-314 recommended)

Fidelio X2HR + Neego boom mic

 

Then at some point upgrade either the dac/amp or the mic

Schiit Fulla 2 $109

Ifi Zen Dac $189

Antlion modmic uni $55

 

Option 2: $170 - $415 ($225 - 334 recommended)

Fidelio X3

 

This would require a modmic but you still have the option of doing a dac/amp

Schiit Fulla 2 $109

Ifi Zen Dac $189

Antlion modmic uni $55

 

Option 3: $473

Sennheiser 6xx $220

Schiit Magni + Modi stack $198

Modmic Uni $55

 

I could also recommend Beyer Dynamics heavily however my DT880-600 are kind of an anomaly and don't really give me a feel for something like a 770 80ohm to the point that I'm comfortable recommending it.

 

My basic philosophy with my recommendations is start with either a headphone/boom mic bundle then add a dac/amp or start with the X3 and a modmic then add the dac/amp.  I'm all about spreading out purchases so it's not all at once and the dac/amp selections on the fidelio will not be required while you wait and decide on a solution later, and when I say not required it would be appreciated down the road.  At $300 it's hard to recommend 150+ohm headphones due to the solution required to drive them costing double.  Don't get me wrong my 6xx runs on my onboard but it's not nearly the experience they deserve, and I don't know how my onboard compares to others.

 

There are many different options available but those are the ones I can vouch for, I say the $169 price point for the X3 is where it should have been for a long time, at that point for a $20 premium over the X2HR you get what you pay for.

Cans                                          Amps                                                               Speakers                                      Mic

Sennheiser 6xx                          Topping DX7 (dac/amp) (class D balanced)     Micca RB42                                  Antlion ModMic Uni

Beyerdynamic DT880-600         Emotiva A-100 (class A)                                                                                         Vmoda Boom Pro

Phillips Fidelio X3                      Nobsound Little Bear P7 (pure tube)                 Accessories                                Neego boom mic

Harmonicdyne Zeus                   Little dot MKII (pure tube)                                  Dekoni, Brainwavz and ZMF pads

Fostex T50RP                            Darkvoice 336SE (pure tube)                            Hart and Periapt cables

HiFi-man HE400i (2017)            Crown XLi1500 (power amp class A)                Yoga Blocks (headphone stands)

Blue Microphones Lola               Xduoo MT-602 (class A hybrid tube)

Koss KPH30iCL                          Schiit Fulla (class D dac/amp)                          Headset

AKG K-361-BT                                                                                                      Turtle Beach Stealth 700 v2 + adapter

Phillips shp9500

AKG K240 studio

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Well I've made the mistake of committing to the rabbit hole. It's...difficult, to say the least. I understand why people complain about adjectives and subjective opinion so much. A little confusing, frustrating and at times anxiety inducing if truth be told. Even when I understand the whys about it. I've spent the past four days delving all too far into reviews, videos and articles. Would love to just be able to try some headsets and go off of my own opinion! lol

A friend of mind slipped me a Mayflower DAC/AMP. So now my budget of #200~$300 is solely for headphones. Yes I am grateful and have given them my firstborn. I'm pleased to find that my Cloud IIs are still considered as a budget option for some, but I still want to try and move up. At the moment I'm considering one of four:
+ Drop + HIFIMAN HE4XX - The bass response I've heard about on these and wide staging are interesting. The intermittent complaints of build quality, have me hesitant.
+ Sennheiser HD 6XX - Intriguing and that many people can't have loved them for them not to be good right? One of my coworkers even owns a pair. I am more of a fan of full and deep (yet clean) bass, though and it is the one thing I've heard these are a little lacking in.
+ Sennheiser HD 58X - Honestly they look a bit ugly and seem like a step down from the 6XX, but the price is better.
+ Philips SHP9600 - I like the look and the price is nice. The ratings of the trio above seem often above it though.

I did look into the X2HR and X3. No offense, but I heard a lot about bass distortion and that the X2HR is better??? than the X3. The utter confusion of conflicting information there among the 20ish reviews I read on them kind omitted them for me. I also eyed the Sennheiser PC38X...but it seems like it's more cheaply built, I saw a lot of complaints about the fit and I kind of hate the look of the mic.

One aspect that does really concern me about all of this: how much sound can be heard through open back headphones on average? I do have others in my house given that I take care of family. Not hearing them talk when it's directed at me is a downside of closed back headphones. Constantly hearing them talk through open backs as a distraction is a bit of a fear.

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Honestly since you've mentioned bass a number of times, I would go for the HE4XX or the 9600.  I have the 2017 he400i which is in retrospect a very boring headphone but it was my daily for years and it's really good at sound stage and imaging but that had no bass.  I'm pretty sure the 4XX is a completely different headphone though so I'm not sure why I bring that up.  The 9500 that I have is very V shaped, so it's got a lot of bass and bright highs, the treble is actually why I haven't wanted to listen to them.  If you've got the budget of $200-300 I would certainly pick the 4XX over the 9600 esp because you now have an amp that can drive them well.  Also, a note on that dac/amp, I was unaware of its existence and that's one I'm going to have to look into for recommendations, I wish I could get one for first-hand knowledge, but my wallet is soon being focused elsewhere.  Though the price and specs of it look excellent.

 

I do think that you're overthinking it a little too much, I can enjoy the majority of my headphones and it's not like any of them are bad, I just enjoy some more than others.  I think that the complaints you're seeing about most are just very picky people that are more likely to take to a keyboard.  But again, everyone's ears are different, and their acceptance of flaws vary.  My most expensive pair of headphones, the Zeus has a slider on one side that is a little loose, so it slides a little too easy, but it's really not an issue.  Point being a lot of people would call that a build quality issue even though it has almost no impact on the product.  Another thought is that you are going to lose some bass response by switching pads from leather to cloth so I would get headphones that are known for bass, which again out of the ones you mentioned would be the 4XX.

 

As to the question of open vs closed and surrounding environment, I would say that due to the fact you are more concerned with sound going in rather than out you should go with open back because if sound coming in is annoying, you can just turn it up.  If it's a situation where you would need to potentially hear someone talking you can turn it down.  It's the closest thing to the best of both I think you're going to get.

Cans                                          Amps                                                               Speakers                                      Mic

Sennheiser 6xx                          Topping DX7 (dac/amp) (class D balanced)     Micca RB42                                  Antlion ModMic Uni

Beyerdynamic DT880-600         Emotiva A-100 (class A)                                                                                         Vmoda Boom Pro

Phillips Fidelio X3                      Nobsound Little Bear P7 (pure tube)                 Accessories                                Neego boom mic

Harmonicdyne Zeus                   Little dot MKII (pure tube)                                  Dekoni, Brainwavz and ZMF pads

Fostex T50RP                            Darkvoice 336SE (pure tube)                            Hart and Periapt cables

HiFi-man HE400i (2017)            Crown XLi1500 (power amp class A)                Yoga Blocks (headphone stands)

Blue Microphones Lola               Xduoo MT-602 (class A hybrid tube)

Koss KPH30iCL                          Schiit Fulla (class D dac/amp)                          Headset

AKG K-361-BT                                                                                                      Turtle Beach Stealth 700 v2 + adapter

Phillips shp9500

AKG K240 studio

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On 1/27/2022 at 7:28 PM, TheKurse said:

+ Drop + HIFIMAN HE4XX - The bass response I've heard about on these and wide staging are interesting. The intermittent complaints of build quality, have me hesitant.
+ Sennheiser HD 6XX - Intriguing and that many people can't have loved them for them not to be good right? One of my coworkers even owns a pair. I am more of a fan of full and deep (yet clean) bass, though and it is the one thing I've heard these are a little lacking in.
+ Sennheiser HD 58X - Honestly they look a bit ugly and seem like a step down from the 6XX, but the price is better.

It's pretty much a toss up between these three. All great options that are just gonna come down to subjective preference. Only thing I'd bring to point is Sennheiser's better build quality and replacement parts.

 

2022-01-29 14_22_54-Window.png

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5 hours ago, ShearMe said:

It's pretty much a toss up between these three. All great options that are just gonna come down to subjective preference. Only thing I'd bring to point is Sennheiser's better build quality and replacement parts.

 

2022-01-29 14_22_54-Window.png

wow, that looks like horrible construction

Cans                                          Amps                                                               Speakers                                      Mic

Sennheiser 6xx                          Topping DX7 (dac/amp) (class D balanced)     Micca RB42                                  Antlion ModMic Uni

Beyerdynamic DT880-600         Emotiva A-100 (class A)                                                                                         Vmoda Boom Pro

Phillips Fidelio X3                      Nobsound Little Bear P7 (pure tube)                 Accessories                                Neego boom mic

Harmonicdyne Zeus                   Little dot MKII (pure tube)                                  Dekoni, Brainwavz and ZMF pads

Fostex T50RP                            Darkvoice 336SE (pure tube)                            Hart and Periapt cables

HiFi-man HE400i (2017)            Crown XLi1500 (power amp class A)                Yoga Blocks (headphone stands)

Blue Microphones Lola               Xduoo MT-602 (class A hybrid tube)

Koss KPH30iCL                          Schiit Fulla (class D dac/amp)                          Headset

AKG K-361-BT                                                                                                      Turtle Beach Stealth 700 v2 + adapter

Phillips shp9500

AKG K240 studio

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I ended up getting the HE4XX and I've had them for a few days now. I'm still floored. Not quite by the quality difference between my Cloud IIs or the PC38Xs that a coworker let me borrow in the interim (I have awesome peeps), but the experience difference. The three pairs sounded/sound completely different from eachother. Vastly different from my previous headphone experiences where quality was the driving factor and it was much more easily and...bluntly distinguished. Such as when I moved from my Kraken IIs to my Cloud IIs. It was easy to tell that one was just not as good, but enough rambling.

I did see the negative reviews on build quality. Given that I've seen a lot where people had 0 issues, and I know firsthand how dodgy manufacturing can be for any product nowadays, it didn't effect my decision much. That said, I did get the replacement warranty. LOL! Worst comes to worse and it breaks outside of warranty? I see how I could easily repair a separation like that. No stranger to such fixes.

I do have one final request/question:
The HE4XX are stellar overall and are proving a great headset for both gaming and music, but the cord is driving me insane. It's not braided and more importantly it's waaaay too short. I've done some searching, but in lieu of me spending hours hunting for a decent replacement cord, any good sources? At the moment I'm using an extension, which is fine, but I'd prefer to just have a single correct cord. That said it doesn't need to be expensive, branded or fancy past being braided. I know how little the cord actually matters for audio quality.

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12 hours ago, TheKurse said:

I ended up getting the HE4XX and I've had them for a few days now. I'm still floored. Not quite by the quality difference between my Cloud IIs or the PC38Xs that a coworker let me borrow in the interim (I have awesome peeps), but the experience difference. The three pairs sounded/sound completely different from eachother. Vastly different from my previous headphone experiences where quality was the driving factor and it was much more easily and...bluntly distinguished. Such as when I moved from my Kraken IIs to my Cloud IIs. It was easy to tell that one was just not as good, but enough rambling.

I did see the negative reviews on build quality. Given that I've seen a lot where people had 0 issues, and I know firsthand how dodgy manufacturing can be for any product nowadays, it didn't effect my decision much. That said, I did get the replacement warranty. LOL! Worst comes to worse and it breaks outside of warranty? I see how I could easily repair a separation like that. No stranger to such fixes.

I do have one final request/question:
The HE4XX are stellar overall and are proving a great headset for both gaming and music, but the cord is driving me insane. It's not braided and more importantly it's waaaay too short. I've done some searching, but in lieu of me spending hours hunting for a decent replacement cord, any good sources? At the moment I'm using an extension, which is fine, but I'd prefer to just have a single correct cord. That said it doesn't need to be expensive, branded or fancy past being braided. I know how little the cord actually matters for audio quality.

That's awesome man, a good pair of headphones is so so nice.  I don't remember what your current source is whether it's a soundcard or onboard but those headphones will really scale well with more power and a cleaner dac.  The good thing is you don't have to do that but it's always an option down the road.

 

As to the custom cable dilema, I have wasted a lot of money scowering amazon for cables that in the end are far worse than stock and even the ones I found outside of amazon that were "budget" ended up breaking very quickly.  The world of headphone cables is probably the worst offender in the hobby with cables racking up the dollar signs with little to no practical benefit to the user.  In the end I found two companies that make excellent custom cables, periapt cables and hart audio cables.  Now don't get me wrong, they're still super expensive however no dollar is wasted in cable terms.  Periapt offers thicker cabling that has a premium feel but might be to stiff for some but leaves the drawback that hart solves.  Which is a modular system that can adapt to any source or headphone and save money in the long term if you decide you want a longer cable or upgrade your source.  If you want a thick boi hefty and premium feeling cable and don't plan on getting multiple headphones or changing away from the trs plug you currently have I'd say go periapt.  If you want to future proof in case your needs expand, go with Hart.  Also some might prefer the thinner more flexible cable choice of hart.  I have both and couldn't pick one over the other.

 

*edit: Here is a comparison of the two, periapt on the left hart on the right.  Don't hesitate at ALL to make custom requests from either, they don't use it as an excuse to drive up the price, rather they just change the process of making them and charge a reasonable amount equal to non-custom products.

 

PXL_20220207_063106769.thumb.jpg.70f480dd9b2a7762b5e855731d85c4f0.jpg

Cans                                          Amps                                                               Speakers                                      Mic

Sennheiser 6xx                          Topping DX7 (dac/amp) (class D balanced)     Micca RB42                                  Antlion ModMic Uni

Beyerdynamic DT880-600         Emotiva A-100 (class A)                                                                                         Vmoda Boom Pro

Phillips Fidelio X3                      Nobsound Little Bear P7 (pure tube)                 Accessories                                Neego boom mic

Harmonicdyne Zeus                   Little dot MKII (pure tube)                                  Dekoni, Brainwavz and ZMF pads

Fostex T50RP                            Darkvoice 336SE (pure tube)                            Hart and Periapt cables

HiFi-man HE400i (2017)            Crown XLi1500 (power amp class A)                Yoga Blocks (headphone stands)

Blue Microphones Lola               Xduoo MT-602 (class A hybrid tube)

Koss KPH30iCL                          Schiit Fulla (class D dac/amp)                          Headset

AKG K-361-BT                                                                                                      Turtle Beach Stealth 700 v2 + adapter

Phillips shp9500

AKG K240 studio

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Thanks for the suggestions! I ended up going with the Harts. Thinner cable is more likely to work with my Modmic clips (else I'll figure something out), easier to select a specific length via the cable and mod combo, and the modular feature could be nice later in lieu of using an adapter. Also didn't see where the Periapt cables offer a balanced dual 3.5mm option, but I'd already made up my mind by the time I noticed that.

Kind of sucks. The stock HE4XX cable isn't bad nor would I call it bad. It's just short for MY needs (probably fine for others at 4.5ft) and not braided (personal peeve).

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